Working with non-traditional media has become somehow commonplace for artists today. Media, which had no place in art before, are now widely used, in myriads of different ways, that one wonders how much of it is a meaningful experiment, as opposed to simple posturing. Only a historical perspective can help us determine whether this is a sign of progress or regression. In the West, the use of non-art media in modern art began with Cubism and Dadaism. Materials such as newspaper and rope were first utilized by Cubist and Dadaist artists in collages. Since then, there have been various experiments with conceptual terms related to this practice becoming coined.
The term “collage” appeared before World War I, popularized by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, while the term “photomontage” became widely known at the end of World War I. In 1915, Marcel Duchamp coined the term “readymade.” Meanwhile, André Breton came up with a similar term “objet trouvé (found object),” toward the end of the surrealist movement. Prior to this, Breton used the term “objet-fantôme” in 1931, which did not catch on.
In 1919, Kurt Schwitters invented the term “merz,” which was derived from the word “commerz (commerce),” to refer to all Dadaist experiments globally. “Assemblage,” a term originally used to mean the blending of wine, became an art term during the 1950s, after Jean Dubuffet, who used to be a wine merchant, called his painting series “Assemblages d'empreintes.” As for the term “factography,” it was coined in 1929 by members of the Russian avant-garde, inspired by the “literature of fact” contributions for the journal [LEF].
At the end of World War II, when the American-style Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture spread to Europe, “bricolage,” the French word meaning “DIY,” was widely used in the Neo-Dada context, both as a creative and a critical term. In 1954, Robert Rauschenberg, then a young Neo-Dada artist, invented the term “combine” to describe a series of works combining aspects of painting and sculpture, created using objets and collage techniques. In 1967, Rauschenberg established Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) and launched a movement for fusing art with technology. He is besides considered one of the precursors of the new media art of the 1990s and post-media art of the 2000s. However, what played the most decisive roles in the formation of contemporary art remain as “mimesis” and “appropriation.”
No matter what their stated position is, most neo avant-garde artists subscribe to the Adornoian mimesis, which is, in other words, “assimilation of the self to the other.” The epistemology characteristic of postwar critical theories, in which the self is assimilated to the other (the other not just as the other person but also as things and matter)—as exemplified by the subject exploring the possibility of coexistence with otherness through “non-sacrificial non-identity,” a notion Adorno came up with to defend introspective modernism, which is commonly observed in experimental art of this period. For example, when Lee Ufan claimed that he laid a trap toward epistemological transcendence by arranging an encounter between a rusted sheet of steel, a manmade object, and a rock, a natural object and found object, this is a variation on Adornoian mimesis, even if there is an added flavor of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics. Although American Pictures Generation artists attempted to recontextualize reality through appropriation and accumulate subversiveness in the domain of otherness, when they created a mimetic visual order critical and in protest of the capitalist world order, whether through installation or multimedia art, what they appropriated merely served as props for staging an “introspective/deconstructive subject exploring ways of coexistence with the other.”
In Korea, the practice of appropriation was first attempted in 1987–1988. In 1987, when the group Museum was formed (Lee Bul, CHOI Jeonghwa, Hong Sungmin, Ko Nack-Bum, JUNG Seung, Noh Gyeongae, and Myeong Hyegyeong), its members revived multimedia-based experiments of the late 1960s to the early- to mid-1970s by adding a new twist. This experimental movement, whose birth coincided with the burgeoning of globalization, soon co-opted many of the themes of the globalization age to great effect.
However, Bahc Mo/Bahc Yiso (Bahc Cheolho) far surpassed the members of the museum in terms of legacy and influence on later generations of artists. His early works from the period when he was active under the alias “BAHC Mo,” were mostly joke paintings, realized using non-art media (such as rice or oil drums) by borrowing the rhetoric of installation art. The key themes were cultural identity and the uselessness of painting. During his period under the alias “BAHC Yiso,” he used lumber posts, plywood boards, and industrial lighting to create “installation pieces, which lay bare recurrent misconceptions in the contemporary art scene and expose and satirize the impossibility of communication” by thus, playing the role of a devil’s advocate of a sort.
As for Haegue Yang, who started to produce various ingenious works in the early to mid-2000s, she is particularly noted for the sensitive landscape she created in her 2006 installation in an abandoned house (at 30, Sa-dong, Incheon) which was once her maternal grandmother’s home and is now full of debris and fragments with a rich subtext. It was immediately after this work that Yang moved on to a new non-monumental sculpture phase, involving the use of non-art media. While the site-specific quality of her early works has somewhat faded, these non-monumental sculptures are showing the various historical dimensions of art exhibit reference modernity.
What Yang attempts to visualize is the kind of feelings and perceptions that are difficult to articulate through words. To explain further, Yang seems to understand contemporary art as a process of partition and redistribution of the sensible a la Jacques Rancière. This is because, through theatrical sculpture-installation works imbued with referential modernity, the artist attempts to stage the reconstruction of sensuous experiences.
In “Unfolding Experiences: Haegue Yang and Sculpture Today” (2015), Nicolas Bourriaud described Yang as an outstanding sculptor on par with Gabriel Orozco, drawing on the critical reasoning of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who praised Orozco, saying that, unlike such artists as Isa Genzken or Rachel Harris who have “yielded without resistance to the universal destruction of object experience,” he insists on inscribing “a dialectics of nature and culture.” Following similar reasoning, Bourriaud states that Yang has developed the formal logic of her art into one that rests on “the relationship between subject and object and between being and things, rather than nature/culture contrast.”
However, what distinguishes Yang from Isa Genzken, in terms of methodology, is mostly her referential interest in and critical look at the history of art, and the fact that she creates non-monumental sculptures with an animist undertone, using vernacular materials and visual languages.
Bourriaud also thought that Yang liberated himself from the main disadvantage of contemporary art in the neoliberalist era, i.e. the issue of art ultimately being subsumed by the “homogenization principle of commercialization.” However, Genzken and Yang have both constantly turned to theatrical transformation in order to stage an escape from the principle. In other words, towards their later works, they couldn’t help but magnify the theatrical aspects of their works or deploy their works as actors to forge critical estrangement from the principle, which was a dilemma on their part.
〈Boxing Ballet〉 was a result of aggressive adaptation to such a dilemma. This work, produced to actively establish a new definition for the 21st–century gallery space no longer definable as a “white cube,” refers to Bauhaus and its failure. The artist, who reinterpreted the figures in Oskar Schlemmer’s 〈Triadic Ballet〉 in the form of sound sculptures, readdresses the spiral motion as something symbolic of historical progress.
It would be a pity if the pinnacle of accomplishment reached by the artists, who experimented with site-specificity with “expansion towards non-artistic materials” or “expansion and diversification of media” as their major premise and found their new outlet to be a-monumental sculptures, turns out merely to be their own martyr-heroic ego. Are their non-egotistical materials ultimately being used as tools to conjure emotional empathy in the audience or to romanticize their egos? In the industrialized art world, would contemporary art of inconsequential name value never be able to go down in history?
One thing is for certain: The phenomenon of deeming non-artistic material as exclusive to certain artists is an obvious regression, only serving to idolize a new artistic icon.
Art&Design History and Theory Researcher