Issue Number: 92
State of the union
As Charles Saatchi’s collection of new American art goes on show at the RA, critic John Slyce talks about the current state of art across the Atlantic with Chrissie Iles, a transplanted Londoner who is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Immersed in the country’s contemporary art scene, Iles sees this as a moment when young artists are confronting crumbling American ideals in the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq
Josephine Meckseper, Pyromaniac 2. C type print.
JOHN SLYCE Can we look at the titles of recent surveys of American art: your own ‘Day for Night’ at the Whitney, as well as shows such as ‘Uncertain States of America’, coming to the Serpentine this autumn, and now ‘USA Today’ at the Royal Academy. What do those titles collectively suggest?
CHRISSIE ILES In terms of international opinion, America is at its lowest ebb. To quote my Biennial co-curator Philippe Vergne, ‘America is not a country, it’s an ideal’. Since 9/11 we’ve seen that ideal crumble, as America has taken on an outwardly aggressive stance and an inwardly defensive one. America’s declining status in the world, triggered by its foreign policy, and specifically the war in Iraq, has been a pivotal moment for the country and for its artists. This sense of uncertainty is intensified by the country’s many problems that are hiding in plain sight; for example, the poverty and social inequality that Hurricane Katrina brought to the surface last year, to the shock of the rest of the world.
JS Is there a sense of stasis, of powerlessness, of inability to change and improve society?
CI The last large-scale action for social change took place in the 1960s and ’70s, with the civil rights and feminist movements. Since then, what the theorist Noam Chomsky calls ‘the politics of contentment’ has kept the status quo. Clinton tried hard to change it. But there is still only one national newspaper, the New York Times, and only a tiny percentage of the country reads it; the majority of people gets their news from commercial television and radio in heavily biased soundbites.
This sense of isolation is bolstered by the fact that America has always been an image-based culture. It uses visual images to create a kind of fake reality, and to popularise cultural forms in simplified terms: an opera becomes a musical; literature becomes experienced in 3-D as Disney World. The current generation of artists has grown up in a period where this visualisation has become heavily high-tech, creating both instant access to information and an increasingly passive relationship with the world. The internet has fundamentally changed artists’ understanding of space, materiality, weight, surface and gravity. There is an interesting spatial flatness to the work of many young American artists, such as Matthew Monahan, Dana Schutz and Kristin Baker.
They are producing images that are found, appropriated and reworked over and over again, making copies of a copy of a copy, until all meaning is emptied out. This nihilistic process is occurring at a moment when many Americans are angry about the war in Iraq and their government’s foreign policy, but feel pessimistic that anything can be done to change it. On top of that, the US government has not instigated the draft, so the middle-class is not directly affected, as it was in Vietnam. If there were a draft, there would be a roar of protest immediately, from the middle-class men who would have to go to Iraq.
Another difference between the current situation and Vietnam is that 9/11 has produced a climate in which any questioning of government foreign policy is cast as unpatriotic. Artists are responding to this current climate of passivity in different ways. A lot of their work has a slick beauty that belies the dark aspects of the current situation, including its violence and a sense of imminent collapse. Some of the artists in ‘USA Today’, such as Banks Violette, are using a seductive beauty to express that darkness in no uncertain terms – through a relationship with black metal music (a form of hard rock that is more sinister than heavy metal), for instance.
JS One of the features I saw played out in ‘Day for Night’, which I also see in ‘USA Today’, is the fact that much of the work operates at a remove, with layer upon layer of mediation, for example in the work of Kelley Walker. Often, everything is held as far away from a recognisable set of politics or an actual agenda as possible.
CI That’s how American society is lived in general; it’s thoroughly mediated by the media, by popular culture and by corporate interests.
JS I know this was the case a decade ago, when I last lived in the US. But I’m interested in whether the work in ‘USA Today’ demonstrates that this is even more the case now.
CI This new generation is thoroughly mediated by the market, as never before. Young artists’ work can go from an art school degree show into a private collection in a matter of hours. Though America is currently several trillion dollars in the red, as long as China continues to lend America money, this unreal – surreal – situation will probably continue. Whether it will produce anything of long-term art historical significance is another question. The art market is responding to a large group of new collectors who are eager to buy new work by young artists.
JS What kind of position does that put you in as a curator? Surely, in attempting to gather work together that says something thoughtful, critical or symptomatic of a moment, you end up bolstering someone’s market position.
CI There’s a big difference between the heat of the moment and what happens after that heat dies down. Exhibitions are catalysts for the moment. Collections are about what happens once that moment has passed. Artworks have to pass the test of time. As a museum curator, I’m always thinking about the future as well as the present. I’m interested in how an artwork sustains its power beyond the moment. As always, only a fraction of the work currently being produced is going to matter in the long term.
US World Studies II, 2005, by Jules de Balincourt US World Studies II, 2005, by Jules de Balincourt US World Studies II, 2005, by Jules de Balincourt
Exhibitions are about ideas, not about speculating on the future. Some of the most important artworks have little currency in the art market, for example Claes Oldenburg’s storefront happening, ‘The Store’ (1961–2), Rauschenberg’s performance at the EAT [Experiments in Art and Technology] ‘Nine Evenings’ event in New York in 1966, or Marina Abramovic’s more recent performance ‘House with the Ocean View’ (2002). Some artworks increase in value only decades later; some will do so long after our lifetime. To the curator and to the serious collector, the bottom line is quality, which is not by any means always measurable in financial terms. This current generation of American artists is very different from that of the 1990s. The ’90s was a moment of self-confidence and optimism in America. This new generation is coming of age in the 21st century – which started on 11 September, 2001. The confidence of the ’90s has been replaced by a sense of apprehension and self-doubt. The young artists in ‘USA Today’, ‘Uncertain States of America’ and ‘Day for Night’ all articulate that anxiety – as can be seen, for example, in the work of Dash Snow. Beauty, narrative and slick surfaces are all forms of escapism.
JS I was taken by Josephine Meckseper’s work in your Whitney Biennial, but all the while I was aware that I was confronted by a strange bastard child of things that simply would not fit together.
CI Meckseper’s strategy articulates the current dichotomy in America – the seductiveness of consumerism versus the harsh reality of a bloody war. All across America, artists are using forms of appropriation that Roberta Smith describes in a New York Times article as articulating ‘an end-game, end- time mood, as if we are looking at the end of the end of the end of Pop art, hyperrealism and appropriation art. The techniques of replication and copying have become so meticulous that they are beside the point… I would call all these strategies fear of form, which can be parsed as fear of materials, of working with the hands in an overt way and a fear of originality.’ This appropriation also includes a preoccupation with the 1960s and ’70s.
JS Or perhaps what was at stake in those moments and their movements?
CI Yes. Yet they know that it’s impossible to create a similarly transformative moment now. It’s a cry for help. We’re not going to witness another revolution like the one that occurred in the ’60s in our lifetime. Young artists are nostalgic for a moment they know they will never experience and are incapable of recreating.
JS A generation has already given up on themselves and they haven’t even hit 30? That’s somewhat pessimistic.
CI It’s an indication of what’s happening in the larger culture. America has written off whole cities – Detroit, for example, and possibly New Orleans. The US is a puritanical society. It avoids uncomfortable truths by escaping into the certainty of fake realities – cinema, Disneyland, theme malls and towns, Las Vegas, virtual reality, video games, TV evangelists. In the current art world, it’s often the older artists who are the most rebellious and political. In ‘Day for Night’, for example, Richard Serra appropriated and represented one of the most widely seen images from the media – a large black and white silhouette drawing of the man being tortured at Abu Ghraib, framed by the words, ‘Stop Bush’. Through that instantly recognisable silhouette, Serra both criticised the government and demonstrated the power of the mass media to enter our visual world on a global scale through a single picture. Imagery of the World Trade Center towers collapsing is another example of that.
JS What sets apart the work and the generations might be nothing more than a different set of memories. The fact remains that we are all now inside the spectacle that the Western world has become, irrespective of what generation we belong to.
CI It’s true. But how we negotiate it will shape our cultural future. Both ‘Uncertain States of America’ and ‘USA Today’ attempt to identify a new generation of young artists. For Philippe and me, as curators of the Whitney Biennial, that approach would have led us too close to exactly what the market wanted us to do. Instead, we sought to show what we found as we travelled across the country – a moment of political, social and cultural crisis inside the spectacle, as expressed by multiple generations of American and European artists working in the US now. By focusing on a specific group of young artists, ‘USA Today’ shifts the lens to a close-up shot of how a new generation is negotiating that crisis.
USA Today, Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 6 Oct–4 Nov
Click here to buy tickets for this exhibition
Some of the images in the exhibition could be disturbing and parental guidance may be required.
John Slyce and Chrissie Iles
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