Combinatorial Elements: On some characteristic ideas of contemporary artistic practice

April 7, 2016

Each era has its own way of characterizing culture from the standpoint of a predetermined number of ideas and notions that, in the case of art, not only provide historical context, but take on the function of shaping and interpreting the place of those practices within a sociocultural framework, as well as their effects on the individuals who create or receive them, and on the realities in which they take place. Such ideas and notions vary over the course of history, taking on meanings that at times completely upend the bases of their formulation, their original significance.

The cognitive field of aesthetics and art theory is founded on a broad spectrum of knowledge that not only includes various artistic practices, but also a number of philosophical perspectives as well as multiple approaches from cultural studies and the sociopolitical sphere. Within this interdisciplinary field, these ideas and notions possess a great dynamism that allows them to act as a sort of “combinatorial element” testifying to the transformations shaping artistic production in distinct historical moments, and fostering a theoretical space of transit within which to establish different sorts of connections doing justice to the peculiar mobility of artistic changes. Thus they appear as an ensemble of models of comprehension that allow for the traversal of the borderland territory of the artistic, always in tension between the general (theory) and the specific (works).

In this article I will deal with some of these notions and ideas, which have been particularly relevant in the spaces of contemporary art, and which, operating as “combinatorial elements,” have reformulated their discursive plots on diverse occasions by generating unforeseen interpretive trajectories and alternative points of view, with regard to both the works and the effects produced by their sociocultural inscription. In this installment, I will address four of these notions, selected with concern for their theoretically indeterminate nature and the fact that close relationships can be established among them, both in theoretical and strategic terms. The notions in question are: allegory, the archive, montage, and appropriation.


Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Sand), 1993–1994. One in a series of eight photogravures on paper. Each 31.8 x 39.4 cm
Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Sand), 1993–1994. One in a series of eight photogravures on paper. Each 31.8 x 39.4 cm


In general terms, allegory is a procedure that allows for the elimination of the original significance of an object, form or image, so that the artist/spectator may provide a different meaning. Since postmodernism, allegory has been an important strategy of subversion that allows works of art to deconstruct the unity of the “sign”—or the image—and alter the stylistic norms that govern the politico-economic spaces of art.

Contemporary allegorical art is characterized by taking on “fragmentation and the dialectical juxtaposition of fragments, and surpassing the signifier and the signified.”[1] This has two immediate effects: on the one hand, these are works that emphasize their affiliation with territories of ruin (the ephemeral, the ordinary), and on the other hand, there are those constituted by the composition of fragmentary images. Allegory has unique and varied strategies for rupturing—or exceeding—the gap between signifier and signified. However, each emphasizes the fact that an image—a sign—is an inscription, a material incision, that can allow for infinite developments of meaning. Therefore, they have a critical character that can fracture discourse, both that which references the institutionality of art as well as that which focuses on the marketing of culture.

This subversive force of rupture particular to allegory has a traceable genealogy. Etymologically, allegory comes from allos-agoria, meaning “another speaking in public,” a term that brings together two elements: speaking and the public, and does so by inverting and displacing their conventional relationship, so that it emerges as a type of public speech appearing mysterious—enigmatic—and expressing something different than its literal meaning. Consolidated during the Baroque, allegory allows for the appearance of forms that are ambiguous, diffuse, indefinite, excessive; it is a sort of hieroglyphic founded on the strength of its inscription, on its textual dimension. In the contemporary world, allegorical speech is inextricably linked to the urban and the industrial, to merchandise, innovation and fashion, and it suggests an image freed from formal ties, setting aside its original (or literal) meaning and opening up its signifying dimensions, imbuing ambiguity with the inherent power of constant reinscription in the world.


Alejandro Cesarco, Index (a novel), 2003. One in a series of four photographic prints. Each: 76.2 x 101.6 cm
Alejandro Cesarco, Index (a novel), 2003. One in a series of four photographic prints. Each: 76.2 x 101.6 cm


The idea of the archive has become one of the essential categories for contemporary theorizations of art and culture, due to the way it reveals the potentialities contained by “systems of images” for reflecting on problems associated with documents, testimonies and the numerous effects produced by their accumulation. Its historical origins are encyclopedic in nature, associated with the birth of institutions meant to keep watch over cultural memory and heritage (museums, libraries). The archive is offered as an explanatory model of the politico-cultural operations of safeguarding and encapsulating knowledge.

The concept of the archive has had a lengthy theoretical development, especially in recent years, and therefore we are able to distinguish among three dimensions: a first has to do with its political and institutional character: the archive is the reserve, the repository for the legitimation of power; another testifies to its historical epistemological nature: the archive operates as a space for the construction of historical consciousness; and a final dimension links it to the expansion in technological media and media strategies: the archive is the very space in which the real occurs.

Many contemporary works contain an archival structure (collections, snapshots, testimonies) and employ the legitimizing power of the archive as a creative function, attempting to intervene into the interpretation of different historically conflicting issues or the hierarchical structures defining culture. These archival strategies are offered as a kind of reflection on the document operating in a dual manner, as both a critique of the canonical forms of knowledge as well as a theoretical reflection on the field of images, with the relationship between art and the construction of history as the fundamental element for setting the rules of the game between power and resistance that characterizes human institutions. With the proliferation of technological images, archival strategies allow art to inhabit extra-aesthetic spaces, affording works with a grammar tied to virtuality that enables them to be incorporated into the world: extracting fragments of the continuum of the real, duplicating that which exists.


Damián Ortega, Conducción de energía/azúcar, 2005. Five color photographs. Each: 40.64 x 50.8 cm
Damián Ortega, Conducción de energía/azúcar, 2005. Five color photographs. Each: 40.64 x 50.8 cm


The idea of montage comes from film, however it is now related to several recent varieties of artistic practice. At least initially, it had to do with the syntactic organization of images in a continuum, with variations of time and rhythm affecting narrative and linguistic specificity. Similar to collage, montage proposes a “fragmentary aesthetic” that relates directly to the transformations of the viewing experience brought on by photography and film, which resulted in new ways of articulating the image.

Montage occurs thanks to the mobility of the camera itself, which allows for new ways of representing space and time, and generates a dialectical—or dialogical—structure in which signification proceeds from the structures of linkage or connection among fragments—images. This dialectical structure makes it possible to combine different perspectives and forms of organization within the work, and establishes a system of meaningful references between the fragments and the whole, as well as the whole and its context.

More than a procedure, it has to do with the artist’s attitude toward the material; an attitude allowing the artist to enter into dialogue with the material, making the final product the result of an interweaving of questions and answers, in which technical decisions become narrative operations, establishing a signifying dynamic that exceeds representation and its determinations.

Among the most interesting elements associated with montage is the routinization of the artistic image, meaning the proximity and familiarity with which it is presented and brought to bear upon distinct, pressing real-world issues. In this sense, montage imbues the work of art with an inevitable political vocation that inscribes it invariably within the spaces of socio-political events, and which requires it to produce dynamic and adaptable articulations of the world. This “fragmentary aesthetic” is ultimately connected with the fractured experience of the individual in contemporary society, making it impossible to construct theoretical systems that offer unambiguous explanations or purely stylistic evaluations.


Oswaldo Terreros, Left: Sin título (campesino), 2010. Right: Sin título (indígena), 2010. Wool weaving. Each work: 300 x 185 cm
Oswaldo Terreros, Left: Sin título (campesino), 2010. Right: Sin título (indígena), 2010. Wool weaving. Each work: 300 x 185 cm


During the first half of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin suggested that contemporary culture required a work of art that, above and beyond allowing for contemplation or arousing aesthetic pleasure in the spectator, could also operate as a critical exercise of historical and cultural transformation, capable of re-signifying civilizing texts and opening them up to new interpretations. For Benjamin the cultural production of knowledge was less an invention than a reconfiguration of that which had “already been,” which could disrupt its internal order and recover what had been abandoned there. Therefore, the past—what has “already been”—constituted a privileged terrain of labor and recognition.

In contemporary art, the idea of appropriation brings together these Benjaminian expectations, that making of the present out of the re-signification of the past and the reconfiguration of its orders. Indeed, appropriation, as a strategy of artistic production, takes on images, fragments or cultural signs that have “already been”—whether from art history, the commercial market or the everyday world—and recontextualizes them, or intervenes in them in order to create new discourses, alternate narratives and unanticipated spaces of signification. It is an effort to demystify the debate surrounding “originality” and “authorship,” in which artistic practice is perceived as a textual and sensorial opening up, in order to bring about a crisis in the systems of validation and standardization.

Appropriation is thus a critical operation with the objective of affirmative resistance to the structures of power. Using displacement, substitution and combination, the stratifications of content and style belonging to these systems of learning (museums and institutes of knowledge) are dismantled, and the historical tradition made dynamic. The past is inscribed, then, as a territory of exploration in which diverse times and spaces come together in a constellation, and thanks to which ideological systems are disrupted not only on an aesthetic level, but also ethically and politically. Memory is a critical exercise that aims to call attention to the truncated or open-ended nature of what has “already been,” distorting the lines of power and authority, and opening the work to the stimuli and objectives of society.

[1] B. Buchloh. Formalismo e historicidad. Madrid, Akal, p. 91

Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen