The Phaidon guide to art speak - Unmonumental

Decoding the language of art criticism - one knotty phrase at a time. Today, a word for scrappy sculptures
Urs Fischer, untitled (2011); Urs Fischer and various artists, YES (2011). Photo by Stefan Altenburger
Urs Fischer, untitled (2011); Urs Fischer and various artists, YES (2011). Photo by Stefan Altenburger


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Unmonumental art isn’t market-friendly art, delivered fresh from the fabricators, dewy with high-production values. It doesn’t include slick, Hollywood-standard video art such as that made by Matthew Barney, the beautiful finish of a Jeff Koons balloon dog, or paintings daubed with the painstaking techniques of an old master, as in the work of John Currin. With the sculptures, collages and Internet art gathered under this rubric by curators Richard Flood, Massimiliano Gioni and Laura Hoptman, for New York’s New Museum’s inaugural show in its new HQ in 2008, unmonumental embraces the jerry-rigged, ramshackle, accumulative, eroding and chancy.

Rachel Harrison

Rachel Harrison, Conquest of the Useless

This includes assemblage sculpture that goes fishing in capitalism’s rubbish heap, like Rachel Harrison’s suggestive constellations of second hand kitsch, lumpy, handmade offerings and photography, Matthew Monahan’s ancient-looking heads, made from fragile paper and florist’s foam, or one of Isa Genzken’s pedestals topped with building site detritus. Any number of clashing references, images and objects might be found jostling together in a singlework. At the same time, there’s a sense that everything might fall apart or dissolve at any moment, literally so with Urs Fischer’s lifesize waxwork candle, melting away as its wick burns down.

Isa Genzken

Iza Genzken, Bouquet (2004), plastic, wood, lacquer, mirror foil, glass, 260 x 115 x 130 cm

Needless to say, unmonumental art mines 21st century uncertainties, where, as Flood notes, ‘reality is a collage composed of whatever grabs our attention’. Its concerns include material culture’s dizzying cycle of disposable product and a state of mind fragmented and overloaded by technology and a marketplace which makes everything available all at once, even as the threat of it all being turned to dust by war or global warming looms large.

Urs Fischer

Urs Fischer, Untitled (2011), three wax candle sculptures slowly melting

So, is it a term you will use? If you're interested in finding out more, Unmonumental is a groundbreaking thematic survey of sculptural work by 30 of today’s leading artists that includes essays by Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, Massimiliano Gioni and Trevor Smith. Meanwhile, for a richer understanding of what art you should be talking about right now (and the best words to use) grab a copy of The 21st Century Art Book.


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