by Kate Mondloch. University of Minnesota Press, January 2018. 151 p. ill. ISBN 9781517900496 (pbk), $27.00.
Reviewed January 2019
In A Capsule Aesthetic, Kate Mondloch (prof. of contemporary art, University of Oregon) utilizes the theoretical framework of feminist new materialisms to engage with works by three contemporary new media/installation artists: Pipilotti Rist, Patricia Piccinini, and Mariko Mori.
The first chapter functions as an introduction, outlining the three artists’ work and critical reception. Mondloch then acquaints the reader with new materialism(s): broadly conceived, these are branches of theory concerned with the agency of non-human and non-living matter. Mondloch outlines the importance of feminist new materialisms as a means to critique the realms of new media art and technoscience, and positions Rist, Piccinini, and Mori as vital contributors to all these discourses.
Mondloch begins with a critique of inherited art historical classification of different eras of feminism and art to foreground the analysis of the three artists in the following chapters. Her discussion of Rist centers on the critical potential of embodied spectatorship in institutional contexts. In perhaps her most provocative argument, she identifies the dominant reading of Piccinini’s work (including the artist’s own words) as essentially paternalistic; instead arguing that the work pushes towards a more ethical framework. Finally, Mondloch employs Mori’s work to interrogate the recent attention to neuroscience in art and humanities scholarship.
Because each chapter often focuses on critical reception, the reader may wish at times for more detailed engagement with the works themselves. Mondloch’s first chapter explains the challenge of this task when the works in question are necessarily experiential. To address this need, she has published a digital companion to the book titled Installation Archive: A Capsule Aesthetic. Hosted on Scalar, it collects audiovisual material from social media of the installation works described in the book and hosts data visualizations drawing connections between the works. Despite the occasional dead link, this digital companion presents a dynamic model for scholarship on installation, interactive, durational, or other difficult to document media. The site is significant in a broader sense too, as there are relatively few digital humanities projects on contemporary art history.
Though rather brief (the text without endnotes is 116 pages), Mondloch's book notably addresses a gap in the literature: there have only been a handful of monographs dedicated to art and new materialisms, with this being the only one focused on a specific art historical category and period. Mondloch writes clearly and mostly avoids jargon despite pulling from numerous heavyweight theorists. This text is recommended for academic libraries, particularly those serving graduate programs (studio, history, or criticism). Library staff may want to draw special attention to the digital companion by including it in the catalog record.