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posted on 05.26.09

            It’s sometimes frustrating trying to discuss or analyse a work of art or  music composition that allows one to encompass the multiplicity of ideas that surround and penetrate the work in question.   How do we integrate ideas about analysis or reception or the creative process in such a way that all the varying streams of thought are handled equally? Or, better yet, is it possible to construct a theory to encompass a holistic view of various types of art works being discussed? One of the best-formulated solutions comes from Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music; and in this book he demonstrates a theory that attempts to ‘deal with the practical, methodological, and epistemological results of  [a] holistic vision of music.’


Nattiez’s work forms the basis of a formula that looks like this:


P     (relates to)    T    (relates to)    R


in which P stands for ‘Producer’, T for ‘Trace’ and R for ‘Receiver’.  This formula denotes a particular type of cultural artefact (or object) possessing relational and intentional properties, and includes all the endeavours that generate discussions of inter-relations between the Artist (or the Producer), the Trace (or the Work), its Performance (or Performative Value) and the Audience (or Receiver).  The ‘Trace’ can include the physical manifestation of the work or its performance. 

The entities ‘P’, ‘T’ and ‘R’ bear on issues of historicity, biography, analysis and reception, and of course, there are larger contextual issues that will radiate around and include one or more of the entities.  What I want to demonstrate is that the multiplicity of these issues do not confound or fragment the formula as a whole, but remain a manifestation of the flexibility of meanings implicit in the art-work.


When I use the definition ‘flexible art-work’ I mean a work of visual art or music that appears to confound the perceived boundaries surrounding and penetrating the entities ‘Producer’, ‘Trace’, and ‘Receiver’.  These works appear, at first glance, to challenge our conception of what an ‘art-work’ is.  For example, even if one cannot read music, we can recognise that the instructions written on the score regarding tempo, dynamics, (etc) as well as the music notation point to a physical manifestation of the work to be performed.  What if we are confronted with a music composition that requires neither a score nor musician?


4’33” is an iconic three-movement work by the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992). Written in 1952, it succeeded in becoming Cage’s best-known work and certainly one of his most controversial. Although generally assumed to be a piece about silence (the musician is instructed to sit on stage and not play for a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds), Cage actually intended for the audience to be aware of, and listen to, the sounds of the environment.  Clearly this piece challenges the traditional format and presentation of a musical work.  Are there works of visual artists that can claim to have a similar intent? Yes, by Jove! Two of my favourite living visual artists whose work challenges traditional boundaries are Olafur Eliasson and Antony Gormley.


Gormley and Eliasson, who are English and Danish respectively, are multi-media artists whose works are exhibited worldwide.   Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’ was exhibited as part of the Unilever Series at the Tate Modern in London from 2003-2004.  It is a beautiful, sensuous piece and is as much about the viewer becoming the subject of the art-work as it is about the work being observed.  ‘Blind Light’ by Antony Gormley was exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2007 and is similar in many respects to Eliasson’s work.  In Gormley’s piece, the viewer is invited to enter a dense, mist-filled space that confronts and negates the viewer’s conventional experience of the observed art-work. “By introducing ‘natural’ phenomena, such as water, mist or light, into an unspecifically cultivated setting, be it a city street or an art gallery, the artist encourages the viewer to reflect upon their understanding and perception of the physical world that surrounds them.” Eliasson has called this moment of perception ‘seeing yourself sensing.’  (


An art-work that challenges the traditional mode of experiencing art is flexible because ultimately it forces the audience to continuously ask of themselves: where is the art-work located? The term ‘flexible’ also questions the apparent solidity of the entities ‘Producer’, ‘Trace’ and ‘Receiver’ because in the context of this dynamic the terms Producer/Trace/Receiver become ambiguous and fluid actors that create an energetic and powerful vehicle for carrying meaning.  








Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990) Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music.

trans. Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press.






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