Charles Ray on Claes Oldenburg

WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN, I saw a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. It was a big soft thing hanging from the ceiling. Its title was Giant Soft Fan, 1966–67. Clearly it held the image of a fan, but its identity was hallucinatory. Try to describe this strange and wonderful form over the telephone. Give a detailed description—it’s a big soft thing made of vinyl, wood, and foam—but if you refrain from using the word “fan,” the identity of the object will never be determined. The fact that it’s a fan is only apparent in the sculpture’s presence. Even as a fan this sculpture has a visual and physical quality that makes it unidentifiable. It’s not an object made to look like something else. Its identity emanates from within. Finding humor in its form is incidental to its thingness.

Our objects are domesticated, and familiarity is married to function. We think we know what an object is, but we only grasp what we use it for. The Giant Soft Fan has yet to be domesticated. It is a suspicious object that has nothing to do with the set of objects we call fans. When we think we understand this object, we only have sense of our relationship to the world rather than the world’s relationship to us.

Charles Ray is an American sculptor who lives and works in Los Angeles.

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