Context Kunstlers

Liam Gillick worries about the art of context

A recent show offered the chance to spend time in an isolation tank – an opportunity to consider the idea that all activity, including art activity, is determined, valued and provided by context; that art exists within a context which provides a chance to rate and rank various work; that activity and production are open to shift and scrutiny.

These are truisms, which most of us thought applied to Howard Hodgkin as much as to Clegg and Guttman, yet the last few years have seen the emergence of an art that concentrates on context in a way that has allowed the word to be used in a new, definitive way. In the same sense that the terms ‘minimal’ and ‘conceptual’ needed to be treated with caution as soon as they were coined, so ‘Context Kunst’ has become a description applied to specific groups and individuals without their approval. So any attempt to pin down the definition is inevitably determined by context. Neat, not back to basics. At least one can say that it is probably the antidote to the scatological posturing of the rest of the artists to emerge in the early 90s with their birth, life, death, sub-cultural non-profundity. Context Kunst has injected a small dose of re-worked moralising into the art world that reflects the broader semantic concerns of our generation. The work is connected to all the other work being produced. The work is apparently inclusive rather than exclusive. It involves examination of structures rather than nostalgic isolation or, at the very least, a concentration on a number of specific issues all at the same time.

Carsten Höller, Dan Petermann, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Regina Möller all deal with context on different levels. Each had exhibitions opening in Cologne recently. Höller is an interesting case (Context Kunst has interesting cases), because he attempts to deal with subjects normally associated with the scatological mortality fetishists. Yet rather than present isolated art objects, he presented a sensory space, full of potential experiments and experience-heightening devices. After spending time in the isolation tank you can relax on a rubber-quilted sex bed. Lying face down with a computer in front of you, it is possible to construct an image on screen from a library of male and female bodies. These may be combined, viewed close up and rotated. Moving the computer mouse allows the user to seek out pleasure zones. The stimulation of the screen is reflected on the bed. Vibrations, electric shocks, blasts of air. The whole gallery is full. There’s a video of monkeys fucking. Simian incest, gang rape and masturbation, all culled from nature films. The gallery assumes the status of an interactive place. The combination of elements forming a kind of neo-science. A laboratory of sorts. A lab where results and effects are not the primary goal. This neo-scientific aspect is central to context kunstlers. That and anthropological reworkings create environments that have a purpose. The form and construction of the exhibition space is determined by the message or the desired effect. Any attendance to communication through the formal surface of the work alone or exaggerated notions of authentic sub-cultural artist-like behaviour are subsumed within a broader desire to foreground ideas around social construction. Motivations, desire, analysis and presentation of information are combined in order to create situations and potential. Lines of communication are stretched or diverted in order to dissolve connections that are assumed or based on received ideas.

Well, well. Context Kunst is now part of the mainstream. It was even the title of an exhibition last year in Austria that included many of those associated with neo-anthropological art-making. We have also travelled this circuitous route before. There has been much striving after purpose in art. The peculiar way the early 90s mirrored the early 70s becomes increasingly clear. Yet that only reflects a 20-year nostalgia lag that was shared and absorbed elsewhere in fashion, music and film. The recession allowed certain things to take place. On one hand it de-polarised the art world to a certain extent, allowing space to those who were overlooked in the previous decade. This effect was made manifest through the emergence of an ‘authentic art’ that was alluded to earlier including artists like Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Kiki Smith and even, on the fringes, Damien Hirst. At the same time we also witnessed the consolidation of Context Kunst. The legacy of second order conceptual art also had an effect – art beyond the initial desire to define a possibility of a set of truisms through brief action or statement. Douglas Huebler, Hans Haacke and others constructed more complex structures that acknowledged the socio-political constructions that determine and value art production and interaction beyond a challenge to the formal state of the art objects alone. This, combined with a rise in feminist thinking that interrupted Modernism’s trajectory, was joined by a debate about the whole notion of internationalism and the construction of language used to describe the conditions of society.

Thus, although the recent work differs significantly from older models, it feeds directly on its legacy of possibility and denial of irony and metaphor. Concentration on the notion of the individual and the division of broad social sets into more specialised interest groups has been discussed at length. It is fair to say, however, that such deconstructions of meaning and purpose were well overdue and historically inevitable.

That might lead us to the whole question of what might be termed the ‘Really Real Syndrome’. The debate around much art that attends to notions of context as a primary reflection of broader debates around sexuality, identity and communication makes a virtue of its un-art quality. The syndrome causes critical questions to be raised about the ongoing question of formal concerns juxtaposed against the message delivered. The attempt to mimic an apparently non-art situation alludes to a particularly Anglo-Saxon heritage of aesthetic and experiential puritanism.

Now, we have Peter Fend’s show in London, in which he attempts to propose solutions to various geo-political crises. Yet much of the debate following the show tends to have rested on whether or not his proposed solutions are clear enough: trying to walk the tightrope between the seductive power of certain forms of aesthetic display inherited from Robert Smithson and others and the desire to express new answers to specific problems. This question is the determining factor of Context Kunst. The desire to de-abstract. The desire to attend to precise issues. Nothing to do with being devastated by a postmodern condition that prevents any action within an entirely subjectified environment. So, the beginning of May in Cologne saw Rirkrit Tiravanija making a bar to be used by anyone who was passing by; Regina Möller presenting a new magazine mock-up combined with photos of herself as a child model in order to rework ideas around the use of reproduced images, communication, control and power; Dan Petermann’s waste objects, quick-rot coffin nails and boxes from scrap plastic. Each show is presented with a kind of pragmatism that attempts to throw formal concerns into the background but we still end up rating some as more successful than others. If we are not careful, the whole debate starts to return to a content-defining form of utopianism. Yet this time the question is removed from high modern concerns such as abstraction and autonomy.

Dealing with the recent past is supposed to be tricky. Yet the debates that have surfaced in the last few years are integral to a broader re-definition of society that is going on anyway – Renée Green’s interiors combining new chintz and re-ordered anthropology, Mark Dion’s urban nature programmes. Context Kunst attempts to concentrate on presentations that avoid a direct commentary on the formal properties of an art work within the work itself. At the same time the whole issue can slump into a competition. That old avant-garde chestnut of turn-over, which attempts to absorb ever more social structures under the umbrella of art, without any regard to anything other than the initial non-art quality of the objects presented.

Vibrating away on Carsten Höller’s sex bed I decided it was time to come or go. Across town Daniel Buchholz had a group show of artists based around the idea of what they might be producing in ten years time. Stunned by the honesty, or was it double irony, of the artists involved, it came as a semi-surprise to find that the work may not look much different. Buchholz has recently moved to a new place: in the front is an antiquarian bookshop, up and running; in the middle you come across a space for editions and multiples; in the back room you find the white cube.

The ultimate context gallery rooted in the heritage of connoisseurship and dealing.

Liam Gillick is an artist.

First published in Art Monthly 177: June 1994.

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