When Hal Foster first published his acclaimed collection of essays The Return of the Real back in 1996, he was among the first to signal (or at the very least theorise) the advent of 'abject' art - an art of trauma ('traumatic realism') and infantile perversions, gross sexual imagery and bodily secretions.1 Thus the 'real' referred to in the title of this book was to be understood in the capital- R Lacanian sense first and foremost, as that which exists outside the realm of language and resists all attempts at symbolic mediation or assimilation. The real, in abject art's contentious case, was there to remind us of the crude, irreducible facts of 'real' embodiment amid the rising tide of 'derealisation'. Indeed, it is worth noting that The Return of the Real came out when the first waves of technooptimism engendered by the various digital revolutions of the early-to-mid-1990s were ebbing away, and a certain measure of anxiety (as well as sheer fatigue) was starting to accompany any casual mention of the salutary effects of 'virtual reality' and the Internet-driven 'dematerialisation' - a tactic pioneered in the Conceptual art of the late 1960s, incidentally - of the world economy. Looking at the work of Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, John Miller, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith, among others, Foster observed both the unruly return of real bodies and the essential irrepressibility of trauma, and rightly identified the critical impetus that informed much of the work in this vein, some of which had been shaped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. A decade and a half on from the publication of The Return of the Real, however, it is tempting to conjecture that what happened subsequently was not so much a continuation of the real's gradual return among our midst as its accelerated disappearance. Only in the second half of the 90s did the dotcom boom really take off, to be perfunctorily interrupted by the Y2K panic, after which the first decade of the twenty-first century saw unprecedented economic growth thanks to the progressive deregulation of global financial markets. (The inner workings of which increasingly lost touch with all conventional notions of economic 'reality', let alone economic realism.) The effects that this loss of reality (and the concomitant depreciation of 'realism', of whatever kind, as a viable mode of representing this loss-of-reality as a reality in its own right) has had upon art is well-known, as the traditional concept of the art world was increasingly supplanted by that of the art market - by the proliferation of art fairs, the explosive growth of gallery circuits, the stellar rise of the twin figures of the collector and the superstar dealer as the era's defining cultural icons (themselves replacements for the curatoriat of the 90s), and by both the diamond-studded skull of Damien Hirst (For the Love of God, 2007) and Hirst himself grinning at us from the gleaming covers of art magazines bloated with advertising.
It is probably still too early to say whether this whole complex belongs to the past, as the effects of the current global economic crisis upon the contemporary art context are increasingly difficult to determine, let alone define - in fact, it is becoming more difficult by the day to define the nature of the crisis's progress (what crisis?) as such: is it already over, is it in full swing or is it yet to make itself felt? However this may be, there is no denying that the reality check forced upon both the world of art and the world at large by the planetary financial meltdown of 2008-2009 has reawakened interest in the topic of realism as the artistic tradition or paradigm that is most deeply committed to the idea of representing and interpreting reality (as opposed to a Lacanian 'real' that does not necessarily correspond to anything real in the conventional sense of the term): no longer just a return of the real, then, but a return of realism. As I am writing this foreword, Berlin (the location, last year, of a two-day symposium dedicated to 'realism in contemporary art', held at ICI Kulturlabor, the proceedings of which will be published as a book later this year) is gearing up for the sixth instalment of the Berlin Biennial, and this event has already made a promise to 'question contemporary art's relationship to reality' - a process of interrogation that will be afforded its proper historic dimension by means of an exhibition-within- the-exhibition of the work of German arch-realist Adolph Menzel, to be curated by Michael Fried. Though nowhere near as high profile an event as this biennial, I could not help but notice that the Kunsthalle Emden and the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich, in the meantime, are organising an exhibition titled 'Realism: The Adventure of Reality' this spring and summer; it looks like it features its fair share of Photorealism, that North American 1970s painting fad that is experiencing its own modest revival (and which I consider in an essay in this issue), as was also attested by an exhibition titled 'Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s' at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin in 2009. (Judging by the examples here named, one could be forgiven for thinking that this revived interest in pictorial realism is a German affair first and foremost - the result, perhaps, of long years of exposure to the work of Thomas Demand and Andreas Gursky.)
And indeed, on a couple of occasions during the meeting at which the broad contours of the current issue of Afterall were first drawn out, the subject of realism was broached - to be dropped again and picked up again later: as my colleagues have pointed out, for the last couple of years the subject of realism has been broached at every Afterall meeting - yet more proof, if such proof were still needed, that the question of contemporary art's relationship to reality is steadily gaining urgency as everywhere around us reality is to be seen falling apart, evaporating, disintegrating, disappearing, not seldom (and this is of course of crucial importance here) with the active help of art.
Three of the four artists under consideration in this issue raise questions in their work that address the complex entanglement of the real, reality and realism (three very different, but obviously interrelated concepts): the question of realism is clearly a relevant one to Portuguese film-maker Pedro Costa, and one of the essays devoted to his work is tellingly titled 'Realism, not Reality'; realism as both a representational strategy and pictorial tradition is similarly central - in the shape of a problem as much as an opportunity - to the art of Kerry James Marshall; and the hopeful dream of really making an impact (i.e. in the 'real' world, not just the art world) can be seen to motivate many projects by Alice Creischer, whose work reminds me of the timely statement by Rosa Luxemburg that 'the most revolutionary deed is and remains to state things as they are'. Hovering above these multifaceted practices, we encounter a host of concepts and ideas that add to the riches of the reality/realism debate, such as that of the document, historiography, reportage, re-enactment and truth, while the (primarily sculptural) work of the fourth artist in this issue, Leonor Antunes, lends acutely material, anthropomorphic (and -metric) weight to a discussion of realisms and realities that can easily lose sight of the sobering fact of our embodied being-in-the-world. The area around art is also treated in the contextual essays in this issue: the Brazilian architect Flávio de Carvalho's buildings and clothing for a 'new man of the Tropics'; Architectural Association founder Mark Cousins's positioning of support and scaffolding as integral to our understanding of the built world; and finally, Pedro G. Romero's discussion of flamenco and gypsy language in relation to the political and artistic forms of modernity.
A return to the real rather than of the real, then: there is no use waking up from the sleep of reason if there is no real world out there to wake up to.
See Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the end of the Century, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1996.↑