Keeping up with the real

How do we understand authenticity in an age of hypermedia? Ajay RS Hothi and Christabel Stewart present five contemporary artists preoccupied with the return of realness

Contemporary art does not stand still: it is a mobile, nebulous body that snakes around trends and concepts, ingesting what it can use and discarding the rest. At the behest of some, and to the chagrin of others, contemporary art is about, specifically, that: the contemporary, the current, the utter now.

In 1996, Hal Foster published his seminal analysis of contemporary art, The Return of the Real, in which he argued that contemporary art is a form of ethnography: it is an analysis of the cultures and peoples from which it emerges. Think, for example, of the gleaming pinnacle of international contemporary art: the Venice Biennale. This year’s is titled All the World’s Futures and has a non-Eurocentric focus, imposed specifically by its Nigerian artistic director Okwui Enwezor, the Biennale’s first artistic director from outside of Europe or the U.S. As such, this year’s event is a study of how artists all over the world are responding to their present political, economic and cultural situations, and how they are projecting future trajectories based on this analysis of the contemporary. The Return of the Real is about the avant-garde in art, the absolute cutting edge. Foster claimed that the avant-garde references two other periods in the 20th century: the 1910s and 1920s, when contemporary art was concerned with the state, and the 1960s and 1970s, when it was concerned with the body. When the two are fused, the result is a return to art and theory that is grounded in actual bodies, materiality and social sites.

Over the past few years, we as audiences have been introduced (and have waved goodbye) to avant-garde practices such as post-internet art (an art-historic retrospective of the movement at the Whitechapel Gallery early next year will bang the final nail in that coffin), and Foster’s conclusions seem reflected in a contemporary idea of art as performing identity in a time of social instability, asking what it means to “be” “now”.Tankaut 15_61_cropJordon Wolfson, Raspberry Poser

Jordon Wolfson appears in his 2012 work, Raspberry Poser, as a punk, listlessly meandering through a Berlin park. The 14-minute piece is a hypnotically hallucinogenic loop of animation, illustration, video and photography. It is a complex work that, in part, is about performing the role of an artist. The punk is only a minor character in this work – it is peppered with sounds, animations and objects all competing to be the focus of attention. Images of high-end interiors are invaded with giant computer-generated HIV viruses swimming through condoms; a bushy-haired, Dennis the Menace-esque scamp continuously disembowels himself; Beyoncé’s distorted voice weaves through the soundtrack. Wolfson’s mode of address, which reflects his multiple spheres of influence, is flattened in this world of his creation. Meaning that we may draw from Raspberry Poser doesn’t necessarily come from Wolfson’s act of doing; it comes from the resultant chaos on the screen. What makes Wolfson’s work so interesting is how it forces us to question and rethink what we understand of hypermedia and authenticity.

Raspberry Poser (video still), 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; T293, Naples and Rome; and David Zwirner, New York Tankaut 15_58_cropIan Cheng, ewCloud

Chaos also reigns in Ian Cheng’s series of digital- and video-based sculptures ewCloud (2013). A mass of random, seemingly disparate objects are flung before your eyes in Cheng’s parallel world: potted plants, office chairs, coffee tables, shooting guns, dolphins, dinosaurs and much more, all in a variety of perspectives. The result is a digital trompe l’oeil, enhanced by the fact that ewCloud is a work made specifically for virtual-reality headsets. These headsets are connected to a network and the objects that you see are what Cheng terms “live simulation” – that is, born from a set of constantly changing algorithms. No two moments of any work from this series are the same. Simulation is the imitation (becoming ever more precise with the advent of computer-generated imagery) of real-life processes. In that way, with these works, Cheng has taken the most up-to-date technology widely available and presented his version of classical sculpture, except that we’re not using art to attain transcendence. God can actually be found in the machine.

ewCloud (Anggi & Angeli), 2013. Courtesy of the artist and STANDARD (OSLO). Photography by Ian Cheng
Tankaut 15_59_cropWu Tsang, Wildness

Wu Tsang’s work, in its simplest description, is about representation. Focussing specifically on queer and transgender communities, Tsang’s most high-profile work is the feature film Wildness (2012), which won that year’s Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary at Outfest. The film is a documentary about the Silver Platter, a trans-friendly bar in Los Angeles that, since 1963, has catered to a predominantly Latin LGBT community. The documentary is framed around a series of weekly performances by a group of young artists at the bar, including Tsang. As director, Tsang allows the performers and patrons to speak for themselves, with minimal mediation from behind the camera. Where Tsang’s voice does come in is to speak about judgement, stereotype and his own personal responsibility for their representation. As a performer, Tsang speaks directly on performance as research and lived experience. More than most contemporary artists, whose Photo Booth and Instagram selfies provide snapshots into their personal behaviours, Tsang’s work has a particular honesty to it, presenting straightforward accounts of individuals’ experiences.

Wildness, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Clifton Benevento, New York; Michael Benevento, Los Angeles; Isabella Bortolozzi, BerlinTankaut 15_60_cropPamela Rosenkranz, My Sexuality

Nothing can be more personal than one’s sexuality, Wu Tsang suggests. Pamela Rosenkranz takes an inverted position. The series of works that comprise My Sexuality, first shown at Karma International, Zurich, in 2014, are large-scale aluminium canvasses covered in squirts or swathes of acrylic paint with the titles Sexual Power (Viagra painting 1-11). In a 2015 piece for Art in America, Aoife Rosenmeyer wrote that Rosenkranz has achieved widespread international attention because “her work raises fundamental – and potentially troubling – questions about what it means to be human in the contemporary world”. The 11 works in My Sexuality stand on the floor, at approximately head height.

They are weighty and project an atmosphere that swings between gentleness and aggression, more so when you consider that the walls of the gallery are draped in clear plastic, as though lifted from some gruesome slasher film, or a BDSM basement. Standing head-on in front of the works, viewers will see a distorted reflection looking back at them. These exquisite, beautifully crafted gallery objects are deeply concerned with their material being; they are carnal, degenerate bodies.

My Sexuality (installation view at Karma International, Zurich), 2014. Courtesy of the artist; Karma International, Zurich; and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photography by Gunnar Meier
Tankaut 15_61_cropMark Leckey, See, We Assemble

See, We Assemble, a 2011 exhibition by Mark Leckey at the Serpentine Gallery, presented a range of sculptural, sound, video and performance works. Really, what we want to do is start in 1999 with Leckey’s video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, which looked at British nightlife from the 1970s to the present day, and its relationship to contemporaneous fashions. Three figures loom large over See, We Assemble: Fiorucci, Henry Moore and Samsung. Leckey looks at how images – anything from fine art to commercial, high-street brands – have an affective power over individuals and communities, but also over one another. For the work BigBoxStatueAction (2011), a sound system is put “in conversation” with a work of art. For GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction (2010), Leckey communicates with a “smart fridge”, even going so far as to use green-screen technology to replace his own body with that of the object itself. §

Mark Leckey, See, We Assemble (installation view at the Serpentine Gallery, London), 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet, London. Photography by Mark Blower


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