By some quirk of cultural chronology, it is in the second decade of a new century that artistic genius really gets down to era-defining business. It is the 1810s that gave us Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814), Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). In turn, the 1910s brought The Dream (1910) by Henri Rousseau, The Dance (1910) by Henri Matisse, and the urinal flippantly flipped on its side and scandalously rechristened a sculpture (Fountain, 1917) by Marcel Duchamp.
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But what about the decade just ending? Which artists and which works set the trends for which the 2010s, if not the age itself, will be remembered? The decade certainly got off to a memorable start with ground-breaking works by Belgrade-born performance artist Marina Abramović and by the American-Swiss multimedia artist Christian Marclay – works whose fascination with themes of vision and the passage of time foreshadowed the artistic temperament of the years that followed.
For 736-and-a-half hours in the spring of 2010, Abramović stared in stony silence at one visitor after another who queued up to sit across from her at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as she turned the act of gazing back on gallery goers. That was also the year in which Marclay revealed one of the most extraordinary timepieces ever created: The Clock, a 24-hour film that he painstakingly spliced together from snippets of Hollywood movies in which watches, clocks, and other timepieces fleetingly feature – a diurnal loop synchronised to keep perfect time with whatever hour and minute it is in the real world outside the film.
Could any decade maintain the pace of such creative ingenuity? The headline-grabbing and gasp-provoking sale earlier this month of a banana duct-taped to a wall (the brainchild of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan), which attracted not one but two buyers willing to fork over $120,000 (£91,000) for the perishable piece at Art Basel in Miami, might reasonably make one wonder whether things have slipped a little since Abramović and Marclay hit the ground running a decade ago. Especially after one gallery-goer decided to eat the banana, leading to police being called in to guard its replacement. But even Cattelan’s seemingly throwaway work is inflected with greater profundity than one might initially suspect. Like all of his works (including a fully-functioning 18-carat-gold toilet worth millions that was stolen from Blenheim Palace in September), the fruity sculpture – entitled Comedian – is flush with conceptual meanings that belie its frivolous appearance.
Among 17th-Century botanists, it was the banana (rather than the apple) that was suspected to be the forbidden fruit stolen by Eve and Adam
More widely-travelled than most of the consumers who buy them, bananas are packed with ethical issues about the environmental impact of distributing them and the treatment of farmers who produce them. In the UK, the fruit was seized upon by Brexiteers as a symbol for what they saw as the absurdity of EU regulations, which, they insisted, forbade the sale of any banana without a perfect curve (a claim widely contested). Among 17th-Century botanists, it was the banana (rather than the apple) that was suspected to be the forbidden fruit stolen by Eve and Adam, and therefore linked forever with mankind’s expulsion from Paradise. At once comic and tragic in its cultural connotations, the banana is a boomerang that, like all great artistic props, trips up the imagination.
Cattelan’s outrageous work takes Duchamp’s notion of the ‘readymade’ (a term coined by the French artist for found objects, such as his urinal, repurposed as art) to another level of audacious aplomb. Its verve is indicative of the spirit of many of the most innovative and noteworthy works of the past 10 years – paintings, sculptures, and installations that blur boundaries and seek to challenge how art engages with everything from the human body to time, science to portraiture, memory to language. Three years after Abramović staged her staring contest in New York, British artist Gina Czarnecki upped the ante on intrusive gazing by projecting magnified scans of participants’ eyes onto enormous screens and against the sides of buildings. Czarnecki’s intense work, simply entitled ‘I’ (2013), playfully dissects the dynamics of art by isolating the act of looking and by making vision itself the very object of our seeing.
Where Czarnecki’s spectacle relies on science and the precision of ophthalmological imaging, American artist Sarah Sze’s beautifully befuddling gizmo Triple Point (Planetarium), created the same year, is powered instead by nothing more than awe and blind belief. As complex as it is functionless, Sze’s pseudo-astronomical contraption, with which she represented the US at the 55th International Venice Biennale in 2013, is assembled from useless spokes and gears, twigs and a disco ball, toothpicks and the delicate filaments of a dandelion’s bristle. Snapped together into an outsized motor of purposeless wonder, Sze’s work whirrs in the imagination like a mad physicist’s time-machine, as if everything we’ve ever touched or acquired is an horological component in the grand engine of being here.
An infinite moment
Time and its elusive slip through the hourglass of infinity are also energies that pulse through the imagination of the Berlin-based British artist Mark Alexander, whose exquisite series of mother-and-child portraits is forged entirely from grains of sand. Recalling Medieval and Renaissance icons that we are accustomed to seeing glow with religious resplendence, Alexander’s Sand Madonnas (2019) are eerily haunting in their elemental rawness. Delicately etched as if by breath, the tender embraces they capture seem so fragile that even the weakest whisper of a dying prayer could blow them apart. Even their frames are fused from sand. Neither sculpture nor painting, yet both, the series challenges conventional categories and havers between traditional modes of seeing and saying – a recurring aspiration of the art of the now.
Breaking forms and upending expectations is likewise at the heart of one of the most surprising works to emerge over the course of the past ten years: Irish painter Sean Scully’s 23 large-scale portraits of his son playing on a beach, collectively entitled Eleuthera (2016-17). Renowned for his bold canvases of expressive stripes and tightly-packed blocks of battered colour (works that rescued abstract painting from minimalist moribundity in the early 1980s), Scully abandoned figurative work half a century ago.
Blurring the lines
Where Alexander’s series granulates the past into brittle beauty, Scully’s paintings appear to grind the sand his son scoops, moulds, and pats into a castle’s keep, into joyful panes of intimate memory. Articulated by wide and sinuous swathes of dense, primary colours, Eleuthera (the name of the Bahamian island where photos of the artist’s son were taken) smudges the distinction been figuration and abstraction. The angular slabs and brushy bands that we are used to seeing in the artist’s work have loosened, melted into something more elastic: a protective mote that envelopes the young boy like an eternal womb.
Alexander’s and Scully’s preoccupation with innocence and the fragility of childhood is indicative of another trend that rippled across the artistic consciousness of the decade – to varying effects. The dissident Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei (a student of Scully’s in New York in the early 1980s) caused a stir in 2016 when he recreated a viral photo of a drowned Syrian refugee child. For the restaging, Ai placed himself in the lifeless, face-down position of the infant Alan Kurdi, whose body was found washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. While some hailed the artist’s photo as empathetic and powerful, others derided it as exploitative and morally misguided.
Perhaps no artist in the past decade has understood the emotive impact of the image of a child more than the secretive street muralist Banksy. His mischievous prank of destroying his own painting of a young girl reaching in vain for a heart-shaped balloon that is floating away, moments after the work sold at auction in 2018, by slipping the canvas through a shredder he had concealed in the work’s frame, belongs beside Cattelan’s duct-taped banana as among the more memorable moments in the art world during the 2010s.
Banksy’s most recent mural, unveiled for Christmas earlier this month in Birmingham, UK, invites us to imagine the magical lift-off by reindeer (graffitied onto a brick wall in the city’s Jewellery Quarter) of a street bench often used by homeless people as a makeshift bed. Like Sze’s enchanting time machine, and indeed all of the best works of the age, Banksy’s generous holiday gift collapses the barriers between this world of all-too-frequent sadness and suffering and a better one of which we can only dream. As a metaphor for where art might take us in the next 10 years, Banksy’s beautiful, beguiling reindeer are a happy, hopeful sign.
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