As a part of the lecture series, Till Now: Contemporary Art in Context, the University of Houston’s School of Art recently hosted a lecture by contemporary art historian Claire Bishop. Entitled “Deja Vu: Contemporary Art and the Ghosts of Modernism,” she fundamentally laid out the groundwork for the symptomatic impulse of many contemporary artists to parcel out the tenets of modernism, piece-mealing seductive fragments into an hermetic, inscrutable construction in accordance to the artists’ tastes. Her delivery was smart, incisive, funny, humble, and open for discussion. This all, furthermore, comes on the heels of a biting critique of Dahn Vo’s installations at this past Venice Biennale.
Bishop started the lecture by categorizing contemporary artists’ modernist proclivities by organizing them globally: she pointed out how most of the artists today researching modernism—which by default for them, she suggests, means the clean lines of modernist architecture and not much else—are researching the modernist architects that are germane to their respective regions in the world. Since modernism essentially indicates notions of universal progress, Bishop immediately undercuts the research of most of these artists by implying that their regional myopia is, at best, provincial.
The Farnsworth House, architect Mies van der Rohe, from alexbowenblog.weebly.com
In contrast to a traditional powerpoint presentation where she presents an image and talks about it, moving on to the next one and so on, Bishop prepared a repetitious loop of images—some sharp, some blurry, some not even there—and she forewarned us that not only were some of the images not projecting correctly, but that they would also flow in and out of making sense, of being pertinent whatsoever to what she was lecturing. It came off as messy and disorganized, and instead of providing any real visual supplement, it functioned more as wallpaper. At first, it made me wonder why she prepared any images at all, that is until about ten minutes in when it became apparent that what she was doing was very much on purpose, and it was brilliant.
Instead of being the innocuous, fairly disorganized supplement as she dismissively stated, it was actually subversive and truly manipulative. The cutting lines and the similarities repeating again and again lulled us into a modernist trance, a thudding, relentlessly-paced reminder that hammered home her point, which is that so much of this work is so often the same. Her pinnacle example was the appropriation, regurgitation, and implementation of Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized Monument to the Third International—a utopian modernist symbol that artists today, universally, can’t seem to help but come back to. She blew through a plethora of artists like Ai Weiwei, showing reified Tatlins repurposed into anything from chandeliers to coffee makers. This further drove home her point that references to Tatlin's Tower, while utilized heavily by Dan Flavin in the 1960s, disappeared almost entirely until about 1989: the so-called “end of history.”
Tatlin’s Tower, 1919, from arkinetblog.files.wordpress.com
The major gripes she has with these artists are the same gripes she has, I think, with Vo. Like Vo, Bishop declared that the research being done is less for critical, interpretive means than instead to evoke a kind of texture, perhaps a seance of a time when progress seemed real and things felt like they had a linear meaning. In her article “History Depletes Itself,” she likens Vo’s work “to diamonds on a necklace—or, better, crystals dangling from a chandelier.” By referencing jewelry and luxurious items, she effectively cuts all of this work off at the knees, relegating it all to the decorative.
Ai Weiwei, Fountain of Light, 2007 (from the Tate Museum)
But of course this is not the first time a critic has tried to deflate work by calling it decorative; it’s happened cyclically throughout the timeline of art history, particularly during the Feminist movement. Many critics (mostly male) at the time dismissed much of the work as decorative, failing to see that decoration was precisely the point, and that decoration has meaning and even political relevance. Obviously Bishop is using jewelry here as a metaphor, but she is nonetheless flinging mud in the very same way: artists like Vo are appropriating meaning to invoke a certain feeling, a kind of texture of rhetoric—therefore it is decorative, therefore it lacks any real meaning outside of itself.
Judy Chicago, Dinner Party, 1979, from cdn2.brooklynmuseum.org
In the same article she states: “So why does Vo’s success make me feel uneasy? In part, it has to do with the artist’s use of history and the way in which his poetics of the past is prone to devolving into information as ornament.” And this same frustration certainly came through in her lecture. But she was the first one to admit that she didn’t have a solution, and she even implored the audience for answers. So her bandaid solutions offered at the end of the lecture were a handful of works that seemed (I’m saying seemed because I haven’t seen them in person) like half-hearted attempts to engage contemporary art in a more overtly political manner, to somehow take the work out of the gallery and out into the world. I remember when Charles Esche lectured late last year at Glassell and he more or less said the same thing: I don’t have an actual solution, but here are a few half-hearted examples of artists making work that at least takes into account the real world outside of the institutions.
What makes me feel uneasy about this, other than laying out an argument with no real solution in mind, is the implication that the kind of political, activist, social practice art that Bishop—and even Esche—champion are somehow more political than the hermetic work she is railing against. It may be more didactic, it may implicate more activism, and it may converse with everyday people outside the gallery system—this may be true—but that does not necessarily make it more effective or poignant. It certainly doesn’t make “the real world” more receptive to or interested in contemporary art simply because contemporary art is trying to engage with it.
I think of a lot of this kind of work—although to be clear, not all—and then I think of my brother. He’s a social worker, and he helps mentally ill people get back on their feet again. He does this every day. He doesn’t do it within a gallery. He doesn’t do it for accolades. He doesn’t do it for a pat on the ass from MOMA. He just does it because it’s his job. And when I think of my brother, I can’t help but cast a skeptical eye onto activist work that needs a gallery to exist. The art world lauds contemporary art that evades the gallery system and subverts the art market, but if it relies on star curators and important critics for relevance, is it not complicit in the exact capitalist system it’s meant to counteract?
At least work like Vo’s isn’t pretending to exist somewhere it really doesn’t. The hermeticism Bishop deems inscrutable and ornamental is indeed symptomatic, as she states. I agree that it’s a form of mourning, a kind of exhumation of past ideals where there was a direction and at least a belief in answers. But that impulse to exhume today matters, and it is happening because artists are clamoring for a way to put all the pieces back together after postmodernism blew it all apart—however ill-fated that might be. This Don Quixote-esque impulse, this texturing of associations and allusions and rhetoric, is indeed a political act because it stands as a litmus test as to how, exactly, we are supposed to qualify meaning in a world where, terrifyingly, there may be none. Perhaps the work Bishop referenced was decorative in a manner that lacks substance. But with the way she’s framed her argument it begs the question: is she irked by contemporary art that examines modernist tropes, or is she just irked by poorly-researched research-based art?
Dahn Vo, Mother Tongue, 2013, from kunskritkk.no
Is it not fair to conclude that if a movement like the Feminist movement was effectually political because much of it insisted on being decorative, then so is research-based work that insists on being hermetic? It’s interesting to note that within the same issue of Artforum there is an article on the Sharjah Biennial, and its author, Yasmine El Rashidi, extols curator Eugenie Joo for organizing a show in the Middle East that was not overtly political. At the end of the article, Rashidi states: “Subtle shows walk a fine line: Some works may slip into the banal…The effect of change, so subtle you can’t quite place it, is also the knowledge and understanding that only come with time. Was it too utopian an experience? Or, against the backdrop of curating today, is that attenuated gesture art’s most political act?”
Claire Bishop lectured at Dudley Recital Hall at the University of Houston on September 16, 2015.