our old relations
One of the best ways to get to know a place is to move around in it, to discover its limits. Sometimes this means straying from the paths that have been laid out, or reaching up and touching as high as we can, investigating unexplored corners, re-arranging the furniture. This is a way of making a map, but it's map we carry with us in our bodies and in our minds. Once we have explored it we know our way, when we are familiar with a space we kind of 'feel it'. And, of course, in this mapping we are establishing a relation between the space and ourselves. This is a relation with things that already exist, that we've entered into.
A different sort of relation exists when we make an object. Let's assume we are making an object that has no useful function - other than that it's an art-object. Traditionally these objects were understood to have a particular kind of identity that was radically different to the more useful objects that may be in the same room. Meanwhile. let's imagine that people are standing in this room, looking at the art-object and trying to figure out what it is. You can't eat it, you can't sit on it, you can't make love to it, you can't vacuum the carpet with it... This object is not so many things...
Once upon a time (in 1981), Rosalind E. Krauss wrote an essay called sculpture in the expanded field in which she stated:
For, within the situation of post-modernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium - sculpture - bur rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium - photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself - might be used. 1.
Later she coined a term that condensed this idea into the handy sound bite: 'the post-medium condition'. The expanded field and its cultural handmaiden, the post-medium condition, marked a turn from arts' concern with interior relations (the idea that a unique object can in itself speak a unique truth to us) to one of exterior relations (in which an object [or objects] are set in cultural relation to the system it is placed within).
Now as i said, all of this was a long time ago, and since then several generations of artists have taken the post-medium condition to be axiomatic. Indeed, many art schools have abolished the distinction between different practices (printmaking, sculpture, painting etc.) and opened their curriculum into the expanded field, encouraging artists to use whatever medium is appropriate in response to a given context. At the same time writers of postmodernism (who are almost all by now dearly departed) have reached a canonical status within the everyday discourse of art and theories on art. So, we see that the points Krauss made, back in the day, have since been thoroughly absorbed by artists on the levels of education, professional practice and day-to-day discourse. Today the practice of art, on an institutional level and the level of artists making work, is, as much as anything else, an investigation into the modes and tropes of cultural relations.
Now, this is why modernism, which started this business in the first place, isn't what it used to be. We can still look at the great works of modernism, in fact we visit museums more than ever, but today even though many of the same things are shown and many of the same things are said about these objects they seem to mean something different.2
And what happened was time. The new beginning promised by modernism never happened, but they left their stuff behind like lazy lodgers, cluttering up our modernist museums (lots of cubes sitting in cube shaped galleries, grids in grid like architectural spaces). And the modernist object still sits there, still promising a radical new beginning, still promising some uniqueness. It sits there with its younger cousins gathered around it - they look a bit similar on the formal level but have a very different reason for existing.
So today, artists have come to terms with both legacies, because both exist in the same stratified space. And, of course, modernism isn't just present in these Premier Division spaces like art galleries and museums, we also live with the workmanlike, ant-like progression of its followers - the people who built the tower blocks, the people who built that cube - like school in Mondrian colours. Today, just a grid - like tower block is reflected on the chaotic curves of a postmodern building, the Utopian promises of modernism are filtered through a post-modern lens. And it's this accretion in everyday life, this piling up of 'isms', that's reflected in everyday artistic practice. And perhaps this metaphor of the strata isn't too wide of the mark, because some archeology is going on here, an excavation into what can be saved from the past, and what can be used in the ever-changing systems of relations - and perhaps moving through these spaces and making things from their discarded components addresses these questions: how do these different stories of the past talk to each other? And, what do they have to say to us?
1. Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT press, 1985
2. Thanks to Ruth Buchanan for this observation in reference to Virginia Woolf