Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

The Contemporary… what, whence, whither?

“I think we have a misunderstanding about what something that is contemporary can be, and needs to be … Anything that’s forward-looking has to look backwards.” (Julie Mehretu)


Steve Latham


I read this in an article in the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, which I found my doctor’s waiting room.

The ‘contemporary’ refers, however, also an epoch, a periodization of history, what Raymond Williams called ‘structures of feeling’, as well as individual artworks.

Normally, we think of the ‘contemporary’ as up to date, of the moment, con-temporary, with the (present) time.

So, it is about ‘now’, a ‘now’ conveying the future; maybe the future breaking into the present, something new, fresh, original.

The cutting edge, the leading edge. But this is the cutting edge of the past, moving forward, incising into the present, creating an open space for this future to take shape.

The ‘contemporary’ is a knife, a jagged edge (a film, starring Jeff Bridges, that I could hardly watch, it was so tense), the sharp cut of the past, and its movement in time.

So it is always untidy, messy, unclear; and also destructive, disintegrating, dissolving. The present is slashed wide open in the contemporary.

We can switch the metaphor from knives to waves, but retaining the note of removal, reduction, subtraction.

The ‘contemporary’ is the wave of the past crashing on the shore of the present, eroding its substance, opening up the possibilities for the future to emerge from the process.

This is the littoral zone, the half-way, inbetween, area of the tidal ebb and flow. In this intermediate belt, distinct life-forms exist.

These creatures, fish or plants, are only exposed as the water recedes, and covered up as it advances.

In this region, which we interpret temporally, not just spatially, as an era, many strange forms emerge, which live only in this transient, waxing and waning environment.

Similarly, in the ‘contemporary’, unusual experiments take place, out of place, but in precisely this place, and this time.

As Margaret-Anne Hutton writes, in The Contemporary Condition, the contemporary therefore embodies a multitude of temporalities, ways of being, all simultaneous.

There is no redutionism a single denominator, model, or characteristic. Instead, the contemporary embraces whatever is at this moment, in all its variety and variation.

But this is also ephemeral, a ferment. Nothing is long-lasting, because the tempo, the beat, moves on.

However, like Sonny and Cher’s hit song, “The beat goes on” (have a listen on Youtube), amidst the change, the rhythm continues, through all the creativity and innovation of ideas and art.

The contemporary is the foam on the tide. And tide may give the impression of an unremitting repetition, an unending process of replication.

But there is nevertheless a movement forwards. Although the contemporary regurgitates, reworks, reinterprets, the creations of the past, it does so, in ever new ways.

As Gilles Deleuze wrote, each repetition subtly modifies what it has inherited. The to-and-fro of tidal movement masks the longterm rising of the littoral along the shoreline of imminence.

(Photos: Pixabay)

Share it / Compartir:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *