Combing the aisles of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center we glimpse a new reality. At large-scale shows in Asia we had gotten used to a certain décalage, that whiff of the passé intimated through exhibition design, curatorial framing, or the works themselves. But even those unaware of this art fair’s dizzying rise (as it is beamed up by the Art Basel mother ship) could not fail to sense a new simultaneity: Asia has arrived. At last, one integrated, intercontinental sushi-train of contemporary art, on the move 24/7, all year round and on one calendar. Even if we sniff some European and American dealers airing their stock rooms, who’s complaining? No doubt, Asian galleries give as good as they get, in the second-tier fairs of the first world. And here at the top-tier fair of the second world, though real-time trading may yet be some way off, that time-lag will soon be history.
It was a synchronicity announced, in what seems like a past life of this global present, by “Internet Time.” Devised by the Swatch Group and launched in October, 1998, Internet Time was “marketed” as a worldwide standard measure, without time zones or daylight saving. Each day was divided into 1000 “beats,” anchored to the new meridian of the company’s headquarters in Biel, Switzerland (near Basel).
There’s something inherently funny about this utopia of a worldwide standard, something Napoleonic. Real time, Swatch time, universal time; properly abstract and “empty,” time unburdened of the reality of a round earth— “orbital,” as Baudrillard would have it— time that has taken leave of its meridians and joined the flow of an ecstatic, unceasing circulation. Another death of the gods: the celestial bodies that once governed time are dismissed in favor of a new immediacy, lurking in every “refresh” button, and experienced as a perpetual belatedness, no matter how refreshed one is. The papers report sporadic worrying about the diurnal blur; we are busy tending our synced devices when we ought to be eating, praying and loving. But we’ll get over it.
In his lurching journey through the 18th century globalization of science, Mason and Dixon (1997), Thomas Pynchon recalls the “schizochronic year” of 1752, when England finally adopted the Gregorian calendar. To keep better pace with the celestial spheres— not to mention the rest of Europe— eleven days were simply removed from the calendar by Act of Parliament. The upshot was rather mundane, yet folk memory prefers to picture a kind of riot ensuing. Pynchon imagines an outraged everyman for whom this “calendar reform” was a pernicious theft perpetrated by politicians and, worse, godless scientists. But they got over it. The principle of time as an agreed continuum, linear and irreversible, was unchanged.
Christian Marclay’s incidental appearance at this fair many will have missed. But his work The Clock (2010), a twenty-four-hour montage of recycled film excerpts of clocks and watches culled from the meta-tagged, file-shared glut to which we are all these days more or less native, remains fresh in our memory. Like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), this piece subjects media time, parceled in measures we have long since taken for granted, to the new realities of consumption. Looped in its entire duration in a London gallery, the work was in fact a working timepiece, indexed to good old-fashioned Greenwich Mean Time; it brought the digital deluge into step with a contingent present, a local time— not orbital, but all too terrestrial.
It’s à la mode, for those who still care to theorize about art, to theorize first and foremost about its contemporaneity. We flatter ourselves to think this global currency is underpinned by an older one, by the objects, myths and pseudo-principles once called “art history.” However, as with gold and oil, the value we circulate refers as much to what still lies buried. Just when she seemed most redundant, the critic recovers some currency as guardian of a now “global” heritage, and the curator, as prospector and guarantor of an expanded underground. However earnest, their debates are in vain: it won’t be for them to decide on the value of all this rare earth. Contemporary art has spoken, and its currency is not the “eternal yet transitory” (Baudelaire)— its currency is currency.
For years we heard that biennale and art fair were becoming indistinguishable. As the former mushroomed into formulaic vernissage for a new batch of collectibles, the latter, ever bolder in launching new work, generally eclipsed it. The fair’s ascendancy has been decisive in the West, but in spite of Hong Kong’s triumph it will be ignored awhile yet here in Asia, where the illusions keeping the two forms apart were always vaporous, destined to be dispelled by the eddies of a fast-turning global economic tide. This is not the end of the Asian biennale, but it certainly is a kind of calendar reform. The unspoken agreements, about what will fly and what (if anything) will not, will have to be revised. And as the art world busies itself with ratifying the new reality, art history, too, will need to be re-written.
So what’s the year dot of our new global art history? A timeline that used to reach back to ritual and devotion reaches back now to spectacle and distraction, to modernity as one great, dazzling image masquerading as everything that came before it, bringing us simultaneously and incessantly back to the future. “Orbital” perhaps, but hardly geological, it finds its Big Bang in Andy Warhol. Of this grotesque compression, our media are the prime movers. Warhol himself best summarizes the process, from his martyrdom in the 1980s to this apotheosis here in the Asian Convention Center. But nothing could have prepared us for the epic reordering of the celestial sphere that now spins around him. Hirst, Kapoor, Quinn— ready-made masters, fresh out of the Hadron Collider. A few venerable relics of a time before Andy remain— the odd Picasso here and there— as heroic myths, priceless testament to a reinterred pre-history. The rest is dark matter, scraps of circumstantial evidence for the existence of God or UFOs, the fewer the better, semiotic super-fuel for a torrent of hype, speculation and flat-earth zealotry.
Only it is not the earth, but time— history itself— that is flattened. The current clampdown on artistic “foment” in China could not have come at a better time, propping up the currency of history at precisely the hour not of its demise but of its reincarnation as Capital. (One assumes They know this; and nor are They the only ones to profit by the illusion that some other history than that of the market persists here.) Warhol’s own Maos, the dark nucleus of this fair, attest to the manifest destiny of a tradition rooted in the present. The “original” to which they refer is no longer Mao himself, but an article of Chinese contemporary art, an art-Mao whose provenance leads where else but to Warhol (… from A to B and Back Again). The historical dimension of art succumbs to this terrific compression of the past, its bones reduced to dust, a fate for which only a diamond-encrusted skull seems adequately prepared.
I will be called conservative, a Hegelian even, for announcing this implosion, the end of art all over again. If anything, this is long overdue; and what’s missing is surely not gone forever, but simply cellared, the dark matter of the market. What’s imperative is that it remain out of sight, and not complicate the immediate business of liberating Asian capital still shackled by the superstitious gravity of gold, concrete, or the armored luxury SUV. For art is not finished. On the contrary, it is born anew, cloned, unburdened of its memory, its ingenuous raisons d’être— God, Nation, Form, the Social— liberated, finally, as orbital capital, a great gushing flow to be massaged and manipulated in real time.
A recent blockbuster sums up the liquefaction well. The heroic-idiotic CGI disaster flick 2012 (2009) offered more than two hours of stupefying apocalypse, punctuated only by a series of pathetic, caricatured last stands. It could have been an allegory for our own aesthetic cataclysm— not the end, exactly, but a whitewash. If the critic has an avatar here it is Woody Harrelson’s crackpot paranoid, foaming at the mouth on his ridge in Yellowstone, all a-rant at the seismic holocaust. In the role of art history is the President, going down with his ship kindly, stoic and doomed. Meanwhile, the curator would be our phlegmatic lama, all calm and knowing, alone on his mount somewhere near Everest, sounding his gong to restart the clock. And to the survivors, digitally assembled on the decks of those enormous, Chinese-made arks, gazing out across sublime new seas yet to be crossed, a world washed clean, a new year zero.