“I don’t like contemporary art, because I can’t understand it. What does the artist really want to express?” People often complain about contemporary art and its difficulty to be understood.
The truth is, the turning point of contemporary art history is undoubtedly the famous Duchamp fountain. He brought a readymade product from the male toilet to the exhibition space. Since then, the fine line between art and daily life was blurred.
For instance, the female Chinese artist and engineer Liu Xin’s chose bread as her art medium. She follows the shape of Cuba’s national round daily bun to make her artwork Bread Havana. Like Cuba’s daily subsidized national bun, this artwork’s raw materials are imported flour, sugar, dry yeast, and water. The unique part of the Bread Havana is its flavor. In order to complete this artwork, Dana Gasiorowski from IFF (International Flavor and Fragrance) designs an essence flavor that balances the nuances of gasoline, sweat and white ginger flower (the national flower of Cuba).
The artwork is appreciated through a dining experience. Liu Xin will serve the audience with freshly baked bread. When the audience breaks the bread, bites, chews and swallows, it will notice the difference between Bread Havana and bread sold in regular stores. Bread Havana tastes like nothing but pale flour. This dull taste won’t shock the audience but drives people to think of the living conditions in Cuba.
Artist Liu Xin got her inspiration by visiting Cuba, where tourism is the third largest source of foreign currency, behind the two dominant industries of sugar and tobacco. Cuba doesn’t conceal and hide its poverty and struggles. The lack of regulation on sex work, ungovernable black markets and creaky infrastructure make of poverty and development a reason for visitors to travel.
Liu Xin is not the only artist who picks daily food as a medium of expression. A couple from Los Angeles, Mitra Saboury and Derek Paul Boyleshan put toast on a staircase, then stepped on it to leave footprints. They call the footprints the trace of life.
Although artists and professionals working in the art industry may discover the artistic meaning behind those daily commodities made artworks, ordinary people tend to showcase confused faces towards them. There are two extreme cases to vividly present the confusion which the average audience experiences.
Dove andiamo a ballare questa sera? (where are we going dancing tonight?) is an art installation by Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari, a Milan-based art duo. This artwork was once exhibited in 2015 at the Museion in Bozen-Bolzano, in the South Tirol region of Italy. Through this piece of art, the artists wanted to represent the golden time of the Italian economy in the 1980s. This installation, demonstrating the mess after a party, including empty beer bottles, scattered colorful decoration papers and other trash was ironically so realistic that the museum cleaner swept it off.
On the other hand, people often mistake some irrelevant elements or people as art pieces. In 2016, two California teenagers visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern art. They decided to play a small game to test the audience’s reaction. They placed a pair of glasses on the floor and stepped back to see how the audience would perceive them. After a while, people gathered around the eyeglasses: some people pondered over it and tried to understand it while some people kneeled down and took photos of it.
So why is contemporary art that confusing? From my perspective, one of the biggest reasons is that compared to classical art and the old masters, contemporary art is a more diversified medium of expression. As the audience is more used to a traditional way of appreciating art, in their mind, art should be a painting or a sculpture. Therefore, when the contemporary artist puts a readymade product in the exhibition space and calls it an art piece, the audience can’t fit this type of art into their pre-existing categories of what art is. In addition, contemporary art reflects the world we are living in now. In other words, contemporary artists are writing art history with their artworks. Some of them may have a long-term impact, and some of them may disappear and diminish. Therefore, it is now still too early to determine whether works can be viewed as art or not.
WORDS BY LOU YILUN