The Evolution of Research-Based Art: From Leonardo da Vinci to Cameron Rowland

  German art historian Tom Holert (1962- ) once wrote in Artforum magazine: “Art comes from research.” His view has been recognized and affirmed by some art critics. When reviewing the 2009 Havana Biennale, some insiders believed that research-based art is the iconic feature of Western art biennales. More and more critics are paying attention to research-based art. Some art schools in Canada and Europe have established relevant projects and institutions for research art as early as 20 years ago. In 1997, the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki established a doctorate in art, and since then the number of countries offering doctorates in art has gradually increased. Some well-known curators in the world have also organized large-scale international research art exhibitions. Today’s research artists are also teaching their students artistic research methods, encouraging the art world to create more research-based artworks.
  In fact, this development trend has a long historical track and is related to the creative motivations of artists. For example, as early as Leonardo da Vinci and the 17th-century naturalist and painter Maria Sibylla Merian (Maria Sibylla Merian) ) has found traces of research-based art in his works. German contemporary artist Hito Steyerl (1966- ) believes that the semiotic investigation of Soviet avant-garde art in the 1920s has had a profound impact on the development of today’s research-based art. She has explored the epistemological analysis of concepts such as fact, reality, and objectivity by writers and photographers. From a constructivist perspective, artists were positioned as designers, technicians and engineers pioneering new methods of construction, from which productivist projects and a comprehensive approach called “fact writing” emerged.
  Fact writers chronicle and analyze modern life through text, photos, and videos. Unlike traditional documentary filmmakers, they do not advocate objective and unbiased depictions of reality, but rather process reality through ideological understanding, use new creative models, and actively transform it according to collective acceptance.
  Another critical period in the history of the development of research-based art was the transition period in artistic concepts in the 1960s and 1970s, which was accompanied by the emergence of institutional critical art. Conceptual artists believe that apart from formalist painting and sculpture art, the creativity and imagination of a work of art (not its external expression) is also a kind of art. Their work frequently includes text, diagrams, photographs, and other forms of documentation. From this perspective, art can be seen as a transformation of information.

  Research not only enriches the artwork but becomes an important part of its content. The German artist Hans Haacke (1936-) once incorporated archival records from the New York County Office into his work about Manhattan real estate inspections. The work is simply factual, consisting of 142 photographs of buildings and vacant lots, maps of the Lower East Side and Harlem, and text and graphics about ownership changes, land values, and mortgage lender information.
  For institutional critical artists, research is an important method for the art world to explore and reveal diverse social systems and sociopolitical contexts, aiming to show that art is not eternal, but is socially constructed and subject to artistic traditions and norms.
  An important turning point in artistic creation in the 20th century was the 1980s and 1990s, when more and more artists integrated research practices into their works that expressed feminism, postcolonialism, queer themes, and other issues related to identity politics. An early representative work is Mary Kelly’s “Postpartum Record” (1973-1979). The work consists of six series, drawing on the research results of Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, recording the artist’s experience as a first-time mother and her son’s growth experience before he was 6 years old. Combining feminist critique of conceptual art with Lacanian psychoanalysis, the work presents the mother-child relationship as an inter-subjective symbolic exchange.

  For decades, artists have often incorporated archival materials or archival-form texts into their work, allowing research art to fill gaps in content about overlooked histories and marginalized groups. They begin by studying objects, ideas, events, or scenes to re-examine reality in a socio-historical context. Renée Green’s iconic work “Import and Export Vernacular Jazz Office” presents the richness of American and German hip-hop culture and African diasporic culture through primary sources such as books, magazines, photos, cassette tapes, and interview videos. Audition archives.

  Another direction of research-based artistic creation is to question the authority and authenticity of archives by pointing out their inherent bias. Walid Raad (1967- ) has compiled original and non-original materials such as documents, notes, photos, news clippings, interview records and videos about the Lebanese Civil War. These materials include both facts and fictions. The artist It parses the narrative of documentary media, demonstrates a distrust of official narratives, and unearths the connections between history, memory, trauma and fantasy.

  Some critics are skeptical of the current popularity of research-based art. At a symposium held at the Vienna Kunsthalle in 2019, British art historian Claire Bishop criticized many research-based art works for being overloaded with information, only a centralized display of materials, lacking a sense of hierarchy and narrative, and are not in line with today’s Appreciation habits of the public in the Internet era.
  Maria Eichhorn (1962- ), as a second-generation institutional critical artist in Germany, interprets research art from a new perspective. She once bought a vacant lot and examined its history. Tenants on the site had opposed luxury apartments being built on the site, making the affordable housing plan possible. Eichhorn’s installation displays copies of real estate sales contracts, real estate registration certificates, pamphlets introducing the origins of the city, etc., trying to prompt viewers to rethink the socioeconomic reality of urban life and the contradiction between the interests of the government and individuals. Eichhorn eventually sold the land back to the government and donated the proceeds to the local tenants’ association.

  In addition, Eichhorn also focused on illegal acquisitions in German history. In 2003, she collaborated with the historian Anja Heuss to explore the provenance of 15 paintings from the collection of the Lenbach Kunsthalle in Munich, which were on long-term loan from the Federal Republic of Germany at the time, and organized an exhibition there. exhibition titled “Returning Politics”. After World War II and until 1962, the Allies sought to return art stolen by the Nazis, and the remaining approximately 20,000 unclaimed pieces were nationalized. The two artists pointed out that seven of the works were probably stolen or forcibly taken from their Jewish owners. They also showed the records on the backs of the works, including one that had just been returned to the heirs of its Jewish owners.
  The investigation of the circulation of these paintings will naturally lead to questions about the disposal of other such artworks. Eichhorn’s exhibition at Documenta 2017 continues to focus on the theme of art restitution. His exhibition project is called “Ross Varan Institute”, which aims to examine the repatriation of various types of Jewish property since 1933 (not just art) looting. His work is displayed in a multi-room gallery with towering bookshelves filled with books from German public libraries. A background note on the wall of the exhibition hall states that the owners of these books are Jewish and were illegally obtained from the city library in 1943. Eichhorn also presented photographs, auction records, inventory lists and documents related to confiscated Jewish property such as art and books. Visitors can also learn from the introductory text that the “Ross Varan Institute” is actually a physical organization with the mission of returning plunder to the rightful owners and their heirs.

  Similar to Eichhorn’s style, the items exhibited by Cameron Rowland (1988-) from the United States are accompanied by detailed historical background descriptions. His work focuses on racial exploitation. For example, the work “Assessment” (2018) displays an 18th-century English grandfather clock from a South Carolina plantation and three 19th-century fee receipts, which list the collection of slaves, clocks, and livestock in slave states. property taxes. The work is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, with everyday objects such as leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, strollers and bicycles scattered randomly around the gallery. The items were purchased from police auctions of confiscated civilian property — a law that allows law enforcement officers to seize items deemed to have been obtained through illegal conduct without a warrant. The law “civil asset confiscation” comes from the British Navigation Act of 1660. This law was enacted to maintain Britain’s trade monopoly on its colonies and West Africa, and was later adopted by the United States. Today the statute is enforced by police departments and federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security. Shockingly, Rowland’s written materials show that in 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a subsidiary of the National Security Agency, handed over $1 billion in forfeiture funds to the U.S. Treasury Department. Just as slave property taxes funded southern states before the Civil War, proceeds from the auctions of civilian asset forfeitures were used to fund institutions. The objects on display in Rowland evoke the property issues of enslaved people and illegal immigrants whose civil rights were denied protection, and the resulting dispossession and profiteering.
  Eichhorn focused on restitution, while Rowland focused on reparations. In 2016, his work “Compensation for Illegal Proceeds” was exhibited at the “Artist Space” in New York. At the same time, a trust fund for compensation purposes was established, and relevant legal documents were also made public. The trust fund purchased shares in Aetna, an insurance company that had profited from insuring slave owners. It wasn’t until the U.S. government passed the Economic Reparations for Slavery Act that the trust sold its shares in the company to the federal agency responsible for reparations.
  Gala Porras-Kim suggests mediation as another form of reparation. Her project Rain in an Arid Landscape (2022) debuted at the Armand Museum in Brooklyn. The exhibits focus on Mayan cultural objects collected by the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. In a large painting titled “Rain and Dew at the Peabody Museum,” she depicts objects found in a Mayan sinkhole in Mexico that were dedicated to Chak, the Mayan god of thunder, rain, and lightning. It was excavated and salvaged by American diplomat and archaeologist Edward H. Thompson between 1904 and 1911. The circular exhibition area in the middle of the exhibition hall displays photos, documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and publications from the Peabody Museum’s historical materials, allowing viewers to understand the difficulty of bringing these cultural relics to light at that time. Thompson bought land around the cave to gain access to the area and smuggle the artifacts into the United States, but Mexico has laws in place that make it illegal to export artifacts.
  In a letter to the director of the Peabody Museum on display in Random Thoughts in the Rain (2021), Porras-King noted that “Chuck’s Tribute” had been in a cave filled with water, and that the museum The environment is too dry for the preservation of the inherently moist exhibits, and exposure to air and the dry environment of the pavilion’s storage rooms will change their material composition, and they are now dust particles temporarily bonded together by cultural relic conservation methods. Therefore, she suggested that a dialogue should be opened for the return of cultural relics to their rightful dignified status, and some form of spiritual repatriation should be achieved.

  Combining artistic research and institutional criticism, the research conducted by artists represented by Porras-King has indeed raised critical questions to the authoritative system. In other words, they are examining “research”, questioning the rules of knowledge production, and challenging the status quo. Rather than conducting research and announcing final results, they focus more on broadening our horizons to properly view a world with a shameful past.