Unpacking contemporary art: Ode to Art lecture – video

Contemporary art beguiles and bewilders, but its enigmatic nature allows little room for audience passivity.

On 7 September 2013, Singapore gallery Ode to Art produced a talk by Singaporean art historian Jeffrey Say as part of its art lecture series . Titled “The Stuffed Shark and Other Curiosities: Will we ever understand contemporary art?”, the lecture was an attempt to introduce and explain the broad and diverse practice and elements of contemporary art.

Ruben Pang, 'Stargazers', 2012, oil and alckyd on aluminium panel, 75 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Primo Marella Gallery.

Ruben Pang, ‘Stargazers’, 2012, oil and alckyd on aluminium panel, 75 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Primo Marella Gallery.

The title of Say’s talk refers to an installation by British artist Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), which comprised a tiger shark in a vitrine filled with formaldehyde, commissioned and later sold by Charles Saatchi for an undisclosed amount believed to be over USD8 million.

As Jazz Chong, Director of Ode to Art said in her introduction, the aim of the talk was to explore how in contemporary art, “the idea behind art is more important than its appearance, having the principal goal to push the public to think.”

Jeffrey Say is currently the programme leader of the MA in Asian Art Histories at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. He was previously a curator at the National Museum of Singapore from 1992-94.


Click here to watch the complete lecture by Jeffrey Say on YouTube.com

How accessible is contemporary art?

Contemporary art is generally considered to belong to the period from the 1970s to the present day, succeeding the phase of Modern art. Sometimes used interchangeably with the term “post-modern art”, contemporary art is characterised by diversity, unconventionality, spectacle, a sceptical look at society, and it attempts to test the boundaries of what can be defined as art.

Although contemporary art is the art of our time, how accessible is it? Jeffrey Say suggests that recognising the form and content of art makes it accessible, yet often contemporary art is less about aesthetics and more about ideas and concepts. Contemporary art:

  • questions, confuses, critiques, shocks and invites controversy
  • ensures the active participation of the audience in attempting to understand and interpret it
  • is more inclusive and diverse
  • is often a reaction to social issues and contexts.

With no clear boundaries, what can be classified as art remains up to the art world. A small demographic is given the power to confer the status of ‘art’ on any object depending on the artist’s intention and if the work is displayed in an art context, such as a gallery.

A medium less ordinary

One of the characteristics of contemporary art is the use of unconventional media for expression. Art is no longer only about painting; the three broad categories of installation, performance and video art are discussed at the end of the lecture. From found objects and other “mixed media” to using the gallery space itself as a work of art, such as in British artist Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work no. 227: the lights going on and off, nothing is off limits.

Work No. 890: Don't Worry, 2008 Yellow neon 50.8 x 500 x 6 cm, Courtesy Martin Creed and Hauser & Wirth, Image Property of Art Radar Asia.

Martin Creed, ‘Work No. 890: Don’t Worry’, 2008, yellow neon 50.8 x 500 x 6 cm, at the Singapore Biennale 2011. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

British artist Marc Quinn and Thai artist Pornprasert Yamazaki have used blood to sculpt and paint. American Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) immersed a crucifix in urine. Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was a mixed media work comprising, among other things, elephant dung and cut outs from pornographic magazines.

Experimenting with spatial and temporal boundaries means that many artworks, especially installation and performance art, are temporary and ephemeral, existing only for a certain amount of time. They can be recreated, but not as easily commodified or commercialised. At the other end of the spectrum are more conventional artworks – in form, if not subject – such as paintings and photography, which sell for exorbitant prices in today’s art market.

Cai Guoqiang, "Black Ceremony", 2011, realized on site outside Mathaf, December 5, 2011. Approximately 3 minutes, explosion area 29,500 sq. meters, 8,300 black smoke shells fitted with computer chips. Commissioned by Mathaf, Courtesy Cai Studio

Cai Guoqiang, “Black Ceremony”, 2011, realized on site outside Mathaf, December 5, 2011. Approximately 3 minutes, explosion area 29,500 sq. meters, 8,300 black smoke shells fitted with computer chips. Commissioned by Mathaf. Image courtesy Cai Studio.

Art that shocks and subverts

Art that elicits strong emotions and shocks the audience into a reaction by challenging our ideas of morality, ethics and social issues has surfaced across geographies. Jeffrey Say claims that Chinese artists are some of the “most radical and extreme performance artists,” referring to Zhu Yu’s Eating People (2008) as an example, in which Zhu cannibalises a dead child in an attempt to explore the space between morality and law. The work appeared at the controversial exhibition “Fuck Off” (2000), curated by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi in Shanghai. A second installment of the exhibition was held in 2013 in Groninger, The Netherlands, with activism and subversion against the Chinese government being a defining theme.

Wu Junyong, 'Don't be Silent', 2011, illustration. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Wu Junyong, ‘Don’t be Silent’, 2011, illustration, at the exhibition “Fuck Off 2” in Groninger. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Art through collaboration and participation

Say goes on to explain that various forms of contemporary art, such as installation, performance and video, elicit a multi-sensory response rather than being only visual. Performance requires an audience and sometimes, direct audience participation. Installations are often immersive and allow one to observe the work from different points of view.

The participatory nature of these art forms engages the public actively in the work. Singaporean artist Amanda Heng’s performance project Let’s Chat (1996) invited people to engage in domestic activities such as cleaning bean sprouts and drinking tea while interacting with each other, in an attempt to rekindle a sense of community in a busy world. Filipino artists Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan often invite donations of recycled materials and clothes from the local community for their collaborative installation series “Project Another Country”, which deals with issues of migration, family and memory.

Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan, 'Passage: Project Another Country', 2009, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artists and Multitude Art Prize.

Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan, ‘Passage: Project Another Country’, 2009, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artists and Multitude Art Prize.

If contemporary art is about scale and spectacle, from Damien Hirst’s tiger shark to Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds installation, it is also collaborative in the sense that it is not always created by the artist’s own hands. A 2011 article in The Independent by Michael Petry explains that a team of skilled artisans work to put together such colossal installations, but most do not think of it as their own work as it carries the “conceptual fingerprint” of the artist and is the result of their vision.

Ai Weiwei, 'Profile of Duchamp with Sunflower Seeds, Lorimer Avenue Apartment, Brooklyn', from "Ai Weiwei's New York Photographs", 1983–1995, silver gelatin print. Image from yishu-online.com.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Profile of Duchamp with Sunflower Seeds, Lorimer Avenue Apartment, Brooklyn’, from “Ai Weiwei’s New York Photographs”, 1983–1995, silver gelatin print. Image from yishu-online.com.

Contemporary video art

Korean-American artist Nam June Paik is considered the founder of video art. This type of art uses elements like distortion, slow motion, looping and other techniques to subvert expectations of conventional film or television, also challenging the passivity of receivers.

Jeffrey Say argues that in these forms, the appreciation of contemporary art is largely dictated by artist intention and audience interpretation, “putting power back in the individual.”

Say suggests the following tips to understand and engage with contemporary art:

  • Look for clues in the caption and text accompanying the artwork.
  • Analyse the materials and space used, and how they affect the content of the piece.
  • Think about the social, cultural, political, philosophical issues and contexts surrounding the work.
  • Familiarise yourself with the artist and his oeuvre.
  • There is no such thing as a wrong interpretation, but an interpretation must be convincing.

Kriti Bajaj


Related Topics: lectures and talks, videos, events in Singapore, art world

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