in Features | 13 OCT 05
Featured in
Issue 94

Travelling Hopefully

Art has changed dramatically over recent decades – but many of these developments have been positive

in Features | 13 OCT 05

‘What have been the most important shifts in art and the structures that surround it over the last 40 years?’ One way of answering this question is to ask another: ‘What shifts in art and its structures did artists themselves envisage 40 years ago?’ To respond, we might turn to ‘Open Systems’, the recent Tate Modern exhibition that featured artists from this moment, and consider three key developments.

The first is that artists then imagined the end of traditional media and ways of making art. Exactly 40 years ago Donald Judd, whose work was in the opening room, wrote ‘Specific Objects’, which began with the line ‘Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture’. Judging by the arrangement of ‘Open Systems’, his rejection was prophetic: the last work in the show was Bruce Nauman’s Going Round the Corner Piece, from 1970. By the time Nauman made it he had worked with sculpture and painting, but also with video, film, photography and text. Although his video work is notoriously studio-based, the rejection of traditional media meant that work would be cheaper for artists to make and to store, and that it could be made anywhere – not just in well-lit studios, but also on the street or while travelling. For some, travel led to work that embraced rather than rejected traditional media: just before Nauman’s installation we saw Alighiero e Boetti’s Mappa (Map, 1971), a tapestry made in Afghanistan by local weavers. In deploying ancient media Boetti seemed to reject the implications of Judd’s call, but the two artists did share an approach to making: both left fabrication to third parties, their work no longer showing the sign of the artist’s hand.

The second shift is related to the first: as artists abandoned traditional media and their studios they began to rethink how their work was distributed. Their predecessors would send their paintings and sculptures from studio to private gallery, and the gallery might take out an advertisement in an art magazine to attract a buyer, who in turn would ship the work to their private or public collection. By contrast, a video can be mass-produced and distributed through other channels or even screened on TV, and photographs can be sent in the post to curators and exhibitions. Mel Bochner, Dan Graham and others used the magazine as a site for art itself rather than for its advertisement. Or why not take your work straight to the museum, as Andre Cadere did, and place it directly in another’s show? Cildo Meireles approached distribution in one of the most intriguing ways, using an existing system to disseminate his work. He silk-screened messages onto empty Coke bottles and returned the empties to the shop; they would then be sent back to the factory and re-filled, and Coke itself would transport the artist’s work to uninitiated, unpredictable and perhaps entirely unknowing audiences.

The silk-screened messages on the Coke bottles read ‘Yankees Go Home’: the subject of Meireles’ Insertions into Ideological Circuits (1970) was the presence of US corporations in Brazil. In this way his work typifies a third shift: a shift in content, in art’s remit of address. The postwar internationalization of abstraction had made it seem that artists could only address questions related to colour and composition. By contrast, the artists of ‘Open Systems’ addressed the globalization of consumer corporations (Meireles), the role of architecture in our encounters with art works (Bochner), urban property crises (Hans Haacke), the determining effects of medical discourse on the way women experience their own bodies (Martha Rosler), the state’s criminalization of ‘rebels’ (Helio Oiticica), the iconography of dictatorships (Braco Dimitrijevic), the determinations of advertising imagery (Sanja Ivekovic) and many other political questions pertaining to the everyday experience of the real world.

Given these various 40-year-old hopes about future changes in art’s media, distribution and content, we might look around now at the contemporary art world and detect stasis rather than movement. What have been the most important shifts? Well actually, not much has changed at all.

Consider, for instance, the number of art schools still organized around traditional media, or the number of exhibitions still organized by medium – shows such as ‘Painting at the Edge of the World’ at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2001 or ‘Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles’ at the LA Hammer in 2005. The Museum of Modern Art in New York closed only to re-open with the old departmental divisions intact (painting and sculpture, film and media, architecture and design, drawings etc); Phaidon Press published Vitamin P in 2003, gathering over 100 artists all working in painting, and will follow it within a year with Vitamin D (drawing) and Vitamin Ph (photography). Meanwhile the ‘new media’ of the 1960s increasingly recall the old media of the past: photography is no longer treated as a quick and useful tool and instead is deployed to make work on the scale of 19th-century history paintings. Videos are editioned as bronze sculptures used to be, and for some artists working with the medium, production costs have soared. No longer bound to their own studios, they operate like Hollywood producers, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars before beginning a shoot.
Old modes of distribution, meanwhile, are in the ascendant. No obsolete institution, the art fair has become the place where curators travel to research projects and museum directors go to buy work; at many fairs artists’ works aren’t just sold but premiered. And the private gallery was hardly threatened by the side-stepping antics of artists of the 1960s: commerce swallowed ‘criticality’. More and more galleries spring up all the time in larger and brighter spaces, as often as not taking over buildings that once housed manufacturing companies whose owners decided to move production eastwards to reduce labour costs. And just check out the pages of the magazine you’re holding: you count the adverts, you do the sums.

For content, meanwhile, many art stars from the UK of the past couple of decades have heralded the death of ‘the death of the author’ and the birth of the artist–celebrity, although their take on celebrity has never been as complex as Andy Warhol’s – you get the impression for some that appearing in Sunday colour supplements is just fun. The controversial has replaced the critical, but the real controversy is that artists are forsaking analytical approaches to difficult subjects and making instead easily marketable works that trivialize the ‘dangerous’. In so doing, they provoke shocked responses from tabloid journalists, but the reactions are as conservative as their works. What were once radical gestures (emptying galleries, for instance) are now just trotted out, but rarely do artists acknowledge what it means to rehash strategies first used by Robert Barry or Michael Asher.

Grumble, grumble, grumble. I seem to be reaching the rather depressing conclusion that the art world has been moonwalking and that the most important shifts have been backwards: a return to traditional media and to expensive and artisanal forms of making; an increasing entanglement of art and the market, both in terms of production and display; and an hostility to the politicized practices of the 1960s. But rather than despairing of our contemporary moment, I want to challenge this conclusion in three ways.

First, I would like to call to mind artists who build on the radical aspirations of 40 years ago in order to address the conditions and politics of contemporary life. There are many artists who ‘quote’ art works from the 1960s, and in the process they increasingly romanticize the period; those I’m thinking about instead put to new use the artistic tools developed during that moment. One example would be Thomas Hirschhorn’s Musée Précaire Albinet (Precarious Museum Albinet, 2004), a project that involved working with the community of the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers to insure, crate, house, guard and display there art works loaned from the Pompidou’s collection. This investigation built on 1970s’ critiques of institutions and ‘public art’ but resisted the 1970s’ attack on the canon: Hirschhorn only borrowed works from heavy-hitters such as Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian and Andy Warhol. Rather than bemoaning the fact that art works need financial and physical protection, Hirschhorn made these the very conditions that would activate new audiences. Another example would be a work that Matthew Buckingham made for Cabinet magazine, for a series of articles called ‘Colours’. The work, entitled Ultramarine (2003), consisted of a plain photograph of an open mussel shell, followed by a timeline text treating the history of the mining and use of lapis lazuli. Buckingham revisited both a site and a mode of photography (de-skilled, provisional) favoured by artists of the 1960s but in order to implicate colour (and by proxy, art) in a history of international trade and power relations. The lure of lapis for patrons of Renaissance painting is well known – less familiar is the connection we learn about at the end of the text between the present circumstances of lapis mining and the current conflict in Afghanistan. Ultramarine could also be read as an oblique critique of the ‘triumph’ of painting at the present time: the blue-hued mussel shell reminds you that lapis was prized for its rarity rather than its colour, so the resurgence of painting too is driven by market forces rather than aesthetic ones.

So criticality in art persists, but the second way to counter depressing conclusions is to argue that contemporary practices challenge the assumption that criticality necessarily requires a turning away from imaginative fantasy and visual pleasure. Janice Kerbel deploys drawing to make works whose conceptual rigour is matched only by their visual austerity, giving us neither graphic gesture nor iconic illustration; and yet these drawings provoke viewers to imagine wondrous gardens, lush desert islands, magnificent starscapes. In her show at Modern Art Oxford, Fiona Tan’s sceptical deconstruction of portraiture was accompanied by News from the Near Future (2003), a projection made up of mesmerizing found film fragments showing tumbling waterfalls and flooded European cities. As much as the work prompted us to imagine a near future of ecological crisis, it allowed us to indulge in these treasures from the early days of film. The first time I saw Pierre Huyghe’s L’Expédition scintillante, Acte II (The Scintillating Expedition, Act II, 2002) in the Hugo Boss prize at the Guggenheim in New York, it made me weak at the knees. Listening to Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies (1888), I stood ravished by the wonder of dry ice swirling under pink light, more, rather than less, able to consider Huyghe’s reflection on the artifice of son et lumière because his work is, itself, spectacular. Like Huyghe, Spencer Finch refuses to treat light and colour as natural, a-historical and transcendent. He knows that our encounter with light is always filtered through our prior contact with literature or with pollution: we know this too when we see his work, but this takes nothing away from the enjoyment of looking.

The final route around the earlier conclusion is to take a look at the more recent projects of those ‘1960s’ artists with whom I started. Ed Ruscha was not in ‘Open Systems’, but his ‘de-skilling’ of photography and artist’s bookmaking was essential to the spirit of that period. I could imagine an argument that follows the line that Ruscha now exemplifies the ‘backwards shift’: he is, after all, the institutionally heralded artist of the moment. White, straight and male, he represents the USA at Venice and sells his paintings through Gagosian Gallery to the most exclusive collectors in the world. But look at the works themselves, and any sense of ‘backward shifting’ evaporates. In Venice, Ruscha addressed the double movement of manufacturing industry from LA to South-East Asia and of South-East Asians to LA, the obsolescence of recently modern telephone technologies and the ensuing decrepitude of city spaces. It is easy to imagine any number of younger video artists tramping over this terrain of globalization, urbanism and communication, but rather more difficult to suppose that they would treat focusing and cropping with the care that Ruscha gave to colour and brushwork.

If these three counter-arguments fail to describe major shifts in practice in the past 40 years, they do help to overturn the idea that there has just been stasis or regression. Yet I want to end by thinking about the consequences of a genuinely major shift in art and its structures over the past 40 years. The artists of ‘Open Systems’ imagined a broader art world than the one they inhabited in the 1960s – one in which the work of women artists, gay artists and artists from outside the USA and Western Europe would no longer be marginalized. In his sound piece at the entrance to the Arsenale in Venice this year Santiago Sierra reminded listeners of continued exclusions, the lack of participation by so many countries in this biennial of biennials. And yet, despite the accuracy of his claims, it would be fair to say that more artists from what once seemed peripheral locations show their work in the traditional centres of the art world, while artists from everywhere display their work in once ‘peripheral’ locations. Writing from London, quite an old centre of the ‘art world’, I guess that it is easier to be informed about new art produced outside the USA and Western Europe than it would have been 40 years ago. But the nomadism of artists and the proliferation of biennials should be greeted with some scepticism. Some (now quite well-rehearsed) questions include: do the artists who are forever moving from one city to another reflect interestingly on the conditions that determine their mobility? To what extent has the proliferation of biennials been accompanied by a genuine expansion of audiences? Has the club of curators who travel from biennial to biennial become more and more exclusive? Is the ‘biennial’ a Western model of display colonizing regions formerly outside the art world? Does the international biennial uphold a bankrupt ideal of multiculturalism, a false hope that works produced by artists from hugely different backgrounds should be mutually legible – or do curators of biennials recognize that gathered works may be opaque to each other, acknowledging what Sarat Maharaj has termed ‘the untranslatability of the other’?

Even seemingly positive shifts can bring problems. The expansion of the art world means that I am ever more aware of the limits of my awareness and thus the tenuousness of what I might write as an art critic. In this article I’ve referred to only the handful of artists whose works I’ve chanced to get to know; I recognize there may be others whose works might back up or render senseless my arguments. To return to Judd: when he started as a critic, he felt confident that a weekly trail around the key New York galleries would show him all he needed to know about contemporary practice, enough, certainly, to dismiss postwar Europe as a ‘stagnant pond’ for art. Now no one thinks they can really gain a comprehensive or overarching idea of contemporary art. This means that critics might be less confident about taking an authoritative position when answering questions such as ‘What have been the most important shifts in art and the structures that surround it over the last 40 years?’ But perhaps this admission of uncertainty is long overdue.