The Contemporary


The Decelerating Logic of the Avant-Garde


John Phillips


(Paper presented at the festival, SENI: Art and the Contemporary,

on 21 November 2004 during the Symposium)


I have a horror of people who speak about the beautiful. What is the beautiful? One must speak of problems in painting! Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art.  All of them are researches. (Pablo Picasso)


Introduction: Art, Exhibition and the Contemporary

The iconicity of a generic and widely recognized modernist—or contemporary—art is increasingly stapled into the fabric of the modern global city like some extravagant exterior and interior décor.  What, then, distinguishes art—the artwork, for instance, as provocation to or vehicle of thought—from the fabric of contemporary life itself?  Exhibitions—while serving several often quite different kinds of motive or purpose—can seem to play two rather contradictory roles.  On one hand, an exhibition can provide a platform for artists, a stage, that is, for the mobilization of whatever is intended by their art, thus opening a space of critical and even personal engagement between artwork and public, or artwork and state.  But, on the other hand, an exhibition would rarely escape the generalized functionality of exhibitionism, especially now in the late stages of the age of exhibition (which has manifestly not yet been superseded, despite claims to the contrary).  This generalized functionality serves to normalize a global condition of mutual watching and showing, instituted by a global urbanism whose main exhibit was always the sign of itself, and carried by the several forms of a global electronic media. Under these conditions even the spaces of conspicuous critical engagement (for which a perennially uncomprehending public play a crucial role) serve to normalize (in a simulacrum of irrelevant democracy) the effective dispersion and sedimentation of whatever critical or aesthetic idiom might emerge as if in resistance to the very forces that provide the space of its articulation. 

My paper deals first of all with the general question of how art addresses the contemporary.  Art no doubt serves as a powerful ally in struggles of all kinds.  Without denying this possibility (but not defending it particularly either) the paper examines the relation between art and its contemporary when these divide and the relation becomes one of dissociation, an occurrence that happens to describe some of the most effective interventions that have occurred in the last century under the rubric art.  Secondly, the paper examines the concept of the contemporary itself. 

What is the contemporary? The contemporary is the present, it is prompt, abuzz, it is fashionable, chic, modern, postmodern; the contemporary must be seized in the moment, distinguished as the now, and it must answer to the question, is it happening?  Fundamentally, though, all these “nows” fall back on the technological conditions of contemporary life: the systematic self-mobilization of technology itself and its economic and military hinges.  The creative component of an economic milieu dominated by the twin phalanges of high finance and high technology could hardly avoid happening in those ways determined as contemporary.

However the question of the present always folds back out into questions of the past (not necessarily that of any present) and the future (some part of which, if there is to be any, will remain incalculable).  The inevitable conditions for this illusionary tri-temporal sequence (past-present-future) emerge in the form of two small but utterly necessary logical operators—modes of thought without which there would be no thought—in their abstract forms: the already-no-longer and the not-yet.  Wedged between these two types of non-temporality would be—if there was any—the contemporary.              


The Contemporary

The adjective contemporary, when collocated with art, evokes an institutional purpose.  It is a category that belongs to a constantly changing international art world and, as such, admits of revisions and adjustments that suit whatever need happens to be felt at any time.  The New York Museum of Modern Art established the precedent in the1930s: contemporary art would have been produced any time in the preceding 50 years.  The comprehensive inclusiveness of the category was also established and remains part of MoMA’s mission statement: “Contemporary art transcends national boundaries and involves all forms of visual expression, including painting and sculpture, drawings, prints and illustrated books, photography, architecture and design, and film and video, as well as new forms yet to be developed or understood, that reflect and explore the artistic issues of the era.”  Art History textbooks would begin, after World War II, to define it as art produced after 1945.  But, as the adjective grows older, the boundaries grow tighter. And the art gets younger.  As Institutes and Museums of Contemporary art (the institution of such museums already an indispensable icon of advanced urban development) reestablish the boundaries of the contemporary then arts institutions of all kinds begin to acknowledge a leaner 30 year cut-off, while students increasingly learn that the contemporary is to refer to “art in our lifetime,” which for them means art produced in the previous 19 or 20 years.  All of this should not, I would argue, lead us to assume that the contemporary is an unstable category.  We would only have to acknowledge it as political (which it clearly is) as opposed to aesthetic (which I’m certain it is not) for all our fears or enthusiasms regarding its inherent instability to dissipate.

If we were to resituate this concept of the contemporary as historical and historically determined, and attempted to think it through alongside the effects and conditions of the art that it is supposed to describe, then things become more interesting.  The notion of the contemporary comes into the world of art as something antagonistic to it.  Wyndham Lewis famously bemoaned what he called “a sort of war of revenge on the intellect” which, he claimed, thrived “in the contemporary social atmosphere.”  Throughout the last century the forms and events, the installations and more or less enigmatic creations and interventions that under the rubric art have had some permanent effect or influence, have always engaged the contemporary and its institutions by eluding it or evading it. 

With only a slightly paradoxical flavour, the forms that this evasion takes often involve direct engagement with what seems most contemporary in the ordinary (and most stable) sense, as that which seems most recent in social development, that which appears to be most urgent in public interest and knowledge.  For this reason Wyndham Lewis, again, argued that the artist’s primary task was to engage with and make sense of the contemporary world.  And since technology had transformed this world, the artist would actively seek out machine-forms, creating works that were also “a sort of machines.  Writing in 1914 of Picasso’s small structures in cardboard, wood, zinc, glass string, etc., tacked, sown or stuck together, Lewis observes that these works almost succeed, but he criticizes them for a lack of life: “They imitate like children the large, unconscious, serious machines and contrivances of modern life.  So near them do they come, that they appear even a sort of new little parasite bred on machinery.  Finally, they lack the one purpose, or even necessity of a work of art: namely Life” (Blast 1 140).  However, these “machines without a purpose,” even in their failure, bring us “face to face with the question of the raison d’être of Art.”  There can be no doubt that one of the key questions of art in the twentieth century concerns its raison d’être, but Lewis—a contemporary of Picasso—could obviously not see in 1914 what kind of delayed resonance the modernist experiments of the few years leading up to the Great War will have had 50 years later and increasingly and repetitively since then.

A work produced by Picasso in the following year, Violin [Figure 1], reveals an art that confirms Lewis’s fears about Picasso’s experiments with materials.  The violin, forged from a single sheet of metal that has been severely cut and roughly bent into shape, mocks the delicacy of the musical instrument, and in the process satirizes the idea that art in any simple way expresses or represents something other than itself.  The idea of a violin, as opposed to the instrument itself and its cloud of connoted values, is reproduced in several ways.  For instance, two f holes are designated by hollow oblong shards in relief on either side of the fret board, eschewing mimesis and substituting for it the material of its idea made strange.  Careful study of the work would be rewarded by deepened confirmation of a first impression: this violin of gaudily painted sheet metal has established a series of arbitrary connections with its subject, divorcing art from anything that could be considered as its aliment unless this be, echoing Lewis again, its failure.  For this instrument is not likely to be used to make music.        

The deliberate mobilization, in the first decades of the twentieth century, of techniques of delay, chance, the secret and the idea of the unrepeatable still resonates in uncanny and unexpected ways with nearly all current art practices, and in ways that consistently and absolutely elude the institutions of the contemporary.  My argument concerns the intensification (again), under the sign of the contemporary, of a “revenge on the intellect,” which can best be engaged, I suppose, through an obscure strategy of repetition and the notion, which I will elaborate, of a coming tradition. 


The Contemporary and Duration

SENI’s artistic director, Chua Beng Huat, describes the contemporary in the following terms: [it is] the ‘present’ that is unstable, constantly being instantiated and defined by the unfolding events and activities.  It is a present that is permanently open to the future and appropriating people, events and activities for its self-substantiation as history.”  The description more or less exactly captures the sense of the experience of duration that, after Henri Bergson at the end of the 19th century, became the source of intense speculation amongst philosophers, scientists, artists and writers of all kinds.  Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1911) and King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912) demonstrate respectively an interest in the stepped duration of chronophotography and the intellectual potential of representing differing rates of duration in the same space [see Figures 2 & 3].  Bergson’s attempt to distinguish philosophically an element of time that we cannot experience in a direct way posed a challenge both to science and to art.  Real time, he argued, is irrecoverable; no moment is ever perceived as external to the living of it until the experience is over.  Any attempt to calculate time, for instance as a numerical series, would be doomed to failure, because the time in which we live, our duration, is qualitative rather than quantitative.  The other side of this situation involves the conscious or prosthetic reconstruction of experience in spatial terms, involving explications, analyses and other means to understand duration.  Each representation helps to produce the necessarily distorted image of duration in an illusion of the present.  

There is a real duration, with its heterogeneous moments intersecting each other and each moment being associated to a state of the outside world with which it is contemporary but separated by the other moments through the very effect of this association. The comparison of these realities yields a symbolic representation of duration, extracted from space.  Duration takes the illusory shape of a homogeneous medium and the link between these two terms, space and duration, is the simultaneity that could be defined as the intersection of space with time.

History, then, in these terms, emerges as a form of prosthetic memory, a spatial distortion of time passing.  However, and here we must evoke our skeptical conscience, time—on this explanation, which remains popular—also remains entirely mysterious, confirming the metaphysical, even theological, status that the concept of time is granted whenever anyone attempts to thematize it.  It shares the status of the Cartesian cogito­ (je pense) in that it simultaneously eludes yet makes possible the forms of representation (chiefly analogies) that we adopt in order to understand it—it remains a transcendental power, resistant to its own forces. 

Nevertheless, if we follow Chua Beng Huat in his affirmation that this contemporary—what I’m trying to think through as duration—is “open to the future,” then we can begin to make sense of this otherwise mysterious concept.  We should avoid the temptation to understand this future as a kind of duration that we haven’t experienced yet.  Avoid thinking of it as anything at all but something simple, basic to experience (and not particularly mysterious): as just not yet; or not just yet.  We have this feeling at all times and not necessarily about something particular—the end of my talk … not just yet; the arrival of the champagne … not just yet; the end of everything … mercifully, not just yet.  This concept of time requires two basic conditions: first, the possibility of repetition; and second, the possibility of several kinds of dissociation.  The possibility of repetition is a phrase that very well describes the future.  If there is a future than at least I can repeat the past.  This is what, I want to argue, the history of modern art teaches us to do in surprising and original ways.  For, if our reconstructions of the past can only distort them, at least we’re committed to the possibility of some original variations.  If the past—in this sense—is nothing more than the external and distorted reconstruction of an experience that could never have been grasped as such, then my repetition of it has been made available by that same ungraspable dimension: the future.  It is this notion of the future—as the possibility of repetition—that would force art into an interminable quarrel with the contemporary.  The rules according to this possibility instruct us that, in an era that seems always to have already begun, where the freedom into presence is the aim, getting free from the past the problem, and where the adjective “old” is a derogatory term automatically associated with the oppressions of imperialism, there is still nonetheless nothing older than repetition—one cannot get back behind it.  Moreover, by the same rules, there will never be anything newer than repetition: repetition at its best is the state of (the) art.  

Furthermore, the dissociations implied in these repetitions involve at their basis a very interesting and necessary operation that Bergson never quite touched upon: the dissociation of duration from itself, as it becomes the spatialized and distorted image of itself.  Certain artists and writers from shortly after the end of the nineteenth century began to explore these possibilities as possibilities, possibilities of human experience as possibilities of art: the possibilities of repetition and dissociation.  The artwork has not ceased ever since in reproducing itself in surprising ways.


The Artwork

Before proceeding I want also to examine the artwork itself.  Chua notes, no doubt correctly, that “the commonsense understanding of art as permanent objects of beauty that are hung on walls or installed on pedestals in the hallowed spaces of art galleries or specially built niches and alters to aesthetics in public buildings and private homes has long since been ruptured and displaced by contemporary artistic practices.”  Presumably, then, the commonsense notion has changed.  I wonder what the most well known artworks of the twentieth century would turn out to be, if we could take some exhaustive worldwide poll.  My money would be on something like the following: Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907); Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain by R. Mutt (1917—original lost); Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup (1964); Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1972).  All of the artists responsible for these works, if not the works themselves, have played a key role in this “rupture” of common sense.  But they also resuscitate the idea of the permanent in unexpected ways, provoking us to rethink not only the old notions of permanence but also their apparent opposites in the temporary, the ephemeral and the time-sensitive.  Each of these works can be read rewardingly in terms of the exhibitions they spill into or out of, revealing that art in the twentieth and now twenty first centuries, if there ever is any, has a relation to exhibition that is fraught with interesting problems.  

Picasso’s Demoiselles (the so called bordello picture), painted in 1907 to the shock or fascination of the few associates and friends who saw it, remained in the artist’s possession until the mid twenties when for the first time it became available for public viewing.  It has since enjoyed a critical history of intense speculation, regarding, variously, its influence on cubism, its incorporation of African elements, its demonstration of art’s struggle for freedom from representation, etc.  In 1988 the exhibition put on by the Musée Picasso offered an exhaustive documentation on the bordello painting, which included all Picasso’s studies, his sketchbooks, his sources, both certain and probable.  The exhibition was accompanied by a huge two volume catalogue that has since become a landmark in the study of art in the twentieth century.  All the activity associated with this ground-breaking exhibition (scholarly commentaries, critical responses, anthologies, etc.) serve to resuscitate the contemporariness of the painting, on one hand, yet reveal a drive to relocate it in its own time, in the context of a contemporary long past.    

Duchamp’s Fountain [Figure 4] has had a different kind of history.  Submitted by Duchamp under the pseudonym Richard Mutt (of Philadelphia) for the first exhibition of independents in 1917—for which he was a hanging committee member—the original was somehow forgotten, misplaced and then apparently lost for good.  Duchamp shortly afterwards resigned from the committee (the reason is not recorded).  The Society of Independent Artists, it is worth recalling, was resolutely democratic: “Any artist, whether a citizen of the united States or of any foreign country, may become a member of the society upon filing an application therefore, paying the initiation fee (US$1.00) and the annual dues (US$5.00) of a member, and exhibiting at the exhibition in the year that he joins.”  The society’s only rule was the no rule principle: “No jury, no prizes.”  All artists were to be able to participate independently of any jury decisions.  Accordingly, 2,125 works by 1,235 artists were shown.  As far as I am aware none of these exhibits are currently available for viewing.  The only submission on record that failed to be exhibited was R. Mutt’s Fountain, and images and reproductions of this work are ubiquitous.  Removed from its own contemporary, it seems, Fountain was nonetheless to go on to become one of the most celebrated and influential artworks of the last century, and its stature is growing with time.  Its anti-retinal principle, that of the readymade, adds a further resource to the artist’s repertoire, that of choosing instead of simply making.  In this way the readymade looks not only forward to when the assisted or unassisted readymade—the found object, altered or even reproduced in facsimile—would become a staple of art training but it also looks back in recognition and belated acknowledgement that art was always about choice of readymade, given that the paint used on painting was itself a form of readymade.  The inclusion of a title as no less a part of the work—a technique that Duchamp had pioneered in 1911—allows it to speak as if it was an actor, playing another role: the urinal is acting being a fountain, the exhibition its stage, the artist a kind of dramatist or choreographer.  It’s possible to argue that Duchamp’s way with the artwork is actually very old—he was rebelling against romanticism in art that was current amongst artists for, in my calculations, only about 30 years, from 1814 to 1844—replacing that with the idea that art should be an apparatus of thought, rather than vision or beauty.

If Mutt’s (or Duchamp’s) work is marked first of all by its vanishing from its present—majestically avoiding its own contemporary—then secondly it is marked by the variety of versions of it that increased exponentially in number after the 1950s.  In order to be regarded as a version of Fountain an artwork would not necessarily need to resemble it.  Although R Doxford/N Fout’s Soft Fountain (1973) does in its own Squashy way resemble the absent original, it repeats more exactly the wit of its model, extending its idea through a replication that must be distinguished from more common notions of repetition thanks to the addition of its material difference [Figure 5].  The same—although, again and crucially, in a quite different sense—can be said of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup [Figure 6].  Carl Andre’s brilliant Equivalent VIII (known thanks to its delayed notoriety as “The Tate Bricks”) performs a similar kind of work [Figure 7].  In each case the artwork avoids any kind of representation yet its material form always revises or replicates an original by maintaining a visibly absolute distance from it (in Warhol’s case by departing from it in no way at all and thus perfectly exemplifying the minimalist ideal).  The public response to these works (which is always somehow belated) confirms their contemporariness (allowing a general ridiculing of “contemporary art”) while distancing them from their own contemporary.  Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre was bought by Tate in 1972 and featured in special displays in 1974 and 1975 without attracting much publicity. But on 15 February 1976 an article appeared in The Sunday Times about recent additions to the Tate's Collection, illustrated with a picture of Equivalent VIII.  The sculpture, 120 firebricks arranged in a rectangular formation provoked gleeful uproar [e.g., Figure 8].  The failure of a national media to comprehend a contemporary exhibition would be exactly the necessary sign that contemporary art has arrived.

The contemporary artwork, then, can be characterized as a series of repetitions that are each time quite different and so cannot be substituted for one another: repeatable but un-substitutable.  This logic of replication performs an intellectual engagement with the very idea of duration and effectively disabuses the contemporary of its claims to presence.

The Decelerating Logic of the Avant-Garde

The artwork can, in this way, be regarded as a kind of time machine, reversing those processes that gather momentum throughout the twentieth century (and which are born on equating the power and aim of speed with becoming faster) and finding, surprisingly, a firmer hold on this future to which everyone else is racing (as if in parody of Duchamp’s “swift nudes”) than could have been rationally expected according to most of the existing logics.

The modernist artwork does in fact function like a kind of time machine, operating by a separation of the machine’s temporality from the temporality of its starting environment.  The separation is achieved by slowing down the temporal duration of the machine in relation to that of its environment.  H. G. Wells describes the process in his groundbreaking novel The Time Machine (1894-5), which draws on much of the contemporary modern wisdom of time consciousness (specifically the teachings of Henri Bergson) as its key conceit:

I took the starting lever in one hand and the stopping one in the other, pressed the first, and almost immediately the second.  I seemed to reel; I felt a nightmare sensation of falling; and, looking round, I saw the laboratory exactly as before.  Had anything happened?  For a moment I suspected that my intellect had tricked me.  Then I noted the clock.  A moment before, as it had seemed, it had stood at a minute or so past ten; now it was half past three! (20).

Wells’s conceit thus lies in the possibility—in a fictional register—of separating the duration of the machine and its insides from that of the environment outside it.  In a poetic register these paragraphs evoke the process of speeding up—of the age, of an individual, of the progress of the species, of the urban working day, of the destruction and rapid renewal of urban space—which in many other registers are the key concerns of modern life, night and day coming and going like the flapping of a bat’s wings.  They also evoke the technicalities of an environment increasingly governed by the flicking of switches.  Yet an interesting contradiction also emerges and remains, not to be dislodged once the analysis of poetic and fictional techniques has been observed.  The experience of speed—of putting on pace—can best be evoked, as we have already remarked—through the enunciative modality of slowness:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing.  The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.  I suppose the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air.  I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things.  The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. (20-21).

The time machine supposedly speeds up in its progress into the future, but in fact, through an ineluctable property of its own temporal-mechanical logic, it can only proceed in this way by delaying its progress, by forceful deceleration.  The inevitable objection—that this is still nonetheless merely a fiction, evocative to be sure, entertaining without doubt, thought provoking, even poignant and not without philosophical merit, but a fiction nonetheless so quite neutral and at best analogical when it comes to issues of technological practicality and scientific fact—dissolves once we acknowledge this property as operating at the very basis of modern life (and death).


The Lamp has reached the end of its useable Life.  Please Replace the Lamp.

The current series of exhibitions, under the rubric of SENI 2004, Art and the Contemporary, fulfils its aim in interesting ways.  The intention was “to showcase a segment of a range of possibilities in contemporary art.”  Juan Alcazaren’s Musca Volantes in the “Home Fronts” exhibition, curated by Ahmad Mashadi, seems to speak for the exhibition itself.  These 200 objects made of discarded material are called in a literal translation “willful flies,” which is also the name for those little dots that on bright days float around in the field of vision.  These are the shadows cast by micro-ruptures of the vitreous humor, the gelid solution that composes the main volume of the human eye.  These shadows are so called because they seem to go where they want to.  They can create a medical condition if they accumulate in sufficient numbers so as to reduce visual acuity.  These floating spots in one’s sight are caused by problems with the organ of seeing itself, rather than anything that one might say one sees: they are, literally, blind spots or blinding spots.  But how are these particular musca volantes composed?  Filters, pipes, clips, drive belts, springs, hinges, bushes, cables, hooks, racks, frames, all pieces of games, toys, household utensils, made of rubber, plastic, bits of iron; bits once belonging to the same instrument or utensil can be discovered separated and now a part of a new object.  The original discarded objects, their useful life once over, have presumably been replaced; yet, in a kind of regimented revenge, the return of the discarded, they spread themselves across the space of a whitewashed wall in front of our eyes.  The rhetoric of these musca volantes would be that of the synecdoche, the substitution of a part for the whole; yet the whole in this case consists only of parts that can be substituted, parts that stand in for a whole without ever adding up to anything finished and complete, without ever adding up to such a whole.  The exhibition consists in just such parts, segments standing in for a whole range of possibility that is nowhere ever actual, except in further parts, mementos, prosthetic memories, visible records.

I was disturbed at first that little of the visual documentation, which composes much of the exhibited material at SENI, reflected in any critical way on the technical apparatus of visual documentation—the Sharp, Panasonic or Hitachi television monitors, versatile disc players and projectors—until on returning after a few weeks I discovered that this technology had put up a statement of its own—in league with though probably more subversive than the clever little marginal and rather polite Artvist interventions—confirming my first instincts: “The bulb has reached the end of its usable life.  Please replace the bulb.”  “Already no longer,” it seems to say, the protest of a technology that is built for prompt presentation rather than extended operation, and “not yet,” the reply of the image that carries on regardless without thought for the exhausted and overused bulb.  So much of this exhibition serves as reference: in the case of the CASA Documentation Centre the images act as a reference, sampling an archive of further references; the same is the case of the Fondation Arabe pour l’image—the artworks as such are samples of an archive; and the works of 16 Beaver Group refer their observers to an ongoing communal activity: “utilizing an open and participatory structure with no official membership or hierarchy.”  The works in these cases, exemplifying the mortuary effect that commentators have noticed at SENI, stand for a stock housed or a life lived elsewhere.

Musca Volantes, on the contrary, refers its observers to nothing else.  These bits of discarded item, revitalized zombie like from the dead, help to provide context for the remainder of the exhibition, which is after all not much more than remains: remnants of memories or scythed off from a life that really and normally occupies the artists and their groups, their modes of open membership, their activities, their collectives.  The permanent present has been replaced by prosthetic memories, the ghost of the permanent exhibition replacing transient life.  These ends and replacements, more than any of the other works here (the projector bulbs now should perhaps join their fellow discards on the wall upstairs) produce the artwork in its idea: their replications of each other in an arbitrary 200 pointless yet singular versions that achieve nothing yet the prosaic invocation of what they always were.  To end on an optimistic note: if there has indeed been contemporary art at the SENI exhibition, then it is too early even now—even at the end of the exhibition, the symposium over, the next one in the planning stages as the contemporary moves relentlessly on—still too early to confirm or deny it.  There will have been contemporary art at SENI perhaps; and by the same token, perhaps not.