Claire Bishop’s “Déjà Vu”, a response by Katelyn Gallucci

On October 28th, 2015 OCAD University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and School for Interdisciplinary Studies presented a public lecture by Dr. Claire Bishop, art historian, critic, author, and professor in the History of Art Department at CUNY Graduate Center, New York. Entitled “Déjà Vu: Contemporary Art and the Ghosts of Modernity,” Bishop’s lecture critiques themes of the failure and ruin of modernity and utopia that she believes have persisted in contemporary art since the 1990s.

Bishop cites Russian artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920) as a key example — an icon of 20th century architecture and design which has continued to be reinterpreted through other mediums such as painting, sculpture, photography, video, and archival installation. Conceived to be built from industrial materials such as iron, glass and steel, Tatlin’s Constructivist monument was envisaged as a towering symbol of modernity — it would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower. Although it was never fully constructed, the tower nevertheless remains a reference point for utopia or dystopia within contemporary art. Artworks that reference the tower include Dan Flavin’s Monument 1 for V. Tatlin (1964), Ai Weiwei’s Fountain of Light (2007) and Goran Hassanpour’s Tower of Babel (2011).  Each artist references the tower as symbol of technology, social change or paradisiacal kitsch. However, Bishop questions why contemporary artists feel the need to reference modernity at all.

Bishop credits this rise in historicism to institutionalization and the digital underpinning that have come to the forefront of contemporary art practices. On one hand, as the number of institutions offering MFA and Ph.D. programs in visual art grows, so does the academicization of art. This situation causes emerging artists to feel the need to attach historical references to their work as a way to legitimize their art practices and separate themselves from mere hobbyists. On the other hand, the internet has become a sort of universal encyclopedia, underpinning the visual research of most artists today and contributing to our contemporary déjà vu.

As a recent BFA graduate I am very familiar with “the concept and three references before production” model of art making. I am also aware that it is likely that I will hit a roadblock in my career and require an MFA to continue. However it is arguable whether either degree will confer any real advantage since a quick Google search may be all that it takes to level the playing field. Perhaps widespread public access to information has brought a level of universality to art practice that actually prevents artists from looking forward; the reference is now not only a symbol of academic elitistism but also paradoxically a strategy to avoid the appearance of being out of touch with what is now considered common knowledge.

Is contemporary art too nostalgic for its own good? Perhaps its strength is no longer in conceptual ideas but in using technological advancements to transform how we relate, share and understand art and the world today. For example, artists like Hito Steyerl use digital sources and information sharing to probe larger issues on the socio-technological conditions of contemporary visual culture. Straddling the border between cinema and the fine arts, Steyerl explores the role of the media in globalization and militarization, brought on by the mass proliferation and dissemination of images through digital technologies.

In light of such conditions, Bishop’s question indeed seems relevant: why reference modernity? Is it still necessary?

Works cited

Nikolai Punin. “The Monument to the Third International” (1920) (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
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Dan Flavin. Monument 1 for V. Tatlin. 1964. MOMA, 2008. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.
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The Real Thing: Ai Weiwei. Exhibitions. TATE, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.
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Ekroth & Erlend Hammer. “Goran Hassanpour.” Momentum7: The Blog. 26 June 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.
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Hito Steyerl. “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation.” E-Flux. 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.
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posted by TYPOLOGY intern Katelyn Gallucci
edited by Shani K Parsons

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