I really like contemporary art. I love it so much to be irrational about it. I called myself without modesty “a groupie of contemporary art”. Although I rarely understand it, visiting a contemporary art gallery is by far one of the things I prefer to do. Perhaps I do not always understand what this art is about, but I never think that the artist is incomprehensible. It’s always me: I have to strive more. I respect deeply the one who creates and so I want to understand it, never forgetting that
If you do not understand anything, it is contemporary art.
Anyway, I really wanted to understand what attracts me and many other people to contemporary art. It couldn’t be that it’s impossible to understand it because otherwise I should love quantum physics but I swear, I don’t. That’s why I started to go back in time.
Many centuries ago art was meant to communicate. Popes and kings used it as a mean to express their beliefs and power. Then something happened along the way and I wanted to find out what it was.
Let’s talk about the School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio: we can notice the precision of the architectural composition and the finesse of characters description. It is a classic subject, typical of those times. In the 16th century the subjects of the paintings or frescoes were religious or aulic, geometric and balanced compositions. The pictorial technique was overwhelming and not by accident that age is remembered as one of the greatest of Art History.
The same is true of another celebrated fresco, that of Michelangelo’s Adam Creation in the Sistine Chapel. I do not enter into its description: I only want to point out how much expertise there is in the technique, how much wisdom in building the image. The reason for that is obvious, I do not have to point out that this is one of the most sublime works of man.
Then something happened, not long after: a few decades later, at the end of 1500, came the greek painter El Greco. Born in Greece (as the name suggests), he worked in Venice, Rome and finally in Spain where he died.
I must say that this is my personal interpretation of the evolution of art. Many critics may disagree – I’m not even a critic then. Take it a bit like a collection of memories related to the studies I did and what hit me most when I was a teenager studying classic painters.
When I first saw El Greco, I could not believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe that this technique, this kind of thick and powerful brushstroke was almost coeval with Michelangelo and Raffaello.
This type of technique became common at the end of the nineteenth century. But El Greco used it 300 years before. He invented it and pushed it to its limits, so we can say he was at least 300 years in advance. That is why El Greco marks the beginning of modern art a few centuries before critics say that modern art began.
Art criticism usually considers Impressionism as the first modern movement in painting. I chose this late painting by Monet because it is a bit less obvious than the famous Rouen Cathedral. It is a painting out of many that he did of the water lilies of his garden. These paintings are very big canvases that he composed at the end of his life, when he was half blind or perhaps completely blind. It’s easy to spot some realistic details like the reflection of the flowers on the water but I like the abstract component of these paintings. Considering that he was almost blind, we could say that he did not paint exactly what was in front of him, but rather what he saw in his mind, perhaps in his memory. We can therefore consider this painting as an abstract picture, even before abstract art was ever invented.
Then I’d like to talk about Francis Bacon. We could call these paintings “selfies”, even if we must admit that he was not generous with himself. He almost disintegrated his face, as he did with many of his friends who he portrayed, like his famous friend and painter Lucien Freud.
We began this journey by seeing clear and defined faces in Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s frescoes and then we began to see dematerialization of the trait to the far end in Bacon.
Then came Abstract Art and we have therefore to talk about the great Jackson Pollock and Action Painting.
As you may know, it is called like this because the act of painting as Pollock did — that is, stretching the canvas on the ground and dripping the colors over it — was an action that constituted the choreography itself of the work of art. The way he painted — his technique — was part of the painting itself.
Speaking of impressionism and action painting, we can thus introduce a fundamental element of contemporary art which is the temporal dimension.
For example, let’s think about the Rouen Cathedral that Monet painted in different versions in different moments of the day. Seeing these paintings you can understand that they portray some kind of architecture but brush strokes are so thick that it is not immediately recognizable which cathedral is that. Critics say that for Monet this was a way of incorporating time into the investigation of reality.
Even in this case, time becomes part of the art, just as Pollock would do years later.
How to visit a contemporary art gallery
Every time I start a journey I want to be like an empty glass: I want to be filled with what I’m about to see. I face every contemporary art gallery or museum with the same attitude: I do not know what I will find but I am ready to welcome whatever I see. Talking about contemporary art my suggestion is to be always open minded and without preconceptions.
It is useful to start to talk about contemporary art even by kidding us a bit. This is a cartoon that I did to illustrate my thoughts on contemporary art: it is about the importance of the context.
On the left you see a glass of water. It is not very well drawn but in short you can see that it is a glass. If you take the same glass, put it on a pedestal, illuminate it and put it in an art gallery it becomes a contemporary artwork. You don’t believe it? Indeed, it is not even a provocation: I happened to think the very same thing seeing something very similar at the Tate Modern in London many years ago. There was a glass of water on a shelf. That’s all. You might ask, “But could that glass be a work of art even if it’s in my kitchen?” Of course not, and that’s why I’m talking about the importance of the context.
Everything can be contemporary art
What I love most about contemporary art is that almost everything can be considered contemporary art, if it is displayed in the proper manner. Take for instance this work by Mika Taanila: it’s a book divided into three parts. If you read the title, marriage could not be described better: its contrasts and its tragic components could not be better represented than through a book called “Scenes from a Marriage” that is broken into three parts.
This is contemporary art, no doubt. Excluding at least that it is the work of a mouse that ate it after he found it in some cellar. Naah, this is certainly contemporary art.
We started from Raffaello and now we are talking about a book divided into 3 parts. I will soon return to the importance of materials in contemporary art.
Contemporary art can be very small (like the book above) and very big, like this installation that the danish artist Olafur Eliasson did some years ago at the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London. On that occasion he put a mirror on the ceiling of the Turbine Hall and built a gigantic mid-sun at one end of the same space. This mid-sun ceiling, reflected on the ceiling, became a whole sun.
The visitors entered the Turbine Hall and, laying down on the floor, saw themselves reflected on the ceiling, illuminated by this wonderful warm light. I’m saying this to emphasize another fundamental element of contemporary art which is the role of the observer. That installation would have been nice even without the visitors, but it was rightly one of the most beloved because the observer himself was part of the artwork: he was no longer looking at it from a distant point of view but he was inside it, a part of the artwork itself.
Let’s go back to talk about the importance of time as an element of contemporary art. Contemporary art is heavily based on the interpretation of time. This is not to say that it talks about time but instead that time is a tool used by this art.
Let’s consider for instance this installation by the korean artist Lee Wan: he hung 668 clocks on the walls of a small room.
If you look carefully at each clock you can find the name of a person and his nationality written in the middle. Time runs differently for each clock: sometimes slow, sometimes fast. That is why this is a work not only about time but rather on the perception of time. To accomplish this, Wan started from a given: how much a meal costs in different countries. It then translated how much time it takes for a person from each of those countries to earn the money that will allow him to buy that meal. He eventually turns an economic quantity into one of time. Very clever.
Time can be incorporated into an artwork in many different ways: this is Takesada Matsutani while literally “begins” his artwork punctuating with a needle a sack full of ink that will later drip drop after drop on the underlying wooden sphere.
This is also a contemporary artwork because it shows how it is possible to incorporate time into art, or at least to represent it. If you had visited this installation in the early days you would have found this sphere in natural wood. Later you’ll see it almost completely black. It is a work of art that is constantly evolving.
Another example: this work by the italian Michele Ciacciofera uses many different materials, like traditional tools for knitting and old tables. Probably at those tables were seated generations of women and men. This is also a way to incorporate memory and time into art.
Do you like it? Don’t you like it? The interesting thing about contemporary art is that the aesthetic categories do not explain it at all.
It’s not a question of I like it / I do not like it. Contemporary art is about us human beings, not about beauty. If we think in these terms it is obvious that Raffaello would always win.
Picture yourself getting into a white room. There’s nothing inside it.
This one above is actually an installation by Philippe Parreno called “Sonic Grid”. On the ceiling there is a neon grille that lights up and makes noises when you pass underneath. This is an artwork that needs the viewer to be activated. His role is therefore not only to look passively but also to interact.
If you think about it, when you are in the Sistine Chapel, your role is just to admire the beauty of Michelangelo’s work. When you are confronted with this kind of contemporary artwork on the contrary, you are required to make it work. I’m not saying that Michelangelo’s work is worth less than this: we are talking about the peaks of human creation. I’m just saying that the role of the observer has changed a lot in recent centuries. It is no longer just passive, I no longer have to admire but I’m required to interact, ask questions, find explanations.
If you do not understand what it is, it’s contemporary art
Okay, let’s stop talking about serious stuff. Let’s laugh a bit.
Have you ever noticed this kind of look? It is the same look we have many times we are in front of contemporary art. You can read in the eyes of this man “What is this stuff?”
Or this: this is an installation I found in the Japanese pavilion at the Giardini in the Venice Biennale. Is this art or some guys from the cleaning company just forgot their working tools the day before?
(Answer: it’s contemporary art, of course!)
And what about one of the installations I’ve seen most often in art galleries? I also did a cartoon about it: the fire extinguisher is always there and in the second case the caption that clearly refers to the right frame looks like it is about the extinguisher on the left.
Again: are you sure that these trunks are not really a subtle joke? I wouldn’t be so sure, who knows.
You know, contemporary art can often be disrespectful (in a funny way).
I remember that time when the german pavilion at the Venice Biennale was completely empty and there were only uniformed guards who repeated obsessively “This is contemporary! This is contemporary! “.
Also in this photo I know you recognize yourself: it is about the relationship we often have with contemporary art. We look at it and wonder if we are asked to understand something or if we are too stupid to understand it.
Another advice that I still want to give you is as follows: If you enter an empty room and you do not see any work of art, start to freak out because it means that you are the artwork.
Let’s finish with this image: there are these two lovely ladies wondering what contemporary art is, while looking at it. Maybe they do not find any answer. Did you get a little glimpse of what contemporary art is now? Maybe I did a mess, who knows, but next time you are at a contemporary art exhibition just think about my words, be open minded and enjoy it.