FRONTRUNNER Art Correspondent Mateo Ravelin: An Introduction

Self-introduction, or self-congratulation for that matter, was never my forte. If anything, digression, repression of surprisingly acute intuition, and self-doubt is where I’ve always thrived. I dread those séances, where you’re expected to share your name and a funny detail from your past. I am a Sagittarius: practical, forthright, and goal-oriented. Pleasantries, as much as they are appreciated, seem redundant and are often considered time-wasters. Accordingly, to make this introduction as pain-free as possible, while offering some autobiographical content, I decided to issue a brief, stream of consciousness-esque rumination about the potential for the arts — plural “arts,” because if anything, this magazine is about trying to understand and document multiple kinds of sensory immersions.

My life, contrary to that of both parents, began with an intense attraction to the dramatic arts. Specifically, the imitation of what “polite” society once described as individuals with “questionable” morals — witches, prostitutes, and drag queens. I still harbour peculiar affection towards mimicry of the aforementioned, who remain to this day marginalised, ostracised, or persecuted. With time, however, my interests evolved to encompass just about every branch of the arts and humanities. Theatrical work and acting, performance art and drawing, music composition, arrangement and performance, writing, and theoretical/analytical assessments of the mentioned and more. These interests of mine, I realise now, reflect my ongoing search for a philosophy of life, or, if you will, coping mechanisms.

“[O]ur Western lives,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, “seem to native cultures to be one long series of preparations for living.” That’s exactly how I — and I suspect many others — have felt yet have struggled to articulate. Gradually, artists like Marcel Proust, Paul Cézanne, Dmitri Shostakovich, Roberto Benigni, Joan Rivers, and Camille Paglia (my mum and brother’s sizeable contributions included) taught me to appreciate the seemingly insignificant, the ephemeral, the inescapable in life. Therefore, I concur with Paglia when she says that in a world of secular humanism, art is indispensable. Art engages body and mind. It is, to borrow the words of McLuhan, the extension of our physical body and nervous system, even when only in obscure and irrational senses. Art, in my experience, is transcendental, transformative, and has the potential to make a real change in the life of one or an entire community.

The performative and/or applied aspect of my fascinations have their roots in my inseparability from that seemingly magic box (i.e., television set), drawing, and solitary playing on a rug — literally, my incessant playing with the original paper cut-outs of anime figures on a Persian carpet obtained from an off-road Saarland Sperrmüll by my refugee parents. The love of theory and analysis, however, was spurred on by a few committed teachers during my formal education. To this day, I remember all the ticks and catchphrases of my history teachers, to whom I applied that maxim, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” They, like my grandfather, lived and breathed the subjects of their choice. Their passion, no less than the immense knowledge they possessed, the importance they attached to understanding of the causes, motives, and consequences of historical events (because “things do not happen in vacuum!”), in addition to the Syrian War and attendant refugee crises, impacted me profoundly and marked a decisive turn in my thinking — a turn towards more inquiry-based, critical, and (self-)reflective approach to knowledge.

In true Sagittarian, latitude-loving fashion, eventually I ended up receiving an MA in Art History and Visual Culture. Art history, as an inherently interdisciplinary field, rests on exploration, immersion, investigation, analysis, and synthesis — all those activities that a child does unawares, and whose enthusiasm us, as adults, must regain. Art history is interested in the concept and its manifestation, often an object, its composition, subject-matter, artist, provenance, influence, and wider socio-political/economic impact. Once all the above-stated is taken into consideration, including — and this is paramount — the need to understand, I guess it comes as no surprise that my professional interests converge in the fields of art and education.

Contemporary art, its appearance, content, and significance: to finally arrive at FRONTRUNNER’s main thrust, is quite distinct from traditional art forms, not least due to its stylistic pluralism and utilisation of a variety of new and mixed media. As a result, many an art lover, let alone the uninitiated, complain about its unintelligibility. Just earlier this week, a colleague declared his distaste for it due to its lack of “meaning” and “beauty.” Such views seem to be the rule rather than exception in the current discourse about contemporary art. This ought not to be glanced over.

My principal mission in writing for FRONTRUNNER is to provide readers with a toolbox, so to speak, that will enable them to approach, appreciate, and enjoy contemporary art. There really isn’t such a thing as bad contemporary art. In the end, it’s a matter of mindset — what your preconceived opinions/judgements and expectations are. Vision is a cultural construct. It is highly dependent on one’s religious, economic, social, and educational background as well as personal experience. Moreover, visual images are polysemous, that is, they have multiple meanings or interpretations, thus requiring context. This is generally done for us by the artist or an arts institution. Sometimes there is no meaning in a single work, or it is indecipherable for us. Whatever the case, meaning is ultimately irrelevant for sensory experience and enjoyment of a work. If we manage to relinquish our inhibitions even just for a moment, that could already be a milestone.

I end this introduction with some modern and contemporary artists who I am particularly fond of. Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, Edvard Munch, August Sander, Egon Schiele, Man Ray, René Magritte, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Vincent van Gogh, Tamara de Lempicka, Sol LeWitt, Frank Auerbach, Robert Mapplethorpe, Marina Abramović, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Peter Kennard, David Wojnarowicz, Alfredo Jaar, Félix González-Torres, Tania Bruguera, Anohni (musician and visual artist), Regina José Galindo, Kehinde Wiley, The Nest Collective, Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, and Trevor Paglen.

To name a few.

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