At first glance, it could be said that assemblage is a three-dimensional alternative to collage – a technique of composing a work of art by pasting on a surface various materials not normally associated with one another (as defined by an online dictionary). The term was first introduced to the art world by the “outsider” artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1950s, but there were lots of examples of this technique earlier in the past, some of which are quite easy to recognize, and some lie hidden beneath the veil of history. These include early works by Pablo Picasso and other representatives of Cubism, whose approach to assembling goes beyond the surface of an image, or the volume of a body, since the entire philosophy of cubism relies on fragmentation. Still, the genesis of assemblage owes a lot to the introduction of a ready-made, which made it possible for everyday objects to participate in the creation of art projects, once again pointing to Marcel Duchamp, the father of art as we know it today. But what role does assemblage play now, in the Post-Internet era? How can we define assemblage today?
Assemblage is both the process and the product of art-making, referring to an act of putting various fragments together, in order to compose a piece. Ever since the term was introduced, it had a slightly "grungy" feel to it, since the process often involved the use of discarded objects, found objects, remnants or scraps. However, the ability to anticipate a composition made out of seemingly redundant or incompatible elements seems like a precious talent, which is not really grungy at all. These random objects come together in an inexplicable harmony, creating a coherent composite image, while usually being quite meaningless individually. This essence of assemblages is reminiscent of syntax relations, analogous to syllables, words and sentences, which comes as a good opportunity to consider why assemblage is a term often used in linguistics as well. In linguistics, an assemblage is "built primarily and explicitly from existing texts to solve a writing or communication problem in a new context". Contemporary philosophy deals with the term quite thoroughly, but we don't have to go that far to find the analogy between a mix of "existing texts", and a mix of existing stuff, which is what assemblage in art could be.
We could choose to observe this definition quite literally, and a line of historical examples helps us do so (considering some of the defining works from the second half of the 20th century, such as those of Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Mike Kelley, Meret Oppenheim). Even though most of today's art seems to linger somewhere in between all the genres, the "classical" examples of assemblage in contemporary art still exist. Selected items are arranged into various spatial systems, some of which work with the senses of a viewer on an abstract level, some seem to tell stories through their symbolic meaning, and some construct figurative images. We could go one step further with this, and consider assemblage the same way that linguists do, comparing it to the concept of a remix in music (which is something that has already been done by Nicholas Bourriaud in Post-Prodction). The moment assemblage stops being reduced to the use of discarded, meaningless fragments only, it becomes a type of appropriation. It adopts, or takes over the existing pieces, possibly even some artworks, which often lose their original notion in the process, and acquire new meanings within the newly established contexts. This means that a lot of today's artworks, ones which are sometimes accused of being abusive of the work of others, could be regarded as forms of contemporary assemblage, or collage. If you want to find examples, you could start with Matty Mo (The Most Famous Artist) - although he, himself, refers to these artworks as "art objects". In addition, most of these contemporary art "remixes" are covered by the veil of the Internet, which makes most things more accessible, but somehow less personal.
Whichever of the overlapping definitions we choose, assemblage could be understood through its relations to other mediums, and hence to itself. The distinction from collage should be clear, but there is another medium likely to cause confusion: How can we, really, tell the difference between assemblage and sculpture today? Sculpture is no longer a medium constrained by what it used to be hundreds and thousands of years ago (molding and carving), and assemblage is quite a young genre so it did not have that much time to evolve, but it is a somewhat vague category itself. Still, both of these art forms operate on a three-dimensional level, less engaging than an art installation, more palpable than an image. Contemporary art does not insist on strict categorization, but we could try to answer this question in order to understand assemblage better. The difference could be found in the way that the two are defined, where sculpture seems to be a much broader category which could even include assemblage as a sub-medium today. Still, on a merely intuitive basis, it looks like assemblages keep the quality of being fragmented even when rendered as a whole, meaning that they are, indeed, compounds, but they are characterized by a heterogeneous nature. With sculpture (in a narrower sense), the emphasis seems to be on the whole itself as a definitive unity, rather than on the way that it was made, and what it consists of. With this in mind, it becomes a bit easier to categorize the works of artists who place their art right between sculpture and assemblage, such as the metaphyiscal objects of Thea Djordjadze for example, or those of Alexandre da Cunha, Jumana Manna and Monica Bonvicini, each of whom have this capacity to create autonomous constellations which converse with the audience in a strange, fresh way. More than sculptures and more than assemblages, they seem to create parallel worlds.
One of the rising stars of the Danish art scene, Danh Vo, could be a very good representative of art based on the technique and the logic of assembling. The artist of Vietnamese origin was described as "an arranger of ruins and fragments", who "prefers to let the fragments speak for themselves" (Guardian). You will find all kinds of objects among the "ruins" that his artworks resemble, often followed by words and titles that bring about new dialectic meanings. For Vo, the choice to work with the ruins is quite personal, reflecting on his difficult past; but it is a perfect counterpart to contemporary assemblage. Another artist whose art regards former traumatic experience, Sara Rahbar, is yet another good example of an assembler. The list of similarities between these two artists includes a reference to Jasper Johns and the remediation of the American flag. While you're at it, you should also consider the works of Pepo Salazar, whose work for the last year's Venice Biennale was a huge "assemblagesque" immersive environment, a completely independent planet with a system of its own, perhaps even a potential successor of Beuys' social sculpture. These works show how the familiar objects, when taken out of their original environment, tend to keep some of their social connotations, but also drop the ones that do not matter. This interaction with the viewer's own experience is a great example of what assemblage relies on.
Editors’ Tip: The Art of Assemblage
"The Art of Assemblage" is a useful, instructive and inclusive review of the ground-breaking exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, October 2 - November 12, 1961, the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, January 9 - February 11, 1962, and the San Francisco Museum of Art, March 5 - April 15, 1962. It explains the nature of assemblage, comparing it to the techniques of collage and introducing the relevant works of some important artists such as Picasso, Schwitters, Duchamp, De Kooning and many others.
Featured images: Pepo Salazar - The Subjects, part of the installation, Venice Biennale 2015; Meret Oppenheim - Object, 1936. All images used for illustrative purposes only.