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Why is contemporary art so scary?

Posted on 01 Jul 2017

For those not familiar with the art world, contemporary art – with its unlikely objects and impenetrable language – can seem alien and intimidating. In this interview, curators and authors of 'Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art?' Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi do some helpful demystifying.

Subodh Gupta, 'What does the vessel contain, that the river does not', 2012. Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photograph Alex Delfanne

Why is contemporary art so scary?

Jessica: That’s something we think about a lot. I think people feel nervous about asking questions and seeming stupid, when actually I think for virtually any artist working today provoking questions is exactly what they’re aiming for.

Kyung: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there is a disconnect between what the art world says contemporary art is and people’s actual experiences of it. It’s on us as arts professionals to narrow the gap.

‘A five-year-old could have done that!’: what’s your killer comeback?

J: But they didn’t.

K: Child, please!

A century or so ago, if I’d wanted to be an artist I would have moved to Paris and spent a lot of time in cafes with like-minded people. Is becoming an artist harder today than it was then?

J: These days you still have to move to a centre and hang out with like-minded people. Except it’s no longer Paris, there are many centres. I don’t think it’s ever been easy to be an artist, and now is no different.

K: I don’t think it’s harder now, as I don’t think it was easier back then. Obviously our current global condition means that the world is much smaller, meaning artists can connect with like-minded thinkers and creators in many different physical places all over the world, but also through the internet.

Is contemporary art all about money?

J: The art world is about money insofar as life is about money. It’s important but it’s not everything.

K: Money is just a part of the story, like everything else in life.

So give me an example of a piece of contemporary art that has really ‘made a difference’.

K: In 2011, for instance, Tania Bruguera started a project called ‘Immigrant Movement International’ in Corona, Queens, an immigrant-rich neighbourhood in New York. It involved the creation of an open community space that helped immigrants and raised awareness of their struggles by providing English classes, art workshops, legal advice and some healthcare.

For Cuban artist Tanya Bruegera art is a form of activism. Arrested in 2014 to prevent her from re-enacting her performance piece 'Tatlin’s Whisper', she has shown the power of art to challenge the status quo. Her ongoing project ‘Immigrant Movement International’ is as much a community project as artwork.

Many artists have achieved notoriety by creating something shocking. Now they are part of the establishment. Is this a problem? Where’s the next big shake-up going to come from?

J: The fact that an artwork might eventually become accepted by the establishment does not take away from the role that art can have in subverting the status quo in the present. If anything it shows how it can force institutions to adapt.

K: Many artists are engaging very thoughtfully with recent developments in technology and are pushing the envelope by thinking about how the digital era is shaping our understanding of and interaction with the world. It might be tempting to pinpoint where the next big shake-up might come from, but we should always remember that everything comes from the creative and curious mind of the artist. Without artists, there’d be no art!

Tell me a little about the work, artist or show you’ve most enjoyed curating.

J: I’ve loved working with Christine Sun Kim over the years. A particular highlight was working with her on a recent performance titled Lautplan which she debuted at Cafe Oto earlier this year. Her work is always so layered and personal, and I have learnt so much from working with her.

K: Working with living artists is always a delight and a privilege, but it is also a joy to witness the imagination of the audience as they interact with the art. This was especially true of the artist duo Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s robotic arm that was created for the Tales of Our Time exhibition at the Guggenheim, which I worked on.

You’ve written a book together! How did that come about?

J: I always enjoy telling the story of how we decided to write the book after we co-curated a show together where everything that could go wrong went wrong – it was so stressful! And yet we still liked each other at the end of it, so we thought we should keep collaborating.

Florence Hallett

Who's Afraid of Contemporary Art?

Kyung An, Jessica Cerasi