Rethinking the Object of Contemporary Art, Part II

Rethinking the Object of Contemporary Art, Part II:

Across the Fourth Wall, Engaging in the Process: Viewers, Workers, and Social Agency in Contemporary Art

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?


Across the Fourth Wall: Encountering Mark Rothko’s characters

Míriam Paulo Roselló, Ph.D., Dept. of Philosophy, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, [email protected]

The aim of this paper is to present the theatrical concept of “the fourth wall” as a metaphorical category to describe Mark Rothko’s sense of space in his mural projects. The abundant critical literature on Rothko has reached a point in which a new metaphor seems to verge on tedium. However, this category is intended as a conceptual approach to the artist’s contribution to contemporary art, rather than describing an immanent or metaphysical symbolic register. The fourth wall is a concept coined by André Antoine, and inspired by Denis Diderot, that is used in the theatre jargon. It refers to the invisible screen that separates the stage and the public. In Rothko’s case, it becomes a conceptual strategy, a visual metaphor and a research category to explain the ways in which he dismantled the limits (or boundaries) of the pictorial genre –by challenging the abstract expressionism’s rules, and ripping the mean’s endogamy–. In this respect, as Briony Fer has remarked, the encounter with the spectator doesn’t occur inside the painting, but in the space in front of it. As a result, his paintings are not only pictures on the wall, but also experience(s) in the sense that Yves Michaud proposes that contemporary art is about experience. The effect created is as if a character –as Rothko once described his “forms”– of his mise en scène was crossing its invisible boundaries, and triggered its de-materialization and vaporization.

According to this definition, “Across the Fourth Wall” concerns the transience of the exhibition space, and proposes to reconsider Rothko’s paradoxical situation in the context of the so-called “end of art” in the Sixties as a symptom of a new way totheorize about art. This situation is a consequence of the tension between his traditional values –related to metaphorical, metaphysical and introspective interpretations–, and the contemporary nature of his obsession to control the display of his works and the spaces they were meant to inhabit. It also considers that Rothko’s contribution responds to a sense of “performativity”: an interactive dynamic that breaks with the modern autonomy and establishes various modes of relationship with the spectator.

The turning point occurs in the kind of encounter that Rothko set up for the beholder, which took place both in ephemeral exhibitions and in his specific places. Rothko defined his paintings as a communicative bridge between the artist and the onlooker: he challenged the spectator by staging a place where the intimate, encompassing and monumental areas of color shared his living space. Rothko was aware of the centrality of the exhibition space in order to generate this effect, and that a maladroit curatorial practice could numb the “performative intensity” of his paintings. In fact, the failure of

the Seagram Murals commission is an example of the importance of the “place”, and the

fact that the Tate Modern has become an adoptive mother for site-specific artwork that

had lost its place. As Briony Fer has stated: What kind of place could they be in – or for

Rothko, what kind of place could they be?.

Eventually, Rothko forms a concrete, travelable and real space where his work finds its own place; it also denotes a volatile, ephemeral and vaporous connation in its most Michaudean sense. This particularity generates a conceptual displacement, and articulates a new artistic discourse that foreshadows, as David Anfam has pointed out, site-specific and installation art. In this respect, one could relate Rothko’s “places” with the work of artists such as James Turrell, Robert Irwin or Douglas Wheeler.


From objects to relations, from subjects to agents

Kaija Kaitavuori, Ph.D. Candidate, Courtauld Institute, London,

[email protected]

Art dealing with people rather than objects, i.e. art that in some way engages audiences in either its production or display, has been around for two decades, and of course has predecessors in earlier decades. This type of art – called e.g. ‘relational’, ‘participatory’ or ‘dialogical art (to use just three of the many available denominations) – may or may not include objects, but the main questions, nevertheless, evolve around relationships and interactions created in and during the projects.

My research starts from the assumption that these projects are social situations rather than aesthetic objects, and therefore are better understood and analyzed with a sociological approach – sociology, after all, has developed specialised theories and methods for examining relations, formations and configurations of people. My study complements art history with sociology and explores what type of relationships between the artist and participants and among the participants are built or proposed, or how the prevailing norms of relationships are challenged. It asks how society, and what kind of society, is built in the art projects.

The role of the participants in these projects varies: they may be users or co-creators (‘subjects’) of a work, as well as material or a target (‘objects’) of a project. Artists, for their part, may be employed or employing, facilitated or facilitating people’s activities. The production of a participatory work is a complex process engaging not only artists and participants but also institutions and institutional agents. This ‘multiple authorship’ challenges the traditional notions of authorship and presents dilemmas for the documentation, collecting and ownership of the work.

In the place of, or in addition to, the concept of subjectivity, it may be useful to look at the projects in terms of agency. Agency in social sciences refers to individuals who act and make decisions and to one’s capability or ability to act on one’s will. Some theories give agency also to objects and inanimate entities (actor network theory). The concept of agency is profoundly relational: agency is affected by and in dialogue with social and individual belief structures and circumstances of the environment. It therefore lends itself well to study temporarily and spatially defined situations such as participatory art projects.

In the context of this conference, I am proposing to look at the question of agency by presenting a typology of participatory art, based on ways of participation and types of relationships that these projects entail. I will focus particularly on a division between two modes of participation: The participation can either be defined in advance by the artist and the audience mainly fulfils the tasks set by the artist; or the people take part actively and decide themselves if and how they want to participate and what they want to contribute to the content of the work. These modes will be exemplified by two case studies: Tino Sehgal’s work and Tellervo Kalleinen’s and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen’s project Complaints Choir, enriched with additional comparative material.


Curating Process as Ready-made Practice: Performance of a Performance

Jovanka Popova, Art Historian and Curator, Skopje, Republic of Macedonia,

[email protected]

The presentation discusses the proposition that contemporary strategies and art exhibiting tactics be seen not just as neutral exhibition spaces, but as products of explicit cultural politics of performing of social reality, in correlation with different discursive, aesthetic, and political identities.

In that sense the term curator can be described  as a sort of cultural worker or political activist who, in the context of  cultural expansion, has a role of presentation or modulating of life.

If we consider that it is art which used to be called ‘critical’ and ‘subversive’ then the curator seems to have usurped the art’s role. As Boris Groys remarked, the growing importance of curating inevitably implies art is permanently ill and in need of the curator to heal it by granting artworks visibility they helplessly desire.

The curatorial practice shifts from the finished work of art over the idea of incorporating the term of time as intermediate element – through the whole process of acts, where the scenography object, text, image in painting, photography, screen image, poster, installation are all interpreted as traces which advocate unfinished process of performing.


Following the flows of process: Towards new conceptions of the Work of art and the work of an artist

Katve-Kaisa Kontturi, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher, University of Turku, Finland,

[email protected]

This paper suggests fresh ways of conceptualising contemporary art beyond objecthood. It is not content with what has become, so to speak, the poststructuralist common sense: the widespread insistence that artworks are discursive, or performative processes that come into existence only through various (interpretive) acts, often called readings. Instead, it aims to introduce new conceptualisations that emphasise material and nonhuman qualities of art processes. In this effort, it draws on (1) the participatory fieldwork done by following the workings of some contemporary artists based in Finland (Susana Nevado, Helena Hietanen, Marjukka Irni) and (2) on the process philosophies of such thinkers as Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Brian Massumi. Thus the new conceptions that this paper offers, take form in collaboration between practices and theories of art.

The paper begins with artist and art theorist Barbara Bolt’s conceptualisation of work of art. This conception emphasises material activity of an art process. Art objects do not only represent; they do things. Bolt contrasts the concept of work of art to that of artwork. She claims that whereas artwork is clearly a noun, work of art is by contrast a verb. In her account, artwork refers more straightforwardly to the object quality of art and work of art to its processual nature. She writes: “[w]e can identify artworks, classify them, interpret them and make evaluations according to criteria established by the discipline of Art History. We can exhibit artworks and study the reception of them. However, does this get us any closer to the ‘work’ of art? ”. What this paper claims is that further conceptions are needed to get closer to the work of art. Crucially, this is an ethical question.

We need to pay detailed attention to how art emerges and how it affects us. This also includes the work of an artist: artworks as representations would never come to exist without certain material choices, without certain techniques even. Art does not emerge only in a discursive network of ideas. This is not, however, to return to the traditional conceptions that give  an artist a creative mastery over the process. What process philosophies call us to understand is that processes are rarely something that can be mastered either mentally or materially; they rarely are mechanical, causal or reactive only. Instead they are active, volatile, self–‐creative, productive and unpredictable. In this paper, flow assigns a special kind of process, a special kind of way to be in movement. It designates hesitation, uncertainty and openness. Flows are mutant and tend to elude or escape the systems; they come together, connect and diverge in surprising ways. The conceptions that I will suggest in this paper all address issues that arose when following the art processes of the above mentioned artists taking place both at studios and in exhibition spaces. They all aim at grasping the material and nonhuman processuality of art that both discursive and performative approaches of art tend to disvalue. These conceptual suggestions that address both the processes of making art and experiencing it, include terms such as technico‐intensivity, technico‐affectivity and machinic collaboration.