Over the past years art historians, critics, artists and philosophers have more frequently than ever posed the question of what is, or was, contemporary art. The question has been most urgently posed in a recent series of books by Western academic publishers, special issues of art periodicals, or conference proceedings organized by leading art institutions. The “contemporary,” “contemporary art,” and “contemporaneity” have been considered from multiple perspectives: as categories of art historical periodization (or resistance and refusal to periodize); as modes of articulation of temporality (or the impossibility of doing so); as manifestations of political, economic and ideological contradictions of late capitalism (or a desire to repress the political); as symptoms of the multiple diseases of globalization and of rising economic inequality (or an affirmative embrace of the “global village” at whatever cost); as part of the lasting Western narrative of “progress,” or more recently of “transition to democracy,” bestowable upon an Other (or as critiqued in the context of local post-colonial or post-socialist histories).
This year AUB Art Galleries joins these debates and brings a different approach and perspective to the theme. First of all, we would like simultaneously to translate recent dialogues surrounding contemporary art into the format of an art exhibition, an academic conference, and a publication; secondly, we are seeking ways to emphasize the problematic of the contemporary by drawing attention to debates over “what is” or “was” contemporary art as they unfolded in “non-Western” parts of the world. For this event – which we have titled: Contemporary Artistic Revolutions: An Institutional Perspective – we invited artists, scholars, and art historians to share with us their research on the emergence of the co-called “contemporary paradigm” within their respective artistic milieux. We are looking into the earliest art events and those forces that locally affirmed the contemporary as a mode of artistic production. In setting up this project we are driven by such questions as the following: how can we historicize contemporary art with regard to post-socialist and post-colonial historical narratives (though not in separation from the hegemonic art histories)? To what extent is the emergence of the contemporary art paradigm “revolutionary,” and is this word even appropriate, especially when contemporary art is regarded in comparison to the high political aspirations of the historical avant-garde? How can we comprehend contemporary art in places where it emerged as if by immaculate conception – that is, without a historical avant-garde to prepare the way as has been the case in the West, where contemporary art is presented as carrying forward the same torch once raised with revolutionary zeal by high modernism? And finally, with respect to certain segments of our project: what should we make of the role of popular culture (rock-n-roll, breakdancing, Western fashion and advertising), which seems, in some cases, to have performed a progenitorial task comparable to that of the historical avant-garde?
For Contemporary Artistic Revolutions we have invited critics, art historians and artists from Lebanon, Egypt, India, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova and Armenia to produce a series of “case-studies.” These are accounts of early art exhibitions, festivals, workshops and similar events that may have contributed to the acceptance and establishment, within a particular artistic scene, of the mode of artistic production defined as “contemporary art.” Many of the participants in the conference have also acted as co-curators, in proposing for the exhibition artworks by artists who have either been locally regarded as “pioneers” of contemporary art, or who have critically engaged with this cultural category. Therefore, the exhibition part of the project sets on display instances of art (either documents or original artifacts) that were categorized in their time, or belatedly and historically, as “contemporary art.” These artworks, hailing from different artistic scenes and periods of this and the twentieth century, are presented along with contextual documentation of the events for which they were originally produced. Thus, to give here a few examples, in the exhibition we display a technical drawing made by Gordana Anđelić-Galić for an installation shown at one of the first annual exhibitions of the Soros Center Contemporary Art, Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) in 1998; whereas prints by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) – kindly offered to us by the British Council – are exhibited along with documentation on the early exhibitions organized by the London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) founded in 1947. The painting-poster by Arman Grigoryan announced the groundbreaking “3rd Floor” festival held in the Yerevan Union of Artists hall in 1987; and our Lebanese co-curator has selected original work and a sketch made by Walid Sadek and Amal Bohsali for Ashkal Alwan’s “First Sanayeh Plastic Arts Meeting” of 1995. The conference and publication, in the meantime, present both historical “case-studies” as well as abstracts of theoretical and methodological frameworks to be introduced in the conference on various aspects of the contemporary condition.
It is one of the main working hypotheses of this project that contemporary artistic production cannot be understood without fully grasping the institutional nature of contemporary art. Art institutions have played a crucial role in the production, promotion and distribution of art over the past decades. Of their absolute and necessary presence in today’s culture speak such fully-fledged practices and discourses as institutional critique, and more recently the critique of the agency of curatorship. These critical and artistic traditions have emerged precisely in order to question the structures set in place to safeguard the most precious assets of modernism and contemporary art: artistic autonomy and the supposed disinterestedness of artistic experience. But the institutional aspect – and in particular its relation to power and money – becomes especially relevant within the so-called “recent democracies” or in post-socialist and the post-colonial contexts. Here, what often went or still goes by the name of “contemporary art” is too often linked to the ideological and political interests of economic and political elites, or of those who have benefited most from the age of “neoliberalism.” It is also at the so-called “margins” of the Western world that contemporary art has been seen as a key element of global structures in transition, or even as part of the “aid package” offered by means of various institutional “do-gooders” and “charity” foundations, of NGOs and other developmental institutions operating within a wide global grant economy sustained by Western private and governmental donors and interests.
Some of these contradictions shine through, to varying degrees of brightness, in our case studies. And even though the details of the event or institution vary by region, country, and decade, their missions often intersect. Though the Al-Nitaq and the five private galleries that launched this festival in Cairo in 2000, the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art network (implemented in post-socialist countries since 1992), or the London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts (established in 1947) appeared several decades apart and in radically different historical conditions, they shared common concerns and at times even a similar mission: to free the artist from the patriarchic control of the state and the bureaucrats of the Ministries of Culture. Institutions or associations that adopted the term “contemporary” in their titles and/or in their manifestoes and mission statements have played an important role in depoliticizing, dismantling, democratizing or decentralizing artistic production in accordance with the new dominant mode of production. These processes have affected both artistic form and the social role of the artist. The similarities are especially striking in those cases where contemporary art institutional formations have shared one ideology and source of funding. This is most obvious, for instance, in the case of post-socialist Eastern Europe, where the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art network, consisting of nineteen centers (four of which are presented in our project), either performed its own contemporary art “revolutions” or helped transform local traditions of socialist “nonconformism” into “contemporary art.” This was done with the money and the vision of the great financial entrepreneur and social activist George Soros, who dreamed of an “Open Society” and who saw “contemporary art” as an efficient tool in bringing Karl Popper’s bourgeois utopian society into empirical reality.
These are the motives and concerns that inform this project. And although we do not intend to recreate histories or to construct genealogies of “contemporary art” in separate parts of the world, we do wish to raise awareness and engage with historical, artistic and aesthetic aspects of this phenomenon, and with the structures and material conditions camouflaged or invested in the phrase “contemporary art,” especially when these are ignored by or even unknown to mainstream art history and criticism.
Curator, AUB Art Galleries