The latest trends in contemporary art Featured

A look at the dynamics of what has always been a volatile market.

by 29 May 2009

It is difficult to forecast the changes the economic crisis will trigger in the eclectic world of contemporary art at this early stage of the cycle. The day on which the employees of titan Lehman Brothers said goodbye to their jobs by walking out of the building with their boxes of personal belongings saw Damien Hirst auction his works through Sotheby’s, selling his “The Golden Calf” for more than £10 million. What struck the art world was not the coincidence of such an inauspicious day but the fact that Hirst – considered by many to be the Leonardo da Vinci of the 21st century – decided to completely bypass the art world itself, ignoring galleries, art fairs and even changes of hand between private individuals and art dealers, to take his work directly from the studio to the auction sale. A decided novelty, of course, but one that only an artist of his calibre – with his innate desire to break each and every limit – can allow himself.

What is certain is that many small art galleries even in New York, still the undisputed Mecca of contemporary art, are having to close their doors; already some side events of the last edition of Miami Basel were practically deserted. The response to this crisis of the contemporary artist in defining himself can only be positive.

Every challenge is welcomed as such by creative minds the world over, even though this can mean giving up time in the studio to temporarily dedicate oneself to other types of day jobs. And so the commissioned painting – by which we mean that strictly requested to match the background colour of the sofa – quickly goes out of fashion when even the most eager collectors refine their palate in the quest to find the most exclusive art possible, which also often translates into something impossible to own.

Hence, the artistic object becomes something more complex when the artist uses it for performance or actions related to hic et nunc, the fleeting moment that is the here and now, and it’s up to the user to be there at that specific moment to gain direct experience or otherwise settle for a documentary video, which is a bit like comparing a football final with a video of the televised game.

Artists such as John Bock, Marina Abramovic, Olaf Breuning and Paul McCarthy develop their research pathways in a heterogeneous, eclectic or even crazy way, which forces the observer to make a direct comparison between life and the aesthetic that surrounds them. Leading Breuning to lace his photographic work with a liberal dose of irony, the fruit of authentic performance efforts that sometimes involve hundreds of bit players to produce a photograph that – while entertaining on the surface – has implications of a profoundly contemporary sense.

The body of the artist is also used to underscore the shift between the artefact and the essence of the being, as Bologna’s Sissi tends to highlight in performances where she surrounds herself with monstrously gigantic and obsessively crocheted objects. Direct contact with the public seems a prerogative of this generation of artists, of which Shepard Fairy is one of the bastions, rising from street artist to official portrait artist of no less than Barack Obama. And so the Californian group My Barbarian give open-air lessons on music, art and life in a kind of huge performing musical, inviting the audience to join in, dancing and singing ad infinitum.

While Danish artists’ collective Superflex create an ironic debate on the copyright concept when they invite the audience to copy design’s most famous objects or when they challenge the giant multinational in a video co-produced with the South London Gallery of London, in which McDonald’s is slowly and inexorably flooded in the video Flooded McDonald’s.

Probably, the work that has most captured the public’s attention and which mobilized an entire city was that of Gillian Wearing, who announced a “contest” in the newspapers and on the local television channels inviting the city to elect the most typical Trentino family. After more than a year of work, the city voted for the Giuliani family, rewarding it with the placement of a traditional monument in one of the city’s parks. As well as being an ironical production with compelling points for reflection on the idea of family, the work is now an immortal memorial of a moment of profound cohesion between art and life.

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