Morbid Symptoms: In Search of the Post-Contemporary at the 2016 Montreal Biennial

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In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s nauseating election victory, hard on the heels of this year’s earlier Brexit vote in the UK, it has become clear that the post-1989 era of neoliberal globalization is over. Given that contemporary art as we know it has been defined in relation to this political-economic configuration, can we say that “contemporaneity” is ending, too? If so, what might art look like after “contemporary art”? The 2016 Montreal Biennale, presented in the midst of these upheavals, is symptomatic of this uncertainty.

In the press preview for the biennial, curator Philippe Pirotte was at pains to distinguish his exhibition from other recent large-scale exhibitions that, in his opinion, made excessively sweeping pronouncements about the contemporary moment and the likely future. In particular, he criticized the recent Berlin Biennial (“The Present in Drag”) and the 2015 Venice Biennale (“All the World’s Futures”). However, his implicit, unmentioned target was perhaps the previous installment of the Montreal Biennial itself, which was titled “L’avenir (Looking Forward)” and concerned itself with the broad question of “what is to come.”

That exhibition, though quite warmly received, struck me at the time as the best product on offer from a system that was increasingly dated. I had started to think of this model as “establishment” contemporary art: the kind of curatorially-driven, theoretically-informed, post-conceptual art whose performance of “good” politics often papers over the privilege concentrated in its elite institutions and middle-class audience. This version of what “contemporary art” means has arguably been staging a rear-guard battle since some time around the 2008 financial crash.

In the years following, elites in Western countries have attempted to maintain neoliberal policy in the face of populisms on the Left and Right. At the same time, the contemporary artworld has struggled to preserve the intellectual framework that held sway between the end of the 1980s and the end of the 2000s – what Lars Bang Larsen has called “the long nineties.” Meanwhile, the growing influence of art fairs and speculative collectors has eroded the legitimating function of biennials and museums, as did the massive shifts in visibility enabled by the internet, while new theoretical currents and political imperatives (affect theory, speculative realism, accelerationism, resurgent Marxism, and identity politics) have both nourished and challenged contemporary art’s discourse.

Pirotte’s biennial, assembled with the help of three curatorial advisors (Corey McCorkle, Aseman Sabet, and Kitty Scott), responds to this juncture by turning away from the contemporary per se. If the current moment is unbearable, and the future unpredictable, on what authority can a curator presume to judge, critique, or predict? Pirotte seems to argue for abdicating such responsibilities, calling for a deeper look into the past as a remedy for present-ism and for an ethos of pleasure and hedonism in place of political moralizing.

Effectively, the 2016 Montreal Biennial signals a crisis in the established model of contemporary art without attempting to define any new paradigm – on the contrary, Pirotte studiously avoids fetishizing newness, as evidenced by his inclusion of an enigmatic portrait painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1540, along with a handful of other non-recent works by contemporary artists (for instance, early drawings by Brian Jungen, and a David Lamelas film from 1974).

The exhibition’s spiritual guide is the rebel playwright Jean Genet, whose 1957 play, The Balcony, lends the biennial its title (“Le Grand Balcon”). Genet’s script stages a series of meta-theatrical power games in an upscale brothel while revolution and counter-revolution rage in the streets outside. As a model for art, this might sound uncomfortably like proposing to fiddle while Rome burns, but allied with the biennial’s focus on images of “deep historical resonance,” it results in a dense and sensual exhibition that, though indeed often perverse, is far from nihilistic.

That said, Pirotte’s embrace of digressive meandering over conclusive statements seems to leave the exhibition stranded halfway between the old and the new.To the extent that Pirotte’s attitude does align with a pervasive, emergent sensibility in art, it remains mostly unarticulated, and the selection of works often falls back on established norms.

The contradictions of Pirotte’s curatorial brief are particularly well-embodied by the athletic figure of Luis Jacob’s Sphinx (2015), a cheeky take on the headless classical nude that greets viewers in the MACM’s rotunda as a kind of unofficial biennial figurehead. Cast in marble resin and posing with a “framing hands” gesture that suggests a photographer setting up a shot (or an iPhone holder about to snap a selfie), the sculpture bridges the ancient and contemporary while its physical perfection (Jacob has notably avoided the classical tendency towards modest genitalia) associates the act of looking with an erotic charge. At the same time, Sphinx is a perfectly contemporary work: produced with the aid of a fabricator, it is exemplary of sculpture as conceptual gesture.

Another work by Jacob is equally emblematic of Pirotte’s themes of eroticism and historical parallax, couched in a quintessentially contemporary idiom: Album XII (2013-14), presented at Galerie de l’UQAM, is an image bank of found photos in 148 panels. Loosely organized around categories of the (nude) body and architectural containment, it’s a sexy, erudite take on the trope of “archival” art that’s been familiar for well over a decade.

Many of the film and video works in the biennial employ a similarly archival approach to the sedimentation of personal and political history. Moyra Davey’s new video, Hemlock Forest (2016), offers a poignant tribute to the work of Chantal Akerman that also reflects on Davey’s relationship with her son; the collective Thirteen Black Cats’s video essay, Corpse Cleaner (2016), relates an epistolary exchange between an air force pilot involved in the bombing of Hiroshima and a German anti-nuclear philosopher whose day job involved cleaning film props in Hollywood; and Luke Willis Thompson’s Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) replicates the technical specifications of Warhol’s “Screen Tests” to depict black subjects whose families have been the victims of police brutality, thereby calling attention to the almost complete absence of visible minorities in the original series – only five out of Warhol’s nearly 500 portraits featured a non-white person.

Moyra Davey, installation view. Photo: Daniel Roussel. Courtesy BNLMTL.

Moyra Davey, installation view. Photo: Daniel Roussel. Courtesy BNLMTL.

As Thompson’s work ably demonstrates, these plunges into the persistence of the past in the contemporary moment punch hardest when they touch on histories of exclusion, oppression, and colonization. Tanya Lukin Linklater’s video installation/dance performance He was a poet and he taught us how to react and to become this poetry (2016), handles such freighted subject matter with a lyrical touch. To realize the piece, the artist worked with a group of dancers on a composition based on the life of Maria Tallchief, a protégé of George Balanchine who was America’s first prima ballerina and the first Native American to hold the rank. The dance component is performed on a low stage, which also acts as a screen for the projection of a video about the ethics of cultural translation. The fact that the dancer’s bodies (and the oblique angle) both obstruct the viewer’s line of sight further elaborates the theme.

Tanya Lukin Linklater, "He Was a Poet and He Taught Us How to React and to Become This Poetry," 2016. Photo: Guy l"Heureux. Courtesy BNLMTL.

Tanya Lukin Linklater, “He was a poet and he taught us how to react and to become this poetry,” 2016. Photo: Guy l”Heureux. Courtesy BNLMTL.

If all of the above works, however strong individually, represent the persistence of “contemporary” modes in an exhibition apparently focused on that period’s eclipse, the other works installed in the same room as Linklaters’s offer a potential glimpse of a newer sensibility. Ravishing pieces by Shannon Bool and Celia Perrin Sidarous present a more formalist approach to the sensual materiality and historical reflexivity to which Pirotte’s curating aspires. Bool’s Michaelerplatz 3 and The Five Wives of Lajos Birò (both 2016) are monochromatic, digitally-designed tapestries that employ decorative patterns in reference to history of modernist design. The former is an image of the marble entryway to the “Loohaus” designed by Adolf Loos (who infamously declared “ornament is crime”), a touchstone of fin-de-siècle Viennese modernism, in which Bool has inserted a mirrored female mannequin whose quicksilver body descends into a mise-en-abyme within the tapestry’s fabric.

Celia Perrin Sidarous’s still-life photo installations also exploit the seductive power of decoration. Like certain other artists of her generation (Sara Cwynar comes to mind), Perrin Sidarous makes art in the mode of a gifted art director, arranging and styling assortments of objects and images that combine the contemporary and fashionably vintage with the ancient and timeless: plants, ceramics, candles, Greek landscapes; vegetable, mineral, cultural. Notte coralli (2016), her contribution to this show, is the most sophisticated realization of her vision to date, utilizing a quasi-architectural armature of supports and a 16mm film that deepens her investigation into the tactile pleasures of display and their semiotic resonance.

Celia Perrin Sidarous, installation view. Photo: Alison Slattery. Courtesy BNLMTL.

Celia Perrin Sidarous, installation view. Photo: Alison Slattery. Courtesy BNLMTL.

The investment in materiality and objecthood inherent to Bool and Perrin Sidarous’s art reflects an approach widely shared among the sculptural work in the biennial, from Haegue Yang’s animistic objects to Valerie Blass’s recent trompe l’oeil figures to the au courant assemblage sculpture of Ben Schumacher, Elaine Cameron-Weir, Lena Henke, and Nadia Belerique. The inclusion of heavyweight figures like Cady Noland and Isa Genzken (to my knowledge, making her first appearance in a Canadian museum, if you can believe it) seems calculated to establish a lineage for these younger artists, but the most significant factor that unites the emerging generation is the mutual connection and visibility that’s been enabled by the internet.

Janice Kerbel and Isa Genzken, installation view. Photo: Alison Slattery. Courtesy BNLMTL.

Janice Kerbel (back) and Isa Genzken (front), installation view. Photo: Alison Slattery. Courtesy BNLMTL.

Indeed, though Pirotte never explicitly frames it this way, the vocabulary of precarious assemblage, sensuous, materialist formalism, and Instagram-ready performance that defines parts of this show is, simply, what a lot of young art looks right now. Nothing in the biennial is more emblematic of this than the most recent iteration of Anne Imhof’s much-talked-about Angst performances. In these durational, four-hour “operas,” a cadre of performers in health-goth attire desultorily enact tragic gestures in cavernous, fog-shrouded spaces suffused with a combined atmosphere of FOMO-tinged anticipation and vague threat. Though it was performed for the public only once at this biennial (whereas the recent iteration at Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof included eight performances), Imhof’s Angst encapsulates the discomfiting pleasure of Pirotte’s hedonistic politics: an incontrovertibly relevant distillation of contemporary anxieties enacted through the invitation to spend four hours spectating impossibly attractive young (and mostly white) bodies.

Anne Imhof, "Angst III," 2016. Photo: Jonas Leihener. Courtesy BNLMTL.

Anne Imhof, “Angst III,” 2016. Photo: Jonas Leihener. Courtesy BNLMTL.

It’s clear, then, that this biennial has at least one finger on a sensibility that is actually new, one which we could provisionally label “post-contemporary.” On this account, Pirotte’s disparaging remarks about the DIS-curated 9th Berlin Biennale are a regrettable blind spot. Despite his contention that BB9 was obsessed only with the present (and specious predictions of the future), that exhibition advanced the idea of the post-contemporary as a legitimate theory of time and history. This idea was referenced throughout BB9’s framing materials (i.e., wall texts and the brand identity videos created by Babak Radboy) and had been elaborated in a special issue of DIS earlier this year, co-edited by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik.

Moreover, the idea of the post-contemporary actually aligns, in a number of ways, with Pirotte’s complaints about the biennial circuit’s obsession with intellectually dissecting the immediate present. Suhail and Avanessian contend that, with the organization of society on the basis of speculation (especially in regard to financial capitalism, but also predictive analytics in marketing, policing, and military procedures), the future has invaded both the present and the past, and can no longer be successfully anticipated on the basis of either. What they argue with regard to contemporary art is that the present moment has been fetishized as the site of possible change and resistance to the neoliberal imposition of the speculative model, with the result that the future is continually foreclosed: “contemporaneity” extends indefinitely as the hope for meaningful change continually fails to achieve traction on the present.

Suhail and Avanessian’s argument is essentially a philosophical one. Intriguing as it is, I’d like to propose a simpler historical explanation for what the “post-contemporary” might mean. A number of commentators have argued that the idea of the “contemporary” as a period came fully into being around 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of globalization, and the collapse of any major barriers to the worldwide circulation of neoliberal capital. Since this formation began breaking up after 2008, the most characteristically new forms of art have been the post-internet phenomenon and neo-formalist abstract painting.

The 9th Berlin Biennale was arguably a kind of commemorative headstone for post-internet art, a survey of the last six or seven years of work in that mode that mostly testified to the closing of a period of fervent experimentation, though its overall coherence presented a monument to how much participants in the orbit of the DISosphere have managed to shift what matters in art. The boom in process-based abstract painting also appears to have peaked.

Arguably, these forms represented a transitional period between the contemporary and what comes after it. For perspective, it might be instructive to compare our current moment with the mid-1980s, which also marked the end of a market-driven painting boom sponsored by an out-of-control financial class. Zombie Formalism is our Neo-Expressionism, and post-internet art has rather a lot in common with the Simulationist/Neo-Geo art of the ‘80s (ie. Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley) – for example, a preoccupation with the technological mediation of reality and an ironic perspective on commodification and branding. With their obsession with postmodern theory and climate of entrepreneurial disruption, the ‘80s formalized the passage (nascent in the ‘60s and ‘70s) from modernism to contemporary art.

But will the decline of contemporaneity result in any durable new paradigm? In the era of Trump, will art be able to mount any sufficient resistance, or will its already-exclusive community be conscripted to dress the windows of a fascist regime? The post-contemporary aesthetic, as it stands, shows scant resources for withstanding the pressures to come.

Consider the artistic model that’s emerged alongside post-internet art and speculative painting without really being either: it originated in the diffuse aesthetic pioneered by VVORK, was carried on by Contemporary Art Daily, and is currently being elaborated by emerging artists through venues like Art Viewer, AQNB, OFluxo, and numerous other blogs. It’s optimized to look good in installation shots on your screen but isn’t necessarily about the internet; it might combine organic or non-art objects in stylized assemblages, or mix slick, hi-tech objects with vintage or ancient ones; it might include live bodies (or images of them), and they’ll likely be young and white, but they also might not be; this art is more open to race, gender, and queerness than (bro-ish) post-internet was, but is still generally more formalist than analytical; it resonates with new materialist philosophy and affect theory without necessarily deriving from them; it’s not meant to be interpreted or decoded because it’s not really about language.

The defining characteristic of this sensibility is the extent to which it is defined by the way that it’s constructed to fit the platforms in which it circulates, which include museums and biennials, but also DIY venues and, especially, the screen-based territory of social media and art blogs. This is the sensibility I see in a large portion of this BNLMTL as a whole, and it’s one version of what the post-contemporary looks like right now, if we’re willing to entertain it as a label.

Ultimately, Pirotte’s choice to base his curatorial strategy on Genet feels like a recourse to the likely milieu of his own intellectual formation: the theory-infatuated early ‘90s, when transgressive thinkers like Bataille and Sade were heroized by Deleuzianal students. On the one hand, this return feels out of place, detached from the intellectual sources of current art. On the other, his invocation of hedonism does align with the desire, apparent among many younger artists, for a more vibrant, less academically-constrained art, more in touch with everyday sources of pleasure and meaning, and better-equipped to appeal to a larger audience. On November 19th, the artist Faith Holland tweeted: “thinking about what direction my art needs to take post-Trump and i think it’s time to double down on pleasure.” At a time of historic anxiety and despair, the idea that art should emphasize what makes life worth living is far from trivial.

All the same, the post-contemporary aesthetic can still be as inscrutable as institutionalized contemporary art and, moreover, its predominant modes seem as likely to increase art’s exclusivity as to ameliorate it. Though the current vogue for materiality in all its forms has provided a way of working through anxieties about environmental collapse and issues related to gendered and racialized embodiment (among other things), it’s also been an avenue for artists to pursue varieties of formalism that feel all too much like a privileged escape.

Indeed, since the neo-feudal conditions of precarity that afflict the artworld right now mean that any artists who aren’t independently wealthy have to hustle every minute to survive (and, of course, prohibitive conditions means those who can afford to be artists are increasingly from the affluent strata), the pressure to reduce art to luxury commodities and curated experiences is running high.

In this situation, Pirotte’s call to perversity is as dangerous as it is telling. For those with the luxury, art can become a retreat to an interior world (whether a gilded palace or something more slummy). For everyone else, a certain amount of either sadism or masochism might prove necessary for survival.

Antonio Gramsci famously wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” With Trump’s ascendance, contemporary art’s symptoms are beginning to look terminal. Can something new still be born, and should we welcome its coming?

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