Redefining art in a brave new world

What is it that allows us to define a body of work as art? Are there rules that one must abide by in order to attract the status that comes with being an artist, and if there are then does that not contradict the very point of art: to be boundless in direction and definition; to truly exist as a reflection of whatever it is that one may choose to see within a piece?

These are the questions that crossed my mind as I walked through the crowds at the Sydney opening night of The Other Art Fair (OAF): a global collective showcasing works by 135 independent artists at The Cutaway at Barangaroo Reserve from 1- 4 December.

Founded in the UK in 2011, OAF aims to redesign access to the art community, making it more about enjoyment of the art rather than a gate-kept industry. The organisation concentrates on elevating new voices from different corners of the world with fairs also in Melbourne, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Brooklyn.

The night was built on impulsiveness. A hastened decision to attend the event with a friend who’d been offered the tickets by her boss; a hand-poking tattoo station wedged into the corner of the venue; art lovers walking away with framed works in their hands despite the sheer largeness of some pieces.

When walking through the entire exhibition, the viewers had the opportunity to interact with the artists and learn directly what goes on beneath the surface of a body of work. They had the opportunity to discuss the age old question that seems to linger on everyone’s mind: what is the purpose of the art done by the artist? Well, to answer it simply, everything and nothing.

In my quest to unravel the philosophical web that is artistic purpose, I found myself in conversation with a number of creatives: some with stalls and some without. Though the faces began to blur into one after some time, a select few stay constant in my mind.

Photo: Artist Marie Pol standing beside Photographer Edmond Thommen with Pol’s showcased work behind them.

“Building up the surface” becomes something entirely retrospective in Marie Pol’s work. The art before me was immersive in its mixture of classicism and modernism: a blend of individualism and expressionism in its depiction of time and how intensely we feel it as humans in a constant loop of patterned creativity.

“As a society,” she carefully began, hands gesturing towards the pieces before us, “we always find ourselves going back to the classics. But every time we do, there’s something new that we add to it- to make it our own.”

The art feels almost romantic, like an embrace between two lovers: the past and the present. This is the concentration of her collection, Back to Antiquity, which stands out amongst the many works lined up. It pulled you into its atmosphere, daring you to walk away.

This sentiment was shared by a fellow artist, Edmond Thommen. Armed with a camera and a smile, he assured Pol that her work was something entirely unique to experience in the sea of displays.

Although he had no displayed work of his own at the fair, Thommen quickly produced a card with his contact details for me to hold onto. On the face of the card was a naked woman photographed, layered over with splatters of paint remnant of a late Jackson Pollock. Beneath a surface of confidence, however, he confessed too many nerves to take part of such a major event.

“It takes serious courage to come here and put your art out in front of such a large group of people,” he gestured towards Pol, “I have done exhibitions before though- just not like this. I’m not brave enough for that.”

Photo: Artist Louise Beck standing in front of her art display.

Time was felt once again in the form of Louise Beck’s interpretation of Sydney’s architectural diversity. A project that’s taken fifteen years to curate, Beck’s paintings perfectly capture the fluidity and movement of time in a way that not only explores our evolvement as a society but also our environment and how we choose to interact with it.

The surrealist pieces are unique in the sense that they visualise iconic landmarks such as the Queen Victoria Building and the Sydney Point Tower through the mirror reflection of contemporary architecture. It’s a perspective we are all too familiar with, though seem to glaze over as we continue in our day to day lives.

“I found myself driving to work one day, and couldn’t help but notice the way the glass seemed to reintroduce the sights through a new perspective.” Beck explained to my friend (an architecture design graduate) and I.

The collection is named Cityscapes, a conversation between the past, the present, and the future.

“The future is in the cranes since they show us where we’re heading,” she continued, an artist’s spirited gleam in her eyes, “I loved painting them.”

Photo: Shazia Imran standing in front of a display of select artworks from her studio.

Shazia Imran’s work is familiar to me, having stumbled across her personal studio located at The Rocks a mere month ago by sheer happenstance. I was quick to let her know of this coincidence, and how her aesthetic was yet to be forgotten.

Imran is famous for her romantic portrayal of city landscapes she’d come across in her extensive travels. The paintings feel as if viewed through rose-tinted glasses: beckoning you to escape in their utopia like a sweet siren call.

There are pieces displayed, however, that are entirely new to my eyes. With Imran’s concentration in previous works set on the convergence of landscape, memory, and the subconscious, the abstract expressionism of her more recent projects speak a similar tale in a new tongue.

A deep contrast to the style that she is used to producing, Imran’s new approach to art is fuelled by the months stuck at home during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

“Since I wasn’t travelling, I wanted to try something new,” she explained,”I didn’t want to keep myself boxed into one style of expressing myself, of creating.”

The purpose of an artist is to create outside of the boundaries of thought and knowledge, and challenge the limitations that society enforces upon creatives like herself, this experience reminded Imran.

And sometimes, it can simply be without a meaning. “I just really liked it,” she laughed, “and that’s… yeah, here I am.”

Photo: Artist Jiro Ishihara sitting beside his collection display.

Jiro Ishihara is a man of few spoken words, leaving a majority of the conversation to rest between you and the work. There is a softness to him that could be seen in his eyes and felt in his creativity: a quiet serenity in the midst of a bustling crowd.

The art showcased was a series of seemingly out of focus photographs of the sky shaped as if you were viewing them through the frame of an airplane window. Upon closer inspection, and through Jiro’s suggestion, I noticed that the photographs were in fact focused: on what? was the real question.

“I was trying to take photos with my camera, on a flight,” he explained, “but it kept going out of focus. I saw later that the focus was on the window, not the clouds. The sky was blurry, but I saw all the detail on the glass- the scratches.”

While Ishihara’s personal intentions with his art were still unclear to me, my interpretation was almost instant. Nothing is ever perfect, and no matter how desperately we may try to live up to carefully curated ideals and aesthetics, the imperfections remain a reminder of that reality: of our beautifully flawed existence.

Though my hands were empty of any purchases upon leaving the showcase, my mind was filled with some clarity on the subject. From the age of Baroque to the days of Warhol, art is constantly redefining itself because we as a society are constantly redefining ourselves.

It is a reflection of humanity at its best and worst, and weirdest, and although we may never fully understand it, we will spend our entire lives trying.

To define art is to define the cosmos.