What Is Contemporary? Pick your own metaphor

Ingrid Schaffner, ICA’s Senior Curator, started her fifth annual “What Is Contemporary?” lecture where she left off last year: talking about money. Or, as she more poetically put it: “purchase, patronage, price point.” She showed an image of Stephanie by Maurizio Cattelan—a sculpture that recently sold at auction for $2,434,500—then offered us a cheaper alternative. Charley, “a radical art work masquerading as a magazine,” is also a creation of Maurizio Cattelan (and friends) and available for only 16 Euro. “There are lots of ways to be in the art world,” Ingrid proclaimed expansively, which seemed a good way to launch the wide-ranging, hold-onto-your-hat talk she then embarked on, a talk that sometimes felt like a roller coaster but was in fact more like a butterfly lighting down briefly on a hundred flowers, each one more fragrant than the next.

Or, occasionally, just smellier.
Miranda: Ingrid-and-ICA-A

Photo: William Hidalgo

This is the third version of this annual lecture I’ve heard, and I wish I’d been around for the first two. One of the pleasures of hearing the talk is noting how it evolves and grows while staying essentially itself—like a Christmas Cactus that blooms only on that holiday, or an old friend you meet for dinner once a year.

Ingrid seemed a little anxious about the fact that her talk would cover old ground as well as new. She quoted Gertrude Stein (courtesy of poet Tom Devaney), the Empress of Echoes, who is supposed to have remarked, “There is no such thing as repetition, only emphasis.” And indeed, the pieces Ingrid mentioned this year for the third (or maybe it was the fifth) time seemed more interesting and resonant this year than ever: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty shimmering under water in a recent photograph; Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Hartford Wash, in which the artist spent hours on her knees scrubbing the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum; and James Turrell’s aching Skyspaces that, as Ingrid says, “use light to sculpt space.”

I’m tempted to emulate the style of the lecture in this blog post, offering a kind of found poem of titles and subjects. Ingrid divides her lecture into themes, and the names of the themes alone are hypnotic: terrain, systems, reference, history, evocation, flesh…

Instead, I’m going to consider the structure and function of the lecture itself, jumping right to the end to consider a remark Ingrid made in closing, when she invited us to “think of this talk as a Leatherman—or Leatherwoman—to open the work up. Use it if it’s useful, or throw it away.”

Driving home in the car in the dark, I wondered what she meant exactly. What is it about categorization that’s useful? How does a survey like this open work up?
Miranda: banana1-A

Stefan Sagmeister, Richard The, & Joe Shouldice for Deitch Projects, 2008

In the category of alchemy, for example, she mentioned the following artists and works: Joseph Beuys and his Fat Chair, Karla Black and her Venice Biennale installation made of make up, Stefan Sagmeister (whose show at ICA opens in April) and his self-affirmation written in bananas of different ripenesses, Bill Walton (whose show at ICA is open now) and his studio—“that wonderful machine for transforming materials into art,” and of course James Turrell. I knew of most of these artists and artworks before listening to the lecture, but something about the way she yoked them together made me see something at the core of them that was new to me. Instead of considering Turrell’s Skyspaces, for example—as I have before—and thinking only, That’s wonderful, but why?—I thought, Ah, they’re related to these other works, they belong somewhere. They have a center of gravity. I felt I had a road in.
Miranda: Bill-Walton-studio-A

Bill Walton”s Studio, Philadelphia, 2011. Photo: Karen Mauch

Of course, any good work of art, like a major city, has lots of roads in. Ingrid could shift works from one category to another each year if she wanted to; for all I know, she does. The point isn’t to pin art down like a butterfly in a collector’s case, but rather to offer the mind a shaft of light along which to swim up through the air and meet the butterfly.

Shaft of light, road, Leatherman: you can pick your own metaphor. All I know is that, speeding home down the highway that night, I felt that the next time I encountered a new, strange, enigmatic work of art, I’d be better able to open myself to it and make it at home.

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