Long Read

The challenges of defining the ‘Contemporary’

These questions are particularly difficult to answer, because the labels used in artistic historical classification differ so widely from one culture to another. In France, for example, considered the custodian of artistic revolution, the designation ‘contemporary history’is specific to a period dating from the year 1789 onwards (that is, the beginning of the French revolution), while the term ‘contemporary art’ mainly refers to the period between the second half of the 19th century and our present day. The word ‘contemporary’ can be a specific temporal designation in a historical context, yet in the field of art, it is used more as a critical – rather than event or time-specific – classification. What we call ‘contemporary’, according to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is “that which can move time, and place it in relation with other times by apportioning and examining it.” (1) Thus described, the term ‘contemporary’ becomes one we can apply during our present time regardless of an object’s or subject’s production date. 

However, when dealing with sculpture, it seems that applying the classification ‘contemporary’ is more complicated. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the most complicated tasks that historians and art critics are facing today.  This complication dates back to the early 20th century and is closely linked to the wide and comprehensive revolution that has taken place related to the question of medium – that is, the material –used in sculpture itself. This revolution has manifested itself on two levels: firstly, through the evolution of tools and techniques that has led to a wider choice of materials and methods of execution, and secondly, on an intellectual level as definitions and familiar concepts pertaining to the very concept of matter (in relation to sculpture) are being re-thought and redefined. 

The Question of Medium and Matter

What, then, is ‘medium’ in contemporary art? The answer seems obvious: medium refers to the accepted raw materials – the matter – used in a work. But as soon as we move on to review what is used in contemporary sculpture, we find out that this is not such a simple issue after all. 

Not only does the word ‘matter’ have diverse philosophical and physical interpretations, but what we refer to as the matter of a sculptural work is different in this new, contemporary context. Beyond the realms of traditional materials (wood, stone), sound, light, motion, daily objects and even the living human body have all become accepted media for contemporary sculpture. Yet ‘matter’, in various languages, refers to the perceptible, tangible and visual.  It is the component that makes us aware of the existence of a certain form or body. Various questions raised by physics and philosophy have served to define our understanding of the very value of matter itself. Thus, investigating the materials of contemporary sculpture requires other more specific considerations. In the Western canon, since the dawn of the twentieth century, contemporary sculptors have been revolting against traditional materials.  This revolution led to widening the borders of sculpture as well as the rise of revolutionary movements and schools of art, all stemming from the changing way we think vis-à-vis the (accepted) materials for sculptural work. One should note, an important factor in the preference for ‘traditional’ materials was in fact a fear of obliteration: of the work, and thereby, of its creator. Yet  matter, in and of itself, does not contain a self-destructing mechanism. It is the passage of time that causes ruin, as in the case of sensitive materials, fragile matter like paper and unbaked clay.

This fear of obliteration was overcome when artists challenged definitions of matter, context and time. Picasso, for example, used paper as matter for sculpture as early as late 1911, particularly in his Guitars series (1912–14). His structures were created for the very purpose of diminishing the distance between the notion of a ‘mere’ maquette, an initial model or study of a ‘final’ piece, and what was considered a finished, properly executed artistic work (one assumes traditional durable materials such as bronze, marble, plaster and ceramics, among others). The same applies to the famous series of ‘ready-mades’ by Marcel Du champ, the first of which was displayed by the artist in his atelier in 1911. Duchamp presented a bicycle wheel without any artistic ‘intervention’ except installing it on a stand that allowed it to revolve.  Like Picasso, Duchamp sought to challenge accepted art historical definitions pertaining to material in sculpture and painting. What was important here was the challenging of what was accepted as a ‘completed’ work of art, or sculpture, by challenging definitions of accepted materials.

Thanks, largely, to the contributions of Picasso, Duchamp and their peers, today, modern definitions  are much freer, and our definition of sculpture is “all that is three-dimensional.” This has opened up our way of thinking about material as more than simply a physical structure, and rather, as a concept: works are no longer bound to their mere physical state, but exist across theoretical and intellectual planes as well.


Medium within the context of contemporary Syrian Sculpture

We have discussed issues pertaining to definitions of contemporary sculpture in the Western canon, and the struggles faced in redefining accepted media within it. Here, I would like to focus on contemporary Syrian plastic art and its evolution. With the onset of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the whole movement of Syrian art, with all its specializations, has witnessed an unprecedented expansionary shift. In particular, the renewed use of sculpture, and a revision of accepted forms, is one of the most distinctive shifts to have come out of this. 


This has manifested especially in the works of the new generation of artists who have been forced to move to other countries because of the war. It should be noted that their views on – and selection of – the raw materials they choose are clearly influenced by the violent events and images of destruction and ruin to which they have been exposed. Sometimes, they seem clearly raw, just like the rawness of the atrocious war, as in the work of sculptor Khaled Dawwa, whose My Heart Is Here”, is made with clay, left to dry naturally. The fragility of the dry clay becomes a significant metaphor for the idea of destruction. Dawwa also inserted several elements made of wood and metal to reflect some of his individual memoriesas well as Syrian collective memory. He has also dedicated a series of sculptural works called The Dictatorto a character of heavy build and with a body of huge proportions that looks most severe in its bronze iterations, even though most of them have been perforated as if the body had  been pierced, or had objects hurled at it.  

This identification between a work’s matter and its theme is also found in the works of the sculptor Mohamad Omran. In his seriesWaiting, we are presented with a group of 12 seated figures, men and women, their eyes completely hidden by glasses. Omran uses resin, intentionally undyed, so as to amplify its frozen plastic attributes and those of these persons sitting and waiting. We then move to the works of sculptor Alaa Abu Chahine, who, after periods of experimenting with metal and bronze and mixed media, now has a unique style of making human heads and animal bodies by using paper. What is interesting here is that the use of paper is genuine: originating with the idea, contrary to what we often see in sculpture where the work is executed with soft material first and then cast with more solid and resistant materials. Thus, Abu Chahine is faced with a technical challenge in addition to an expressive one. Constructing a three-dimensional mass out of paper is a complex procedure (as Picasso could tell us) and if the artist succeeds in this task then they are also reviving the soul of paper through writings, drawings and lines made with an ink pen, all of which remind us of the reminiscent value of paper.  

Material, when used like this, carries within itself a particular historical depth and a close connection to our daily life. This enriches both the concept and the aesthetic element. In another example, Yamen Youssef experiments with the pleasure of researching many raw materials. It is as if he is flipping through available visual language, searching among resin, wood and bronze for the formation of the feminine human body. The most daring and distinctive among his sculptures is a collection of works made with baked, unpainted clay; bodies cocooned and wrapped in a roll of white woolen yarn: he contrast between the softness and warmth of the wool and the severity and dryness of the colorless clay stands out.

The Painter as Sculptor

The value of experimentation lies in the unfamiliar possibilities that arise from it. We notice that this trend has resulted in unique aesthetics. Take, for example, the artist Fady Yazigi, one of the most prominent names in the previous generation of artists, and who has been fond of baked clay in several collections. Yazigi also produces the pieces in wood, at other times in metal or even framed in a glass box, affirming the fineness and fragility of the matter despite its otherwise solid, cohesive shape. Besides, Yazigi tends to be more liberal in a number of his works, such as a series which saw him paint with coloured pigments on round loaves of bread fixed to the canvas of a painting, metamorphosing the two-dimensional work into a three-dimensional one. It should be said that Yazigi’s production in sculpture resembles his work in painting in a way that liberates the sculpture and colours it with the identity of his pictorial language. We see this clearly in his protruding sculptural work; as if he was transporting the characters of his portrait to the three-dimensional space.  

This technique of transferring painted characters to a work of sculpture is not strange. Other sculptors have done it, inspired by the portraits of another artist, such as the French sculptor Cesar, that pioneer of the School of New Realism. In his 1989 exhibition A Greeting To Morandi, he presented a formulation similar to the jugs of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, which simulated the drawn model. This kind of art generating by blending sculpture with painting is manifested in two cases: the first is handling sculpture with the tools of the painter and the second is in the scale of the work. An example of this second case can be found in the experiment of the artist Thaier Helal. He put together a huge world map by arranging a great number of pearly beads and colourful plastic crocodile figures. The result was a work that fluctuated between a protruding sculpture and a portrait. 

While some artists integrate elements of daily life in their work, others, like Walaa Dakkak, perform conversely. For several years, the ‘eye’ has taken over his work and occupied the space of his portraits; overlapping, interlocking and watching with a suspicious look to the point of seeping into elements of his daily life. Dakkak etches and engraves the eye onto glass or metal, on cupboards and even chandeliers – anywhere where light has an indispensable role in projecting the imaginary movement of the eyes. These eyes are his obsession and it is this obsession which sees them embodied through sculptures that simulate the objects of the lived spatial environment. Thus, in the case of Dakkak, it was the subject that led him to shift from traditional portrait painting to a three-dimensional work.

In fact, the relationship between sculpture and painting has always been creative. It is also a source of innovation for both in our present time. It has generated a unique style of liberal thinking about raw materials. An early example is what the French artist Georges Braque did in hisSculpture de coin – Nature morte. Here was sculpture that belonged, according to his stylistic characteristics, to the Cubist school. It was made of paper and cardboard and no longer exists today but, according to documents, was most probably produced in 1911.  Braque mentioned in a letter addressed to his colleague Picasso that through this work he wanted to develop processes and pictorials related to their work in Cubism. He explained that he felt the need to contemplate realistically the size and surfaces within the three-dimensional, so that he could represent them in a two-dimensional portrait. And thus, without actually intending to, Braque created the first paper sculpture and later on, as discussed earlier in this essay, Picasso had a bigger role in further developing the experiment through his work on paper guitars. From the point of view of the contemporary Syrian plastic scene, we call to mind the sculptural experiments of the painter Walid Al Masri. In his Elephantseries there are ceramic figurines ranging between very big measurements of one meter to tiny ones that do not exceed a few centimeters. Al Masri modifies both the traditional concept of ceramic sculpture and that of a huge animal at the same time. In places he cuts the figure or breaks it into fragments, or even boldly presents it with cracks and splinters so that it looks like that massive body was suddenly struck by expressional changes. At other times, the artist covers the body mass with writings in ink, leading us to think falsely of paper despite the great difference in shape between the two matters. 

A Tendency Toward A Broader Liberalism

When we actually think about prominent names among the previous generations of Syrian sculptors – those such as Lotfi Al Ramahi, for example – we notice boldness in shifting from one matter to another like metal, wood, marble and basalt. The same goes for the sculptor Assem Bacha in his metal, ceramic, clay and bronze works. However, within the older generation, we often sense a caution in dealing with each medium, while the desire of young Syrian artists to innovate tools of expression and materials drives some of them to resort to other, new media. One such example is Randa Maddah, who has shifted her artistic work from sculpture and installation to video. It is worth mentioning that she has maintained her sensitivity to material, especially when using elements of daily life as part of her work, such as the choice of mirrors in her video Light Horizon,or the eroded wall in the video Restoration. The latter forms part of a project which carries the same title, and through which Maddah seeks to assert the aesthetics of the elements as she found them, without embellishment. These elements hold the remnants of the memories of the inhabitants of a village called Ain Fet, in the Syrian Golan, which has fallen to ruins at the hands of the Occupation. Randa implants each element within a cement slab and constructs a mural installation from 16 slabs that bear the expression with no visual affectation.  

If we go deeply into this type of shifting between the media of expression we find that it is in reality one of the dominant features of contemporary sculpture. In his book Contemporary Sculpture, art historian Paul Louis Rinuy writes: “Contemporary sculpture, in particular, has connections with other arts that can produce various hybrid genres, such as the cinema-sculpture, acoustic sculpture, photography as sculpture, installation, dancing, performance and furniture sculptures.” (2)

Moreover, liberalism in Syrian art has taken another form, represented in renewing the vision of the very meaning of sculpture itself. This is evident in the work of Abdel Karim Majdel Beik, whosePostponed Democracy uses a great number of prints of a human hand arranged as a giant snail with an approximate diameter of three metres. Their index fingers are painted each time with a different colour. The artist modifies the handprint by cutting it until it diminishes and disappears inside the snail’s tail signifying the loss of the fingers’ ability of expression. The importance of the idea is revealed here and its execution is more important than actually sculpting the hand itself. 

Lastly, we call to mind the stance of the late artist Nazir Nabaa, when he decided in 2003 to exhibit his last work Tajalliyyat (Revelations)at Atassi Gallery in Damascus. He, who used to draw woman in most of his portraits, while referring symbolically to his homeland, resistance, heritage, imaginary and dreamy stories in harmonious color gradients, moved daringly to sculpt the features of the geography of place with layers of clay on the surface of his painting, veering away from personification and drawing. This proved to be a revolutionary turn for it expressed a deep desire for liberation and change. Nabaa spoke to his students, when he was still working as a supervisor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Damascus, describing the deep impact of the majestic rocks and trees of Kalamoun and Maaloula on him. It was these which urged him to register the visual impact in Tajalliyyat.  He insisted that his work not be classified as abstract because, for him, it was a profound meditation on nature. Perhaps this genuine liberalism is what we need the most today. We need to go back deep into the self, for, after all, each artist ultimately represents their own experience and this particularity is what creates Syrian work of a singularity that by far matches and competes with other experiences at a global level.  


  1. Agambem, Giorgio. Qu’est ce que le contemporain?. Translated by Maxime Rovere, Published by Payot et Rivages (2008), Paris. Page 39.
  2. Rinuy, Paul Louis.  La sculpture contemporaine. Published by Presses Universitaires Vincennes (2018). Page 7.