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Images of the Past | Reflection and Retrospection in Contemporary Art

Project leader:
Eva Kernbauer (IKW)

Funded by:
Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) | APART Austrian Programme for Advanced Research and Technology

Eva Kernbauer, Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies
Duration: 1.4.2011 – 30.12.2012

Since the early 1990s the interest in the depiction of events of political, economic and cultural history in the visual arts has increased remarkably - despite numerous predictions of historical oblivion and an ongoing disintegration of history. Artists have contributed to this phenomenon in the "classic" media conveying the past, such as video and film, with many critically accepted instances of reflections on historic events, their mediation and procession.

Radiant people in white robes clapping, beaming and looking up.
Yael Bartana, Mur i Wieża (Wall and Tower) , 2009, Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam

The interrelation between visuality and historicity has become one of the central topoi in contemporary art, touching upon fundamental issues in art theory, Bildwissenschaften and visual culture regarding the significance and the impact of images. Examinations of history in the visual arts can be understood as metaphors for a critical discussion of visual representation just as well as as metaphors for the historicity of images or the visuality of history. This chiasm goes beyond a mere aphorism, as suggested by recent reflections on the spectacularization of contemporary society and contemporary image politics.Instead of an ongoing ontologization of social ascriptions to images, an analysis of the specific techniques and practices that actually lend meaning to images is needed.

Photo of a jetty with four people, two of them in swimming trunks. On the left there is a slide into the water. White clouds are in the otherwise blue sky.
Deimantas Narkevičius, Energy Lithuania , 2000, Courtesy Deimantas Narkevičius and gb agency, Paris

The project sets in at this point of discussion by asking how critical and reflective approaches can be correlated to the wish for re-positioned, new, "alternative" forms of historical narration and documentation, also questioning if and how art can actually claim a specific critical authority regarding images and visuality in contemporary society. This involves a process of revaluation, which no longer entails pigeonholing artistic practices as avant-garde spearheads or in a critical distance to society, but rather insists on their historicity and their function of retrospection.

Legs, feet and partly naked upper bodies around a burning ball.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Primitive, 2009, Courtesy Kick the Machine Films, Bangkok, Photography by Chaisiri Jiwarangsan