Why we're all looking at artefacts as inscrutable, quasimagical things

Read J.J. Charlesworth's column, from the November 2013 issue

For a while now, the metropolitan artworld
 has been excited by a new way of thinking about artefacts, objects and things, one that treats them as if they possessed a sort of existential autonomy, independent of us mere humans.


Go to an opening and it’s hard to avoid one
 or other breathless ‘research-based’ curator engaging you in a conversation about the new philosophical discourses of ‘object-oriented ontology’ and ‘speculative realism’, while inviting you to their latest show in which artificial intelligence algorithms and/or ecological processes offer a postanthropocentric vision 
of reality. OK, maybe you can avoid them. But only just. And only by backing away hurriedly, thus knocking over the display stand of colourful books published by Zero.

Distinctions that once demarcated art from decorative art and ethnography, and the artist from the amateur no longer retain any importance

Even in the provinces – you’d think they’d 
be immune from metropolitan art vogues 
– I  can’t avoid the growing fashion for viewing artefacts as inscrutable, quasimagical things. It’s Friday and I’m at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, which has just opened 
a show called Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia.

While Masterpieces... is superficially about the history of artistic production in the east of England – presenting artefacts dating back 
to pre-Roman Britain alongside what we might understand as more recognisably fine art and decorative art objects from the last 500 years
– even here, the extreme historical range and diversity of these artefacts imposes on everything a strangely ethnographic aura, emphasising a sense of their otherness and detachment.

The next day, I’m at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, to catch one of the legs of Mark Leckey’s remarkable touring exhibition The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, 
in which Leckey contrasts premodern and sacred artefacts with primitive art, primitivist Modernism and instances of postmodern technological delirium – a hand-shaped medieval reliquary next to a high-tech bionic hand prosthesis, for example – to suggest a world in which objects have become ‘reenchanted’ in a strange new age of ‘techno-animism’.

According to Leckey’s notes, ‘the status of objects is changing, and we are once again in thrall to an enchanted world full of transformations and correspondences, 
a wonderful instability between things animate and inanimate, animal and human, mental
 and material’.

'we are in thrall to 
a wonderful instability between things animate and inanimate, animal and human, mental
 and material’

What connects such different shows – one an accessibly conservative celebration of regional creativity, the other a sizzling experiment of artist-curating – is the common fascination with artefacts such that the traditional distinctions that once demarcated art from decorative art,
 art from ethnography and the artist from the amateur no longer retain any importance.

That’s perhaps also why one finds the curatorial conceit of the wunderkammer, the ‘cabinet of curiosity’, in so many places right now: elsewhere in the regions this summer, you could have found Brian Dillon’s neo-wunderkammer show Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing at Margate’s Turner Contemporary; while at the highest level, the international artworld cheered on Massimiliano Gioni’s pulse-fingering edition of the Venice Biennale, in which outsider artists, amateurs and schizophrenic ‘visionaries’ were piled in with ‘professional’ contemporary artists.

Gioni’s biennial rhetoric was also studded with talk of ‘blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders’, and of a world experienced as ‘dreams, hallucinations and visions’, in which we find ourselves ‘possessed by images’.

Madness, amateurism and, crucially, the fetishisation of things that are not the product of an increasingly self-conscious and institutionalised artworld – there’s a kind of logic that connects these trends. It has something to do with a weakening sense of the value and purpose of human creativity, as well as the human capacity for critical reflection and
 action – and the artworld’s 
growing worry that its activities 
have no capacity to effect any 
kind of real change.

Fascination,
 wonder, intoxication, delirium
– these are terms that imply
 a happy resignation to not 
knowing, nor ever being able 
to know, faced with a world, as
 Gioni would have it, made up of a ‘constant flood of information’. It’s not our fault, 
there’s just too much stuff...

The rise of objects in artworld debate, as mysterious, animistic, autonomous or whatever, is the flipside
 of a declining belief in the human capacity 
for knowledge, historical undestanding and subjective action. As subjects become more passive, objects become more active. Like an artworld cargo-cult, we’re starting to see things – artefacts, commodities – as independent
of us, imbued with their own life: washed up
on our shores not to be questioned, criticised 
or changed, but maybe only to be worshipped...

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.