Artists such as Petr Pavlensky can be hard to stomach. The Russian protest artist highlights criticism of Russia's regime with shocking acts, including sewing his mouth shut and wrapping himself in barbed wire. For Pavlensky, "an artist has no right not to take a stand". Pavlensky joins the ranks of global artists including Stelarc, Zhu Yu and Mao Sugiyama. Their ever more graphic and grotesque projects transform artists into activists - destined to use their art as provocation to rattle established hierarchies.

Delving into art history reminds us that many of our household names garnered notoriety through provocative works. Manet and Picasso peeved the Parisian elite with their flagrant depiction of prostitutes in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, respectively.

In the 1980s and '90s, provocation was modus operandi for young British artists including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. The artists bared all by placing intimate objects in the eyes of the general public. Emin's My Bed famously featured used condoms and sanitary products in a blatant display of wallowing depression. One critic reacted by complaining: "For a thousand years, art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all."

The provocation of Emin and Hirst pushed critics and the general public to consider what can or should be considered art. The young British artists presented the latest generation of disillusioned youth, unafraid to expose their intimacies. In blurring the line between what is art and what is not, they challenged assumptions of "civilised" artistic expressions and cultural hegemony.

In the 21st century, when information - provocative or otherwise - is readily available at the swipe of a screen or the click of a mouse, the works of Picasso, Manet, Hirst and Emin seem tame. Is it this desensitisation that has pushed the new wave of activist-artists like Pavlesnky to such provocative extents to voice dissent?

Ai Weiwei's provocative art has been exposing injustices within China. In Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn, a series of photos purportedly showing the destruction of a 2,000-year-old vase, Ai criticises China's effort to protect its own cultural heritage.

Following Sichuan's 2008 earthquake, he initiated a citizens' investigation to document student casualties. Later, he displayed children's backpacks in commemoration with a piece called Remembering In Munich. Ai's work has brought controversial issues facing modern China to the world.

His assistant, Jiang Li, says that Ai's greatest achievement has been to "disseminate the truth, raise questions and gain the attention of a larger audience". In provocation, he has brought information to the masses and challenged the power of the Chinese government.

Yet for Ai, the creative process is as important as the outcome. "If an artist considers justice, fairness and freedom of speech to be most important, then striving for a just and happy life for all people will be the central focus of their creative artistic process," Jiang says.

Art as a form of dissent for Ai means organising the very process of creation itself around the principles one hopes to realise in society.

Indeed, there are a host of Ghandian activist artists who engage actively in community-based projects to bring about grass-roots change. London-based artist Gayle Chong Kwan spent time as an artist in residence at Michelangelo Pistoletto's Cittadellarte - an institution where "art is in direct interaction with all the areas of human activity which form society".

For an artist like Kwan, "art is a way of approaching, reflecting upon, and most importantly, imagining different possibilities as to how we might live". Kwan is an artist who eschews provocation or destruction in favour of generating something new, building an alternative set of ideals.

Examples include Gitte Bog, a Danish artist who uses common groun to explore language and communication in community projects that she describes as "cultural fusion". Similarly, Cristiana Bottigella set up Harts Lane Gallery in London as a hub of artistic exchange in an embattled region. Bottigella is now running Bait al Karama, an arts centre to support women in the West Bank city of Nablus.

As Kwan puts it, "often in the art world it is the unsung artists at the local level who are doing the most fantastic work and projects in terms of destabilising and dissent". For millennial artists, well aware of the over-abundance of information and images, it is in intimate engagement with communities that they are hoping to evoke real change.

 

AVANT-GARDE IMAGES
SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS USE THEIR WORK TO EXPRESS THEIR SOCIAL OR POLITICAL VIEWS AND OPINIONS: 

● Edward Burtynsky presents photos of vast landscapes that have been notably altered by industry. He has spent a lot of time documenting the emerging tension of man and nature in China, including photographing the Three Gorges Dam.

● Luc Delahaye uses his experience as a photojournalist to depict important geo-political events at a perilous closeness. The effect is a rawness and dramatic intensity that intrigues and throws one off-balance.

● Oliver Eglin (whose work is pictured) is based in London and is concerned with how an image can convey meaning. Recently, he has explored Berlin’s loaded political history.

● Paul Graham rose to fame in the 1980s with documentary-style photography that was conceptual but also socio-political. His “New Europe” series is renowned for its deep investigation of the past and future of a post-Iron Curtain western Europe.

● Andreas Gursky produces large-format colour photographs. Through computer manipulation, he depicts architecture or landscapes from a seemingly impossible point of view.

● Richard Mosse’s most compelling work uses colour infrared film to document war in eastern Congo. The Irish photographer blurs the lines between fine art and photojournalism to provide new perspectives.

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