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Contemporary Art: 'Now' or 'Never'?


A few months ago, I was asked to respond to a questionnaire on 'What is Contemporary Art' by C-Arts magazine (http://www.c-artsmag.com). A brief report of the questionnaire was published in C-Arts #2 (March/April 2008). The discussion is still ongoing, and I feel multiple platforms should address these issues. N.E.W.S. is one of these platforms, and hence I would like to challenge the contributors to consider the issue of 'Contemporary Art: 'Now' or 'Never'?

Below is a copy of my full (unedited) answers to the questions posed by C-Arts.

More n.e.w.s. on this to come from others, I hope...http://www.c-artsmag.com/forum/

CA: In your vision, what is meant with the term Contemporary Art?

TJB: Ideally, the term contemporary art is used for denoting dynamic modes of practices and discourses in creative cultural productions that are capable of rearranging notions of the time, place, and space. The term contemporary art can not simply symbolize the “process” of art-making within the “condition of contemporaneity” – the “condition of [being in] the present” (Smith, 2001).

Such a notion has more recently led to the use of the term contemporary art now. It would easily fall prey to a “circular definition” of the term contemporary art, whereby, following Jean Baudrillard: “art is only contemporary of itself” (Baudrillard, 2003). Instead, contemporary art can often not resist the complex conditions set forward by the constant need of mankind for socio-political provisioning, geographical arranging, institutional ordering, market valuation, and historical positioning. Contemporary art is not only produced in time, but also in place and in space; all of which are related to social structures.

The best contemporary art can do now, is to rearrange our perceptions of time, place, and space, and to challenge social behavior and public conduct. This means that contemporary art may disturb public peace, or intentionally disrupt a public meeting or sleeping community in its performance. This, at least, would be part of the social function of contemporary art. (Berghuis, 2006)

CA: How long has this term been used?

TJB: The term contemporary art seems to have been used for a long time now. As far as I can recall, it was already used at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Within a global context it is also important to look at the way different cultures have used different terms to describe the notion of ‘being in time’. In China, for example, there are constant connections and divergences between terms that denote such notions, such as xiandai (modern times, the contemporary age, the ‘now’ age); jindai (modern times, the approaching age); and dangdai (the present age, the contemporary era). These terms were conveyed in other cultures in Asia, including in Japan.

What’s more, these terms become connected to changing notions of art, including of fine arts (meishu) and the (skilled) arts (yishu). Hence, a growing number of Chinese artists in the 1990s are more likely to describe their experimental practices with the term dangdai yishu (contemporary art), and hardly ever use the term dangdai meishu (contemporary fine arts). In China, contemporary art is not only connected to a time-based issue – symbolized by the ‘process of art making within the condition of contemporaneity’ (dangdai). Even more important, contemporary art is conditioned by the nature of practice (yishu); which is often related to attaining a particular skill and to upholding a particular ‘mind-set’ in art-making; which is often referred to by members of the experimental art scene in China as upholding an ‘attitude’ (taidu).

CA: Is this term used to denote or indicate a time period in art, or is it used to indicate certain art forms?

TJB: Following on the last comments made about the way contemporary art in China is conditioned not only by the contemporaneity of practice, but also of the nature of artistic practice, there are certain examples that can be raised to argue that the term contemporary art is used to indicate certain art forms, or at least to produce art that is capable of repositioning a certain ‘attitude’ in the process of art-making.

For many art professionals working outside the domain of the state-institutions in China, Chinese contemporary art has often become synonymous with an “uncooperative approach” (bu hezuo fangshi), which also became the Chinese title of an important satellite exhibition to the Shanghai Biennale in 2000, and a subsequent book publication of recent art from China by the tow curators of the show, Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi. The English title of the exhibition, and of the book, was FUCK OFF; thereby creating a good idea of how ‘having an attitude’ could determine the nature of contemporary art-making (Ai and Feng, 2001).

However, at the same time as the exhibition was held, the state-bureaucracy in charge of the arts in China also started a process of identifying Chinese contemporary art, aimed at repositioning their role in the global dissemination of Chinese contemporary art, which becomes increasingly popular internationally. The main focus becomes to disseminate a proper representation of Chinese contemporary art; one that is part of the national discourse of fine arts (meishu). What follows is a debate in some of the leading art journals on the principles that form the basis of Chinese contemporary art, including aesthetic principles and the upholding of moral standards in contemporary art from China. This debate marks the institutionalization of the national discourse of contemporary art, which seeks to connect itself with the global discourse of contemporary art.

CA: If it is used to indicate a time period, then when would it have started, and till when? There is a notion that contemporary art refers to art from the time of the Second World War until the present time. In this case, WW II is often used as a "starting point". What is your opinion as to what is behind this?

TJB: The easiest way to position contemporary art is to somehow position it chronologically. Crisis and hope, and processes of massive destruction and of rebuilding the world after WW II, formulate new challenges to look forward. The political-economic repositioning of new super-powers lay at the basis of any discourse that is based on identifying the post-WW II period as a new era; producing a new notion of the contemporary. Yet, whose contemporary are we exactly looking at?

This new incentive towards chronological periodization seeks to connect the rise of contemporary art to the surpassing of modern art (just as modern art surpassed traditional art). Here, it is important to see that the subsistence of the contemporary is conditioned by the manufacturing of collapse of the modern, which in turn was conditioned by the manufacturing of the end of the traditional. With the construction of a new era in art, and in defining the new parameters of contemporary art, comes the repositioning of new standards and new role models.

The dominant discourse of contemporary art, the discourse that connects contemporary art to art from the time of the Second World War, is, for a long period of time, a discourse that is founded in Europe and North America. It is closely affiliated to the ‘economic development model’ that is implemented at the end of WW II, and sets out to distinguish the developed world from the underdeveloped world. However, when the economic outlook of parts of the underdeveloped world starts to improve (leading to theories on the ‘developing world’), the world suddenly becomes more complex; as does the discourse of contemporary art becomes in need of more composite and dynamic models that are increasingly based on the notion of a global contemporary art.

CA: When do you think the contemporary art period will be over? What is your reasoning?

TJB: Perhaps, the question that should be asked here is: Whether contemporary art exists? And if so, what are the conditions for its existence? Only then can we ponder over the question when contemporary art may seize to exist, based on the predicament that the provisions for contemporary art will run out. If we reiterate the notion that contemporary art is “contemporary of itself” (see answer to question 1.), it would be possible for contemporary art to become perpetual; since it is based on “circular definition”, and hence on continuous circulation within the condition of the now.

Yet, perhaps contemporary art seizes to exist each time it becomes historicized. Or at least, the condition of contemporaneinity is tainted by determining art as contemporary art. Eventually there should be an understanding of the disparity between processes that assemble the 'tragic' contemporaneity of restrictively staged artistic practices and forces that arrange the farcical evocation of "untainted art objects" in the public domain. Here, it is perhaps useful to reiterate the historicizing quote on: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce (Marx, 1869)

CA: If the term refers to forms or styles or certain themes in art; what forms, styles, and themes are classified in Contemporary Art?

TJB: An example was given in my answer to question 3, in relation to contemporary art in China.

CA: What are the differences and similarities and relationship between what is termed Contemporary Art and Avant-garde?

TJB: Perhaps, some of the similarities also connect to the idea of developing a particular ‘mind-set’, or ‘attitude’ in the process of art-making; one that is ‘cutting-edge’, challenges the conditions under which art is practiced, and defies the institution of art. Yet, following my answer to question 4, one can it also becomes important to see that the subsistence of contemporary art is conditioned by the manufacturing of collapse of modern art. What follows, especially in recent years, is a circular definition of contemporary art, which is still ongoing.

On the other hand, the avant-garde (at least in China) was conditioned by the development of an intellectual movement during the 1980s; one that must be seen as Chinese high modernism or its "high culture-movement", in which the “knowing subject” rises above the “consuming and producing subject” (Wang, 1994). After the crackdown on protest at Tiananmen in 1989, the widespread hopes and dreams of creating a "high culture" evaporated, and were replaced with a pop-culture where taste was defined by the principles of market value and turning a "fast buck," which was referred to as, "stir frying money" (chao renminbi). The avant-garde seizes to exist, but the contemporary art movement continues to develop amidst increased circulation of Chinese art in the global market.

CA: Referring to Question no. 6, can a comparison be made between Contemporary Art and : · Modern Art and Post-modern Art? · Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction? · Pluralism Art?

TJB: Yes, some of the above answers can be related to these concepts, but a more detailed analysis will require a quantum beyond the scope of this questionnaire. Meanwhile, there are plenty good books already published on these comparisons.

CA: Is there a shared characteristic that is present in the various understandings of Contemporary Art? What is/ are its/their specific characteristics?

TJB: One could say it is the level of circulation; both the circulation of art practices that are understood to be conditioned by the present, and the circulation of discourses of contemporary art that are conditioned by the idea of the now. Yet, in order to perceive some type of social function of art that is capable of projecting into the future and connected to the past, it is also important to look at the ‘mind-set’ that lies behind the production of contemporary art. Hence, it is essential to examine the levels of performance of contemporary art.

CA: What is your view of the development of Contemporary Art in the West (Europe and United States of America), compared to its development in Asia, Africa and Latin America?

TJB: There are parallel conversions that are currently examined, and many more that deserve our attention. As of now, it is important to notice that these parallel conversions already challenge the conditions of contemporary art; both in terms of the production, dissemination, and in developing a new critical framework of global contemporary art.

CA: In China, at the time of the New Wave appearance, there was a debate on "Contemporary Art in China" and "Chinese Contemporary Art." What are your comments and opinions on this?

TJB: The ‘new wave’ movement was closely affiliated with the high-culture movement of the 1980s. The debate on Chinese contemporary art started around 1999-2000, and continues until today.

CA: What is your view of the development of contemporary art in today's art market?

TJB: The current development of contemporary art is closely related to the market, and hence is dependent on “the exchange of goods and services that take place as the result of buyers and sellers being in contact with each other, either directly or through mediation of institutions.” At the same time it becomes important to look at the levels of performance of contemporary art in the market, and for this it is important to not only look at pricing models, but to look at more complex models to examine the overall performance of contemporary art. This includes, paying more attention to the critical framework surrounding the development of contemporary art.

CA: How do you see the future of Contemporary Art?

TJB: The future of contemporary art should be complex, challenging, and capable of generating composite, dynamic discourses, capable of disseminating intricate ideas about a broad-range of practices. It will create problems, and for that reason, the future of contemporary art should be based on developing unremitting critical frameworks that are capable of rearranging notions of time, place, and space. Contemporary art should awake the sleeping communities.


(Baudrillard, 2003) Jean Baudrillard, “Art… Contemporary of Itself” (2003), quoted from Jean Baudrillad, The Conspiracy of Art (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005)

(Berghuis, 2001) Thomas Berghuis, Performance Art in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006)

(Marx, 1869) Karl Marx, Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1869), quoted from Lewis, S. Feuer, ed., Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (Glasgow: Fontana, 1969)

(Smith, 2000) Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Contemporary Art, Contemporaneity and Art to Come (Sydney: Artspace Critical Issues Series, 2001)

(Wang, 1994) Wang Jing, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

links: http://www.c-artsmag.com


on the right to sleep

"Contemporary art should awake the sleeping communities," you say. As someone who happily spends well over a third of his life asleep, I take particular exception to this claim. Being roused from unproductive slumber is bad enough under any circumstances (well, I should qualify that, it depends on the awakener and their short-term motives); but being awoken by contemporary-fucking-art strikes me as positively nightmarish. Sleep deprivation is still considered a form of mistreatment in some ethical circles, and as long as communities are sleeping, they're neither consuming nor producing anything - least of all contemporary art - and are in effect engaging in one of the few potentially seditious passivities left to us: idleness.

My complaint is three-fold.

Firstly, where did that normative "should" come from? Telling art what it should be doing may be pointless, but it does reveal an implicit discontent with what it merely "is." Focusing on the reasons for that discontent strikes me as fruitful.

Secondly, to say that art should is to imply that it could. Which brings us back to that Modernist faith that art can change the world, enlighten consciousness, or as it were "awake the sleeping," for their greater good, of course. It obviously cannot -- if it could, surely we would have noticed it by now. Though what it has proven effective at is intruding into previously uncolonized realms of the lifeworld.

Thirdly, this sort of statement is laden with the values of contemporary productivism. It ridiculizes art by saying it should do what it cannot, but insists that it should do (something); that is, it harnesses art into the productivist colonization of life -- of life as production. The most interesting artists today do literally nothing, but they do it with a certain self-understanding, opening a new paradigm.


having a dream, perhaps?

These points are interesting, but very bewildering. I feel, it raises the concept of 'authorship'. The comment was made about 'art' in relation to communities, and thereby hinting upon its inherent social function. Instead this reply is immediately drawn to the [singular] role of the 'artist'. Is this the level were art begins, and where it is supposed to end? What about the public, social, and critical function of art? I am fine with artists who take the time to sleep, and to dream-up a 'new paradigm' that is based on 'doing nothing'. For a moment, I felt ashamed for having woken you up. Then again, in my world sleeping for one third of the time is not considered to be anything close to 'sleep deprivation', but maybe I am being mistreated? Yet, with all this sleeping going on there is the risk of escapism; of shutting one's eyes to experiences of daily life, by choosing to sleep rather than to stay awake; and by dreaming-up self-referential hypotheses, rather than to see the everyday reality of those who are less fortunate, who spend their time desperately trying to stay awake to perform their daily routines. My comments were clearly directed towards those who still have certain concerns about survival, about 'continued existence', and about the growing apathy towards real-time and real-life experiences - particularly by people seeking to leisure at their own will, and who choose to relax in order to express their level of self-understanding and their personally-found freedom and liberties. Finally, I take it that 'right to sleep' also brings in a renewed call for the ultimate aesthetic function of art; as being something that promotes the exuberance of beauty from the unconscious (or semi-conscious) mind. Or perhaps, 'the right to sleep' is just about 'having a dream'?


My comment has nothing to do

My comment has nothing to do with authorship; I refer to artists only once, in the last sentence, as (perhaps misleadingly) those who produce art. No, I too was commenting directly on the so-called "social function" of art. I would be interested in having even one example where "art" played a leading role in any non-art-related social debate. I am more than skeptical about art changing our perception of time, place and space, as you argue, with typical artworld modesty. Outside the almanacs of worldart artworld discourse, such a function is just a dream.

As to your lesson-giving about how my advocacy of sleeping boils down to escapism, apathetic "dreaming up" of self-referential "hypotheses" in flagrant disregard for the sleep-deprived downtrodden, I guess we don't agree. I was not talking about "leisure", but about sedition -- about the only thing that refuses to play the system's game. Produce more, you say, more art, more critique, more, more, more. If that worked, the world wouldn't look the way it does, and that goes for the artworld too. I'm sure not against dreaming, but above all I am against doing what I am supposed to do before I am even asked. It seems to me you are advocating in your own way that we partake in the regime of generalised urgency. I say, Way more of less!


about eating

I don't want this to become too personal. I hold great respect for our contact in the past, and for your work. At times we agree to disagree. This seems to me a good starting point. Moving from the passive 'idleness' and 'doing nothing' towards 'sedition' is where we seem to meet in agreement . Here non-production may indeed allow a way to evade control by initiating 'circuit breakers' (following Deleuze).

To ask whether to use the world 'art' is a pertinent, yet time-consuming, proposal. So long as their is a discussion about 'art', one may in fact strengthen the system of 'art' itself. Here, 'sedition' may come back into play. We could decide to deliberately give up our discussion about 'art', and talk about 'eating' instead.

This brings me to one possible instance where 'art' (or not?) may have played a leading role in a series of 'non-art-related social debates'. This was the case with the world-wide distribution of photographs of the Chinese artist Zhu Yu eating a deep-fried fetus, 'Eating People', 2000. Many discussions have taken place on this performance, including countless that were 'non-art-related social debates'. At the same time nearly all of the discussions referred back to 'art'. The first question often posed is "is he really eating a baby?" Here, the answer is simply "Yes" The second question that is frequently asked is "Is it art?"

The second question clearly leads to a topic that is open for to discussion. In China, the question about whether 'art is important' has been discussed since the late-1980s. Many of the discussions follow the publication of an essay by the leading art critic, Li Xianting, titled "Art is Not Important", which in 2000 became the title of his book-publication of collected essays.

According to a comment made by Li, in an interview in 2000, "when we conduct criticism to grasp an artwork, an artist, or in grasping an ideological trend in art, one is in fact posing a cultural question". During subsequent discussions, ideology also became part of the debate.

Overall, the performance has received less attention in 'the art world' than that it has had in the 'world beyond art'.

We can ask "If art is not important, than what is?"

(I am hoping others will join in the discussion as well)


hoping others will join in the discussion

I will answer Thomas’s hope -- by being another who joins in the discussion as well. Although, of course, I am not the answer to his hopes. I think Thomas is dreaming of something or someone else. Perhaps that’s what art does -- and I say “art” cautiously, since Stephen has thoughtfully questioned the very use of the word. And Thomas, in turn, has questioned, albeit less confrontationally, the word “contemporary”. I’ll say that word cautiously too.

So: “Contemporary art” answers hopes, but it is not the answer to “our” hopes (and, as always, when it comes to the collective pronoun, the construction, space and place of this “our/us/we” is complicated and complex).

The experience and production of contemporary art generates feelings of adequacy -- because it does answer, it joins in the discussion as well -- but only inadequately. It is not THE answer. But hasn’t “contemporary art” long stopped presuming it could offer definitive answers. And yet it does answer, and people seem happy to listen to it. Yet people go way from art not with fullness, but lack. Nevertheless, these encounters with contemporary art, do they perpetuate the habit of hoping?

I’m a little worried when Stephen sees the problem of productivism in everything, and that every problem is also a problem of productivism (although not only a problem of such). I’m in great sympathy when he is severely critical of the “more and more”, but I’m not sure Thomas’s assertion of “art should” is really a normative “should”. I’d like to know what Thomas and Stephen think about this “should”, if were read less about being normative than about being hopeful.


hopeful indeed

It has been a while since I was able to make time to respond to the discussion. I am indeed somewhat hopeful in that art still has a function to play in our contemporary existence. Looking back at the previous discussion I agree with Stephen that caution needs to be taken with the word art. I referenced Li Xianting by saying that 'art is not important', followed by the question 'If art is not important, what is?' I can see how anything dealing with productivism, as mentioned by Stephen, would become problematic and tiring, indeed. The right to a life would be another thought that springs to mind, when thinking how much time is spend dealing with the production of 'more and more' art. Hence, I agree with Weng that we need to ask 'what is it that art does', as well as (following another comment by Weng on Biennales) 'What is it that art wants from us? These days I often hear people say how they 'do Biennales' and wonder what they are actually doing there. It is time to raise questions, time to debate, and to challenge the sites and sounds of constant production by allowing time to sit back and reflect. Indeed, what does 'it' do?



My thoughts were again with the 'right to sleep', following the earlier response by Stephen. It brought me to the idea of the surreal, which I recently rewrote into an article on recent art in Shanghai, titled the 'Shanghai Dream-Theater:
(Re-)imagining the City, the Conditions of Existence, and the New Shanghai Surreal' (Sydney: TAASA Review, 2007) and (Melbourbe: 2008 CIHA Conference papers, forthcoming).

It follows Breton's early statement on surreality, where he states: “I believe in the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak. I am looking forward to its consummation, certain that I shall never share in it, but death would matter little to me could I but taste the joy it will yield ultimately.” [André Breton, “What is Surrealism? (1934)]


Sliding identity?

...Maybe the point is that contemporary art has, let’s said, sliding identity? It has not exact borders of time-terms-conditions-styles-themes-etc. It has a list of layers and each can find your own layer or link – it depends. It looks like a very realistic, but can be quite mythological. It can looks like the art, which can “awake the sleeping communities”, on the same time being the art, which these sleeping communities exactly dreaming about. And even if it is so speculative it can be quite amazing and truthful. I can give an example from our region – the most well known contemporary artist from Kazakhstan Erbossyn Meldibekov is working in a brutal barbarian style and, to my mind he is making very talented art-products, which are completely speculative, as he promotes the myth about barbarian Asian nomads /brutal/stupid/archaic/etc/. His works are usually “easy-done”, but they have a special alchemy contemporary value, which I cannot identify exactly. I cannot identify what is it as well, by the way, so sliding identity again…


back to the future

Your discussion of the various temporal notions informing descriptions of artistic practices in China reminds me of a conversation I had with two artists, Wang Wei and Rania Ho. It's remained one of those conceptual impasses for me (in a good way; I have far too many of them in the bad way), and maybe you can tell me if this rings true.

Psycho-spatially, they said, for a Chinese person, the future is behind you. The past is right ahead of you. This is most naturalistically demonstrated if you gesture forwards (typically when a westerner says 'tomorrow I'm going to...') and behind you (typically when a westerner says 'Oh, that was ages ago').

The logic behind this, I was told, is that we cannot see into the future, which is a total mystery. The past, though, is right there at our feet, evidence of what we have already built. This contrasts so strongly with my inherited feeling that the future is ahead of you and the past behind, I can't even find a means to elucidate why it is so

I could be tripping up over all sorts of problems here, or even presuming/producing a measure of difference as a result of this illustrative story that in fact doesn't really exist at all. But the implications - within art, life, politics, and Final Cut Pro - seem huge.