Glossary of Contemporary Art Terms

Silja Rantanen, Burano, 1998. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Abstract art

Abstract, non-figurative art does not imitate or portray any visible subject. Abstraction is the reduction of a subject to the point where it becomes abstract.

Abstract art became the dominant form in modern art, and its impact is felt to this very day.

The body

The body is an important theme in contemporary art. For many artists, the body is their subject matter, starting point, instrument and material. This is particularly pronounced in performing arts and in body art that is based on the manipulation of the body.

By pressing the body into the service of art, artists can express themes concerning society or gender, or challenge the audience to examine prevalent ideas concerning body image or physicality.

The reception of art can also be described in terms of a bodily experience. It can consist of the viewer’s physical participation in the work, or emotions and sensations evoked by the encounter with the work.


Commission in the art context refers to an arrangement whereby the artist and a principal agree on the production of a work in advance. The owner of the work is usually the principal.

A commission gives the artist financial security and the principal the right of ownership to the finished work. The arrangement also allows large works of art to be produced for public collections, for example. Kiasma Hits includes one such work, commissioned by the museum from artist Mirosław Balka. Touch me / Find me was designed specifically for the Studio K gallery in Kiasma and after the exhibition it will remain in the Kiasma collections.

Conceptual art

The physical embodiment of a work of conceptual art can be a sentence on a piece of paper or a polished section of the floor. The actual object may even be missing altogether. The important thing is the idea, which makes the viewer think.

Conceptual art emphasises the active reception and interpretation of art. It challenges the viewers’ habits of thinking and observation and their ideas about knowledge and reality.

The heyday of conceptual art was at the turn of the 1960s and ‘70s, but its legacy can be felt still.

Contemporary art

Contemporary art is art made by artists in our time. The beginning of contemporary art is often dated to the 1960s, although there are conflicting views regarding the point in time. For instance, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art collects work by artists who began exhibiting in 1960 or later.

Contemporary art is often difficult to assess with the same criteria as used for older art, such as beauty or skill. The point of a work of art may be something that has nothing to do with how the work looks. It can be an insight, an event or even a feeling evoked by the work.

Contemporary performance

In the context of this exhibition, the term ‘contemporary performance’ is used as the closest English equivalent of the Finnish term ‘esitystaide’. Contemporary performance is a hybrid genre, a combination of contemporary theatre and traditional performance art. The term was adopted in the 2000s, and is being used increasingly to describe such hybrid presentations. Contemporary performance is characterised by audience contact, conceptuality and an emphasis on experientiality.

The boundaries between contemporary performance, traditional performance, contemporary theatre and contemporary dance are fluid, and the art forms are constantly borrowing from one another. Contemporary performance typically rejects narrative: instead of being based on a story with a beginning, middle and end, it aims to redefine what theatre can be.


An installation is a spatially constructed work of art. It can consist of everyday objects, exhibition structures, lights, sounds or video projections; a performance installation can also incorporate people. The components of an installation can be separate and represent different art forms, but they are united by some common theme, idea or aim. Installation is a site-specific art form, and should always be appraised in its context.


The idea of contemporary art involves an active encounter between the work and the viewer. We may say that a work of art only acquires a meaning or is realised at the moment when the viewer and the work meet. Sometimes the viewer interacts with the work by triggering movement sensors, pressing a button or grabbing a controller.

Interaction can also take place between the viewers of a particular work. A shared experience of art or an interpretation arising in discussion about it can imbue very different meanings on the work than solitary contemplation.

Kinetic art

Kinetic art is based on motion or the illusion of motion. Many kinetic artworks are three-dimensional structures that contain moving parts. The motive power may be provided by an electric motor, a magnet, a stream of air – or the viewer.

In painting, the word ‘kinetic’ is used to refer to optical illusion. For instance, a black and white or some other stark contrast in combination with a striped or grid pattern can deceive the eye and produce the impression of movement.


It is hard to think of a material that could not be used to make art. In contemporary art, the choice of material or medium is dictated by the aims of the artist. Mirror, ash, dough or blood as the medium of art can produce very different experiences.

There are also immaterial works of art. They can consist of lights or sounds, or just an idea, a plan or instructions. Many media artworks are computer files. It is an interesting question: what is in fact acquired for the collection when a work of art is purchased?

Media art

Media art consists of videos, sounds, media performances, multimedia, games or online works. Media art uses electronic media as its medium, but often combines it with other elements. For instance, a video installation can consist of video projections as well as objects and structures.

Electronic media are not only the tool, but also the subject and the material of the work for many artists. The themes in such works revolve around the media and media culture.


Minimalist art seeks to achieve an impersonal expression that is completely devoid of all signs of the artist’s work and personal style.

According to minimalism, art does not need to imitate anything: material, form, structure and scale are sufficiently interesting in themselves.

Modern art

In everyday language, modern can mean anything that is new, but in art contexts the word has a special meaning. Modern art is an umbrella term for many art movements and styles produced in a period that extends from around the 1860s to the 1960s. The concept of art that defines the period is called modernism.

Modernism is associated with the specialisation of art forms and a refocusing on the intrinsic expressive styles of each medium. The medium and its potential became the central content of art. In visual art, the important aspects were material, form, colour and rhythm. Theme and story could be discarded, and abstract art gained ground.

Contemporary art can in many ways be understood as a reaction against modernism. Contemporary artists have rejected the ideals of modernism, yet many of them borrow, comment on and reassess modernist imageries. The works may outwardly seem similar to modern art, but their basic tenets and content are different.


Nudity has its place in both new and old art. In antiquity, the beauty of the human body was chiselled in marble, in later times it was captured in paint on wood or canvas. In contemporary art, nudity can be a provocation, an exclamation mark, or a way of breaking away from the norm of wearing clothes in public. Many artists have used nudity in their work to criticise the prevalent ways of portraying gender.

Nudity also has a humorous side. It can be used to criticise society or the art world. It can also be a way to indicate our smallness and vulnerability in the face of the surrounding world.


Performance is a genre of performing arts that likes to combine different modes of expression. Performance is often based on the artist’s bodily presence, time and space. In a performance, the artist typically reacts to the environment or uses audiovisual technology as part of the presentation. A performance piece can consists of misbehaviour, marking a place, creating a disturbance in a landscape, a discussion, crying or just being.

A performance is a unique event that takes place in a certain place at a certain time, yet the public has witnessed many performances through their documentation.

Perceived, lived, experienced world

Contemporary art is best appreciated with open senses. Appreciating a work of art is not only an act of looking, it is an active encounter and an experience.

Tools for articulating an encounter with contemporary art can be found in phenomenology, particularly in the thinking of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). A key attitude in his writings is wonderment: knowledge of the world is gained through perception and bodily experience.

Confronted by a work of art, the viewer can consider what it feels like and what it reminds them of. Such experiences are part of the meaning of the work.

Site specificity

Site-specific art is art that is made for a specific space or place. It takes into consideration the nature of the site, its past and present, its users and purpose. It would be impossible to exhibit a site-specific work in exactly the same way anywhere else. The work can be a comment on the environment, it can contest it, or alter the site into something totally different. Site-specific works are often installations, but they can also be performances or community art.


The experience of art is based on the senses – vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch and balance. From early on in childhood, our senses learn to work together, and our perceptions are pictures co-created by many senses working in tandem.

The multisensory approach is also an important way of observing contemporary art. Works of art can be viewed, but sometimes also touched, listened to, smelled and sometimes even tasted.

To be or not to be?

Themes addressed in contemporary art include the human condition, birth, death, the meaning of life and the relationship between humanity and nature. These are in fact very similar to the fundamental questions that preoccupy philosophers, researchers and scientists in many areas.

In art, existential questions may involve the meaning of art and creation, or the quest to find meaning in life.