A Sip of Cool
Contemporary Art | Cool is first and foremost a cliché : wet hair, paradisiacal beaches, youth... Cool rides the wave, changing with the fashion of the day as time races forward. Yet cool is also a precise attitude whose history can be traced as far back as 3000 BCE in the Yoruba and Igbo societies of Africa, as well is in other regions of the continent. The slave trade favoured the continuation this attitude of detachment, later popularized in the by African-American jazzmen in the early 20th century.
What we can call Modern Cool
What we can call « modern cool » developed at a moment of fusion, spreading through the youth of America via a unanimously acclaimed icon : Elvis. Cool would now include the notion of style, and appearance will become fundamental in the quest for liberty from social, sexual and political norms. The nomadic detachment of the Beat generation is finally incarnated visually at Woodstock. A parallel market develops, quickly recuperated by advertising and the mainstream. Cool is marketed, every twist and turn is slowly incorporated, even if the look is perpetually changing : hippie, punk, hip-hop, grunge etc. Paradoxically, in wishing to oppose capitalist society, the adepts of cool favour its acceleration and radicalization. They embrace the process of « cultural revolution » Jameson highlighted : the involuntary preparation for capitalism’s next step through each artistic attempt at extrication from it. According to Dick Poutain and David Robbins, the freedom, individualism and desires championed in the 60’s paradoxically promoted the neoliberal economic revolution of the Reagan years. If we consider Gramsci’s thesis that a political revolution is always preceded by a cultural revolution, the cool of the 60’s would be the breeding ground for the globalisation of postmodern society.
What dœs the resurgence of cool today mean ?
In the attitudes of the Danish artist Ditte Ejlerskov and the French duo Estrid Lutz & Emile Mold we see the same refusal to yield to conceptual norms and justifications imposed by art schools. The former, in painting African-American pop icons like Rihanna, the later in submerging their heads in water during their diploma at Beaux-Arts, voluntarily depriving themselves of all communication with the jury. They also allow themselves retinal pleasures, with a sophistication in the details that is a hallmark of modern cool. This notion of pleasure, which is not in contradiction with more political aspirations, is central in the paintings and writings of Ditte Ejlerskov, whose latest work mixes quasi-historiographic studies on feminism with an unabashed consumption of American pop, principally as incarnated by female singers of colour. A paradox that calls to mind the two seemingly incompatible axes of the French duo’s work : hobbies and catastrophes. A very West Coast spirit reigns over their work; a cool marked by surf, waves and rocky beaches. However, saturating their surfaces with Ferraris, engines and race cars, they drink down to the very dregs of cool, including its derivative violence and commodification.
The end of an era
Pictures of consumption are, by essence, quickly rendered obsolete. As such, a taste for the transitory runs through the works of these three artists. This taste for the transitory calls to mind the baroque gentleman whose attitude entertained a troubled relationship with the notion of cool. That man dresses up, observes changes in Nature, cherish minutia and torsions as if it were monumental, in a philosophy of the end that is not nostalgic. Estrid Lutz & Emile Mold’s objects are artificially aged - credit cards/business cards appear ready to crumble, lenses are scratched, timeworn collages on stone. It would seem they’ve been found, under water, after a great catastrophe annihilated our civilization : a catastrophe on an even greater scale than those that syncopate their works (9/11, the sinking of the Concordia, airplane crashes...). Their body of work, all fluidity, would welcome the idea of a planetary tsunami.
Remember that Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa was realized only thirty years before the end of the Edo period (1600-1868), ending the government the shoguns initiated in the 12th century.