Welcome to HERO Young Art Week – our essential, multifaceted guide to the new wave of creatives working at the vanguard of contemporary art today. Across a dynamic week of digital content, we’re exploring what’s happening at the epicentre of this global community: from the ground up, the artists themselves and the key figures witnessing the evolution of the ideas, trends and movements defining this art generation.
Matt Williams has been the Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art since late 2010. Since studying Fine Art at Leeds University and completing an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art he has proved himself as a highly influential voice in the contemporary art scene.
His initial foray into curating exhibitions was in collaboration with artist Anthea Hamilton; Williams set up a temporary artist-run space called The Mission. In its brief 12 month tenure this dynamic space proved to be a progressive springboard for innovative, nascent artists, presenting cutting-edge exhibitions such as Life is a Bore, Humans Need More!, and Hasta La Vista – the final exhibition held at The Mission featured over 60 artists’ work in a room filled with faux snow, Christmas trees, and a smoke machine.
Williams later held the instrumental position as curator and director at International Project Space, Birmingham from 2008, as well as co-editing NOVEL, an annual journal of curated texts focusing on artists writing, texts and poetry. During his career he has worked with, and helped establish, a wealth of young artistic talent such as Ed Atkins, Neil Beloufa, Simon Denny, Hannah Sawtell, and has worked with more established artists including Kai Althoff, Lutz Bacher and Bjarne Melgaard amongst others.
In light of Young Art Week, Alex James Taylor sat down with Williams to discuss the state of young art in London – and from a global perspective.
Alex James Taylor: From a curator’s perspective what do you see as the current trends in contemporary art, both artistically and in terms of career paths?
Matt Williams: It’s difficult to encapsulate and provide an overview of current trends within contemporary art today in a few sentences. So, I would rather discuss from a position of experience the themes that I have engaged with in recent projects. These range from the branding of artists and lifestyle culture within consumerist society and the influence of the digitalised world upon it. Often the works generated have touched upon themes on and around contemporary modes of production and communication, the abstraction of economics, and public space. How these topics have been translated into artworks or embodied physically has been incredibly varied and ranged from large scale video installations, sculpture and assemblages of objects and everyday materials.
I would also say that access to information and materials available via the internet has influenced artists approach towards art and about the potential of art today. As has increasingly the international art market and the growing popularity of contemporary art, artists are generally far more aware of the opportunities available to them and what they can achieve within an environment whereupon arguably the management of an artist’s brand and currency overwrites art production and often public reception.
AT: You touched on the economics of the contemporary art scene; do you see a lot of help for young artists?
MW: Yes, for some. It’s interesting to see more established galleries recognise the need to alter their existing structures to accommodate and support younger artists, in most cases probably to satisfy the current demands of the art market. But thankfully projects that would have previously been offered to more established artists are now being presented to emerging artists, which is a positive thing as it encourages a shift in thinking.
AT: When the recession hit, did you see a significant impact on the art world?
MW: Absolutely. Although it feels like a life time ago now, a lot has changed since then. As documented at the time it had a catastrophic effect for a lot of artists and galleries, it was a sobering experience for the art world in general. But in every cloud there is a silver lining and it did temporarily alter the way in which artists approached making their work and opened up further discussions around what art should or shouldn’t be at the time, shifting the discussion away from being simply about the value of the work.
AT: And how important do you think geography is to artists now?
MW: There is far more accessibility now for international artists if they live outside of the traditional art centres, for example in South America, Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia etc. Obviously the geography is an important factor in terms of the commercial gallery networks, institutions and collectors, but it is not as restrictive as in the past because of the accessibility that the internet provides. Plus the proliferation of artists’ websites, blogs, gallery websites and general access to images online enables art professionals etc to engage with artists from around the world in a more immediate fashion than in the past via periodicals, monographs, exhibition catalogues or by visiting exhibitions.
AT: Would you say that emerging contemporary artists are as politically influenced as they have been in the past?
MW: To some extent, although what has arguably changed is the way in which contemporary artists choose to communicate social or political content within their respective practice. The political is often imbued within the work in a more conceptually layered fashion, often through the symbolic use of materials that seek to engage with meta-narratives that audiences need to invest in and take time to unravel. Plus there are challenges to making work that is overtly political and pertinent without it feeling potentially dated before the work is actually realised, which is all the more acute due to the transient nature of the world we live in today.
AT: What affect has the digitalisation of art had on you as a curator and a teacher?
MW: What is apparent is the amount of time that artists and students appear to spend researching the internet for ideas and images. The knowledge base of artists today is far greater due to the availability of information. The knock on effect of this is that work can appear calculated and didactic, and lose that sense of immediacy or ‘magic’ that can make an artwork unique and engaging. It has also altered the way in which people generally look at art and exhibitions; the gallery space has become an appendix. This has influenced the way in which exhibitions are documented and presented online. Plus of course artists are utilising technological gadgets and interfaces within artworks and the internet as a platform for dispersion.
AT: Do you feel that it lessens the engagement?
MW: No, not really, I think it simply alters it. Although the internet does perhaps lessen the desire to physically experience an exhibition in person, which is a huge shame. But audiences have been looking at artworks via books and reproductions for a substantial period of time now, which has helped to inform the way we engage with material online.
AT: Do you see art criticism adapting with the change in contemporary art?
MW: I think maybe there’s less of an emphasis on criticism; it’s heading more towards evaluation or a form of constructive criticism. Reviews can often appear to skirt about the subject rather than directly engage.
AT: The challenges facing young artists currently?
MW: Being able to afford a studio space and support their practice through sales or teaching for example has always been a challenge for artists, but it feels more prevalent now, certainly within more established art centres such as London and New York. Plus of course students now have to pay to go to Art School, which creates another level of financial strain, hence the need and implementation of increased professionalism in the artworld in general. If you are paying for an art education why shouldn’t you expect the same level of professionalism and career guidance as if you were studying either a law or economics?
AT: Do you see the top level market as being more inclusive or exclusive now for young artists?
MW: It can be both, inclusive and exclusive.
Visit the Institute of Contemporary Arts at The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH
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