In any moment, it’s nearly impossible to locate or isolate shifts, changes in tendencies, whether social, aesthetic, or otherwise—banal critical statement of the year, certainly. But, as we’ve probed several times within this very publication and surely as others have as well, for Berlin’s (and the art world’s at large) current state of flux, of non-identity and non-identification, perhaps such a naming is needed. For Robin van den Akker, Timotheus Vermeulen, and gallerist Tanja Wagner, that name is Metamodernism.
“When I was looking for artists for my program, I was seeing a lot of new tendencies and sensibilities in terms of artists really wanting to have a dialogue again,” says Wagner, “they want to engage again, but not in a dry conceptual way. These artists want affect again, they want to talk about love, which I thought was almost not possible.” One cannot deny Wagner’s observations. Hypothetically viewing a Koons or a Hirst next to works in “Discussing Metamodernism,” an exhibition component to this Metamodern moniker at her gallery, would result in nothing short of polar opposition.
Certainly these newer works are rooted in a postmodern landscape. But its tectonic plates have shifted with time, allowing what could be qualified as an almost modernist or neo-romantic sensibility to ooze up from the cracks. “I think it emerges partly from the variety of crises that we’re in,” says Vermeulen, “[the] geopolitical crisis and the economical crisis are affecting us. People from my generation always thought that we’d have better lives than our parents, and now we are realising that it’s possible that we won’t.” Strangely however, when such generational disappointment could easily lead to an utterly postmodern response of “fuck it, we’ll fail anyhow,” the metamodern sensibility is quite the opposite. Out of loss in art, politics, bottom lines or otherwise, has come a resurgent hopefulness, or, even at times when the outlook isn’t hopeful at all, a willingness to try.
What Vermeulen and Akker have located theoretically and Wagner practically, is that through forcible purging of postmodern, and for that matter, postwar trajectories, artists and citizens have found the need to break from them entirely and subsequently the freedom that such a break allows. As Vermeulen says, “We need to do something, we need to find a way in order to get ahead, to get better, to do something new. Postmodernism is completely engrained in us, yet it doesn’t mean that we cannot try to reclaim or claim anew some territory and some space for the arts as something that might get us somewhere else.” The ambiguity in Vermeulen’s speech comes not by way of conceptual gaps in this framework but rather as a result of the perceived movement’s suffusion in ambiguity itself: we are ironic, but want to love; we are earnest, but know earnestness may never get us anywhere. “What happens with these artists is that for a moment, they put on this sort of sincerity or earnestness, and it’s just suspending irony. They know it’s there, but for a moment they say “I love you,” or for a moment they will say “this is real,” explains Vermeulen. “The irony is there, but they’re suspending it, they’re not negating it. It’s part of us, we can’t go without irony, and I think we shouldn’t go without irony, because it’s so important as a sort of holding in check, as a keeping us from becoming modern fanatics, to have this irony still very much there.”
But it’s not all just talk and abstract theoretical positions. Talk itself rises directly from the work itself. “We saw it everywhere,” says Vermeulen. Within “Discussing Metamodernism” as well, distinct notions of something new and different are abound. Šejla Kamerić’s Ballot Box, a hulking, polished sand-coloured marble form, which sits on a black marble pedestal is utterly postmodern in its construction and the ironic dissonance of its presentation. Yet something doesn’t fit with the postmodern ideal. It looks as if it might invite participation, a hopeful ovation at democratic or popular movements, whether the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, or the protest surrounding the Russian Elections. The piece itself takes the stance of the latter’s reality. Its ballot slit is merely a façade, leading nowhere but the centimetre or two of its depth. “We still think: democracy, that’s the way to go, we’re voting, there’s an opinion. But is there really? These are the questions that we must ask again and try to debate and have a dialogue,” says Wagner.
No work more essentially grabs this focus on debate than Annabel Dao’s sound and video piece, What Side are you on?. What began at an artist talk in Wagner’s gallery sprouted into a transcontinental quest of Dao asking strangers nonchalantly and non-confrontationally, “What side are you on?” While some answers are rather canned (e.g. The 99%), others stray more profoundly, all leading up to the final response, “What side are you on?” For Wagner, “to have this dialogue, to me that’s the most important thing, that you really start talking again, that you want to engage and that you’re asking questions. Is there even one answer, or does there have to be one answer? Maybe not, but still we’re trying to take sides.”
That responsibility extends pasts the artists themselves says Wagner: “I wanted to open up a dialogue… I have the platform, I have the possibility, even though it’s a small one and I’m starting off, I have something. I try to engage and try to find a way to debate, to have a dialogue.” It’s a precarious space for a commercial gallery to place itself in. While gallery programs may at one time have been cut down formal or movement-specific lines, the postmodern commercial mindset has been vastly more of money over message. However, Wagner sees this too as changing: “A lot of people ask me, ‘You’re so engaged, shouldn’t you be more concerned about commercial whatever?’ But I think maybe because of the times, collectors and other curators are also interested in showing or building up a collection with interesting works.”
Don’t get it wrong, Akkers, Vermeulen and Wagner don’t see themselves in a Greenbergian, authoritarian light. “We know it’s a ridiculously grand gesture,” says Vermeulen, “Especially in postmodern times many people think, ‘Ah well, what arrogant pricks who think that they can come up with something else,’ but I think it’s necessary that we all do this, that we try to make these enormous gestures again.” But it’s not just up to the three of them, or even the host of contributors to the Notes on Metamodernism webzine that’s sprung up. “It’s very much an open source project. We can all chip in and try to map out what’s going on. People are feeling that something is changing but they’re always too late to get a hold of it.” There’s a sense that Vermeulen, like any good thinker knows that this conceptual framework must, too, follow its prescribed path. Hopeful and teaming with energy now, it will likely fail, just as other attempts have before it. But, perhaps that’s the most metamodernist gesture of all.
“Discussing Metamodernism” is at Tanja Wagner Gallery through April 21. A discussion will be held with Robin van Akker and Tim Vermeulen on Saturday, March 31.
by Alexander Forbes
[Image: Installation views, “Discussing Metamodernism” at Tanja Wagner Gallery]