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Foreword Afterall Journal issue 34

Minimal art’s unquestionable and secure place within the Western art canon is perhaps surprising if we consider how it contributed to the departure from the museum as the specific realm for art, and gave momentum to new hybrid and experimental art practices in dialogue with disciplines such as dance. Published in 1965 with the intention of thoroughly debunking the idea of expressionism in form, Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No Manifesto’ has often been associated with ‘minimalist negation’. However, it is possible to return to it via different routes, and to read it through the irruption of feminist politics and discourses in the art of that time, and its ramifications in subsequent decades.

No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendence of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator.
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved. 01

In light of concurrent analyses of female identity as a social and cultural construct, the manifesto becomes a categorical ‘no’ to the patriarchal power that gave shape to mechanisms of vision (in film, painting, sculpture or architecture) based on male control over the bodies, discourses and destinies of the female — ranging from the representation of women’s bodies as sexualised objects in the history of Western art and film to the control over their daily lives at work, school or home. The manifesto also appears to reject the idea of the male creative genius, in contrast to the more collaborative and less authorial female work. From the 1960s onwards, art became a privileged territory for the development of new subjectivities and an experimental space from which to face new identification processes. This was favoured by the dematerialisation and expansion of art practices, and the steadfast advent of time-based art forms in particular, as well as by feminist discourses based on psychoanalysis and structuralism and the introduction of postcolonial movements and discourses. Their legacy, as Patrick D. Flores argues in these pages, invokes a ‘revolutionary continuum sparked by a long history of colonial struggles’, which can be traced as far back as nineteenth-century history painting.

The art practices brought together in this issue of Afterall take part in these openings and show their complex evolution, whilst also proposing a retreat of art to the borders that separate it from other disciplines. At a moment of dystopia and crisis that is both reminiscent of and different from that of the 60s, they propose practices of resistance articulated through painting, sculpture, film, architecture, exhibition-making and fashion design. Faced with the impossibility of understanding the world in its totality, these practitioners approach the real, personal and collective identity and communal spaces in ways that are not based on essentialist categories. Today, they seem to claim, art can still be an experimental terrain, prone to transgression and efficient critiques of the norm.

In the work of Lili Dujourie and Lucy McKenzie, this practice of resistance concentrates heavily on the uses (and abuses) of art materials conceived not only as matter carrying specific attributes or qualities, but also as media loaded with meaning. Spanning almost half a century, Dujourie’s practice is as oblivious to trends as it is attentive to the present moment, and often articulates subtle critiques of dominant art models. In her series of videos Hommage à… I–V (1972), for example, the artist subtly explores and subverts the construction of the female image in the work of artists such as Titian, Manet, Ingres or Courbet. Standing simultaneously as artist, model and spectator, here her body is only subject to her own gaze. These videos anticipate the constant tension between form and content, the depiction of the body and its absence, that characterises her subsequent sculptures in velvet, lead, marble, plaster, iron wire or papier mâché.

Albeit from a significantly different perspective, McKenzie’s work similarly engages with the tradition of painting, whether the illusion of reality in trompe l’oeil canvases or the design of interiors as a controlling device. Stemming in part from a fascination with the applied arts and more generally from the uses of art in life, her work can be read as a critique of the authority of art and of the idea of the artist as modeller of sensibilities, simultaneously sabotaging its sources and the lessons we have learned from its history. Such questioning of the division between applied arts and fine art also appears strongly in Haegue Yang’s sculptures and installations, as does the theatrical dimension that characterises the work of both Dujourie and McKenzie. Using her signature venetian blinds, lights, images and decontextualised everyday objects, Yang translates personal and collective histories, often coming from literary sources, into her particular abstract language.

The performative character of art-making is also fundamental in the video works of Lene Berg, an artist who is aware of cinema’s scopic power to create social and cultural stereotypes. InKopfkino (2012), Berg’s subversion of inherited film forms leads to a reorganisation of the viewer’s attention, which deconstructs conventional ways of reading images, giving form and assigning meaning. Mary Ellen Carroll, on the other hand, explores performativity in architecture in order to make visible the ideology inherent to urbanism. Lifting up a house from its foundations and rotating it 180 degrees in a suburban neighbourhood in Houston (the only city in the US without any public land-use regulations), for example, encourages a broad spectrum of activities and debates that bring up new ways of inhabiting, imagining and building shared space.

The artists featured here assume the performative character of live or time-based arts, and their potential for demystification and rupture from static and object-based traditions, but they also bring them closer to more traditional disciplines such as painting and sculpture. In doing so, they can be seen to take up as a precedent Mike Kelley’s ‘The Uncanny’ (1993/2004), an exhibition with which he aimed to claim the transformative capacity of figurative sculpture. Bringing together artworks by his peers with historical works, objects from popular culture and other historical artefacts, Kelley explored the sinister, scatological and (sexually and technologically) perverse side of what is most familiar to us. In its first installation in 1993, as part of ‘Sonsbeek 93’, ‘The Uncanny’ fed the bourgeois museum a poisoned apple. The project, however, did not survive its institutionalisation: in its 2004 recreation at Tate Liverpool and the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, any hint of subversion had been neutralised, and its exploration of the uncanny sanitised.

In her analysis of a more recent process of institutionalisation, that of live art, Sabine Breitwieser asks herself: ‘How can works rooted in an emancipatory impetus vis-à-vis established institutions be incorporated into the museum context without stripping them of their most intrinsic (and critical) content?’ On numerous occasions, Breitwieser has commented that performance, especially dance, reintroduces ‘beauty and skills’ into the museum, suggesting that this might be why it has such an appeal for museums that rely on private funding models. This is an important warning, which invites us to keep an eye on these developments; a call to once again beware and confront the spectacle, virtuosity, emotion, magic and trickery that characterises the methods of biopolitical control and domination typical of the capitalist system (and of art).

Translated from the Spanish by Alex Reynolds.


  • Breitwieser made this point at the panel ‘Curators Re-skilling/Critics Re-thinking’, at the symposium ‘Making Time’, Arts Research Center, University of California Berkeley, 21 April 2012.