Ben Blanc’s intriguing ‘The Exchange’ at AS220

Selling an idea
By GREG COOK  |  January 17, 2012

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X MARKS THE GOLD? A detail from “The Exchange.”

Two hundred black wood sculptures, resembling abstracted chunks of coal from some old video game, are lined up on a shelf running around the room in Ben Blanc's installation "The Exchange" at AS220's Project Space (93 Mathewson Street, Providence, through January 28).

"One, unmarked and indistinguishable from the others, contains a 20.06-gram river-washed Alaskan gold nugget recovered from the Nome area in 2011," a sign on the wall announces. "It is 99% pure gold with a fluctuating market value of approximately $1,010.82. Care to make an exchange?"

Suddenly a game's afoot: there's gold in them there rocks, and one of them could be yours for just $30. All sorts of questions might excitedly gallop through your head. What are your chances of getting the gold? One in 200, of course. Though the winner may have already been sold. Or it may not have been sold, so your chances now are better. Could you feel out the one with the gold inside? The weight difference would be hard to sense since 20 grams is not quite three-quarters of an ounce. And Blanc may have compensated for it. How did he get the gold inside? The rocks don't have obvious seams or holes. Hmm.

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SHELF LIFE The thought-provoking array in Blanc’s “The Exchange.”

Are you getting a bargain? Are you a greedy bastard? Is it worth it if you don't get the gold? For $30, you get a faceted hunk of Douglas fir stamped with a number. Its spot on the shelf is filled by a black wood X. Your rock gets presented to you in a little bag inside a little paper box with a certificate of ownership inviting you to visit benblanc.com on January 28 "to verify your exchange claim," to see if you've won. As sculptures, they're not much: simple, geometric lumps, like paperweights.

It's really the idea Blanc is selling. The sign describes the project as "a laboratory in which the line between art, design, retail and commerce is blurred." His résumé includes furniture making as well as art fashioned by bending steel rods into 3D sketches of elephants, diamonds, or rabbits. The question Blanc is asking is what is the value of art? What is the value of handcraft? What is the value of anything? What do we mean by value? Resale value? Soul? In America, there's no clearer way of stating your appreciation of something than throwing money at it.

Is making art a bit like hiding some gold in a pile of fake rocks, a kind of magic trick sold like a lottery? There have been worse metaphors for art. In the end, there are few definitive answers because the value of artworks is so subjective and shifting. Blanc's project is a philosophical conundrum, a small, familiar Zen koan to keep chewing over.

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MINIMALIST DIVERSION A few threads of Gerola’s Weaving the Blackstone.

Late last summer, Donald Gerola began hanging ropes across the Blackstone River between the old Slater Mill and the Main Street bridge in Pawtucket. He got archers to shoot leads across the water's 200-foot-wide expanse to pull some 30,000 feet of cord across, and used ladders and a crane to fasten them with cables to the bridge, surrounding trees and lamp posts, and his own whimsical modernist whirligig sculpture Wind Rotor, which has been on loan to the town for about five years. Weaving the Blackstone, as he calls the installation, was finished late last year and will likely be up through spring or summer.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Sculpture, AS220, AS220,  More more >
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