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  • Writer's picturekimberlyshen

Contemporary Art: Pluralism and the Encyclopaedia

[Extract] A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Research Art: Theory and Philosophy at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, 2014

1. Introduction

Might archival art emerge out of a similar sense of failure in cultural memory, of a default in productive traditions? For why else connect so feverishly if things did not appear so frightfully disconnected in the first place? (Foster, 2004, p. 21 – 22)

The current condition of the art world as outlined by Foster (2004) is characterised by fragmentation and chaos. The enormous proliferation of art, cultural goods and institutions, is a symptom of a world entranced by the spectacle: a consumerist world that is made horizontal by the Internet, where mediums and art forms are interchangeable and overlapping. A crippling anxiety arises from this excess of knowledge and manifestation of ideas: how much can we retain within memory, what do we preserve and what do we let go? Foster (2004) stresses greatly on this “failure in culture memory” and in an effort to connect and make sense of our cultural climate today, an archival impulse – the compulsion to arrange and collect – is a response to this overload of artistic activity.

Within the nature of contemporary art, there exists a pluralism that cannot be defined because of its proliferation of ideas that transcends form, medium, subject, and structure. Contemporary art, as defined by Stallabrass (2004), appears to exist in a “zone of freedom”, unhindered by set rules and conventions (p. 1). A term that is seemingly generic and empty: contemporary art conjures a certain type of aesthetic such as the White Cube, yet can be described as equally eclectic and all encompassing. There is an ambivalence of forms and a precariousness that wills itself to recognition. Gillick (2010) describes contemporary art as a “resistant grouping of interests, all of which have become the multiple specificities of the contemporary”. He notes that contemporary art practices defy being defined by others, but comfortably reside in a general “being in the context” (Gillick, 2010).

Contemporary art has become impossibly diverse and fleetingly difficult to grasp because it rejects traditional frameworks and readings. We have difficulty comparing one genre or medium of art over the other since these forms do not cohere to a system of equivalent value. There is a desire to make sense of this disorder by attempting to organise our artistic experience, a comparable aspiration to Foster’s archival impulse. The curatorial theme of the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, The Encyclopedic Palace would seem to harbour similar ambitions of encapsulating this plurality in art. The title is inspired by a little known artwork of the same name by self-taught Italian- American artist, Marino Auriti, whose Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo was an imaginary museum intent on housing all the world’s knowledge. Biennale director, Massimilano Gioni, describes the chosen theme as representing “the impossibility of capturing the sheer enormity of the art world today” (Vogel, 2013). This enormity as he proclaims might refer to the saturation of knowledge and information readily available to us. There surfaces a desire to make connections by drawing upon contemporary and historical narratives and create new meanings from this network of activity.

As the largest international contemporary art event, the Venice Biennale is not only a regular subject of discourse and research, but is also often an indicator of the present artistic condition. The choice of such a grandiose theme paired together with the notion of the encyclopaedia – one that gestures towards knowledge distribution and universality – might be a reaction to this plethora of art and a way to deal with this excessiveness. Is the encyclopaedic ambition far too romantic an idea to map all these moments within art and does it truly have the ability to capture the depth and breadth of these experiences? Or did The Encyclopedic Palace merely function as a convenient curatorial framework that would relax the criteria of what qualifies as art and what can enter the realm of contemporary discourse. Using the 55th Venice Biennale as the point of departure, this essay will detail the conditions of contemporary art, analyse the qualities of the encyclopaedic endeavour and its correlation to the archival impulse, as well as examine the flaws made apparent by the encyclopaedic project and contemporary art.

1.1 Postmodern Consciousness

The eclectic nature of contemporary art flourished under the emergence of postmodern consciousness marked by discontinuous narratives and the rejection of rigid distinctions. This rupture within contemporary art is characterised by an unfamiliarity and incoherence in structure and form, resulting in a loss of evaluative criteria to judge artistic failure. Jameson (1991) suggests understanding the notion of postmodern as “an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place” (p. ix). While modernism was fascinated by the emergence and materialisation of the ‘new’, the postmodern consciousness was more concerned about the shifts and ruptures that substantiated the progress after modernity. Jameson (1991) says it is especially problematic defining postmodernism, which he compares to taking the ‘temperature’ of the current condition without even being sure what constitutes the age we are in (p. xi). The trouble lies in the inconsistency and uncertainty of the world and its coordinates, but it is precisely this breakdown that characterises postmodernism.

The beginnings of postmodernism can be traced back to the early 1960s where the break or coupure was marked by radical events: “the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc” (Jameson, 1991, p. 1). Emerging from the modernisation process is “a more fully human world”, of which culture has become a “veritable ‘second nature’” (Jameson, 1991, p. ix) and has transformed into a product that is independent of the market. Modernism was critical of commodification and the “effort to make (the commodity) transcend itself”; in contrast, postmodernism is “the consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (Jameson, 1991, p. x). By welcoming the everyday and the quotidian, postmodernism paved way for new economic models that catered to an expanded middle class and rising bourgeois culture. The overwhelming domination of capitalism, as a result of the advancement in technology and the rise of multi-national corporations as the stronghold of the economy, has offered “privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control” (p. 37 – 38). The heightened frenzy of artistic activities – the proliferation of art fairs, auction houses, art colleges, biennales, museums around the world – has also allowed art to transform into economic vehicles of employment and wealth. Correspondingly, the production of cultural goods has become more urgent than ever; the creation of the novel and fresh are quickly superseded by the even newer, assimilating “an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experiment” (Jameson, 1991, p. 5). Much like Debord’s observation in The Society of the Spectacle, capital is accumulated in excess and forms an image: a manifestation of “commodity reification” (Jameson, 1991, p. 18).

The decline of ‘high-modernist impulse’ as seen with abstract expressionism within painting or existentialism in philosophy, paved way for the creation of forms that are “empirical, chaotic and heterogeneous” all at once (Jameson, 1991, p. 1). The rise of punk and new wave rock was carried alongside the synthesis of classical and pop music, the popularity of pop art gained momentum together with photorealism, and experimental films thrived with post-Godard cinema. It is therefore imperative that postmodernism must be understood “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (Jameson, 1991, p. 4).

A new depthlessness surfaces from the postmodern “which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum” (Jameson, 1991, p. 6). In comparing Van Gogh’s A Pair of Boots, a painting of peasant shoes as reflective of agricultural and rural living, to that of Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes – a showcase of a fetishised, unnatural object, Jameson (1991) points that the difference between the high modernist and postmodernist movement is the emergence of this flatness, “a new kind of superficiality” (p. 9). Van Gogh’s painting could be read as a gesture towards Utopian tendencies, an opening of being and the senses, while Warhol’s work explicitly makes a statement on capitalism and commodification and embodies a non-authentic object of ‘decorative exhilaration’.

Jameson (1991) continues to illustrate how Edward Munch’s The Scream encapsulates the major themes of modernism: “of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety” (p.11). These feelings are made extremely apparent in the painting, externalised by this staged dramatisation of this man’s soundless cry. That is not to say that the postmodern age is incapable of expressing feelings, but the feeling of alienation is replaced by the fragmentation of the individual subject in which Jameson (1991) proposes: As for expression and feeling or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling (p. 15).

The fragmentary nature of postmodernism has encouraged new sensations to emerge from this temporal dimension. Because of this loss in major narratives, there surfaces a tension from this disconnectedness and Jameson (1991) suggests that our relationship with historicity is ultimately questioned. If the subject is no longer able to organise its past and future into a coherent experience, “it becomes difficult enough to see how the cultural productions of such a subject could result in anything but ‘heaps of fragment’ and in practice of the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory” (Jameson, 1991, p.25). Jameson (1991) compares the notion of postmodernism to a Lacanian reading of schizophrenia: “a breakdown in the signifying chain...the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning” (p. 26). Schizophrenia occurs within this “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (Jameson, 1991, p. 26), and this incoherence causes the loss in ability to connect or unify the past, present and future. It is through this breakdown of the signifying chain that the schizophrenic is “reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers”, and particularly, “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” (Jameson, 1991, p. 27). However, Jameson (1991) sees the positive side of this schizophrenia in form of difference as a “new and original way of thinking and perceiving” which regularly “takes the form of an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” (p. 31). Jameson (1991) cites that the postmodernist viewer is expected to look at Nam June Paik’s work of stacked television screens with randomly looped video sequences and dyssynchronous moments, and to be not at all disorientated by this chaos. Whereas the attitude of an older aesthetic calls for the focus of a single screen or an individual image, “as though the relatively worthless image sequence to be followed had some organic value in its own right” (Jameson, 1991, p.31).

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