Art and the City by Nicholas Whybrow by Nicholas Whybrow - Read Online

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Art and the City - Nicholas Whybrow

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Invited to kick-start proceedings at a platform discussion occurring as part of a programme of sideshow events at the 2006 Frieze Art Fair in London, Francesco Bonami, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that the medium of painting represented the pinnacle of aspiration for the contemporary artist: ‘Of course, everybody wants to be a painter!’, he declared. Whether he had some kind of vested interest, or was in fact gently mocking the main-house activities next door – in which the world’s leading galleries were vigorously engaged in persuading hordes of affluent punters to part with many of their pounds (or dollars?), predominantly for canvases it seemed – is a moot point. Perhaps he was merely relishing the prospect of provocation in a forum entitled ‘New Performativity?’ If so, he may well have been taking a leaf out of the Chapmans’ book of ironic playfulness: the collaborating artist brothers Jake and Dinos spent the entire Frieze Fair performing painting. Or perhaps that should be: performing making money from painting. Proposing that painting only retained its currency via its capacity to perform in the global art market, they opened a ‘studio’ at the fair in which they painted clients’ portraits for a cool £4,500 a throw in an installation called (deep breath): Painting for Pleasure and Profit: A Piece of Site-specific, Performance-based Body Art in Oil, Canvas and Wood (Dimensions Variable). For what it’s worth, on the other hand, but a month later the German artist Tommas Abts was winning the seriously prestigious Turner Prize as the first painter to do so for eight years. In a subsequent Guardian newspaper interview she expressed, with a form of abrupt bemusement, her utter lack of regard for the magnitude of the prize and the commercial opportunities it might yield: ‘It’s nice, she said, in a mild, pleasant voice as she lifted her shoulders in the international sign of whatever’. Abts ‘considers art a calling’, unlike the ‘warped attitude in this regard’ of many young artists, who ‘think of it as a career choice, to do art; they think that it will pay off and they’ll make money’ (Brockes 2006: 23).

Whatever the intention, Bonami’s pronouncement on painters provided enough fuel for Marina Abramovic – sitting in the front row of the audience in this forum and, of course, one of the leading pioneers, as well as continuing innovators within the field of performance – to begin her keynote lecture later that day with a scornful rebuttal, and the assertion of her particular medium’s high importance. Faced with a practitioner who has often literally lain down her body (and, in fact, her life) for her art, the supposition that she would secretly have preferred to be a painter all along certainly appeared absurd. Abramovic’s dedication recently to re-presenting ‘classic’ works from a range of key performance artists – the subject of her talk at Frieze¹ – as a means of reassessing the significance of an ephemeral and (therefore) inadequately documented form, is clear testament, moreover, to her utter commitment to the practice.

To be fair to Bonami, on the other hand, it would indeed have been surprising if he had ‘meant what he said’ in the sense implied by Abramovic’s subsequent reaction. Not least since, as the curator of the major touring exhibition entitled Universal Experience: Art, Life and the Tourist’s Eye in 2005 – showing first in Chicago and later at London’s Hayward Gallery – Bonami’s interests evidently extend well beyond simply painting. In an extensive catalogue, which attempts to capture precisely the myriad unknowns and idiosyncrasies of approach involved in art-making these days, he is cited as declaring that ‘artistic experience at the end of the millennium is becoming more and more complex, one of difficult balance and right scale. It is walking a tightrope with no safety net of whys below’ (in Dahlgren 2005: 11). His introductory essay, moreover, sets out – as you would expect – the exhibition’s parameters of consideration, which rest fundamentally on an interrogation of the nature of looking and experience per se: ‘the way we experience the world, art, architecture, and eventually life in general […] through encounters, images, objects, and spaces’ (14). As such Bonami seems, in fact, to be headed somewhere else entirely: not by any means away from painting at all costs, but certainly away, first, from its enshrinement as a precooked encounter for the viewer: ‘People come into a contemporary art museum and ask, Where’s the Picasso? […] We should respond, Here you won’t find a Picasso, but you will have an experience that will change the way you look at any Picasso’ (16). And, second, away from painting’s subjection within the art world to the vicissitudes of exchange value and ‘pure marketing’ (23). Instead, Bonami’s comments are suggestive – and he is very far, of course, from being the first to express such sentiments – of the encounter with art and the experiences of everyday life being intimately bound up with one another, to the extent that it is impossible and, indeed, undesirable strictly to separate out the one from the other.²


Retrospectively summing up the emergence of postmodernism as ‘modernism in the streets’, Stuart Hall goes on to elaborate as follows on this paradigm shift that occurred a while ago now but still appears to be in the process of playing out its full implications: ‘I think postmodernism is best described as precisely that; it is the end of modernism in the museum and the penetration of the modernist ruptures into everyday life’ (Hall 2004: 288). Confirming the literal sense in which he means that, Hall proceeds, in fact, to declare:

The notion that modernism is to be found inscribed on the face of everyday life […] does obviously jeopardise the whole concept of gathering together the best of all this and calling it a museum […] instead, we must consider the proliferation of sites and places in which the modern artistic impulse is taking place, in which it is encountered and seen.


Whilst doubtless concurring broadly with the street-ward impulse of Hall’s portrayal – which is recent and perhaps original in its formulation, but (again) hardly new – Bonami, as a museum curator, is anxious naturally to retain a viable sense of functionality for the institution in which he is employed. His concern, therefore, is to transform the ethos of the museum, and this is effected, in a sense, by admitting into his building the movement and vitality – or ‘contaminating action’ – of the street on the one hand and the pedestrian-participant on the other. As he says, ‘When someone asks me if the show is going to travel, I answer, "You are going to travel". I have tried to make an exhibition with the potential to become an event’ (in Dahlgren 2005: 20). Thus the spectator is cast not only as a kind of performer – the protagonist of his or her own ‘experience’ – but is also – in contradistinction to the norm of the tourist encounter, which ‘reduces the complexity of the world’ (14) – confronted by the unknown: with a situation supposedly of unmediated experiencing.³ Importantly, Bonami’s insistence, in the final analysis, is that the fruits of such an experience – what you may discover that is new – are nevertheless an illusion. But it is a ‘fiction [that] can make our lives worthwhile’ (16).

One obvious phenomenon can be said to emerge from the discussion so far, then (and it is one which returns us to some degree to Marina Abramovic): the unquestionable incursion of performance and/or eventhood into the making, presentation and experience of contemporary art practices. Not only is there the medium of performance art itself (including its intimate association with video) – emerging as an accepted form in its own right in the 1970s,⁴ and later to metamorphose seemingly into live art (though the former term still retains currency)⁵ – but there is also, more recently, what I wish to call the situational-relational impulse. This has witnessed an increased translocation of the ‘place of art’ to the contextual interactions of various constituencies of people, sites, objects and processes, in some cases ‘forever unfinished’, to borrow a phrase from one of its ‘high priests’, Nicolas Bourriaud (2002a: 26). At the same time, and in a related vein, there is the ‘theatrical turn in post-war art production’ highlighted by Gavin Butt in After Criticism, which ‘drew the object-based practices of modernist painting and sculpture into the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of the event’ (2005: 8). In an explication – more fully rehearsed, in fact, at earlier dates by Nick Kaye in Postmodernism and Performance (1994a: 24–35) as well as in the same author’s introduction to Site-Specific Art (2000: 1–3) – Butt points to the crucial effect (derived from the experience of the minimalist art object) of the spectator being made

fully aware of him or herself as a ‘live’ participant in the actual site of the work, activating the spectator’s consciousness of the whole ‘scene’ of exhibition and display. Thus the body of minimal art’s beholder was – supposedly unlike that of the modernist painting or sculpture – already on stage, implicated within the theatrical space of the work.

(2005: 9)

It is important perhaps to add to this a rider from Kaye, which emphasises the transitive aspect of the spectator’s role as ‘confront[ing] her own effort to locate, to place the work and so her acting out of the gallery’s function as the place for viewing’ (2000: 2). Amelia Jones, moreover, also provides an illuminating analysis of the ‘inter-subjective engagement’ involved in the relationship between artwork, body and situation, one which proposes ‘the interpretive relation as a reflexive exchange’. Citing Judith Butler, she refers to the way ‘works of art are situated in space in such a way that they engage the body as an essentially dramatic structure […] the ‘place’ in which possibilities are realised and dramatised’ (in Suderberg 2000: 335). And Bourriaud, too, insists: ‘What nowadays forms the foundation of artistic experience is the joint presence of beholders in front of the work’, going on to explain that ‘the beholder contributes his whole body, complete with its history and behaviour’ (2002a: 57–9).

The prevalence of ‘performance’ is suggestive, then, of a rupture within the conventional perception attributed to ‘houses of art’ – what they are for and how one might act within them – but also, therefore, of a major shift in where and how art takes place. In acknowledgement of the latter, a key question also scheduled to be posed at one of the Frieze talks in 2006 – though not, unfortunately, in a forum I was able to attend – referred to the ‘trans-aestheticisation’ of contemporary society, demanding to know whether ‘art is still art when art is everywhere?’ Interestingly, this can be read in at least four different ways, some of which may be said to betray a distinct nervousness – or, indeed, mournfulness – relating to the potential dissolution promised or threatened by performance’s simultaneous elusiveness and ubiquity, which has implications for both ownership and meaning. The question proposes a consideration of the possibility, first, that anything may be called art these days as long as it frames itself as such. Second, that art may still be the art that it always was, but it can occur anywhere now. Third, that art – regretfully – has relinquished its elitist ties and become ‘available’ to all and sundry. And, fourth, that art’s relevance at a ‘local’ level – that is, as being intrinsic to ‘the place from which it springs’ – has been usurped by the demands of a global market. For my purposes, though, I wish to concentrate for the time being on art’s ‘performative spillage’, both on to the street and beyond, and even back into the gallery, and, as Butt puts it, in terms of ‘the experience of art as a profoundly embodied experience’ (2005: 9). Importantly, the latter occurs not only as part of culture – and, therefore, presupposes the inscription of certain constitutive values and conventions – but also, by implication, in space. Thus, it is my overall concern to interrogate in this book what I perceive to be an increasing preoccupation of art directly and indirectly with the experiences and discourses that make up living within the space of the city, an impulse that has doubtless emerged as a consequence of the global fact of an ever-growing urban