For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. We begin this 10-part journey with the essay’s introduction.
If You Are Willing:
The Army of the Individuals
Many of today’s contemporary artists have nomadic, dematerialized, and adaptable practices—traveling from biennial to residency to gallery exhibition. Often based in cities far from their place of birth, they inhabit hyphenated geographies that speak to their embeddedness in the contemporary global spirit. Leveraging funding from the public and private sectors, they build consensual transnational networks of colleagues,collaborators, and supporters. They could be said to be ideal representatives of one of the blandest discourses of globalization: the cosmopolitan agent who is well traveled, urbane, tolerant, and a sophisticated interpreter of cultural difference. While the eight artists in this exhibition share many motifs from the above sketch, they also proceed with a deep understanding that in spite of increased proximity and the smoothing narratives of neoliberalism, material forces continue to determine access and marginalization. They witness firsthand the entrenched nationalisms, the unequal distribution of wealth, the myriad exploitations, exclusions, and stereotypes that continue to condition our world. They see defined identities as a means of freedom and organization, but also as a mode of containment and control. Rather than function as new masters of the universe (the aforementioned global citizen), they are implicated, compromised, and self-aware. Some are adept manipulators, entrepreneurial spirits who cohabit with the market while attempting to maintain critical and ambivalent positions in relation to the worst excesses of the free-market culture. It goes without saying that they might be parents, divorcées, lovers, alcoholics, difficult, brilliant, witty, selfish, driven, or whatever you are having yourself. At the Frieze Art Fair they deliver talks on “refusal”; for e-flux journal they pen essays on “occupation.” Endlessly caught up in the necessity for contemporary self-positioning, they nevertheless pursue political-aesthetic approaches that are dedicated to exploring this complexity. Using their own backgrounds and identities as material, frequently in antagonistic or subversive ways, they operate with an understanding of their own complicity within geopolitical dynamics, seeking to use that awareness as a means to arrive at a more realistic representation of the foundations of the present.
The exhibition’s title refers to a time when new artistic movements emerged with seeming inevitability (the 1966 Minimalist exhibition 10 at the Dwan Gallery in New York, for instance), when art could still be discussed as a chain of progress from one breakthrough to another.1 Today no such sense of progress exists, and many lament its passing. 9 Artists, however, celebrates this confusion, and represents the disjunction between now and then by adopting a title that conjures the ghosts of a time when a handful of centers, curators, and critics defined the art discourse. The deliberate lack of a named ninth artist signals a rupture with the past that the exhibition is meant to convey. Is the ninth artist the curator, a figure increasingly criticized for co-opting artistic authorship? Is it an undeclared work by an undisclosed participant? Is it the public invited in true contemporary museum style to participate in the making and interpretation of the work? The neutrality and literalness of the title presents the artists as if their presence in the show were inevitable. It is a proposition that sets up an unruly group of artists as if they are the best representatives of the expansive ambitions and capabilities of contemporary art today, which of course they are not, because nobody makes those claims anymore.
Recognizing that the art-historical movements that shaped the postwar period are becoming less and less germane to the current epoch, the artists exist within a world that is more expansive, networked, and horizontal than ever before. Within this sphere, it has become harder to identify key trends, and many artists are resistant to this kind of traditional classification. What characterizes the work of the individuals in 9 Artists is an ability to access, name, refabricate, and catalyze a whole range of contexts—material and immaterial, art-historical and social, geopolitical and personal. They have the capacity to mine these variegated tendencies, and to hold within their hands many possibilities at once.
If there are two words that have followed me throughout this process, they are “complicity” and “contradiction.” Each of these artists proceeds with an awareness that there is no space outside of the sociopolitical contexts we all navigate, and they acknowledge the fact that we are inevitably locked into behaviors, systems, and structures that can cause harm to others and to ourselves. That power wields itself with increasing visibility/invisibility, albeit asymmetrically, depending on who you are and the choices you make in life, if you even have a choice. This is not necessarily a new awareness, but what makes it special is that it is attended by a “What next?” Yes, we are all socially constructed, and yes, we are conditioned and shaped by forces outside our control, but we still have to live within that reality, and where possible, we should take some responsibility for questioning that. At a basic first level, that means avoiding the pitfalls of prefigured theoretical tracts and guilt-associated binaries, and at the very least, trying to afford a vision of reality that militates against the various simplifications. In Bjarne Melgaard’s recent novel, his narrator writes, “Contemporary art is there to make people feel inadequate.”2 I know what he means: the whole terrain is certainly set up as if for exclusion— the specialized language, the ivory towers, the wealth displayed at art fairs and elsewhere, the assumption of an exceptional status, the opinion factory, the ideologies all know are present but that barely articulate themselves because we all operate within a culture of social networking in which people need to get on so they might be invited to write that piece, participate in that panel, be in that show. So yes, contemporary art is certainly elitist, but it is also, from my perspective, one of the few spaces that actually allows some oxygen for complex and uneasy ideas and thinking to develop. This happens in spite of all the money swirling around, not necessarily because of it.
In the text that follows, I try to give a sense of the artists and their work. Naturally it is subjective and partial, and despite its length, I feel I have left too much out. Be warned, not all the works I reference are in the exhibition, and a number that are in the exhibition are not referenced. I also abstain from drawing endless overt connections between the artists with this kind of sentence: “Where Danh Vo’s biography has risen to the status of a foundation myth, Natascha Sadr Haghighian avoids biography altogether.” I feel confident that what connects and differentiates the artists will be evident, and while that might seem a cop-out, it is not born out of casualness but is a genuine ethic that requests an engagement on the part of the reader. I would rather look at this essay as a collage of perspectives that readers can mine for what they will; where possible, I bring in the artist’s voice directly, and I don’t always then proceed to decode what has just been quoted. Yes, the text is long, but please feel no pressure to read it all. I am happy enough for you to bounce around, perusing paragraphs here and there, which is not to say that that is what you should do. I am just saying that such an approach is fine with me, and I might even prefer it, depending on your disposition.
When I first started researching one of the artists in this show, Nástio Mosquito, I came across a short text by curator Marjolijn van Heemstra about a performance and exhibition in Germany. She quotes a sentence with which Mosquito closed a work, “I do represent, if you are willing, the army of the individuals.”3 This line struck me then in relation to 9 Artists; despite its militaristic undertones, the firmness of its intent, coupled with its entreaty to participate in the possibility of it being true, seemed like an invitation. The army of the individuals conjures images of both collectivity and singularity. In an age of seemingly rudderless but mushrooming mass movements— often ridiculed for their lack of clear message or defined leadership, yet capable of provoking enormous change—the statement seems suitably prescient. It has a quality that I would like to hold onto for the duration of this text. The artists in this exhibition variously discard, problematize, and upturn passive identifications based on biography, nationality, or other convention. Their loyalty is to the individual—not one who exists in splendid isolation, but one who acts within a community, even if this community has yet to be invented.
1 The exhibition 10—which included artists Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Robert Morris—is perceived by many to be the definitive moment of the emergence of Minimalism. While my argument does not rest on this exhibition—and I admit that the clarity we perceive in relation to its relevance in hindsight was much less obvious in the present—it is certainly the case that the artists understood themselves as moving from one form of art-making to the next, something that is virtually impossible for contemporary artists to articulate with the same cogency, even if they wished to, and many don’t.
2 Bjarne Melgaard, A New Novel by Bjarne Melgaard (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2012).
3 Marjolijn van Heemstra, “Nástio Mosquito’s collage of perspectives,” The Power of Culture (December 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.