Allegories of the Present: Contemporary Art for the Indian Context

Allegories of the Present: Contemporary Art for the Indian Context

This article discusses the phenomenon of contemporary art which is a bearer of the present and lacks definition. It can only be understood obliquely through various forms, mediums and discourses, through which it is presented, mediated and evaluated—contemporary art is experienced, not defined. Therefore, the purpose of this article is threefold—first, to describe the phenomenon and forms in which contemporary art is embedded; second, to articulate what it means to be contemporary in India; and third, to discuss the works of Archana Hande and Suresh Kumar, two Indian artists who engage with the contemporary not as a mimesis of dominant forms of our time, but as artists who are on top of their circumstances.

 

Art has taken a contemporary turn. The contemporary, which signifies temporal existence, has become a conceptual and stylistic category to designate art as practised in the present, substituting the modern and the postmodern. As a concept, the contemporary lacks significance and as a style even less so, since there are so many varied art practices and combinations of mediums within the contemporary, it has become nearly impossible to delineate what contemporary art is. Consequently, anything, as long as it is done by any individual considered as an artist, or consecrated by an art institution, passes off as art. However, idiomatically contemporary art is still modern, but without the philosophical and historical particularity that informed the artists a hundred years back. 

The modern artists were the first to appropriate and assert one of the philosophical principles of modernity—autonomy of the self. The notion of autonomy is now extended to appropriation, that is, an artist can appropriate anything from anywhere and incorporate it into their work without cultural specificity, therefore, contemporary art, in general, looks similar and grapples with analogous ideas, whether it is created by artists in Shanghai, New York or Lima. Likewise, what is seen in Kochi is similar to what is shown in London.  Undoubtedly, contemporary art reflects the neo-liberal impulse to impart an identical experience across geographies and flatten all differences. It erases all material and conceptual markers of cultural specificity that are rooted in the environment and historical experiences of people in favour of sameness. Moreover, rapid production, circulation and consumption and the instantaneity of its access are eliminating the need for artists to experiment over an extended period of time and arrive at maturity of style or ideas, which accord a unique signature to them. Artists are becoming like designers, creating rapid prototypes and outsourcing production. 

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