Themes of contemporary art
visual art after 1980
9-22 | José Bedia | Las Cosas Que Me Arrastran (The Things That Drag Me Along), 2008
Contemporary art is a vast arena of diverse styles, techniques, materials, subjects, forms, purposes, and aesthetic traditions. Viewers of today’s art find themselves in the presence of objects and images that can range from the lighthearted to the soul-searching, from the monumental to the ephemeral, from the highly recog- nizable to the strangely alien. To provide a concise introduction for those who are encountering this art with little advance knowledge or experience, after an initial chapter that provides an overview to the world of contemporary art we concentrate on eight themes that have been widespread in artistic practice during the past four decades: identity, the body, time, memory, place, language, science, and spirituality.
A thematic approach provides a judicious balance between discursive thinking and careful looking. By emphasizing the analysis of artworks thematically, this book prioritizes the process of cognitive interpretation alongside attentive percep- tion. Our interpretations are never presented as the only possible ones. A primary pedagogical principle of our book is that meanings of any artwork are flexible: the same work can be presented to reveal alternative interpretive stances. Interpreta- tions, mirroring the culture at large, are constructed by an interweaving of factors brought into play by the artist, by society, and by the viewer.
Within the analysis of the eight themes, we introduce artists working in a di- verse range of media disciplines. Disciplines include those that are ancient (paint- ing, sculpture), those that became central to the work of advanced artists during modernism (photography), those that have gained widespread attention within the last several decades (installation, performance, and video), and disciplines that depend on recently developed digital technologies.
The Art World ExpandsContemporary art is in flux. Old hierarchies and categories are fracturing; new technologies are offering different ways of conceptualizing, producing, and showing visual art. Established art forms are under scrutiny and revision. An awareness of heritages from around the world is fostering cross-fertilizations, and everyday culture is providing both inspiration for art and competing visual stimu- lation. The diversity and rapid transformations are intriguing but can be daunting for those who want to understand contemporary art and actively participate in dis- cussions about what is happening.
Although painting, photography, sculpture, drawing, and the crafts still attract a large number of practitioners, these familiar forms of art no longer subsume the field. Film, video, audio, installation, performance, texts, and computers are common media today, and artists are often fluent in several media. Artists freely mix media, or they may practice a medium with a long lineage in an unconventional way, such as making paintings that look like pixilated digital images or drawing with uncon- ventional materials such as chocolate syrup.
Consider the example of Cai Guo-Qiang. Like many of today’s notable artists, Cai does not focus his practice on a single creative medium (e.g., painting or ceram- ics or photography). Instead, his art production includes large-scale drawings, in- stallations, and performance events and has involved gunpowder, fireworks, Chinese herbal medicines, computers, and vending machines, among many other materials and means. For Inopportune: Stage One (2004), Cai incorporated nine identical white cars, suspended dramatically in midair [1-1]. Later in this chapter, we look at another artwork by Cai that features actual people congregating in a hot tub [1-13].
Along with the expanded range of materials being used to make art today, a key characteristic of contemporary art is that content matters. In the case of Cai’s art- work, the cars were positioned to create the impression of successive stages of a car flipping over in an explosion from a car bombing, while long tubes radiating colored light burst out in all directions from the windows. For a visitor staring up at the overhanging sequence of cascading cars, the experience, most likely, combines a rich mixture of wonder, interest, and dismay. Yes, clearly contemporary art is in flux.
1-1 | Cai Guo-Qiang | Inopportune: Stage One, 2004
However, would the demonstration that content matters distinguish contempo- rary art from art in earlier epochs? In a word: no. Over the long span of art’s history, the vast majority of objects, images, and participatory rituals were designed in the service of meaning(s) above and beyond the pure manipulation of form for form’s sake. An intriguing special case can be made that content declined in importance for art in the period just prior to our own. However, looking back closely at the history of modern art, it is debatable whether the idea of “art for art’s sake” truly took over the thinking of modernist theorists and artists. Nevertheless, certainly there were periods in the twentieth century, especially just after World War II, when critics (famously the American Clement Greenberg, who died in 1994) and some influential avant- garde artists advocated formalism, an emphasis on form rather than content when creating and interpreting art. Those invested in formalism were and are concerned mainly with investigating the properties of specific media and techniques, as well as the general language of traditional aesthetics (the role of color or composition, for in- stance). But formalism is inadequate for interpreting art that expresses the inner vi- sions of artists or art that refers to the world beyond art. When pop art appeared in the 1960s, with its references to cartoons, consumer products, and other elements of shared culture, the limitations of formalism became evident, and a broader range of theories surfaced, including postmodernism, poststructuralism, feminism, and post- colonialism, as we discuss later in this chapter.
Artists active after 1980 are motivated by a range of purposes and ideas beyond a desire to express personal emotions and visions or to display a mastery of media and techniques. Political events, social issues and relations, science, technology, mass media, popular culture, literature, the built environment, the flow of capital, the flow of ideas, and other forces and developments are propelling artists and pro- viding content for their artworks.
Overview of History and Art History | 1980–2016The past four decades have been eventful in virtually every area of human activity, including politics, medicine, science, technology, culture, and art. In the 1980s, fax machines and compact disc players entered widespread use, the first laptop comput- ers were introduced, and early cellular telephones became available. Also in the 1980s, for the first time in the United States, a woman was appointed to the Supreme Court, a woman traveled in space, and a woman headed a major party ticket as a candidate for vice president. The Berlin Wall was dismantled and Germany reuni- fied in 1989, presaging the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe (although the hoped-for end to the Cold War stand-off between Russia and the United States has not been as complete as optimists predicted).
In the 1990s, numerous controversies raged over threats of global warming and genetic engineering of plants and animals, and a sheep was successfully cloned in 1997. Also in the 1990s, a brutal civil war led to the breakup of Yugoslavia into several independent republics, ethnic massacres devastated the African state of Rwanda, and nationalist conflicts broke out in the new states of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. Early in the 1990s, apartheid officially ended in South Africa. In 1995, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by American terrorists.
The 2000s and 2010s so far have been extremely dangerous. In September 2001, the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., was attacked by Islamist terrorists. The United States–led invasion of Afghanistan commenced later that fall, and in 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. Civil unrest and even open war- fare have plagued many regions, including the Darfur region of Sudan, Jewish and Palestinian settlements in the Middle East, and Chechnya, on the border of Russia. An ongoing civil war in Syria that began in 2011 displaced half of the country’s population and killed 220,000 people by the end of 2015. In November 2015, ter- rorists connected to the Syrian and Iraq conflicts staged attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. Food shortages and famines, infectious diseases such as bird flu, rising costs of oil, and increasing evidence of climate change offer a bleak outlook to people worldwide, especially in the poorest nations. Mean- while new economic powerhouses, including China and India, are exerting influence on the global economy. Technological changes continue to have a social impact, in- cluding new medical and scientific discoveries and increasingly popular forms of instant communication such as text messaging and tweeting.
1-3 | Charles Ray | Boy with Frog, 2009
Cast stainless steel and acrylic polyurethane; 96 × 291/2 × 411/4 inches (244 × 75 × 105 cm)
The history of contemporary art is not entirely a story of young artists burst- ing onto the scene with new ideas. Although many previously unknown artists emerged after 1980, the presence and influence of older artists was important as well. For example, Joseph Beuys died in 1986, Andy Warhol in 1987, Louise Nevelson in 1988, Roy Lichtenstein in 1997, Agnes Martin in 2004, Allan Kaprow and Nam June Paik in 2006, Robert Rauschenberg in 2008, and Louise Bourgeois in 2010. Most of these were making vital work up until their deaths, so that even an art move- ment such as pop art, which we normally associate with the 1960s, was evolving within the ongoing production of the oeuvres of Warhol and Lichtenstein. A retrospective exhibition of work by Bourgeois toured internationally in 2008– 2009, when the influential artist was ninety-six years old and still active. Ida Applebroog (born 1929) remains active, with a 2015 solo gallery exhibition at age eighty-six titled The Ethics of Desire, featuring new paintings of figures executed in her distinctive simplified style.
1-4 | Ida Applebroog | Installation of exhibit The Ethics of Desire at Hauser & Wirth
GlobalizationToday we live on a planet in which people in diverse societies, separated by geogra- phy and ideology, nevertheless find themselves linked by powerful global connec- tions, including far-reaching networks of global capital and information exchange. Large international corporations control sizeable swathes of the world’s production and commerce, and media conglomerates own the lion’s share of the news and en- tertainment industries. Simultaneously, the Internet offers instant global access to information and other users virtually anywhere, 24/7.
What are the effects of globalization? Consumer capitalism has made huge strides in extending its reach to global markets. The collapse of the communist system in the former Soviet Union and the economic rise of countries of the Pacific Rim, especially China with its steps toward a more capitalist-style economy, have opened up portions of the world that had been significantly insulated from capitalist business practices. Meanwhile, multinational corporations and supranational economic institutions such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) are en- gaged in activities that sometimes support and sometimes are in conflict with na- tional interests. Systems of power now make up a globalized network that is not centered (or policed) in any one country.
The emergence of a linked global society (linked both technologically and eco- nomically) has not resulted in international unity and worldwide equality; indeed, it is highly questionable whether any institution operating on a global scale can possibly represent the political, cultural, or aesthetic interests of the diverse indi- viduals in all countries. According to Stuart Hall, “You see massive disparities of access, of visibility, huge yawning gaps between who can and can’t be represented in any effective way.”6 For example, not every person everywhere has access to com- puters and the Internet, and thus technologies reinforce privilege and power for those who are well connected to the flow of information.
The art world, not surprisingly, is affected by globalization. For starters, the art world itself underwent major changes during the period covered in this text. Major art centers lost some of their dominance as art activities became more decentralized. The changed artistic landscape led to a significant cross-fertilization of ideas among locations across the globe. Although New York City remained a primary destination on the art world map, other urban centers—including London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai, Istanbul, Berlin, São Paulo, Johannesburg, and Havana—ratcheted up their support and presentation of new art to such a degree that anyone who ex- pected to remain knowledgeably informed felt pressure to research (and visit) cur- rent activities in these locations.
Although the cross-fertilization of ideas has been stimulating, the growth of a globalized art market has increased the disparity between the few who are well con- nected and everyone else. International art fairs and biennial and triennial contem- porary art survey exhibitions have proliferated and are held in numerous cities on every continent, to the point at which they are nearly impossible to keep up with.7 Geographic mobility has become important, and artists, gallery dealers, critics, and collectors who have the resources to participate in international events increase their visibility and influence.
The directors and curators who select artists and orchestrate the international events have remarkable status and power. Why should this be the case? Acclaimed works of contemporary art do not pass through global channels of commerce in the same way that most products are bought and sold. Artworks are, generally speak- ing, unique and, therefore, uniquely owned. Power as potential purchasers is con- centrated in a very small number of people of wealth. (In contrast, for a movie to meet with commercial success, a large number of people must elect to purchase a theater ticket or download it.)
Besides issues of access and visibility, another issue is the potential for homog- enization of culture. One could argue that globalization is dehumanizing people and leveling out differences because it is bringing the same consumer products, images, and information to everyone all over the world, including art that starts to look alike no matter what part of the world an artist hails from. Critic Julia A. Fenton asks, “Has the explosion of international art expositions around the world, and the mobility of artists from all cultures (either through the high art market or the Internet) served to erase the particular in favor of the general—in style, content and theory? Do formal considerations again become primary when we have obliterated cultural boundaries and posited a new universality?”
Nevertheless, many artists continue to produce art whose materials, techniques, subjects, and forms appear to relate to local histories and identities. Such expressions of cultural difference often are genuine and can serve as a form of resistance to globaliza- tion by disrupting standardization. However, some of this kind of art is a simulation of cultural difference, promoted by international capitalism because it is marketable. Fredric Jameson, an important Marxist theorist, has pointed out the many contradic- tions in globalization, such as the argument about whether globalizing economic forces prefer to market cultural sameness or difference. Jameson further points out the irony that nationalism, once seen as driving European colonialism, is today espoused as a model by formerly colonized people who want to resist forces of globalization.
Artists have explored various issues and topics related to globalization, includ- ing the economic systems that leverage the global flow of capital, resources, infor- mation, and workers. Spanish artist Santiago Sierra considers the situation of the hourly laborer within global capitalism. Sierra is known for projects that involve hiring laborers at their customary wage to complete pointless, unpleasant tasks, often staged in art settings. For example, in 2000, he paid a person $10 an hour to remain secluded for 360 continuous hours behind a brick wall erected at P.S.1 Con- temporary Art in New York; in 2002, he paid day laborers in Morocco a minimum wage to dig holes in an empty lot with shovels. One of Sierra’s concerns is the per- petual underemployment of the worker who is also a refugee. His Workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes was first shown in Berlin in 2000 [1-5]. (It has been restaged in other locations since.) At that time, German law did not allow political refugees to earn money. Sierra paid six such in- dividuals an hourly wage to sit inside small boxes displayed in a gallery.
Sierra’s artworks create provocative situations, situations that involve the people who “perform” the art and the people who engage with the art as visitors to the gallery display. The viewer—someone who has the luxury of attending an art exhibition— confronts his or her own role in supporting the economic structure that underpins the hiring of someone to perform the menial “art” task the viewer is observing. This situa- tion underscores that someone is so impoverished that he or she is willing to be hired for this task, while the viewer is participating in validating the activity as art. More empathetically, a viewer might consider how a body would feel crammed inside a card- board box, remaining in such a position for hours. It is on this somatic level, involving the viewer’s recognition of bodily discomfort, that the artwork achieves its full, dis- turbing resonance. We are all implicated, caught up in the web of unequal economic power relations that force all of us to, literally, sell our bodies to the highest bidder.
Sierra’s works raise numerous issues about the distinction between art and ethics. Is Sierra himself exploiting marginalized workers in order to create his art? In an interview, the artist asserted, “Well, I have been called an exploiter. At the Kunst-Werke in Berlin they criticized me because I had people sitting for four hours a day, but they didn’t realize that a little further up the hallway the guard spends eight hours a day on his feet . . . when you put your name on the work it seems that you’re held responsible for the capitalist system itself.”10
Simply put, awareness of international developments in art has made the art world more dynamic and complex. But globalization is not an unequivocal good, particularly when art production comes under market pressure from international institutions and corporations that support the production and display of contem- porary art. To unpack this statement more fully—incorporating, as it does, such concepts as “art production” and “market pressure”—we could apply any number of ideas from the realms of economics, sociology, psychology, and politics. The application of ideas could proceed piecemeal, or we might focus our thinking within the structure of an interconnected set of ideas—a theory. (Marxist theory, for instance, would be powerful in terms of addressing the conditions of global capitalism.)
1-5 | Santiago Sierra | Workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside
cardboard boxes. Kunst-Werke, Berlin, 2000
Impact of the DigitalDuring recent decades, the rapid development of digital technologies and products has impacted all fields of inquiry and activity. To name just a few key developments: the first Macintosh computer and the first commercial cell phone were both intro- duced in 1984; Netscape, the first commercial Web browser, went online in 1994; Google was born in 1997; Facebook launched in 2004; and the iPhone was released in 2007. Everyone born after 1980, the period this book covers, literally are “digital natives,” who take a digital world for granted even while expecting the constant launching of new products and platforms. There are significant differences among the generations who have grown up with digital technology. The first group had access to personal computers; the next grew up with the Internet; and the current generation—the so-called postmillennials—have always had smartphones.
Artists have experimented with computers since they first became readily avail- able, and increasingly have used other digital products as those became more com- monplace. In the 1990s, small, powerful personal computers became affordable for many, and new software programs facilitated sophisticated graphic manipulations. Artists began to use digital tools both in the service of traditional media—for in- stance, designing the structure for a sculpture on a computer or experimenting with where to place text on a print—and as a new medium and conceptual arena in itself.
The embrace of digital technologies has varied in different sectors of art practice. For some artists and their champions (curators, collectors, and critics), the focus has remained on modes of art making anchored in manipulating materials using tools and processes that predate digital technology, although the number of purists grows ever smaller. In other quarters of artistic practice, the turn toward the digital has been rapid. The final decades of the twentieth century saw, for instance, the rise in im- portance of digital cameras, which soon moved darkroom photography to the sidelines as the province of a passionate minority (recalling the hobbyists of the early history of photography). The introduction of Photoshop (1988) increased the lure of the digital as the software expanded the possibilities for postproduction image manipulation. In other media as well, artists have been using digital tools and techniques to create ob- jects and images that would be difficult, if not impossible, to make by hand or with ana- logic tools. For example, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines, which enable 3D printing and laser cutting, are radically reshaping sculpture and craft techniques.
The mainstream art world tended to turn a blind eye, or even scoff outright, at what, in the 1980s and 1990s was labeled “computer art.” It really wasn’t true, but many art world insiders equated computer art with “screen savers”—abstract patterns that morphed endlessly. The emphasis with such art seemed primarily to focus on what types of images could be created directly on a computer screen using publicly available or specially designed software.
Today, in contrast, we recognize that digital practices, concepts, and aesthetics have influenced the creation and reception of visual art in ways that extend well beyond those who identify themselves as “computer artists.” Today’s art world includes artists who either use digital technologies to make and display art (alone or in combination with older analog technologies), use the Internet and social media in innovative ways to reach and involve audiences, and/or make art that re- sponds to issues raised by the Internet, social media, and other aspects of the vir- tual world. Much new art, even if it exists in a physical form that can be viewed in person, went through some kind of digital manipulation during its creation. For example, in order to create Boy with Frog [1-3], Charles Ray and expert art fabrica- tors first scanned photographs of a boy holding a live frog and then used modeling software to create 3D digital models in various iterations before deciding on the final sculpture.
An intriguing aspect of the digital/analog hybrid involves the utilization of digi- tal technologies to update traditional mediums, as in Ray’s design of his sculpture. American Wade Guyton updates painting by using scanners and large-scale digital printers to make works on canvas. By printing, and then overprinting, large canvases fed through a digital printer designed for paper, misalignments and other unforeseen 24 consequences occur. Guyton takes advantage of these to create ab- stract paintings that test the tra- dition of painting. What does originality mean when we con- sider digital instructions that can be stored and repeated, and how does the “artist’s hand” remain present when used in concert with digital tools?
1-7 | Ben Rubin | Shakespeare Machine, 2012
Installed in Public Theater in New York City, 2012 Photo courtesy C. McDaniel
The impact of the digital can be seen directly in art that incorpo- rates specialized software to ana- lyze information or manipulate imagery in ways that would be impossible to achieve manually or by human computation. One ex- ample is Ben Rubin’s Shakespeare Machine (2012) [1-7], a permanent installation in the lobby at New York City’s Public Theater. The Shakespeare Machine, a chande- lier suspended over the lobby bar where patrons gather before shows and at intermissions, has thirty- seven four-foot-long blades outfit- ted with bright LED emitters, one blade for each of Shakespeare’s plays. The emitters stream words along the blades that are found by algo- rithms that mine Shakespeare’s plays for specific types of text fragments. The blades are programmed to stream a word or phrase culled from all thirty-seven plays, such as every instance of two adjectives joined by “and” (“dead and drowsy,” “mutinous and unnatural”) or phrases where “you” is matched up with a noun (“you king,” “you fool,” “you whoreson”). The algorithms are designed to keep changing the logic behind selections of words from the plays. As you stand underneath the chan- delier, heady mixtures of Shakespeare’s language churn overhead.
1-8 | Matthew Ritchie | Self-Portrait in 2064, 2001
Oil and marker on canvas; 80 × 100 inches (203.2 × 254 cm) Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; © Matthew Ritchie
The digital and interactivity. Going digital has resulted in more emphasis on in- teractive art. British-born artist Matthew Ritchie was an early experimenter in the interactive realm. He developed his first online project in 1996. Titled The Hard Way, the site allows viewers to experience a narrative by following Ritchie’s imag- ined avatars through a complex universe of the artist’s invention. The site includes text, drawings, computer animations, and paintings he manipulated digitally.20 Since then, Ritchie has created even larger projects that include interactive Internet sites along with producing physical objects—for example, installing sculptures, paintings, computer games, and other forms within a gallery context. Like Charles Ray, Ritchie uses digital tools to design the physical works, such as the painting il- lustrated [1-8]. Ritchie’s paintings and sculptures are the result of a process where Ritchie scans his drawings into a computer, deconstructing and reforming them into designs for physical objects. The artist, who has extensively educated himself in physics, particularly chaos theory, has devised systematic rules for the colors, shapes, characters, and physical properties he uses to select his symbols and narratives.
The acceptance of digitally created art that exists entirely in an electronic form, to be viewed exclusively on a screen, has been slower than the embrace of art that has components existing in the physical here and now. At the start of the 1990s, only a limited number of artists were using the nascent World Wide Web. As artist Jon Love explains the early practices, “Net.art refers to a group of artists creating strictly web/browser based artworks in the mid-1990s concurrent with the rise of the World Wide Web. Though the work differs dramatically between different artists within the group (including, but not limited to, hyperlinked narrative stories, sub- versions/duplications of corporate websites, and faux browser glitches), generally the work explored and pushed the boundaries of the Web’s conventions, aimed to create a more accessible alternative to the insular art world, and investigated both the immateriality and interactivity of the digital/virtual space online.”21 Some of Net.art’s most famous pioneers are Vuk Cosic, Olia Lialina, Jodi (or jodi.org), 26 and Eva and Franco Mattes (or 0100101110101101.org).22 Net.art appears, in hind- sight, as a precursor to many key developments in art in the early years of the twenty-first century. With Net.art, we see the focus shifting more to how computers connect people, a line of exploration that has proven to be immensely fruitful.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the use of technology to con- nect to the public in unprecedented ways has become a compelling aesthetic goal. For example, Rafaél Rozendaal, a Dutch-Brazilian artist living in New York City, creates abstract animations that viewers can interact with online. When Rozendaal sells a work to a collector, the contract stipulates that the work remains available online for public access. In addition, Rozendaal has sought dramatic public venues— for example, displaying animation projects from his website on mammoth screens in New York City’s Times Square and in Seoul, South Korea. A change in scale makes an impact: passersby are startled by the view of two cartoon heads in down-town Seoul, as they smooch on the largest LED screen on our planet.
Today most of us are immersed in moving in and out, again and again, of our own particular menu of social realities that owe some of their existence to changes that digital technologies have ushered in. The Internet has made possible the launch of social media platforms, some of which have become hugely popular (e.g., Face- book, Instagram, and Snapchat); simultaneously, the art world developed its own emphasis on social connections and interactivity. It may not seem like it, but the concept of serving Thai food in an art museum to visitors as art is, to some degree, tied to the digital era, with our ever-increasing expectation of constant change and interaction.
Katharina GrosseMaterials, surfaces, and supports aren’t enough to define painting, but in terms of both art history and art school training they have been integral to characterizing the medium, especially in the previous century under the rubric of modern art. Modernist painters were engaged critically and materially with the physical frame- works of painting—the wet materials that were applied to a (usually flat) surface; the implements and processes used to apply the wet paint to the surface (traditional artists’ brushes, palette knives, housepainters’ broad brushes and rollers, airbrushes, techniques such as dabbing, dripping, pouring, scraping, and so on); the physical surfaces (canvas, wood, paper, drywall, plaster, etc.); and the structure of the support.
Today the modernist valorizing of medium specificity comes across as retro- grade. The contemporary expansion and shifts in the materials and means of paint- ing are easily as dramatic as in the late Renaissance, when artists began to paint in oil on stretched canvas. Oil pigments allowed a vast new range of visual effects (including easily blended colors and the layering of translucent colored glazes); meanwhile the self-contained structure and relative lightness of stretched canvas enabled paintings to be portable, unattached to a singular location. Today the implications of new materials and means for how painting is categorized, created, and viewed loom equally momentous. The boundaries of painting are porous in terms of media, sites, and even authors. Above all, many influential paintings today have a strong spatial dimension, to the point of becoming installations. Many artists also explore the parameters of painting as performance. According to Daniel Birnbaum, “. . . painting no longer exists as a strictly circumscribed mode of expression; rather it is a zone of contagion, constantly branching out and widening its scope.”44
Katharina Grosse, a German artist, takes seriously the old ideas of painting as a tactile medium and is heavily engaged with dense, insistent materiality. The aura of the one of a kind and the handmade infuses her creations. Grosse self-identifies as a painter, implying loyalty to a discipline; however, she refuses to limit her practice to conventional boundaries and constraints such as flatness and two-dimensionality. Like other artists who often are discussed as painters but link painting with sculp- ture, installation, and performance, Grosse operates in an “expanded field,” extend- ing the medium boldly into three and even four dimensions, exchanging real space and matter for pictorial space and an ambiguous physical state.45 In conjunction with the inaugural New Orleans Biennial in 2008, Grosse spray-painted the walls and grounds of a decrepit house located a short distance south of the city [1-16]. The orange and yellow colors the artist selected signified an inferno or other flaming conflagration to some viewers. Created in the wake of 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina, Grosse’s artwork was criticized by some as adding “insult to injury,” accord- ing to art critic Peter Schjeldahl.46 Nevertheless, Grosse boldly spun her own memo- rable variation on the venerable art of painting, a medium defined (if defined at all) as an artistic composition of colors on a surface.
1-16 | Katharina Grosse | Prospect.1 New Orleans, New Orleans Biennial, 2008
Acrylic on various objects; 750 × 1,200 × 500 cm (2951/4 × 4721/2 × 1963/4 inches)
Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie FitchDoes birthdate matter? Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch were both born in 1981, and they were art students together at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 2004. They are part of the generation commonly known as millennials—those born in the 1980s and 1990s, who were “born digital,” many growing up with computers in their home and the Internet in their daily life. Trecartin first gained notoriety when his senior thesis project at RISD, a forty- one-minute movie titled A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) [1-19], received critical notice. Trecartin quickly was invited to participate in the 2006 Whitney Biennial as well as a much-publicized 2009 exhibition at New York’s New Museum, Younger Than Jesus, which presented work by emerging artists under the age of thirty.
A Family Finds Entertainment, which finally involved nearly fifty people (a number of them Trecartin’s closest friends), was shot with handheld cameras. The movie presents an over-the-top fictional chronicle of the teenage lead character, the suicidal Skippy, who “comes out” in a raucous sequence of scenarios (including his death and rebirth). The integration of clips of actors performing on constructed sets, animations, and scenes wildly doctored with software editing tools (colors intensified; images duplicated, segmented, repositioned, and rescaled), all serve to establish a visual style that is highly entertaining and, to borrow Susan Sontag’s term, camp. The movie flaunts queerness and shows the characters struggling (hilariously and mightily) for individual agency in the face of the onslaught of commercialization.
Trecartin is the scriptwriter and artistic director of the videos (he prefers to call them “movies”) bearing his name. In this profile, we focus on Trecartin’s artworks as well as his projects undertaken with Lizzie Fitch, who has been Trecartin’s friend and regular collaborator since their days at RISD. Trecartin and Fitch’s collaborations include their designs for the sets that are filmed as well as the installations of furni- ture and sculpture that typically surround presentations of the videos in museums and galleries. In addition, Trecartin and Fitch appear in a wide number of roles as actors in the videos. They also have joined forces in creating sculptures apart from any videos. Trecartin and Fitch make the movies widely available for open-access viewing online, a viewing experience that can enable more focus on the strange fractured narratives, without the distractions of the furniture in the installation, other art, and other people. But an installation immerses you in three dimensions and the dynamic energy of real space.
1-19 | Ryan Trecartin | Film still from A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004
IdentityBeginning art students often fervently believe that they want to find out who they are as unique individuals and convey this in their art. In our own teach- ing, we find that many students admire the stance (if not always the art) of the
“heroic” generation of abstract expressionist painters, active after World War II. This generation grew up during the Great Depression in the United States and were young adults during the war. Besides the talented homegrown artists, many refugee artists from Europe were important members of the avant-garde in the United States in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
The postwar generation strove to express their personal feelings and their sense of their own radical individuality. They asked questions that philosophers have been asking since ancient times: What is the true nature of the self? What does it mean to be human? For some of these artists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the true self was a self-directed, free individual. Influenced by Jungian psychology and existentialist philosophy, they held up the ideal of an integrated, stable, unique self who acts independently with meaningful intentions and a coherent inner psy- chology. According to Claire Pajaczkowska, the belief in a true inner self is “liberal humanism,” where “answers to the question of what it is to be human [are] phrased in terms of philosophical concepts such as ‘self-knowledge,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘thought,’ which emphasize the significance of self rather than the significance of division.”1
In contrast, numerous artists who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s expressed their identity in a very different way, giving much more attention to who they were within a group. They extended their understanding of identity beyond personal experiences and feelings into a larger community history or group affiliation, and they expressed identity formed within a collective (one’s tribe, so to speak). The most political and theoretical among this generation also turned their attention to spectatorship—how identity is formed by the way other people see you (by the power of their gaze). They analyzed how identity is constructed through the larger society’s social beliefs and prejudices as well as through personal history, and they revealed how hard it is to overcome stereotypes someone else might have about you based on your appearance or background.
2-4 | Carrie Mae Weems | “Untitled,” from the Kitchen Table Series, 1990
The expression of personal identity was a key theme in artistic production in the United States and Europe right after World War II. For the immediate postwar gen- eration of artists, identity meant individual identity. However, by the 1960s this belief in a consistent, unique inner self and the individual’s ability to act independently of society was severely questioned. The challenges came from philosophers, social activ- ists, artists, psychologists, social scientists, and others who doubted all claims to ulti- mate truth. Roland Barthes’s formulation of the “death of the author” in a 1967 essay is a famous example of the challenge to individual self-determination and self-expression independent of society.5 In Barthes’s view, there is no single, unchanging meaning for any text (“text” would encompass both written and verbal communications, including those we make as individuals in our efforts to express our personality and identity). The originator of the text is not the ultimate authority for its meaning. Each reader (receiver) of the text formulates his or her own interpretation, based on the impression that the language makes on him or her. For many reasons, Barthes and other critical thinkers grew skeptical of the emphasis on singular identity and uniqueness and in- stead focused on how people are powerfully influenced by forces outside themselves (in addition to whatever unconscious motivations propel behavior).
In contrast to the existential focus on independent individual identity, when artists and writers on art used the term identity in the late twentieth century, they were usually referring to social and cultural identity formed in relationship to other people and to social and political forces—any kind of self-identification with a collec- tive. An artist interested in identity in this way was asking not only, Who am I as an individual? but, Who am I as a member of a group I identify with? The group identi- fications might be multiple, of course, such as an artist who identifies simultaneously with a certain ethnicity, religion, and economic class. Tina Barney, for instance, who was born in New York City, is best known for the large-format color photographs she has been making since the 1980s of wealthy WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) in New York and New England, many of them members of
her own family.
2-5 | Guerrilla Girls | Guerrilla Girls retrospective exhibition Bilbao, 2013
In the spring of 1985, seven women launched the Guerrilla Girls in response to the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture" [1984), whose roster of 165 artists included only 13 women. Inaugurating MoMA's newly renovated and expanded building, this exhibition claimed to survey that era's most important painters and sculptors from 17 countries. The proportion of artists of color was even smaller, none of whom were women.
A comment by the show's curator, Kynaston McShine, further highlights that era's explicit artworld gender bias: "Kynaston McShine gave interviews saying that any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink ‘his’ career." In reaction to the exhibition and McShine's overt bias, they protested in front of MoMA. Thus, the Guerrilla Girls were born.
When the protests yielded little success, the Guerrilla Girls wheat-pasted posters throughout downtown Manhattan, particularly in the SoHo and East Village neighborhoods.
Soon after, the group expanded their focus to include racism in the artworld, attracting artists of color. They also took on projects outside of New York, enabling them to address sexism and racism nationally and internationally. Though the art world has remained the group's main focus, the Guerrilla Girls' agenda has included sexism and racism in films, mass and popular culture, and politics. Tokenism also represents a major group concern.
Identity defined collectively
A plethora of exhibitions in the second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s turned a spotlight on identity defined collectively; the exhibitions simultane- ously set off a firestorm of debate on the value, ethics, and meaning of art and exhi- bitions that engage issues of identity. Should there be shows devoted to “women artists” or “black artists”? Was that creating a kind of ghetto for the artists involved, or did such shows provide meaningful opportunities to exhibit? Should artists reveal—and in some cases shout—their identification with a particular group? What happened when spectators visiting such shows were confronted with art addressing sexism or racism? How did the meaning of art change when created or viewed through the lens of a group identity, especially if the art was intentionally provocative?
Two high-profile exhibitions were particularly contentious: Magiciens de la Terre (1989) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the 1993 Whitney Biennial (some- times nicknamed “the Identity Biennial”).6 In these cases, artists were grouped into two broad identity groups: “Western” and “non-Western.” Magiciens de la Terre showed contemporary artists from previously colonized cultures in Africa, Oceania, and elsewhere next to artists from the West, trying to treat all artists as equals. Although well intentioned for wanting to be inclusive, the exhibition was criticized for romanticizing artists from cultures outside the West and turning them into exotic “Others” in comparison to supposedly “mainstream” Western artists and for not recognizing diversity among artists from the same location. The 1993 Whitney Biennial was likewise criticized for creating overly simplified identity categories and also for being political in tone—for curatorial selections of artworks that were seen as didactic and ideological, and lacking in aesthetic appeal. Both exhibitions also had their defenders, who saw their attempts at inclusiveness as validating and empowering for artists from ethnic, racial, and gender groups who were under- represented in the mainstream art world.
Identity Is ConstructedAn important concept that distinguishes discussions about art and identity in the contemporary period is the notion that identity is constructed. The initial formula- tion of this concept can be traced back to the writings of intellectuals and acade- micians who were active in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the most influential was a group of French philosophers, semioticians, and structural anthropologists, including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Their writings provided key parts of the intel- lectual scaffolding upon which postmodern and poststructuralist theory was built.
These thinkers posited the idea that identity results from a network of interde- pendent, often competing forces that define roles, reward status, govern behavior, and order power relationships for all members of a society. They argued that different identities are formed mainly through social interactions and shared histories; that is, they are learned within certain cultural and political settings, rather than being set at birth. These relational social settings are historically specific and variable across space and time. Although those in science, religion, and other fields still believed (and argued) that key aspects of identity are biological or spiritual in origin, these points of view were not considered pertinent to the “reading” of most critically championed contemporary art. For those who embrace the concept that identity is constructed, no one is born with a unified, inevitable identity; rather, a person’s identity is a product of, and in concert with, human culture, the colored water in the fishbowl in which each of us swims.
2-13 | Kehinde Wiley | Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano, 2006
In addition to taking control of representing their identity from their own point of view, artists counter Othering by demonstrating that all identities are constructed and hence open to change, even supposedly “normal” mainstream identities; no identity is natural and essential. Kehinde Wiley, an American painter who emerged in the twenty- first century, appropriates iconography that served to construct codes of masculinity in different periods and cultures, remixing elements from past and present. Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano (2006) [2-13], based on an equestrian por- trait of a seventeenth-century Italian prince, is from an extensive series of large-scale paintings in which Wiley recasts contemporary African American men as characters from European Old Master portraits. Dressed in a puffy jacket, baggy jeans, designer sneakers, and a flashy chain bracelet and ring, the young man takes the pose of confi- dent mastery on a rearing horse, which in the European grand tradition indicated the power and control of a white authority figure. The decorative fleurs-de-lis painted in a pattern across the surface make a flat counterpoint to the photo-realistic rendering of man and horse, enhancing the overall impression of artificiality of style.
Wiley’s insertions of black men into the world of aristocratic portraiture serve to unmask the Eurocentrism and class privilege that created a visual history of the white, wealthy, and powerful and excluded people of color (a strategy pursued by other artists, including Renée Cox [3-20]). Beyond that, though, Wiley appears inter- ested in revealing how masculinity in general is constructed by visual clichés, such as fashion and posing. The worlds of Italian Baroque privilege and urban hip-hop collide but also reveal startling parallels: men of both cultures seem intent on con- veying hypermasculinity through posturing and a reveling in the consumer excesses of their day. Los Angeles–based sculptor Charles Ray designed a further play on the equestrian monument as a trope of heroic masculinity. His Horse and Rider (2015), machine-milled from solid stainless steel, presents a weary white man (a self-portrait of Ray) awkwardly straddling the sagging back of an exhausted horse.
Artists have deconstructed ways in which gender and sexual identities are ster- eotyped by race or national origin. Their critique counters a Eurocentric point of view that has historically pervaded Western representations of sexuality; for exam- ple, white women are held up as socially acceptable objects of desire, while women of color (on the rare occasions they are depicted in high art) are portrayed as racially and sexually Other. Although treated as sexually taboo (for the presumed white male viewer), women of color are frequently stereotyped as sexually promiscuous and erotically exotic. Thus, women of color are not only objectified, as white women are, but they endure the added pain and shame of finding themselves, in artistic representations, as the objects of extreme fetishization and pornographic voyeur- ism. Postcolonial theorists, such as Rasheed Araeen, bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha, M. A. Jaimes Guerrero, Ella Habiba Shohat, and Kobena Mercer, have traced these attitudes back to the power dynamics of colonialism, when European conquerors justified slavery, rape, and other forms of oppression and violence by stereotyping their captives as wild, overly physical beings, without any subjectivity of their own, who had to be controlled by extreme measures. Voyeuristic and patriarchal attitudes also permeated Western medicine, anthropology, and ethnography. In the nineteenth century, colonized people were regarded as specimens to be studied and were measured, photographed, and put on actual display in public spectacles to feed the fantasies of mostly white audiences.22
The Fluidity of IdentityRelated closely to the concept that identity is constructed is the concept that identity is not fixed or consistent. Individuals are continually engaged in a process of ex- change and adaptation as they encounter different situations and intermingle with other people. The forces that influence the construction of identity are not stable, and thus identity itself is always in flux. Identity is fluid and transformable as the context changes, including the other people we are connected with at any given moment. The situation is complicated today because we have so many interactions (both face to face and online) with people we do not know personally.
The notion of a fluid identity can be hard to grasp. But think about how you behave differently in different situations: in a classroom, at home with your family, on a date, at a job interview, or in a situation in which you are outnumbered by people of a different age or race or religion or income bracket or nationality. Are you the same person in all those situations, or do you present a somewhat different public image of yourself in each context? A contemporary theorist might say that you are “performing” constructed versions of your identity that work in different contexts; none of these versions is your one authentic self because each identity is transformed or abandoned in other situations. In this view, identity is a kind of ever-fluctuating performance that each of us engages in as we go about our everyday life, as if we were wearing masks and costumes and enacting roles.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that identity construction is entirely unmoored from social structures. You have to learn how to perform aspects of any identity from some kind of context.
Motifs of mutating, shifting, fluid identity run through the work of numerous artists. Gender instability has been one area of particular interest in the time period discussed in this book. Gender differences are encoded visually; we learn to read a person’s gender and sexual orientation by noting stereotyped visual clues, such as hairstyle, clothing, pose, and gesture. Artists who want to subvert the social stereo- types of masculinity and femininity employ props, masks, makeup, and costumes to represent bodies of uncertain gender that resist classification by viewers.
Photography, performance art, and video are especially popular practices among artists who are interested in fluid, unfixed identities, whether addressing gender or other categorizations. Cindy Sherman, who became well known, starting in the 1980s, for using herself as a model in staged photographs exploring female identity, has made many series that deconstruct stereotyped images that are presented in the fashion world, advertising, movies, pornography, and other mass-media sources. Sherman is never an unchanging, unchangeable self in her photographs; she assumes a different identity in each one, reinforcing the idea that identity is artificially con- structed and transformable. In her series Historical Portraits (1989), Sherman posed in female and male costumes and used makeup and fake body parts to parody the figures in historical paintings. The series demonstrates how paintings made in earlier eras offered compelling role models for building identity in their day, even if we find the costumed figures in these paintings silly now.
Nikki S. Lee is another photographer interested in the fluidity of identity and performative approaches to identity construction. Raised in South Korea and now living in the United States, Lee has experienced firsthand the effects of cultural dislocation on identity. Rather than presenting herself individually, as Sherman does, Lee examines identity relationally, as something enacted within a group through outward appearance and behavior. For her Projects series [2-14 and 2-15], Lee insinuated herself into over a dozen subcultural groups, including yuppies, Hispanics, punks, lesbians, seniors, skate- boarders, and others, spending two to three months developing a persona for each group. (She always explained to the group in advance that she is an artist.) Lee changed her appearance, adopting stereo- typed clothes, makeup, hair, gestures, and postures associated with each subculture in order to fit in. Once Lee mastered the codes of a given community, she would ask passersby or friends to snap pictures with her in the frame interacting in social situations with “authentic” group members. Complete with a date stamp in the corner, the everyday snapshot appearance of the images, lacking the obvious artifice of posed studio portrait photography, lends believability to Lee’s performance of her new persona. Taken as a whole, the Project series speaks to the fluidity of identity, and how it is possible to fake an identity by learning and performing outward codes.
Fictional IdentitiesRelated to the construction of identity, some artists go to great lengths to fabricate fictionalized or even totally false identities. A dramatic example is provided by Czech artist David Cerny’s Entropa, a mammoth eight-ton installation covering approximately 2,800 square feet. Commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark its presidency of the European Union and unveiled in Brussels in 2009 at the European Council building, Entropa is a symbolic map formed by the geographic shapes of the countries who are members of the European Union. Cerny presented the installa- tion as the work of twenty-seven artists, one from each country, but the authorship was a hoax since Cerny and three friends constructed the piece, inventing fake pro- files for the alleged artists and writing pretentious statements for them about their contributions. Besides invented identities for artists, the artwork also mocked ster- eotypes attributed to national identity—for example, by showing Bulgaria as a series of hole-in-the-floor toilets, Italy as a huge soccer field, Romania as a Dracula-style theme park, and Ireland as a brown bog with protruding bagpipes. The ensuing controversy included debates about whether Cerny was attempting to demolish stereotypes or was being offensive simply to be provocative. The false authorship led to accusations against Cerny of fraud and misappropriation of funds.
The rapid growth of the Internet since the mid-1990s has prompted some artists to create fictional identities promoted via online platforms. Eva and Franco Mattes (both born in Italy in 1976) work as a duo. Also known as 0100101110101101.org, they made subversive use of the Internet early on. In 1998, they invented Darko Maver, a radical Serbian artist who took the brutality of the war in the former Yugoslavia as his subject matter. Details of Maver’s colorful life were chronicled online, drawing media attention. Online photographs purported to document Maver’s art installa- tions depicting realistic murder scenes with life-size puppets supposedly made of wax, rubber, and fabric, posed in locations such as train stations, public toilets, and hotel rooms. In fact, no puppets or art installations existed. The Mattes posted grue- some photos of real murder victims they found on the Internet. Unwitting art world insiders lauded the made-up artist, and photographs of his installations were dis- played in exhibitions all over Europe. In 1999, Maver supposedly died in the Podgorica prison as the result of a NATO bombing raid. The artist was posthumously featured in the 48th Venice Biennale before the Mattes revealed the hoax.
Whereas the Mattes were intent on presenting their fabrication of Darko Maver as an actual person, the rapper and visual artist Yung Jake openly claims an identity that is constructed online. Refusing to reveal his true identity, “Yung Jake” is a persona who was, in the artist’s own words, “born online in 2011.” Yung Jake creates music videos and digital drawings and paintings that live on the Internet, and he prefers to conduct interviews via text message. In em-bed.de/d (2012), the artist raps about the experience of going viral, and the lyrics come true as he sings them. The work charts the track’s viral spread from a bedroom studio upload on YouTube to a many-windowed URL that has racked up hundreds of thousands of views as it is retweeted, shared on Facebook and tumblr, and spread across blogs. Em-bed.de/d is a self-referential nod to the constructed nature of identity and celebrity, which, fittingly enough, garnered Yung Jake the level of attention in the art world that he sings about in the video.
2-16 | Amalia Ulman | Excellences & Perfections, 2014
Argentina-born artist Amalia Ulman has explored how people micromanage the details of their own online image through posting selfies and other information. Over the course of five months in 2014, Ulman conducted an online performance titled Excellences & Perfections, primarily via Instagram [2-16]. Carefully staged images (including selfies of the artist assuming a variety of poses in fancy hotel rooms and other luxurious settings along with portraits of her meals) and self- referential captions and hashtags purported to chronicle Ulman going through an extreme makeover in an attempt to achieve a modeling career. Some elements of the makeover actually happened, such as Ulman learning to pole dance by taking lessons and following a diet regime. Other events were completely false, including pretend breast augmentation surgery, communicated by images such as one show- ing Ulman with a bandaged chest, wearing a hospital gown. The drama of the make- over unfolded over several months of carefully timed uploads and garnered over 100,000 followers, many of whom presumably did not know they were following a conceptual art project. The Instagram project has engendered discussion about whether Ulman successfully deconstructed cultural values that encourage self-branding and obsession with one’s image or whether instead she fed followers’ fascination with knowing intimate, trivial details about the consumer habits of people presented as objects of desire.
In culture in general, the expansion of online platforms has heightened the op- portunities for all kinds of people to enact identities that are fictionalized or false. Many everyday people are presenting themselves as something other than them- selves on social media. (Is everyone really as happy as their Facebook or Instagram feeds make them seem?) In a variety of online contexts, fabricators pass themselves off as someone of a different age, gender, appearance, occupation, or other status. This embrace of a false identity could be for fun, such as assuming an avatar in order to play a video game. The motives and consequences can be sinister on a site where users are expecting truthful information, such as a dating site.
Are We Post Identity?In his installation Apolitical [2-17], Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto sets on flagpoles the flags of countries recognized by the United Nations. First created in 2001, the installation now has forty-five flags, which are authentic in every detail of design except that their representative colors have been replaced entirely by shades of gray. The grayscale treatment, which pretends to diminish national differences, questions the concept and relevance of national identity in a globalized world. Since first traveling away from Cuba in his early twenties, Prieto has lived a nomadic existence working all over the world. In interviews, he steers clear of cultural or historical associations and has stated, “Yes, I’m a Cuban artist, but I don’t see myself as a cliché of the Cuban artist. I try to distance myself from my roots, from anything that makes up my personality. I think that the most important thing in art is to adopt this sort of detachment, which enables you to know yourself better.”25
In the twenty-first century, there has been much debate about whether the categories of national, social, and cultural identity possess any further relevance or functionality. The old essentializing categories are seen as stifling and reductive. A younger generation, born after the political struggles of the 1960s–1980s, wants to move beyond traditional identity labels and make art about a wide variety of themes. Many express little interest in being spokespersons for racial, ethnic, or gender identity. Moreover, if the traits associated with such categories as race and gender are a social construction, why not give up the categories completely?26
With playful seriousness, curator Thelma Golden used the evocative term post-black to characterize the art and ideas of artists she included in the 2001 exhi- bition Freestyle. These are artists who emerged at the end of the 1990s and “were adamant about not being labeled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact, deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” Golden ex- plained that post-black artists “emerged empowered” by the civil rights debates and identity politics of the previous few decades; as a result, they have the confidence to develop in individual directions. But theirs is not the self-contained individualism of a pre–civil rights generation. They are embracing multiple histories and influ- ences and are reinventing identities for the twenty-first century.27
Similar arguments have been made for other artists who would have been cat- egorized mainly by gender, race, or ethnicity a few decades ago. For example, the term postfeminist describes a range of art by women who feel empowered by earlier feminist struggles but for various reasons want to distance themselves from being identified as feminist artists. Similarly, Susette S. Min, one of three curators of the 2006 exhibition One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, gave her catalog essay the title “The Last Asian American Exhibition in the Whole Entire World,” ironically suggesting a postidentity world for Asian Americans. (Min actually argues in the essay that the need for identity politics in a market-driven art econ- omy is not over, although the strategies need to be reconceived. The same argument has been made for women artists.)28
2-17 | Wilfredo Prieto | Apolitical, 2001
Poles, flags; dimensions variable; installation view at Musée du Louvre, Paris
Some of the current ideological resistance to any focus on identity is a response to the perceived manipulation of identities by global capitalism. In this view, global market forces encourage artists to make art that looks ethnic or nationalistic or gendered or “tribal” in order to have exotic commodities from far-flung corners of the world to sell. The artists once again become Others without real freedom to express themselves on their own terms.
Postidentity is a term often used as a catch-all that lumps together artists seen as “post-black,” “postfeminist,” “post-Indian,” “postnational,” and so forth—in other words, artists who no longer adhere to traditional collective identities, at least not in any way that confines their art practices. Artists who recognize affiliations to mul- tiple cohorts or who fluidly move between category designations potentially are likely to embrace the notion of postidentity as liberating. Curator Margo Machida says that even though they are justifiably wary of being forced “into racialized or ideologically driven straitjackets,” postidentity artists build on “what is now a well established and highly elaborated body of critique surrounding the construction of identity, ‘othering,’ and the politics of representation.”29 Trecartin and Fitch might be characterized as postidentity artists of this type.
Shirin NeshatShirin Neshat, known for her work in film, video, and photography, undertakes multilevel projects that we could examine through the lens of most themes in this book, particularly memory, place, identity, the body, language, and spirituality. Here we discuss Neshat’s work primarily in terms of identity, an especially rich theme for this artist, who has explored her multiple identities as artist, woman, Iranian (and Persian), immigrant, and foreigner.
Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat moved to the United States in 1973 to study art in Los Angeles. When she was growing up, her homeland was under the leadership of the shah, who supported a liberalization of social behavior and economic changes modeled after the West. In 1979, however, while Neshat was still in America, Iran underwent a cataclysmic transformation: an Islamic revolution overthrew the shah, and in its aftermath the new regime of the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini reasserted control over public and private behavior. Under his rule, even minute details of dress were dictated by sacred strictures. (A similar return to fundamental- ism occurred in many Islamic nations in the Middle East and northern Africa in the latter part of the twentieth century.)
Returning for a visit to Iran in 1990 after a twelve-year absence, Neshat was stunned by the magnitude of the change, which left her own cultural identity in a state of limbo: she had not adopted a fully Westernized identity, yet she no longer felt anchored to the culture of her homeland. The shock inspired her to try to understand and express through art what had happened to Iranian national identity, particularly as it concerned women. Through her art, she also began to explore gender roles, conflicts between tradition and modernity, and the psychological pressures felt by dislocated people who come to feel like perpetual outsiders.
One of the most visible changes that Neshat saw in Iran was that women every- where now wore the head-to-toe black chador, the loose robe and veil traditionally worn by women in Iran, which had been abolished in 1936. Women in chadors became an iconic presence in Neshat’s art. In her first mature body of work, a provocative series of photographs called Women of Allah (1993–1997), Neshat explores the ideology of Iranian women who are caught up in the revolution, even to the point of being willing to die as martyrs. Within each photograph [2-19], Neshat layers Farsi (modern Persian) calligraphy, the image of a gun, and the black veil, challenging “the western stereotype of the eastern Muslim woman as weak and subordinate.”33 The writing adorns those specific female body parts that remain visible in a fundamentalist Islamic land: the eyes, face, hands, and feet. The failure of cross-cultural communication is embodied in Neshat’s use of writing that is illegible to most Western readers. Westerners recognize the beauty of the calligraphy but don’t recognize it as poetry that is considered radical in Iran because individual poems offer different views on the value of wearing the chador. Whatever quick judgments that cultural outsiders may make when they look at the female figure and the gun, the presence of the writing implies that understanding requires deeper learning.
While many in the West expressed dismay and disdain at Iran’s return to fundamen- talism (charging, for instance, that fundamentalism totally subjugates women), Neshat’s artistic responses have been nuanced and full of ambiguity. Old and new stereotypes about the “Orient,” the Islamic world, gender roles, religious fanaticism, and violence meet and mix in Neshat’s work, without any resolution. In interviews, the artist acknowl- edges her awareness of the contradictions that are inherent in her use of loaded imagery.
2-19 | Shirin Neshat | Rebellious Silence, 1994
B&W RC print and ink; 11 × 14 inches
Neshat’s rise to international prominence stems primarily from the acclaim that greeted a trilogy of films: Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000). Shot dramatically in black and white, these films examine a mythic existence in an imagi- nary version of Iran stripped down to its poetic essentials. The Iranians (played in her first films by Moroccan actors), like people everywhere, struggle for individual free- dom while simultaneously seeking meaning in shared values and traditions. The ten- sion between these tendencies turns Neshat’s staged tableaus into tragic sagas.
The Body BeautifulAlthough the human body is a perennial theme in art, not all body images are equally valued: in any culture, some images have high status, while others are despised and even censored. The ancient Greeks believed that the gods took human form and that the most physically perfect humans reflected the ideal beauty of the gods. Greek figu- rative art typically showed an intact, young, healthy body with proportions that the culture considered most desirable—a model of the perfection they believed humans should aspire to. From the Renaissance onward, classical Greek ideals of physical beauty pervaded European art. Even today, some artists continue to produce varia- tions on the classic image of the young beautiful body. For example, Charles Ray nodded to the classical tradition when he made Boy with Frog in 2009 [1-3]. Although the larger-than-life figure is based on an actual boy who posed for Ray, the propor- tions and overall smooth, marble-white surface evoke the classical ideal.
While the specific Greek ideal of a young, classically proportioned body has been influential, alternate ideals of physical beauty can be found in many cultures. For example, although contemporary Americans make a fetish of the slim female body and well-toned male body, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe an ample body was most admired as evidence of a person’s wealth and power. Cultural ideals dominate the representation of bodies in art, even though few real bodies resemble the images. Whatever the culture’s dominant body ideals, people see so many images of the preferred body types that they may think these types are common and innately superior and that other kinds of bodies are lesser and defec- tive. But a look at history destroys the illusion of the natural superiority of any one culture’s ideals of what is beautiful.
British artist Jenny Saville deviates from the classical ideal in paintings in which she reveals her own and other nude female bodies in gargantuan proportions. Her huge paintings sometimes show torsos with lines scored into the surfaces, evok- ing carcasses marked for cutting in butcher shops or bodies in a plastic surgeon’s operating room awaiting procedures such as liposuction. At the same time, the bodies, which fill canvases edge to edge, exude power and eroticism. Ruben’s Flap (1999), a ten-foot-high painting, shows multiples of the artist’s own torso and head grafted onto one another, as if in a state of transformation [3-4]. The title simultane- ously refers to a type of reconstructive breast surgery and to Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), a baroque painter obsessed with robust forms of the female nude. The bodies in Saville’s artworks provide a spectacular contrast to the paintings of passive female nudes that abound in past art, as well as to the sanitized, frozen-in-time images found in the world of contemporary fashion and advertising.
3-4 | Jenny Saville | Ruben’s Flap, 1999
Oil on canvas; 120 × 96 inches (304.8 × 243.8 cm)
Every culture constructs images of attractiveness. Certain body types are presented as the ideal objects of desire, and they dominate advertising, movies, and other areas of visual culture, while other body types are deni- grated and characterized as unde- sirable. In Western culture today, for example, the beauty ideal for women is defined within incred- ibly narrow parameters—they must be young, thin, and fit— and there is enormous pressure on women to strive for this ideal, however unrealistic. As Ynestra King wrote, discussing disabled women in particular, “It is no longer enough to be thin; one must have ubiquitous muscle def- inition, nothing loose, flabby, or ill defined, no fuzzy boundaries. And of course, there’s the im- portance of control. Control over aging, bodily processes, weight, fertility, muscle tone, skin quality, and movement. Disabled women, regardless of how thin, are with- out full bodily control.”6
Mortal BodiesTo understand fully the human condition, we need to perceive the body in its raw physicality and in all its changing shapes and states. In particular, conditions that remind us of mortality—aging, disability, pain, illness, and death—must not be hidden. Artists have produced powerful images of bodies that are visibly mortal— changing, aging, suffering, and vulnerable. John Coplans, for example, revealed his own aging body in a series of large-scale photographic self-portraits (first exhibited in 1986 and continued until the artist’s death in 2003) that provide close-ups of wrinkles and sagging flesh. Especially since the advent of AIDS in the 1980s, art has increasingly presented the human body as fragile, diseased, wounded, or dying. David Wojnarowicz and Félix Gonzáles-Torres were well-known artists who dealt with AIDS as a theme in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. (Both artists died as a result of contracting the virus.)
Other highly charged images of death include the large color photographs in Andres Serrano’s series The Morgue (1992), which show close-ups of corpses of people who died violently, their heads, hands, and feet bearing stab wounds, surgical incisions, burns, and cuts, or their flesh bloated from drowning or discolored by poisons. These are not simulations; the corpses recorded in the photographs are actual people Serrano photographed in morgues. (Serrano received criticism from those who thought he was being disrespectful of the dead.) Lucinda Devlin, also a photographer, shows no actual bodies, although as with Serrano’s morgue photo- graphs, the gloom of unnatural death permeates her series, The Omega Suites (1991–1998). Devlin photographed the death chambers and instruments of death (gallows, gas chambers, lethal injection apparatus) in penitentiaries all over the United States. The antiseptic sterility of these strange rooms makes the places themselves stand-ins for the chilling finality of a dead body.
Numerous artists have made art about their own illnesses and dying, including Hannah Wilke and Nancy Fried about cancer, and Bob Flanagan about cystic fibro- sis. When she was dying of lymphoma in 1993, Wilke made a horrifying series of life-size color photographs of her nude body swollen from cancer treatments. These caused a thought-provoking counterpoint to the photographs she made in the 1970s of herself nude, performing for the camera. (Critics accused her of narcissism back then, and now were reassessing.) Fried, who made a series of ceramic sculptures depicting her own body after a mastectomy, said, “I wonder if this society will ever break the tradition of the idealized female figure and create a new norm that looks at every woman’s beauty with pride and acceptance no matter what shape her body is in? Will we ever get over the assumption that only flawless bodies are deserving of public display, approval and sexual expression?”20
3-12 | Wafaa Bilal | And Counting . . . , 2010
Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal has addressed death and injury resulting from war and terrorism. War is not something abstract or distant to Bilal, whose brother Haji was killed by an air-to-ground missile from an American plane in their hometown of Kufa in 2004. Bilal turned his own body into a canvas during a twenty-four-hour live performance at the Elizabeth Foundation in New York in 2010 called And Counting . . . , commemorating dead Iraqis and Americans from the US-led invasion of Iraq. Bilal pledged to get over one hundred thousand tattoos on his back: five thousand tattooed red dots representing dead Americans and a hundred thousand dots in ultraviolet ink representing the official death toll for Iraqis—the latter dots only visible under UV light. The names of Iraqi cities had already been tattooed in Arabic script on the artist’s back, arranged in a map-like configuration [3-12]. An important part of Bilal’s message was that US media ignored the Iraqi death toll, and hence the deaths are largely invisible to the American public.21 Visitors throughout the twenty-four-hour performance were invited to read the names of the dead. Bilal also asked people to donate one dollar each to a fund for Iraqi children who lost par- ents during the war. According to one account, “Onlookers visibly flinched at the rapid-fire motion of the needle, which made the part of the map on Bilal’s lower back around the city of Basra look like a blazing sun.”22 Bilal, of course, carries the me- morial with him to this day, literally inscribed on his body. (Bilal did not succeed in getting all one hundred thousand dots during the allotted time. The tattoos covered his back at twenty-five thousand dots.)
SpiritualityThis chapter—focusing on spirituality—explores arguably the most conten- tious thematic topic our book raises.1 With spirituality we focus on a theme that many in the art world (and from all walks of life) call into question at the most bedrock level. For doubters, spirituality in general and religions of any denomi- nation may be dismissed as outmoded patterns of thinking, belief systems that were formulated to provide teleological explanations, or that were deluded attempts to control the future, impart moral values, and uphold power relationships. Neverthe- less, enormous numbers of people today have strong spiritual beliefs, and many practice their beliefs within organized religions. The art world, too, counts believers in its midst; however, direct expressions of faith are infrequent and can relegate an artist to the status of an eccentric outlier. The contested status of religious views in the real world includes, of course, not only the divisive rhetoric of believers versus nonbelievers but, significantly, the battles waged politically, socially, and militarily among groups subscribing to different religions.
The art galleries, biennials, and critics who operate at the center of the com- mercial art market seldom make room for art that is created for devotional purposes. At the same time, religious institutions rarely serve as influential patrons of impor- tant art projects, as they once did. As a result of the latter, the most highly regarded contemporary artists hardly ever create works for use in a religious setting or context. Nevertheless, there are notable exceptions. For instance, two of Germany’s leading painters—Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke—each received a commission in the twenty-first century to make stained glass windows for a cathedral. Both artists first found a voice in the 1980s in a divided Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, with artworks whose content was decidedly secular.
To compose his design for the south transept window of Cologne’s magnificent cathedral, Richter selected seventy-two colors and then used a random number gen- erator to select the specific sequence of colors for an enormous, grid-like arrange- ment of over 4,900 color combinations. The entire composition was then produced in a mirror-reversal, so that the complete window contains an intricate symmetry [9-1]. While there has been public criticism of Richter’s design as bearing too much resemblance to modern abstract art, according to Stephan Diederich the calculated use of chance in determining the arrangement of colors “gives the work its character of an allegory of cosmic infinity and incomprehensibility . . . reorganizing them [the colors] into the Gothic geometrical structure as a traditional image of divine order.”2 Polke, meanwhile, completed a series of twelve windows for the Grossmünster cathedral in Zürich in 2010, just prior to his death.
Artworks for a place of religious worship created by well-known artists like Richter and Polke have been the exception in the decades under consideration in this text, and religion is a taboo subject for numerous art world insiders. Nevertheless, manifestations of religion and spirituality keep appearing. Sometimes specific reli- gious iconography is used; oftentimes there are aspects of an artist’s imagery, mate- rials, forms, or practices that appear strongly spiritual without any overt religious references. These more disguised spiritual meanings—what historian of religion Mircea Eliade described as a “camouflage” of the sacred—may or may not be ac- knowledged by individual artists. The artists discussed in this chapter engage reli- gion and spirituality for different reasons and in different ways that are not always obvious. First, we need some definitions.
Spirituality and Religion
Definitions of religion and spirituality vary in contemporary culture. Here we re- serve the term religion for institutionalized, formal practices with a recorded his- tory, established traditions, and shared rituals and doctrines. Common features of most religions are belief in an immortal divine being (a deity) or multiple divine beings and belief that the deity (or deities) has some degree of influence over reality. Long-standing organized religions include Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. None of these religions can be characterized in a unified way; each is a com- plex network of doctrines and practices, and each has changed in different ways over time, including through schisms and offshoots that divide today’s believers into diverse, sometimes conflicting communities of practice.
We use the word spiritual to refer to the common yearning to belong to some- thing greater than the self, the desire to probe the source of life and the nature of death, and the acknowledgment of ineffable, intangible forces at work in the uni- verse. People who do not participate in a formal religion may nevertheless recognize a powerful spiritual dimension to their lives. As curator Susan Sollins put it, “whether or not we participate in formal religious practice, the human condition seems to demand that we explore the spiritual, question our existence and a possible afterlife; we ponder our connections to the world around us, and examine experiences that seem to be inexplicable.”
In recent decades in the United States, religion and art have often come head to head. The “culture wars” that erupted after 1980, for example, sometimes involved protests against exhibitions that included artworks some people regarded as sacrile- gious or demeaning to their religious beliefs or sacred symbols. If government funds were involved, protesters lobbied federal, state, and city governments to prevent the display of the art. In one notorious incident in 1989, protesters challenged the use of National Endowment for the Arts funds for a grant to photographer Andres Serrano, whose photograph Piss Christ (1987) [9-4] shows a crucifix suspended in glowing amber. As word got out that detailed the work’s actual composition, the debates became urgent. Is the work blasphemous and/or beautiful? Should the government fund an award for art like this? Serrano expressed a possible reading: that by present- ing a small plastic crucifix immersed in the artist’s own urine, the image implies that commercialization has negatively impacted religious iconography in contemporary culture. In the ensuing decades since its creation, Serrano’s artwork has stirred up emotions in a variety of venues in the United States and abroad (including exhibi- tions in France and Australia). A similar controversy occurred in the late 1990s, when the then mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, led the opposition to an exhibition from England at the Brooklyn Museum titled Sensation. Giuliani sin- gled out as blasphemous Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), a painting of a black Madonna that incorporated balls of dried elephant dung.
9-4 | Andres Serrano | Piss Christ, 1987
Widely publicized controversies such as these give the impression that contempo- rary art and religion are adversaries. As critic Eleanor Heartney has noted: “Despite Western culture’s rich tradition of great re- ligious art, the contemporary world tends to see art and religion as enemies. Whenever the two are mentioned together, it tends to be in the context of some controversy or scandal, in which artists are accused of . . . heaping their contempt on religion. . . . And even within the art world, there seems to be considerable discomfort with the notion that faith and avant-gardism might share any common ground.”
Nevertheless, increasingly since the 1990s contemporary art has openly ad- dressed religion and spirituality, and some influential curators and critics are paying attention to this theme. Artists are asking soul-searching questions again about the meaning of life—its mysteries, miracles, and moral lessons—and art’s role in the cosmos. Ahead of the curve, in her 1991 book The Reenchantment of Art, critic Suzi Gablik called for a spiritual and ethical renewal in American culture and for art that would support that goal. In Gablik’s view, “we cannot heal the mess we have made of the world without undergoing some kind of spiritual healing.”14 Heartney is an- other critic with a keen interest in spiritual issues. She has written extensively about contemporary artists who were raised as Catholics, including Serrano and Ofili, as well as Kiki Smith, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Gober, Petah Coyne, and Janine Antoni, and how their work is inflected with religious ideas (whether or not they continue to practice their faith). A number of significant exhibitions including works by these and other artists signaled the new climate of acceptance of the theme of spirituality.
The reasons for the recent unapologetic interest in spiritual themes are many. For one thing, the controversy surrounding contemporary artworks that some viewers find offensive has focused attention on religious iconography in recent art. Unexpectedly, it has had the effect of making art about spiritual beliefs seem hip and avant-garde. Moreover, as the twentieth century drew to a close, a trend toward end-of-the-millennium art surfaced; this art asked questions about the future of the planet and where we are heading as individuals, as societies, and as a species. Some artists framed their questions in a spiritual way or sought spiritual answers. The German neo-expressionist Anselm Kiefer, for example, explained, “I think a great deal about religion because science provides no answers.”15 We might have expected the end-of-the-millennium mood to abate once we entered the twenty-first century, but dramatic world events, including wars, terrorism, and ecological disasters, have prolonged this period of spiritual questioning. Wars with religious differences at their core continue to be waged in many regions, demonstrating the undeniable influence of religion on current world affairs and on everyday personal life. More- over, real-world upheavals and the migrations of large numbers of people all over the world have also brought spiritual themes to the forefront, as many belief sys- tems have intermingled. In a pluralistic age, the most hopeful find value for future coexistence in learning about diverse faith traditions and practices, with art as a key means to demonstrate and examine beliefs.
Sacred Spaces and Rituals
Installations like those of Turrell engulf viewers in an immersive space. This situa- tion lends itself to spiritualizing effects. According to Boris Groys, installation art “is not about individual objects, but the sacralization of a certain space.” As in a reli- gious setting, Groys explains, everything inside the demarcated space becomes something apart from the ordinary world. “That is absolutely different from the traditional way of dealing with art as the sum of certain objects. Of course the an- tecedents of installation art are temples and churches, where lines are also drawn between sacred space and secular space.”
Although not all installations have a spiritual purpose, some intentionally open possibilities for people to achieve a state of meditation and mindfulness. Kimsooja, who grew up in South Korea, has a background informed by Buddhism and Christi- anity as well as codes of moral conduct drawn from Confucianism and Tao philoso- phy. She has created installations that are intended to transform the exhibition space into a zone of contemplation. Her installation Lotus: Zone of Zero (2008) [9-11] uses vibrantly colored pink paper lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers, a form often found in Korean Buddhist temples. The number of lanterns varies from hundreds to thou- sands depending on the exhibition site. The lanterns are suspended from the ceiling in a mandala-like circular configuration. Sound is an integral part of the installation: elements drawn from Tibetan, Gregorian, and Islamic chants play simultaneously, merging together in the center as a mean to inspire visitors to contemplate the pos- sibility of universal harmony among different religions and cultures.
9-11 | Kimsooja | Lotus: Zone of Zero, 2008
The graphic power of José Bedia’s mixed media drawings, paintings, and site-specific installations captivates viewers in a glance. In many of his artworks, linear elements lock elongated figures within a pattern as eye-catching as a spider’s web. Bedia often cre- ates monumental wall drawings that are done primarily in black, accompanied by ob- jects that are handmade or culled from either pop culture or nature, such as a toy boat or pair of antlers. To access the deeper symbolic associations contained in his imagery, however, viewers find it valuable to learn something of the influences the artist has em- braced. Bedia is Cuban; his heritage blends diverse ethnic traditions, including Hispanic, Native American, African, Afro-Cuban, and European. Early in his career, he developed an interest in ethnographic studies, but since his maturation as an artist, his work flows primarily out of his internalization of ideas “concerning the relationship of human beings with the world, from Afro- and Indo-American viewpoints.”57
A frequent motif in Bedia’s art is the representation of a journey. A journey may be represented explicitly (by a boat or a bridge, for instance), or a journey may be shown implicitly (with a labyrinth or passage of paint that appears to glow, thus mark- ing an inner spiritual transformation). In Bedia’s imagery, a mystical journey repre- sents the process by which knowledge is gained. Gaining knowledge provides the opportunity for a metaphysical transformation; such a transformation is the dramatic center of many important works of art and literature of South and Central America as well as the Caribbean.
Spiritual or transforming journeys are central to Bedia’s art, as well as to his own autobiographic experiences. Starting in the 1970s, as a teenager in Havana, Bedia accompanied his mother on visits to a priest of Palo Monte. Palo Monte is a religious faith transposed to the Caribbean by black slaves who were brought from central Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; as a religion, Palo Monte claims a sacred connection between the world of humans and of animals. According to Robert Farris Thompson, an expert on the art history of the Afro-Atlantic world, “The name of the faith refers to ‘trees of the sacred forest,’ for the classical Kongo religion of Central Africa focuses on special spirits or saints, bisimbi, and ancestors, bakulu, and both are believed to reside in the forests beyond the city.”58 Since his indoctrination into Palo Monte in the early 1980s, Bedia has devoted much of his art to a represen- tation of reality as seen through the Palo Monte belief system. Words are incorpo- rated frequently into his imagery to pinpoint the specific issues (such as the frailty of life) that the artwork directs the viewer to consider. Words, inserted as titles or captions, are often snippets of Palo songs and expressions—mambos—some pro- foundly spiritual, others political and topical, often in reference to the challenges and injustices stemming from colonialism. In addition to incorporating Palo Monte words, Bedia’s art may utilize ritual objects and altarpiece forms to evoke the reli- gious practices of the Kongo that were brought to the New World by slaves. (In cen- tral Africa, altars can represent the face of the gods.)
The Palo Monte religion, an Afro-Cuban religion, contains “parallels with Native American cultures and religions such as the Nahuatl, Lakota, Sioux or Navajo.”59 Bedia recognized these affinities intuitively and then confirmed them through research in anthropology texts. In 1985, the artist traveled to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, where he lived with a shaman. Among the Sioux, immersed in a North American Plains Indian culture, Bedia intensely explored art and artifacts in which “every element, color, and image carries a specific symbolic reference.”60 The shaman instructed Bedia in ritualistic practices, such as the sweat lodge, in which spiritual regeneration occurs through self-purification. Bedia’s own creative practice has since incorporated imagery (such as pipes for smoking and concentric patterns) that is derived from the cosmologies of the North American Plains Indians. An example of this influence is seen in Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step, We Arrive Very Far) (2000) [9-21]; the circular overall shape of this artwork and the rounded, reddish torso of the figure within the composition echo the circular motif that remains a cen- tral symbol in many of the world’s religions and cosmologies, including those of the Amerindian and Afro-Cuban traditions that have been particularly influential for Bedia. Within Bedia’s imaginative conception, “the transcultural pilgrim has mor- phed into a turtle, albeit one with human limbs and the ability to smoke a pipe.” The turtle’s shell is adorned with “elements of the visual vocabulary of Palo Monte, in- cluding the anvil, cauldron, knife, and the arriero bird.”61 A smaller version of the turtle figure extends on the right side of the artwork below the abstract representa- tion of water, both outlined by a glowing white linear pattern. A phrase in the Kongo language, which serves also as the artwork’s title, arcs across the top edge; the words imply the wisdom of caution: Piango, piango, lega lejos (“Step by step, you can go far”).
9-21 | José Bedia | Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step, We Arrive Very Far), 2000
Immersing himself in other Native American traditions (including Aztec and Mayan traditions of Mexico), Bedia has found inspiration for his simplified, almost cartoon-like forms. Among these preliterate cultures from ancient times the realms of people, animals, and nature interpenetrated on physical and metaphysical planes. In various artworks that the artist has produced over his career, figures often gesture to a void, while their eyes glow or stare at empty spaces, signifying the hidden di- mensions that lie behind the façade of everyday existence.
The artist claims that his use of symbolism is authentic, that his work is anchored in his own firsthand knowledge of actual traditions. In an interview published in 1999, he explained, “I don’t invent anything. For example, the sand symbols. I learned what each thing represents from a medicine man in Montana.”62 Drafted into the Cuban army in 1986, Bedia traveled to Africa; in Angola, he studied African religious beliefs that are ancestral to the Palo Monte and Santería traditions of Cuba. According to the artist, while he may duplicate an altar within the process of creat- ing an artwork, the resulting artwork is not a sacred altar. The artwork cannot function in a truly spiritual way because the artist would never place “the sacred elements of his religion in a secular art installation.”63 Such an artwork is never consecrated.
Among Bedia’s most powerful artworks are those the artist has created by painting or drawing directly on gallery or museum walls, attaching or adding other materials to complete the installation. An example of this creative strategy, Las Cosas Que Me Arrastan (The Things That Drag Me Along) (2008) [9-22] includes a double-headed figure being “dragged” forward through the space of the gallery, attached by chains to a collection of found objects. Each head is defined by a jaw protruding in a way that is characteristic of many of Bedia’s figures. Notice how the negative space between the faces and necks creates a dramatic white arrow that points out the path onward. Festooned across the enormous figure’s chest are pasted photographs of an iron cauldron and sweat lodge, symbols of the Afro- Cuban and Plains Indian faiths, respectively (likewise, the two heads also signify these two influences). Pulling the figure is a “team” of boats laden with objects that represent the range of Bedia’s knowledge of sacred rituals. For example, a coyote stands in the lead of the Amerindian boat; the animal is on a spiritual journey. Such a quest is the primary goal in all that the artist undertakes and all that his art repre- sents. The entire artwork functions further as a collection of talismanic images and objects that may lead the viewer along the path of enlightenment as well.
While containing symbolic passages that offer a political critique of historical injustices, Bedia’s art is, ultimately, suffused with a joyous optimism anchored in spir- itual awareness. For example, Esperando en los Cerros (Waiting in the Hills) (2009) [9-23] offers for contemplation a night scene in which a multitude of horned figures slumber while glowing heads scan the night sky. Meanwhile, unseen by these vari- ous figures, and yet prominent in the center of the composition, a golden female spirit illuminates the path on a dark mountain.
Born in Havana in 1959, Bedia left Cuba permanently in 1990. He spent three years in Mexico, after which he migrated to the United States in 1993, where he set- tled in Miami, choosing that city for its close ties to Hispanic culture.
In front of or surrounded by one of Bill Viola’s videotapes or video/sound installa- tions, most viewers stand transfixed. In Five Angels for the Millennium (2001), we watch scenes of a figure ascending and descending into a pool of water at night; in The Crossing (1996), installed in a darkened gallery, we see a two-sided projection of a solitary man striding forward from a distance. Upon nearing, he comes to a stop, and then, on one side of the suspended screen, the man becomes engulfed in rising flames [9-18]; simultaneously, on the other side of the screen, the same figure becomes engulfed in a rapidly building torrent of water [9-19]. After he is totally immersed on both sides, the cascade of water and blazing fire die out. The man has disappeared. Then the cycle repeats. In describing this work, the artist wrote, “The two traditional natural elements of fire and water appear here not only in their de- structive aspects, but manifest their cathartic, purifying, transformative, and regen- erative capacities as well. In this way, self-annihilation becomes a necessary means to transcendence and liberation.”
9-18 | Bill Viola | The Crossing, 1996 9-19 | Bill Viola | The Crossing, 1996
The overall effect of these examples of Viola’s work can confound us. Why? First, there is the issue of the function and meaning of his choices of specific images. We may be tempted to assume that the artist is using images from nature symbolically: a pool of water (in Five Angels for the Millennium), perhaps standing for purity, and the night sky, perhaps standing for the vast knowledge we have yet to learn. We have had practice interpreting such natural symbols in poems, movies, novels, and private walks in the woods; we are primed by culture to translate the rich potential of nature’s symbolism.
However, in deriving the core of his imagistic vocabulary from nature, Viola moves beyond a symbolic interpretation. Viola intends the video imagery not as mere representation or symbol, but as reification. The image does not carry the meaning of an external subject; it becomes the subject itself. And it does so on two key levels. First, “Time, life, death, space and the individual in Viola’s work are never concepts or events translatable to other languages, but languages in them- selves, places of immanence of meanings which cannot be articulated.”51 Second, Viola’s video imagery becomes a world unto itself that parallels and embodies those aspects of the human condition upon which the work concentrates attention. To put this into the terms of a specific work, in The Crossing the immersion in water is just that—an immersion; the immersion creates transmogrification, not on a metaphoric or symbolic level but on the phenomenological level. The video event is the event. Viola’s concern is not principally with the figure (the actor) in the imagery but with our (the audience’s) relationship to the imagery. We become immersed in the event of the total artwork.
In many of his works Viola concentrates our attention on the transformation of imagery from the beautiful to the awesome. We watch this occur in The Crossing as the rush of water builds from a glittering trickle to a frightening torrent. At the dra- matic ending of the cycle—when the figure has melded with the infinite power of water and fire—he (the man in the artwork) disappears into the cosmos, and we (the viewers in the gallery) are in the midst of experiencing the sublime.
What is the sublime? As discussed in this chapter, the sublime is a powerful ex- perience that combines disparate feelings. Cynthia Freeland applied the term in a careful analysis of several examples of Bill Viola’s video works. As she explained, “The sublime was overwhelming, something that might sweep one away with its vast size or power. Whereas the beautiful was smooth and soft, the sublime was rough and jagged. Stormy oceans and jagged mountains were typical examples.”52
A signature device in many of Viola’s videotapes and installations is the slowing of time; Viola elongates the duration of an event to allow our mind to catch up with our sensory perceptions. (In addition to slowing time, in Viola’s body of work there are also examples of time being rapidly speeded up, in which Viola’s keen interest in exploring the limits of human perception is manifest.)53 Seeing and hearing a slowed-down sequence of images and sounds—ocean waves, for instance—we have time to marvel at, and meditate on, what it is we are experiencing in the pre- sent moment. This slowed-down and focused way of thinking can become a spiritual exercise for the viewer. The water concentrates our attention on our relationship to the water, as an aspect of reality: the water and we, in the midst of watching the water, are unified in the temporal flow. Understanding this unification provides us with a gateway to understanding our unification with the whole of reality as our minds expand in greater and greater circumferences of thought. At the least, we believe that Viola’s work aims for this deep (if swift) connection of viewer and video, sound, gallery, meaning, and reality.
That Viola would ask us to consider a transcendent plane of meaning confounds us because the quest for a vivid spiritual connection is rarely so openly expressed in the current art world. In the West, an uncritical embrace of the spiritual realm lost currency during the heyday of modernism, at least in the discussions of critics. Fur- ther disengagement came during the dismantling of grand narratives in the late twentieth century. Art historian James Elkins has written on the difficulties and rarity of creating serious visual art today that celebrates, embodies, or explores religion or spirituality without irony or a critical stance.54 Viola’s creations do not aim for a scien- tific, economic, or political understanding of nature by providing data and observing patterns. Viola entices us to set aside a secular mindset and embrace a paradigm of meditative spirituality. His works are informed by a broad, though eclectic, knowl- edge of global traditions of religion (including Zen Buddhism and Sufi and Christian mysticism), literature, philosophy, and natural science. Viola also draws on personal experiences, such as his near drowning when he was a child. His goal in making the work is not to contribute to the perfection of society (as an artist focusing on nature from an ecological perspective might) but to the perfection of the individual. A par- ticularly confounding aspect of his work is that Viola manages to draw viewers into a meditative state—in which we are both inside ourselves and standing outside our- selves simultaneously in contemplation of life’s enduring mysteries—within a rela- tively short time in the rather crowded urban public space of an art museum.
The effects we describe can be experienced clearly in any number of examples. The video and sound installation Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) [9-20], for instance, consists of a darkened gallery within which a mural-size video projection of distant mountain peaks covers one wall. The sound of roaring wind fills the gallery’s interior; the projected mountains shake on the wall (the result of purposefully un- steady filming); in the center of the gallery stands a black cubicle. The cubicle meas- ures slightly less than the height of an adult: it is built to the recorded dimensions of the cell in which Saint John, a sixteenth-century Christian mystic, was imprisoned during the Inquisition. Gallery viewers must stoop to peer inside the cell’s window. During the nine months of his captivity, Saint John was released from his cell only to be tortured; in solitary confinement, he produced lines of ecstatic, visionary poetry. In Viola’s installation, visitors listening at the window hear excerpts from the poems, spoken in barely audible Spanish, that include visions of flying over the mountainous landscape. A single writing table sits inside the cramped cell; on the table, a much smaller image of a single mountain is projected on a small monitor.
Exploring Room for St. John of the Cross, the viewer ponders her or his role in the implied drama. Is one a witness? possibly even a torturer? Could the viewer also “be” Saint John? The darkness of the gallery isolates each of us so that we each become the saint in solitary meditation. The tiny mountain on the monitor, a point of calm within the cell, functions like a Zen koan, providing a focus for meditative en- gagement. Alexander Puhringer explained, “Viola views his work as a kind of indi- vidual exercise. But what makes it transcend the private realm is the way it is treated. Of decisive importance here is the fact that Viola—in William Blake’s sense—grants every person the ability of having visions and being in contact with the divine imagi- nation.”55 Viola choreographs the entire scene so that viewers/listeners are not merely captivated by the experience but are also transported. From this spiritual perspective we see the mountain. The mountain landscape moving on the wall is the mountain, and the still mountain on the monitor in the cell is also the mountain. One does not symbolize the other. The mountain is not a symbol of escape or en- durance. The mountain is the mountain. Existence is being.
Another interesting aspect of Viola’s work, given its spiritual import, is the reli- ance on the medium of video, a technology related to television, perhaps the most commercialized of all contemporary media. For Viola, time is the fundamental ele- ment of video. The flow of time in video parallels the dynamic, continual changes that take place in reality. Thus, form and content blend seamlessly. Viola analyzes the relationship of medium to motif: “Most important, it is the awareness of our own mortality that defines the nature of human beings. . . . As instruments of time, the materials of video . . . have as a part of their nature this fragility of temporal exist- ence. Images are born, they are created, they exist, and, in the flick of a switch, they die.”56 Reality is in flux; transformation and transition occur incessantly. In Viola’s Tiny Deaths (1993), the imagery consists of a group of anonymous figures, whose poses mimic those of the museum audience. In the video imagery, each figure glows for a period of time and then slowly loses contrast, turning luminescent before finally disappearing.
In the mid-1990s, Viola began to create video versions of iconic Renaissance paintings (such as The Greeting, based on a visitation scene by the sixteenth-cen- tury Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo). In Viola’s versions, the stillness of the imagery is revealed as an ever so slowly changing video image. The greatest conundrum of all, in Viola’s art, appears to be time itself. Time is change, and in time all will change.
Viola’s work is most compelling because it confronts and compels viewers with a secular outlook to consider questions to which there is no secular or scientific answer: Why do we live? Why do we die? What is the meaning of time?
Bill Viola was born in 1951 in Flushing, New York. He received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Syracuse University. Viola and his wife and collaborator, Kira Perov, currently live in Long Beach, California.