– Spring/Summer 2002
Charles Esche, Thomas Lawson
In recent issues, Afterall has developed a consistent
interest in the expanded possibilities of art, particularly in
relation to the theatre and the different genres of film and
television production. While the topic might appear obvious given
the marked turn of art towards performance and moving-image media
in the 1980s and 90s, we have tried to uncover the underlying
motivations for this remarkable expansion in the possibilities for
'visual art' in the last decades. Issue 5 maintains this outlook,
bringing together five artists that all exploit this permissiveness
to manufacture their own rules of engagement with their audiences
and the now historic traditions of twentieth-century art. The range
of positions amongst the five artists demonstrates the degree of
diversity that art can now encompass, while maintaining a notable
vestige of the avant-garde idea of privileging experimentation and
originality above all else.
To define the edges of this territory of visual art practice is perhaps a useful way to seek some understanding of its breadth, even if those edges are constantly up for challenge and are no longer the edges of shock or outrage that motivated many artists in the last century. In this issue of Afterall, a number of those softer boundaries between practices and areas of knowledge seem to be provoked. At one extreme lies the proscenium arch theatre, to which few outside the established lobby are attracted except as a training ground for film and television. Artists are certainly not about to invade the stage and the impressiveness of 'live' experience amongst so many mediated or already theatricalised versions of the everyday is less and less potent, as Will Bradley's cogent essay points out. Yet much of Pavel Althamer's work provides one of the most persuasive arguments for the possibility of live theatre in terms of effectively destabilising identities between players and viewers, and forcing a confrontation with our own public and private roles.
Another edge can be discerned in television, and especially documentary making, where funding for non-commercial productions has rapidly declined since the liberalisation of broadcasting in the early 1980s. Where once the material filmed by Anri Sala might have found a home in TV schedules, it is now more than likely to turn up in galleries or at art biennials. Chris Petit, on the other hand, has largely chosen to present his subjective documentaries on television and is only now beginning to see some possibilities to present his work in art contexts. For him, parts of the art world might appear more open to his concerns as the television world is increasingly narrowed by the imperative consequence of shifting to or remaining in the territory of art, especially if we compare off-peak broadcast viewing figures to gallery visits, yet the engine to drive innovation in the mainstream seems more located in the area of visual art than ever before. For instance, is it impossible to imagine so-called 'reality TV' without the work of video pioneers such as Michel Auder or Valie Export? In turn, the possibility of the documentary done as personal, subjective and intrusive is being explored as much in art as anywhere else.
A third precipice, this time between art and politics, or certain ideas of ethics and conscience, has been a consistent presence in Barbara Kruger's work over the past 25 years. As Liam Gillick demonstrates, her history as a graphic designer (another edge of art that is currently much in vogue) gives her work a specific functionality while its 'message' might oscillate from clarity to ambiguity in an instant. Isabelle Graw maintains that the aesthetics of her work has remained as unarticulated as the content as been discussed, and certainly the choices that she made as a young artist seem to have retained a rawness and relevance that is rare in today's consumption-driven art market.
Finally, an edge that lies not in relation to non-art but at the core of art's historical mission of depiction is traversed by Mary Heilmann's extraordinary modernism-revisited works of the last 30 years. As a painter who has taken the challenge of continuing to paint face on, her work seduces with its simplicity at the same time as it unwraps a host of bourgeois assumptions about taste, style and connoisseurship that are always the hidden limit to any discussion of image making, choice and visuality. 'I just like it' is often the only, and perhaps the perfect, reaction to a Mary Heilmann painting, though one that is shown to be immensely complicated in the texts by Martin Prinzhorn and Terry Myers.
As a concluding statement of the rationale for the selection of these five artists, we have maintained our unspoken tradition of republishing texts that have not been aired very much in art circles. This time the choice of Raymond Williams and his prescient description of realism on television makes us newly aware of how much our current models of visual consumption and media behaviour are legacies of the challenges brought forward in the 1960s and 70s. Finally, the notion of the edge as an advanced position turns out to be fallacious, just as the idea that new media is a braver choice of medium than painting, or politics more relevant than aesthetics. It is, however, the recent achievement of artists to be able to wander through the growing number of specialisations without having to claim 'edge status' or transgressive authority that promises something special in the years ahead.
This issue of Afterall also marks the last Afterall as a solely London-based publication. From issue 6 we will be jointly published by Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Tom Lawson, artist and Dean of Cal Arts, will join the editorial team, bringing his great experience with Real Life magazine which he founded and co-edited with Susan Morgan. A new office with be set up in the United States for advertising and subscriptions, and a new Afterall website will be edited and administered there. Also from the next issue, Afterall will start to receive funding from the Arts Council of England. These developments would not have been possible without the consistent support from Central Saint Martins College over the past three years. It will continue to be a principal funder of the journal and we are extremely grateful to Chris Wainwright and Malcolm Le Grice for their far-sighted support of the publication. We would also like to thank Silke Otto-Knapp, our managing editor, for her continuing hard work and dedication to the journal, and for her help in bringing this new collaboration together.
- Mark Lewis, Charles Esche & Thomas Lawson