PRINT May 2010



Visitors to Marina Abramović’s exhibition “The Artist Is Present,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010. Photo: Carolina A. Miranda.

AMONG THE MORE STRIKING aspects of interviews with William S. Burroughs—Beat author and theorist par excellence of addiction in all its iterations—is a strong and prescient Malthusian streak running through his words. Time and again, his interlocutors would pose questions about writerly craft only to discover that Burroughs refused to discuss his fiction apart from the larger forces that both generate and are shaped by the “top-heavy” societies responsible for dwindling natural resources (and, he was wont to add, for financial cataclysm in turn). His fiction, it seems, was for him perhaps anything but. At the time, of course, this kind of talk seemed like the ranting of a madman; today, one can’t pick up the newspaper without coming across commentary on population’s impact on nature and culture, whether the matter at hand pertains to carbon footprints and ecology or to an economic “recovery” that struggles to produce even the one hundred thousand new jobs needed each month merely to keep up with the workforce’s perpetual expansion. Even conservative voices have lately been speaking in the register of volume (however strangely), if David Brooks of the New York Times is any indicator: In his column last month “Relax, We’ll Be Fine,” he suggests that the predicted population surge of one hundred million in the United States during the next forty years will make the country younger and more dynamic culturally and economically than such global counterparts as China or Japan. (But in the meantime, consider Paco Underhill’s 1999 book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. There the sociologist postulates that, as the general populace grows older over the course of this decade, aging will be made more attractive in merchandising.)

I take this vaguely sci-fi detour through yesteryear’s literature and today’s evolving demographics only to suggest a kind of backdrop for considering the potential effects of population growth on contemporary art’s presentation and reception. After all, art is no exception to the influence of numbers, as evidenced by, say, museum architecture’s recent tendency to fixate on questions of circulation over and above the conditions of individual viewership—introducing a new kind of scale for the audience and belatedly postulating, now by necessity, a different sort of public address for art. Such increased proportion has many valences, as demographically distinct art-world audiences, for example, now travel to different destinations—including but hardly privileging the museum—so that the institution is organized around touristic audiences in addition to, if not actually more than, local or specialized ones. Put another way, the very framing of art is altered by cultural conditions—and in such a grand dimension as to go largely overlooked, like underlying climate patterns, by artists and audiences alike.

No doubt this shift is at least partly responsible for an often awkward embrace between the present and the past, and not only in the galleries but also within the writings of so many art historians and critics seeking to put this moment in historical perspective. Clearly, any attempt to render commensurate the artistic engagements of today with those of just a half century ago—or merely to place them in meaningful dialogue—must begin with an examination of our own radically altered and still unsettled context. As Terry Smith writes in his new volume, What Is Contemporary Art? (University of Chicago Press, 2009; reviewed in the current issue by art historians Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson): “For the history of contemporary art, the core object of inquiry is the art, the ideas, the cultural practices and the values that are created within the conditions of contemporaneity.” Albeit at the risk of sounding tautological, Smith suggests, in other words, that any vocabulary for engaging art as it stands now requires a negotiation of the societal structures that make it possible.

It’s intriguing that his book, while delineating changes in space and scale that have taken place around art during the past thirty or forty years, ascribes special importance to alterations in our sense of time. The kind of population expansion Burroughs once described becomes—here, when it comes to art—a matter of an expanded audience moving at ever-increasing speeds. “The coexistence of distinct temporalities, of different ways of being in relation to time, experienced in the midst of a growing sense that many kinds of time are running out, is,” Smith writes, “the . . . deepest sense of the contemporary: what it is to be with time, to be contemporary.” The art historian is speaking in this passage about current differences among various cultures around the world (differences that will inevitably generate exceptions to any general observations about art today), and yet one wonders how his notion might apply to art specifically addressing an individual culture.

Certainly, Monika Sosnowska’s new installation scheme (which she discusses in this issue) for the Centre Pompidou’s current exhibition “The Promises of the Past, 1950–2010: A Discontinuous History of Art in Former Eastern Europe” explicitly posits different kinds of time coexisting, with the artist’s irregular geometries creating displays hidden away from one another even when in great proximity. Less overt in this regard, however, are recent exhibitions by Marina Abramović and Tino Sehgal at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, respectively. What kinds of temporality coexist in these instances, whereby performance—a genre necessarily steeped in time, one that uses time as a fundamental substance—enters the museum, a place intended to archive art from all periods even as it seeks to stand just to the side of history? In various ways, this question is posed by art historians Caroline A. Jones and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, and by artist Joe Scanlan, as they examine these two artists’ shows in these pages. But what arises in their different discussions (at least by implication) is a more important question: How do the people constituting the audience in this sphere occupy time? What kind of time is being created for them, and to what extent is it already familiar in its address or, alternatively, generative of “different ways of being”? The answer, should anyone endeavor to tease it out, would speak volumes not only of the art at hand, but also of the audience it asks for and creates, giving qualitative dimension to the volumes passing through the edifices of art today.