Like the cardinal points of a contemporary compass the Celeste Art Prize focuses on international public access, but with the wider intention of creating an open and equal participation through the medium of internet submission. This year the 2009 prizes for painting, photography, sculpture and installation, and video, cover a wide remit of distant places and differing intercontinental expressions. Not surprisingly with a contemporary heterogeneity born of the end of traditional forms of modernism, and the large scale abandonment of deterministic teleological narratives, assessing such final submissions was not never easy for a jury in today's aesthetically-charged and differentiated global world. Different places sing different songs, and there is no uniformity of expression or agreed criteria. The jury which forms the pre-selection of forty finalists, and who thereafter adjudge themselves as regards the actual individual winners in each of the five sections, has tried to be inclusive of a wide variety of discursive ideas and practices. At the same time the complexity of administrative accomplishment that brings a large variety of contemporary artistic ideas and viewpoints together, needs also to be acknowledged and congratulated for the Celeste Prize's final realisation.
It is a obvious misnomer to assume that the judged outcome of an art prize is one of a totally harmonious agreement. As is always the case when judging as a small group of jurors there have had to be compromises and assimilations of differing aesthetic points of view. The immediate sensibility of a European understanding of contemporary art is not always consonant with that in Asia, or other parts of the world for that matter. Making a virtue out of difference is, however, a primary and necessary characteristic of how the Celeste Prize project has been made to work successfully. Within the jury's chosen forty works, and thereafter leaving the final decision as to each individual section winner to the participant artists themselves, what is created is the possibility of the finalists actually meeting together while bringing a personal interactive and cross-fertilising aspect to the Prize's eventual outcome.
The Celeste submissions of contemporary painting for 2009 are, perhaps, the most thematically diverse section, while still remaining predominantly figurative in their choice of pictorial contents. At times they emphasise a distinct subject matter through either an understated or oblique social juxtaposition, while in other instances they make direct or explicit critical judgements. In one example called Village Women/Bulgari sari-clad Indian village women and their families are shown passing the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, their lives set in contrast to its designer-emporia of luxury consumption illustrated in the hotel shop windows behind them. Conversely, in another more extreme painting called Wake Up* a decollated child's head is depicted as it emerges from the detritus of a rubbish dump. Both works stress and critique in their markedly different ways the rapid changes and displacement from rural to urban, local to global, and at the same time reveal the extreme commercialisation and disregard for human life found in the vast new migrant cities of the emerging world.
If overtly political references form one pole of expression in some of the chosen final paintings, alternatives are offered through metaphors of the commonplace and everyday as subject matter. These can take the form of still lives of simply observed things like Turbiner 21, through to an ironic minimal type reference to a landscape called simply Landscape, and made abstract by the fact that it is envisioned through an opaque grid-like window. Another witty idea is a painting called Gallery Desk, and is of the interior of a commercial gallery where some works are wrapped or turned to the wall. Is it the interlude between exhibitions or an ironic parody of the art world and the current economics of recession? If this is a deliberate critique of the contemporary commercialisation of art, it is taken further whereby discourses of high and low are evoked and similarly parodied. Icons of purportedly 'high art' painting, as in Rubens's Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (c. 1618), are debunked through a painted appearance on a T-shirted male body in a painting called The Moved Values. Hence within the selection issues of fantasy as in Rebirth, speculative psychology Enter the Psychiatrist, stylised landscapes as in In Casa, politics and parody as in Palestinian Graffiti Takes a Flight, all find expressions in their different ways in this year's jury choices. The outcome is both creative and revealing insomuch as the works expose, perhaps, something of the diversity of concerns that operate within painting practices of the contemporary moment.
The photographic finalists example how close and interactive the nature of photography and painting have become today, be it either in terms of scale and/or painterly composition. Including genres of townscape, still lives, portraits and digital graphics, the section opens up a wide set of associative ideas within the expanding boundaries of photography. The initial idea of the excised moment which has been always been essential to the photograph, has now been extended into a range of expression of far greater complexity. A striking characteristic of many of the finalists is that of investigating a sense of visual repetition and difference. Hence rather than the memorialisation of a moment or simply capturing forms of personal recollection, many of the finalist photographic images tend towards abstraction, as in "8 Years of Popping Off in Texas" - Where Good Times Go to Die..., where an eight year accumulation of spent firecracker shells form a colour field photograph, or in another instance One Hundred Degrees 1 where a single child figure stands against a wall that effects an abstract painterly backdrop within the photograph. These may be contrasted in other respects directly to an aerial townscape Architectural Misfits (Alpenstadt) that looks strangely like a Richter painting, and whereby it reverses the photography to painting discourse set up by the German master.
Conversely, another photographic approach suggests sexual irony. That is where Crystal City is an ensemble of crystal objects with a libidinal twist, and present themselves as fusing Eastern and Western stereotypes of sexual innuendo. The play of glass and its transparency only furthering their sense of an oblique and fragile status. In JumpinJackFlash a pile of vinyl LP's shot on a black ground not only suggests their former now obsolescent technology, and generalist notions of synaesthesia – a transposed sensory modality – but takes on a symbolic columnar and associative status of an actual thing-in-itself. There are examples of experiments in phenomenological spatial elasticity as in the Finnish photographer's work called simply Interior, which in turn stand in contrast to War and Peace, a wall graphics derived from famous iconic high art and popular cultural logo sources. Conversely, the portrait finalists evoke either peer group typologies or family metaphors, as in Monsieur et Madame Vieille à la plage, while also challenging certain specific paradigms of emotional identity, as in Your Name, or self and otherness as in the Indian portrait called Bideshi Photostudio / Ferdosi 8 years.
Turning to the sculpture and installation section the choices have fallen upon in large measure works that are either performance interactive and/or collaborative, as in Good Times Are Over – Performance. Also measured in terms of performance based sculpture there are the internally operative works that have direct transgressive viewer involvement, as in For the Love of Losers which requires throwing things at a photograph of the famous diamond skull by Damian Hirst. The submitted finalists reflect a strong and specific tendency that not only engages the public, but intervenes specifically and manipulates the displaced aesthetics of public space, as in the Aesop Studio work called Quintetto, where five vertical tanks incorporate goldfish, light, sound and music. Less conceptual than earlier years a strong sense of object making has also returned into contemporary practice. The figurative minimal is also predicated as the use of text is fused with object-based tower elements as in New Babel Tower, a sculpture that can also be reconfigured and thus re-conceptualised. The fact that it is vertical contradicts the generally horizontal forms of minimalism, particularly those of Roni Horn, which the work seems to both homage and parody in equal measure. Alternatively, a series of miniature model tunnels (including their graffiti) and called just Tunnel, have been cast in concrete to suggest an ironic and deliberately futile sense of genre typology. Another use of parody, perhaps, on the recent obsession with sculptural model-making, objects which are then subsequently photographed before being destroyed. Here the displacement has been made fully concrete.
A counter current of sorts is represented by a series of plastic sculptures called MetamorPHOSis, installed as a forest, and whose sense of the ephemeral finds an echo in another installation of a floor-based field or buttons installation La recette de l'amour fou (Krankung), not unrelated to floor-based ideas found in the works of the late Félix Gonzalez-Torres. At the same time an artist group of room installations and motion-graphic specialists have created 2te Halbzeit, a somewhat extraordinary LED of a World Cup football match from 2006 (Netherlands v. Portugal), where the experiences are reduced to audio and technological graphics substituting for the familiar television image. The work conjures up a sense of all the real excitement of a football game, while at the same time critiquing and subverting many aspects of an increasingly excessive Sport's media commercialisation. Patterns of commercialisation and repetition also inform another graphic-based wallpaper installation called Exponential pattern, a work that explicitly critiques American and world hypocrisy as regards current climate and environmental undertakings. The American Capitol building intersects powers stations and with oil pipelines in one wallpaper, while when stripped underneath an older more environmentally positive wallpaper pattern emerges. And ecology is also evoked in the work called The Guide, where a living pile of leaves and other organic debris literally breath and moves in front of your eyes.
The video section for Celeste 2009 has been particularly fertile and rich in producing diverse ideas. In what appears in a simple self-reflexive self and other video, an ironic but extremely witty Irishman meditates on the existential meaning of life while sitting on the toilet pan in the pose of Rodin's The Thinker. This immediate image could be said to find its technological polarity in a complex LoopLoop work using as many a 1000 sequence images that assimilate while layering film speed, and the detailed internalities of time, place, and memory. The technological and the conceptual therefore form as it were the dominant countercurrents within the video submissions. These are also mediated by exceptional stop motion animations, where for example Laika (the first Russian dog is space) match boxes and their contents humorously dance about and express (on a blue ground) all the space flight and urban cultural references of the current age. Alternatively, another type of humour is also presented by a 3-D key frame animation called Fat-tastico, where a magician-illusionist and his assistant do something of a comedy turn.
The use of drawing and black and white in the video section has also been particularly interesting this year. In the 2-D animated film work – homage to the pop group's Extrawelt – Im Garten von Eben – while it obviously sends up the idea of the Garden of Eden by using factories and industrial power plant settings, it still retains an open and honest rhythmic charm that plays around with the clarity of minimal sound as it connects itself to the functional clarity of industrial architecture. As a counterpoint the traditional drawing oriented Abelianas, despite its somewhat obtuse biblical references, is an extraordinary accomplishment of drawn crayon, or charcoal elements, cast into motion while evoking strong and emotionally pathetic associations. A minimal if somewhat whimsical tone is also created by the video Greensleeves, where an ice cream and hot dog van is caught up in a traffic jam, and whose namesake jingleare plays only at those moments of the van's sporadic movements. And, minimalism and repetition also inform the video Peel, a grid-based ninety-six screen (screens within the screen) work of two sequential woman undertaking the domestic task of preparing a meal. As a result the effect both formally and subject-wise intimately inform one another.
The compendium compilations of the social or the anecdotal also expressed by the final two video finalists. The motion graphics of the work Capital, is an ambiguous double pun on both Capitalism and Marxism, perhaps, since the artist is from Belarus. The work collages together an extraordinary array of visual sources of eclecticism reflecting popular taste, kitsch, and the sheer diversity of modern consumption. Literally a modern Babylon where religion, left-to-right wing political populism, and the social, fall into line and are nothing more than just another commercial consumer product to be assimilated and digested. Or, in another example where apparent collaged narratives of coincidence are played as anecdotes in a Spanish work called Anecdotari. històries singulars. One never quite knows whether the anecdotal stories being told are true or mere fictions, or that the premise that objects have a life of their own and can master our fate is intended to be taken seriously. The work therefore reflects a common human desire or wish to believe in a directed or mis-directed meaning behind historical coincidences.
There can never be a complete unity of enterprise in an open internet submission art prize structure such as that instigated by the Celeste project, and in any case that is hardly its intention. The jury has as result responded by including many different voices of presentation. What does emerge, however, is not so much conflicting dissonance as celebratory sense of difference. It is surely this sense of international difference that is most rewarding as to the contemporary moment. What the selection reveals is that kettles metaphorically speaking boil at different speeds in different places. There is no telos or unifying practice as was once dreamed of by the utopian modernist enterprise, no definitive moment of origin imagined direction as such. What the global world reveals is that circularity (like the globe itself) is more significant than a forced linearity. It is for this reason we can speak of this year's contents as operating somewhere between heaven and earth.
* note on the painting Wake Up by Tommaso Neri:
The increasingly disrespecting attitudes of modern man to human life in general are reflected in this work. We give lip service to human rights and then do little or nothing about them. Thousands, as in Slumdog Millionaire make their living derived from the rubbish dumps of our emerging cities and urban spaces. Hence the point to be made is not the specific, i.e., the Israeli bombing of Gaza, which is the source. Even though we all know it was horrific, but that for today's urban poor life has become day to day a living rubbish dump. The fact that the image is specifically derived is no matter as it is a painting and not a photograph (though taken from one), it could just as easily have been a painting from the Chinese or Pakistan earthquake events of recent years. It simply, affords itself as a mirror of the general brutality at work in the modern world where the daily existence of life seems to be valued less and less. In this respect it is no different from the violent academic war paintings of the Napoleonic age two hundred years ago, which similarly show brutal violence or guillotine victims (Gericault, Baron Gros, David et al). Crude it is, but so is the world in which we live,and in this respect it constitutes a sort of modern history painting, accreting to itself all the direct language of photography, but with a distant intensification as is possible in a painting.
©Mark Gisbourne (juror)