[published in ArtArtArt Issue 6 | The New Cultural Imperialism]
I saw the light, B/W photographic print, Lindsay Seers, 2005.
In Lindsay Seers’ moving video documentary of her life, shown in the Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain, we are told by several narrators of the artist “becoming the camera” and later “becoming the projector”. These two becomings involve Lindsay placing a piece of film in her mouth to form an image, or strapping a projection device to her head to project light out into the world.
Nicolas Bourriaud, curator of Altermodern as well as writer and theorist, seems particularly drawn to these types of transformations today. Listing more examples, he writes in the exhibition catalog of how Simon Starling relocates a piece of furniture from one continent to another by radio waves, Katie Paterson transmits silence from the Earth to the Moon and back. And Darren Almond teleports bus shelters from Auschwitz into the gallery.
None of these becomings actually took place. Just as, this morning, when I filled my mouth with water, I did not become a water bottle. In common language, words like “camera” and “teleport” are too specific to bend this far.
What Altermodern proposes, through language and imagery, is a lyrical take on contemporary art – one where the artist becomes a poet or a shaman figure, capable of performing mystical transformations, living a nomadic lifestyle. We see in the exhibition catalog Shezad Dawood and Olivia Plander use imagery of American Indians, and Sparticus Chetwynd writes of rituals and of entering into a state of trance. But perhaps the clearest example of this nomadic theme is artist Marcus Coates, who literally dons animal outfits and performs shaman rituals, as confusing as they are funny.
Badger-skin headdress: Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare by Marcus Coates 2008, from the Telegraph review of Altermodern.
The poetic tone in Altermodern is a new departure for Bourriaud, whose earlier theorizing is far more operational. In his book Relational Aesthetics (1998) Bourriaud describes how Christine Hill works as a checkout assistant, Cattelan feeds rats cheese, and Hirakawa puts an ad in a newspaper. These are mundane everyday tasks. No magic here. In relational aesthetics, instead of the artist transforming, it is the viewer who is transformed by the experience. Relational art adopts a collaborative model, one that rejects the authorship of the artist. The attention is on the everyday (serving a meal, watching a movie) rather than the market-driven aesthetic objects in galleries. Relational aesthetics is always both anti-author and anti-aesthetics.
In constrast, Altermodern embraces aesthetic objects. Loris Greaud's installation vibrates with minimalist aesthetic austerity, and Subodh Gupta's mushroom cloud of stainless steel utensils has an arresting presence, to name just two examples. Authorship also returns, and many of the selected artists have strikingly individual voices. Bob and Roberta Smith places humorous shrines in the galleries once a week, consisting of painted signs and found objects. He calls them a "physical conversation." These temporary altars are based on conversations that Smith and Bourriaud hold each week. Although outtakes of the conversation appear on some of the signs, the original conversation remains private. Smith therefore occupies a position of authorial power – as an interpreter, filtering a private event to create an aesthetic representation for public consumption. This, too, has a shamanistic feel – Smith is talking to the “gods” of theory (or god in this case) and producing public signs based on this private interaction.
The return to aesthetic objects and authorship in Altermodern is not a rejection of the social. Bourriaud retains his commitment to the dynamic circuit of relations that extend beyond the art object. Each artwork in the show refers in some way to something outside of itself, removing any pure notion of autonomy. For instance, Ruth Ewan’s gargantuan accordian is a monumental aesethetic object. It is also also a working instrument used in social song gatherings. Through this dualism Ewan embraces a wider and more diverse relationship between the social and the aesthetic.
Since the 90's in art there has been a split between what you could call autonomous art practices (such as painting and sculpture) and social art practices (which cover a wide range of relational and collaborative activities). These two camps have tended to sneer at each other. The social crowd labels their counterparts too elitist and market oriented. Meanwhile the autonomous crowd responds with accusations that social practices lack rigorous criteria for evaluation or artistic relevance.
Through Altermodern, Bourriaud is, it would seem, joining Claire Bishop’s call (in Rediscovering Aesthetics, 2009) to seek art that exists in the midway point between social and autonomous, weaving together elements of both. Such art clearly argues from opposite poles at once - being both aesthetic and anti-aesthetic, authorial and anti-authorial. In the worst case the result of this hedging is a total cancellation: art which tries too hard and fails in a compromise that lacks any coherence. However, I think Altermodern (and other recent shows) indicate that when such art succeeds, it does what all great art does: it exists as a paradoxical hydra, a multi-headed creature where no one head defines the identity of the whole.