As a reflection of current thoughts and issues, contemporary art is distinguished by an engagement with newness. It can move with the collective minds of a culture, narrating our vastly variant and forever fluctuating questions and issues.
As a result of this dialogue with the present moment, contemporary art of the 2000s spoke about volume and mass production. China’s contemporary art boom turned art into an industry, generating swathes of works, reflective of a period of unsustainable acceleration.
How has cultural emphasis changed since then? Sustainability is at the tips of our tongues. British designers like Silo Studio are moving to narrate how we might live sustainably by re-using materials, not as gimmicks, but as practical exercises in sustainable design.
There is need in the art world now to similarly offer practical response to today’s lacking monetary and physical resources by demonstrating that art in the city will survive only if it is no longer solely within studios and galleries, but consistently brought into community lives.
Contemporary art is simultaneously new and original: New in that it brings fourth reflection upon vital current experience, circumstance and idea; original in its constant process of building afresh upon the old.
When we approach a new work of art, to begin to understand it we often search for the old and familiar- whether that be symbolism, emotions, or objects. We construct the ideas which we take away from a piece of art by noticing and feeling how the work interacts with our own culture—what we already understand and are familiar with. Art can enter into sustainable discourse by recognising and utilising this.
At the forefront of this contemporary discourse, Leni Dothan is an artist showing the need for contemporary art to recognise this cognitive process of identifying ‘old’ in ‘new’, and take command of it.
Describing herself as a ‘Renaissance Woman of the 21st century’, Dothan’s work produces wholly new thoughts from ‘the most intimate human fears’, and brings new light to the familiar.
This duality is rife in her brutally poignant photographic and video pieces Doc We Kissed, and Crude Ashes, which kindle fresh perceptions of what is innate and unchanging in raw emotive responses. In these pieces about mothers and sons, grief is abruptly addressed in its empty, ghost-like form, echoed in Dothan’s empty yet visually vocal caskets. Here the piece is mobilized and made painfully personal with the artist’s relationship with her own son, in a manner which casts a fresh perspective upon Michelangelo’s long-praised Renaissance sculpture Pieta, by proclaiming contemporary narratives of grief. Dothan grew up in Israel amidst conflict. Her background offers the artist an insightful perspective on grief which is expressed through her work: Dothan, refusing to sacrifice her son, keeping him alive, and forming a conversation in the viewer’s mind with the image of Mary holding the slumped body of Christ.
Similarly in her work Less, reference to the Renaissance is used to birth fresh, urgent questions about modern thoughts on womanhood, and the success of cultural progress. In it we find the overly familiar image of the naked female body, made ornamental upon a plinth, decapitated, and de-humanised.
This is the Renaissance woman, familiar and old. But here she is brought into the twenty-first century and asks whether today we are accepting of the whole of femininity, or if we have maintained taboos, choosing only to accept what is deemed beautiful of the female body.
This necessity to utilize existing cultural resources is being recognised by the Churches Conservation Trust in a regeneration project which is seeing old spaces made new throughout the country. The Trust re-imagines and remembers forgotten spaces, and works to ‘create new life in these historic buildings’, a monumental project which has saved 350 beautiful church spaces to date.
These spaces are vital to contemporary art. The past decade has seen art become increasingly aware of its surroundings with celebrity artists like Banksy first taking art out into the urban environment, and more recently creating environments of art with his Dismaland project. We are seeing that tomorrow’s art will be experienced—breaching the limitations of visual production.
The work done by the Churches Conservation Trust is possible through pioneering collaboration with creatives, and entrepreneurs, and together with MTArt the Trust is animating London spaces with art which extends into its location rather than merely standing within it.
This vision imagines a city in which art is opened out into the streets and commands our full environment as something which belongs around us in more active, dynamic ways than is commonplace today. MTArt drives towards seeing this happen.
With site-specificity at its core, MTArt’s MELT week of events in London is an answer to the need for art to be re-realised and injected everywhere. The events, mapped across the city, very literally melt artistic experience with spatial experience. Visual richness is made palpable as we are immersed in living artworks.
MTArt sees not only ‘public art’, but a city where we are able to experience artists’ work in our day-to-day.