The Art of Becoming a Social Sculpture

What is the function of art? In Europe during the Middle Ages, works of art were anchored functionally and ritually in the everyday life of people by way of their religious or courtly context. Art gradually loosened its functional ties and achieved full independence in the classical Modernist period when its only purpose was to serve artistic contemplation (l’art pour l’art/art for art’s sake). “To every age its art, to art its freedom” stands above the entrance to the Wiener Secession, an exhibition space for modern art built in 1897–8 as an alternative model to the conservative academic art of the time. The realisation of freedom in art and other areas of society was one of the greatest achievements of the Modernists.

Historical avant-garde movements in the first decades of the twentieth century like the Russian Constructivists or the Italian Futurists attempted to link art to modern progressive thinking and to restore its function in a social context. The neo-avant-garde movements after the Second World War like Fluxus or the Situationists also attempted to incorporate art into life. The most systematic representative of these efforts was probably the German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–86) with his extended definition of art, in which everyone is an artist; not in the sense that all people are painters or sculptors, but that regardless of their profession they can potentially make a contribution to society as a “social sculpture”. Beuys’ ideas were taken up by the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010), whose last great work was the construction of the Opera Village Africa in Burkina Faso (, a complex consisting of a school, workshops, housing, restaurant, a football pitch, agricultural land, a sick station, theatre stage and much more – a “social sculpture” that continues to evolve even after the death of its creator.

Many artists continue to investigate what the creative design potential of art can do for society, particularly in the context today of a rapidly changing globalised world, political turbulence and the threatened collapse of finance capitalism. We live in a time of uncertainty and transition. Evolution no longer “happens”; today it is we who determine the evolution of the planet and continuously influence it through our acceptance or rejection of scientific progress, through genetic engineering, nuclear energy, industrial agriculture and factory farming, the global movement of people and goods, and the internet. In some parts of the world the standard of living has never been higher, but this comes at the expense of the increasing exploitation and destruction of resources elsewhere, a development that began with the ruthless colonisation of the late nineteenth century, which created the concept of a “first world” and “third world”. Where are we and where will we go from here? It is up to us how we design the “social sculpture” of the future in which, as Beuys says, “everyone is an artist”.

The evolution of the social context is particularly interesting in Sri Lanka following the almost thirty-year civil war, which has marked entire generations. Wounds have to heal and reconciliation needs to take root in hearts and minds. At the national level Sri Lanka is also in a state of transition, and many Sri Lankan artists are investigating this in their art. And what do the global and national transformations mean for the individual at a personal, psychological level? Ultimately, it is clear, the independent individual must assume social responsibility.

This omnipresent state of transition at the global, national and personal level is the theme of the second Colombo Art Biennale 2012, which has been given the title “Becoming”. It is conceived as a laboratory, an experimental field where Sri Lankan, regional and international artists can reflect social realities in their art and provide food for thought. The artists come from all areas of contemporary art: painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, photography, video, film, concept art and participatory art practice.

In line with the principle of an extended definition of art and the concept of the Vienna-based art association museum in progress ( – which was founded by Kathrin Messner and Joseph Ortner, who also established the social organisation one world foundation – free education unit ( in Sri Lanka – the Biennale is also paradigmatically enlarging its radius of action beyond the traditional exhibition spaces it uses towards an “extended exhibition space”. In cooperation with museum in progress an exhibition series is taking place for the first time in Sri Lanka that includes artistic contributions to the daily newspapers Daily Mirror and Financial Times. The art will thus not be confined to an exclusive audience but will impact on the general public in their daily life. In keeping with its theme of “Becoming”, the Colombo Art Biennale thus also responds to the avant-garde demand for the integration of art and life.

Roman Berka
Curator, BECOMING 2012

(Translation Nick Somers)