The first decade of the 21st century was a period of rapid growth in the contemporary art world, and, for a small but highly visible group of artists, this helped to facilitate the production of technically complex art works with high budgets and production values. Running counter to this, however, are other artists who have embraced simple processes and espoused a decidedly humble aesthetic of improvised forms and at-hand materials.
The recycling and repurposing of commonplace objects, sometimes rescued from the rubbish heap, is a recurring strategy seen in the ‘21st Century’ exhibition, reflecting a world awash in commodities and waste. As art historian Terry Smith has commented in the exhibition publication, many artists ‘are especially sensitive to the fact that commoditised objects can quickly lose their lustre, becoming artefacts of what feels more and more like a culture declining into decadence’.
Easily obtained and inexpensive materials such as plastic bags, fabric, cardboard boxes, pandanus fibre and carbon paper are employed for their physical properties as well as for their connections to personal and cultural histories. Seemingly out of step with a world saturated by virtual streams of data and images, these art works present us with the evidence of actions and the labour of putting things together.
They bring us back to a physical world of simple things and are surprisingly adept vehicles for addressing the complexity, speed and contradictions of contemporary life.