Exhibiting across the street from each other in the past month (October, 2021), Sherrie Levine’s solo exhibition and the inaugural edition of the Digital Art Fair Asia incidentally brought into perspective the rapid transformation of artistic creation and its reception precipitated by the acceleration of technological development. Their proximity in space amplified the dramatic change in the understanding of art over the few decades, at the same time underlining the fact that the tension between art and technology did not just happen recently; it is an enduring force that drives the pace and direction of art history.
Almost half a century ago, Levine, a prominent artist of the Picture Generation, attempted to demystify and deconstruct mass media culture that was transforming and steepening the hierarchy as well as the commodification of art by confronting the technology of image reproduction and photography, raising questions of authorship, nature of representation and manipulation of meanings through notoriously simple yet provocative approach. Like many of her notable works titled with the prefix “after” followed by names of canonical male artists, the exhibiting series exemplified Levine’s reductive strategies of appropriation which, albeit their explicit quotations and minimalist appearances, are in fact conceptually complex drawing on multiple social, cultural and historical sources.
Made simply by photographing reproductions of images by renowned photographers without any alteration, a controversial approach that placed Levine in the center of postmodern movement, After Feininger is a series of photographic reproductions of the works of Andreas Feininger, who was commissioned by the Office of War Information (OWI), an U.S government propaganda agency during World War II, to document wartime industries as a way to mobilize citizens to support the war effort of Uncle Sam. While these images were meant to demonstrate the strength and unity of the country during the war, do they still convey the same sentiment today in an art gallery or museum? If the meaning of an artwork changes with the context in which it is situated, then is there such thing as the truth? Levine’s subjects, hidden behind multiple lens, tell us no; our perception in an image-saturated world is always already mediated. Following this line of inquiry, Levine interrogates the mythical relationship between some of the legendary masters in modern art and their nudes, the symbol of high art. Levine’s After Henri Matisse and Monochromes After Renoir Nudes series, in which the artist manipulated the reproduced images of the nudes painted by Matisse and Renoir and reduced them to simple line portraits of the women’s heads for the former and panels of pure colors derived from computer algorithm that calculates the average hues of the nudes for the latter, probably bring to mind feminist art historian Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), which questions the assumption of what constitute an artistic genius. Besides responding to feminist criticism of the patriarchal system, Levine’s main concerns remain to be the fundamental issues of signification and authorship. Isolated from their original context, are these still nudes? And whose nudes? Is it possible to separate representation from the language of commodities? Is there such thing as originality when images can be infinitely replicated?
What Levine created were in fact signs of contemporary culture through a kind of performative act that uses technology to recontextualize canonical works in a world dominated by mass media. Today we dive head first in the virtual world constructed by social media, the impact of which not unlike that of the first wave of media culture decades ago. The difference is the lines between the realm of mass media and art, the real and virtual, are becoming impossible to draw. For many young and emerging artists, creativity is measured by the number of “likes” in social media. The result is a countless number of eye popping, brain numbing artworks. A common sight at the Digital Art Fair was people staring blankly at the works through their phone screen, or facing completely away from the works snapping selfies. While Levine utilizes technology to create works that take us through art history and urge us to reflect on our culture in the most simplistic manner, the role of technology nowadays tends to stop us from thinking. It makes me wonder if humanity is evolving or devolving.
I do like some of the works at the art fair and appreciate the tours and talks, hopefully when the hype calms, we will see more of creativity leading the development of art tech instead of the other way around. Think of the works of Levine, it is not necessary to be noisy to be groundbreaking. On the other hand, the prominent presence of auction house at the fair means the art world is far from being decentralized, at best it is moving from one center to another, one that is more open, fluid and fast changing, which is a good thing. The contemporary art world has been bored for a long time, this “meta movement” is exciting and is a critical moment for the future direction of art.
Don’t go ape, go deep.