Tumultuous, expansive, inspirational - the past 10 years have had their ups and downs. How have contemporary artists reacted to the news of the day?
Art's relationship to its time is inherently complex. No matter what the particular subject at hand - be it social upheaval, the environment, mass media, or identity - today's art is layered with influences, sources and ideas. Loathe to be pinned down, contemporary artists serve no master, religion or propaganda, as they most often did in past centuries. Positioning themselves on the very edge of expression, the artists presented here pose questions and create new forms that open up ways of thinking and viewing the world.
--Wesley Miller, Associate Curator, Art21
"[W]e had any number of declassified documents transcribed, and we showed them on LEDs so that the writing would stream by like more bad news than one can bear." —Jenny Holzer
"[We] found handprints of dead people... I turn these handprints into paintings with apologies to the dead...I move to make them as precise, as clear, as possible." —Jenny Holzer
"We wanted some paintings to be pretty enough that you would want to walk up to them and see the terrible things that have transpired in Guantanamo or Afghanistan. " —Jenny Holzer
"It's not like one violent thing happens…and it will never happen again. You know it will happen again... I'm more in a witness position now...A kind of removed witness." —Laylah Ali
"I think when people say the word 'violence,' oftentimes we think of the violent 'act.' ...We understand or read violent acts through the characters and the figures." —Laylah Ali
"I was zeroing in on [the torture of Central and South American women political prisoners], investigating as a woman the condition of women." —Nancy Spero
"[The image] shows [Masha Bruskina] and…victims of the Gestapo. They were not tried—just as…with our prisoners in Guantanamo. I have been so moved by that..." —Nancy Spero
"A mirror is...the perfect articulation of the narcissism of our society... And so, in a way, this piece asks, 'How do we make art in the world, the way it is now?'" —Alfredo Jaar
"This...is based on a Chinese poem…that Mao used [to ask] Chinese intellectuals to critique the Revolution... They were imprisoned, tortured...a few were killed."—Alfredo Jaar
"I have to look at historical events and work with whatever material is given to me. I don't work based on imagination or fiction." —Doris Salcedo
"...a large portion of the population [is] excluded from civil rights...almost socially dead...What does it mean to be alive and not be able to participate?" —Doris Salcedo
"[Years] after [the photo] was taken…[I sensed] a resemblance between that picture and the terrible picture of the person being abused with the wires at Abu Ghraib." —Robert Adams
"I am deeply disturbed that the only thing we want to...get concerned about is something [quantifiable]... [Things] most important to us cannot be measured..." —Robert Adams
"[There is] an appropriation of other people's distress [in being an artist]...which I hope...redeems the activity from one of simple exploitation and abuse." —William Kentridge
"[Hours of] studying those heads and painting them...becomes a compassionate act even though...[the artist uses] other people's pain as raw material..." —William Kentridge
"Guantanamo Bay's climate is different than Afghanistan. To be in an 8-by-8 cell in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not inhumane treatment.” —Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense. FRONTLINE: The Torture Question (2005)
Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo Bay. Waterboarding. Geneva Conventions. The subject of torture leads quickly to an examination of morality, civic responsibility, and issues of representation. Artists this past decade have grappled with creating and exhibiting works that tackle unspeakable acts of human violence.
Artists featured in this slideshow:
Jenny Holzer (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 4, Episode: Protest)
Jenny Holzer’s silk-screened paintings of declassified government memoranda detail prisoner abuse.
Laylah Ali (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 3, Episode: Power)
Laylah Ali’s interest in socio-political issues and current events informs her work, though her finished paintings rarely reveal specific references.
Nancy Spero (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 4, Episode: Protest)
Towards the end of her life, Nancy Spero returned to themes she first explored in the 1970s, finding uncanny similarities with events and works made over a quarter century later.
Alfredo Jaar (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 4, Episode: Protest)
Alfredo Jaar treats violence as a moment for self-examination.
Doris Salcedo (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 5, Episode: Compassion)
Doris Salcedo interviews victims of violence to anchor her time-intensive and often ephemeral installations.
Robert Adams (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 4, Episode: Ecology)
Robert Adams sees images from the news in a clear-cut hillside.
William Kentridge (Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 5, Episode: Compassion; William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible)
William Kentridge proposes that artists can address the worst instances of human abuse without promoting suffering.
Images (in order of appearance): Jenny Holzer; WHITE, 2006; Nichia white LED's mounted on PCB with aluminum housing, 192 1/4 x 216 5/8 x 5 3/8 inches; Installation view: Cheim & Read, New York; © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Jenny Holzer; BIG HANDS YELLOW WHITE, 2006; Oil on linen, installation view: Cheim & Read, New York; © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Jenny Holzer; WISH LIST BLACK, detail, 2006; Oil on linen; 16 panels, 33 x 408 inches; © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Laylah Ali; Untitled, 2000; Gouache on paper, 13 x 19 inches; Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York. Laylah Ali; Untitled, 2000; Gouache on paper, 8 x 14 inches; Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York. Nancy Spero; Torture of Women, detail (Panel 10), 1976; Handprinting and typewriter collage on paper, 14 panels totaling 1 2/3 x 125 feet; Photo by David Reynolds; © Nancy Spero, courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York. Nancy Spero; Masha Bruskina / Gestapo Victim, 1994; Handprinting and printed collage on paper, 19 x 26 inches; Photo by David Reynolds; © Nancy Spero, courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York. Alfredo Jaar; Infinite Cell, 2004; Iron bars, painted wood, mirrors; 145 5/8 x 177 1/8 x 102 3/8 inches; © Alfredo Jaar, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York. Alfredo Jaar; Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom, 2005; Zinc platform, 25 zinc containers, nine compact axial fans, air conditioning system, irrigation system, lighting system, 100 flowers, earth, video projection; Platform: 26 1/4 x 26 1/4 feet; Video: 9 minutes; Installation view: Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma; © Alfredo Jaar, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York. Doris Salcedo; Installation at 8th International Istanbul Biennial, 2003; Photo by Muammer Yanmaz; © Doris Salcedo; Courtesy the Alexander and Bonin, New York. Doris Salcedo; Neither, 2004; Painted drywall and metal, 194 1/2 x 291 1/4 x 590 1/2 inches; Collection of Inhotim Centro de Arte Contemporânea, Minas Gerais, Brazil; Photo by Stephen White; © Doris Salcedo; Courtesy the Alexander and Bonin, New York. Robert Adams; A second growth stump on top of a first growth stump, Coos County, Oregon, 1999-2003; From the series Turning Back; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches; © Robert Adams. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. Robert Adams; Stacking the de-limbed trunks of an immature 'harvest,' Columbia County, Oregon, 1999-2003; From the series Turning Back; Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches; © Robert Adams; Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York. William Kentridge; Blue Head, 1993-98; Etching and aquatint with two hand-painted plates on Velin Arches Blanc paper, 47 1/4 x 36 11/50 inches; Edition of 35; © William Kentridge. Courtesy of the artist. William Kentridge; Casspirs Full of Love, 1989-2000; Copper drypoint and engraving on Velin Arches Crème paper, 65 3/4 x 37 inches; © William Kentridge; Courtesy of the artist.