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Same Old Story?

19 October 2013

For the second year in a row Regent’s Park has split into two artistic camps: Frieze London marshals the world’s top contemporary art dealers, while Frieze Masters nearby gathers a host of historical works (both until 20 October). The dual displays and an accompanying series of talks underline an increasingly common curatorial tactic of pitching old and new art together (or against each other), that James Cahill explored in depth in Apollo’s October issue:

If the past is a foreign country, then the sprawling kingdom that is contemporary art has been busy annexing it in recent times. This summer saw Michael Landy, the erstwhile Young British Artist, unveil a roomful of effigies of saints at the National Gallery in London, based on paintings by Cranach, Crivelli and other Renaissance masters. Titled ‘Saints Alive’ (until 24 November), his kinetic sculptures are the latest in a series of ‘reanimations’ of historical works. Last year, Grayson Perry set his signature ceramic pots amid an assortment of unattributed artefacts at the British Museum. ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, staged collaboratively between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet, centred on three British artists’ reinterpretations of Titian’s mythological paintings in the form of new works and stage designs for ballets. The past, it seems, is everywhere – colonised by, or perhaps colonising, the art of today.

Was it always thus? Undoubtedly, historical art is no longer the anathema that it represented for many contemporary artists during the 1990s – at least in Britain. Discussing his residency at the National Gallery (the three-year tenure which gave rise to ‘Saints Alive’), Landy confesses: ‘I thought this place had nothing to do with my practice when I was a student. I just didn’t think it had any relevance.’ Certain of his Goldsmiths College peers were more abrasive in their antipathy. In 1996, the academic John Roberts summed up the spirit of the age as one of ‘fuck-you attitudinising’ in relation to traditions and orthodoxies; writing in The Guardian in 2012, Will Self recalled that he admired the Goldsmiths generation in their heady heyday precisely because of ‘their conscious rejection of all codified styles and modes.’

But that 1990s cult of newness, under-girded by a ‘philistine’ rejection of history, is easy to overstate. A heretical act such as the Chapman brothers’ defacements of Goya in 2003 paradoxically revealed the way in which art history has continually, and indelibly, impinged on the here-and-now. Even desecration betokens a pugnacious engagement; rejection entails a perverse kind of embrace. There is nothing new, moreover, about art which either affronts or affirms the art of the past.

Where there has been a discernible shift is at a curatorial level. ‘Dialogues’ with the past, based on the juxtaposition of new and old works, have proliferated both in museums and commercial contexts. This autumn sees the second instalment of Frieze Masters (17–20 October), running in parallel with London’s Frieze Art Fair and devoted to art before the year 2000 – anything from a polychrome sculpture of Christ to multi-coloured mobiles by Alexander Calder, from gothic gargoyles to Sol LeWitt latticework. In one respect this is a welcome, if belated, answer to the broad temporary span of fairs such as Maastricht. But Frieze’s impresarios are also reflecting a broader trend in curatorship, an impetus to set new art against that of the recent and distant pasts.

You can read the full article in the current issue of Apollo.

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