Sunday, January 29, 2012

Contemporary Art- mobility of medium, culture, message, and engagement

The readings for this week centered around attempting to define contemporary art in a variety of ways.  Does contemporary refer to a time period?  If so, when did it begin?

Below is the definition of "contemporary" from the Oxford English Dictionary online:


  • living or occurring at the same time: the event was recorded by a contemporary historian
  • dating from the same time: this series of paintings is contemporary with other works in an early style
  • belonging to or occurring in the present: the tension and complexities of our contemporary society
  • following modern ideas in style or design: contemporary ceramics by leading potters

Cleary, if "contemporary" means solely "of the now," our quest for its meaning would have little significance.  In this definition of art, all art has been contemporary, as the images below so eloquently state.  What, then, defines our current period of art making, viewing, and criticizing as contemporary?

I set out to map the three readings and find the overlap between them, which was significant.  Below is my drawing: 

In Terry Smith's article "Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity," he tries to define contemporary art and explores multiple ways of approaching and understanding it.

His description of the work entitled SPECTACULAR, in which artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had the entire collection of the Kunst Palace in Dusseldorf packed into trucks, driven once around the building, and re-installed, seemed to me to be not only infuriatingly stupid but also a monumental waste of money, resources, and energy, not to mention a project that put the work at unnecessary risk.  From a museum standpoint, this made me a little crazy.

However, despite all of that, it very clearly introduces a concept of contemporary art where the idea or action is the piece, not a thing itself that a spectator or viewer is meant to look at within the confines of a white cube.  He expands on describing another piece by the same artists, saying "the artists are wittily proposing that contemporary art is concerned with posing questions, usually about itself, perhaps without much hope of effect, and destined to end in ambiguity." (Smith, p. 682).  He almost could have ended the article there, as he comes back to a very similar point in the concluding paragraph.

The relationship of artists to art institutions, and vice versa, came up for me over and over in the readings.  Who exactly is defining contemporary art?  Who is promoting it, viewing it, buying it, and funding it?  The relationship between artists and institutions is monumental in this dynamic, especially with works such as the ones mentioned above, or even works like Richard Serra's, which Smith describes in detail.  These works could not function without a financial and intellectual support system behind them, not would they function without an assumed knowledge of art history and contemporary art on the part of the viewer.  With Serra's work, this latter point is less necessary, but in the way in which Smith describes it, Serra's work becomes more powerful when situated within a specific context of understanding.

Works by Richard Serra:

Smith writes about the "mobility of medium" as a defining factor in contemporary art, an idea that the other readings address as well.  No longer do artists function within one specific medium, but rather they take a much more interdisciplinary approach to get their ideas across in the most effective way.  This is interesting and important to think about in regards to our own MFA program, which as we discussed in class, is not interdisciplinary but very heavily grounded in photography, specifically the creation of photographs intended to be seen on a wall, or perhaps in a book.  In an ever-expanding field, this type of study is a very intentional and specific choice.

Smith writes, in regard to works such as Matthew Barney's "The Cremaster Cycle" and works such as Richard Serra's, which he claims require a direct relationship to the spectator, "works such as these provide the first powerful answer to the question of the nature of art in these times: contemporary art, as a movement, has become the new modern or, what amounts to the same thing, the old modern in new clothes."  (Smith, p. 688)

I like the idea of the old modern in new clothes.  Was there a seamless shift from Modern to Contemporary, or was there more of a radical break from something old and defined into something new and unknown?

Smith writes of two ways of understanding contemporary practice (and then suggests a third), which he calls the "tiring juggernaut" and a "swarming of attack vehicles."

The definition of "juggernaut," again from the Oxford dictionary online, is below:


  • a large, heavy vehicle, especially an articulated lorry: the juggernaut thundered through the countryside
  • a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force: the juggernaut of public expenditure

Smith is comparing the existing, powerful, defined art world, complete with its modernist, media-specific sense of art (as the juggernaut), to the new definitions of contemporary art as works that exist across media, across cultures, and with an engagement to both the art world and the principles it currently holds as ideals as well as the current social and political climate of our time (as the swarming of attack vehicles).  Smith writes, "the 'contemporary art' juggernaut operates primarily in terms of frameworks- managerial, curatorial, corporate, historical, commercial, educational- imposed by art institutions, themselves a key part of a now pervasive, beguilingly distractive but at the bottom hollow cultural industry.  The guerrilla swarming of the others is marked by acknowledgment of the psychic, social, cultural, and political settings in which art is made." 

If we were to stop there, it would seem that those of us currently enrolled in an MFA program and, for all intents and purposes, embracing this culturally hollow industry of art-making, are condemned to make an elitist art removed entirely from the politics of our time.  Thankfully Smith posits a third approach, which is that contemporary art exists not within these two ideas as a dichotomy, but by making work in the very vacuum their tension creates.  Contemporary art, he argues, is made both with an understanding of the art juggernaut, as he calls it, and with an engagement with the rest of the world around us. 

When I Googled "juggernaut," I came up with this image by Marvel, which is perhaps unrelated but is a fun way to think of the older-fashioned art world.

This is perhaps a more appropriate representation:

And here comes the new contemporary:

Okay, enough fun with pictures of metaphors that were probably never meant to be this literal in the first place.

This issue of straddling the art world and our current political world played heavily in the reviews of Michael Fried's "Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before" and Ariella Azoulay's "The Civil Contract of Photography." 

Writing of Fried, the article states "he argues that the best paintings display a mode of 'absorption': figures are depicted as engrossed in their own activities, so denying 'the presence before them of the beholder' and establishing 'the ontological fiction that the beholder does not exist.'  The effect, in Fried's view, is to encourage the viewer to examine the painting's details, rather than to feel addressed by it directly in a 'theatrical' mode."  (Leshem and Wright, p. 114).

This passage brings up many interesting points that Fried also addresses (at least according to this review- we will find out for ourselves shortly).  One point is the issue of a work's "to-be-seenness," or the idea that a subject is aware of their ultimate role as an object to be looked at, or perhaps the maker is aware, at the time of the making, that they are creating an object to be seen.  Fried argues that the large scale of works such as Andres Gursky or Rineke Dijkstra have this inherent quality, this awareness that they are going to be seen.  He also posits the difference between an image being inviting or distancing, citing both overt detail and eye contact as confrontational, distancing mechanisms.  This idea is fascinating to me, as the relationship between subject and viewer is something I think about a lot in relationship to my work. 

I have always favored eye contact in my images, which embody this sense of "to-be-seenness" that I referred to above.  I intentionally used eye contact as a way to directly confront the viewer, forcing them to engage with the person in the image, as a way to bridge the gap of understanding and experience across communities.  Recently, I have been thinking about the power in not using direct eye contact and in letting the viewer have, perhaps, a more open-ended engagement with the subject. 

Dallas, 2012

This image is an example of me trying to still use eye contact but in a more intimate, open-ended way.  It is not meant to be distancing, but inviting.  By positioning myself in this way in relation to my subject, and subsequently placing this image in a space where it is intended to be viewed, it is still confrontational in some ways, in that I am forcing the viewer to consider their own relationship to this person (as well as my relationship to him, as the photographer) but is meant to be viewed on an individual, one-on-one scale.  The position that the photographer places the viewer has everything to do with how the image is read, and in this case, it is a reading involving implication.

In my newest (and current favorite) photograph, I am employing strategies more like paintings, of absorption, of capturing a moment between two people that you as the viewer are not directly asked to engage with.  You are not in this scene- you are not implicated in the same way- which provides a very different and complicated (I hope) viewing of the photograph.  There is still an implication on the part of the viewer, and their response would depend, as with anything else, on what of their own experience they bring to the table, but I am very consciously trying to play with how these different dynamics of confrontation and involvement affect the eventual reading and effect of my photographs. 

Alex and Teddy, 2012

Azoulay's writing makes the argument that art is, in fact, not only aesthetic and can have very real political implications and intentions.  The work she describes is not meant to be looked at simply visually, but rather as a call to action.  It shows an injustice that must be righted, and therefore cannot exist passively.  I hope that, as Smith argues, my work can do both of these things- to seduce aesthetically and affect politically. 

The moral of all of our readings seems to be that neither of these extreme readings of contemporary art is definitive, but rather that there is a middle ground.  In a way, the current state of contemporary art could be seen as a postmodern version of a previous definition of contemporary art.  There is more than one interpretation and way it can function, and perhaps it can only exist as an entity not between two opposing ideas, but within and around them in a more fluid and complicated way (which, not surprisingly, is also my theory/experience as it relates to gender and sexuality).  

The closing paragraph of the reviews by Leshem and Wright sums this thought up nicely.

"Surely these two scholars understand the function of photography, and the spectator before it, very differently.  Indeed, they each demonstrate the problem of taking the other's argument to its logical extreme.  Fried makes an important effort to stake out a distinct space for viewing photographs as objects of aesthetic and philosophical interest, but Azoulay demonstrates that in some cases to do so might risk missing the photographic image's ethical demand for recognition and action."  (Leshem and Wright, p. 119)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Jeff Wall, Conceptual Art, and Light Years at the AIC

In Jeff Wall’s “Marks of Indifference,” Wall discusses the relationship between photography and conceptual art, exploring the effect they had on each other.  Central to this essay is the fact that “photography cannot find alternatives to depiction, as could the other fine arts.  It is in the physical nature of the medium.”  (Wall, p. 32)  Later in the essay he writes of photography’s “heavy burden of depiction” for the reason it could not follow “pure… Conceptionalism all the way to the frontier.” 

Wall explains Pictorialist photography, specifically defined (and perhaps created or invented) by Alfred Stieglitz and elaborates on the subsequent move away from this type of photography in the 1920s.

Pictorialist photography was dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting and attempted, to some extent, to imitate it in acts of pure composition.  Lacking the means to make the surface of its pictures unpredictable and important, the first phase of Pictorialism, Steiglitz’s phase, emulated the fine graphic arts, re-invented the beautiful book, set standards for gorgeousness and composition, and faded….  By 1920, photographers interested in art has begun to look away from painting, even from modern painting, toward the vernacular of their own medium, and toward the cinema, to discover their own principle of spontaneity, to discover once again, for themselves, that unanticipated appearance of the Picture demanded by modern aesthetics.  (Wall, p. 33)

Steiglitz, The Steerage

Steiglitz, Equivalent

Steiglitz, Georgia O'Keefe

I enjoyed the capitalization of the word Picture, establishing it as a concept separate from a photograph or a painting.  Speaking of the immediacy and technical nature of photography, Wall says “every picture-constructing advantage accumulated over centuries is given up to jittery events as they unfold.” This is a radically different way of making a Picture than by making a painting, or through printmaking in the tradition of the masters such as Durer, which Wall had previously mentioned. 

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros

(speaking of Durer, there was an interesting exhibit recently at Harvard including many of his works- it's off topic for this particular class but it can be seen here.)

Wall focuses on how the photograph can function when it is no longer trying to imitate the qualities assumed to make good “art” as defined in Western Culture.  Great art was generally assumed to be a depiction of something, so a move toward abstraction necessarily caused a re-thinking of what art could be.  However, with painting, Wall argued, it was very clear to any viewer, regardless of their training in art, when a painting did not depict something.  They could tell instantly that it was not “great art” as they had been taught.  However, with photography, due to its burden of depiction previously discussed, it had to be used in more nuanced or complicated ways in order to subvert the traditions of what was generally considered to be “art.” 

One of the ways that photography does this is by not giving weight to what the photograph depicts, but rather how it is used.  Wall cites examples of creative uses of text and the photo essay, as in the case of Dan Graham’s Homes for America,” and the systematic use of photography as in Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations.   

Dan Graham, Homes for America
Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations

Images from Twentysix Gasoline Stations

Speaking of Ruscha’s photography as a “hilarious performance, an almost sinister mimicry of the way ‘people’ make images of the dwellings in which they are involved,” Wall proves his point that “it became a subversive act for a talented and skilled artist to imitate a person of limited abilities.”  While on first glance it might seem that Ruscha was trying to bring his work out of the realm of high art and into the reach of everyday people, Wall argues that he was actually sarcastically mocking the banal ways in which everyday people make images, almost patting himself on the back for being better than them and for having the irony and intelligence to point out such a difference.  Ruscha’s book is a perfect example of the anesthetic, a work of art that derives its meaning from the system in which it was created, not in the aestheticism of its imagery, composition, or construction.  Wall writes:

“Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1962) may depict the service stations along Ruscha’s route between Los Angeles and his family home in Oklahoma, but it derives its artistic significance from the fact that at a moment when “The Road” and roadside life had already become an auteurist cliché in the hands of Robert Frank’s epigones, it resolutely denies any representation of its theme, seeing the road as a system and an economy mirrored in the structure of both the pictures he took and the publication in which they appear.  Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations, and the existence of a book of just those pictures is a kind of proof of the existence of such a person.  (Wall, p. 44)

I was interested in the idea of art without depiction as offering the viewer a direct experience as opposed to a representation of an experience.  In some ways Ruscha’s book might do this also.  Even though it depicts 26 gas stations, the book is not representing the experience of a gas station.  The viewer would have a much different experience viewing this piece than viewing an Ansel Adams photograph, for example.  
The larger image was restricted, but here is an example of a print Ruscha made of the cover for Twentysix Gasoline Stations as well (from the Harvard Art Museum).

In the Light Years exhibition at the Art Institute, it was interesting to see not only one of Ruscha's books, but also its mockup.  Also interesting were the photographs of the book hung on the wall as works of their own, a further deconstructing of the photographic image.  

Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip

Photography as a medium lends itself well to systems and to archives.  We read last semester of photography’s use as a police tool and how it came to be that our society associates the photograph as something real enough to be used as proof for things ranging from basic identification to crimes such as murder.  

Thinking of photography as in an archive, I thought of Deborah Luster's photographs of prison inmates, which we so luckily got to see in person last semester, as well as her images of homicide sites in New Orleans that she shows in a grid and reproduced in a ledger format.  The archive is integral to this work, though she does not attempt to subvert it in way that other artists have done, such as Martha Rosler with her work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems.  

Deborah Luster, image from One Big Self

Deborah Luster's book Tooth For and Eye, which reads like a ledger

Deborah with one of her images from Tooth For an Eye

Deborah's installation of Tooth for an Eye at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Luster's exhibition style also deals directly with the archive.  

For Tooth For an Eye, she constructed a long table to present her works in ledger format, in addition to arranging them in grids on the wall.  

Tooth for an Eye, Installation view

An example of the ledger format, with the homicide information recorded on the left

For One Big Self, she had a metal cabinet constructed to house all of her small, hand-sized portraits so that viewers could have the experience of opening heavy metal drawers and flipping through the photographs, spending as much time with them as they would like.  

One Big Self, Installation view

Martha Rosler's work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems questions our basic assumption of truth and description in relation to both photography and text.  It was fantastic to see this piece in person after reading so much about it last semester.  

Martha Rosler, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems

The idea of conceptual art also got me thinking about Sol Lewitt's wall drawings, in which the idea, not the execution, is the piece itself.  By making his instructions available to others and inviting them to re-create his works, slightly different each time, he is democratizing art and allowing it to be accessed and re-interpreted by many.  One of my favorite exhibitions is the 25-year installation of Lewitt's wall drawings at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA.  The installation took 65 artists and art students nearly 6 months to complete and is one of the largest exhibitions of Lewitt's work in existence.  

From the Mass MoCA website:

"Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, states, “Watching this grand installation of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings progress over the past six months has been nothing short of thrilling. In addition to providing an enduring exhibition of great beauty, this retrospective will enable visitors to behold for the first time the full trajectory of a major aspect of Sol’s artistic career. Until today, the only way to view multiple LeWitt wall drawings has been to travel far and wide, pursuing them individually in situ or in temporary museum exhibitions. Now, visitors will be able to return to MASS MoCA again and again to experience this visual feast of Sol’s wall drawings in a single location, doing so at their leisure over the next twenty-five years.”

LeWitt—who stressed the idea behind his work over its execution—is widely regarded as one of the leading exponents of Minimalism and Conceptual art, and is known primarily for his deceptively simple geometric structures and architecturally scaled wall drawings. His experiments with the latter commenced in 1968 and were considered radical, in part because this new form of drawing was purposely temporal and often executed not just by LeWitt but also by other artists and students whom he invited to assist him in the installation of his artworks."

Some of Lewitt's wall drawings at Mass MoCA:

Issues of systems played heavily into conceptual photography, and Lewitt's work is perhaps one of the best examples of a system for art-making that can be followed by anyone.  Similar to a composer of music, Lewitt created the idea and original score, but anyone can execute it, adding their own hand, however subtly, to the artist's intent.

This way of approaching art making is similar to Yoko Ono's instruction pieces, in which painting is separated into two functions: the instructions and the realizations. 

Yoko writes:

"Instruction painting separates painting into two different functions: the instructions and the realization. The work becomes a reality only when others realize the work. Instructions can be realized by different people in many different ways. This allows infinite transformation of the work that the artist himself cannot foresee, and brings the concept of "time" into painting. It immediately eliminates the usual emphasis put on the original painting, and art comes down from the pedestal.
Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the concept of time and space. And then, sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten."

The idea of intention versus chance also plays into much of conceptual art.  In our guide, it's written as motivated (conceptual) versus arbitrary (random).  While these ideas are a significant part of conceptual art's history, this made me think of work I saw recently in Boston at Gallery Kayafas: Daniel Ranalli's snail drawings, in which he arranges the snails in a particular pattern, photographs them, and then lets them go where they will, and photographs them again.

This work, while very contemporary, is clearly building on the tradition explored by John Baldessari with his piece Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line, which we saw at the Art Institute in Light Years.  

John Baldessari

This week's reading, and exhibition, sets forth such a huge topic in the history of photography and art in a larger context.  This blog has probably only scratched the surface of all of the issues at hand.  Many of the effects of conceptual art on photography, and vice-versa, seem so intregrated in our current experience of art that they can be difficult to recognize, but are nonetheless critical to understanding contemporary photography, both as a viewer and as a maker.