Beginning a New Year on the prairies can be a somewhat discordant experience. Inhabitants attempt rebirth during the darkest, coldest days, reflecting on the past twelve months while ice gathers on windows, accompanied by radiators clanking hiss. 2018 felt long and utterly exhausting on a political and pop-cultural level and saw the two categories, previously somewhat separated (albeit by a barely visible line), begin to merge into a frightening, amorphous blob. On a personal level the year was both monumental and anticlimactic; a combination that seems liable to occur after significant life events take place or projects come to a close. In 2018 I survived Grad school, received a Research Fellowship to study in the UK for three months, and swam in the Atlantic Ocean, the Adriatic, Ionian, Mediterranean, North, and Caribbean Seas, too many Cenotes to count, and a couple lakes and rivers too. I found myself in an increasingly deep love relationship with a Sagittarius (moon in Leo, Pisces rising) which, as a Leo (moon in Sagittarius, Leo rising), could have been an astrological disaster according to horoscopecafe.com. I drank a lot of good and bad wine, annoyed my cats, thanked G-D that I somehow avoided ever joining Twitter, and started a new job.
My studies at home and in the UK were focused on contemporary art exhibition and practice, and as such I fairly glutted myself on art, experiencing too many noteworthy pieces and exhibitions to, in this slip of cyberspace, describe justly. In lieu of specificity here is a small selection of themes, trends, and questions that surfaced after a year of extensive art viewing and cultural consideration:
1. The prevalence of theory-heavy, academic works focused on identification, categorisation, classification, belonging, and self-location was, in some instances, outshone by a move out of the self and our species, and into broad, elastic realms concerned with toxicity, infestation, and bodily contamination (note that “body” can refer to many different things; bodies of animals, bodies of work, of water etc.), resulting in installations comprised of organic and cellular shapes, tumorous forms, and mysterious matter, all of which transcended an exclusively human focus.
2. Ongoing explorations of technology saw galleries filled with animatronic horrors, sculptures that utilised facial recognition, and nostalgic revisitations of clunky graphics and outmoded electronic relics. Works spanned from utopian fantasy to suspicious fear, but all shared in common a dismay at the implications of the way humans currently make use of technological innovations.
3. A Cruel Joke, by Capitalism: an online economy cashing in on buzzwords such as “softness” and "self-care” has us convinced that spending our hard-earned dollars on face masks and mani-pedis is a form of resistance, that “commenting and re-sharing = caring”, that the soporific embrace of the online confessional will make us less lonely, and that using the word “tender” in a status update makes the world a better place.
4. Is trauma a new form of personal branding?
5. I had a delicious sense of anticipation prior to entering several slick, top-notch galleries and ICA’s across the UK, only to find my visit falling flat. The experience of being underwhelmed was akin to opening a large, manila envelope that I thought contained an epistolary love affair, or correspondences from a mob boss, only to find it filled with expired coupons from Homesense. It’s not that the art was categorically bad, rather that it may not have been excellent, and this, coupled with the chilly white cube that housed it, left a stale and inaccessible impression - a reminder that if a project is too calculated, rooted in trends, and made for the market it will feel contrived regardless of how much money is thrown at it.
6. One specific thing: seeing Jenny Saville’s retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery floored me. Her figures, rendered in a palette of dusk and dawn and broad, dimpled backs, remind me that the nuanced proclivities of human fascination are more interesting than the fact that ‘toxic societal expectations are worked onto a woman’s body, therefore dictating how she perceives it, and how others perceive her’. Saville’s work resonates not due to overt messaging, but because she sees differently, because her paintings invite us, through basking in the presence of bodies unfiltered and luridly exposed, to inspect our own prejudice, pleasure, attraction, and repulsion. She portrays bodies with empathetic curiosity and, crucially, without shame, which is a beautiful thing.
If one of the defining features of contemporary art is that it embodies a response to ideas and concerns of present-day life, then both the artistic product and the way it is received can provide useful information about the complexities and challenges we face as a society. This puts the onus, in part, on the institutions that care for and display art, especially as the experience of art is increasingly about connectivity. Accessing an interstitial space that lies somewhere between viewer and artist, between self and other, human and non-human, provides an opportunity to review what we think we know. It is in this liminal space that multiple modes of seeing can be developed, allowing us to forge new, and rediscover lost, connections within ourselves. It is also in this same threshold that we can create emotional and intellectual shifts, and challenge the dominant discourses that rule our inner monologues, and in turn, eventually, maybe, hopefully, the society we live in.