Hello to an Idea

Martin Herbert on The Showroom's annual conference


Left: Kit Hammonds, Simon Bayley, Craig Richardson, Thomas Lawson, and Annie Fletcher. Right: The crowd between sessions.

One of very few publicly funded galleries in the East End, the Showroom has a civic remit that primarily involves giving deserving artists their first London exhibitions. Last year, though, it expanded its brief to include an annual conference, which is why, during last Saturday’s freakish burst of warm weather, several dozen delegates elected to sit in the gallery’s windowless, triangular back room and listen to Thomas Lawson and Nicolas Bourriaud debate the modernist tropes encoded in The Incredibles. OK, so this was an uncharacteristically light moment but permissible: The conference’s title was “New Moderns?” and the aim of the speakers—who also included Amsterdam-based curator Annie Fletcher, Goldsmiths College academic Simon O’Sullivan, and American artist Daria Martin—was to determine whether artists’ current interest in modernist aesthetics and concepts was more than just another turn of fashion’s wheel.

Up first and jetlagged, Lawson hadn’t finished the paper he’d planned to present, which concerned the Wooster Group’s turn toward neo-modernist theatrics. Instead, he improvised loosely, and in a quasi-hopeful way, on various things he’d seen lately: flowers blooming in Death Valley after California’s flash floods, Donald Kuspit’s recent book on the end of art, Damien Hirst’s current show at Gagosian, the new MoMA and his students’ disinterest in it except as a place to go “looting” (presumably for aesthetic ideas, not objects). “I want something avant-gardish,” said Lawson. That inconclusive but telling sentiment resurfaced throughout the talks, suggesting the kind of desperate optimism that leads one to force a smile because it’ll trick the brain into feeling better.

Fletcher was more concrete than Lawson, presenting videos by three artists (Phil Collins, Maria Pask, and Gerard Byrne) whose work, she reckoned, marked a return to modernist interests in representation, participation, and empowerment. One aggrieved audience member leapt up to say that Collins’s work, featuring a disco-dance marathon in Ramallah, wasn’t political and at best could only lead to a “microutopia”—which must have given Bourriaud déjà vu, since he got precisely that kind of flack when discussing relational aesthetics at an east London conference last year. The piqued spectator had a broadly applicable point. However much artists co-opt modernist stratagems, this time around there’s far less shared confidence in the project’s potential to rewire humanity. Bourriaud darkened matters further by connecting original modernism’s concepts of progress to war, technology, and imperialism, before segueing into a sketch of a globally inclusive art in the age of info overload. What the world needs now, the critic and curator postulated, is more artists who are able to “produce pathways through culture” and a maintenance of cultural diversity within an overall system that might accommodate it. As one might expect from him, Bourriaud had a catchy name for his idée—“altermodernism”—and posited it as “a reloading of modernism according to twenty-first-century issues.” So, we need to learn the language of other cultures, translate their cultural values, and connect them to the “world network.”

That sounds like a lot of work (and Bourriaud was vague on which aspects of modernism we might want to “reload”), but, according to O’Sullivan, the artists are going to do some of it for us. The art he likes—specifically that of young Scottish artists—creates, he says, subjectivity itself. Apparently editing his Deleuze-indebted paper on the fly, O’Sullivan enthusiastically described this art as productively mobilizing confusion to remake in its own image the audience that chooses to look at it (a real chicken-and-egg situation, that). From here, he veered into a weirdly lightweight characterization of the contemporary artist as a “fan” of older art—a position that the final speaker, Daria Martin, was having none of. Screening several of her own short films, Martin maintained that, though her work might reference modernist moments (Giacometti’s early sculpture; sequences from Antonioni’s Blow-Up), it does so in the interest of creating a space for embodied fantasy in contemporary art. And it is, of course, artists like Martin who will decide if we get a new, or alter-, modernist moment. Though if it leads to a new post-modernism—and as a result we’re all sitting here in five years’ time discussing which aspects of David Salle’s thinking are most vital for today—I’m going to find it hard to forgive them.