Speaking Out of Time: Defining Contemporary Art


Chronologically speaking, the “contemporary” in the history of art is most simply defined as the art of the present or very recent past. Organizing by date may make this seem an easy classification, but grouping by chronology alone leaves us with little understanding of what contemporary art is. If we turn to form, style, or material, however, we don’t find much help there either. There is no single style that predominates, and artists work in a variety of style, materials and forms, often intentionally combining disparate formal qualities within a single practice. In 2009 and 2010, the Journal E-Flux produced two special issues focused on defining contemporary art. In the introductory essay of issue eleven, the editors describe a failed attempt to develop a wiki archive for contemporary art. The stumbling block was the organizational structure: how does one categorize contemporary art? According to the essay’s authors, “we found that no objective structure or criterion exists with which to organize artistic activity from the past twenty years or so, and the question of how to structure such an archive—to make it intelligible—proved to be so difficult to address that it completely derailed the project.”1

Beyond chronology, however, time has much to offer in understanding and perhaps defining the artistic activity from the past twenty years, because of the unique relationship between Contemporary Art and time. On the surface the contemporary seems to refer simply to the present. For many smart people, however, the impossibility of being completely present has been described, for example, Nietzsche and Barthes summarized the contemporary as the “untimely.”2 The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben turns to fashion to help describe the “special experience of time that we call contemporariness.”3 To be in fashion is to is to balance on the unmarkable moment “between ‘not-yet’ and ‘no-more.’” The now of fashion is contradictory because as soon as it is pronounced it is passé. Similarly, to be contemporary means to be both with the times and out of step with the times, where “one’s relevance includes within itself a small part of what lies outside of itself.”4 What this implies is that to be truly contemporary includes some link to other times.  This could be seen as an expansive relationship to the present, or having a perspective that broadens the present to include both the past and future. By incorporating a broad viewpoint the contemporary then becomes a method of more fully observing the present, instead of being a blind victim to it. Put simply, it is a critical perspective on the present state of things. It is this criticality, this special relationship to time, that can shed some light on the resistant category known as Contemporary Art.

anachronistic referents
Contemporary works of art often don’t simply refer to the present, but instead engage with past movements and periods in history as ground for current work. Not only do the narratives of history inform the subject matter of present artworks, but the goals of past artistic projects also guide the works of today. This follows Giorgio Agamben’s characterization of the contemporary, that it is both at a distance from the present and firmly adhered to it. As Agamben wrote, “ those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.”5  Viewing contemporariness as a critical viewpoint, at once immersed in the present and at a distance to it, echoes Boris Groys’ idea that the “contemporary is – a prolonged, even potentially infinite period of delay.”6 This delay for Groys is caused by the “doubt, hesitation, uncertainty and indecision.” This defines the contemporary as a reconsideration of the past—most recently a reconsideration of modernism—and one can find many examples of contemporary art which are essentially that.

Matt Leiderstam is one artist who reconsiders the past with his multi-media installations, specifically 18th and 19th century painting. One such project by the Swedish artist is the archive, Grand Tour. Over ten years in the making, Grand Tour is a collection of books, paintings, photographs, texts, drawings, and digital projections, all based on an 1996 exhibition produced by the Tate in London, titled, “Grand Tour: the Lure of Italy in the 18th Century.” The exhibition’s focus was the traditional tour of Europe undertaken by young men of means commonly referred to as the “Grand Tour.” Leiderstam’s project of the same name, began when he realized that many of the places pictured in the paintings of the Tate Exhibition were also featured in an international gay travel guide, Spartacus. He then painted reproductions of romantic landscape paintings by canonical artists such as Nicholas Poussin, Claude Monet, and Claude Lorrain, and juxtaposed these bucolic scenes with gay cruising parks to re-interpret their meaning.  Leiderstam has said that “the truth is not evident through seeing - it must be constantly negotiated. It is this that produces a connection to my earlier works dealing with cruising.”7 Leiderstam’s installations have usually been displayed like study rooms with artifacts laid out on tables, mounted magnifying glasses calling attention to minute details, and computer monitors displaying animated or interactive information. In the context of the museum Leiderstam’s work unveils the normally seamless authority of this institution by opening up a space of investigation and re-evaluation. His work stretches back through history and sheds doubt on our stories of the past. It does so by inserting a contemporary gay male subject as a pre-condition of archive’s viewers. This is perhaps best illustrated by his series of c-prints, titled Returned. These photographs document gay cruising sites in public parks where Leiderstam has placed one of his copies–minus the figures of Adam, Eve and God–of Nicolas Poussin’s painting, “Spring or the Earthly Paradise.” Placed at a man’s average height, the painting on an easel is left behind after being documented at dusk, the assumption being that in a few hours in the dark of night this painting will greet one of the park’s visitors. As Denise Robinson wrote, “He displaces the stability of portraiture in time with an encounter in the present, displaces the idealizations of landscape painting with place - in this case a place where those who are at the limit of the law conceal their meeting.”8 What interests me is Leiderstam’s fascination with the past. Unlike the artists of the modern era who looked toward the future, the artists of the present, like Leiderstam, seems more drawn to looking backward instead of forward. And when looking backward, often the stories must be re-written to account for a contemporary subjectivity, such as the fore-grounded gay man in Leiderstam’s work.

Behind Leiderstam’s pan-historical work is an understanding of art history not as a linear, closed system, but as an open system far more complex and intertwined than a simple progressive sequence. The simple system I am referring to is of course the iconographic model of art history, which places one style after another in an unbroken line of innovation and growth. At the heart of this model is one of the main tenants of modernist ideology, namely a belief in the never-ending progress of the human race. Since the 1960s many have taken issue with this art historical model. The Mesoamericanist George Kubler, for example, in his book The Shape of Time, discards the iconographic model in favor of a study of morphology of forms, or what he terms form-classes. Kubler thought that, “Every important work of art can be regarded both as a historical event and as a hard-won solution to some problem.”9 Kubler grouped the pair of problem and solution as a form-class, and a form-class could change over time, because as solutions accumulated the problem itself would change. Kubler’s model also accounted for open and closed sequences of form-classes. Once a problem was either sufficiently solved or no longer relevant the sequence was closed, but an open sequence for a problem still relevant or still unsolved, can be reactivated at anytime, allowing for links between the distant past and the present.

Pamela Lee’s 2001 essay published in Grey Room, expertly describes the effect of Kubler’s book on 1960s art, specifically in its relationship to Robert Smithson’s work.10 Seen most directly in Smithson’s writings is Kubler’s idea that a work of art was both an artifact and a message, and that “historical change is enacted through the transmission of information from one signal to the next, but the transmission is neither linear nor continuous.”11  Today, the complex cycle of signal and feedback is something that has been made obvious by the common use of the Internet and the non-linear hypertext used to navigate it. What was once a fringe concept in art has now proliferated and become commonplace. So it should be no surprise that artists such as Spencer Finch, Kara Walker, Mark Tansey, and all the artists of the Pictures Generation, to name a few, navigate the history of art as a non-linear, open system; both in the way they incorporate past works of art into their contemporary works, and in the way they understand the placement of their work within the story of art.

time clock
When discussing time, considering the mechanisms that measure time is essential. After all, time as a lived experience is very different from time as a measure of regularly spaced increments. We’ve all had the experience of time flying during a good party or while working under a deadline, but we know one second is no longer or shorter than the next as far as the clock is concerned. This “unforgiving machine [of] Western culture” has been with us since the Middle Ages.12 Since then the clock has “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measured sequences: the special world of science,” according to historian and social critic, Lewis Mumford.13 Elaborating on the idea that contemporary art is essentially a critical art form, in addition to time in art history, artists have also turned a critical lens on the common measure of time: the clock.

Investigating the control the clock has over our daily lives was exactly the goal of Andrea Zittel’s experiment, Free Rhythms and Patterns [Berlin] in 1999. For about a week that artist lived without any access to “external” time. Her environment was free of clocks, daylight, and any other mechanisms that might convey time, such as a radio, TV, or the Internet. Her goals were to discover a more “natural” time and to experience and record what her emotional, physical, and mental reactions would be without the influence of regular, external time. Zittel recorded the ways she filled the 168 hours of the experiment by creating a twelve-panel drawing, which illustrates those activities as well as provides diaristic accounts of them. The drawing titled, Note #14 includes the following passage:

In order to get some kind of exercise I’ve been walking
back and forth the length of the room until I’m exhausted.
It is not very strenuous exercise, so getting tired seems to
take a really long time. When I walk I imagine that I am
“Pushing through time”…that each step takes me closer to
the end of this experiment.14

Zittel’s account of her exercise during the project is interesting because it illustrates the link between time and space. As she moves through space, pacing the length of her room she imagines moving forward through time. We can image that this illusion of progress was perhaps an attempt to stay sane in such a stifling environment. Without the ability to leave that room, to go somewhere, movement through time became her savior. An absence of forward movement through space was replaced by a forward movement through time.

In the aftermath of this experiment, Zittel created several designs and models for the project A-Z Vacation from Time. She created several isolation chamber designs meant to provide someone with a comfortable environment in which to experience timelessness under the descriptive titles: A-Z Timeless Chamber, A-Z Time Tunnel: Time to Do Nothing Productive at All, and A-Z Time Tunnel: Time to Read Every Book I Ever Wanted to Read. The irony inherent in these chambers and tunnels is that to provide freedom from time requires limitations.

What Zittel’s time projects get at is a desire to have more time, or perhaps have more control over time. We are busy people these days, with ever-expanding demands on our time, from both the productive end––an ever-increasing need to produce more in an ever-increasingly competitive workforce, and the consumptive end––an ever-increasing pantheon of forms of entertainment and distractions that eat up our “free” time. In response to this quickening pace, Nato Thompson suggests that contemporary art derives its aesthetic value from providing now scarce temporal and bodily experiences, and that it can even be defined by its slowness. He wrote, “Operating against this grain of contemporary temporality may not only be a hallmark of the arts, but also the delineation of their discursive boundary.”15 The arts for many are either an escape from time, or an opportunity to experience it differently.

Like Contemporary Art, cinema often functions that way too, as an escape and an opportunity to follow a pace other than the clock’s. Christian Marclay’s film, “The Clock,” however, keeps the minute and hour ever present despite inviting the viewer into the familiar trappings of a black box theater. With cinema as its subject, this 24-hour montage has been called a “masterpiece” of contemporary art, for its ability to function, as its name suggests, as a clock.16 Culled from TV and thousands of movies spanning the last hundred years of the medium, are scenes of watches, clocks, sundials, and people speaking the time in one way or another. When installed, the film is “wound” by pressing play at the correct moment, so that no matter where it is on display it will tell you the correct local time.

Beyond the constant index of clock time, the scenes themselves convey the time of day or night, with scenes of people waking converging around 7:00 am, and a crescendo around 5:00pm of scenes of people ending their workday, for example.  The film, thanks to a remixed sound track as well as the length and sequence of the clips, feels like a movie. Despite the lack of a plot line, it has all the trappings of narrative, motif, climax, and conclusion, and it can be an easy film to escape into, that is until the time appears once again. Eventually, and in some sections more quickly than others, the viewer is reminded of the real time, and a sense of anxious anticipation sets in. “Am I late for something?” “Wow, it’s gotten very late.” Are some of the inner monologues viewers may experience.

While at once being a cliff-notes version of the entire history of cinema, it is also a time capsule, as David Velasco wrote in Artforum. The film is a contradiction: it “is perfectly contemporary,” constantly referring to the present time, yet it is “immediately dated by the latest film it excerpts.”17

anachronistic category
Contemporary art as a category of classification is itself outside of history. The artwork we currently refer to as contemporary will cease being so in a few years, as other, newer contemporary works take their place. So the category is unstable at its foundation: either the contents of the category must be expected to constantly change or the categorical term itself must shift as each new contemporary comes into being.  Returning again to E-flux, and an essay titled, “Torture and Remedy: The end of –isms and the Beginning Hegemony of the Impure,” by Jorg Heiser. In it he wrote the follow about contemporary art:

In any case, rather than evoking the sense (or illusion?)
of something radically new, these post- and neo- or cross-
breed-movements, for better or worse, all seemed to be
about re-investigating the heritage of previous movements
(if seen generously), or about devouring their corpses (if
seen nihilistically). Or is that all a retroactive illusion? Were
the 1960s movements, which were equally concerned with
historical predecessors, maybe more clever in concealing
that fact?18

Within this barrage of questions, Jorg highlights the fact that today’s contemporary artists are no more concerned with a critical retrospect than previous artists were. Returning to the aforementioned essay by Pamela Lee, reiterates this fact as well. In that essay, when referring to the relationship between Smithson, Kubler, cybernetics, and 1960s art, Lee wrote, “We might call this crisis the acutely contemporary phenomena of non-contemporaneity, of not being with the time.”19 This recurrence of out-of-time-ness could lead to two conclusions. First, it could suggest that the artists and artworks of the 1960s are still the dominant model for creative practice today.  Second, it could suggest that the special relationship between Contemporary Art and time is true of all versions of Contemporary Art, no matter when they appear in history. In other words, that being out of time is an essential quality of contemporary art.



© 2011



1. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, “What is Contemporary Art? Issue One” E-Flux, no. 11 (December 2009) [http://e-flux.com/journal/view/96]

2. Giorgio Agamben, “What is Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus?, Stanford, CA” Stanford University Press, 2009, p. 40.

3. Ibid. p. 47.

4. Ibid. p. 49

5. Ibid p. 41.

6. Boris Groys, “Comrades of Time,” e-flux journal no. 11 (December 2009)

7. Matt Leiderstam, from a published conversation with Peggy Phelan in, View, Publ. Minetta Brook, 2004 unpaginated

8. Denise Robinson, “Chapter II: Perfect Day,” published on the official website for Grand Tour, http://www.magasin3.com/v1/exhibitions/grandtour/

9. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962, p. 33

10. Pamela M Lee, “’Ultramoderne’: Or, How George Kubler Stole the Time in Sixties Art,” Grey Room, No 2 (winter 2001), pp. 46-77.

11. Ibid. p. 64

12. Anthony Aveni, “Time’s Empire,” Wilson Quarterly, vol. 22 issue 3 (Summer 1998), p. 44.

13. Ibid.

14. Andrea Zittel, A-Z Time Trials, Note #14 [diary panel], 2000, published in Andrea Zittel: Critical Space, New York, NY: Prestel Verlag, 2005.

15. Nato Thompson, “Contractions of Time: On Social Practice from a Temporal Perspective,” e-flux journal, no. 20 (November 2010).

16. Peter Bradshaw, “Christian Marclay’s The Clock: a masterpiece of our times,” The Guardian [Film Blog], posted April 7, 2011.

17. David Velasco, “Borrowed Time,” Artforum International, vol. 49 no. 6 (February 2011), pp. 200-201.

19. Pamela Lee, “’Ultramoderne’: Or, How George Kubler Stole the Time in Sixties Art, “ Grey Room 2 (winter 2001), p. 49.