21st Century Art — Wish You Were Here

Gallery of Modern Art, Artlines Magazine 1 – 2011

Several artists in ‘21C’, says Carmen Ansaldo, champion the age of technological interconnectivity where the cult of the individual is exposed to new audiences through the internet, presenting options never before available to artists.

Lingering in glazed contemplation, suspended in the middle ground of a polished foyer — this image potentially describes both Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London 2008 and the viewer’s reaction to it as one of the first works seen on entering ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade’. Tabrizian’s digital print of business men frozen in eerie reflection provokes us to similarly reflect on the events of the last decade — the trials, pinnacles and the complete bottom-out losses. Like many of the works featured, Tabrizian considers this age within the context of the all prevailing influence of global capitalism, a system we invested so much blind faith in and yet one which failed us so badly. We look to Tabrizian’s JP Morgan employees for an explanation and they look everywhere but towards us in reply.

If art functions as an analysis of the times then we find the last 10 years have held particular concern with how the tangible forces of our globalised world have become increasingly permeating and abstractly philosophical. Through this transformation they could be granted the same lofty transcendental status as the modernist dissections of truth, freedom and beauty which came before them. Setting Tabrizian’s work against the indecipherable sea of financial indices of Claude Closky’s Untitled (NASDAQ)2003, the viewer may realise just how much personal responsibility we have forfeited in the creation of this brave new world and how little of these forces we actually understand. In this way, many works concern themselves with ‘real world’ material in order to comment on the forces of capitalism. Many pieces rely on technology, interconnective networks, combinations of different materials and on flexibility of interpretation in order to comprehend a period of history which is all powerful yet, as Tabrizian’s bankers have realised, sadly human and utterly chaotic.

A number of artists in the ‘21st Century’ exhibition have considered the possibilities of ‘real world’ material through the medium of the postcard — the classic artefact of the spectacle, the essence of a place packed into an easily digested consumable object. As leisure becomes one of the most expansive and profitable sectors worldwide, the mission of the tourist to experience and then discard, becomes commonplace. Postcards are testament to this idea where every place can be reduced to essential and easily readable characteristics, a quick impression. The postcard testifies to our demand for a reductive version of the world in vain hope of making the increasingly complex somehow comprehendible.

Brook Andrew’s installation, Ancestral Worship 2010, addresses this idea of culture as a commodity, reduced to a mere product of the leisure industry. Viewers are invited to literally recline on deck chairs featuring Wiradjuri traditional designs. With their backs to the documentation and artwork of Indigenous history, the cultural tourist is free to enjoy the Brisbane landscape, reducing knowledge to an over-simplified prop to be ticked off a ‘to do’ list. In this way, both the art and its historical significance functions merely as a complement to the city views below.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s pocket-sized reproductions of instantly recognisable brands consider the role of the postcard from a different angle. His hand drawn logos-come-icons are an example of how capitalism has created a global monoculture of brands which prevail on every continent. Through these rough recreations, Bruly Bouabré utilises what is closest and most accessible to him and to almost any viewer. These brands are reproduced in the format of the postcard but are inherently placeless due to their immediate recognition as the stuff of (all of) our lives.

Where Bruly Bouabré considers brands, Rivane Neuenschwander considers cities. In Mapa-mundi BR (postal) 2007, Neuenschwander has taken a series of photographs documenting business establishments in his native Brazil which feature names of tourist destination cities in their title (such as ‘Texas Bar’, ‘Edificio Tokyo’). Neuenschwander has transformed these photographs into postcards which the viewer is invited to take and post themselves. The names of these businesses conjure associations of a particular place which the owner hopes to monopolise on, no matter how woefully short their establishment comes to representing the exoticism its name attempts to evoke. Through the inability of the viewer to know where in the world these postcards have originated from (as they reference everywhere but their city of origin) Neueschwander highlights the uniformity of globalisation and the referential nature of one city in comparison to the next.

Many artists in ‘21st Century’ take the opportunity to present new possibilities and perspectives for this shared, globalized future. Some document the effect of excess, tourism and American hegemony on their environments. Others champion the age of technological interconnectivity where the cult of the individual is exposed to new audiences through the internet (the MEME Project, for example), presenting options never before available to artists. Some strive to locate the self — both viewer and artist — within these complex, global systems in an attempt to come to terms with their meaning. The postcard, a symbol of a time in retrospect, becomes a poignant theme for a show that considers the past decade in light of the commercialisation increasingly impacting and informing our lives. We become aware of our role not just as spectators but as consumers, and although this experience is given freely within the walls of the gallery, we find that outside it becomes paramount to our understanding of self and each other.

This essay was written for Artlines Magazine as part of my winning application in the Queensland Art Gallery’s New Wave Emerging Writing Opportunity. 

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