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the 'return of the subject' at the Royal Academy

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Review

Charles Jencks attributes the dominance of non-representational, or abstract and minimal art and architecture, at various points in the past 100 years to a number of factors. These include the flowering of film as an alternative, quintessentially narrative art-form, the influence of a notion of 'aristocratic restraint' in high culture, and the emergence of a fast-moving, culturally diverse (western) civilisation where the only common meaning is that of the market. But, he argues, there has in recent years been a noticeable 'return of the subject' in recent contemporary art and architecture, manifesting itself, in one way, as a domination of 'enigmatic symbolism' over minimalism.

The architecture forum at the Royal Academy last week was convened to consider this phenomenon, couched in terms of 'the reintroduction or the reinvention of meaning in contemporary art and architecture'.

No-one, however, among the participants - a handful of established male practitioner-representatives of their respective worlds - paused to address the ludicrous suggestion that the abstraction of, say, Rothko, is somehow less meaningful than the symbolic architecture of Libeskind, Gehry, or Coates lauded by Jencks.

In any case, it became apparent that a significant proportion of the contributors were not wholly in favour of Jencks's somewhat triumphalist thesis - culminating as it does in two new offshoots, the 'extrinsicists' and 'intrinsicists', to his ever-growing tree of modern movements.

Richard Cork admitted he had become 'increasingly nervous about the term 'subject', and suggested the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Gallery revealed a high degree of caution among artists in handling the 'subject' in their work. It can, Cork proposed, 'lead to a lack of complexity and ambiguity . . . and an inappropriate literalness. The whole notion of the subject might turn into a trap.' His position was endorsed by Anish Kapoor, who insisted that 'the subject is something we already possess, which we struggle to look for in the means of working';

but, 'far from needing to return to it we may need to get away from it'.He supported a suggestion that the thematic hanging of works at the Tate Modern, aimed at making explicit the meaning or subject of art, is really 'taking a dim view of audiences'.

Richard MacCormac, who indicated the presence of a certain symbolic content in his work, suggested that, compared with artists, architects are constantly under pressure to 'verbalise meaning' in their work, but confessed that he often feels he is 'getting dangerously close to something he doesn't want to do'. Ian Ritchie was concerned to point out that often accidents can influence a piece of work quite independently from the author's intentions, challenging the whole concept of control in authorship on which the debate seemed to be premised. But the most valuable insight came from artist David Ward, who suggested we should focus more on 'what art does rather than what it means.'

The Royal Academy Architecture Forum, entitled The Return of the Subject, was held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

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