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Criticism & Theory

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The Writings of Thomas Hirschhorn

For the artist Thomas Hirschhorn, writing is a crucial tool at every stage of his artistic practice. From the first sketch of an idea to appeals to potential collaborators, from detailed documentation of projects to post-disassembly analysis, Hirschhorn’s writings mark the trajectories of his work. This volume collects Hirschhorn’s widely scattered texts, presenting many in English for the first time.

In these writings, Hirschhorn discusses the full range of his art, from works on paper to the massive Presence and Production projects in public spaces. “Statements and Letters” address broad themes of aesthetic philosophy, politics, and art historical commitments. “Projects” consider specific artworks or exhibitions. “Interviews” capture the artist in dialogue with Benjamin Buchloh, Jacques Rancière, and others. Throughout, certain continuities emerge: Hirschhorn’s commitment to quotidian materials; the centrality of political and economic thinking in his work; and his commitment to art in the public sphere. Taken together, the texts serve to trace the artist’s ideas and artistic strategies over the past two decades. Critical Laboratory also reproduces, in color, 33 Ausstellungen im öffentlichen Raum 1998–1989, an out-of-print catalog of Hirschhorn’s earliest works in public space.

Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics. Art, argues the distinguished theoretician Boris Groys, is hardly a powerless commodity subject to the art market’s fiats of inclusion and exclusion. In Art Power, Groys examines modern and contemporary art according to its ideological function. Art, Groys writes, is produced and brought before the public in two ways—as a commodity and as a tool of political propaganda. In the contemporary art scene, very little attention is paid to the latter function.

Arguing for the inclusion of politically motivated art in contemporary art discourse, Groys considers art produced under totalitarianism, Socialism, and post-Communism. He also considers today’s mainstream Western art—which he finds behaving more and more according the norms of ideological propaganda: produced and exhibited for the masses at international exhibitions, biennials, and festivals. Contemporary art, Groys argues, demonstrates its power by appropriating the iconoclastic gestures directed against itself—by positioning itself simultaneously as an image and as a critique of the image. In Art Power, Groys examines this fundamental appropriation that produces the paradoxical object of the modern artwork.

The job of an art critic is to take perpetual inventory, constantly revising her ideas about the direction of contemporary art and the significance of the work she writes about. In these essays, which span three decades of assessment and reassessment, Rosalind Krauss considers what she has come to call the "post-medium condition"—the abandonment by contemporary art of the modernist emphasis on the medium as the source of artistic significance. Jean-François Lyotard argued that the postmodern condition is characterized by the end of a "master narrative," and Krauss sees in the post-medium condition of contemporary art a similar farewell to coherence. The master narrative of contemporary art ended when conceptual art and other contemporary practices jettisoned the specific medium in order to juxtapose image and written text in the same work. For Krauss, this spells the end of serious art, and she devotes much of Perpetual Inventory to "wrest[ling] new media to the mat of specificity."

Krauss also writes about artists who are reinventing the medium, artists who persevere in the service of a nontraditional medium ("strange new apparatuses" often adopted from commercial culture), among them Ed Ruscha, Christian Marclay, William Kentridge, and James Coleman.

Krauss's essays work against the grain of the received ideas of contemporary criticism; she considers the postmedium condition a "monstrous myth." With Perpetual Inventory, she offers an alternative view.

An October Book

Art and Politics

Contemporary art is increasingly part of a wider network of cultural practices, related through a common set of references in cultural theory. Within Europe, relations between national theoretical traditions have become more fluid and dynamic, creating an increasingly transnational—or postnational—space for European cultural and art theory. This book offers a snapshot of recent influential work in contemporary art and political theory in France, Italy, and Germany, in the form of original writings by major representatives of each of the three overlapping national traditions.
    
In France, debates center on the status and possibilities of the image. Éric Alliez, Georges Didi-Huberman, Elisabeth Lebovici, and Jacques Rancière each adopt a distinctive approach to the making, undoing, and remaking of aesthetic images in contemporary art and their political significance. From Italy, Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, Judith Revel, and Franco Berardi each address the “immaterial” situation of contemporary art. From Germany, Peter Sloterdijk, Peter Weibel, and Boris Groys reassess the contemporary legacy of postwar art, demonstrating appropriations of vitalism, structuralism, and deconstruction, respectively.

What if Jacques Lacan--the brilliant and eccentric Parisian psychoanalyst--had worked as a police detective, applying his theories to solve crimes? This may conjure up a mental film clip starring Peter Sellers in a trench coat, but in Lacan at the Scene, Henry Bond makes a serious and provocative claim: that apparently impenetrable events of violent death can be more effectively unraveled with Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis than with elaborate, technologically advanced forensic tools. Bond’s exposition on murder expands and develops a resolutely Žižekian approach. Seeking out radical and unexpected readings, Bond unpacks his material utilizing Lacan’s neurosis-psychosis-perversion grid.

Bond places Lacan at the crime scene and builds his argument through a series of archival crime scene photographs from the 1950s--the period when Lacan was developing his influential theories. It is not the horror of the ravished and mutilated corpses that draws his attention; instead, he interrogates seemingly minor details from the everyday, isolating and rephotographing what at first seems insignificant: a single high heeled shoe on a kitchen table, for example, or carefully folded clothes placed over a chair. From these mundane details he carefully builds a robust and comprehensive manual for Lacanian crime investigation that can stand beside the FBI’s standard-issue Crime Classification Manual.

Marcel Duchamp was a famous expatriate, a wanderer, living and working in Paris, New York, and Buenos Aires and escaping from them in turn. But exile, argues T. J. Demos in this innovative reading, is more than a fact in Duchamp's biography. Exile—in the artist's own words, a "spirit of expatriation"—infuses Duchamp's entire artistic practice. Indeed a profound sense of dislocation—from geographical situation, national identity, and cultural conventions—deeply informs the mobile objects and disjunctive spaces of Duchamp's readymades and experimental exhibition installations.

Duchamp's readymade constructions, his installations for surrealist exhibitions in Paris and New York, and his "portable museum" (the suggestively named La boîte-en-valise), Demos writes, all manifest, define, and exploit the terms of exile in multiple ways. Created while the artist was living variously in New York, Buenos Aires, and occupied France, during the global catastrophes of war and fascism, these works express the anguish of displacement and celebrate the freedom of geopolitical homelessness. The "portable museum," a suitcase containing miniature reproductions of Duchamp's work, for example, represented a complex meditation—both critical and joyful—on modern art's tendency toward itinerancy, whereas Duchamp's 1942 installation design entangling a New York gallery in a mile of string announced the dislocated status that many exiled surrealists wished to forget.

Demos connects Duchamp's condition of exile to forms of displacement within photographic practice and modern museum exhibitions, theorized extensively at the time by Walter Benjamin, André Malraux, and Frederick Kiesler. He claims that in the period of fascism's elevation of the home as the site of national imagination, Duchamp's antinational identity became a form of resistance, just as his artistic practice represented a complex response to capitalism's increasing institutionalization and marketing of art. Duchamp's exile, writes Demos, defines a new ethics of independent life in the modern age of nationalism and advanced capitalism, offering a precursor to our own globalized world of nomadic subjects and dispersed experience.

Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia

In The Museological Unconscious, Victor Tupitsyn views the history of Russian contemporary art through a distinctly Russian lens, a "communal optic" that registers the influence of such characteristically Russian phenomena as communal living, communal perception, and communal speech practices. This way of looking at the subject allows him to gather together a range of artists and art movements—from socialist realism to its "dangerous supplement," sots art, and from alternative photography to feminism—as if they were tenants in a large Moscow apartment.

Describing the notion of "communal optics," Tupitsyn argues that socialist realism does not work without communal perception—which, as he notes, does not easily fit into crates when paintings travel out of Russia for exhibition in Kassel or New York. Russia, he writes, went through an immense "optical restructuring" in the 1930s, in which viewers of art were "communalized." This restructuring (and the effect it had on Soviet cultural mentality) is the leitmotif that runs through the book, as Tupitsyn discusses such topics as the history of alternative Russian art, the communal conceptualism of the 1970s and 1980s (epitomized by Ilya Kabakov and Andrei Monastyrsky), the iconoclastic sots art movement (the best-known practitioners of which are the artistic team of Komar and Melamid), the different art worlds of Moscow and St. Petersburg (the "aesthetics of transparency" versus the "aesthetics of a blind spot"), the "creative violence" of the telesniks, and the relationships among different generations of "nonconformists." Russian artists, critics, and art historians, having lived for decades in a society that ignored or suppressed avant-garde art, have compensated, Tupitsyn claims, by developing a "museological unconscious"—the "museification" of the inner world and the collective psyche.

Edited by Nadja Rottner

Claes Oldenburg (born in 1929) is largely known today as a pop art sculptor. Oldenburg himself described his formless canvas and vinyl soft sculptures--gigantic hamburgers and ice cream cones, cushiony toilets and typewriters--as “objects that elude definition.” This collection of writings revisits not only Oldenburg’s soft objects from the early to mid 1960s but also his pioneering installations The Street (1960) and The Store (1961–1962) and his often overlooked multimedia performances. As the artist translated his ideas and beliefs into various media and formats, his work drew on a range of styles and schools, including abstract expressionism, Happenings, pop art, minimalism, and postminimalism. Perhaps because of their refusal to be classified, these artworks are as contemporary today as they were when they were created between 1960 and 1965.

This collection serves both as a summation of early critical thinking on Oldenburg’s art and a starting point for consideration of the artist as a forerunner of current art trends of stylelessness and intermediality. It includes both contemporary criticism and more recent scholarly reassessments, interviews with the artist, and Oldenburg’s own unpublished manifesto on the Ray Gun Theater (the artist’s name for his performance series in the back of The Store).

In Under Blue Cup, Rosalind Krauss explores the relation of aesthetic mediums to memory--her own memory having been severely tested by a ruptured aneurysm that temporarily washed away much of her short-term memory. (The title, Under Blue Cup, comes from the legend on a flash card she used as a mnemonic tool during cognitive therapy.) Krauss emphasizes the medium as a form of remembering; contemporary artists in what she terms the "post-medium" condition reject that scaffolding. Krauss explains the historical emergence of the post-medium condition and describes alternatives to its aesthetic meaninglessness, examining works by "knights of the medium"--contemporary artists who extend the life of the specific medium.

These artists--including Ed Ruscha, William Kentridge, Sophie Calle, Harun Farocki, Christian Marclay, and James Coleman--reinstate the recursive rules of a modernist medium by inventing what Krauss terms new technical supports, battling the aesthetic meaninglessness of the post-medium condition. The "technical support" is an underlying ground for aesthetic practice that supports the work of art as canvas supported oil paint. The technical support for Ruscha’s fascination with gas stations and parking lots is the automobile; for Kentridge, the animated film; for Calle, photojournalism; for Coleman, a modification of PowerPoint; for Marclay, synchronous sound. Their work, Krauss argues, recuperates more than a century of modernist practice.

The work of the post-medium condition--conceptual art, installation, and relational aesthetics--advances the idea that the "white cube" of the museum or gallery wall is over. Krauss argues that the technical support extends the life of the white cube, restoring autonomy and specificity to the work of art.

An Anthology of Artists' Writings

"Institutional critique" is an artistic practice that reflects critically on its own place within galleries and museums and on the concept and social function of art itself. Such concerns have always been a part of modern art but took on new urgency at the end of the 1960s, when--driven by the social upheaval of the time and enabled by the tools and techniques of conceptual art--institutional critique emerged as a genre. This anthology traces the development of institutional critique as an artistic concern from the 1960s to the present, gathering writings and representative art projects of artists who developed and extended the genre. The artists come from across Europe and throughout the Americas; the texts and artworks included are notable for the range of perspectives and positions they reflect, and for their influence in pushing the boundaries of what is meant by institutional critique.

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