The Camembert of Time – How to Become “Contemporary”
Amy Gahyun Lee
Apr 30, 2019
In Mike Mills’ 2017 film 20th Century Women, set in beautiful 1970s Santa Barbara, a fifteen-year-old boy, Jamie, describes his 55-year-old single mother, Dorothea: “She smokes Salems because they’re healthier, wears Birkenstocks because she’s contemporary.” Dorothea is surely not a person who led the spirit of the time; Born in the 1920s, she liked watching Casablanca and preferred to listen to Sinatra rather than punk rock, to which most of the young generation at that time, including her son and Abbie (an embodiment of NYC art-funk, who is into “hardcore feminism stuff”) were fanatical about. Regardless of how others may perceive her, Dorothea demonstrates herself as a contemporary character through the relationships she holds with the members of the younger generation in the film. It is through these relationships we find that her thoughts and beliefs have a significant impact on their perspectives of the times.
An Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben once said, “contemporariness is, then, a relationship with time that adheres to it, through a disjunction and anachronism.” In the art world, the term “contemporary” is treated as a sort of paradigm to express not only the current activity and symptoms of art and artists, but also of art after the end of modernism, which is not literally ‘contemporary, but still takes part in forming a sense of “contemporaneity.” In other words, “contemporary” fatefully implies a sense of history, a spirit of the past, along with a sense of continuity. Regardless of when they were physically created, in relation to the present age and in the art world, all artworks, by Agamben’s theory belong inside the boundary of “contemporary.”
Last week, the art world lost Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1924-2019), an Iranian modern artist acclaimed for her geometric patterned cut-glass mosaics, which succeeded traditional Persian mosaic works. By a curious coincidence, eazel Magazine earlier this month published Eric Yoon’s analytical article on the Iranian Revolution and its effects on Iranian contemporary art, focusing on two artists of different generations, Nicky Nodjoumi (b.1942) and Mehdi Farhadian (b.1980). Comparable to Nicky Nodjoumi and Mehdi Farhadian, Farmanfarmaian’s works demonstrated the influence of Iranian culture and its modern and contemporary history. What differentiates her from these two young artists, however, was that she had directly experienced and observed the chaotic circumstances of the Imperial State of Iran (the last imperial family of the country), and was influenced by Western culture through her relationships with New York artists during the 1950s during her stay there.
Nevertheless, we should be careful to avoid categorization; we cannot interpret these three Iranian artists from different generations in the same context, since, aside from their nationality, their visual expression, use of materials and ways of engaging with their national history are very different. As mentioned before, contemporaneity is not a simple status that represents a certain period, but rather an accumulation of different periods and ideas of people who are living in these times. So, even though some may distinguish the time of Farmanfarmaian from the times of the other two by using different interpretations between the modern and contemporary in general, the differences of the three artists, I believe, are also a part of the contemporaneity of Iranian art and reflect the diverse layers woven into today’s Iranian art.
In her book Radical Museology, Claire Bishop states, “the contemporary becomes less a question of periodization or discourse than a method or practice, potentially applicable to all historical periods.” Bishop further asserts that we now need to develop this term and expand our understanding of it. Just as Salvador Dalí’s melting watches in his celebrated 1931 work The Persistence of Memory, the linear interpretation of time is meaningless in discussions of what is “contemporary,” as the past merges into the present,
becoming a part of it. Time never stops, and in actuality, there is no set time for something to be “contemporary.” We are all drifting through the flow of time, and the state of what “contemporary” is continuously modifies.
How do we become contemporary? The question may sound complex and a bit tricky, but I think the answer is rather simple: just be ourselves, and absorb the times that we are living in, just as Dorothea did when she proclaims, “Let’s go out tonight. I’d like to see this modern world.”