12/03/16 • Essay : Heather Jones

On An Exit From Contemporary Art

12/03/16 • Essay : Heather Jones

On An Exit From Contemporary Art

In early February, curator, writer, theorist, and teacher Tirdad Zolghadr traveled to Stavanger to present his ongoing research and stance on what he perceives as the pervasive and growing call by cultural practitioners for an exit from contemporary art. The below essay is an unpacking of Zolghadr's lecture.

Being given a new word or phrase is like being gifted a present – a gift of expression, a word that allows you to accurately describe an emotion, a state of being, a niggling annoyance to which you had not adequately been able to give voice to prior to the bestowal of a word. New language gives one new structures in which to think. For me, a recent such gift was the word Indeterminacy, followed quickly by a rebuttal of the ideas attributed to that term.


Indeterminate – indefinable, unknowable, unspecified, indefinite, unfixed – of having no discernable or definable value.


The word in and of its self is not new to me, but when applied to the context of contemporary art, it began to elucidate a previously indefinable and angst-ridden structure: the familiar discomfort of wanting to ask, ‘what is this about?’ and the implied censure of the question.


This word, in this context, was given to me during a recent lecture by Tirdad Zolghadr, held at Rogaland Kunstsenter under the auspices of the Norwegian Association of Curators as part of their ongoing lecture series. Zolghadr, curator, writer, theorist, and teacher, traveled to Stavanger in early February to present his ongoing research and stance on what he perceives as the pervasive and growing desire by cultural practitioners for an exit from contemporary art. In his view, the current state of indeterminacy in contemporary art, evidenced and/or caused by the lack of meaningful conceptualization and discourse around contemporary art, is the driving force behind this urge. It should be mentioned that the lecture dealt with material that is still being researched, compiled, and organized by Zolghadr into a forthcoming book with Sternberg Press, scheduled to be released later this year. That said, in this discussion, there still exists room for doubt, for conversation, for figuring things out as we go along.


Below is an unpacking of many of the concepts and proposals outline in Zolghadr’s lecture. The full audio of his presentation can be found on the Norwegian Association of Curators’ website, here.


Zolghadr began by openly admitting that there are compelling reasons for artists, curators, and other practitioners to fantasize about an exit from contemporary art as we know it – feelings of confusion, exclusion, and indefinability. However, he follows quickly by marking his stance against such an exit, and states that he hopes to offer a few possibilities other than escapism, than flight.


As an admitted side-entrance to this topic, he showed a video clip from YouTube, a mash up of the now ubiquitous Double Rainbow Video with amateur installation footage of a Donald Judd exhibition. The video (and the subsequent laughter from the audience) perfectly illustrates with sarcasm the pervasive and growing annoyance from both inside and outside of the institution with the lack of meaning, or at least of meaningful discourse, around modern and contemporary art.

Though humorous, the video provided a segue way into the discussion of the current state of affairs in contemporary art via the internet. Zolghadr explained:


“I was going to start out by talking about the internet and the footage that we just saw, it’s actually doubly nostalgic because it has hints of the sublime, this completely overpowering essence of art that just throws into ecstasy – into this incommensurability beyond language, etc. But then the other anachronistic touch is the fact that the footage is so bad and it makes Judd look like an ad for U-Haul or something. It’s really stripped of all that Judd oomph.

Whereas in the post-internet context we’ve gotten really really good at not only making Judd look good but actually, the new ocular imperative that is the internet has taught us to even prime our production towards making it look convincing within a browser. The circulation of art in an online context has gotten to a point where the experience of space, as in three-dimensional, physical space, is quite thoroughly colonized by the idea of what it means to look at an exhibition through an installation shot online.”

Admittedly, Zolghadr has a personal strong, offline bias, but more important to this lecture is his concern about the installation image and the rapid creation and dissemination of such images, and the misrepresentation that such an overwhelming surge of creates. He adds that, in addition to making the idea of the existence an ‘outside’ into which one could exit ever more elusive, the internet also perpetuates ideologies and prejudices around contemporary art, noting that the internet adds a “sense of inevitability, inescapability.” The internet naturalizes and intensifies certain assumptions that, without the speed and availability of the internet, would be easier to question.

Michael Asher installation at Claire Copley Gallery, Los Angeles, 1974.

To further illustrate this idea, Zolghadr brings up Michael Asher’s 1974 project at Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles. For his exhibition, the artist removed a wall separating the front and back of the gallery, making the back offices and gallery storage visible to anyone visiting. Even before the advent of the internet, this image circulated widely and has become a canonical example of institutional critique. However, Zolghadr points out, the problem with this work and others of it’s kind, is that in this process of dissemination, the work is easily summarized and flattened into a bite-sized idea rather than a rigorously conceptual artwork.


“I think that works of this ilk were confronted with a problem; namely that institutional critique is very easily summarized by a one-liner and/or by an image. So you show this image and you say the guy removed the wall. Ok… yeah I get it.”

Not included in this image however, is the reality and importance of what was actually happening in the room – the awkward, tense atmosphere, the materials used or lack thereof, the confusion and conversations that the wall’s removal incited. And of course, the often-uncomfortable negotiations that inevitably takes place with the gallery or institution that is allowing itself to be put on display and critiqued.

There is a lot of hard work, and nuanced meaning, bred into these critical practices. However, argues Zolghadr, with the ever increasing speed and circulation of these types of images, the idea that critique, and specifically institutional critique, is ubiquitous is on the rise – everyone is doing it. It now seems to appear that institutional critique has been so widely accepted, that institutions are happy to be critiqued, are in fact executing this critique themselves. In short, it would seem that critique (or the semblance of critique) has been so decidedly coopted and subsumed by the institutions that the critique itself has become impotent. Is this true? Probably not, but it’s certainly the impression we get from the sheer velocity of these kinds of images, press releases, and exhibition texts presented by way of the internet. Zolghadr strongly suggest that this pervasive idea portrayed in online media is not at all the case.


To those of you who have worked as curators and those of you that have worked as artists, it’s quite obvious that this is a prejudice that flies in the face of empirical evidence. If you work as a curator you know that critique can still be painful and explosive and that actually the institution has it’s ways of channeling critique that very often come extremely close to censorship.

For every example of institutional critique that is parading itself out there and lending this impression that it’s ubiquitous, there are probably 10 or 20 that have been severely compromised, moderated, watered down, either in a very transparent fashion or with excuses such as the fact that there are financial, technical, or executive problems.

Basically if you take the term institutional critique, it’s much easier to emphasize critique rather than institution. Where it is actually institutional critique. It’s an institutional form of critique.

As Zolghadr stands, the idea that institutional critique has been coopted by the institution is in fact at odds with curatorial practice. However, the reason this idea is so tempting, so prevalent, is because if critique has been coopted and is actively pursued by the institution, that would allow contemporary art to claim itself a victim; the idea being that content mediated through the institution is in fact something other than contemporary art. This belief is tempting because, if true, contemporary art is off the hook – it can maintain its sense of critical virtue by remaining other, by remaining as Zolghadr puts it “outside the corridors of power.”


Countering this sentiment, Zolghadr hypothesizes that true critique is not ubiquitous, has not been subsumed, and has in fact been challenged, moderated, and at some points silenced “in the name of, and by means of contemporary art.”


As a practical illustration, while visiting exhibitions at galleries and institutions over a period of time, Zolghadr started to notice a repetitive lexicon of verbs and adjectives used in contemporary art. It began with the letter A. Certain A words were commonly in circulation in press releases, exhibition texts, and discussions. These words ostensibly were used to describe the “good object in the room.” These words arose generally whenever a curator was trying to describe the best-case scenario…




These words obviously have their own distinct definitions, lineages and nuances.

Agonism – a term popularized by Chantal Mouffe. From Greek ἀγών agon, “struggle”. A political theory that emphasizes the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict.

Ambiguity – uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language.

Ambivalence – the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.


However these words, among many others, used collectively and in service to the description of contemporary art, begin to run together into an amalgamated meaning. Used en masse and repetitively, the words began to mean the same thing.

[These words] dovetail very neatly with this dis-identification with power, with the sense of critical virtue; with a certain sense of generosity or at least the promise of generosity, which we know very well.

As it now stands, contemporary art not only places itself as ‘other’ to power by dis-identifying with the institutions, it also places itself as other to power with the creation of these open-ended statements; by allowing the audience to complete the work. In short, in contemporary art as it is currently being presented, there can be no wrong answers.


If the art were telling the audience what to think it would be didacticism, it would be advertisement, it would be propaganda. Contemporary art is that which by definition allows the audience to feel critical and creative enough to complete the work. So it’s a flattering invitation to the audience. It’s a kind of epistemic selfie. You look great! You are creative! Look at you! Go go go!

Zolghadr argues that in fact, this is not at all what happens within the exhibition space. But this is the promise, the appeal, of contemporary art. The aforementioned terms coalesce to strengthen this promise. Overtime, Zolghadr began keeping track of these kinds of words used to denote a “good object” or a “best-case scenario.” When collected altogether, what we get is a word salad – words divested of their original definitions and used to frame the artwork/exhibition with a frightening lack of clarity… and that’s the goal.

Again, these terms have distinct definitions and histories, and only within this particular field of contemporary art do they mush together to mean something comparable which is, in short, not much. The good object, the good artwork, argues Zolghadr, is currently defined as that which opposes without defining what it is opposing. A rebel without a cause. To define what a work is about, or in relation or opposition to, would be to create a dialectic, something that can be argued for or against. It creates a scenario in which someone could be wrong – and as we already mentioned, contemporary art currently promises a validation of the audience’s opinions and abilities to complete the work. But we need words for our press releases, exhibition texts, and catalogues. So we coopt words like ‘correlate, juxtapose, turn’ …

Art has quite formidable ammunition to insist on these various shades of indeterminacy.

Even something like the word TURN – which is another very popular good object. Educational turn, theoretical turn, philosophical turn. Even a term as innocuous as a turn signifies a move away from something. A deviation. And in most of the other terms this becomes even more obvious. There’s some kind of an object, there’s some kind of an other that is a stand in for the institutional with a big I – it can be truth with a big T – it can be reality, it can be history, it can be memory, it can be monumentalism, rationalism… whereas the good object is that which opposes something without specifying even exactly what it is opposing; because to clearly define what it is you’re opposing or subverting is to fall into a dialectic.

It could be argued that Zolghadr’s working definition of contemporary art here is too narrow, too limiting, and excludes current artistic practices that are deeply invested in socio-political issues. However, perhaps Zolghadr would counter that these practices, although widely visible, are not currently nestled under the label of contemporary art, but rather terms such as ‘political art’ or ‘socially engaged art.’ These practices are, in fact, positioned as other to or outside of contemporary art, and thus their widespread appeal.


The theorist Suhail Malik, on whose work much of Zolghadr’s research and theorizations lean, has recently focused on trying to formulate this defining quality of contemporary art, an ontology of contemporary art in which he systematically uses the term “indeterminacy.” The term hits the nail on the head – it gives a label to the vague discomfort so many, including art world insiders, feel when viewing and discussing contemporary art. And this discomfort goes deeper than the language. The words used to describe contemporary art are a symptom pointing to an underlying problem of indeterminacy. Contemporary art is now, by definition and in spite of the proliferation of terms, undefined, not allowed to strongly be about any one thing. Again, no wrong answers allowed here. This is a place where everyone’s ideas are valid, regardless even of their interest and commitment to contemporary art.

Subaltern – of lower status. In critical theory and post-colonialism, the term refers to populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.


At a recent lecture in Arnhem, Malik stated that contemporary art has a strong love affair with the subaltern. Malik would argue that with contemporary art there exists “an aestheticization of the subaltern, which precludes an investment in getting rid of the subaltern altogether.” The placing of contemporary art as other to power makes it impossible to do away with the hierarchies of power. According to Malik, the best-case scenario should not be a stylization or celebration of a subaltern. Rather, the best-case scenario would be to do away with the existence of the subaltern altogether.

All of this taken together, it’s understandable that one would want to escape from contemporary art – leave it entirely. There are a variety of escapist strategies and exit discourses, as outlined by Zolghadr:


One is a belief that there exists a geographical outside that offers authenticity and should be maintained. One of the advantages of naming something contemporary art, and conversely naming something not-contemporary art, is that it is then possible to acknowledge that there are other forms of art production which are not necessarily subjected to the current mandate of indeterminacy. This labeling also insists on contemporary art as being something specific and not something essentially indefinable, as seems to be the current dominate belief. That said, the labeling of an artistic practice as outside often limits and essentializes that practice. Tirdad elaborates:


For example when I was living in Ramallah I was teaching at the art academy there and you would often get these visiting speakers who would say “oh man they’re doing the same thing as what I see in London…don’t they have their own traditions? Aren’t there other alternatives? You guys are teaching them the same things… such a shame.” There’s something extremely condescending about this because I don’t see why a Palestinian student would be less entitled to learning and gaining the same conceptual tools as a student in New York. This expectation of finding a more authentic space outside of what we know as contemporary art, it doesn’t work as a proposal within art. It’s something that unfolds or doesn’t unfold outside of its parameters. But the minute you try to define it let alone preempt it, you’re actually inscribing it within the moral economy that presently exists.

There is another idea of an outside in terms of time – a delineation based on time rather than on geographical or cultural boundaries. In this line of thinking, contemporary art is essentially a waiting room:


The idea here is that contemporary art will only unfold into its real potential in some unnamed era at the end of… I don’t know, capitalism, perhaps? A moment of redemption when finally it will come into its own. And so what you can do for now, even though you’re being commodified and used and instrumentalized, you’re kind of keeping the flame alive…

Similarly, there is a theory heralded by theorists like Arthur Danto that unbeknownst to us, contemporary art is in fact long dead. We have all just been going through the motions, bereft of meaning.


[Contemporary art] is intellectually and aesthetically bankrupt. And it cannot escape because it is long dysfunctional already. It is caught in a kind of loop of its own making.

Within a post-internet context, there is a completely different strain of thought that calls for a departure from contemporary art through the merging of contemporary art with other skill sets, traditions, and disciplines.


There is quite a coalition of people who believe in this, from David Joselit to certain accelerationists to cynical directors of American academies who want to merge art departments with design departments. But there is a comparable set of narratives here that are not as gloomy as the preceding ones.

There are probably many others, but more pointedly to Zolghadr’s argument, there are a selection of speculative realists who are irritated by the kinds of indeterminate descriptive words mentioned earlier, and the attitudes that accompany them. Suhail Malik, again, suggests that the root of our current state of indeterminacy is ‘correlationism.’ As the saying goes, correlationism is the new post-structuralism.


Correlationism – the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.


In other words, correlationism is the belief that one cannot access the real except through the correlation between the real and the concepts that one is using to describe it. In short, you are trapped eating your own tail – you exist in a state of limbo, in a state of in-betweeness, in the correlation between two things and never fully existing in one or the other.


It makes sense if you’re trying to critique the moral economy of contemporary art. Because you can see where they’re going with this. You can see the anthropocentrism. You can see how there’s this comfortable sense of being trapped in language. A comfortable sense of being trapped in aporia, in indefinability, in a very cozy notion of indefinite postponement. And it’s tempting to say that overcoming correlationism is a very potent formula and possibility.

However, argues Zolghadr, the post-structuralists were deeply invested in the idea that these concepts impact and define the real. This is where Zolghadr’s thinking veers sharply from Malik’s. He posits that these ideas are in fact oriented towards the future, and thus the idea of correlationism, though inspiring, misses the mark.


In the earlier examples of institutional critique, Zolghadr provides a lens through which to discuss the moral economy of contemporary art and its relationship to power. In short, there is a moral economy of contemporary art, whether or not we choose to ignore it, and the moral economy is one he disagrees with – namely that the current paradigm insists that contemporary art dis-identifies with power, places itself as other and in opposition to power, in order to be able to claim ‘critical virtue.’


As long as contemporary art continues to dis-identify with power, to place itself as other to power, it is very difficult to see it as a future-oriented operation. Contemporary art, Zolghadr argues, is already a future-oriented operation. Whether it wants to admit it or not, contemporary art is actively affecting geographies, neighborhoods, job markets, politics, policies, etc.… It is already creating audiences and communities. In short, despite the rhetoric of othering contemporary art to power, contemporary art is ‘sitting in the corridors of power’. Zolghadr argues that the way that contemporary art is currently functioning is not at all indeterminate, but rather is un-theorized, underutilized power. And once this power is acknowledged and given language, there will (hopefully) be a reorganization of that power, and new sets of criteria established within this new paradigm.

The reason why I’m not convinced by this particular proposal in terms of escaping contemporary art is because I’m very much invested in an idea of locating contemporary art in the here and now. Not in the sense of an indefinite postponement, nor in the sense of some kind of pseudo-generous invitation to an audience to complete the work. But in a future-oriented operation that is very unapologetic about the leverage that it has.

So in other words, I’m not only interested in trying to describe the power that contemporary art has, I’m interested in producing more of it. I’m interested in enhancing the power effect. I’m interested in really making the most of the fact that contemporary art is now part of the corridors of power.

Here Zolghadr is not only talking about power in terms of gentrification and city-planning, but also about more nuanced forms of power and responsibility – for instance acknowledging and taking responsibility for the audience one is creating, as opposed to offering an open-ended work that promises to flatter the viewer and often instead alienates them.


There are glimmers of hope, of possibility of this new paradigm already existing within or alongside the current state of affairs in contemporary art. Zolghadr’s emphasis is not only on the creation of new models, but also on the acknowledgment of the leverage that already exists, and that could be better utilized through clear conceptualization. There are in fact some things that contemporary art is engaged in now, that are already worthy of a moral economy, a label, other than what is being referred to as indeterminacy. The examples are many.

SHAHRZAD Collective: Shirana Shabazi, Tirdad Zolghadr, Manuel Krebs. Jamaran, 2004 Installation, Replica of a showcase in Khomeini's Museum in Tehran (The Ayatollah's apartment). © Photos: Haupt & Binder

One such personal example used by Zolghadr to elucidate the failings of the idea of an open-ended artwork is a project by Shahrzad, a collective built around ‘a shared enthusiasm of Tehran’ and of which Zolghadr is a member. In 2004 the group was invited by the House of World Cultures in Berlin to participate in a group exhibition of Iranian art. The group decided to reconstruct a vitrine that exists in the Khomeini museum in Tehran, that includes his glasses, his slippers, walking cane, etc. The artwork was placed in the show ostensibly as an example of critique.


The idea was, if you want institutionalized Iran, here you go. It doesn’t get any better than this. Bon appetite. It’s a perfect example of this idea actually, because even though it’s reflexive, it’s a work that thinks that by virtue of being reflexive it’s actually being smarter than what it’s critiquing. And it defines itself as being outside of the institution. It defines itself as being something that is smuggling critique into the house of world cultures and trying to outsmart the apparatus.

The result was unexpected and in many ways frightening: the community of Iranian intellectuals living in exile in Berlin reacted strongly to this artwork by picketing the museum, defacing the work, demonstrating in the streets, petitioning for the work’s removal from the exhibition, and the situation eventually led to the head of the Iranian Pen Association stepping down. As Zolghadr put it, “it was very spectacular and very intimidating.”


This is also fascinating because of course these mainly left wing Marxist intellectuals in exile had every right to be outraged. Their reading of this work as a kind of shrine to Khomeini is just as legitimate as some kind of clever example of institutional critique. It’s just a more dramatic example of the limits of indeterminacy. We are very much invested in saying that the audience completes the works, as long as certain premises are respected. As soon as it genuinely strays from the hermeneutic horizon that we are fond of, it suddenly becomes a problem. And suddenly we see that contemporary art is not that open ended after all.

Usually you don’t get this kind of corrective in a group show. Usually in a group show, every work is a prelude to another work. Every work is a stepping-stone to another work. And this is how the sequence of indeterminate invitations completes itself. We should have expected these reactions, but we didn’t. We were very much focused on this self-congratulating battle with the institution.

Another example of curatorial practice where there exist glimmers of contemporary arts’ possibilities beyond this indeterminacy paradigm is the Riwaq Biennale in Palestine, of which Zolghadr has served as part of the curatorial team. The 2014 biennale was configured as a two-year program. It is named not after a city or region as in common practice, but rather after an institution. Riwaq is an organization of Palestinian architects with the goal of preserving historical towns and villages throughout the west bank. (With approximately 450 towns destroyed in the creation of the state of Israel and the ensuing conflict, the remains are of vital cultural importance). According to Zolghadr, the towns are now under threat not by any conflict with Israel, but by Palestinian investors eager to raze existing villages and build new structures for profit. As an organization, the goal of Riwaq is very specific – to attempt to halt this destruction as much as possible. The role of the biennale then is to assist in this goal. Critique and complications are allowed, but the primarily goal is to promote, expand, consolidate what Riwaq is already doing.


It’s an odd process; it’s very counter intuitive. It’s a willful example of instrumentalization. It’s a little easier when it comes to the educational program and the discursive program, but its quite challenging when it comes to the commissioning process. When you invite an artist, you don’t say ‘the world is your oyster.’ You say, ‘the institutional agenda of Riwaq is what we are working towards. That is the moral horizon. It is the benchmark. That is what our contribution is measured by.’

In trying to describe the moral economy of contemporary art, Zolghadr is attempting to pinpoint not only the power that contemporary art could have, but also the leverage that already exists within the current framework. In his view, this very real (and perhaps latent) power exists in contrast to the “backhanded idea of open-ended-ness”, and if conceptualized clearly, could be used both micro-politically, such as managing the expectations of an audience at an exhibition, and on a macro level such as the Riwaq Biennale.


There are, of course, numerous other examples of artists using the existing leverage; engaging in debates around gentrification, cultural boycotts, and environment issues to name only a few. And in looking at these examples, it becomes clear that contemporary art is already functioning within the corridors of power, despite discursive denials, and that in fact, rather than speaking against contemporary art’s agency, the current positioning of art within the power structure enhances its agency.


Many of the curators, writers and theorists that Zolghadr has come into contact with through his work and research sympathize with one or several of the aforementioned modes of exit from contemporary art. For Zolghadr, the idea of the beyond, the outside, the yet-to-come, invests too heavily in the notion of indefinite postponement. Whereas these few examples of gestures, both large and small, in the here and now, offer a glimpse of a different type of contemporary art – one already functioning and only beginning to understand its own agency.


I think they offer a glimpse of a different type of contemporary art, with much more conviction that these ideas of some kind of an outside, that you can only point to as a possible horizon down the road.