Shock Art: the Violence of Recognisability and Hyperrealism on a Loop
By Andrew Bay, UK
Shock Art is a form of extreme realism which initially came to prominence in the 1960s, with notable performance pieces by artists such as Hermann Nitsch, Piero Manzoni and Chris Burden. "Shock" in these works, is produced by the incredibly realistic degree of "representability" which the artists seek to produce, leaving the audience exposed to a feeling of inescapability: when confronted with "Shock Art," there isn’t anywhere further to go. Although it has encountered, through the years, considerable opposition from critics and the public, Shock Art has touched a raw nerve in our society. It brings to the fore a new kind of anxiety, which isn’t existential by nature. The neurotic apprehension captured in these incredibly realistic artworks, is the anxiety of continuous recursion and repetition which defines the modern world. Reality is now irreversibly interchangeable with publicity, indistinguishable from advertising and hype, where all sense, meanings and interpretations are merged into one. In the end, "Shock Art" simply mirrors the Information Age: disturbing and intensely brutal, as inescapably mysterious as a digital black hole
Renegade artist Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 in Beijing, in a family where political activism was an everyday reality. His father was Ai Qing, the founder of modern Chinese poetry. His staunch opposition to the Chinese Communist authorities, resulted in his exile and imprisonment in the province of Shihezi where Weiwei grew up in the 1960s. Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the family was pardoned and allowed to return to Beijing, where Weiwei enrolled at the Film Academy. From early on, he decided to use his art to explore social and political contingencies of freedom and self-expression. Just like his father before him, his courageous, creative determination attracted the ire of the Chinese political establishment which censored most of his artistic performances and productions, forcing Weiwei to permanently leave China and move to the West in 2015. Besides his ambitious sculptures and installations, he is mostly famous for his "Sunflower Seeds" performance, showcased at the Tate Modern in London in 2010. For this production, he memorably dispersed 50 million hand-made porcelain seeds across the gallery floor, as a critique of consumerism and authoritarianism, both in the West and in China.
Nobuyoshi Araki has always had a particular fondness for the portraits he took of his wife, the writer Yoko Aoki in the 1970s and 1980s. Although he is globally known for his controversial nude portraits and pictures, he insists that it is love, which has been the major driving force behind his artistic curiosity. "Sentimental Journey" is one of his most famous photobooks and it earnestly captured the romance of his honeymoon, which he documented all the way to his wife's tragic passing from ovarian cancer in 1990. Araki feels that the pictures live in his unconscious mind for indefinite periods of time, eventually coming to the fore when they reveal themselves to his polaroid snapshots in rapid outbursts of inspiration. Through his photography, he has captured the transition of Japan from a culture with traditions going back 1000 of years to a materialistic society trapped inside a Babelian tower, saturated with the repressed Freudian drives of Eros and Thanatos.
In 1971, Chris Burden staged an art performance during which, his best friend shot him in the arm in front of an audience. At the time, a television in the US was continuously broadcasting footage from the Vietnam War, which significantly influenced Burden's decision to openly make this anti-war statement. In a sense, this was his way of empowering himself with the War narrative. The American TV corporations controlled the information networks, and they had a monopoly on what could be said about the dramatic conflict taking place in South East Asia. Burden wanted to take that control back from the mainstream media. His "Shoot" installation was the blueprint for all his subsequent productions and performances. Shortly thereafter, Burden started buying air-time on local TV stations in Los Angeles, to broadcast his own art films, which was a groundbreaking conceptual and political form of activism. Since then, Burden has steadily consolidated his critique of the American Way of Life. His sculptures and mixed media pieces challenge conformism and the considerable power which Madison Avenue and the advertising machinery, wield over the lives and attention span of ordinary Americans. This culminated in Burden's 1974 hugely influential performance "Transfixed," during which he staged his own crucifixion.
"I am an artist who uses 2nd hand images and 1st hand experiences."
Maurizio Cattelan never shies away from juxtaposing humour and controversy. In his unforgiving and sardonic conceptual artworks, he circumvents the protocols agreed upon by the art establishment of the day. Some of his most famous pieces include "Comedian" (2019) an installation featuring a banana taped to a wall and "La Nona Ora," a sculpture of a Pope being hit by a meteorite. Cattelan’s works create little riddles and puzzles. He leaves enough space in them for the viewer to build their own interpretations about what they might mean, and thus infuses, them with the power to exist on their own terms. It is the volatility and enigmatic implications of the symbols which Cattelan manipulates, which makes them as fascinating as they are impertinent.
In 1999, Belgian sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere received a commission from the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, which specialises in the study of World War I. She fully committed herself to this assignment whilst working on another project she had already embarked on, about the genocidal War in Rwanda. She was therefore involved in two projects, simultaneously exploring the horrors of War. De Bruyckere was granted full access to the Ypres Museum archives and during the course of her research, she was deeply shocked to discover that a prodigious number of horses had been killed during WWI. She immediately drew a parallel between the losses of human lives taking place in Rwanda, and the losses in equine life incurred during WWI and decided to explore the duality which confines physical torture and physical vigour. De Bruyckere wants to re-imagine the anatomy of the physical world through the iconic representation of human and animal bodies. By transforming the surface and the nature of her subjects, she also suggests the presence of the soul, which she believes, enfolds our material, natural limbs and organs.
Paul McCarthy's work has been acclaimed for his challenging productions and multimedia performances. He skillfully combines fine arts and pop Americana into sarcastic commentary, to challenge the American Way of Life and American cultural imperialism. McCarthy is genuinely interested in uncovering in which ways American history has been mythologised by Hollywood revisionism. He builds a montage of collective psychological fractures and cinematic representations to get to the heart of the American sense of identity. He acknowledges that time is not a defining factor in the way he thinks about his output. Some pieces are "forever works in progress," and he is comfortable with breaking away from natural narratives when it comes to developing his ideas. McCarthy's work can be jarring for its intensity and how uncomfortable it makes some audiences feel. However, the motive behind his actions is to get to a very primal state of imaginative activity. McCarthy is fully aware of the multiple contexts in which his work may be ill-perceived and misinterpreted. The key to engaging with his art is, therefore, to be aware that he simply consciously chooses to satirise banality and normalcy by permanently perverting them.