Context art, just like the similar concept of relational aesthetics was yet another term introduced in the 90’s, with an intention of signifying the paradigm shift in the contemporary art practice and the orientation of emerging talents towards the historical context and social environment in reaction to the self-reflexive tendencies in the 80’s art. It signified the return of the political and the loss of fate in the “grand narratives”, defined by the French philosopher Lyotard. Introduced by the Austrian curator Peter Weibel, the term was established in order to distinguish the work of the artists who exhibited their work regularly under the name of Kontext Kunst at the beginning of the 1990’s, from the related conceptual and installation art. However, the fame of the term was short-lived, and it never spread beyond Europe where it was also the subject of many debates and critiques.
Although it was used loosely by some artists before, it became an official term in 1993, after the Kontext Kunst. The Art of the 90's exhibition at Neue Galerie Graz, curated by Peter Weibel and accompanied by the catalogue which featured essays by the Weibel himself. The collection of essays was later seen as a manifest of this newly established movement, a definition of those artistic practices which focused on the formal, social and ideological framework of art production. The line-up for the exhibition was vast, and the artists called to participate became paragons of the newly proclaimed avant-garde. The roster included: Fareed Armaly, Cosima von Bonin, Tom Burr, Clegg & Guttmann, Meg Cranston, Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Andrea Fraser, Inspection Medhermeneutics, Ronald Jones, Louise Lawler, Thomas Locher, Dorit Margreiter, Kasimir Malewitsch, Katrin von Maltzahn, Regina Möller, Reinhard Mucha, Christian Philipp Müller, Anton Olschwang, Hirsch Perlman, Dan Peterman, Adrian Piper, Mathias Poledna, Stephan Prina, Florian Pumhösl, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Julia Scher, Oliver Schwarz, Jason Simon, Rudolf Stingel, Lincoln Tobier, Olga Tschernyschewa, Christopher Williams, Peter Zimmermann, and Heimo Zobernig.
According to Peter Weibel, the term context art represents those art practices that build on the critique of the institutional art system but change their focus towards the critique of reality and social circumstances. The proactive attitude towards the social change lead Peter Weibel to define artists as the “partisans of the real” and “autonomous agents of social processes.” Context art, emerging in the nineties, was seen by Weibel as an interactive play between artists and social situations, art and non-art contexts which are being increasingly drawn into the art discourse. Context art is characterized by its ideological goals, questioning its own conditions of production and addressing the ecological, economic, legal and social contexts and institution. However, this method of contextualization had its roots in the conceptual artistic practices, opposite to the traditional means of employing ideology and social context with a didactic aim.
What is context art exactly might be clearer if we compare it with the concept of relational aesthetics, defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, which we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Kontext Kunst and relational aesthetics are both umbrella terms which gather a whole range of artistic practices that can differ immensely in style but have in common their orientation towards the social critique. In both cases, the diverse practices were proclaimed as the coherent art movements by their respective founders and promoted as new discourses and latest chapters in the art history. And both curators Peter Weibel and Nicolas Bourriaud were strongly criticized in the community of art historians and the artists themselves for their appropriation of the terms and hijacking of the artistic project. Independent curator and theoretician Maria Lind argues that context art can be seen as the German version of the following relational aesthetics since their common interest lies in site-specificity, process, interdisciplinarity and research, with first being more historically oriented, political and academic.
Although it was perceived as an interesting concept at the beginning of the nineties, there are those who argue that the term was nothing but an ideological cooption of diverse and fragmented artistic practices. Furthermore, Peter Weibel’s efforts to promote the new term were diminished by the language barriers, as it was originally introduced under the German name of KontextKunst. The concept was also discarded at the time by the leftist artists and those who saw their work closer to activism. From today’s perspective, with the term relational aesthetics rising to prominence, context art seems like a forgotten relic and the ultimate failure of establishing the new movement in art history.
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Gerwald Rockenschaub - Six animations, 2002 (Daimler Art Collection)