Contemporary art since 1980

The latest module on my art history course asked to consider the various factors that have shaped the practice of art since 1980.

This is a particularly interesting topic for someone growing up during that time. The political and social aspect of our society has, naturally, forged a link with art and artists through the history of art.  

Two such recent art installations, Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All)  (2001) and Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) have shown how this can be done to challenge perceptions of events.

Deller combined actors alongside men who had been a part of the confrontation between the striking miners and police at Orgrave Colliery in 1984.  Just as with the re-enactors of ancient battles, Deller wanted the authenticity of this event to come through, challenging the telling of the events at the time.  Using hand held cameras and placing the cameramen in the action, following the miners and police as well as cutting in with footage and interviews from the time, places the viewer back in time and it makes for uneasy viewing.  The actual installation was set out as a timeline of events with historical artifacts alongside art work, thereby blurring the lines – is this history or art? What Deller tries to show is that it is both but it requires our interaction to give the subtitle its true meaning and challenge our interpretations or even our original understanding.

One of the key factors for Deller was that the re-enactment should take place at the actual site, and this attention to detail and location fits with the ideas that Emin’s controversial ‘Bed’ puts forward as a piece of social history; her own! 

Our bedrooms are seen as sanctuaries; places where we can be our most open, vulnerable, and honest, but it is not a place for public viewing. Emin’s decision to include empty alcohol bottles, underwear, cigarettes, pregnancy tests, and the like was revealing and disturbing, but what was even more surprising was her decision to describe the breakdown she had which resulted in her taking to her bed. This is honesty with the same uncomfortable feeling that we have when viewing Deller’s work, revealing a world we would prefer to hide away in the archives.

Another aspect of contemporary art we can consider is how technology has greatly affected the way art is produced and shared with the public.


My first real experience of this is when I went to The Whitworth in Manchester. I walked into a large room, lit by a solitary bulb and was surrounded by jagged shadows of differing lengths and sizes. The world felt unreal, terrifying, unstable. Welcome to Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold, Dark Matter (An exploded view)’

Cornelia Parker, 'Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View' 1991

This seminal work by one of our leading sculptors was a lesson in how technology has affected the way artists create.  Rather than depict in paint, or to imagine in sculpture, Parker physically exploded (under military supervision) a garden shed, packed with the every day items of detritus we throw into the wooden sheds at the bottom of our gardens. By tracking the explosion on film, Parker was able to recreate the moment the bomb exploded and replicate it meaning we were able to be in a part of that force, something we would not have been able to survive in reality.

The rise of computer technology and, specifically, tablets, have given David Hockney another outlet for his works and produced a truly stunning set of landscapes transforming this ‘toy’ into a palpable expression of art as seen here in ‘Spring Arrives in Woldgate Woods’.

Hockney’s research into technological methods used in art, led him to discover that as far back as the early 1800’s, artists were using devices to help them to create their art.  While this method may be scoffed at as being for children: the paintings are smooth, wipeable, clean – the reality is that this is yet another method to complement, not hinder progress in art.

My third choice comes from the world  of video and was part of an exhibition celebrating Shakespeare in art: Ophelia’s Ghost by Davy and Kristin McGuire.

Image result for Ophelia's Ghost by Davy and Kristin McGuire.Image result for Ophelia's Ghost by Davy and Kristin McGuire.

Using holographic imaging projected onto a water surface, Ophelia starts to appear and the haunting music brings Shakespeare’s words to life. Her last gasps of breath break the surface and we see her gently floating away from us.  The ephemeral beauty and tragedy of Ophelia is brought to life in a way that can only be imagined if one was gazing upon a canvas.

Without doubt, technology will continue to impact on and change the way we produce and view art, making it undeniably part of the fabric of creativity.

One area where this is true is with the use of photography and the way its relationship with painting has continued to develop and challenge the way we consider photography as an art form.

In 2014, Manchester Art Gallery held an exhibition -The Sensory War, 1914-2014, which changed my viewpoint on what I had deemed to be ‘war art’. Two pieces, An Ecstasy of fumbling (Portrait of the Artist in a gas alert) 1991 by John Keane and Richard Mosse’s Aerochrome photograph, Poison Glen (2012) are examples of how the relationship between art and photography has changed since the start of the 80s and by comparing the approaches, we can see how the Gallery’s first director, Lawrence Hayward’s words resonate still when he said, back in 1914,  “war is sensory and emotive, and the artist will reflect that world and the human emotions it arouses.*”

Image result for john keane, portrait of the artist

Keane’s oil painting from the Gulf War, harks back to the traditional forms of expression through art and literature, with the title echoing Owen’s famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est and is a self-portrait of the artist in his chemical suit.  The fear of chemical weapons being unleashed is reflected in this densely painted portrait with the frantic brushstrokes revealing the panic the artist was feeling in his enclosed space and claustrophobic suit.

Image result for richard mosse poison glen

The contrasting photograph by Richard Mosse demonstrates the way in which photography can now match the versatility of paint. Mosse used discontinued military surveillance film to capture the landscapes of the Congo where over 5.4million people have lost their lives since the conflict began in 1998. The use of infra red light gives an eerie tranquility to the landscapes but reminds us of the emptiness now apparent. Rather than use photography as ‘photojournalism’, Mosse uses it to transform the landscape into a lurid psychedelic nightmare which more adequately describes the situation and gives us another medium in which to, as Hayward put it: “to give expression to aesthetic emotion”*.

*The Sensory War 1914-2014 Catalogue, Manchester City Art Gallery 11 October 2014-22nd February 2015