What is contemporaneity?

Le Membre Fantôme, installation view, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015 (photo by Nic Tenwiggenhorn)

Le Membre Fantôme, installation view, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015 (photo by Nic Tenwiggenhorn)

What is contemporaneity? by Olivier Zahm

The issue of modern art and contemporaneity is the same — on the understanding that art is an ensemble of creative endeavours that encompass painting, architecture, dance and music. The answer to this question can be historical: modern art is art that kicked off after WW2 and goes up to the present day. In other words, the general consensus is that modern art is art of our time. A tautological definition that conceals within its evidence the very nature of modern art as being « contemporary ». The latter is not chronological, a moment in the history of art, or the latest in a long line or artistic endeavours. Being modern does not designate art: it is created by art itself in relation to the present time, a unique temporality that has no equivalent — and is not from the present time even if there is a link to it. Any work of art, from any era, is therefore modern.

Only artists actually manage to neutralise the fierceness and rawness of today’s light and reveal the dark and obscure corners that clash with its transparency. Only artists create modern times. And it is precisely the contemporary and the avant-garde who have access to time, who reveal the present to itself and expose its obscure elements to the blinding light of the modern day and a transparent present that flicks by in an instant.

From this perspective, the contemporary makes aesthetic appraisal possible again: it means that you can distinguish art that makes sense in the era concerned from art that reproduces the data of its time to some degree before dispersing in it and confusing itself with it (art that is, in fact, not contemporary at all).

Faced with the deterioration of critical appraisal and the booming financial clout of the art trade, it seems as though the law of the market alone designates what the art of the moment was; the art that mattered in an era; the art that became part of the history of art. No one seems to be able to express an aesthetic opinion that goes against what the ultra powerful art trade has decided has value in the field.

Art actually creates a link with the present but this is a relationship fraught with tension: it creates a caesura; rupture; a break; a split with the present. This defect within it leads to an access point to time. However all art does not create such break from and access point to time.

You could say therefore — and this is what I have sought to establish as an art critic— that contemporary art is the dictum of aesthetic appraisal. The words « this is art » are no more than an appraisal of taste, an ideal of beauty, harmony or on the other hand, chaos, dystopia and morbid or neo-punk  style darkness —even if this aesthetic post modernity is part of modern times. The words « this is art » reveal nothing more about the present day than a critical appraisal linked to a theory of art or to a definition of art that permits a reformulation of its nature in opposition to (and dramatic rupture with) the recent past and the latest vanguard of art.

« This is art » rejects the contemporary. The content of contemporaneity. That is to say, the way in which a work of art brings rupture, discontinuity and incongruity with the present that tears it away from what’s current about it and what is not. On the basis of this rupture (obscurity in the words of Agamben), the work of art introduces another rapport with the present, a different temporality that is imposed upon us by the news and media and what is going on in the wider sense. This caesura in the modern day is clear to see: it is up to art critics, gallery owners and managers of institutions to spot it, highlight it and to ensure that the conditions are right for it to come to fruition in opposition to market forces in a precise way. To challenge the ‘show’. To clash against the dominant ideology of the present, its homogeneity and endlessly accelerated speed that seems to be our unsurpassable condition.

It is clear that modern art dissociates itself from the present day; it breaks away from it to make its dissimilarity, specificity and power more evident.

We should probably go a few steps further and attempt a « contemporary theory » by developing Giorgio Agamben’s inaugural theoretical philosophy lectures back in 2005-2006 at Venice’s IUAV University. « It is the contemporary that has broken the vertebrae of its time (that is to say has recognised the fault or breaking point), and from this fracture it creates a meeting point for different eras and generations. »

The contemporary thus occurs in two stages. First there is the rupture, a break from the present that splits into original time and present time. That is to say, via a confrontation or irruption with what is not current, archaic, or has its origins in the present. The second stage occurs in the work of art itself and that is the encounter and friction between diverse, divergent and heterogeneous times.

We should add (and this is something Giorgio Agamben doesn’t do) a third phase that begins at this point of fracture and friction: this is when a new temporality is rebuilt. This is peculiar to artistic creativity. The contemporary detaches the present from its path, its flux, its disappearance, its homogeneity and its transparency to itself. This is the element of the present that pulls away from itself, reveals itself by breaking away from its origins and the past. The « modern » artist is therefore the creative who creates blocks of time, resurrects blocks of time from the past and makes them clash, confront each other or harmonise together in a new temporal composition. From this perspective, modern art is not just the metaphysics of origin rediscovered in the obscurity of the present but rather a creation of time.

The contemporary represents the possibility of emerging from a place of helplessness, a passageway towards emancipation and freedom. It nods to the Lacanian concept of the impossible: modern art is the « impossible ».

For a « modern » artist the quest is to reach this point of exclusion from reality. A point of impossibility that clashes with any dominant ideology. And getting to that point is liberating.


Text extracted from a book by Olivier Zahm « Une avant-garde sans avant-garde. Essai sur l’art contemporain réalisé avec Donatien Grau », available from Presses du réel.