OVER THIS PAST YEAR I had
two little epiphanies. The first came on a January night a few weeks after the
opening of the new
Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect of the new MOMA, is a master of such light construction, and Terry Riley, chief curator of architecture there, is a great advocate.
Riley (who has announced his departure from MOMA next March) thinks such transparency is true both to the precepts of modernist design and to the virtuality of the digital world, and so perfect for the museum today. But there is a contradiction here, or rather the collapse of one. Modernist transparency purported to be about structural clarity, not light effects, yet the new MOMA evokes a dematerialized minimalism: a sublimation of material and technique, not an exposure; a fetishization of substance and structure, not a defetishization—in short, the near opposite of what “modernism” and “Minimalism” once meant. In a sense, abstraction stall rules, but It is not the White on White of Malevich; it is closer to the “new vision” of Moholy, a vision of transparency driven by the transformable media of the machine age, only here It is updated as the cyberaesthetic of high finance. Give me enough money, Taniguchi told the MOMA trustees In an oft-repeated remark, “and I’ll make the architecture disappear.” But of course it doesn’t disappear; ultrarefined, it permeates everything, and its rarefaction is everywhere. Such is the MOMA effect: a sublimation that is at once aesthetic, architectural, and financial. Stumbling across the new Modern that night, and crossed it with the old Moholy Image, began to clarify for me what that might be about.
So much for epiphany one. (It wasn’t a visionary year.) Epiphany two occurred six months later at another bastion of art, the Venice Biennale. For all the babel of work on view, I was struck by one idiom held in common—a bricolage of advanced and archaic images and objects. Often archival, with its practitioners drawn to marginal figures and outmoded forms, this ethnopoetic way of working is associated with artists from David Hammons and Jimmie Durham to Gabriel Orozco and Rirkrit Tiravanija. But other artists prominent today also work in this mode: Thomas Hirschhorn, Pierre Huyghe, Stan Douglas, Sam Durant, Matthew Buckingham…In two pieces in Venice this archival gaze was turned on two moments within European modernity already touched with archaism: In a large Installation William Kentridge looked back to one origin of cinema in Georges Méliès and created, in homage, his own fantastic Journey to the Moon, while in a discreet film Tacita Dean meditated on the stranded status of the Palast der Republik, the old seat of the GDR government in Berlin, which is scheduled for demolition.
This Orphean mode is now
familiar enough, so what was the epiphany? Here again It came in the form of a
double exposure. In some ways, this mixing of advanced and archaic means, of
new and outmoded media, is distinctive to contemporary art. Yet in other ways,
it runs back to the early years of the twentieth century, when modernists were
also seized by a fierce dynamic of technological transformation, Imperial
conquest, and social upheaval, and responded with varieties of futurism,
primitivism, and constructivism. Then some artists struggled to respond to
modernization, and some do so again today, only in a far more penetrative
register of media, empire, and market that is already naturalized as
“globalization.” A problematic version of this encounter, at
What do these two little epiphanies add up to? Only this: The different ends of this or that aspect of modernism or modernity that many of us proclaimed, rightly or wrongly, over the last three decades might have blinded us, at least in part, to one narrative, perhaps the grandest of all, that continues unabated, even unabashed: the narrative of modernization. What might count as a dialectical engagement, critical yet non-nostalgic, resistant yet utopian, with its most important manifestations today? Neither a new “new vision,” I league, nor old-school practices that pretend nothing has changed. In the new year I hope some artists will point a way forward.
Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor and Chair of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004)