Conceptual art was a leading artistic trend in culture of 1960s – 1970s. It was based on the idea of supremacy of conception over methods of its production. The artist is perceived not as creator of an artistic piece, but an “idea man”. Philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, nature, all forms of existence inspire new ideas that could be captured in all possible ways and art methods (through video, texts, objects or performances). American philosopher and musician Henry Flint is credited to introduce the term conceptual art – that was the title of his essay, published in 1961 in a book An Anthology of Chance Operations co-edited by Jackson Mac Low and La Monte Young.
Conceptualism became an international movement, represented both in literature and visual art. Its peculiarities and unconventional approach that run counter to the ingrained habits often led to being misunderstood and rejected by viewers. The rules of conceptual art don’t rely on direct perception and don’t appeal to our emotions, distancing from common aesthetical categories and appraisals.
Roughly saying, Conceptual art merges two process in one integral: creation and exploration of creativity. Following such vector, conceptualistic pieces can get quaint and unpredictable form – of photographs, reproductions, diagrams, texts, schemes, prints, telegrams and other objects without functional purpose. They embody reality as a free interpretation of familiar things, an artistic gesture without certain plastic form. Many conceptual works are demonstrated in the surrounding they usually belong too – on the streets, roads, parks, mountains or forests, fields and sea shores, for instance. The usage of natural unprocessed materials (soil, grass, snow, ash etc.) in such projects is also not very rare.
Conceptual art is concentrated on the project, creative idea as it is. It can be expressed through a draft or documentation, words or photo. The whole process is organized around fixation of the artist’s thought, manifestation of intellect and reasoning, in which a viewer is unconsciously involved.
Language or, to be more precise, linguistic problematic, is rendered in conceptualism in quite a paradox forms. The texts (that are often the largest or the only part of works) serve primary for identifying borders of language and limiting its claims for supremacy. That’s why along with rational and analytical beginnings, conceptualism orientates on those forms of perception that can’t be expressed verbally. So, the paradox shapes up – can art reject from language form of existence if it accepts it? Language is the crucial frame of European culture’s existence, so obsessive reference to analytical and scientific forms of thinking and accurately imitated logic and rationality as well as the predominance of purely textual pieces, can beseen as one of the gestures that distance and resist the prevalence of language.
A huge role in conceptual aesthetics is played by such categories as “unknown”, “undefined”, “nothing”. In one of his speeches, Robert Barry noted that he preferred applying objects he knew nothing about, trying to include something other people probably didn’t think of – emptiness that turns image into non-image. He believed “nothing” to be the most impressive subject in the world.
One of the main targets of conceptual artists was surpassing the limits of cognized. “Void” in visual (as any material form in projects was typical) and semantic meanings works was commonplace for conceptualism. Pieces like Secret Painting by Mel Ramsden or a telegram sent by Robert Rauschenberg as a work for an exhibition of portraits in the Galerie Iris Clert ‑ it said “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” It’s the mepty spaces of exhibition halls, where Robert Barry “demonstrates” various kinds of energy. In all cases, conceptual pieces create a gap between events and a sort of pause in the motion through time; their only content is the process of contemplation of phenomenon of perception of anything. Hence through such intervals in the flow of information our mind absorbs, the artist’s consciousness is directed inside itself.
Orientation of conceptualism on demonstration of permanently eluding, ephemeral forms, often without any plastic concreteness, make them similar to ironic statements. However, unlike irony of Romanticism, conceptualists are free from necessity to depict physical reality. They leave a viewer face-to-face with uncertainty and prompt him or her to formulate the answer based exclusively on his or her personal experience. In other words, they are forced to listen only to themselves, ignoring given from the outside logic of language.
Conceptualism, as well as minimalism, flourished in the second half of the 70s years of the 20th cent. One of its prominent representatives of American Joseph Kosuth, who replaced the physical object (or placed near it) its encyclopedic definition. He depicted “art”, “chair”, “cup” and other words this way. One and Three Chairs (1965) was made of a manufactured chair, its photography and definition from a dictionary. The artist asks, which of those three chairs is the true one – the object itself, its depiction or its description? Masters used to show objects and their images before, but not their idea.
Another famous conceptualist is Christo Javacheff. He chooses plain things for his pieces – boxes, tins, etc., which he wrappes in paper or textile. Gradually he switched to larger objects, like buildings ( for instance, Reichstag in Berlin). By covering and hiding things he adds mysteriousness and attractiveness to them. Such works can’t be commercial, since it’s impossible to sell them or take money for looking at them. Christo claims nobody can be the owner of is owrks, even he himself. Art is freedom, which is the enemy of the proprietor. Proprietor, as a symbol of constancy, is opposite to temporariness of Christo’s projects.
Moscow conceptualism is a bright phenomenon of the movement. Their works are often a gestures, hints at the possibility of art. The important part of it is aimless game. Game – is merely an active life that conforms the fact of human existence. The same way “art as idea” is just a product of human’s life.
Major followers of conceptualism in Moscow are Andrey Monastirsky, Rimma and Valery Golovin, Ilya Kabakov, Collective action group and TOTART.
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