In today’s hyper-productive world, technological advances are constantly turning scarcity into commodity; Leonardo da Vinci had to pay roughly 5000€ in today’s money (not adjusted for inflation) for about 100g of ultramarine pigment (100g of pure gold would have cost him “only” about 4000€!), but now you can get the same amount of pigment, albeit made from inorganic substances, for about 10 €.
Despite the commodification that is happening in the world of stuff, the world of meaning is far from ever becoming commoditised. You can for example buy an original red Speedway Jacket — like the one Elvis Presley wore — for about 100€, but you would have to pay more than 3000€ if you wanted to buy the one that he actually wore. Meaning is a powerful tool.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made use of this fact, when exhibiting at the 2013 Venice Art Biennale. His massive installation Straight included 150 tons of broken rebar from buildings wrecked in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (a disaster that killed nearly 70,000 people) and his team spent more than 2 years straightening each of the 50,000 bars by hand for the final installation.
Were it just some rebar, that a random artist had bought in his local Bauhaus or Home Depot, nobody would have cared much about the installation, but because it was “made by” Ai Weiwei and because of the origin of the materials used in the artwork and how they were prepared, Ai constructed a powerful narrative for anyone who took the time to read the caption accompanying the work.
The physical ingredients we chose for our work can have a profound impact on its meaning. And while realist painters might not appreciate this fact as much as conceptualist and die-hard modernists, the right material can be an incredible communication tool, regardless of how you construct your artwork’s narrative.