The term “contemporary art” lacks boundaries. If modern art has come to denote a period from the late nineteenth century through roughly the 1960s, what follows is a long contemporary. The features in our November/December issue break up that undifferentiated present by treating the first decade of the twenty-first century as a discrete period, one that is neither the present anymore, nor fully past.
In stories that continue on A.i.A.’s website, we examine how the era’s broad cultural landscape—marked by wars, economic calamities, but also strides toward global interconnection— establishes a foundation for the present. This examination of the early 2000s also has a personal dimension. Technically a Millennial, I wanted to better understand a formative period. As someone who owned a first-generation iPod, established an early Facebook account, and occasionally ate brunch at a restaurant (as is stereotypical of my cohort), I find the aughts to be steeped in nostalgia. It was time spent discovering the different facets of the New York art world: the painfully self-aware counterculture of Williamsburg, the political discussions at 16 Beaver, drinks at the Passerby bar in Chelsea. Andrew Russeth helps jolt me out of reverie with his critical look at the city’s amped-up and occasionally carnivalesque art scene. But even within the excess and borderline nihilism, Russeth finds an important undercurrent: artists pulling away from elite taste and seeking alignment with the culture at large.
At the heart of this issue is a survey of the exhibitions that helped define the era, from the pivotal Shanghai Biennial of 2000 to the small-scale interventions at Triple Candie in Upper Manhattan. We asked a wide range of contributors to look back at these shows, and assess what they reveal about the period’s fascinations and blind spots—and how the influence of these exhibitions continues to be felt. One hypothesis put forth here is that the roots of the art world’s most pressing conflicts and debates today—about equity, justice, and race—can be traced back to the aughts. In that spirit, Coco Fusco and Hamza Walker discuss how expressions of Blackness in art have changed, identifying key trends in the 2000s as complex precursors to today’s conversations about art and identity.
I first encountered Laylah Ali’s work in an artist’s book published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The world of ambiguous humanoid characters she created on the page has stuck with me, and today her art appears wholly prescient in ways that Fusco and Walker suggest. It was a pleasure to exchange ideas with her and to feature her work, including a piece she designed for this issue.