The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) located in Sydney, Australia. The museum is dedicated to the exhibition, collection and interpretation of contemporary art pieces from Australia and other continents. The museum was the brainchild of John Power, an Australian expatriate. John’s intention was to educate and inform the Australian public on contemporary visual forms of art (MCA 2013, 1).
The Museum of Contemporary Art was officially opened in November 1991 (MCA 2013, 1). The exhibitions are housed in the former Maritime Service Board building at Circular Quay at the periphery of the Sydney Harbor. The state government decided to donate the building to the promotion and preservation of contemporary art works. The building that is an exemplary embodiment of the late Art Deco architectural era is a work of art in its own right. Sam Marshal, a renowned Sydney architect, completed the Mordant Wing; a new extension to the original structure, in March 2012 (MCA 2013).
The new gallery is composed of expansive exhibition room such as the National Centre for Creative Learning (MCA 2013, 1). The galleries are fitted with state of the art technology in lighting, sound, ambience and acoustics. The building also features the MCA Café that serves authentic Australian cuisine. Visitors get to enjoy the best view of the Sidney harbor while relaxing in the Café.
The Museum of Contemporary art represents modernity and post modernity in various forms. This paper will explore the evidence of modernism and post modernism in the facility with the intention of establishing the most dominant influence. This paper theorizes that enlighten; a quality of modernism is prevalent in the collections, exhibitions and interpretations.
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Definition of Key Terms
Modernism can be defined as the enlightenment of humans and the subsequent rejection of authority and tradition in favor of natural sciences and reason (Armstrong, 2005, p. 6). Modernism is therefore a body of collective human experiences created by a paradigm shift in beliefs and cultures. In many ways, humans equate modernity to the promise of adventure, growth, power and transformation. In the same vein, the established systems of authority and ruler ship perceive modernity as a threat to their influence and control of the masses (Lewis, 2008, p. 15).
Modernity as characterized by human experiences cut across all races and cultures and geographical locations. In the last five centuries, modernity has given rise to a magnitude of its own traditions, sub cultures and inventions (Armstrong, 2005, p. 11). There have been great discoveries in science leading to a better understanding of the universe and our physical surrounding. Industrialization, mechanization and the mass production of goods are all results of persistent human need to improve the quality of life be reducing pain and increasing pleasure. Presently, the world is a complex interconnected web driven by telecommunication technology, biotechnology and efficient transportation (Armstrong, 2005, p. 12).
The modern human society is interconnected that ever before in history. Modernity and modernism have served the dual functions of uniting human experiences and multiplying them in into innumerable interpretations as reflected in shared art, music, architecture, pop culture and language, especially slang.
Modern art is a collection of artistic works produced during an extended period beginning around 1860 to 1970 (Lewis, 2008, p. 34). Artists from this period portrayed the philosophy of putting traditions aside and going with the free spirit of experimentation. Modern artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and George Seurat pioneered the heritage of modern art (Lewis, 2008, p. 39). They experimented with traditional materials and approached their subjects with a fresh outlook. Their works were a diversion from the narrative flow of previous art works towards abstract concepts and outlooks. Modernist artists have been described as romantics, realists and impressionists.
According to Kant (1996, p. 60), enlightenment is a natural product of the modern period. When man chose to ignore traditions and established norms, he became free to explore individual ideas and convictions. Enlightenment is therefore simply the process of emerging from the self-imposed immaturity and the courage to follow your own understanding without outside guidance (Gascoigne, 2002).
In history, the enlightment period took place between the middle of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century (Kant, 1996, p. 63). The enlightenment period was characterized by dramatic changes in science, philosophy, politics and social structures. The revolutions transformed the medieval era and paved way for the modern era.
Enlightened artists, philosophers and politicians midwife the beginning of great innovations and a freedom of expression not witnessed before. Architecture, art, education, social changes and music are some of the long standing evidenced of enlightenment. The MCA building is itself a towering reminder of the architectural influences of the enlightenment period.
Modern architecture describes structures constructed between the late 19th century and the length of the 20th century (Lewis, 2008, p. 44). These structures were plain and simple compared to the complex Victorian and Edwardian style architecture. This simplification of structures was because of the need to adapt to dynamic technological advancements and the modernization of society. Modern architecture is stripped of decoration and designed using the simplest lines and geometrics (Lewis, 2008, p. 44).
Architectural modernism gained popularity post World War II among influential architects and was later adopted by architectural educators. This style of construction is still maintained in the 21st century thanks to the widespread application in commercial and residential buildings (Armstrong, 2005, p. 102). However, modernism is slowly being replaced by post-modernist influences. Post modernism is concerned with resurrecting and preserving the pre-modernist elements of art and architecture. The MC building is a classic representation of both modern and postmodern influences. The main building is a classic sample of the modernist art deco style while the new Mordant wing has postmodern and neo modern influences.
Art Deco was a popular design style used for visual art that was invented in France during the inter war period. The influential flourished between the 1930s and 1940s and declined after the Second World War (Gillen & Gosh, 2007, p. 201). The style was characterized by bold geometrical shapes, lavish decorations and ornamentation in rich and bold colors. At its peak, Art Deco embodied exuberance, glamour, luxury and technological progress (Gillen & Gosh, 2007, p. 205).
Art Deco is perhaps the most appropriate design style for contemporary art. This is why it is used in the MCA. Art deco brings out the spirit of contemporary art that is free, uninhibited and yet rich in creativity and originality. Art deco appropriate serves the requirements of contemporary art for symmetry rather than asymmetry and rectilinear lines in place of curvilinear shapes. The Art deco spaces in the MCA can be enlarged, reduced and reproduced to suit various exhibitions and exhibitor needs.
Post modernism essentially emerged intended to contradict certain aspects of modernism. There is scholarly debate as to exactly what postmodernism is and when it occurred (Featherstone, 2007, p 98). However, from the name, it is clear that post modernism is a period of transition from a previous period; in this case, modernism. Post modernism can be described as a form of cultural sensibility, aesthetic expression or mode of though characteristic of this period (Featherstone, 2007, p. 100).
Examples of postmodern movements are conceptual art, installation art, multimedia and inter-media art (Featherstone, 2007, p 111). The main characteristics of postmodern art are the recycling of old themes in present day contexts, the dissolution of classism in art and the combination of high and low forms of art with popular culture.
Since post modernism is by definition as description of a period beyond modernism, it is possible to assume that post modernism is reflected in the MCA. Indeed, the exhibitions are constantly changing and the displayed pieces are a reflection of the past the present and the future. Additionally, the facility has been expanded and renovated to incorporate new technology, natural lighting and scenic view of the Sydney Harbor while still within the building.
Globalization as a product of post modernism is the integration of economies, markets, policies and cultures across the world (Morley, 1996, p 51). The postmodern society is globalized in the sense that regional cultures, economies and societies are interconnected through superfast communication channels, easy transportation and logistics as well as open markets and informed consumers.
In recent years, globalization has shifted focus from the economy to other aspect of society such as culture. Culture is composed of art, language, traditions, music and belief systems (Morley, 1996, p 53). The MCA has embraced globalization by inviting artists from around the world and displaying their works in the gallery. Similarly, the visiting artists get to sample contemporary art works from Australia. The museum receives tens of thousands of visitors annually from Australia and other parts of the world. This is a classic example of how globalization has influence art.
Consumerism is a product of globalization and economic growth. The term emerged from the observations of economists such as Thorstein Veblen who observed an emphasis on purchasing and consumption of goods and services especially among the growing middle class (Featherstone, 2007, p. 115). In social and moralist terms, consumerism describes a society that defines the value of life through good and services that are obtained even when they are not needed (Featherstone, 2007, p. 121). A consumerist society derives its sense of achievement from the purchase of material goods and the exhibition of these material belongings.
The Museum of Contemporary has encouraged consumerism in several ways. First, the tickets to some of the exhibitions are costly are attract a certain class of clientele. Secondly, the art works are often sold at high prices to wealthy art collectors. Lastly, the museum building has a cafeteria, a souvenir and accessories shop to encourage visitors to shop. Most of the items on sale at the souvenir shop are for display further adding to the consumerism nature of the museum experience.
Modernity versus Post Modernity
The Museum of Contemporary Art is a product of various artistic influences. The idea of a museum for contemporary art emerged from the noble idea of John Power, a wealthy artist (MCA, 2013, p. 1). In his will, he bequeathed his personal wealth to the education of Australians in matters of contemporary art. In a way, the museum began from one person’s need to “ enlighten” Australians on the beauty of contemporary art.
Contemporary art describes any artistic works produced in the present (Lewis, 2008, p. 31). Terms such as modern art are interchanged with contemporary art although the two terms have separate meanings in the technical sense. Through the benevolence of John Power, Australians and other citizens of the world have the opportunity to see and experience art that has been produced in their lifetime. At the same time, the visitors experience influences from the modernist era such as the Art Deco in the architecture of the museum building. The site is therefore a combination of the past, the present and the future. These periods of time are represented by enlightment, modernity and now contemporary art. In many ways, this is the ultimate goal of enlightenment; to perpetuate growth and development of any form of human development and expression. The fore fathers of enlightenment sought to have a better understanding of their surrounding and to break out of past systems that limited their potential.
Modernity is also presented in the modern architecture of the building. After the government handed over the structure to the Power Bequest and the University of Sydney in 1989, it took a whole year to renovate and restore the premises to its former glory (MCA, 2013, p. 3). The museum doors opened in 1990 after restoration and decoration. The purpose of restoration was to bring out the aesthetics of the Art Deco era structure that had faded after years of neglect and natural wear. The museum would be home to contemporary art but without losing the inspiration of the modern artistic era.
One may argue that the process of restoring the museum was indeed an attempt to convert the museum into a postmodern structure. While restorations and recycling of old themes is a characteristic of post modernism, the building was actually renovated to match its original modern look. There was no attempt to capture previous eras such as the Edwardian or the Victorian architectural periods.
The restoration of the building represents a form of enlightenment that is biased towards the present but tolerant of the future. The main entrance of the building was preserved in the same way it could have appeared during its construction. The interior was transformed using principles of Art Deco design to create a modern day interpretation of interior design. However, the main attractions of the museum, the art pieces, are fresh, original and dynamic pieces of art from artists across the globe. There are painting, photographs, collages, performances and graphic designs from various local and international artists. By embracing modern and contemporary art, the museum is creating a new form of enlightenment that is not critical previous systems but integrates them into present day influences.
The most obvious aspects of post modernism in the museum are the involvement of global artists in the exhibitions and the encouragement of consumerism through souvenir shops and the café. The globalization of contemporary art is a common characteristic of all present day forms of visual and performing arts. Efficient communication systems have created superstars and global ambassadors of artists, actors, novelists, movie directors, painters, photographers and musicians. The globalization of the museum is just a manifestation of this postmodern phenomenon. Globalization of art and culture has led to greater socialization of the people of the world through common music and other forms of popular culture. Unfortunately, popular culture is more often than western music, art, books and movies. Artists from other regions of the world do not enjoy the popularity received by western artists. Considering that John’s wish was to educate Australians on contemporary art, globalization may be a catalyst of education or a killer of local talent if not regulated.
Recently, scholars have coined terms such as radical enlightenment as well as super-enlightenment (Gascoigne, 2002, p. 78). Academicians are not questioning the actual historical boundaries of enlightenment. The pertinent question is if it is possible to accurately identify the beginning and perhaps the end of human enlightment. Questions include the clear distinctions between previous forms of thinking and the contemporary forms of thinking. To answer these questions, researchers are examining the products of enlightenment to better appreciate the differences in thought. Away from academic discourse, the question of enlightenment touches on every aspect of human life. It can be argued that the fundamental struggle of defines human is to understand culture and nature in by employing reason (Gascoigne, 2002, p. 80). It is therefore crucial to revisit the concepts of reason, human subjectivity and citizenship in the context of technology and development in order to discover the limits of human capacity.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is radical in its adoption of enlightenment as concept. The structure of the facility borrows heavily from the past but maintain a fresh outlook to contemporary art forms. The new wing of the facility is definitely a step in the right direction of ushering the museum into the future without losing the architectural influences of the modern era.
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MCA: open conversation or guarded debate?
http://www. australiandesignreview. com/opinion/19562-mca-open-conversation-or-guarded-debate
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