Saturday, February 23, 2019

Contemporary Art through the Lens of Time and Emotion - Rachel Tung

According to NYU’s Department of Art and Art Professions, contemporary art is “part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family community, and nationality.” It addresses issues that are relevant to today’s society and the people who are part of it. By addressing these issues through oil paint or sculpture or film, contemporary art provides a focal point around which conversation and reflection can take place.

Based on NYU’s definition of contemporary art, it makes sense that contemporary art is often framed by a time period. I feel that today’s society is especially open about discussing issues related to culture, politics, and identity. Art is another lens or medium through which to hold these discussions and open new conversations. And because these discussions are often sparked by an artist’s story and the audience’s feelings in relation to the artist’s story, contemporary art ends up being very contingent on the human experience. Contemporary art thus has the ability to connect people in a way that is more intimate than other forms of art.

Like many people, my initial understanding of contemporary art was in terms of time; I defined it as art made by artists living today. Through further interaction with contemporary art, I have come to define it in terms of emotion as well. Contemporary art seems to rely on the viewer and his or her background in order to create a uniquely subjective experience. When I think about my own interactions with contemporary art, I have felt uncomfortable at times, and nostalgic at others. Studying abroad last semester gave me the opportunity to think more about contemporary art, as our class took trips to many museums, in Denmark and in The Netherlands.

One vivid memory of a contemporary art exhibit was at the Aros art museum in Aarhus. I cannot remember the name of the artist, but I remember how uncomfortable I felt walking through his exhibit. There were some gruesome pieces, such as sculptures of heads in torture devices and a bloody massacre scene with skeletons and small green army men whose limbs had been torn off. There were also seemingly-harmless pieces like a still-life of a fruit basket, but that, upon leaning in, would reveal Hitler’s signature at the bottom right corner. The exhibit seemed to be a commentary on the immoral, dark side of humanity and the future that would be inevitable if we lost sight of our responsibility to uphold our moral values as individuals and as a species.

On the other hand, there were also exhibits that sparked more positive emotions, such as gratitude and reassurance. At the top of the Aros museum was a rainbow panorama, through which visitors could walk and view the city from above. The glass panels gradually changed from red to orange, blue to violet, painting the city with all the colors of the rainbow. The artist, Olafur Eliasson, described his work as “a space that can almost be said to erase the boundary between inside and outside...this uncertainty is important to me, as it encourages people to think and sense beyond the limits within which they are accustomed.” I was grateful to look at the entire city through a symbol often associated with happiness and hope. Seeing how different the same place could look from different points of view reminded me of the importance of perspective. But more simply, it just felt nice to walk through the panorama and appreciate the beauty of the thing itself. The feelings of gratitude, self-reflection, and contentment as I moved through the panorama stood in distinct contrast to the disturbing discomfort I felt walking through the more gruesome exhibit from before.

I think this range of emotions is what differentiates contemporary art from its predecessors. It has the ability to touch and generate emotions that are so deeply a part of the human experience.


Aros: Your rainbow panorama. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2019, from

NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2019, from

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