Purple Magazine
— The 30YRS Issue #38 F/W 2022

avant-garde (part 27)


What is the contemporary? This is close to the question: what is contemporary art? But it is complicated by the fact that we use the term “contemporary” to define a period of art that begins after World War II and extends to the present.

“I would like at this point to propose a definition of contemporariness: the contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience the contemporary, are obscure.” (Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, Stanford University Press, 2011)

The contemporary is not the art of the present, nor the latest art. Rather, the contemporary is what art produces: a new, unprecedented, astonishing “time,” which is precisely not a repetition of the present, even though it can have an “obscure” relationship with it. It is instead the production of a caesura in the present. This fracture in the present time gives access to time itself. Not all art produces these fractures and opens up these different times.

Not all artists are up to it. The production of a different time within the present is therefore the work of the artistic avant-gardes — either those who proclaimed themselves as such from the 1860s to the 1990s, or the new avant-gardes that Purple has stood up for since the early 1990s and that, in my book with Donatien Grau, I called “an avant-garde without avant-garde” (Une avant-garde sans avant-garde, Les Presses du Réel, 2017). An avant-garde refusing to be categorized as such.

The artistic fracturing of the present allows a regained proximity to the non historical origins of time: “Contemporariness inscribes itself in the present by marking it above all as archaic. Only those who perceive the indices and signatures of the archaic within that which is most modern and recent can be contemporary. Archaic means close to the arkheˉ, that is to say, the origin. But the origin is not only situated in a chronological past: it is contemporary with historical becoming and does not cease to operate within it, just as the embryo continues to be active in the tissues of the mature organism, and the child in the psychic life of the adult. Both this distancing and nearness, which define contemporariness, have their foundation in this proximity to the origin that nowhere pulses with more force than in the present.” (Giorgio Agamben, Nudities)

The contemporary opens up a world or counterworld of new possibilities that is the origin of a new time, a freshness, an enthusiasm for participating in our time. It creates the sense that the present belongs to us at last, that “we are contemporary.” We are not powerless, behind-the-times, manipulated; we are present to ourselves. That is the meaning of today’s new avant-garde. And that is the feeling that we must give to the readers of a magazine like Purple.

— olivier zahm


[Table of contents]

The 30YRS Issue #38 F/W 2022

Table of contents

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