How the search for meaning and insight in my life led me to an unexpected approach to contemporary art – a fictionalized personal take

I was 13 years old when I visited a contemporary art museum for the first time. Recalling that memory, I see myself walking deliberately, cautious, even a bit anxiously around the exhibition halls, sensing a certain kind of ponderousness.

Back then, wandering around in art galleries reminded me a lot of visiting old churches. But in terms of the latter, I knew to some extent what I was looking at or what I was looking for, whereas the pieces in a museum left me unable to describe what I saw. I was left alone to figure out what the art was supposed to mean. I was walking around burdened with the need to find meaning as an appropriate counterpart to balance out the pressing, but nebulous, importance I felt in the air.

Looking back now, it does not come to me as a surprise that this inner necessity to find tangible meaning would reappear as a motif in my life a few years later.

I have always been someone questioning their life choices on a daily basis, but in the pandemic with its months-long quarantines and a fully digitalized life, I somehow found myself being knee-deep in a crisis of meaning.

Retrospectively speaking, it is remarkable that the problems and questions I was struggling with at the beginning of the pandemic are actually pretty similar to the ones I faced as a thirteen-year-old in the museum for contemporary art.

In both cases,I felt this uncertainty of exactly what I was looking for. In my everyday life I suddenly felt a lack of sense and meaning, while at the museum of contemporary art, I felt an inability to decode the alleged meaning. In neither situation could I figure out what it was caused by or what I should do about it. There was this necessity in me, metaphorically speaking, to fill this hole of vagueness. But I was not only clueless how to fill it, but unable to even point at the hole itself.

Both situations left me with expanding discomfort. With every passing day feeling stuck in my life, with every additional art piece being confronted, the vagueness creeped more and more into my body and increased my imbalance.

As a result, I started contemplating about an easy way out of those riddle-like situations.

I started imagining being able to rise above myself and just sense the meaning of an art piece, imagining being able to simply leave my entire life behind – and by doing so suddenly receiving insight into what my life should be all about.

If I think about it today, I was trying to find a shortcut in terms of dealing with the questions and the uncomfortable vagueness that comes with (contemporary) art and life. At that time the thought of being able to enter a meta-level and being detached from mundanity seemed like the key to see everything more clearly.

What I could not see as a teenager, but became more obvious with the ongoing quest for meaning in my later life, was the foolishness of holding on to the concept of transcendence. I was taken by the idea that the insight to a piece of contemporary art could only be found above the perceptible. That I could only find a satisfying approach to it by decoding its one, ultimate and sublime meaning.

Then, just a few weeks ago, things changed as I had the chance to visit that same museum for contemporary art again. As I stood in front of some pieces that have remained in the same spot since my last visit as a teen, I experienced a stream of unfamiliar impressions. That experience stuck with me as I did not expect to be touched by familiar pieces in such unprecedented ways.

Unexpectedly it came to my mind how the recent months in this ongoing pandemic have made me realise that there might be another approach to meaning and insight. As not only a few circumstances in my life and I as an individual did change, but my views on foregone life-choices, goals or new tracks shifted accordingly.

This realisation, coupled with the art incident, made me think about the concept of immanence and raised questions in terms of (contemporary) art:

What if meaning and insight are not to be found above a system, but actually within the system?

What if meaning and insight are newly constituted every time a factor like the beholder (as an individual) or circumstances change?

What if meaning and insight are relative?

As those questions may evoke different, maybe even controversial opinions and thoughts, for me they imply one of the purposes that one could attribute to (contemporary) art: the reflection of one’s own subjectivity.

I propose there is an exchange possible when (contemporary) art and beholder encounter each other, which enables a reflection of one’s own embeddedness, as no encounter with the same piece of art will create the same experience, the same meaning or insight twice.

To quote Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

As art can reveal our subjectivity, singularity and embeddedness, it enables us to be more self-reflective and therefore helps us to treat our fellow human beings more kindly.