Rethinking the Object of Contemporary Art, Part I

Rethinking the Object of Contemporary Art, Part I

Session chair:

Riikka Stewen, Professor of Art History and Theory, Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, [email protected]

In the early 1970s it was thought that the art object had become dematerialized. Art was no longer thought to reside in objects but in concepts, conversations, behaviours, processes. In 1973, Lucy Lippard gave the title Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object to her book chronicling the events between 1966 and 1972. Another seminal text is the essay “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried from 1972. Fried looked at so called minimalist – or literalist – art objects and came to the disturbing conclusion that the art in question did not reside in the objects shown but rather in the theatrical goings about of the artists themselves around and amidst these objects.

At the present, many artists are consciously referencing the late 1960s and early 1970s practices in their art.  In their work, the art object is as precarious as it was in the period described by Lucy Lippard. In his book Formes de vie (2009), Nicolas Bourriaud has proposed that art should rather be seen as a style of behaviour, or “comportement”.

Thus, even without taking into consideration the performative tradition, it seems that art may take place without becoming materialized in visible objects. How do art historians, critics, and other theoreticians move from thinking about art as clearly defined objects to thinking about art as processes, as cultures of behaviour? Are our strategies of interpretation commensurate with artistic practices, or do they lag behind, held back by concepts that have been abandoned by the artists themselves?

The proposed session invites the participants to rethink the theoreticians’ conceptual tools in dealing with contemporary art. It also poses the question whether art historians and other interpreters of contemporary art should turn to other disciplines in their search for ways to talk about contemporary issues in art. Would it be possible to question the concept of the art object and the concomitant concept of the subject with the aid of recent developments in philosophy?

Beginning with the Surrealists’ adoption of the Rimbaudian credo “Je est un autre”, to the Derridean critique of subjectivity, the Cartesian self-present subject has been increasingly questioned. This questioning has taken different forms, from the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s late thought to the feminist critique of subjectivity.

Following Merleau-Ponty and the feminist tradition, the American philosopher Kelly Oliver has proposed that the core of subjectivity is “the double meaning of witnessing”. According to her, central to subjectivity is the process of “bearing witness to something beyond recognition that can’t be seen”. (Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, 2001)

This session invites participants to think about new conceptualizations of artistic practices while taking into consideration the changing status of the art object and corresponding philosophies of subjectivity. Case-studies of particular artistic works/practices are also welcomed.

Papers consider questions such as: What kind of philosophies of subjectivity would be pertinent to contemporary artistic practices? How is the subject-object division contested in contemporary artistic practices? If art no longer resides in objects, how is it experienced, and how is the experience described and analyzed?


From Dematerialized to Materialized: Reflections on the Subject/Object of Contemporary Art

Dan Karlholm, Ph.D., Professor and Head of Art History at the Department of Culture & Communication, Södertörn University,

[email protected]

This paper would take its cue from rhetorically refuting Lippard’s famous contention that art was “dematerialized” in the 1960s and early 70s. My claim is that art has always been dematerialized. Even, to follow Hegel, in the remote antiquity of the Egyptians, matter was pervaded by Spirit, however crude and relatively imperfect the result. The very word de-materialize contains a process; first we have the material, then it is made less material by being pierced by or in-spired by Spirit/Idea or whatever it has been called. This is what art is, and the word artwork, work of art or Kunstwerk spells it out, so to speak: art + work.

Art’s purported dematerialization in the 1960s represents the greatest transformation of art since the Renaissance, the outcome of which is that art becomes based on an idea (not the other way around), which can (but need not) be materialized in some (theoretically unlimited) form or medium. Whereas the medium had been primary – a material, concrete support of sorts related to traditions of decorum and skill that was infused with idea/content/message – the latter became the very basis that results in a form of materialization. The alleged dematerialization of art in the 1960s, moreover, contributed in 1) strengthening the misconception of traditional art’s rather plainly material character, closely linked to its medium-specificity, as well as 2) over-estimating the radicality of a de-materialized or “conceptual” concept of art (whose essence was ideas, philosophy, information etc.). But while art did take shape or was materialized in the form of non-objective projects, processes, actions or temporary installations these were all memorialized, documented or archived in material form (and if not, we would know nothing about them). Art today (from the 1990s on) –  e.g. in the form of brash commercial “contemporary art” à la Basel or of low-key projects based on multiple authorship, participation and “social” or “relational aesthetics” (Bishop, Larsen, Bourriaud) – is more dependent on materiality than was “material” art before the watershed of the 1960s. In other words: art today is increasingly materialized in order to exist as art at all (and not as culture, aesthetics, media, politics, etc.), but also less dependent upon actual instances of unique materializations, since for the first time art is exempt from natural aging, given sufficient updating of the hardware that enables the traces (born digital or digitalized) to be perpetually replayed or legible as textual and/or visual archival documents.

I would briefly invoke the institutional theory of art (Dickie), and Danto’s early ideas on the “art world,” as attempts to come to grips with the new category of art, which was emerging on a rather broad scale in the American postwar period. While Duchamp’s readymades provide a much earlier benchmark for the transgression of the prevailing modern concept of art, it was arguably only with “the Duchamp effect” (Bushkirk & Nixon, Foster) in the 1960s and in the wake of minimal and conceptual art practices that a paradigm shift was realized. I would also discuss the over-estimated aspect of the “objecthood” of minimal work, to catch up with Groys’ ideas on installation politics, which is based on something very material, according to him: space. I would also discuss and criticize Krauss’ late ideas on “the post-medium condition” and her attempts to salvage a group of artists who invent their own mediums as a set of rules within which to operate, as if inventing art with every artwork.

The hype of dematerialization and an art released from the burden of objecthood or material representation needs also to be seen in conjunction with the dissolution of the purportedly unified subject. However, the “death of the author” (Barthes) and post-structuralist deconstruction of the Cartesian subject has neither evacuated the subject nor actually the object, from the field of art. But, we are in need of a more dialectic and sophisticated definition of object. The death of the author was tantamount to the “birth of the reader”. Today – to paraphrase Marx – we are not content with merely reading or interpreting the world of art, we want to change it by interacting or literally participating in the making of the art object (as we provide content to the social media). “Object” needs arguably to be seen as both material and immaterial, as in “object of interest” defined by an interested subject. Object and subject constitute a force field of exchange; the one giving birth to the other and the other challenging and transforming the one in a theoretically ceaseless dialectic. Examples will follow!


«Specific Situations»

Margarida Brito Alves, Assistant Professor, Universidade Nova de Lisboa,

[email protected]

In twentieth century art, one can easily identify a growing focus on the work´s spatial dimension – an experimental development that was defined through different approaches and that led the artistic production from an ideal, pure and abstract model of space, to a real, physical and lived one.

This change of paradigm, which can be designated as a spatialization process, must be framed within a broader discussion, that takes the relationship between art and life as its central core – which was debated by the first avant-gardes, but that acquired a new amplitude during the second half of the century XX in the scope of the revisitation and amplification strategies of the second avant-gardes. Indeed, it was from the sixties on that authors such as John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, or even Albert Einstein, became very important references in the work of many artists. And, at the very same time, emerged new theoretical contributions that sought to define the evolving dynamics – as reveal the texts by Umberto Eco, Allan Kaprow, Robert Morris, Michael Fried or Susan Sontag.

It is therefore during the second half of the twentieth century, as a parallel to processes of conceptualization, dematerialization and transience, that we can situate projects which, involving an experiential feature (set at different levels), establish a direct relationship with the physical space of its surroundings, reinforcing notions such as «site-specific», «in situ» or «installation» – which strengthened the physical and material component of the work of art.

It is however interesting to notice that currently, at a time when so many artists favor a relational and behavioral dynamic, these models, which were based on the affirmation and appreciation of the objectual and spatial characteristics of the work, have been reformulated, becoming actions and situations that delegate a material dimension to a background, although maintaining a specificity logic.

In a reversal of priorities, we cannot continue to recognize the “here and now”, but rather the “now and here”, since it´s no longer the spatial solution that determines the action, but the action that reveals the space.

In fact, evolving from a notion of experience focused on the interaction with the public, the ephemeral feature of the work is being intensively privileged, setting new conceptions of space in art.

Recapturing some of the main theoretical references that define this discussion, and drawing from the work of contemporary artists like Tino Sehgal, Andrea Fraser, Rirkrit Tiravanija, or André Guedes, this paper aims to problematize a production that continues to rely on a notion of site-specific, but that is now based on a logic of collaboration, communication and interaction that, above all, values the ephemeral and immaterial aspects of the work of art.


Study: Bethan Huw’s Origin and Source I-VI

Louise Garrett, Ph. D. Research Candidate, Central St. Martins, University of the Arts, London,

[email protected]

This paper focuses on Origin and Source I-VI (1993-1997), a work by Welsh artist Bethan Huws comprising a prolonged examination of the artist’s own practice. The piece grew out of a creative crisis the artist suffered following a solo exhibition at Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany, in 1993 (known as the Haus Esters Piece).1 After a lengthy period of reflection leading up to the exhibition, Huws’s response to the architectural space was to leave it empty – as a readymade and an artwork in its own right. Her only intervention was a cryptic text handed out to visitors on arrival made up of incidental grammatical fragments excerpted from a conversation the artist had had with her partner, the artist Thierry Hauch, about his work – the fragments were presented as if they constituted a Concrete poem and were printed on high-density paper. The work, then, consisted of the viewers’ interaction with the empty space and their engagement with the indecipherable text.

When asked by curator Julian Heynen to contribute a piece of writing to a postexhibition catalogue, Huws found herself struggling to articulate her ideas on the work. The catalogue was never realised and Huws subsequently withdrew from the art world for a period of around four years in order to undertake a self-imposed period of study reflecting on her work to date and concentrating on building up her set of theoretical tools. During this time, she worked on an ever growing bricolage of definitions, notes, drawings and diagrams based on her thoughts about her previous work leading up to and including the Haus Esters Piece, and on readings of philosophy, linguistics and psychology – a prolonged excursus aimed at working through her creative crisis. Having still not resolved the notes by 1996, Huws decided to compile the material in the form of a set of six volumes of A4 photocopies and present it as an artwork entitled Origin and Source I-VI for the 1997 group exhibition Niemandsland [Noman’s land] at the Museum Haus Lange/Haus Esters – an exhibition that explored the interface between private and public, studio and gallery, inviting artists to show pieces that reveal the inner processes of creative work. I am interested in how this detour into the private world of study is then re-presented as an artwork, exposing the circuitous, obsessive and often repetitive process of its own making.

I argue that the pathways followed by Bethan Huws from the social space of architecture through the interior space of the mind and back through its representation as an artwork (which is labyrinthine in structure) can be read in Derridean terms as a form of “architectural writing.” Derrida’s architectural metaphor, which connects writing and deconstruction, envisages writing in terms of spatiality; as, he says, “writing in terms of a path, of the opening up of a way which – without knowing where it will lead to – inscribes its traces.”1) The interiority of Origin and Source can be characterised as both architectural and psychological. The form of creative activity that Huws was practising here might be regarded as a form of labyrinth, since there is neither beginning nor end, and there are multiple ways into and out of the work. Huws reveals in Origin and Source a kind of “hesitation of being,” which Gaston Bachelard explores in his chapter on “The dialectics of inside and outside” in The Poetics of Space.3 I argue that this link might suggest a poetics of practice in which the ‘here’ and ‘there’ that Huws sought to move between, are no longer determined, but rather compose a way, or a path, that is simultaneously returning into being and emerging out of it rather than being ontologically fixed. The implication for Origin and Source, I believe, is that it exposes and allows for forms of fragmentation, the experience of hesitation, detour and delay and notions of doubt, collapse, failure and retreat, to emerge as generative forms within the poetics of art practice.

By thinking through Origin and Source I-VI as a practice engaged with the singular processes of artistic research (rather then procedures, or established ways of doing something), I intend to foreground the non-linearity of practice as process. I consider elements of uncertainty, doubt and chance as processes integral to art practice and critical encounters, though the very inarticulacy of such processes means they have generally been excluded from traditional art histories. My broader frame is a consideration of how conditions of uncertainty and failure have been retrieved as significant figures within recent art, signifying a productive site of reflection in contemporary art practice and interpretation. This reflective component comprehends the shift from studio to study, identified by Lucy Lippard, which characterized Conceptual art’s emphasis on the process of ideas over the production of objects.


A voice as an art object? – an inquiry into the manifestation of presence in sound art and beyond

Eduardo Abrantes, Ph. D. candidate, New University of Lisbon/Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, [email protected]

What is a “sound object”? More acutely so, in what way does the adding of “sound” describe, question or challenge the notion – the multiple notions, actually – of what an object is? Can a voice be an example of a sound object? If so, how to describe it? And more importantly, what do we gain (and/or loose) in our understanding of what a voice is and means, if we experience it as a sound object?

This cluster of questions departs from concerns taken up in my PhD research project, where I question the experience of the voice as presence in the context of phenomenology of sound. In other words, I start by supposing that the voice can be questioned from a philosophical perspective, as a worthy philosophical “problem”. I assume also that this perspective, informed by phenomenology, should aim for an holistic description that does not fall so easily into the trap of the traditional dual-divide of voice as speech – therefore, thought or meaningful language – and voice as acoustic event – physical/physiological sonorous manifestation, or simply put, a sound.

On the other hand, this method of questioning although departing from a philosophical background, is interdisciplinary both by nature and necessity, dealing with artistic experimentation in the fields of sound art, performance and field recording.

Contemporary research into such paradoxical vocal phenomena as selective aphasia, coprolalia and palilalia associated with Tourette’s syndrome has, in its radical expressiveness and “eruptive” nature, found a significant resonance in the artistic practice of “extended vocal techniques”, with such contemporary sound artists/performers such as, for example, Yves Bonnenfant and Mikhail Karikis, finding great inspiration in the dynamics of “vocal derangement”.