A Glimpse Into The Contemporary Artworld

“The rule in the art world is: you cater to the masses or you kowtow to the elite; you can’t have both”  – Ben Hecht

Keeping Grounded, Samantha Boulanger, 2019
Keeping Grounded, Samantha Boulanger,  Digital Photograph, 2019

One of the things we were asked to contemplate during the Artworld art theory module in the first semester of the MA was; how do we as artists and our work fit in to the contemporary art world? Good question I thought, as an already practising freelance artist and having just graduated with a BA Fine Art, I’ve noticed that I have this constant feeling of trying to straddle the two worlds that Ben Hecht is talking about in his quote “The rule in the art world is: you cater to the masses or you kowtow to the elite; you can’t have both”. It certainly feels like an impossible task sometimes.

My Stand at the Corn Exchange Cardigan 2019
My Stand in a group show at the Corn Exchange Cardigan 2019

I am hoping that during this MA I will find this balance, or at least continue to find the confidence within myself to just get on with being an authentic artist in my own right, regardless of which ‘camp’ I am in creatively. Maybe by being someone who is not necessarily trying to make a statement, rebel or critique the institution in a grand and obvious way, I actually inadvertently do just that! A new wave of rebellion perhaps?

Solo Show Oriel Rhiannons 2019
My Solo Exhibition at Oriel Rhiannon’s 2019

“It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, what kind of rewards we aspire to” – Andrea Fraser

For the Artworld module I chose to explore the different ways in which globalisation and commodification impact on the contemporary art market and institutions, focussing on some broader theories which impinge on artists and art institutions. I also looked into the ways in which artists respond to the changing climate of the contemporary art world, and as a result how they challenge these establishments. In this blog I will discuss the latter, for this I chose two case studies, the first was Dayanita Singh with her exhibition Museum Bhavan, the second was the four 2019 Turner Prize winners; Helen Cammock, Lawrance Abu Hamdan, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani.

Dayanita SinghMuseum Bhavan (Image: Open The Magazine)
Museum Bhavan, Dayanita Singh (Image: Open The Magazine)

Dayanita Singh was born in Delhi, India in 1961, a self-described ‘book maker who works with photography’. Singh chose photography as a career to find her freedom, away from society’s expectations of marriage and family. Singh trained as a photojournalist but has since become interested in creating new ways of thinking about photography and making it available for people to see.

Despite living and working amongst the colourful sights of India, she usually works in black and white to create ‘something elusive’ in her images. Her subjects vary from families at home to abandoned rooms full of paper, to an outcast called Mona Ahmed living in a cemetery. (Tate)

Museum Bhavan is a collection of portable museums made by Dayanita Singh. Museums within a museum. There are 9 museums installed, each one holding images old and new, from the time Singh began photography in 1981 until the present.

The show is permanently installed at her home in the Visant Vihar neighbourhood in New Delhi, (open to the public on the first and second full moon of each year. At other times it may be viewed by appointment only). The show has previously been shown at the;
Hayward Gallery, London (2013). Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (2014). Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2014) and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (2016).

Museum Bhavan, Dayanita Singh, 2013 (Image: Global Canon)
Museum Bhavan, Dayanita Singh, 2013 (Image: Global Canon)

Each large, handmade wooden structure can be moved around, placed and opened in different ways, it holds around a hundred framed images, some of which are on view whilst others wait their turn in the reserved collection stored within the structure. Some also have smaller structures within them, which can be displayed inside the museum structures or separately on a wall. The museums sometimes form small chambers, with their own tables and benches, for reflection and conversation. Dayanita Singh – Museum Bhavan

From this exhibition birthed a smaller, more mobile exhibition, created by turning the images into book forms that were then displayed in suitcases. Singh’s publisher Steidl said: “In Museum Bhavan Dayanita Singh creates a new space between publishing and the museum, an experience where books have the same if not greater artistic value than prints hanging on a gallery wall. Consisting of nine individual “museums” in book form, Museum Bhavan is a miniature version of Singh’s traveling exhibition of the same name whose prints are placed in folding expanding wooden structures (her “photo-architecture”) which she likes to interchange at will (Steidl).

Museum Bhavan Suitcase Exhibition, Dayanita Singh 2013
Museum Bhavan Suitcase Exhibition, Dayanita Singh, 2013

Museum Bhavan was then made into concertina books in small box sets, published in 2017 by Steidl, mirroring the original larger exhibition. *These books can still be bought online despite being out of print. Currently just over £100 on Amazon UK “The books are housed in a handmade box and fold out into accordion-like strips which Singh encourages viewers to install and curate as they wish in their own homes. The exhibition thus becomes a book, and the book becomes an exhibition” (Steidl).

Museum Bhavan - Dayanita Singh, Published by Steidl, 2017
Museum Bhavan, Dayanita Singh, Published by Steidl, 2017

For me, it feels like Singh addresses both ends of the spectrum, embracing the institutions and their grandeur and elitism whilst at the same time also making the exhibition available to the general public in book form. I feel that there is shift taking place in which artists (myself included) are seriously questioning their exhibiting experiences and their part in this changing contemporary ‘art’ world.

Artists have been challenging the institutions through institutional critique since the sixties, this is not a new concept within the artworld (Tate). My second case study the 2019 Turner prize is a great example of how contemporary artists are still attempting to have their voices heard within the institutional platform.

The Turner Prize joint winners, from left: Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock and Oscar Murillo. (Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA)
The Turner Prize joint winners, from left: Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock and Oscar Murillo. (Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA)

The four nominated artists, pictured above, Helen Cammock, Lawrance Abu Hamdan, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani surprised everyone, including the judges, with the joint statement that they were to form a temporary collective in order to win the prize as one.

They all felt that the problem was that each of their individual political themes and messages are so different and yet equally valid. They were concerned that being pitted against one another would imply that “one was more important, significant or worthy of more attention than the others” Turner Prize 2019.

The timing of this event was interesting too as it was at the same time of the general election campaigns in the UK. One of the winners Tai Shani wore a necklace with the slogan ‘Tories out’ on it and fellow winner, Oscar Murillo, a ‘Vote Labour’ badge on his t-shirt.

In their joint statement they spoke about the current political crisis in the UK and how the country is at a point where the people and their communities are feeling increasingly isolated and divided. Something that I believe is being highlighted even further during the current Covid-19 pandemic. People from all walks of life are being invited to not only question and change the way in which they want to live on a personal, localised level but also what kind of society do they want to be a part of and governed by, globally. Interesting and exciting times indeed.

So, in conclusion, whilst the antiquated system of elitism still underpins the establishments which have the primary control over the art world, artists are becoming more confident in reclaiming agency and control in their own right and this is increasingly picking up momentum. The global market available through the internet and the ability to access this on an individual level, both as a seller and buyer has taken agency away from the established institutions and handed it back to the artists, should they wish to take this option. Having choices has given strength to the voices of the individual artists, so that they feel more able to speak out about how future developments in the artistic field should be addressed; as was seen with the Turner prize winners this year. Times are a changing for sure!

Thanks for reading…

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