In 1974, Artforum published Terry Smith’s ‘The Provincialism Problem’, and threw a lifeline to Australian art when it needed it most. In his influential essay, Smith concluded that Australian artists were no more dependent on other countries than those fancy New Yorkers: he redefined cultural self-doubt as a necessary evil of global exchange, rather than an unflattering phenomenon exclusive to isolated communities.
While the provincialism ‘problem’ has been long forgotten, Australia’s other geographic disadvantages – securing, transporting and exhibiting contemporary international art works – had, until recently, seen Australia let down their end of the bargain.
This time, however, it was Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art that provided the lifeline. Their recent exhibition, 21st Century: Art in the First Decade administered a much-needed dose of contemporary art to our shores. Exhibiting almost two hundred works by one hundred and forty artists, from over forty different countries all made in the last ten years, 21st Century was GOMA’s way of reminding us of the importance of keeping up with the Jones’.
The technological advancement of international communication has amplified global exchange, and art is no exception. Art today exhibits little continuity in its aesthetic, its premises are wildly heterogeneous and it avoids singular experiences and interpretations at all costs. In fact, the most consistent feature of 21st century art appears to be its very inconsistency. This inability to reduce contemporary art to a singular understanding is the direct result of ongoing negotiations between cultures.
Scottish artist Martin Creed’s Work No. 956: Half the air in a given space consists of a room half filled with purple helium balloons, which spectators are invited to enter for designated periods. Like many of Creed’s works, the piece compels a negotiation between the subjective and the universal by allowing for individualised interpretations of a collective experience.
This thread continued in Australian artist Campbell Patterson’s home video archive, which features his personal negotiations with the objects and environments around him. In Lifting my mother for as long as I can he does exactly that – creating a family memory completely unassociated with normal familial interactions.
This theme finally found its most literal example in Olafur Eliasson’s The cubic structural evolution project, which allows spectators to literally deconstruct the globe’s monuments piece by Lego piece to rebuild them to their own liking. The rubble of the old becomes the building blocks of a personal vision.
In this respect, the works in 21st Century are a utopian counterpoint to more cynical interpretations of the effects of globalisation, often associated with fragmented identity and cultural dislocation. Instead, these works reinvent modernism’s greatest fears as the light at the end of the tunnel. Each work resists organisational pressure and passive identification and pushes the viewer to be an active participant in their environment, celebrating the possibility of a unity of experience amongst an atomised collectivity.