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Beyond Contemporary Art

by Etan Jonathan Ilfeld
Vivays Publishing, London, UK, 2012
240 pp. Paper, $39.95
ISBN: 978-1-908126-22-1.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini


The author Ethan Jonathan Ilfeld published his first book Beyond Contemporary Art to share his passion for contemporary art. Thus, in no way it should be taken as a compendium of artists illustrating a trend in contemporary art. Ilfeld selected 85 artists/group of artists, providing for each of them a summary of their work with high quality illustrations and a website address – official websites, which do not necessarily come up when we enter artists’ names in an online search engine, are extremely useful not only to get further insight into the artists’ background, work and ideas, but also to hear artists reporting directly about their work. An overwhelming majority of these selected artists is from Western Europe and North America. Russians are almost non-existent, and there is a small representation for Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Artists are classified alphabetically to avoid any categorization. Ilfeld leaves it to the readers to devise their own ones. However, a ‘selection’ implies a level of subjectivity. So what are Ilfeld’s criteria? He is particularly interested in digital art and in artists who create new art forms by mixing various disciplines and practices, including performance, sculpture, architecture, painting, graffiti, design, and new media. By bringing them together, he simply hopes to inspire people to think about what contemporary art is by nature almost indefinable in that artists are constantly pushing boundaries.

In his excellent introduction, Ilfeld reminds us about the current and rapid globalization of the contemporary art market with the blossoming of art fairs, festivals, and galleries (both corporate-sponsored and alternative ones), the opening of modern/contemporary art museums and art schools around the world, the acquisition of contemporary artworks by institutions and private collectors, travelling blockbuster art exhibitions, etc. In this vibrant art ‘ecosystem’, a cross-disciplinary discourse has emerged, fed by leading art schools and artists themselves. Thus, it is not unusual to see trained scientists or designers choose the artistic route to experiment with and communicate their ideas. For example, Patrick Tresset armed with a degree in Computing Science decided to become an artist, exploring nature through drawing. Following a nervous breakdown, he could no longer find inspiration to draw and returned to computing by creating a robot that sketches, AIkon – a genuine art-science integration. Sputniko! armed with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Mathematics continued on to a masters degree in Design Interactions and currently designs a wide range of devices that sit on the borderline between art and industrial design, such as Menstruation Machine, Nanohana Heel, and Pénis Cybernetique. Marina Kassianidou graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, one in Computer Science and another in Studio Art. Her practice shows the overlap between art and science, such as creating camouflages to invite viewers to seek beyond what they see. Usman Haque, an architect by training, experiments with architecture based projects to show how digital technologies are changing our built spaces taking into account the presence of the people who inhabit these spaces. It is striking to note how younger artists appear to be more market aware. Furthermore, they are better integrated than their older peers in the establishment either in academic institutions holding senior teaching posts or in the business community working on commissions for prestigious corporate brands. Stephanie Posavec specializes in data visualization and information design. Amongst other works, she has designed an artist theme for the Google Chrome browser and a visual index embedded in Stephen Fry’s MyFry iPhone. She created the artwork of limited editions of Haruki Murakami’s 1084, for a new edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for a series of album covers for the American rock band Ok Go, and for projects with various researchers and designers at Microsoft.

Beyond their educational background or market acumen, most of the artists listed in this book experiment with a wide range of art practices and disciplines. Ai Weiwei, a political activist for the freedom of speech, is a real polymath. He has worked in media ranging from conceptual art, photography, sculpture, film, design publishing and architecture. For example, he designed the Beijing National Olympic Stadium and created the Sunflower Seeds installation at the London Tate Modern – he commissioned 1600 Chinese artisans from Jingdezhen to create and hand-paint one hundred million porcelain seeds. Eduardo Kac has pioneered biotechnological and transgenic art and merges multiple media and biological processes to create hybrids from the conventional operations of existing communications systems. For example, his Aromapoetry is the first poetry book written exclusively with smell. This ever growing ‘cross-disciplinarity’ in art comes with pros and cons. On the one hand, it invites each discipline involved to become open minded to alternative ways of looking at the world. Combined with digital technologies they are both helping to change the modern mind’s need to divide, specialize, and think in categories. By linking places, disciplines, and objects of all sorts, they invite us to see things and ideas in terms of relations or relatedness rather than in isolation. On the other hand, there is a danger of oversimplifying complex issues and taking them out of their context. Hence, we must not forget that artists are only showing us new ways of thinking, of using space, materials, etc., and that they are not experts in each of the fields they are experimenting with. They are playing with them. It is for the scientists, the designers, the philosophers, the politicians to decide how they can test and integrate these new approaches in their own discipline (the issue of transdisciplinarity is currently discussed by a group of academics called SEAD who have published a series of white. Jeremy Wood plays with GPS satellites and highlights its inaccuracy in positioning objects in space. He shows the discrepancy between the physical and the virtual. Could this be a science project? By simply pointing out to scientists that they got their calculation wrong, can we really consider this installation an artwork? Other of his projects includes the creation of GPS maps of Warwick University and the recording of his daily movement in London over a decade.

This book points out that the internet, smart phones, social media, etc., have enabled the development of a real global virtual art space and network omitting though that they tend to work in favor of digital artworks. Other media, such as painting and textile, lose some of their texture when photographed. Therefore, an important component of their integrity is not transmitted – photographic representation is not how we perceive the world with a naked eye. The digital world is also favorable to experimenting with the boundaries between the visible and the invisible realities, the information and the materiality, reminding us of the Avant Garde artists at the turn of the twentieth century who found a new impetus to rethink the notion of space with emergent scientific theories of waves, X-ray, wireless telegraphy, relativity, and quantum mechanics. In both circumstances, revolutionary advancements in technology have brought artists a new range of instruments to explore light, movement, space, time, etc. Some of the contemporary digital art practitioners remain interestingly self-critical, though, in warning us how modern technology tends to place the value of efficiency above all values such as the aesthetic, the moral, and the spiritual.

Keith Haring and his subway drawings started a movement 20 years ago that has brought original artworks to everyone violating the traditional art display network, such as museums, galleries, and fairs. Followers continued this art display revolution using the internet and the streets to make and exhibit their work. Ilfeld selected the renowned Banksy, best known for his street art but we also learn that he is a painter, conceptual artist, and filmmaker – his film Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for an Oscar (Best Documentary). Aram Bartoll creates public intervention by integrating the virtual with the physical highlighting the interdependency of information and materiality. For Map, he juxtaposed digital data with a physical landscape by creating a giant Google Maps icon that he installed in several cities throughout the world. Invader, an anonymous group who meticulously plan their street interventions such as their mosaic meta-tagging in cities, create maps that have the shape of the mosaic tags. This project Target led to copycats generating a life of its own. These artists are also reminding us how we more than ever keep juggling our life between two realities: the physical and the virtual.

Conceptual art is about ideas and processes, an ideal platform for artists to document and show off their own creative process. Ilfeld mentions the Museum of Everything that does focus on the creativity involved in producing work that is usually not recognized within the fine art markets. He also points out that the speed at which the art market is going makes it increasingly harder to distinguish between underground counter culture, popular culture, and contemporary art.  In addition, the market forces with their commercial and profit agenda are increasingly influencing the creation and curating of contemporary art, for better or worse? Thus, only time will tell which artists, ideas, and processes will make history, implying that the contemporary art market is a rather ‘risky’ business.

Digital art is changing the notion of copyright in that if the ‘limited edition’ of an art piece is to remain, we need to find ways to keep track of the owner of each edition. A company’s [edition] is doing exactly that and hopes in the meantime to create a second market for digital work. However, is the principle of the ‘unique piece’ really that important anymore if, as conceptual artists show, the creative process itself is given more attention than its output? Perhaps, the creative ‘journey’ is the one to copyright from now on.

All in all, Beyond Contemporary Art is a very accessible, useful, and well illustrated book for anyone who is interested in digital contemporary art and would also like to learn more about its market trend, bearing in mind though that this book is written by a British author focusing by and large on Western European and Northern American artists.

Last Updated 3 June 2013

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