What is Contemporary Art?


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Growing Tree, Luisa Rabbia

I stole my question from—“Predicting the Present”—an interview with science fiction writer Cory Doctorow in the Harvard Business Review.

His answer:

I believe that from the artist’s perspective, today’s art must presuppose copying. If you are making art that you expect people not to copy, then you are not making contemporary art.

A bold claim; it places the activity of copying at the center of contemporary art-making. I struggled with this at first. Maybe I was in denial, but I didn’t want to believe that “copying” could be the prevailing zeitgeist. After several days researching and writing this essay, I’m coming to see the light of our xerox-infatuated culture . . .

Let’s resurrect that boogie of a concept, “postmodernism”. After John Barth, famed contemporary novelist, first condemned postmodernism as the “literature of exhaustion”, he later recanted and saw the possibility for a “replenishment” and a transcendent “synthesis” in literature. He wrote:

The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and ‘contentism’, pure and committed literature” to combine the most vital aspects of past literatures.(1)

The exact terms that Barth uses are not as important as his idea of synthesis. I believe contemporary art, and specifically contemporary fiction, sees itself as a synthesis of genres, styles, approaches, materials, and modes. This has to do with the tendency in contemporary art to distrust “totalizing mechanisms” and “grand narratives”, and instead to employ ironic juxtaposition, pastiche (mixing high and low art), and imbuing works with a naïve sense of playfulness.(2)

Novelists aren’t the only ones recycling outmoded genres and repackaging them, musicians are too. Portland band, the Decembrists, loosely based their fourth album, The Crane Wife, on a Japanese folk tale; but listening to the album, you’re more likely to attribute the lyrics to 19th century Irish literature. While combining many styles, baroque pop, progressive rock, and folk music, the transcendent, replenishing synthesis John Barth refers to becomes increasingly self-evident.

We are living in the age of the re-mix; where the creative act of re-mixing and combining styles and vignettes claims an originality of its own. This may be scary to some, but to others it means unfettered creative freedom.

One musician and producer from Israel, known as Kutiman, rose to fame almost over night with his music video project ThruYOU. Kutiman created a seven track wonder from video material exclusively found on YouTube. Each track mixes samples, such as drumbeats and base lines, to produce seamless melodies and elaborate compositions. The tracks employ a variety of instruments (guitars, pianos, drums, harps, synthesizers), and reflect a variety of influences (R&B, Funk, Reggae, Jungle, Afro and Jazz).(3)

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Under the same sky 5 (2009), Luisa Rabbia

The collagist impulse, I argue, is seen across disciplines. A parallel to Kutiman is Luisa Rabbia in the art world. Recently I read an interview with Rabbia in Art in America (June-July 2009). Rabbia’s range of works include drawings, collages, video art, porcelain, and paper-mache sculptures. In her most recent project, she uses images on the web that have been made by someone else, much like Kutiman uses video clips from YouTube, and integrates these images into a “non-existent landscape”.

The collagist impulse in contemporary art is more than merely combining images, sounds, or pieces of text. I see it as inherently social and global—a departure from the artist’s role as private and alienated from society. With technology that knits us together in a million different ways, there is now an augmented awareness of each other.

Local issues become more prominent and so do seemingly random intersections between different parts of the world. Along with the freedom implicit in new technologies and mediums, artists embrace a mixture of narratives and feel comfortable (and liberated) creating their own story from the varicolored cloth of the many.

Rabbia writes, “What is different now is the fact that the images are not mine, but come from the experiences of other people. I stare at the images a long time, and try to bring my own journey into their journey.”

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A la Guerre comme a la Guerre #1, Michael Cheval

When talking about contemporary art, I also use the term “collage” as a metaphor for combining disparate elements into a singular tableau. Michael Cheval, a Russian artist who I’ve written about before, borrows the style and technique of 17th century Dutch art and combines them with his own surrealistic dreamscapes. The historical elements in Cheval’s paintings, 17th century dress, courtly figures, jesters are not historical references; but instead part of an inventive and original assemblage.

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Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai-shi, Japan (2001), Toyo Ito

I’ve always felt that architecture, more so than any of the other arts, presages the future. There may not be any truth to this, but it has served me as a guide. Toyo Ito is the Japanese architect who was commissioned to design the Berkley Museum of Art in California. His buildings evoke the complexity, maddening paradoxes, and transcendent, replenishing synthesis of contemporary art.

To begin with, none of his buildings look alike.(4) They are independent of a dominant mode or aesthetic style. Furthermore, Ito experiments with reversing expectations in modern architecture and design. The Sendai Mediatheque, a library and exhibition space, has the trappings of a Modernist building—from the distance, the building looks like a conventional glass box—but upon closer investigation, one notices “white latticework tubes that pierce the top of the structure”.(5) The juxtaposition of Modernist rigidity and outlandish, outer-space tubes extending “down through the entire structure” imbues the building with a lavish sense of freedom.

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Kaohsiung Stadium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2009), Toyo Ito

The 44,000-seat Kaohsiung stadium designed by Ito goes even further with pushing the boundaries of contradiction. A stadium that resembles a giant coiled snake combines the expansiveness of a super-stadium while maintaining a transparency and openness between inner and outer worlds. Nicolai Ouroussoff, from the New York Times, writes, “Mr. Ito’s stadium seeks to maximize our awareness of it while still creating a sense of enclosure.”

I love how Ito describes his architecture. “I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body. The in between is more interesting to me.”

Contemporary art revels in the spaces in between. In between materials, styles, stories, histories, and techniques. Contemporary art is the art of perpetual discovery, an art without a destination, only entry points and possibilities. And if it is true what Corey Doctorow says about today’s art presupposing copying, then it is only because copying is merely a first step towards something greater and less recognizable.

Image Credits:

Growing Tree (2006), Luisa Rabbia
Under the same sky 5 (2009), Luisa Rabbia
A la Guerre comme a la Guerre #1, Michael Cheval
Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai-shi, Japan (2001), Toyo Ito
Kaohsiung Stadium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2009), Toyo Ito