For the Afterall pilot issue, we have invited five artists whose work reflects upon the legacy of modernist ideas and strategies as they impact on our fractured and hybrid culture at the end of the century. The afterword to our last issue described this territory as ‘the realm of the familiar and the déjà vu‘, and the texts reflect this idea through their concentration on the transfer of existing information and knowledge from one situation to another. In particular, this issue concerns itself with the many metaphors for travel, departure and arrival – both geographic and chronological – as ideas, objects, data and people move between locations or are revealed as different layers coexisting in time.
The perceived failure of modernism in terms of its socially transformative ambition also looms in the background. This failure is not interpreted negatively but as a condition of art that acknowledges the new possibilities created by a shift in focus to the specific and local. The artists here are neither interested in producing models for a perfect society nor in an ironic encounter with the impossibility of making art. Instead, they examine particular histories, sites and concepts and draw these aspects into a dialogue with the viewer that is necessarily personal and contingent.
Processes of removal, excavation, replacement and retraining are consistently at work. Works are copied and ready-made objects made ready for exhibition through blatant or subtle changes in context. The artists choose to draw on different sources, whether they are the history of a site where a work is to be made, existing materials and social conditions or a created narrative linking places and times across continents. Flow, in the sense repetitious rhythm and constant movement is another shared concern. In an early Raymond Williams essay, he defines this concept of ‘flow’ as a requirement of avant-garde cinema. ‘To get “flow”, the new concept is introduced from within the expression of the old, it begins as a small part of the first and gradually eclipses it.’ While this statement may have appeared reactionary in the mid-1950s, today, in an intermediate period after the permissive era of post-modern eclecticism, it has a refreshing connectedness. It emphasises the artists’ practice as grounded in existing political and cultural conditions while allowing space for the imagination and innovation of both artist and viewer. Williams’s ‘flow’ could be seen in these circumstances as precisely contained within the flux of the real or suggested journeys that these artists undertake and which concerns them as much as the moment of arrival or departure itself.
The principle of Afterall remains to select five artists and work with them to commission two pieces of writing each, while inviting two longer essays that shed light on tangential or broader aspects of the individuals’ work. In this issue, we have sought to include ideas and influences from across the disciplines, reaching out beyond the art world to include a film director and inviting an artist and fiction writer to write about his film making and its relationship to art, film and the ready-made. Alongside Gus Van Sant, we have brought together four artists whose work starts within a similar framework of conceptual art and institutional critique as that adopted by Van Sant for his remake of Psycho. It is impossible to underestimate Michael Asher’s contribution to contemporary art and art pedagogue over the last decades. Importantly, his most recent work is fresh and precise and the texts reflect this energy through a detailed consideration of a number of memorable new pieces. Coincidentally, Maria Eichhorn took over Michael Asher’s class at CalArts earlier this year and the rich web of mutual influence and contrast is discoverable both in the more general text by Caroline Christov-Bakagiev and the detailed analysis of the Krefeld work by its commissioner. Simon Starling and Tacita Dean have sober accounts of their development presented within the specific arguments of either modernism’s legacy or the history of artist’s film, while each complementary piece suggests broader terms in which the works can be located and appreciated.
The two longer essays pick up the issue of modernism’s failure in ways that are directly connected to the writers’ recent projects and situations. Clémentine Deliss’s text explores the development of institutions and cultural espionage in a critique of information flow between Africa and Europe, describing her own activities in terms of an undercover exchange between individuals and geographies. In turn, Lars Bang Larsen continues our investigation of Scandinavian cultural strategies by looking at the history of ‘social aesthetic art’ through a historical comparison of work produced in Denmark and Sweden in the 1960s and 90s.