21st Century: Art in the First Decade

Peter Hill considers an exhibition dedicated to art in the first decade of the 21st century and wonders just how innovative the past 10 years have been

July 28, 2011

Credit: Queensland Art Gallery
Petrol head: Romuald Hazoumé's s Liberté mask, made from a plastic container once used to smuggle fuel

Will this year's Venice Biennale (until November) allow us to take the temperature of how art has changed during the first decade of the 21st century? Or do we need to look further afield, to Australia, to get a more convincing overview of what happened globally during this period?

A recent exhibition at Queensland's enormous Gallery of Modern Art (Goma) in subtropical Brisbane tackled this question head-on. 21st Century: Art in the First Decade focused exclusively on works created between 2000 and 2010. It gathered more than 200 works made by 140 artists from more than 40 countries, including a Turner prizewinner (Martin Creed) and an award-winning film-maker (Isaac Julien). A double-helix slide sculpture by Belgian artist Carsten Holler allowed visitors to helter-skelter through the interior of the building, and free-flying zebra finches created soundscapes when they landed on clusters of thousands of "wired" coat-hangers, the work of Frenchman Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

The gallery's own massive holdings of contemporary Asian art, along with recent purchases from Africa and South America, helped give the survey its international feel. One of my favourites is a kind of sub-Saharan form of arte povera in the work Liberté (2009) by African artist Romuald Hazoumé, a mask made from porcupine quills protruding from a recycled plastic container used to smuggle petrol from Benin to Nigeria. Significantly, there is a strong showing of artwork from the immediate region - Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

The catalogue is exceptional, expertly compiled by Goma's senior curator Miranda Wallace. Fifteen essays on the state of contemporary art have been commissioned by many international writers and theorists, including Manuel J. Borja-Villel from the Reina Sofia, Madrid; Terry Smith from the University of Pittsburgh; Rex Butler from the University of Queensland; and Claire Bishop from the City University of New York Graduate Center.

What was striking was the sheer scale of many of the works on show. Two of the first pieces I encountered nod in the direction of superfiction and also contain elements of trompe l'oeil, a device making something of a contemporary comeback. An extremely inviting swimming pool was set into the floor space of one of the interior galleries. This is a work by Argentine artist Leandro Erlich called simply Swimming Pool (2010). You approach it tentatively and peer down through its clear waters, astonished to see groups of visitors walking around beneath the surface. A clever yet satisfying conceit, the surface of the water reveals itself to be as thin as a Richard Wilson oil installation, and visitors can access the pool from a lower level and look up at others looking down.

Xu Zhen, by contrast, has given us the recreation of a contemporary supermarket correct to the last detail in ShanghART Supermarket (Australia) (2007-08). It is an impressive work but is really going over old ground first explored by the Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl during the 1980s and 1990s.

Flora and fauna was a strong sub-theme to much of the work on display. At times it was like walking around a fabulous zoo that could have been part-cartoon, part-David Attenborough documentary.

In addition to the musical zebra finches, there was a life-size reclining elephant by the Anglo-Indian artist Bharti Kher, covered in thousands of tiny bindi; Justine Cooper's Saved by Science series, comprising large-scale digital colour prints of taxidermied stags, goats, yellow honeyeaters and blue triangle butterflies; Jake and Dinos Chapman's Etchasketchathon series, featuring giant rabbits witnessing horrific scenes of violence; Australian artist Arlo Mountford's wonderful digital animation of Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow, complete with hunting dogs and swooping birds, titled The Folly (2007-09); Ricky Swallow's hand-carved table of fish and lobsters; the Aboriginal Aurukun "Camp Dog" sculptors with their pack of painted and carved dogs; Fiona Hall's meticulous birds' nests, all 86 of them, made from shredded US dollar bills; and Louise Weaver's Phoenix, Indian Blue Peacock (2008-09), in which hand-crocheted lambswool of striking colours covers the taxidermied form of a peacock.

The human animal was equally ubiquitous throughout Goma's many floors, including Damien Hirst's diamond-dust skull silkscreen For the Love of God, Laugh (2007); Shaun Gladwell's Turneresque skateboarding video Storm Sequence (2000); Parastou Forouhar's deeply sinister Swanrider (2004); Tracey Emin's hot-pink neon sign I Never Stopped Loving You (2010); and Anglo-Iranian Mitra Tabrizian's City, London (2008), an image of soulless men in suits posed in the foyer of what might be an antechamber to the Stock Exchange. This image, used on the cover of the catalogue, perhaps best reflects the new millennium's first decade, with its echoes of boom and bust and the haunting smell of the global financial crisis.

But what was really new during this period? Did any art movements between 2000 and 2010 succeed in breaking away from what happened in the 1980s and 1990s, when art world paradigms changed like traffic lights? Wild painting in the early 1980s led to Neo Geo, Appropriation, Deconstruction, Installation Art, Video Art, the Post-Human and the Post-Medium. Even the currently popular Relational Aesthetics is rooted in the 1990s, along with a range of artists, such as Canada's Janet Cardiff, who investigate art, fiction and narrative.

So have we simply experienced a decade of consolidation? Or, instead of newness, did other elements of the art world's support structure - auction houses, enormous new museum spaces such as Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, powerful magazines such as Frieze, and a surfeit of art fairs and biennales - shift the focus away from the artist in her post-studio environment and on to the art world's delivery and support systems?

Consider that books on contemporary art are still coming out (my shelves are full of them) with images of Damien Hirst's tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde on the cover - the latest is Terry Smith's excellent What is Contemporary Art? (2009). Hirst's work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), is now more than 20 years old, a period during which one might usually expect at least half a dozen major changes in dominant art movements, yet it is still being used as a symbol of "the new". Is it really that great? And by extension, are there no artists today who are creating work that obviously appeals to book designers and their focus groups?

The curators at Goma, under director Tony Ellwood, have probably raised more questions about the state of contemporary art than they have answered.

Goma is replete with contemporary art and its discourses, even in the toilets, where a Claude Closky sound work echoes from cubicle to hand dryer. Later, when we strayed from the press briefing, we were asked if we would care to join two others for a Thai Workers' Lunch - an artwork, of course, and one that has the fingerprints of Rirkrit Tiravanija all over it.

And so in the middle of the main gallery space, one couple and two strangers face each other across a rather splendid meal, ringed by press photographers and TV crews, and try to discuss as unselfconsciously as possible the exhibition and its broader context. Yes, it was a great show, we all agree. One of the best we have seen. But no, it did not highlight the first decade as a period of new art movements. Rather, it was a time of consolidation, of building on earlier revolutions. In fact, we think collectively, it once again highlighted the folly of dividing contemporary life and culture into strict decades. Perhaps the more lopsided period of 1997 to 2007 would fit better into some kind of dynamic historical space.

As I write, gymnasts are performing within the US pavilion of the Venice Biennale under the direction of the art duo Allora and Calzadilla. But this is a neo-Duchampian move similar to Martin Creed's work at Tate Britain, in which athletes ran through the Duveen Galleries at timed intervals. Like the currently popular theme of the "nomadic" in art, which dates back at least as far as Achille Bonito Oliva's 1993 Venice Biennale, these "social actions" do not represent a fresh tendency for the 21st century.

Postscript :

Peter Hill is an artist and writer and adjunct professor of fine art at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is currently writing a book called Curious About Art: Why Do Art Movements Change?

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