This piece — a rowboat in a gallery, with the inscription “Center for Experimental Contemplatives” written in cursive on its stern — is a piece of whimsy.
We know the metaphors being evoked: afloat on an open sea, castaway, solitary, lapping waves, risk, unknown… Experiment and contemplation involve some of these qualities, no doubt.
But what are we to do with this as a piece of art? It could be spoken, friend to friend, at a dinner party: “Sometimes I think of myself as floating in a rowboat, oars hanging in the locks, unsure of where I am going or where I have been — it feels good!” Would that be art? I would suggest, no. It would be a lovely thought, a confession, a shared metaphor for emotional experience, you could call it one of any number of things. But I wouldn’t call the comment, late night, friend to friend, art. So does giving it a tangible, material reality (an actual row boat! In a well-lit gallery! With a bluegreen stripe across the waterline!) make it art, whereas the metaphor spoken aloud did not qualify?
If so, then I think it is thin. You can experience the thing and the metaphor together, non-ironically, and be moved, I suppose. Or you can see it as a cliché, and this could move you too (the cage of language, the difficulty of originality — these too evoke emotions).
The best part, I think, is that it promotes the experience of experiment-taking and contemplative solitude, and yet it is anything but experimental (a boat, a conceptual art-piece, conventional writing and coloring) and it is positioned in a gallery, inviting group commentary and social experience.
I would like to see this rowboat actually cast out to sea, far in the ocean, where no one we know will ever see it. That would get closer to art, for me. There is a conceptual artist, Bas Jan Ader, who, in fact, did disappear in a small boat at sea. This submission, seen in the photograph above, is but a quaint version of that earlier piece of deadly serious whimsy.