Treading Water in the Diagnostic Age

Mark Gisbourne*

In experiencing a welter of aesthetic confusions in 2019, I feel somewhat trapped in an uncertain no man’s land when describing the mental and transitional experiences of the year that is passing.  For they seem currently to me to exist somewhere within a foggy retrospective diagnosis posing a vague prognosis. Bringing cohesion to questions as to where have I been, what I did, and where was I going, seem strange to me in the opaque uncertainties that are currently at hand. This is due in some measure to metaphorical or perverse telemetry expressed by the different practices as a curator and essayist over this past year. These certainly had, to quote and appropriate Alberti, a “varieta”, and included an abstract-gestural print-painting project with Jason Martin at STPI in Singapore, a contemporary Lorenzo Puglisi painting intervention in Bramante’s Sacristy challenging Leonardo’s “Last Supper” located in the adjacent refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan. This Lombard intervention concerned the discursive aesthetics on the polemic around the ruins of painting born of Leonardo’s botched if famed sixteenth-century painting and its material mishaps.1 Running in parallel time there were Baroque-Neo-Baroque interventions by four women artists (tapestry, photography, film and video, and wax sculpture) in the Electress Dorothee’s palace home of Schloss Caputh, near Potsdam, Brandenburg, and simultaneously the same artists in the Olbricht Collection “Wunderkammer” in Berlin. Conversely, and finishing today (ironically December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), a twenty-seven artist exhibition on the development of the Post-war Leipziger Schuler, The Leipzig Connection: Painting in Leipzig from the 1960s at HDLU Kunsthalle in Zagreb. Add to this fifteen or sixteen other catalogue publications, including a Russian photography text Of Lions and Lambs looking into the dark off-season of the famed working class seaside resort of Blackpool (the “Cloth Cap Riviera”), I can therefore argue a polyphonic year of multifaceted summation.

Hence my year perhaps also reflects the current state of the contemporary art world with all its variegated practices and multi-focused machinations. And it was noticeably the same subjunctive mood that shaped what we must suppose as the major art event of the year, the 58th Venice Biennial. A subjunctive premonition, as “May you live in interesting times,” presented an admixture of a supposed Chinese curse and in fact an obtuse political non-sequitur. As a result given the historical ambiguity of the concept, better perhaps, to substitute the word “interesting” with that of “confusing” since it reflected much of the ambiguous miscellany that was the 2019 Biennial—less unified Serenissima and rather an accumulate Conglomerazione. While some curatorial attempt was made to expand the premise and argue participation across a wider and more inclusive art world, it did so at the expense of sustaining any sense of meaningful conceptual cohesion. This led to the potpourri effect, and the game of spot the highlights, set against what might otherwise have been a radical cultural and structured narrative reading of our times. It came off as less polyphony and more a catchall with specious moments of eclecticism. But then we could argue this is an eclectic age where familiar old saws and tropes (ideologies) jostle alongside prescient contemporary environmental concerns. At least we can say that the past year has continued to open up the seeming cacophony of the present world to greater scrutiny, but has done so at the price of an extended acceptance and assimilations of “fake news.” This said, and as previously intimated, modern diagnosis today offers no clear prognosis or ways forward. It is a bit like going to the doctor: he tells you what is wrong with you without indicating a way forward as to how to deal with the problem. Art today is indicative, and is incapable of initiating change if no greater directive narrative prevails. Art in the medical centre/field hospital was presented at the Israel Pavilion with the idea of creating a metaphorical space of sanctuary, a canonical location proffered by the age of religion that has now been transferred to medical unit and transitional war zone. Yet unlike the surreal poetics of the “dissecting table”, there was little that was merveilleux about it. Art seen as mere diagnosis yet again!!

And speaking of old tropes or coins that have been minted anew, assimilating and integrating the cultural other is not born of simple inclusion alone. As Levinas has shown, the creative other has to be intellectually and emotionally incorporated into the self-aware and cognisant state of moral being, not simply given a tipped hat of recognition. As humanism crumbles across much of the world, analysis gives way to older fantastical intuitions, and various definitions in contemporary usage such as “evil” born of confused relativism are back in fashion.2 For we find ourselves in a transitioning oxbow of sorts, a U-bend of eternal return, where present day art is polarised between the manipulated fashions of market trends at one end, and ever more densely compressed theorisations at the other. Yet in the latter case, when these ideas are unpacked, they reveal analogous biblical tropes expressing little more than old wine in new wine skins.3 Where is the art world going?, you ask in this interstitial age of treading water. The answer is I have no idea whatsoever – there is precious little signage along the way. If 2019 illuminates anything, it is mere variances of creative practice, and no singular or overriding narrative applies. There is no encapsulation. How art has come to deal with environmental issues is no more than a continuous commentary without the necessary direct actions that are needed. As for contemporary art finding alternative models for life habitation, it is rather self-awareness as cognisant habitation that is in question, contrary to those who champion relational communal aesthetics and participation. I do not believe that art and life are synonymous. We are creatures of passage who, at the present, seem to be stuck in the undergrowth.


*Marc Gisbourne, art historian, curator and critic

1 Lomazzo called the wall painting “a ruin,” (in 1558, Vasari also called it “ruinous”) less than fifty years after its completion. For a discussion of the expanded role and concept of ruin, see Brian Dilton (ed.), Documents of Contemporary Art: Ruins, Whitechapel Gallery Publications/MIT Press, London, 2011.
2 See Thomas Precht “Talking About Evil: Reflections on Moral Judgment” in Texte Zur Kunste issue devoted to “EVIL” December 2019, 29 Jahrgang, Heft 116, pp. 34-46
3 See Matthew 9:14–17, Mark 2:21–22, and Luke 5:33–39:

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