Negotiating Utter Darkness: What Is Contemporary?

Early on in her annual “What Is Contemporary?” lecture last week, when ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner showed an image of Yayoi Kusama’s installation, “Fireflies on the Water,” the people on either side of me gasped with happiness. The slide showed a blue-black darkness sprinkled with tiny lights. For the installation itself—an exploration of infinite space—the viewer enters a small room with mirrored walls, a floor of water, and 150 colored lights. I have not experienced “Fireflies on the Water,” but it must be a potent and beautiful experience. As the person on my left said later, “Who isn’t interested in the infinite?”
Miranda: kusama02_800

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirror, plexiglass, 150 lights and water. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (June 13- October 28, 2012) © Yayoi Kusama.

You can think of Ingrid’s lecture itself as an exploration of the infinite—the infinite space of contemporary art. Ingrid divides her annual whirlwind tour of art today into a taxonomy of thematic subsections—alchemy, systems, flesh, business, identity, and so on—to help give some order to this infinity, the way the ancient Greeks divided the heavens into constellations: Scorpio, Andromeda, the Great Bear.
Miranda: Room with Title

Photo: Ted Gerike

In Ingrid’s taxonomy, “Fireflies on the Water” might have fallen into the constellation of terrain—one of my favorites—but in this case she used it in her lovely introductory exploration of works involving darkness. There was David Hammon’s “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in which the viewer is invited to explore a large empty space with the help of a small flashlight. There was Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s “Phantom Truck,”in which a kind of three-dimensional artist’s rendering of the mobile bioweapons labs thought to exist in Iraq before the American invasion is half-hidden in a darkened corner. There was Tino Segal’s “This Variation,” in which performers sang and moved among audience members in almost total darkness. Indeed, Ingrid used the immersive, scary element as a metaphor for what contemporary art does: it takes you into the dark, challenges you to experience what’s there. “When it comes to contemporary art, that what it’s all about,” she said. “Going that far. Suspending doubt, overcoming inhibitions, having faith both in your own ability to negotiate what might be unfamiliar territory—or utter darkness—as well as faith in what artists do to engage us more deeply in the world we live in.”

This is the fourth time I have experienced “What Is Contemporary?” and one of the pleasures of tuning in each fall is to catch a glimpse of old favorites. There is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” which we get an updated picture of each fall—sometimes clear and bright in the sunshine, other times barely visible under the water’s surface. There is Joseph Beuys’s “Fat Chair,” which never ceases to perplex me. And there is Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “maintenance art,” in which the artist scrubs the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Every year I wait for Ingrid to recite Ukeles’s wonderful rhetorical question cum slogan: “After the revolution, who is going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

I also like encountering artists who are currently showing at ICA, or whose work will be in our galleries soon. Their names splash over me in pleasant waves of recognition: Wendy Yao, whose Ooga Booga project showed up in the category of Ornament.
Miranda: plant-in-context

Miranda: plant-in-context

Karla Black, who will make a new installation at ICA next April, in Alchemy.
Miranda: Karla Black

Karla Black, “Nature Does The Easiest Thing,” 2011 (Detail). Installation view, Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Photo: © Lothar Schnepf, Cologne. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Jeremy Deller with his “The Battle of Orgreave”—in which 1,000 participants and some horses reenacted a violent British miner’s strike—in History. (“In contemporary art, the past doesn’t lie still,” Ingrid says, which, when it comes to “The Battle of Orgreave,” seems like an understatement.)
Miranda: 1 - DELLER Battle of Orgreave

Jeremy Deller, “The Battle of Orgreave,” 2001Commissioned and produced by Artangel© the artist. Image courtesy the artistPhoto: Parisah Taghizadeh

Ingrid returned to the theme of darkness at the end of her talk, referring to a lecture that artist Liam Gillick gave at ICA last spring, in which he talked about making art as a kind of not-knowing—or, more accurately, as lying somewhere between knowing and not knowing: “It’s that balance between not knowing and knowing—that’s the being an artist bit,” he said.

Of course, this isn’t a new insight. There is a quotation I have long loved by the writer Robert Boswell, who says in his book on writing, The Half-Known World, “A crucial part of the writing endeavor is the practice of remaining in the dark.”

Then there is Keats, who in 1817 described his idea of negative capability this way: “[W]hen a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

Not that there is anything wrong with being reminded of the importance of not knowing. As with “Spiral Jetty,” it looks different on each new encounter: now dimly grasped, now clear as day. Even in the dark it’s there, leading us stone by stone into the heart of things.
Miranda: Spiral Jetty

photo: Chris Taylor/Land Arts of the American West

Penn alumni: Ingrid will give a condensed version of “What Is Contemporary?” as part of “Classes Without Quizzes” at Penn’s Homecoming on Friday, October 26 at 4:00 PM at ICA.

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