Peter Kalb is an associate professor of contemporary art at Brandeis University. The book Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary “charts the story of art in contemporary global culture while holding up a mirror to our society.” “The political and cultural transformations of the early 1980s developed a new era of accord between communist states and western-style economics. The art world has since been reconceived and today we see record-breaking sales of contemporary art and a dramatic rise in the number of students taking courses in the visual and performing arts. Kalb approaches art from multiple angles, addressing issues of artistic production, display, critical reception and social content. Alongside his analysis of specific works of art, he also builds a framework for readers to increase their knowledge and enhance critical and theoretical thinking.”
My immediate thought when finding out about the author and then skimming through the artists mentioned is that the whole chapter is a very white western male perspective.
The excerpt we were given is from Chapter 11: The Art of Contemporary Experience. It is difficult to find a copy of the whole book to understand how this chapter fits in the rest of the book.
My overall summary of the chapter is that it is a reflection on how we experience creative art, both how the artist intends the experience and how a participator actually experiences it. There are many interesting points to consider throughout the chapter. I think one of the things that stands out to me is this idea of subjectivity and objectivity. Is there really any experience that is truly objective? So much of what we experience is based on our own perceptions. Even though on a biological level, the mechanism behind the senses may be the same from person to person, there is such a range of how that is actually interpreted. Light with the same wavelength may trigger the exact same response in the retina but how that is processed by the visual cortex is so different. At what point does that difference occur? Taking the colour example, the colour can seem different when it is next to other colours, it can evoke different memories in different people, there are people even who have certain smells associated with different colours. There may also be people who have colour blindness who see a completely different colour. Maybe some don’t see colour at all. We have different colour preferences too. Why do we all interpret something that has a very physical property such a wavelength, so differently? Is there a true and real colour? Culture and society also have a huge impact, we associate different colours with themes. Green for example is the environment but then may differ in different cultures. As stated in the opening paragraph, they are in perpetual flux too. Time constantly changes our perspective and like mentioned later in the chapter, there is a reminder that we can never experience a first again. Once we have seen something the memory of that will always have an impact on how we view it the second time. Perhaps this is what time is, a hard line that is drawn where we can’t go back to experience something again. This makes me think about people who have memory loss, are they experiencing something new again? Or is there always some residual memory there that impacts their experience, even if it isn’t conscious?
The chapter looks at different ways that different artists have tried to consider this experience and how they have tried to test the ability to measure experiences accurately. They “demand viewers layer their sensual apprehension of form with an intellectual analysis of content”.
The chapter (and book) focuses on the post-1980s as it is felt this is when we as a society became more self-conscious. What was it about the 80s and 90s? Post-modernism : “Postmodern art drew on the philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles”.
This idea of examining what we see isn’t new. 18th-century Baroque art challenged the idea of the present with the ethereal realm of the divine.
The 1960s – Light and Space art aimed to allow people to view just the abstract effects of lights, colour and space and be free from specific cultural references. Is this truly possible? Or are we always influenced by culture and history – unconscious bias?
James Turrell is someone who creates art where shadows, reflections and solid objects are all equally real. It isn’t about fooling the eye in an optical illusion way, it is about letting people view something and reach their own conclusions.
We know our senses aren’t always accurate and there are people who suffer from memory loss. In these situations, how do we regain our bearings? This is something Eliasson tries to play with. Your strange certainty deliberately confuses. Water stops mid-air, fake electric storms are created. You know when you see it that it isn’t a real storm but the sense of wonder is no less powerful.
“Light and Space artists heighten our awareness of the human being as a sensing body”. We rely on our senses more than we realise – when they are taken away we often notice what is missing. For example, how different food tastes when you lose a sense of smell.
Your colour memory by Eliasson is a curved wall that changes colour. Due to the way the retina deals with light colours, as the colour of the wall changes, there is an afterimage. Each viewer’s experience is dependent on when he or she entered the piece, and the combinations of colour and afterimage will be different for everyone. This reminds me of the music piece where it is up to the composer and no piece is the same. John Cage’s Piano Concert (1957) there the order and inclusion of parts is at the performer’s discretion. So each performance will be different.
Ernesto Neto challenges the duality of body and mind. “body-minds that we connect the things in this world, in life- the way we touch, the way we feel, the way we think and the way we deal.”
Neto’s understanding of the mind-body, his perception of the world we encounter, either in the artwork or outside it, is as a “cultural-physical” entity. That art should be about trying to create experiences.
Roni Horn’s Things that happen again is one of the most interesting pieces mentioned in the chapter. It is two identical copper cones that are placed in two different rooms that are next to each other. The piece needs time and memory
You go into a space and see a simple disc. It doesn’t look like much: it isn’t until you walk in and see that it is a three-dimensional cone-shaped object which is familiar but has certain subtle formal qualities which make it different, which take away from it being familiar. It becomes memorable. Then you go into the next room and enact exactly the same experience, but of course, it’s unexpected and it’s so many minutes later; it’s a slightly younger experience in your life. Whereas when you walked into the first room, you had the experience of sometl1ing unique, you can’t have that a second time.
It is a very insightful way of highlighting that everything we see we are influenced by past experience. This idea of things being identical is a paradox, you always have one that is here and one that is there. Time and place have such an important role in something’s identity.
Another artist mentioned in the chapter I am fascinated by is Mark Dion and his work On Tropical Nature. Perhaps it is because I resonate with him mixing biology and art and his idea of interdisciplinarity between the two. It is early environmental art. I also am intrigued by his references to the way we want to classify and categorise everything. It seems a very human need. Like the historians who want to categorise time into distinct periods. Dion gathered different curiosities from his trips and placed them together, leaving the viewer puzzled as to why they were together. It makes us think about why museums choose the collections they do. Who gets to decide what is valuable enough to put on show. If you look at children and the way they treasure the strangest of things at times, it can often seem illogical too. But isn’t every categorising illogical and influenced by someone? It reminds me of a scene early in Stalker where the three men are talking in the bar before they set off to the zone. One tells the tale of an artefact in a museum that was found to be fake to trick archaeologists. Before this was discovered everyone viewed the item with “oohs and ahhs”. After the discovery of its deception, it was deemed worthless. Why do we place value on some items and not others? Is art really the influence of galleries, is this the same thing the Land Artists were running from? Some things also lose their value when placed in a gallery or museum. Like the hemlock tree in Dion’s Vivarium. It can no longer contribute to the greater environment even though it can be grown inside for decades
Artists and Work Mentioned
Your strange certainty still kept (1996)
Your colour memory (2004)
A curved room with changing colours
A central figure in the 1960s California-based Light and Space (https://www.theartstory.org/movement/light-and-space/)
Created works where shadows and reflections have the same properties as objects
Also mentioned in Doug’s lecture.
A network of navelike rooms, skeletal corridors, small caverns, and open pools and pads filled with cushions and balls.