Magazine article Tate Etc.

Yes, but, or Maybe, or Perhaps, or Probably

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Yes, but, or Maybe, or Perhaps, or Probably

Article excerpt

While art is by its very nature ambiguous in its interpretation, post-Second World War culture led to a radical change in the way reality was constructed, broadcast and disseminated. As a result, artists -from Andy Warhol to Yael Bartana and Yan Pei-Ming - would question this reality in their exploration of social, political and sexual identity

Ambiguity relies on uncertainty. All art is uncertain in that it has no definite meaning, and one person's interpretation can vary wildly from another. What seems apparent at a glance, or on the surface, can hide or mask something else entirely.

Uncertainty relies on ambivalence: the inability to decide one way or the other, or the existence of conflicting feelings or opinions. To be living is to be uncertain. Particularly today, where contemporary life is a drive to be everything and have everything, all at once.

Within this constant struggle of uncertainty, more extreme versions of ambiguity generally occur at the margins; the in-between bits of society, where the uncertainty or ambivalence is so extreme that roles, ideologies or beliefs swap back and forth, passing for one another in a tussle of intense adoration and critique. As such, the artwork that addresses this feeling, state or situation often deals with forms of identification, be they social, political or sexual. To complicate matters, much of this work also lies in an area of ''in-between" or liminal state, where it is uncertain if it is art or real life. Although art cannot exist outside of real life regardless of its mimetic role. Writer Susan Sontag stated in Against Interpretation that since Plato "considered ordinary material things as themselves mimetic objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed would be only an 'imitation of an imitation"'. So even the real is, perhaps, unreal.

Ambiguity in art is not a new thing, nor is the consideration of the real -one could trace a lineage of ambiguity within art over the past four centuries. However, the advent of television and advertising in the burgeoning capitalist economy of the 1950s and 1960s led to a radical shift in the way reality was constructed, performed, broadcast and disseminated. This provided inspiration for Pop Art, a movement that thrived on ambiguity by using the imagery and language of advertising as both a critique and celebration of the pleasures and pitfalls of consumer life. It also enabled some artists to address political or social issues. For example, in 1972 Andy Warhol made a Vote McGovern screen print poster for the Democrats' election campaign depicting Richard Nixon, his Republican opponent. Warhol also played with sexual ambivalence, creating the Polaroid SelfPortrait In Drag in 1980. With a full face of white powder, false eyelashes and red lipstick, he stares into the camera like a startled animal. In fact, the way he lived his life could be considered an artwork in itself - he carefully crafted every aspect of his persona, fashioning a product where everything was surface, but nothing ''real''.

Second-wave feminism and the radical politics of the late 1960s led to a series of exercises in ambiguity and ambivalence through performance and activist works. Cosey Fanni Tutti lived as a porn star as an artwork in an attempt to critique the "performed" reality of the "job" through "over-identification" - a concept of subversion via assuming the identity of the subject being explored that was developed by the Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj 2izek. In 1979 Sanja Ivekovic created Sweet Violence, in which she sat on her balcony in Zagreb drinking whisky and pretended to masturbate while a motorcade carrying Marshal Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, passed below. Within minutes a policeman - alerted by a colleague on a nearby rooftop-called on the building's intercom and interrupted her demonstration of personal freedom. In 1983 the multimedia group Laibach, part of the collective Neue Slowenische Kunst, took part in a television interview in Slovenia on the political programme TV Tednik, entitling their performance Trial By Television. …

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