"Yesterday Begins Tomorrow," Dec. 2, 2003-Mar. 13, 2004, at the Deste Foundation Centre for Contemporary Art, 8 Omirou Street, Neo Psychico, Athens, Greece
"Yesterday Begins Tomorrow," the current exhibition at the Deste Foundation in Athens, features works from the 1980s by about 25 artists, from Jonathan Borofsky, Clegg & Guttmann and Crash to Peter Schuyff, Meyer Vaisman and Meg Webster. The works -- all from the holdings of Dakis Joannou, the celebrated collector who established the Deste Foundation in 1983 -- were once "hot" but have since fallen out of favor. A nervy proposition for a show, in more ways than one.
According to the organizers of the exhibition, artist Maurizio Cattelan, Manifesta 5 director Massimiliano Gioni and New York curator Ali Subotnick, the idea is to experience the show "as a time-machine, bringing out the past and casting it into new light, emphasizing the instability of taste, as it undermines the hierarchies of art history."
Arguably, the show is not designed to re-evaluate or recuperate the individual artists -- indeed, their identities remain frozen in the past, with no updates included on their careers (which have hardly ended, in many cases). Rather, the enterprise is a more theoretical one -- a chance to see these works almost if they were made anew.
The three curators also collaborated on Charley Magazine 3, which was published last summer [see "Weekend Update," June 30, 2003] to accompany the exhibition, and features an assortment of photos of '80s art taken from period art publications.
Both curatorial efforts provide a succinct lesson on the precarious nature of taste, and how that affects the survival of those cultural products that are too closely related to a specific era. Looking at the works today, however, should reveal their inherent or at least long-term value, and shed some light on the ways that contemporary art could have an enduring legacy in the future.
One element of contemporary art in the 1980s -- the market-ready slickness of "commodity sculpture" -- still resonates today. "Yesterday Begins Tomorrow" is overwhelmed not with rigor and reductivism but rather with art presented ironically as a chic lifestyle pursuit. The smooth lustrous finish of works like Wallace & Donahue's seductive Pool Ladder Painting, Jan Vercruysse's Tombeaux installation and Grenville Davey's Right 3rd & 6th, and the ample use of colored light and movement in Jon Kessler's Arthur P. Finster and the Nemesis of Praxis installation and Cheryl Donegan's Head video, all suggest something far more dynamic than previous art would allow.
The intellectual depth and social concerns expressed in Conceptual Art lives on, however, in compositions that glorify the resonance of ideology via the plastic formation of logo language, notably in Nancy Dwyer's sculpture, Human. The '80s also saw a return to a tortuous kind of representation in graffiti art such as Crash's Dearest.
At the same time, David Robbins' Talent, a series of professional "head shots" of several hot young artists of the '80s, begins to truly come into its own now that two decades have passed since its making. The portfolio of photographs causes us to rate all those pictured in terms of their enduring fame (or lack of it). Indeed, it is ironic that Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Ashley Bickerton, who are still present in the upper ranks of art's production line, appear in Talent but are absent from the show.
The same can be said for the galleries being meticulously painted in Simon Linke's series of Artforum paintings. Here, graphic, archive-like compositions, copied from ad pages in the avant-garde art magazine, juxtapose information (the gallery names, the show titles, the artists' names) with a laboriously painterly surface. The series breathes nostalgia for all those art spaces that have since been shut down, now as empty and lifeless as their visually laconic ads.
"Yesterday Begins Tomorrow" features many works that use deconstructive humor to appeal to the viewer, such as the self-portrait by the Dutch Pop artist Rob Scholte. The artist uses a simple copyright sign as the primary image, while he marks the bottom of the canvas with a tiny portrait of himself, thus reversing the usual hierarchy and toying with the ideology of originality.
At the same time, some works are blatantly irreverent, anticipating the extreme bad taste of the "New British Art" to come. One example would be Mark Stahl's installation Ok, Now Tell Me Where It Hurts. . ., which portrays a giant turd-like fiberglass boulder stuck on the wall above a Kleenex dispenser, in the manner of a 3-D Gilbert & George. Similarly, Pruitt & Early's The Sculpture for Teenage Boys presents a cornucopia of booze in the company of a pneumatic hard-board blonde.
The contemporary art of the '80s, then, was glamorous, sensuous, funny and sexy. It reflected a society ruled by a continuous influx of fast-changing fragments of information. In the '80s, the feeling that everything has already become an image first became widespread. For the viewers, the sense of familiarity when encountering the works of art two decades later is indeed similar to seeing an old friend, as the curators have most appropriately mentioned.
The Deste Foundation exhibition center, which was opened in 1998, is currently planning "Monument to Now," an exhibition of new art from the Joannou collection to coincide with the 2004 Olympic games in Athens. As for Charley Magazine (which is also sponsored by Deste), the fourth issue is due out in May, and focuses on the most important museum art collections around the world.
FAYE CAMPBELL-TZANETOULAKOU is an art historian and curator working in London and Athens.