CROSS OVERS. A Summer’s Journey through Modernism and Post-Modernism

CROSS OVERS. A Summer’s Journey through Modernism and Post-Modernism

Reflections on Contemporary Art by Bruni Schling

What is art? This question is as old as art itself, but has probably never been asked more frequently than these days when apparently “anything goes”.

Never before has the wind of change and innovation blown more vehemently through the art scene, leaving behind a trail of confusion for the public and the artist alike.

And yet most people will agree that far from producing only ephemeral and tangential creations, there are artists who succeed in integrating the onslaught of influences from everywhere and create works, which epitomise the spirit of the age.

Among the encounters of art I had last summer there were four that stood out for me as attempts to bringing together established notions of art with new and unusual elements. Each work or artist took a different route in mediating between cultures, genres, generations and styles.

For instance: at the Proms in the Albert Hall, I listened to Nigel Kennedy’s new version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons; I saw works by two African artists at TATE MODERN: the Sudanese Ibrahim El Salahi and Meschac Gaba from Benin and finally I attended Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
where Grayson Perry’s tapestries “A Small Difference” were on display.

When Western art emancipated itself in the Renaissance from its subservient role to religion and became an autonomous medium for the expression and celebration of the human spirit, it embarked on a journey of vast and dynamic changes. By absorbing influences and elements from all kinds of sources art acquired the flexibility to express and influence the constantly changing relationship of human beings with the societies they live in. A process of constant self-renewal became the hallmark of Western art, although the changes were quite slow at first and relatively stable as long as society and art reflected each other more or less comfortably, but they have gained more and more speed with the arrival of Modernism and have spun out of control in our post-modern age.

In Modernism and in modernity we have experienced and suffered a rift between the individual and society. When people in the West found themselves faced with a meaningless universe, it fell to art to become a prime medium for creating meaning in a world without meaning. Instead of interpreting a pre-established reality according to accepted rules, art assumed the total freedom to reflect and create the human condition in as many ways as there were world views and facets of human experience. With the falling away of social and metaphysical certainties art acquired for many people the status once held by religion.

With the arrival of post-modernism and its concomitant deconstruction of the basic concepts like European cultural supremacy and patriarchal structures, notions of the elevated status of art were dismantled; distinctions between higher and lower forms of expression fell away, hierarchies collapsed and even the concept of the autonomous individual which, since the Enlightenment was an axiom of Western culture was put into question. The individual itself became a construct, something fictional both as the creator and consumer of art. If art had always been open to
the diversity of elements, it is the diversity of elements now that have become the substance of art itself.

The substance of Nigel Kennedy’s performance at the Proms this year were undoubtedly The Four Season’s by Vivaldi which, as the programme notes announced, would be played with improvisations from the Arabic musical tradition. The presence on the stage of the young players from The Palestine Strings in addition to Kennedy’s familiar Polish Orchestra of Life indicated to the audience that they were in for more than just one cross over with culture. In fact, a foray into the political arena was in the offing.

These young musicians from Palestine admirably straddled the course between Western and Arabic music, but were given full rein to infuse the baroque concerto with improvised wails and evocative laments from their culture. The tight structure of the original concerto dissolved into long drawn out modulations washing like waves over the certainty of Western tonality and of movements. The Jazz interludes and pastiches by the Polish players created yet another dimension to The Four Seasons,
suspending any sense of historical or cultural location within the work. Kennedy himself added a Punk note to the performance through his style of conducting, but more so through his irreverent, sometimes even scratchy, solos.

I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer inventiveness and vitality of the playing. This was music making from the gut, leading to a fantastic multi-cultural synthesis. No doubt, the Four Seasons could do with a makeover to rescue them from the habitual abuse they usually receive as sound bites
in supermarkets and telephone waiting queues. What I had not expected was that Kennedy would now drown the piece in a sea of extraneous material. I would not object to a kind of cultural fusion between the baroque style of Vivaldi with Jazz and Arabic music, if the concerto would have kept something of its original Gestalt. In this instance however, I felt Kennedy had pushed the boat out too far and the bits and pieces of Vivaldi that kept popping up, where like rafters in an alien sea, which I desperately tried to hold on to. I would not want to set up any rules for how far one artist can go when he quarries the work of another. However, I simply felt with the flooding of the concerto with so much that took us away from it, something that had its own beautiful integrity was drowned.

The Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salah, who was given a retrospective at TATE MODERN, travelled culturally and artistically in the opposite direction from Kennedy. An Arab African by birth and upbringing, he was trained in the language of modernism during his studies at the Slade School in the nineteen-fifties. He then took his art back to Africa where it was met with rejection and misunderstanding, which in turn forced him to ask the simple question why does he paint. The surprisingly simple answer was that he needs to communicate with the people with whom he shares a culture, and this has led El-Salah to an exploration of the visual language of his native Africa.

In the course of his development he integrated more and more elements from his Arab African background without ever compromising on the radical personal style and idiom of the modernist. Thus El Salahi reverses the trends of the early European modernists like Picasso, who helped
themselves to all things foreign and primitive, without any regard for their cultural contexts, as long as they served the purpose of smashing up traditional and outmoded ways of expression at home. With el-Salahi’s paintings at TATE MODERN the language of modernism returns to Europe,
enriched by cultural forms and images from Africa and imbued with the spirit of a man whose life’s journey was shaped by the disintegration of modern man healed and transformed through growing into his personal and cultural identity. His paintings were healing rather than hurting. My next encounter was in itself a post-modern and ironical event.

Instead of leaving the El- Salahi exhibition through the indicated door I took a shortcut through door which said: NO EXIT and before I knew it I found myself like “Alice through the Looking Glass” in a different dimension. The quiet contemplation I had enjoyed only a few minutes ago was challenged by a topsy-turvy, giant installation. Extending over 12 rooms in the TATE, Meschac Gaba, who is another – younger - African from Benin, had created a satire on European museums in the shape of a sprawling African market. Gaba was playing back to us his perceptions of European preconceptions of African culture. There were stalls with random collections of all sorts of objects, found everywhere in Africa but also in the European imagination of the continent. Most of them were in one way or other covered with bank notes, which made an unambiguous statement about the reduction of everything to monetary value. Everything is for sale in the capitalist world
and for the tourist. In one installation the countries of the African continent were depicted as jigsaw pieces that could be moved around and redrawn at will.

In spite of more challenges like this the show was too exuberant, too full of fun and playfulness as to bite with real social criticism. Everything and everybody was presented merely as a construct in a hall of mirrors. Photographs of the artist taken at his wedding, which were on display. The
wedding, which had taken place in the Rijksmuseum, was now used as integral parts of a satirical exhibition in another museum. This treatment cunningly forestalled the possibility of seeing the photos as biographical and identificatory evidence. Similarly the role of the viewer, in this hall of
mirrors, was determined by what he was looking at or interacting with: from being a greedy tourist to a powerful colonialist. The notion of an authentic self in dialogue with another one, which I had so keenly felt in the Ibrahim El-Salahi exhibition, was thoroughly obsolete here. Everything
was an “as if”.

My final encounter was with a new production by a British artist, who is well known for subverting and inverting traditional forms of art. Grayson Perry’s tapestries “A Small Difference” at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition are certainly ironical and deliberately provocative in their use of
a medium that in the past was reserved for the display of wealth and power in the places designed for the nobility. Yet where once figures from classical mythology and heroes from famous battles adorned the palaces, Grayson’s tapestries present themselves in comic strip or cartoon style
and tell an apparently simple tale, accessible to everyone from a child to an art connoisseur.

Superbly crafted, in lush colours, enticing compositions the story of the rise and fall of Tim Rakewell is told, a working class lad on his journey through the English class system – who has a sticky end. However, there is more to “Rakewell’s Progress” than being a modern version of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress to which it clearly alludes. The moral tale is ironically peppered with references to medieval art and to literary traditions. Imagesof the Virgin and child and the Pieta appear side by side with depictions from Milton’s Paradise Lost, while a portrait of Jamie Oliver as God watches over a middle class dinner table. Motifs from the high culture of the past are interwoven with images from contemporary popular television shows like X-Factor. The shabby, shoddy and the sublime rolled into one. Although very funny and playful the social criticism in this instance bites. The tapestries are a ridicule of the British class system, but through the
infinite cross references they achieve a more general expression of the state of European art and culture. Grayson’s work shows that the “anything goes” attitude of post-modernism does not need to lead to dissolution of works of the past on one hand or the total ironisation with the loss of any definable perspective on the other. In Grayson’s tapestries the past is not used mainly as quarry for random elements but as a source and system of reference, which help the public to reflect their point of view, individually and collectively.

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