Value in art is a much-contested notion. Artists engage with things that are hard to put a value on; ideas, ideals, beauty, challenge and protest. Yet the art market does just that, with some works of art selling for bafflingly astronomical sums, often long after the artist themselves is in a position to benefit from the sale, while others seem puzzlingly to have no value at all.
I’m interested, though, in the value that the attention of an artist confers on things in the world – the way in which art can make us look differently, or properly, at things. This can work in a number of ways, from Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, which made us confront anew the atrocities of contemporary conflict and the value of the individual in protesting against our own government’s role in it, to Phyllida Barlow’s Upturned Houses, which plunder the seemingly valueless materials of the street to help us understand the precariousness of modern life.
At The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh at the moment we have an exhibition of the work of Jac Leirner, a Brazilian artist whose work is all about conferring value on objects that we all know, but rarely notice. Making art from rulers and spirit levels, bank notes and cigarette papers, she brings out the beauty in the everyday. She’s an artist who believes that objects can be experienced as art not simply because she says so, but because they say so. She knows that simple objects – things that she collects just as we all collect them – have important, valuable stories to tell. Her work helps them do that.
Jac Leirner’s Add It Up exhibition is featured at The Fruitmarket Gallery until 22 October
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