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Self-determination By Stella Santacattarina


The second half of this millenium has ushered in a complete decline and fall of the great myths which had seized the imagination of the West, and not of the West alone - the USSR, Cuba, Vietnam, China etc., challenging the concept of the new and of construction. Of the project which, with various ups and downs, had a precise place in the field of the arts, going back as far as the historical avant-gardes, which countered the chaos of the post-war period, and destruction and egoism, with the objective value of rational planning able to rebuild the social edifice and even contribute to the freeing of the subjects. A faith which carried modern art's great dream of changing life on to the level of possible realization, thanks to the contribution of technology.

Today this idea of the new, of a new construction of the artistic self, can no longer be put in these absolute terms, which in their turn implied a sovereignty of the subject, full and guaranteed. In the last ten years, with their complete de- ideologization - which had already begun in the sixties - if we talk of the project, of the new, linked to the self-determination of the artistic self, the term no longer stresses centrality, or fullness, but tells us if anything of temporary, precarious balances, achieved piecemeal and continually lost, amidst external and internal pressures, illusory infrastructures and the objective harshness of reality, the omnipotence of desire and the omnipotence of institutions.

But this decentred subjectivity spoken of by post-modern theorists seems to manifest itself in a vague and diffuse area, in a sort of vacant lot devoid of distinctive features and structures, in the realms of a diffuse aestheticity.

Where in some cases it has reduced the artistic experience to a sort of empty narcissism, which constructs the work with a self-sufficient language, a sort of closed box containing various gimmicks well-expressed in the work 'The Virtual Body' by Catherine Richards. In fact in '85 Lyotard announced that the complete dematerialization of man had already occurred.

This also applied to artistic materials, because we no longer have things in front of our eyes and ears. We have data mediated by machines, which for example pick up messages which we could never receive with the naked eye or ear, then numeralise them and finally give them back to us on screens. Thus there is a weakening of the immediate relation between men and things.

But in recent years art seems oriented, not so much towards dematerialization in the sense referred to by Lyotard, namely in terms of a dissolution of the work of art into a flow of pure information, but rather towards a reinstatement of materials, of the more corporeal phantasms of subjectivity. Artists, as we seem to glimpse in the installations for the Museum of Modern Art Arnhem, are withdrawing from the fascination of the past, countering it with an artistic praxis understood as a rooting in the present and a search for a new sense of purpose: an area which takes shape strategically mid-way between the extreme positions we have alluded to, and the diffuse aesthetic. An area which, it seems to us, shifts the axis of reflection from the aesthetic to the artistic and political pole, faced with the need to look into their being for themselves and their being for the other, which means engaging in a scrutiny of identity and legitimization.

The intentionality inherent in their work undoubtedly gives the project back a role, but it is not governed by the responsibilities of the past. Artists know that they are working in a limited sphere, one which is marginal in relation to the great currents of mass information, but within this sphere they persist in conceiving and realizing a form which above all might have a value for itself, that is, not measured according to the expectations of the consumer and ready for the mise-en-scene. An area which uses various and contradictory languages which take account of contemporary knowledge - scientific, technological and mass media - as we see in the work of Eric Duyckaerts and others.

Thus one's own body, and that of the other, is the means for a possible reconstruction of an individual and cultural identity. If the need to relate to others is implicit in all types of communication, in the works of these artists the body, like the dynamics of language, is present in various images: the body as demystification of emotion in the work of Inez van Lamsweerde, the body as allusion, presence, in the act of seeing. At times physicality appears worn out, there is a transition from the concrete to the metaphor, as though the artist wished to state that the relation with things and people is something physical, while the body is something mental.

There is a tendency to emphasise that the artistic relation goes together with a sense of belonging, to a tradition, a place, a culture, even death; the construction of the work is born of the critical relation with this belonging, as we see in the works of Hale Tenger. There is a return to contents, to the reinstatement of themes linked to society, to the collectivity and the individual, but at the same time this content persists in scrutinising the nature of art, as for example with the suggestion of androgyny present in the work of Claudia Plank and Hans Werner Poschauko.

It seems that an idea of art is emerging where the artistic and the political are connected once again, without excluding a fascination for the symbols of life and for its forms - never random - aimed at constructing an artistic image that is socially and individually motivated.

Stella Santacatterina

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