How To Be an Artist (If Only In Your Mind)

It’s been a cruel summer.  Anyone else had Bananarama in their heads for the past few weeks?

I’ve been really needing inspiration, searching voraciously for it, which has led me to some interesting places.  One of note is the world of instructional art.  This an experimental art form in which the artist writes a set of steps to follow to complete a work of art.  Many times, the meaning is poetic, as actually following the directions is impossible, or would leave one in a terrible state.  But other times, they are things you can actually do, and you won’t end up with a tea cozy made out of your old knit socks, but rather, a huge shift in perspective.

Yoko and John

An artmaker friend of mine, who is familiar with my love for Yoko Ono, got me her book of such instructional art pieces, Grapefruit, for my birthday.


One of my favorites:

Tunafish Sandwich Piece

Imagine one thousand suns in the

sky at the same time.

Let them shine for one hour.

Then, let them gradually melt

into the sky.

Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.”


snow piece

In turn, I got her a compendium of art pieces from various artists compiled by installationist Hans Ulrich Obrist, entitled Do It, for hers.

Me reading Do It.  Sorry it's not as cute as John and Yoko.

Me reading Do It. Sorry it’s not as cute as John and Yoko.

Between the two texts, which are filled with images as well as words, I have enough inspiration for several lifetimes.

What I like about these suggestions is that they bring art out of the galleries and into the lives of “the layperson”.  Some of these would be possible to complete as a way of life.


Tacita Dean (2002)

Finding a four leaf clover on a sunny day

Wait for a sunny day

Look for a field full of clovers

Make sure there are no sheep or cows grazing in the field

Walk slowly into the field

Keep your eyes absolutely focused on the clovers

Try not to tread on them

See the clover with the four leaves

Pick it

Press it in a book”

Robert Berry (2012)

“Do something unique that only you and no one else in the world can do.

Don’t call it art.”

Maria Eichhorn, Instruction (1994)

“Casting a ring from silver and losing it in the street.”

Shilpa Gupta (2012)

“Kindly Fill Below

Where do you live currently

2) Virtually ______________

3) Mentally ______________

4) Philosophically ________

5) Physically ____________”

Federico Herrero, Secret Friend (2012)

“Choose a person you like, or that you would like to love, or at least a person you have good feelings for.

Leave small gifts for him/her in personal spaces for five days.

During those five days, secretly record in secret conversations with that person.  The recording can be for a short time or as long as possible.

Listen to the taping every night before sleeping.”


Joan Jonas, Instruction (2002)

“dance with a large piece of chalk

mark up the nearest surface and pay attention to the movement of your feet

music optional”


Sheung-Chuen Pak (2006)

Waiting for a friend

Without any appointment,

you stand in a specific place,

waiting for a friend to come.

If your friend asks you ‘How did you know I’d be here?’

Tell him ‘I really didn’t know

but I’ve been expecting you for a long time!’

Waiting until everyone sleeps

Go down to a street at night.

Find a building you really like.

Keep standing and waiting there

until everyone sleeps.”

Do It and Grapefruit have helped me see that I can shape each moment into a work of art, even if I’m the only one who knows what I’m up to.

I have this event in my mind that I’m scheming about.  Invite a group of people over and make Do It and Grapefruit into the installations they are meant to be.  Agree upon procedure:

Each person flips through one of the books and randomly chooses a page.

They read aloud the instructions there, and agree to complete it.

Either they can do it in the moment, right then and there, or they state when/how they will.

If they feel they absolutely cannot do it (there’s one in there about how to shrink a human head), then they talk with the group about why not, and discuss if it is possible to metaphorically do it.

If the whole group decides they can’t do it, then they get one more pick.

Go around the circle and have everyone participate.

After a month, get together with all the completed art pieces, and have everyone write their own art instructional.

Continue on, the same as last time, but also with the new written instructions by members of the group.

Ad infinitum.

I suppose that is my first art instruction piece: How To Make Do It and Grapefruit Into an Installation that Also Sounds Like a Sleepover Game.

What’s been inspiring you lately?

7 thoughts on “How To Be an Artist (If Only In Your Mind)

  1. Pingback: MAIL ART!!! | SydLiz

  2. I love this, partly because this is exactly where I’ve found myself living lately – in the anteroom of inspiration, I guess, searching for it everywhere. I’ve been working on writing a poem everyday (except last week), because lately writing poetry has enabled me to look more closely at the inspiration all around. Doing so has also flavored my visual arts as well, creating more ideas for paintings. They all seem to feed on each other, which is glorious.

    • I love that you are writing a poem a day! What a great challenge. And yes, honing your artistic skills in one area always begets more creativity in others. It’s wonderful.

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