What is Contemporary Art?

Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 2015

Is the nature of artistic and aesthetic realization and interpretation of art by the artist and the viewer connected to the time of the artwork’s creation? Is the only criterion for art to be contemporary is being produced at the present time or is contemporaneity a more complex aesthetic state?

Art historian, Terry Smith (2006) in his essay “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity”[i] explains that, “the term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.” The temporal and spatial duality of state and location of contemporaneity testifies to its fluid nature. The common definition of contemporary is, “happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time and marked by characteristics of the present period.” And contemporaneity is “the quality or state of being contemporaneous or contemporary.”[ii] This definition suggests a lively, dynamic and vibrant state of becoming and happening.

Smith (2006) also adds, “Contemporaneity consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them. He explains that the “acts of artists and the organizations that sustain them” produce the answer to what constitutes contemporary art.”

Another definition suggests that “Contemporary art is the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organizing principle, ideology, or ‘ism.’ Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.“[iii]

In regard to contemporary Iranian art, art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan (2011) in his essay “Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran” explains, “contemporary Iranian art, which on the one hand draws heavily on the Euro- American paradigm and, on the other, has selectively adapted existing art forms, is structurally heterogeneous. In the process of this adaptation, like Iranian culture as a whole, it has incorporated elements of Euro-American contemporary art while seeking to create the phenomenon of a localized contemporaneity. This alternative context of contemporaneity is obviously a response to canonical discourses and ideally, in turn, inscribes new discursive formations in the contemporary era. It was most probably by the 1990s that Iranian art witnessed a gradual change, departing from the frame of the newly emerging, post- revolutionary artistic Modernism, and incorporating new viewpoints of existing actualities. As with contemporaneity, the impetus for this came, in part, from the international arena and also from circumstances within, where the need to register reality in a transitional era in all its shifting forms became compelling.” [iv]

[i] Smith, T. (2006) Contemporary art and contemporaneity. Critical Inquiry, 32. Retrieved from: http://arts.rpi.edu/century/eao11/contemporary-terrysmith.pdf

[ii] Merriam-Webster.com

[iii] New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

[iv] Keshmirshekan, H. (2011). Contemporary or specific: the dichotomous desires in the art of early twenty-first century Iran. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 4, (1), pp. 44-71.

Artwork by Nazgol Ansarnia

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Recovering the Past: “Letters” of Shadi Yousefian

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | November 22, 2013

We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverably for ourselves and for others.”
– Goethe

In her recent exhibition at Shirin Gallery NY[i], Shadi Yousefian has created a visual narrative of recovering her personal letters and restoring what was destined to be lost.

Yousefian moved to the United States in 1995 when she was sixteen and until 1997 kept up a constant correspondence through handwritten letters with her family members and close friends. Ten years later she re-examined thick packages of letters that she had affectionately stored and realized that many of the events and details of the letters were not familiar to her anymore. She recalls: “The content of my correspondence were so deeply layered within hundreds of overlapping pages that their temporality remains an unordered flow- I could not remember what happened when, even as my own sense of identity and belonging has, in part, taken form through in the affective exchange.”

Yousefian’s act of recovery started when she reformatted the contents and form of the letters and gave a new life to them. By redacting, cutting, staining, gluing, nailing, and punching holes, she developed a ritualistic process which assigned a new meaning to her accumulated personal documents. To understand this process one must not only view all works on display in relationship to each other and experience the whole gestalt but also search for connections and meanings of each work within itself.

In her first attempts Yousefian cautiously deconstructed the letters by punching, cutting and nailing photocopies and later with more confidence she used the actual letters, still hesitant to interrupt their content, words and sentences. Gradually she detached herself from the content and concentrated on form.  Long strips of paper glued on top of each other become small squares or circles meticulously nailed and positioned in grids.

Yousefian chose to start working on the letters of family and friends first and later she moved on to her own letters[ii]. She explains the emotional and aesthetic divide between her own letters and the other letters:  “Where my friends’ letters were mostly impassioned and joyful, my own reflected the sadness and strain of my early years in the United States. I manifested this melancholic distance by presenting my own letters bare and unstained, where I animated those from friends by staining their pages with the wine and tea we once shared.

It seems that Yousefian has tried to give the emotional voices of the letters a unified and rational form in order to sort out her own feelings and thoughts about them. For example in Untitled (above images), nails hold down fragments of letters that are cut in shape of small squares.  Each squared specimen reveals a portion of a larger written content. In different handwritings, legible or illegible, rushed or controlled, pieces of various emotions are on display and the viewers can verbally and visually connect them together: “Hello…I am writing…I remember…congratulations…night…kiss…call me…joy…1377…try…I hope…life…photo…I laughed…I am sure…gradually…think…help…talk…”

Within this cohesive composition there is a tension between the materials and content. Colors of the papers, untouched or stained, are in natural tones of green, blue, sienna, ivory and white which are tranquil and quite yet they seem to move on the surface of the piece.  Although the organic handwritten lines of letters are interrupted by cutting and pining and then neatly positioned in a mechanical grid, each square preserves its character and holds one or few words, which transfer a message or trigger a feeling.

Rows and rows of nine hundred nails compose a visual sound. One can imagine the loud and repetitive action which can also be meditative and centering when Yousefian was hammering them down. This rhythm also flows in the colors, shapes and patterns that are reminiscent of traditional Iranian tile and brick works in Shiraz and Isfahan.

In her exhibition Shadi Yousefian shares her thoughts and creative process by walking us through her rituals of realization (finding and re-reading the letters), selection (choosing specific parts of the letters), detachment (cutting the letters), manipulation (making something new with the letters), and reflection (re-examining the letters in a new format). She explains: “… ‘Letters,’ effects an intimate, indexical relation between my past and present; and shapes the intangible mesh of lives entwined across a distance into an architecture of lived experiences.”

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013

Above images. Shadi Yousefian, Untitled, 2011, 48 in x 48 in, Mixed Media. (Full image and detail)

Also see http://www.shadiyousefian.com


[i] Shirin Gallery NY http://www.shiringalleryny.com. Shadi Yousefian’s “Letters” will be on view from October 24 to November 28, 2013.

[ii] Yousefian asked her family and friends to send back her letters.