Hyperrealism: when art prods and provokes

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On 25th November 2022, the Metropolitan Police broke into the Laz Emporium gallery in Soho, London, after receiving a distressed emergency call. According to the caller, a woman had fallen unconscious at a table and had been sat with her head lurched forward, motionless for two hours in the closed gallery. Upon their forced entry, two officers bewilderingly viewed the woman, a listless posed figure, and suspected she had suffered heart failure or an overdose.

However, the figure portrayed in this sculptural installation is labelled Kristina (2022), conceived by American contemporary artist Mark Jenkins. Made with packing tape and foam filler, dressed in clothing, Kristina is visible from the gallery window and has a hefty price tag of £18,000. Among other contemporary artworks and interior design pieces in the room, the slumped figure appeared dead as a doornail, anecdotally inspired by one of Jenkins’ sisters, who had once fallen face first into a bowl of soup.

The predicted stylistic outbreak has occurred

This incident fundamentally shook London’s contemporary art scene. ArtNet, the first media source to cover the story, reported that the police were just as flummoxed as the gallery owner themselves – only for different reasons. Knowing that Kristina was an artwork, the owner’s view of events contrasted with that of the police officers’ who had merely fulfilled their duty by responding to the call, falling into the ploy of Jenkins’ hyper-realistic trap. One might ask “who called the police?”, but the question of context is beside the point.

Sources say the Metropolitan Police were annoyed at being called out for nothing, and that Jenkins took his installation too far. An aftermath of predictable complaints about installations’ problematic nature swiftly ensued. Still confused? Imagine your reaction if similarly confronted; should how, what and why not be your first questions? Consider yourself fortunate enough to understand the theory behind the genre.

Kristina begs two critical questions – when does art go too far? Is it when it disturbs emergency services essential to the public? Or is it when it provokes a viewer to question one’s belief of what an artwork is?

Observing Kristina’s blunt hyperrealism, the provocation which ensued afterwards was the question of can art ever be too realistic? Let us wind back the clock. How must Gustave Courbet’s acolytes have felt when the life-sized A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) was first exhibited in Paris in 1850 to an audience of rowdy, fervent academics? Fear, or maybe joy? More likely just the tangible feeling of excitement and provocation, as Kristina managed to achieve.

Installation art’s versatility has undoubtedly broadened the possibilities of what art can be, giving hyperrealism and its provocative nature a space to grow. Art cajoles us into questioning the mere concept of reality, as Jenkins intended to do and succeeded in doing so.

Can art ever be too realistic?

One could argue that the future of art is bleak – that contemporary art is too unpredictable, that no protocol exists for it. Other critics, however, have a more positive perspective. Arthur Danto pointed out in his pivotal philosophical essay, ‘The End of Art?’ (1986), that we have thankfully reached the end of a ‘climax’ in art, allowing for a new beginning. The first rule-breaking movement of academic art, Impressionism, initiated introspection of what art could do through subject matter and formal characteristics. Its conclusion today nonetheless heralds a thrilling new era where re-evaluation of ‘greatness’ in art begins.

Looking beyond the endless cycle of art fairs and Biennales tending to place art in the background and activism, albeit important, at the forefront, we find budding artists’ collectives compellingly creating personal or collaborative universes. The predicted “stylistic outbreak” has occurred, and it is up to artists to project their rejuvenated voices, pushing past elitism and the impossible Greenbergian theory of art for art’s sake.

American multimedia artist Shayna Klee, also known as Purple Palace, follows the ethos that just ‘taking up space is making bad art’ – rather, installations should be filled with vulnerability, colour, and imperviousness. In a recent YouTube video, she sings that small artists are ‘sick of [the] systems trying to keep us small’ and that ‘it should be inclusive and smart, but it’s racist, sexist, and elitist. F*** the art world’.

Installations should be filled with vulnerability, colour, and imperviousness

Art in all its genres responds to what we, socially, politically, and morally, are all experiencing and have experienced in the 21st century: the COVID-19 pandemic, war, inflation, increasing poverty, immigration crises, a growing sense of identity loss in a globalised world, and so much more. It responds to how we, as individuals, are experiencing this collective traumata. The attention that Kristina (2022) has garnered in recent art and media points to what art is today.

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