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Cory Arcangel, “All the Parts from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1984 Central Park Performance Where Garfunkel Sings with His Hands in His Pockets,” (2004) (image from sfmoma.org)

I thought I’d share with you a term that I encountered in my internet wanderings this morning, found in this essay by Dana Ward on artist Cory Arcangel, hat tip to Modern Art Notes’ excellent Wednesday link post.

The Word of the Day is: Ostranenie!

Ward focuses on a video piece by Cory Arcangel in which the artist appropriated footage of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1981 Central Park performance and edited together all of the video in which Garfunkel had his hands in his pockets. The word in question is found in its natural habitat in this sentence:

Who spends so much of their performance with their hands in their pockets, & why? It’s a perfectly fine thing to do of course, but Cory’s easy act of ostranenie made the question compelling, & it wormed its way into my psyche, so whenever I had a free moment I found myself turning it over in my mind.

Wikipedia also defines ostranenie as “defamiliarization,” or “the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.” It refers to a displacement from the normal, a removal of a known quantity from its traditional context in order to provoke a rethinking of its purpose.

Duchamp seems especially fond of ostranenie with his recontextualization of everyday objects as art, from urinals to shovels. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans is another example of an artist appropriating the familiar in order to comment on its strangeness. However, I think Warhol reaffirms the everyday quality of the soup cans, canonizing them for it, while Arcangel and Duchamp use ostranenie to put the surreality of Real Life on display.

Any other good examples of ostranenie come to mind? Any other art terms you wish you understood, but don’t? Email me at kyle [at] hyperallergic.com!

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators Project,...

2 replies on “Art Vocabulary of the Day: Ostranenie”

  1. There is something kind of pretentious about using a foreign word unfamiliar to many people when there are perfectly serviceable English equivalents–“defamiliarization” is one, but I have also heard the phrase “making strange” used.

    That said, if a critic really want to be pretentious, write it like this: остранение. That’ll force the readers to read “common things in an unfamiliar or strange way.”

    1. I do like “making strange”… I think it’s excusable to use an (anglicized) foreign word when the result is an added poetic feeling, but it does get annoyingly pretentious when writers use completely foreign words in their own languages.

      I wouldn’t write an article and say something looked kind of 坏, would I? It’s just disrespectful of the reader.

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