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This has appeared, like a dusty fly speck dotted across the review pages of the more upmarket British newspapers this month, because Altermodern is the name given to Tate Britain’s Triennial 2009 exhibition. The term was coined by the exhibition’s curator, the French cultural theorist Nicolas Bourriaud.

Explanations of it are varied and more than a little difficult to get one’s mind around if one hasn’t already had a firm grounding in Barthes, Derrida and their successors. The exhibition catalogue says that it refers to “the in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalisation, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and medium.” More simply, the curator argues that, just as modernism was succeeded by post-modernism, the latter’s era is ending and a new one is being born, which will be expressed in the language of a global culture and will be an alternative style to both its predecessors. Hence Altermodern and Altermodernism.

The trouble with the idea is that the critics dislike the result. The Observer called the Triennial dull and came close to saying it was a waste of space; the Financial Times said it was “confused, aimless and hideous” and that it was drowned in its curator’s own critical theory jargon; The Times complained that even reading the catalogue was “ball-crushingly dispiriting”. The critic of the Telegraph noted that “too many artists were allowed to bang on and on without taking us anywhere in particular or giving us anything of interest to look at.”

The general feeling is that, rather than being the next big thing in the art world, Altermodernism isn’t going anywhere and isn’t a term likely to be included in dictionaries any time soon.

Altermodernism, if I understand it, is international art that never quite touches down but keeps on moving through places and ideas, made by artists connected across the globe rather than grouped around any central hub such as New York or London.

Observer, 8 Feb. 2008

It isn’t easy to work out what Altermodernism might be — even when it’s been explained to you several times. The description given in the catalogue leaves you with the distinct suspicion that Postmodernism has been towed off to a chop-shop, given a quick respray and they’re now trying to sell it back to us as this year’s model.

Independent, 13 Feb. 2008

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 28 February 2009.