Those who think that avant-garde art was and still is irrelevant are wrong. Indeed, we are in strong need of it, but maybe there is not enough out there at the moment. Or maybe Peter Bürger was right to declare it “historical” a generation ago when the avant-garde’s potential became nothing more than a periodising term. Maybe art became too commercial. Maybe the avant-garde lost its role and power for criticism, for challenging the structures of society.
Nevertheless, the avant-garde also proved that it is as well about failing. Taking a look back in time, to the era of the historical avant-garde movements starting with Duchamp up to now, we have seen many examples of artists “failing” at being an artist. However, they gain recognition as soon as the artworld finally understood what they actually did. The avant-garde was—and unknowingly is—ahead of its time.
In 1938, Duchamp made us realise the ceiling of any given room by making it visible. Up to then—and actually, today as well, because history repeats itself—nobody took a look upwards, especially not in a gallery or at any other art-related space. Whereas, early art forms like ancient art or even cave paintings, did use ceilings as usable space. Modern Art ignored it and drew a strong not-to-be-crossed line between four walls and its useless cover. Thus, Duchamp’s installation “1.200 Sacks of Coal” raised quite a lot of questions. And by doing this it became one of the most revealing pieces in the history of avant-garde. It was a gesture that puzzled the audience. It questioned—and still is—the view- er’s perspective on things, and even on life. Were those bags really filled with coal, or was it just an experiment and Duchamp tricked us all?
Without any question, this work was the beginning for Duchamp and lots of his colleagues to create more of those gestures or interventions. They realised that by changing the context—by questioning the space itself—their works could fulfil new roles and unfold their full power. More or less they discovered a new medium and played with it, almost childish—thinking of Duchamp’s Mile of String here. To shock is one of avant-garde‘s smallest weapons. Its bigger ones are subtle humour and the courage to challenge the status quo.
In the decades of 1960s and 1970s, space was again—or still is?—called into question, and artists like Lawrence Weiner who was less interested in the White Cube than in its outside, its façade, paved the way for art in public space. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the infamous artist duo wrapping buildings like the Reichstag in Berlin, always emphasised how much their works are mostly about beauty and joy, but undeniably there are larger political connotations involved. Although a lot of their megalomaniac concepts have never been executed, the couple is indeed avant-gardist in all its facets. Their work is not only visually impressive and often controversial as a result of its scale; the purpose of their art is to create new ways of seeing. “I am an artist, and I have to have courage... Do you know that I don‘t have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they‘re finished. Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain”, Christo replied to his critics. And again: By changing the context—now by questioning time—the avant-garde was one step ahead.
In 1986 Paul Virilio predicted the “End of History” as movement and perception, just as modern society was accelerating constantly and enough speed had been achieved by electronic data transmission to overcome time and space. This acceleration turned the traditional conditions of politics, democracy and freedom upside down. According to Virilio, “things get lost in this new constant stream of images”. Logical- ly, the avant-garde’s latest challenge is to overcome this hurdle and to create gestures strong enough to withstand this acceleration instead of being carried away in its slipstream.
Contemporary art’s vast roster includes Alicja Kwade, who is doing well in becoming a part of today’s avant-garde—in the end Peter Bür- ger was wrong. Her works engage with the human urge to understand where we came from and why we exist. “I am very interested in the relationship between matter and time, how things, and also humans, are made and destroyed and changed and developed by different conditions of matter in time.” Humankind made so many technological advances, yet there are certain riddles, which have never been resolved. Kwade’s exhibitions are more of a unified and explorative installation, rather than the sum of different pieces. In creating a whole space, or as she says, “trying to dissolve the surrounding space itself, and create an uncertainty for the viewer concerning his position in space,” she unfolded a previously undetectable dimension for her audiences to mine.
“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here.
Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.”
— Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull