Art As if it wasn’t apparent already my approach to viewing contemporary art is this: all contemporary art is rubbish unless it (or the artist or displaying gallery) is able to persuade me otherwise. Actually, that’s not just so-called contemporary art. With all of the squeezes on free time (admittedly not so much for me at the moment) and the sheer mass of culture available to fill the gap when we’re not sleeping, life’s too short to spend time attempting to get to mental grips with something it's creator potentially hasn’t given much thought to themselves.
Harsh? Yes. But before we enter a one sided discussion about how some artwork is a slow burn, that not everything is an instant hit, that some work requires the viewer to concentrate over an extended period, let me agree with you. But let me also add that it’s still up to the aforementioned communicators to signpost that this may be the case, either by making the work irresistibly intriguing from the off, or providing the relevant teases in the accompanying text. Some art is simply designed to be pretty. Some however, beckons to be solved. The best art clarifies which of these it's supposed to be.
As Ilfeld notices, at a certain point “contemporary art” replaced “modern art” as a general description of this work. As such this creates problems since “contemporary” is a chronological moveable feast, every movement being “contemporary art” at a certain point in time. Are we to now categorise late 20th century art as the modern stuff in an attempt to differentiate? Or is it simply that “modern” as a word has it's own connotations and doesn’t really capture the multitudinous media within which art now expresses itself?
As the Liverpool Biennial demonstrates, in any white cube setting, a visitor is likely to be confronted with painting, photography, performance, film, video, installation, intervention, sculpture, discussion, digital and cross pollinations between all of these and more. On the one hand this can be an exciting adventure full of surprises. On the other it can be exhausting. Perhaps that’s why we often tend to retreat to the more accessible exhibitions. However often they’re sometimes tarted up with furniture and contextual objects, we know where we are with a room full of paintings.
With no exhibition in particular to accompany, Ilfeld arranges his survey in alphabetical order, an approach which means that even if the book’s read cover to cover, the experience isn’t unlike visiting one of those white cube,s as we’re never quite sure what we’ll see around a corner or through a door or as is the case here, at the turn of a page. A similar approach was utilised in Phaidon’s classic The Art Book, which jumbles up the history of art to create surprising juxtapositions, Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger opposite Orcagna’s St Matthew.
Ilfeld collects together some equally extraordinary images. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (seen in Duncan Jones’s film Source Code) is spread across a couple of pages allowing the reader the play hunt the photographer across its convex mirrored surface. Look, there’s Eduardo Kac’s Natural History of the Enigma in which the artist fused his own DNA with a petuna to create a “plantanimal”. Or how about Lisa Anne Auerbach’s photographs in which she clones herself in order to highlight her ensloganed knitwear promoting humanistic causes?
Paragraphs could be devoted to describing this rich pictorial record so it’s unfortunate that Ilfeld’s accompanying text is so devastatingly inconsistent. One of the reasons The Art Book remains a classic is its stripped down approach to presenting the work. Each artist is represented by a single piece, a high quality image of which takes up most of the page and the accompanying text, in three columns at the top dedicates itself to providing some background to the work and through that offering a window into an artist’s whole career.
Ilfeld’s attempt is more eclectic, with biographical notes, descriptions of works and how they can be accessed. But the structure is all over the place. Sometimes he noisily jumps between all three in the same paragraph at the expense of clarifying work which by its very nature is deliberately obtuse. A clearer approach, utilised in exhibition catalogues across the decades is to keep the two separate, providing a wider explanation of the artist’s interests before drilling down into the pieces at hand. This is a rare example of the work sometimes being less exhausting than the text.
More damagingly, no, that’s too harsh, more interestingly, the works included often don’t match those mentioned in the text. A typical example is the Antony Gormley entry which dedicates a paragraph to his Angel of the North but has a photo of his Spleen II which is unusual because with its steel block construction its entirely unlike Gormley's signature style. Or it's not obvious. The section about Pierre Huyghe's creation of a “manga” figure who starred in a series of collaborations though it's not completely clear if the imagine on the page opposite is supposed to be an example.
Ilfeld also comes unstuck when considering film. His synopsis of Miranda July’s Me And You And Everyone We Know focuses on the contemporary art satire and ignores its structural elements about the connectedness of society somewhat thanks to the internet. Steve McQueen’s entry has a page filling still from Hunger (erroneously describing it as a movie poster) but offers a very broad synopsis of Shame which fails to note its visual richness and how it applies what are arguably elements of video art to a narrative structure.
If all of this seems petty and nitpicky, it’s because as I indicated earlier, contemporary art is defined by its communicators. Offering a still from a video piece without explaining what’s in the thousands or millions of surrounding frames leads to neutering the artist’s message. Being more interested in listing the exhibitions an artist has presented at or their many awards first rather than putting their work front and centre seeks to confirm all of the nastier assumptions the wider public has about contemporary art (and I’d include myself in that).
At a certain point I wondered if I just wasn't the audience for the book, just as I'm not the right human for Vogue's September issue, man at Asda as I am. But as the video above explains this is supposed to be as useful for the curious and I'm not sure how useful it is to be told in the second sentence of the main text that public artist Invader "the 6th Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale, the Mama Gallery in Rotterdam, the Brouston Centre for Culture and Arts in Instanbul, and MOCA in Los Angeles, California." Such information could just as easily be included in an abbreviated CV elsewhere in the page or book.
There are admittedly some entries in which there’s synergy between the photographs and explanatory text (if only the rest of the book was as good as the Kac entry) and in places, Ilfeld has included illuminating quotes from interviews with the artists from a variety of sources which help to create a certain unity or purpose. But what’s the point of including a photo of Damien Hirst’s controversial diamond encrusted skull, For The Love of God if the accompanying three paragraphs are going to obsess about his mammals in formaldehyde and over-inflated auctions?
We could also have a discussion about the choices of artist (how does Hirst get in and not Michael Craig-Martin or Tracy Emin? No Rachel Whiteread?) but this is a matter of personal choice and priorities and this is just one book amongst many. But I’m left with a strange sense of disappointment, of wanting to be engaged but being faced with the textual equivalent of a gallery invigilator chatting to a colleague about the work they’ve seen in an artist’s other exhibitions but without much knowledge of what’s directly in front of them.
My view on contemporary art remains largely unchanged. There are hundreds if not thousands of really excellent artists, some of them working in fields where the financial rewards are minimum but where they’ve found their own ability to communicate, but that it’s often the dozens artists who are able to gain the massive financial rewards who have nothing to say. There’s a lot of rubbish. A lot of rubbish. But like all other forms of culture, it’s still worth sifting through the rubbish for those works which have the capacity to educate entertain and even redefine us.
Beyond Contemporary Art by Etan Jonathan Ilfeld is published on the 23rd October 2012.