contemporary visual ar t+culture b r o a d s h e e T
VOLUME 41.2 JUNE 2012
CRITICISM | THEORY | ART
Everything Falls Apart Curators: Mark Feary & Blair French Part I 27 June – 5 August 2012
Jem Cohen Phil Collins Sarah Goffman Sarah Morris Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck & Media Farzin
Part II 10 August – 16 September 2012
Vernon Ah Kee Zanny Begg & Oliver Ressler Jem Cohen Tony Garifalakis Merata Mita
43–51 Cowper Wharf Road Woolloomooloo NSW 2011 Sydney Australia www.artspace.org.au
T +61 2 9356 0555 email@example.com Office 10am–6pm, Mon–Fri Gallery 11am–5pm, Tues–Sun
Image: Jem Cohen, Little Flags, 1991-2000, still from super 8mm transferred to dvd, courtesy the artist and Gravity Hill Films, New York
ARTSPACE is supported by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
ARTSPACE is assisted by the New South Wales Government through Arts NSW and by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its principal arts funding body.
ARTSPACE is a member of CAOs (Contemporary Art Organisations Australia) and Res Artis (International Association of Residential Art Centres).
MONASH UNIVERSITY MUSEUM OF ART PRESENTS
Liquid Archive 19 July - 22 September 2012 Curator: Geraldine Barlow LaUrence Aberhart Bashir Baraki Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin Joyce Campbell Zoe Croggon
Mathew Jones Leah King-Smith Nicola Loder Maha Maamoun Ricky Maynard Tom Nicholson
Archive States – Contemporary Art and the Document
Saturday 28 July 11.00am – 4.30pm $30 full / $20 conc. bookings essential www.monash.edu/muma/events
Keynote speaker: Sven Spieker, author of The Big Archive. Art from Bureaucracy
Ground Floor, Building F Monash University, Caulfield Campus 900 Dandenong Road Caulfield East VIC 3145 Australia
Patrick Pound RAQS Media Collective Xochitl Rivera navarrete Zineb Sedira [The User] Kit Wise
www.monash.edu.au/muma Telephone +61 3 9905 4217 firstname.lastname@example.org Tues – Fri 10am – 5pm; Sat 12 – 5pm
Zoe Croggon Black + White #2 2012 photocollage courtesy of the artist
CACSA CONTEMPORARY 2012
New South Australian art
1â€“26 August 2012 SALA FESTIVAL
The Contemporary Art Centre Of Sa Is Assisted By The Commonwealth Government Through The Australia Council, It Arts Funding And Advisory Body, And The South Australian Government Through Arts Sa And Health Promotions Sa. The Contemporary Art Centre Of Sa Is Supported By The Visual Arts And Craft Strategy, An Initiative Of The Australian, State And Territory Governments Image: Sue Kneebone, Planning for Paradise, 2012 Photo courtesy the artist
YAVUZ ERKAN essay by Francis E Parker
Yavuz Erkan Bubble gum (detail) 2011
supporting photomedia art in partnership with Queensland Centre for Photography 288x288mm, 24 pages, essay by Francis E Parker (MUMA), soft cover $15
Proudly supported by
for more information contact QCP on 07 3844 1101 or visit www.qcp.org.au
Queensland Centre for Photography acknowledges the assistance of the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.
Melbourne Art Fair 1 - 5 August 2012 SANTIAGO SIERRA
GREENAWAY ART GALLERY : ADELAIDE
l tel +61 8 8362 6354
MAT COLLISHAW PETER HENNESSEY ARIEL HASSAN MICHELLE NIKOU HOSSEIN & ANGELA VALAMANESH
SH Contemporary 6 - 9 September 2012 DEBORAH PAAUWE ARIEL HASSAN
181-187 HAY STREET HAYMARKET NSW 2000 WWW.4A.COM.AU
KEN + JULIA YONETANI WHAT THE BIRDS KNEW
3 AUGUST - 22 SEPTEMBER 2012
Ken and Julia Yonetani, What the Birds Knew (2012), Uranium glass beads, aluminium wire and UV lights. Courtesy of the artists, Artereal Gallery, Sydney and GV Art, London
late bit Thursday nights, 6-9pm at ACMI See the Game Masters exhibition after hours and stay for drinks, free music and gamesinspired mayhem in the ACMI Lightwell. www.acmi.net.au/latebit
get your game on Game Masters: The Exhibition 28 JUNE – 28 October 2012 ACMI, Melbourne Child of Eden © Ubisoft
NEW ART FROM SOUTH ASIA 14 July — 30 September 2012
THE 2012 BUNDANON TRUST ARTIST IN RESIDENCE PROGRAM Open to professional artists and groups, from all disciplines. The program supports artists’ new work, research and collaborations.
APPLICATIONS CLOSE JULY 31 APPLY ONLINE AT BUNDANON.COM.AU OR CALL 02 4422 2100
Image: Mimi Kelly, Untitled 2009
Artists are hosted in purpose-built studios located at the Bundanon properties on the Shoalhaven River in NSW.
VCA SCHOOL OF ART
Art: Live it The School of Art at the VCA offers undergraduate, graduate coursework and research higher degrees in Drawing and Printmedia, Painting, Photography, and Sculpture and Spatial Practice. As a student you will be guided by some of Australia’s most progressive art educators and respected artists within a creative learning environment. Our programs include: • Bachelor of Fine Arts (Visual Art) • Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) (Visual Art) • Graduate Certiﬁcate in Visual Art • Master of Contemporary Art • Master of Fine Arts (Visual Art) by Research Visit us on Open Day Sunday 19 August 2012 or Graduate Information Night Thursday 13 September 2012 Pip Ryan, Master of Fine Art (Research), Happy Orang, 2011. Photograph by Drew Echberg
For more information visit www.vca.unimelb.edu.au/art
Your creative journey starts here… Associate Degree of Visual Art | Bachelor of Visual Art | Bachelor of Visual Art (Hons) Adelaide Central School of Art offers accredited tertiary degree programs and a range of short courses, workshops and masterclasses, suitable for beginners through to experienced artists. Small classes and one-on-one interaction with our talented lecturers, who are all leading practitioners in the field in which they teach, contribute to an environment where creativity excels.
Secure your place: Applications for tertiary degree programs close Semester 2: 1 June 2012 | Semester 1: 7 January 2013
In the Gallery
In the School
9 June – 21 July 2012 No Place Anna Horne, Amy Joy Watson and George Zacharoyannis
Drawing Masterclass with Christopher Orchard 18 – 23 June 2012 Painting and Drawing from Photographs #2 Masterclass with Chelsea Lehmann 29 June – 1 July
28 July – 26 August 2012 The Feeling of Light SALA Exhibition with Morgan Allender, Melanie Brown, Kveta Deans and Deborah Trusson
Painting Perceptual and Conceptual Space Masterclass with Chelsea Lehmann 3 – 5 July 2012
1 – 29 September 2012 Stewart MacFarlane Ordinary Beauty: The recent and retrospective work of Stewart MacFarlane
Short Course Program commencing 14 July 2012 Open Day Sunday 26 August 2012
Photograph Ingrid Kellenbach
45 Osmond Terrace, Norwood SA 5067
T 08 8364 5075 email@example.com www.acsa.sa.edu.au
Ambassadors for Adelaide Central School of Art
spencer family foundation
CRICOS Provider 01126M Affiliated with Flinders University and the Helpmann Academy
DENNIS DEL FAVERO
MAGNESIUM LIGHT THE WORLD IS EVERYTHING THAT IS THE CASE AND
Dennis Del Favero, Todtnauberg, 2009, video still, courtesy of the artist.
1 JUNE – 3 AUGUST JOHN CURTIN GALLERY Two powerful exhibitions showcasing works by some of Australia’s most innovative new-media artists. Open Monday to Friday 11am - 5pm & Sunday 1pm - 4pm. For more information phone (08) 9266 4155, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit johncurtingallery.curtin.edu.au
CRICOS Provider Code 00301J CU-JCG-0044/BRAND CUJCG0028 Curtin University is a trademark of Curtin University of Technology
CUJCG0028-HP(240x135) CVAC col press.indd 1
5/9/12 4:55 PM
9/05/12 10:30 AM
adelaide festival centre’s
TOUGH LOVE 8 June - 7 July
YvOnne east, Stratum, 2012
liam benson (NSW) romi graham (SA/NSW) amira.h. (SA/VIC) kate james (VIC) tiffany parbs (SA/VIC) fiona roberts (SA/QLD)
COUNTRY ARTS SA & ADELAIDE FESTIVAL CENTRE PRESENT
by yvonne eaST
30 june – 29 julY
20 July - 18 August
a universe of small truths julie henderson
BridGette MinuZZO, Leidoscope, 2012
viSionS For noW:
SaLa Moving iMage ProJeCT 3 auGust – 2 sePteMBer
our Mob 2012
a STaTe Wide CeLebraTion oF SouTH auSTraLian indigenouS arT
17 OctOBer – 2 deceMBer King William Road, Adelaide Phone 08 8216 8850
28 August - 9 September
Image (from top): Tiffany Parbs, growth, 2009, human hair, cotton net, 800 x 580 x 35mm, photo: Terence Bogue Julie Henderson, how will I know its you (dendriform), 2011, mixed media drawing assemblage, photo: Joe Felber Mark Themann, [Detail from the exhibition 13 Voids], 2012
lion arts centre north terrace adelaide south australia www.aeaf.org.au | email@example.com +61-(0)8-82117505 | open free to the public 11am–5pm tues to fri & 2–5pm sat The AEAF is assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, and by the South Australian Government through Arts SA. The AEAF is also supported by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.The AEAF is a member of the Contemporary Arts Organisation of Australia. The AEAF program is supported by Coriole Vineyards, McLaren Vale.
raafat ishak and tom nicholson. proposition for a banner march and a black cube hot air balloon.
Thursday 12 July 2012 to Sunday 9 September 2012
70 Welsford Street, Shepparton VIC 3630 mail Locked Bag 1000, Shepparton, VIC, Australia 3632 p +61 (03) 5832 9861 f +61 (03) 5831 8480 e firstname.lastname@example.org w sheppartonartmuseum.com.au open 7 days, 10.00am to 4.00pm public holidays 1.00pm to 4.00pm
Raafat Ishak & Tom Nicholson Proposition for a banner march and a black cube hot air balloon, 2007 Courtesy of the artists, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne & Sydney and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne Photograph: Christian Capurro
BS June-Aug.indd 1
Noel McKenna, Alice (detail), 2012
8/05/2012 2:54:30 PM
Image: Patrick Rees ‘The Cuddly Rapture’, Patrick Rees, 2012, single channel video, 17min
JULY 2012 DAVID DE BOER | The Unauthorized Collection of John Kaldor AUGUST 2012 SALLY ARNOLD + SASHA GRBICH | CONVERSATIONS IN ELLIPSIS curated by Lisa Harms SEPTEMBER 2012 FELTspace @ Co/Lab Independant Art Fair Art Platform, Los Angeles, US UPCOMING | 2012 + 2013 THE WRITING PROJECT For more details and information http://www.feltspace.org/the-writing-project/
FELTspace GOLD available for order/purchase and can be viewed on our website Open Hours Wednesday - Saturday: 1-5PM Or by appointment (0400 010 930) 12 Compton Street Adelaide, 5000 SA email@example.com www.feltspace.org
Contributors Haig Aivazian: New York-based artist, curator and writer; his artwork has been investigating the intersections between the migration of peoples, the circulation of consumer goods and the propagation of ideologies; involved in a number of curatorial initiatives such as Roads Were Open/Roads Were Closed (2008), Third Line Gallery, Dubai, and Associate Curator Sharjah Biennial 10: Plot for a Biennial with curators Suzanne Cotter, Curator, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project and Rasha Salti, Creative Director, ArteEast; the first installment of his ongoing project entitled FUGERE (A Series of Olympiadic Events) was commissioned and exhibited in the 9th Sharjah Biennial, 2009; has written for a number of websites and publications including Bidoun and the Arab Studies Journal Amelia Barikin: Melbourne-based lecturer, curator and writer; completed her Art History PhD on the contemporary French artist Pierre Huyghe at the School of Culture and Communications, University of Melbourne, 2008; worked on numerous exhibitions and arts projects both independently and with broader cultural organisations such as ACMI, Experimenta, red gallery, TekniKunst, Bus Projects, Craft Victoria, Liquid Architecture Festival of Sound Arts, and the Biennale of Sydney; currently preparing a monograph on the contemporary French artist Pierre Huyghe for publication with MIT Press Rex Butler: Associate Professor, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland, Brisbane; author of An Uncertain Smile (1996) What is Appropriation? (1996) Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real (1999) A Secret History of Australian Art (2002) Slavo Zizek: Live Theory (2004) Natasha Conland: Curator, Contemporary Art, Auckland Art Gallery; recent curatorial projects include Made Active: The Chartwell Show, on sculpture and performance (2012); opening exhibitions Simultaneously Modern: Et Al., Peter Robinson, Dane Mitchell (2011); Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon: The 4th Auckland Triennial (2010); previous exhibitions include Mystic Truths (2007), the 2006 SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space, co-curator of the CAFÉ 2 project for the Busan Biennale in South Korea; curated et al.’s the fundamental practice for New Zealand’s representation to the Venice Biennale, 2005; in 2008 she was one of twelve international “curatorial comrades” appointed to the Biennale of Sydney by artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev; writes regularly on contemporary art and is co-editor of Reading Room: A journal of Art and Culture published annually by the E.H. McCormick Library, Auckland Art Gallery Duygu Demir: Programmer for SALT Research & Programs, Istanbul; worked on the inaugural SALT Beyoglu retrospective of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin (2011), and editor of accompanying publication; co-curator I Decided not to Save the World, Tate Modern Level 2 Gallery; worked on Istanbul Eindhoven SALT VanAbbe: Post ‘89; contributes to magazines and online platforms including Art Asia Pacific, Articulus, Art Unlimited, Eyeball and Ibraaz, and previously acted as managing editor for RES Art World/World Art Blair French: Executive Director Artspace Visual Art Centre, Sydney; curatorial convener for SCAPE 6: Christchurch Biennial of Art in Public Space (2010/11); and is curator for SCAPE 7 (2013) Alex Gawronski: Sydney based artist and writer; recent art projects involve participation in the two-part exhibition Between Site and Space, a collaboration between Tokyo Wonder Site, Shibuya, Tokyo and Artspace, Sydney incorporating a six-week residency at Tokyo Wonder Site (2008); co-founder/director of The Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (ICAN), Sydney, 2007-, Loose Projects, Sydney, 2006-07 and Blaugrau, Sydney, 2000-01; writes for Broadsheet and Column (Artspace, Sydney); currently teaches at the Sydney College of the Arts Adam Geczy: Sydney-based artist and writer; Senior Lecturer in Sculpture and Art Theory at Sydney College of the Arts; his most recent exhibitions have been Decapitated at the Museum of Art, Györ, Hungary, and Beautiful Cities, Artspace Sydney; upcoming projects include Bomb in collaboration with Adam Hill at the AAMU in Utrecht, Holland.; author of several books including (with Michael Carter) Reframing Art (Berg, 2005) and Art: Histories, Theories and Exceptions (Berg, 2008); latest book is co-edited with Vicki Karaminas, Fashion and Art (Berg/Bloomsbury, 2012) Charles Green: Art History, School of Culture & Communication, University of Melbourne; artist, art critic and art historian specialising in the history of international and Australian art after 1960 Wes Hill: Hamburg-based art writer, artist, curator, originally from Australia; PhD in Art History, University of Queensland; regular contributor to Frieze, Frieze d/e, Artforum, Art & Australia and Eyeline; exhibited Cultural It as Wilkins Hill (with Wendy Wilkins) at Galerie KUB, Leipzig, Germany, 2012; curatorial projects include This is what I do, 2012, at Contemporary Art Spaces Tasmania, Hobart Helen Hughes: PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne; co-founder and co-editor of the contemporary art journal Discipline, as well as an editor of emaj: the Electronic Melbourne Art Journal; Assistant Curator at Utopian Slumps, Melbourne 2010-12; research assistant for the exhibition and book Cubism and Australian Art (Lesley Harding and Sue Cramer, Melbourne University Press, 2009) at Heide Museum of Modern Art 2008-10; has written for publications including Broadsheet, Art & Australia, Eyeline, un Magazine and Artlink Reuben Keehan: Curator, Contemporary Asian Art, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art; previously Curator, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney
c o n t e m p o r a r y v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b ro a d s h e e T Editor Assistant Editor Advertising Manager Publisher Design
Alan Cruickshank Wendy Walker Fiona Scott Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia Inc. Alan Cruickshank, Nasim Nasr
ISSN 0819 677X © Copyright 2012, Broadsheet, the authors and artists. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission. Broadsheet is published quarterly by the Contemporary Art Centre of SA Inc. print post approved PP53 1629/00022 The Contemporary Art Centre of SA is supported by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments Editorial inquiries, advertising and subscriptions may be sent to the Editorial Office: Broadsheet 14 Porter Street Parkside South Australia 5063 Tel +61  8272 2682 Fax +61  8373 4286 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.cacsa.org.au Subscriptions: Contact the Administrator, Contemporary Art Centre of SA—email@example.com The views and/or opinions expressed in Broadsheet are those of the contributing writers and not necessarily those of the editor, staff or Board of the CACSA
Editorial Advisory Board International:
RICHARD GRAYSON UK Artist, lecturer and writer, London BORIS KREMER UK Curator, translator and writer, London ASTRID MANIA Germany Editor, writer and curator, Berlin CHRISTOPHER MOORE Czech Republic Writer, Prague; Editor-in-Chief, Randian online VASIF KORTUN Turkey Director SALT, Istanbul JULIE UPMEYER Turkey Artist, Initiator, Caravansarai, Istanbul RANJIT HOSKOTE India Curator, writer, Mumbai COLIN CHINNERY China Artist, writer and curator, Beijing BILJANA CIRIC China Independent curator, Shanghai JOHN BATTEN Hong Kong Curator, art critic, writer PATRICK FLORES Philippines Professor Dept Art Studies University of Philippines, Manila SUE HAJDU Vietnam Artist, writer, Ho Chi Minh City RAY LANGENBACH Malaysia Artist, curator, writer, lecturer and critic, Kuala Lumpur LEE WENG CHOY Singapore Writer and critic, Director of Projects, Osage Art Foundation EUGENE TAN Singapore Director Special Projects, Singapore Economic Development Board TONY GODFREY Singapore Director of Research, Sotheby’s Institute, Singapore
Jacqueline Millner: Lectures in art history and visual culture, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney; has published widely on contemporary Australian and international art in key anthologies, journals, and catalogues of flagship national institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Queensland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of NSW; her book Conceptual Beauty: Writings on Australian contemporary art 1994-2009, was published Artspace Publications, 2010
GOENAWAN MOHAMAD Indonesia Essayist, journalist, poet and cultural critic, Jakarta
Chris Moore: Publisher of randian 燃点 www.randian-online.com; from 2008-10 the Shanghai correspondent for Saatchi Online; has contributed to various other magazines and catalogues; has written monographs on Chinese artists Xu Zhen, MadeIn and Shi Jing
ROBERT COOK Perth Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia
Melanie Oliver: Writer and curator based in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand; Assistant Curator, Artspace, Sydney 2010-11; Assistant Curator Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand 2007-09; managed the Wellington artist-run initiative Enjoy 2004-07; participated in an internship at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany 2007; currently curating a performance video project for St Paul St Gallery, Auckland, and co-curating a collateral event for the 2012 Liverpool Biennial Virginia Whiles: Trained as a painter, art historian and anthropologist; Associate Lecturer, University of the Arts London; critic, curator and lecturer in fine art and cultural studies for over 40 years in Europe and South Asia; curated exhibitions and published extensively on contemporary art, particularly from South Asia; author of Art and Polemic in Pakistan (I.B.Tauris, 2010) Kathy Zarur: PhD candidate with a focus on contemporary art of the Middle East, North Africa and its diasporas, Department of History of Art, University of Michigan; assistant curator, Sharjah Biennial 10; guest curator for art:screen fest, Örbrero, Sweden; artists in residence coordinator, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE; holds certificate in Museum Studies, University of Michigan
volume 41.2 JUNE 2012
NATASHA CONLAND New Zealand Curator Contemporary Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tämaki, Auckland
RUSSELL STORER Brisbane Curatorial Manager, Asian & Pacific Art, Queensland Art Gallery REX BUTLER Brisbane Writer, editor and senior lecturer, University of Queensland BLAIR FRENCH Sydney Curator, writer, editor and Executive Director, Artspace ADAM GECZY Sydney Artist, lecturer and writer CHARLES GREEN Melbourne Artist, curator, art critic and historian; Associate Professor, University of Melbourne IAN NORTH Adelaide Artist, writer and Adjunct Professor, School of Art, University of South Australia
c o n t e m p o r a r y v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b ro a d s h e e T
volume 41.2 JUNE 2012
COVER: Imran Qureshi, All are the colour of my heart, 2011 (installation view, gouache on wasli paper, detail) Photo courtesy the artist, Gandhara Art, Hong Kong and 2012 Biennale of Sydney
ALL OUR RELATIONS: 18TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY ARTISTIC DIRECTOR GERALD McMASTER IN DISCUSSION WITH BROADSHEET Blair French, Jacqueline Millner, Adam Geczy, Charles Green, Amelia Barikin, Reuben Keehan
C’MON LET’S STICK TOGETHER: ON COLLABORATION, INCLUSION AND CONSONANCE IN THE 18TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY Adam Geczy
A PETRI DISH IN THE SUN? Alex Gawronski
ENDLESS FORMS MOST BEAUTIFUL Jacqueline Millner
BLUE BUTTERFLIES: ON SHADOW SITES 1-11 AND THE WORK OF JANANNE AL-ANI Duygu Demir
SANGUINE IRRIGATION: A LOOK AT THREE SITE-SPECIFIC WORKS BY IMRAN QURESHI Haig Aivazian
SUSPENDED GESTURES Helen Hughes 108
DANCE OF HISTORY: SRIWHANA SPONG LEARNING DUETS Melanie Oliver
PROCESS AND MATERIALITY Kathy Zarur
GREEK PLASTICS Natasha Conland
IT’S ALL RELATIVE Chris Moore 134
PARALLEL COLLISIONS: IN THE SHADOW OF ALL OUR RELATIONS AND TRAUMATISED ART Rex Butler
TRAUMATISED ART OBJECTS Wes Hill
LOST TO THE DEMONS: KHADIM ALI AT DOCUMENTA (13) Virginia Whiles
ALL OUR RELATIONS 18TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY ARTISTC DIRECTOR GERALD MCMASTER IN DISCUSSION WITH BROADSHEET
Working from a collaborative framework, the 18th Biennale of Sydney, ‘All Our Relations’ will be a departure from previous Biennale of Sydney exhibitions—the theme will increasingly become apparent through the process rather than being imposed on artists and audiences at the beginning. ‘All Our Relations’ intends to focus on inclusionary art practices of generative thinking, such as collaboration, conversation and compassion. Artistic co-directors Catherine De Zegher and Gerald McMaster have said: “Drawing on the possibility of the present, the Biennale will emerge from the engagement of all participants by using a model that begins with two curators in dialogue. A changing reality is apparent in a renewed attention to how things connect, how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit. Rather than one work appearing to link to one or two other works, projects will correspond as if evolving from each other and progressing through the sequence of venues and buildings. Artists will work in a context that allows for mutual recognition and audiences from differing backgrounds will be part of this continual development. The collaboration will take place on many different levels: in co-existence, conversation and juxtaposition but also in purposeful connectivity. Artists, who can often feel isolated in their practice, will come together with neighbouring artists. This interconnection and interdependency will occur in the knowledge that audiences, too, will take elements from the exhibition and connect them with their own experiences.” The following is a discussion between co-director Gerald McMaster and Broadsheet writers Blair French, Jacqueline Millner, Adam Geczy, Charles Green, Amelia Barikin and Reuben Keehan. The 18th Biennale of Sydney, ‘all our relations’ will be presented from 27 June–16 September, 2012.
Robert Storr once said that there are over one hundred and fifty biennales across the globe, so being distinct can be difficult because each biennale wants to be new and different. The Biennale of Sydney is a significant celebration of contemporary art in the Asia Pacific region. It is the oldest in this area; for the next biennale it’ll be celebrating its fortieth anniversary. As I understand it, the Biennale of Sydney was one of the first to break away from the nationalist pavilion models and select an Artistic Director to oversee the articulation of a vision. I also understand it to be the launching platform for artists who have gone on to become well established within the art world. Sydney as a city is an unquestioned destination for visitors from around the world and so it goes without saying the city is built for being an international venue for contemporary art. Jacqueline Millner: I would suggest most contemporary art seeks to engage its audience. What is it about the works you have selected for this exhibition that distinguishes them as being ‘about’ engagement, or particularly successful in meeting this criterion?
Charles Green: There seems to be a consensus regarding the apparently lessening relevance of biennales, that to many of us, the almost endless cycles of new biennales have at the same time become less and less exciting, except as spectacle, and that the trajectory of this undoubted biennale phenomenon, which has arced upwards since the early 1990s, seems now to be arcing downwards. Many of the most interesting biennales seem to be occurring, at least based on reviews, in the most peripheral and marginal locations often in circumstances of real difficulty and extremity, and the older, established biennales seem to have remained incorporated within the now-seamless feedback loops of the art world, in which most politics, including politics of the Other, exist with little or no disruption except in curators’ claims. This is not an over-theoretical analysis. Would you please comment upon this? Gerald McMaster: For Venice, you have over one hundred years of exhibition history; the other well-known biennales such as São Paulo, Documenta, and Sydney have been in existence for half that time. Now it appears that there are over one hundred and fifty biennales going on in the world at any time. How do you choose? Return to the same one, seek out an unusual one, go where your friends go, it’s a big choice. For the artist, biennales are a great opportunity to show one’s works. Indeed, there is a proliferation.
Gerald McMaster: The exhibition that Catherine and I have curated is indeed very much geared to engaging audiences rather than turning our backs on them. The Biennale of Sydney in my view has always wanted the local audience to be thoroughly engaged with seeing current trends in art from around the world and here at home. True there’s already a lot of art in Sydney during the year, but every two years the Biennale of Sydney adds an extra cache that’s celebratory. I still believe art has a particular power to elicit meaning from, and for, many kinds of audiences. I say this because we are now at a point where audiences are so much a part of the experience, and the relation between artist and audience seems much more important today. I don’t mean as a way of generating revenue; rather, art is more important to us than ever, and audiences are becoming more interested in discovering art. I find the Nuit Blanche idea, which is played out in cities such as Paris, Barcelona, and now Toronto (where I had the pleasure of curating it in 2010), over a twelve hour period, has done more to make art accessible to vast numbers in one short night. In Toronto, for example, in a short twelve hours an estimated one million people are exposed to art. The fact that the Biennale of Sydney is free encourages even more opportunities for engagement. We are always going to compete with many other events, so it is important to consider the artist as someone who makes us see and experience the world differently. What Catherine and I have put together is an exhibition that delights the senses—all the senses, from the visual to the auditory, from the casual to the interactive, and from the responsive to the directed. Artists continually open up our senses to seeing and understanding the world in new ways. The success of our show will be what audiences take away and what they remember long after it’s over.
Opposite: Robin Watkins, The Luminiferous Aether (detail), 2009 Photo courtesy the artist
8 9 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
91 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 Jacqueline Millner: How is your curatorial theme distinct from the now over-familiar and much-critiqued notion of relational aesthetics propounded by Nicholas Bourriaud? Gerald McMaster: Some might think there are similarities but there is no relation, pardon the pun. What we came to understand was that during the last century the world was overlaid by what Foucault and others said was a grid that broke everything down into units and fragments, separated into distinct compartments and so on. While this idea has triggered many wonderful ideas, there have been consequences that the latter half of the twentieth-century has been struggling to rethink new strategies for how peoples and ideas can come together. This new thinking asks us not just about relations between ourselves but also the more-than-human world, which in part is why there is a focus on environmental concerns. We’ve also moved beyond the period of multiculturalism to one where there is mixing of different sorts—socially, politically, artistically and so on. Indeed, the world is transforming through migration/immigration, social media, activism, etc. At the outset we said that our proposal wishes to capitalise on a creative tension—between the artist, the audience, the city and country—for it is in the conﬂuence, the meeting and making of ideas together, that positive consequence can follow. From the outset we felt we needed to have a thorough engagement with the artist and therefore stayed clear of an overarching theme. In short, the process became the theme. While relations began early, we feel they will continue through the installation process, and finally it will be the audiences who’ll complete the process. Jacqueline Millner: What do you make of the objections against ‘spectacular’ art—large scale, ‘crowd-pleasing’, entertaining—such as those made by Benjamin Buchloh, that suggest that such art erodes the potential for critical reflection that post-conceptual art aspires to?
mainstream art world rarely travels. So we’re confident we will have artists from areas you least expect, to the extent this is another way we might differentiate our approach from Bourriaud who is more bound to seek out the usual suspects from major art producing areas of Europe or North America.
Gerald McMaster: I believe we were aware that the question of ‘spectacle’ and ‘spectacular’ would surface, as it does whenever there is a biennale. We were certainly aware that for installation within the confines and structure of say Cockatoo Island we would invite artists who would be able to address the spatiality of the long-abandoned modernist spaces. So rather than think in terms of largescale (where there will be some) and ‘crowd pleasing’ (where there will be some), we thought more in terms of art that would be memorable. Something memorable can come in different guises. It can be as simple as a story that two or more people can tell or relate that is inspired by a work of art no matter what its scale. We also felt that the spaces of Cockatoo Island or Pier 2/3 would provide their own sense of the spectacular for which the art becomes complementary. The sheer size of the Biennale itself verges on suggesting these ideas. But, as we know from visiting any museum, or talking with evaluations experts who are responsible to watch people looking at art they will tell us that overwhelmingly the interaction with art is so brief that any critical reflection can only be seen as a residual effect. I’m not saying that critical reflection isn’t happening; what I am saying is that it happens in various ways, such as returning for another visit, by talking and sharing with friends or colleagues, by taking photographs to view later, by texting a friend about something you’ve seen, by being led by gallery guides, or an engagement with the artist or artistic director. Critical reflection occurs in a variety of ways. I think that a work of art is just the beginning of an engagement for critical reflection; many of the works in this edition of the Biennale are likely to achieve the potential.
Reuben Keehan: Your précis for “all our relations” notes a shift in art away from radical opposition toward a more nuanced exploration of human relationships. But the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the Wukan uprising have reminded us that these to currents are not so distinct, that they may, in fact, operate through a single movement—radical experimentation with the form of participation, directed against the imposition of power. ‘We are the red line, you do not cross us’: this is the tone. Given that this extraordinary movement has emerged as you have been assembling this Biennale, has this tone emerged in art, and will it be registered on the exhibition floor?
ADAM GECZY: It has become increasingly evident that the Biennale of Sydney undergoes a sort of fetishistic disavowal of its position within the Asia Pacific region at each edition, with its predominant thematics constantly directed towards the Euro-American North by mostly artistic directors from that domain. Carolyn Christov-Barkiegev’s Revolutions that Turn was a somewhat paradigmatic example of this fixation. What steps has your Biennale taken to address this question? Gerald McMaster: What can I say? My collaborator is from Europe and I am from North America (Canada; which itself is a close cousin to Australia). Perhaps I can talk about the 18th exhibition itself and how we have thought about this question. First of all, I did not see Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition, but was here as the Canadian Commissioner for David Elliott’s presentation, who I thought went out of his way to include more than half of the exhibition’s artists from outside the Euro-American region. Catherine de Zegher and I continue this same pattern. As for artists of the Asia Pacific, I’d say about thirty-five percent of the artists come from the Asia Pacific region, which includes Australia. Though this question of inclusion/exclusion seems to be one asked in different ways by different people, depending on the circumstance of the discussion, suffice to say what we were at pains to look in unusual places such as Mongolia or in places where the
Gerald McMaster: We did not anticipate these events happening but we did recall the very immediate and devastating consequences of environmental catastrophes that in their own way bring us together. Our relationships are not just human but more-than-human, which is suggested by our title—“all our relations”. Various artists in their own way will address concerns specific to their region; indeed, these artists are responding to local, regional, national and international dilemmas. The exhibition and the artwork will show how everything is connected and that we are all implicated to some degree. We have said that the artists that we are presenting engage with deep ideas and world issues, in a way directly related to our senses, rather than in the negative and critical way we have become accustomed to. AMELIA BARIKIN: A media release states that the “Biennale of Sydney will be rooted in storytelling as it is currently being re-imagined as a coming-into-being in relation. In the reciprocity that is storytelling, both teller and listener inhabit the space of the story. Telling stories connects us and allows us to care, to be; it fosters collaboration; it aggregates knowledge and generates new ideas; it ignites change; and, ultimately, builds community. In this matrix, the different projects can be compared to a set of story lines, which artists, curators and audiences relate and translate. Through this process, a collective composition or new “gesamtkunstwerk” is accomplished in the active generation of meanings realised by all those who take part, each taking their stories home and beyond.” In his 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’, Walter Benjamin makes a distinction between the formats of the novel and the story on the basis of an altered temporality. Whereas the novelist is writing a story that must end, the storyteller’s tale is generated through a communion of shared experiences that evolves from person to person, mouth to mouth, place to place. This, suggests Benjamin, is the time of history rather than of the historian: it is the time of a shared imaginary with a cyclical rhythm. If storytelling has become a dominant mode within contemporary artistic practice, what does this reveal about the structure of contemporary history?
Opposite: Everlyn Nicodemus, Bystander on probation No.14, 2007 Photo courtesy the artist Page 92: Farideh Lashai, El Amal, 2011 Photo courtesy the artist
9 3 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 Gerald McMaster: History is always around us and we live with it. Thus, reading the past through the lens of the present or the artist’s brings it closer to the first person, bringing life to the work. By doing so, it allows us to look at the works in interesting ways. As historians who focus on popular memory have insisted, we experience the present through the lens of the past—and we shape our understanding of the past through the lens of the present. Though we have created a narrative, it won’t be one that most visitors will follow; instead, we see an unfolding taking place within the relation between audience and the art. What we can imagine are many works of art (dots) that will be connected by audiences, whether it’s on their own, in relation with a friend or relative, or by our guides. We realise that storytelling is heteroglossic, or multivocal, so we anticipate a lively interchange of ideas and stories. We have also begun a kind of storytelling with Moira Roth on our Biennale of Sydney web-site (called ‘Moira Roth’s Gleanings’), in which she says: “Over the coming months, I will conduct regular online exchanges with a selection of the 18th Biennale’s artists, as well as periodic exchanges with the two curators.” Artists such as Lee Mingwei and Nadia Myre will conduct a kind of performative storytelling with audiences in a steady exchange of stories. Ewa Partum’s interactive metapoetry, in which she scatters letters at various sites only to be picked by participants, forms a new kind of poetics. These are just samples of types of stories to be told and retold over the course of the Biennale and afterwards. Indeed, audiences are important but their interaction with each other or the art isn’t everything; they’re not the central players—the art and artists are. The art is what audiences interact with, be it directly or indirectly. Audiences participate through the senses. They tell each other stories; or they will keep it to themselves only to tell their story later rather than try mess with their mood or interaction with the art. For us, the interaction is not the art, only the experience that is personal and that can be shared with others. A number of works are interactive wherein audiences can engage or participate or merely experience —they will not be told what to do. How we have curated the exhibition allows the audience to have new experiences from one work to the next where connections are made or sensed. ADAM GECZY: Is there a socio-philosophical subtext to your idea of collaboration, and if so, to what extent is it compatible with the contemporary zeitgeist? And collaboration, relationality, interactivity—these politics of inclusion that curators have imposed on artists seem somewhat forced. Given the plethora of biennales and their like is it that curators are now short of ideas? Gerald McMaster: As we have said, we began in collaboration that was borne out of conversation but it wasn’t the overriding rationale. We have some collaborative projects that are both direct and indirect, in which artists work with each other or across disciplines or with skilled technicians or with communities. Collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean working together, but the simple juxtapositioning of works creates a relation wherein audiences will construct meaning. We were thinking more about conversations through ideas such as collaboration and interactivity. I cannot say if indeed curators are short of ideas or that there are too many ideas, it is just taking one and working with it. BLAIR FRENCH: This is the third time the Biennale has been partially presented on Cockatoo Island—a post-industrial ruin of sorts that provides a spectacular stage and appears immensely popular with visitors. It could be argued, however, that a small number of specific artist projects notwithstanding, the biennale exhibitions have tended not to address the specific and very complex histories embedded in the site but in fact to ignore or implicitly displace such particularities of locality and history. How are you approaching working with this unique site? Gerald McMaster: I agree with you whole-heartedly. When you attend the Venice Biennale I think you’ll find most artists address its long, complex, and fascinating history. This was not lost on us. Cockatoo Island is by definition surrounded by water and Sydney and is a seaside city, so in our exhibition the question of water is very much in evidence. The works of Ed Pien, Monika Grzymala, Alan Michelson, Jess MacNeil, Fujiko Nakaya, Jonathan Jones, Lyndal Jones, Carlos Garaicoa, Khaled Sabsabi, Adam Cvijanovic and Cristina Iglesias, all address water to varying degrees. As to it being a ruin of its industrial past, quite a number of artists such as Jonathan Jones, Lyndal Jones, Carlos Garaicoa, Cal Lane, Peter Robinson, Jon Pylypchuk, Philip Beesley, Nina Canell and Rob Watkins, Iris Haussler, Tiffany Singh, Alec Finlay, Nicholas Hlobo, Ricardo Lanzarini and Imran Qureshi, all to some degree address this highly attractive space. Many of these artists will come quite early to work on their installations and will spend a good deal of time reflecting on this site. Some will address it as a colonial site, a staging area for the disastrous effects of global climate change, its maritime history, its gendered history, its mining potential, as a pilgrimage site, its modernist history, as a former jail, or a refuge for various types of animals.
JACQUELINE MILLNER: How does the specific location of Sydney, Australia, feature in the exhibition, besides providing the actual sites? What is your understanding of Australia’s place in the current system of globalised art? Gerald McMaster: I’ll answer this as I’ve answered others. There’s a sense of internationalism at play, in that Australian audiences want to know what’s going on in the rest of the world, to be connected. This is what “all our relations” is about. Australia has a curious history: not only are its original inhabitants among the oldest in the world, but it’s also a country/continent that appears to be far away from its colonial antecedents, but close to large Asian powerhouses such as India and China. Indeed, its history of relations with countries in the Asia Pacific spans more than 5,000 years. Despite this history of engagement with the region, it’s the more recent colonial history where the question of distance seems to persist—especially in the art world. What I also find unique is the character of the country and how it affects the Biennale to some degree, and that it is, like Canada, a colonial country. In São Paulo, Brazil, where the second longest-running biennale is presented, it is a colonial country, it provides absolutely no voice to its indigenous inhabitants —in other words, this aspect of their identity is completely lacking—whereas in Australia it is almost celebrated. To be sure, artists who happen to be indigenous have become an important part of the Biennale. The last Biennale, directed by David Elliott, placed a palpable emphasis on art from these often overlooked areas of artistic production worldwide. As I have stated, with so many biennales across the globe, being distinct can be difficult because each biennale wants to be new and different. The Biennale of Sydney is a significant celebration of contemporary art in the Asia Pacific region. Sydney as a city is an unquestioned destination for visitors from around the world, and so it goes without saying that the city is built for being an international venue for contemporary art. An added dimension is Cockatoo Island, an artefact of the past that provides such a superb backdrop for many artists. In fact, its non–white cube character is now attracting many new kinds of visitors, such as families who feel that galleries are a bit too severe. Gerald McMaster is a curator, artist and writer, and since 2005 has been the Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, where he recently curated Inuit Modern: The Esther and Samuel Sarick Collection. He was also a member of the curatorial team for the 2010 Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, McMaster was the Director’s Special Assistant for Mall Exhibitions and Deputy Assistant Director for Cultural Resources. McMaster was also Curator, Canadian Museum of Civilisation. Catherine de Zegher is a curator and writer, and Visiting Curator, Tàpies Foundation, Barcelona. Until recently, she was Guest Curator, Department of Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she co-organised On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century. De Zegher was Director of Exhibitions and Publications, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and, for many years, was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Drawing Center, New York. Before working in North America, she was co-founder and Director of the Kanaal Art Foundation in Kortrijk, Belgium.
C'MON LET'S STICK TOGETHER ON COLLABORATION, INCLUSION AND CONSONANCE IN THE 18TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY
Adam Geczy On first reading, the title for this year’s Biennale of Sydney, ‘All Our Relations’, seems simple enough. At the beginning of their rationale to the exhibition (Biennale website), Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster set up an opposition that the exhibition seeks to address. “We are moving on from a century in which the radical in the arts largely adopted principles of separation, negativity and disruption as strategies of change.” The therapeutic ring of “we are moving on” is rather seductive, and sets up the exhibition as both an antidote and a new horizon. The (bad) twentieth-century was oppositional and negative, we have gotten over this and are now embracing the new with an inclusive bountifulness that is more accepting than ever before. But the ethos of collaboration and ‘connectivity’ as they call it begs more scrutiny. For underpinning their own principles is a moral ‘ought’ that is based on what is, frankly, scruffy reasoning. Inclusiveness is advanced with an aggressiveness that makes a straw man of modernism, while posing an attitude that brooks no alternative. The white Western male independent artist is permanently imperilled. Those out of sympathy with inclusion in art subscribe to an old reactionary world order. Beware.
The line that follows the one just quoted reads: “Based on oppositional thinking, such modernist principles proved tenacious and acted as a default criticality in a world in which the drive to progress became more complicated and the consequences more ambiguous.” Working from the previous sentence, “modern principles” we assume, are those that “adopted principles of separation” and ‘negativity’. These principles are “a default criticality”. The cryptically ungrammatical turn is not saved by the recourse to overt ambiguity: “the drive to progress became more complicated”. Apart from ‘a world’ we do not know where this drive hails from, let alone why, how or what complications arose. Nor is it ever settled whether such complications were good or bad, although we assume bad. It would be very tempting to set about parsing the entire text, but it is best to explore the two pillars on which this Biennale appears to be built, namely modernism as a period of conflict and the antidote of inclusiveness and collaboration prescribed for it. When artistic modernism actually begins is contentious. (Please bear with me while I undertake a quick rehearsal of Art101.) It usually boils down to three positions. The first is late nineteenth-century, with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and the abstraction of the picture plane. This is the formalist reading that culminates in Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. The second is in the mid-nineteenth century with the birth of photography and the modern metropolis, and the alteration of modes of seeing. It was also the period of Realism spearheaded by Gustave Courbet and later Émile Zola, who were both adamant about the social ramifications of what they were doing. Realism really meant representation of the underclass and work which at the time had a deeply seditious and revolutionary import. The third is in the Neoclassicism of JacquesLouis David which came to define the French Revolution, although it was already on the rise as a stylistic fashion over a decade before. The simplicity of Neoclassicism lent itself to various uses, and in the revolutionary hands it steered away from the fripperies of aristocratic excess. What was important at this time is that a style came to evoke the possibilities of human agency. In both art and dress, adopting a simpler mode meant efficiency and mobility. In many respects this vision of the beginning of artistic modernism does not diminish its relevance to political concerns nor with formal ones, rather these two qualities are built into overarching efforts of renewal and betterment that, at best, are deeply moral. There was a different morality at stake, to be sure, for the modernist artist working relatively alone for a relatively indeterminate social body, in contrast with one ensconced within patronage. Dogmatic as they may appear by now, these details serve to demonstrate the transformative nature of modern art and its meliorist intent. The question is whether these circumstances have changed in art or whether the means by which they are achieved and received have altered. One of the sources of the rage against postmodernism was its perceived lack of coherence. The absence of a locatable movement or a dominant set of concerns was regarded with distress, since it suggested disinclination to action or any committed set of determinations. The stylistic pea soup of postmodernism was greeted with contempt, but also welcomed by groups who had felt marginalised and silenced by the former ethos of dominance. These shifts that began in the late 1970s are of course conflated in the century from which, according to de Zegher and McMaster, “we have moved on”. If we adopt their terminology of negativity, we can say that first there was the more dialectic negativity of the avant-garde, then the negativity at not having negativity. The term “postmodernism” diminished in use with the appearance and embattled definition of new media and then with the emergence of the semantic white elephant ‘The Contemporary’. But while again painting in broad strokes, it is tenable to state that the late 1990s and early 2000s were periods of profusion facilitated by the digital channels that had a paradoxical effect. It expanded the reach of Euro-American discourses, political, artistic and otherwise, while also giving vent to voices of slippage and dissent. These changes, gradual and from more than one source allowed individual artists to group together physically, or according to formal or conceptual family relationships. It was also the accelerating developments in digital technology that spawned a new culture of collaboration, well before artists had a chance to think of its ideological motivations or consequences: artists were brought together through the multiple platforms of interfaces; it was also common for artists versed in the image to come together with those versed in sound.
9 5 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
But what was occurring was nothing too new, except for the speed and fluidity with which it was achieved. It was, and still is, amusing however to see the ideology that has grown around collaboration since the mid-1990s, which evolved as a partner term to interactivity. In the shift from description and fact to ideology these ideas became more consequential, which is to say more dangerous. To put this differently, collaboration had come to be viewed less as a way of approaching artistic (and other) production, but as a process imbued with its own special virtues. And to do so immediately courts some of the more tired and vapid diatribes directed at modernism: the sequestered, paranoid male artist, the individual capitalist, the exclusivist, the anti-communalist ergo the anti-communist and hence the capitalist. Why not just say that the white heterosexual male artist working alone is capitalism in miniature? If such simplicities sound absurd, then observe the extent to which, in this Biennale at least, it is—almost exclusively, but not to give the game away entirely—avoided. We can learn a bit from the German here, where “kollaboration” is a solecism used by non-native speakers since it refers to people collaborating with the Nazis. Because of this, Germans use the far more descriptive, innocuous word, “mitarbeiten”, literally “working with”. (A commensurate solecism comes to mind: John F. Kennedy called himself a “donut” in his address to Berlin in 1963—“Ich bin ein Berliner”, which means “I am a jam-filled donut”, when the correct phraseology is “Ich bin Berliner”.) Since this stain, the verb “to collaborate” is the more innocuous and factual cognate “mitarbeiten”—“working with”. Medieval manuscripts were frequently the product of multiple hands, as were Renaissance frescoes. It was common practice for the master to lay down the cartoon, or drafted ground form, and to give his assistants instructions on how to fill it in. If an apprentice rivalled the skills of his master he was given more and more responsibility, as occurred with Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens before van Dyck branched out on his own. Rubens could not have painted around a thousand paintings, while also being a diplomat without a great deal of help. It was also acceptable for Flemish artists of the time to pool their skills—no different from a video artist and a sound composer coming together—according to their differing strengths, such
as when Rubens teamed up with Frans Snyders, adept at painting animals and Jan Brueghel the Elder, renowned for his plants and landscapes. While van Gogh had unsuccessfully wanted to resuscitate the communal attitude with Gauguin (perhaps one of the worst perpetrators of the male individualist myth), Impressionist artists were known to paint side by side. Many of the artistic avantgarde were socialists (inspired by Saint-Simon and Proud’hon whom Courbet painted) and anarchists. The idea of artistic movements has long been taught according to the legacies of formalist teaching, ignoring or only nodding to the political and social ideas that impelled them. Aside from exhibiting together, the Impressionists were never a coherent group and they shared their disgust at the inefficacy and mendacity of the academic mainstream, whom they viewed, correctly, as perpetuating political conservatism that was mercantile, militaristic and nepotistic. The social aims of artists reached a new head with World War I. The performativity and randomness of Dada sought to displace artistic autonomy along with coherence and predictability, along with anything that could be solidified into a commodity. Dada and the Bauhaus were the origins of our ideas of collaboration, except perhaps the political justifications are today more piecemeal and desultory. Certainly the aspirations that appeared to reside in collaboration and interactivity after they became in vogue in the last two decades or so have underscored deeper fears about the very opposite. Greater and greater sums were being spent on art, by artists alive or dead. The global financial crisis did nothing to stem this flow on the higher end, since it is art that is invested in, when confidence in the market is down. Art is also a very easy way of parking, or hiding money. When it comes to art as a commodity, there is no philosophical differentiation between artist groups and pairs, or individuals. What is important is simply the belief in the longevity of the work’s value. I challenge anyone to find an investor who collects works produced as the result of collaboration because it reflects a better image of community. (Although to do so would be the most gallant form of altruistic mendacity, a version, but in farcically ham-handed form, of buying Aboriginal art because it emanates spirituality and it helps the people in question.)
Interactivity and audience involvement have been some of the most fraudulent notions circulating around art, since these ideas were raised to the status of principles by Nicolas Bourriaud after he coined the term “relational aesthetics” in the catalogue to his exhibition Traffic in 1996, and then in what amounted to his manifesto on the subject published two years later. I have written in these pages on this ersatz movement—Broadsheet 36.2, 2008—which amounts to little more than sanitised situationism. In many ways it also epitomised the condition of most of the contemporary Left, namely as a diffuse set of moral codes puffed up with sanctity, but bankrupt on the impetus for real change—Slavoj Zizek has written extensively on this counter-productive Left in books such as The Sublime Object of Ideology (2009) and Living in the End Times (2011). Indeed there was something perverse about “relational aesthetics” insofar as it played a game of diversity and randomness in common with the best advancements of Dada or the experimental art of the 1960s and 1970s, but did so without concealing the proud sanction of either doctrine or institution. Here one can be radical without losing the safety net. This is not in any way to argue that all art produced today with a component of the ‘relationality’ is suspect. Sometimes it works very well, but usually achieved without the dubious need for lip service or bowing to it as a credo (the work of Francis Alÿs springs to mind). Interactivity, which begins somewhere around the same time is not only born of the advancements in digital technology, but also a growing need by governments and municipalities to rethink their strategies for patronising art. Interactive art is relational art without the faux-radical edge of relational aesthetics, because it usually involves a fixed object that anchors the object or the action, be it an interface or something that calls for alteration by one or more members of the audience. This sort of art practice was, and continues to be especially congenial to government officials whose decisions are part of a chain of accountability. For the expenditure of public funds is far easier to justify on a work, in which the public gets involved, that is, physically. What such trends ignored was that art is by nature interactive in that it demands more of the viewer than just looking, or that there have been creative works which people have physically interacted with for centuries. It is called architecture. Architecture, other than the installation of the works of art in their respective spaces is another idea noticeably absent from de Zegher and McMaster’s agenda, and is a particularly glaring omission, given the types of historical and revisionist claims they are making. Deconstructivism—as distinct from deconstruction and deconstructionism, although they are all related—became an active term in architectural circles in both theory and practice around the 1980s. The architectural equivalent of postmodern art, deconstructivism’s theoretical apologists were Charles Jencks, later Mark Wigley and of course the philosophical wizard Jacques Derrida. Key architects included Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry. Deconstructivist architects express a distrust in the universalist and utopian notions embodied in modernist architecture, instead offering an image of diversity, instability and incoherence. Architecture is the ultimate test of such a motive, since expressions of disunity and discord must nonetheless work within something that is functional, and which justifies the expense and labour. It must be anti-institutional in something that is institutional from the first. The oblique lines and unconventional materials such as metal are all stock-in-trade for high-budget architecture today, when deconstructivism is now more of an historical by-word, if it hasn’t been dropped from popular parlance altogether. It would seem, however, that the ideas it enshrines would be relevant to the curators’ task, since it addresses both disunity and unity at once, but also seeks to reflect the complexities and unevenness of globalised world views. What is pertinent is that deconstructivist architecture, which despite its lapse into formulas, is at best a reckoning upon the heterogeneous and how it can be given a home without that heterogeneity losing its integrity, or interest. Toward the end of their (website) rationale, de Zegher and McMaster explain the roles that their guiding ideas of collaboration and inclusiveness will take: “In seeking conjunctive energies, the collaboration will take place on many different levels: in co-existence, conversation and juxtaposition but also in purposeful connectivity. Within this framework of mutuality, recognition and thoughtfulness, disparate ideas—some distantly and some closely related—will be brought together in an exhibition process of composition; much akin to the process of thought itself.” One balks at the first phrase “conjunctive energies” which almost sounds like a particularly acute eye malady. The rest is suitably oblique—“co-existence, conversation and juxtaposition but also in purposeful connectivity”—that applies to most art. The art object coexists with the viewer; it is a mute, or tacit, conversation that is conducted at best on a highly sophisticated subliminal level, and if juxtaposition is not employed in it, then by virtue of the art object being art, it juxtaposes itself with what is not itself, since the (good) work of art inevitably incites some form of interest. But it is the phrase “purposeful connectivity” that is the most jarringly intriguing. We might recall Kant’s gnomic characterisation of the beautiful: “purposiveness without a purpose” (zweckmässigkeit ohne zweck). De Zegher and McMaster provide much to ponder and one wonders if there is going to be the ‘in-your-face’ ardour of soliciting pamphleteers in a shopping mall on a
Saturday morning. The “framework of mutuality, recognition and thoughtfulness” is more rhetorical promise than substantial, but sounds much like a self-help clinic. Apart from being prolix, and suffused with the good-time air of neo-utopianism, there are some rather large claims here. The final flourish is never fully qualified, despite its foray into epistemology. Their positing of the ‘compositional’ nature of thought disregards the fundamental fact that the development of intelligence is through making intelligible distinctions. While on a philosophical note, it is important to draw into this discussion one of the most important works on community in recent times, Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative community (La Communauté désœuvré, 1986). He draws a line between community as a founding principle of humanity and that of communism per se, which he sees as a debased and simplified version of that principle. Art itself (he writes mainly about literature) is one of community’s conditions of possibility, since its undertaking is about sharing visions and voices, it also exposes the limits of the communal, which is not the dead-end, but an unrealisable mission as a totality. The world in words (or paint, or projected onto a screen for that matter) is always a virtual world whose resolution is in the aesthetic event, which is one of the few things resistant to ideology. The community that is the fold of understanding between artist and recipient is distinct from the myth of community, which is a false conscious that sees a realisable mission in being together. Like all myths it is an image, which without rationale is mutable, unjustified and often arbitrary. Communism, but also any other movement from Woodstock to Nimbin are examples of this myth. Apparently the artistic directors of the 18th Biennale of Sydney are infusing the myth of community into the sense of community, and the communal effort that is central to artistic communication, or the communication of the aesthetic as one finds it in art. For mythic community must always communicate, and share in a material, visible, and by all accounts verifiable way. Such has been the manner of some of the tropes and strategies that I have outlined above. Not only is there a more than jaundiced concept of more than a century’s art, but in what they reject and the lack of criticality in what they embrace undervalues works that are not as obviously deploying their objective of inclusion. The double bind, and the wager of art is that in its capacity for it to be ignored or misunderstood, is also its capacity to touch. In its inefficacy is also the power for cataclysmic disruption of emotions, senses and beliefs. Art is incommensurate with a political banner or a dishcloth commemorating the royal wedding for a good reason (readymades and ironic counterfeits aside), because its ambiguity reaches into and has the power to harmonise what in verbalised logic could only be expressed as contradictions, or as nonsense. Efforts to tamper with this dynamic often result in bad art, which is another way of saying that bad art comes from the wager of communication (and hence community and inclusion) so that it never misses its mark. I am in no way making a judgment of the works in the exhibition, but I am making a judgment about the abstruse logic that binds them. Finally to the bedevilled topic of ethnicity in this exhibition. No doubt the communitarian instinct as espoused by de Zegher and McMaster is one that has a global reach, which is expected in a biennale. They seem to be saying, “we are inclusive of the whole global community”. But, unless this conclusion extrapolates too far, such inclusion also misses the fact that most Third World countries do not see themselves as included, but subjected, or some find themselves in the fray of such chaos that they are not given pause for any reflection at all. What is also true is that countries which do not wish to identify wholly with the Euro-American legacy have mined their own histories and their imaginations to find ways of selfidentification that are separate, and thus exclusionary, without this exclusion leading to violence. While this may be a mechanism of community still, it behoves individual artists to invent alternatives and test these within the marketplace of ideas and commodities. It is important to comment on large-scale exhibitions and the ideas that bind them, especially those for which there is a lot at stake. The contentious theoretical structure of this Biennale is redolent of the 2004 Biennale, On Reason and Emotion curated by Isabel Carlos. It is now not enough to say that one can only hope that the individual works sing out for themselves separate from the misconceptions of the philosophical framework as has been said of previous Biennales. It is insufficient now for the very reason of community. It is through the penetrating dialogue between artists that new ideas are accelerated. And when this is done actively, the family relations between artists make their complicated ideas more accessible—through repetition and cross-referencing—to a non-specialist audience. Given the promiscuous rhetoric that has ‘global’ as an adjective or a prefix, and given that the world of art is as proportionately overpopulated as the planet itself, good, courageous and exacting curators with sound moral and philosophical radars could not be more exigent. Thus generalisations and elusive reasoning behind this Biennale beg some rather big questions. Page 94: Judith Wright, A Journey, 2011 Photo courtesy the artist, Sophie Gannon Gallery, Melbourne and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane Page 95: Jin Nu, Exuviate II–Where have all the children gone?, 2005 Photo courtesy the artist Opposite: Blessings Upon the Land of My Love (installation detail Sharjah Biennial), 2011 Photo courtesy the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah
97 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
A PETRI DISH IN THE SUN? ALL OUR RELATIONS
Alex Gawronski The Biennale of Sydney’s title ‘All Our Relations’ indicates at the outset the type of exhibition it promises to be. The press statement issued by co-curators Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster begins by trouncing certain core strategies of the so-called radical arts that upheld “principles of separation negativity and disruption as strategies of change”.1 Against such classical critical strategies the Biennale of Sydney curators propose instead a vision of art that is —again as their chosen title suggests—relational, open, networked and interactive. By now such terminologies have become so de rigueur in the art world as to have practically passed into contemporary mythology. With this in mind, proponents of this supposedly new, radically a-critical view of contemporary culture see an expanded world of free exchanges, of democratised relations and of a return to benevolently natural principles. Seemingly unbeknownst to those who habitually argue for this ostensibly emancipated version of art and culture, is the fact that it dwells at the core of the overwhelmingly corporatised, exceedingly managed contemporary reality of global capitalist societies. Rather than an antidote to a life lived nine-tofive that is excessively controlled and restrictive, the networked, interactive and unrelentingly communicative conditions prevalent in art and culture today most accurately describe the dominant paradigms that drive the corporate imagination. Art that once sought to negatively tackle head-on the inequities of rampantly industrialised societies assumed to be unfailingly democratic, have been replaced by an art whose relational leanings coincide seamlessly with a post-Fordist reality, where endless communication and maximum visibility are mandatory. In this reality the artist as an agent and author of change has been practically replaced by an audience whose collective desires it expects contemporary art to meet (rather than question). Moreover, the relational view of art displaces genuine political struggle with a resurrected version of biopolitics. Its adherents knowingly or not, opt for an image of transcendent politics, in which systems of relation are taken to be inherently positive. However, upon closer inspection, the selfless transpersonalism of such a system aligns with a worldview enslaved by the divisive consequences of the techno-informational impulse.
Curiously, the origins of this vision of a networked, interactive and informational society stems not from the technocratic 1980s as is regularly imagined, but as far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, corresponding with the widespread advent of the use of personal computers developed in California’s Silicon Valley, the necessarily fraught, agonistic and communal world of democratic politics began to be challenged. Surprisingly its main opponents were not as might be expected during the era of the Cold War—Communists—but Western hyper-individualists propagating what would become highly influential quasi-theories, in which rampant self-interest was presented not only as positive but as quintessentially natural.2 Self-interest, it was argued, was at the root of any civilised society; it was the rational individual who effectively stood in for a society once communally imagined. The communalism of society was considered inherently unpredictable and therefore irredeemably compromised rationally. Consequently society as it was traditionally conceived was held to be inferior to a society of atomised, self-interested individuals. It was only the individual acting out of rational self-interest who could grasp what it meant to be civilised, modern and paradoxically, ‘connected’. The attenuated rationalism of this viewpoint was unsurprisingly, intimately connected to the birth of global, transnational capitalism. Individual desires as represented by capital or so the theory went, could effectively be reduced to predictable mathematical formulae.3 The economy of self-interest as represented by the rise of neo-liberalism was seen as the most logical and therefore best means of uniting rationally self-seeking selves. At the same time as an ideology, belief in the rationally self-stabilising equilibrium of the neo-liberal economy was seen to counteract the volatility of political struggle. Taking root in the USA, that superpower’s global dominance soon meant that its favoured economic system spread to other Western nations and the rest of the world.4 As a universalising theory emphasising global interconnection, neo-liberal economics purveyed a system of extreme rationalism where collective desire could be safely reduced to testable coordinates that supposedly represented mass individuals.
9 9 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 While such rationalism might seem natural in the context of the global economy, its influence was much more far-reaching. The extent of such reach was evident when non-corporate and apparently alternative groups, most notably early environmentalists and experimental scientists turning equally against the dirty world of standard party politics, began to embrace the basically econometric notion of rationally self-organising systems. The term “ecosystem” was coined at this time and came to represent the rationalist idea of an innate ‘balance of nature’. The botanist and early ecologist Arthur Tansley who popularised this term believed that the human mind was, like nature, a self-regulating system that behaved in much the same way as the interior components of a machine that regulates its predictable functioning.5 Revealingly, contemporary pioneers of cybernetic systems also believed that the functioning of computers represented a technological equivalent to naturally occurring ecosystems.6 By the 1980s, “cyber-culture” had absorbed such influences offering up repeated visions of an interfaced, transpersonal network that transcended and superseded mere democracy. In cyber-space, where identities were fictional, anonymous and fluid, the global political subject was reinvented as a type of willing android whose primary reality was attuned to the distant screen-based horizon of a fundamentally molecular view of contemporary reality. The alienated mass (the “lumpen proletariat” for Marx) was no longer deemed a worthwhile, let alone believable, entity. Networked technological interactivity had replaced archaic struggles for national independence or communal control of the means of production. Now, the true self although physically alone, was infinitely plugged-in within a limitless and dematerialised territory in communion with countless other online users. Communication, recast as the manipulation of abundantly accessible information, was all of a sudden instantaneous as space simultaneously rendered physically limited and virtually all encompassing. Beyond an emphasis on so-called cyber-culture though, which could in any case be acutely and immediately critical,7 emerged a broader emphasis on the blanket conditions of ‘relationality’. The term obviously rides on the back of Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential and highly generalising book Relational Aesthetics.8 However, its wider orientation can clearly be traced back to the post-political landscape arising out of the universalising utopianism of both early ecological and cybernetic discourses. Thus, overriding stress on systems and networks of connection aim to show how; “[I]n the arts, as elsewhere, analytical reflection has led to an understanding that human beings are highly dependent upon our often overlooked relationships with others and with our common word.”9 While such emphasis certainly appears to totally undermine the centrality of the rationally driven self-serving individualist it nonetheless requires little analysis to understand how human beings depend on one another. In fact, such intrinsic interdependence was a basic tenet of Communism, regardless of what that movement became historically in practice. Vastly different however, is the hugely generalising and rationalist notion of a ‘common’ world. Of course, our world is only common to all insofar as we take a completely naturalist and apolitical view of it. From such a viewpoint the common world we share is one of ecologies, objectively interlinked systems and mingling atmospheres that collectively conjure a molecular image of universal interdependence and equilibrium. Naturally, such a world is a fundamental construction that effectively rids both art and society of any connection to the ugly, compromised and contested realities of politics. That is unless the politics in question are the dominant (non-) politics of barely adversarial parties whose actions, at least via the influence of the contemporary globalising West, are determined by the equally atomised realities of economic flows. Actually, the worldview the relational model upholds as much as the neoliberal economic one, is founded on the fantasy of its capacity for endless correction and adjustment: the world can be (and needs to be) ‘fixed’ via entrusting it to a rational supra-social narrative, be it economic, ecological or both. That is not to say that the increasing acknowledgement of the individual’s reliance on others is at base cynical. Indeed, it is regularly founded on a strong ethical conviction that, at its most extreme, can appear quasi-religious in its fervour. From an art perspective, such belief frequently propels the act of producing work into necessarily moral territory.10 This essentially means that a work of art that seemingly relies more on “collaboration, conversation and compassion”11 and less on individual authorship, is deemed better and more valuable because more socially “purposeful”.12 From such a perspective the production of an artwork is equivalent to a good deed. The criteria for judging work meanwhile becomes not so much a question of its capacity to intervene in, question or disturb commonly held notions about art or life, but its ability to suggest rational and productive solutions to troubling social issues. The relationship of art to life fostered by this ultimately populist model is almost entirely literal and transparent; art’s value is positive and productive only in relation to evidence of the good will it evinces. One of the highly problematic aspects of the overstated relationality of contemporary art is precisely its disavowal of the textual quality of a work and the fact that as communication, art will always be opaque and indecipherable to many. Actually, this opacity is what lends art a forcefulness and influence that—even if it often appears the contrary—is missing from other predominantly informational media.
The issue of the specific, non-universalising textual identity of contemporary art, as it relates to an allegedly common world is doubly complex as it once more disputes the very commonness of that world. Thus a text work which states “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is no Artist”13 is more multi-layered than it may at first appear. This is because what such a statement ultimately questions is the very extent of the Western bias of multi-national cultural events like biennales. Indeed, it is the Western liberal bias that perpetually espouses circumstances of inclusiveness and democratic values and thereby defines the conditions by which ‘global’ art might be viewed. It could be argued obviously that there are many other non-Western nations that have their own biennales by now, except that the biennale model and the inclusiveness it presupposes is a Western invention. Curiously discounted from such an invention is genuine dissent or more precisely the indicators of principles of separation, negativity and disruption. Paradoxically then—in a system calling for commonality and connection—the freedom of difference is more or less absolutely denied. This is unless difference can be put to good use as a sign of Western benevolence and toleration. Of course toleration is a deeply ambivalent idea, as it would more honestly seek to annul genuine freedom of expression altogether.14 More paradoxical still is that this occurs today —according to dictates of ‘relationality’—in a climate demanding exacerbated connectivity. In this dominant and dominating climate maximum communication is not a privilege but a command. The overweening emphasis on mass communication as supported by the outlook for the 2012 Biennale of Sydney, is at very least endemic to contemporary post-industrial societies. In this respect, the transcendent utopian dreams of the late 1960s and early 1970s have become a daily reality. As a result, global distances have dramatically shrunk and people around the world, who would not have previously known of each other’s existences, communicate remotely on a regular basis. The Fordist workscape of rigid hours and dehumanised industrial labour has given way to fluid working hours, changing work environments and multi-skilled occupations for many. The Fordist dictate that the productive worker must stay put all day every day has been replaced by a post-Fordist emphasis on flexibility, mobility and change. The isolated work cell has been usurped by global roaming, virtual and actual. Aligned with such stress on fluid mobility are the everyday practices of the contemporary global art world. Notably, within this art world the recurrence of biennales, and the mass exchanges they facilitate, is especially prominent. Not surprisingly, the sheer scale and fluidity of these exchanges is paralleled elsewhere in the rationalising operations of globalised neo-liberal economies: everywhere capital seeks to establish new markets if only temporarily, as workers are shipped in from transnationally disparate sites to be later left to the ‘freedom’ of their newly attained job ‘flexibility’. Needless to say, the freedom of the low-paid itinerant worker is wholly an illusion barely disguised by neo-liberal market rhetoric. While this may be obvious to most, what is less obvious is the infringement on personal and collective freedoms occasioned by the Post-Fordist paradigm. The enforced demand for perpetual interaction, collaboration and exchange underwritten by the pervasiveness of networked technologies, gives to the individual and artist a sense of freedom that is in reality constantly monitored, especially by corporations. Moreover, such freedom, to take one’s work home for example or to not have to physically go to work at all, means at the same time that there is no escape from work. The ascendance of so-called ‘social media’ means similarly that there is no escape from the impetus to communicate or from interaction with a virtual society most often comprised primarily of either quasi or total strangers.15 Intrinsic too to the endless highlighting of connectivity as a universal transpersonal value is the extent of self-surveillance it promotes; have you responded to all those Facebook requests yet? What if you don’t respond? Will you be de-friended and if so what will this mean? Will someone ‘like’ the message/image/video you posted on your ‘wall’ earlier? What if no-one does? Does this mean that your message is invalid, unredeemably unpopular? The technocratically realised molecularisation of society aids economic and other rationalising networks by keeping the individual constantly wondering about their real value in the virtualised system. In this current climate, communicativeness comes to function as a value in itself and as with capital, the more of it the better. Gone are the days when you could squander your time in solitude engaging in the ‘pointless’ pursuit of unproductive contemplation. Today, the inescapable focus on the supposedly universal and unquestionable value of incessant communication means that all contemplation must in principle (and often in practice) be made instantly accessible to others. Meanwhile, global corporations with no investment in the ethical ramifications of their modes of generating profit, similarly engage social media to enhance their online profiles and productivity whilst simultaneously using such media to generate and popularise ‘concepts’ and campaigns.16 Thus, the utopia of globally equitable relations emerging from increased opportunities for far flung interaction dreamed of by certain contemporary writers, artists and curators and fostered by their unwavering faith in the unassailable value of collaboration at all costs, turns out to deny the underlying corporatist framework supporting such emphases. In fact this framework supports less not more freedom, but in a way that feels like freedom because its means of surveillance are less obviously intrusive.17 Concurrently, a society of individually networked selves
101 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
believes itself to be empowered in its pursuit of what is frequently just the desire for narcissistic self-validation. In this way, the online Other exists more frequently only as far as he or she is able to positively confirm the otherwise uncertain image the communicator has of him or herself. Rather than being endlessly connective then, the networked self regularly merely completes the closed circuit of the need for repetitive affirmation. Surely one of the reasons why the fluidity of social media has become so popular is because it enables the simultaneous alignment of self and Other, albeit in the privacy of virtual space.18 The self is superimposed on the Other instantaneously, but that Other is always physically absent. Absent too is the potential for discomfort that the physical presence of the Other can occasion. Confronting such discomfort is political as it is about testing oneself and being tested by another who cannot be fully known. In such instances, face-to-face communication—so readily imagined today to be nothing but the transmission of information—is conditioned by risk and by an evaluative decision not determined by prior knowledge: the speaker can never know the other’s response in advance. The labyrinthine difficulties that direct communication can occasion recede alternatively in the trans-global terrain of online interaction. Here both the computer and the Other start to feel like a corporeal extension of the user’s brain as it reaches out to the greater brain of nature. The individual user, networked across space and time, might even unconsciously begin to imagine that the collective sum of their connection to dispersed others actually represented something “akin to the process of thought itself”.19 In the context of the Biennale of Sydney, the inherent biopolitics of this statement begins to emphasise the individual artist as a willing but will-less atom in a greater system indicative of a greater, more trustworthy—because more neutral and inclusive—intelligence. Once more, it is this transpersonal intelligence, derived from biopolitical models arising in the late 1960s, that defines a post-political landscape, where generality is given precedence over the specificities of genuine political contestation. The artistic directors of the 2012 Biennale propose their exhibition as a new “gesamstkunstwerk” that explicitly returns to narrative structures, the most dominant of which is the biennale as “a vascular and cellular structure and sinew of a kind of living breathing organism”.20 As we have seen, central to this organic conception of the exhibition is the relationality of all things and all human beings. And while renewed emphasis on the interconnectedness of individuals and groups is not necessarily a problem, what is more deeply problematic however is the very vagueness of the notion of relationalism. After all, surely all art is already ‘relational’ by default: art is only meaningful as far as it relates to broader concerns and signifiers. The attempt to directly socialise the institutions of the contemporary art world, in order to transform it into an alternative community where positive values prevail over negative, actually contributes nothing to the social value of art, while effectively robbing the discourse of art of its positive capacity for questioning and disruption. The automatic veneration of positive cooperation over individual instances of rupture and disturbance succeeds most fully in catering to a populist vision of art, where the smoothing over of critical culture is regarded as universally good. Moreover, “if contemporary art is above all a discursive situation, the artists who practice and extend it merely conform to the requirements of their profession”.21 Therefore, the fully institutionalised socialisation of the art world ends by reframing art primarily as an arena for leisure and access to discursive ‘information’. Relationalism consequently functions most generally as a convenient and simplistic coverall. By the same token, stress on connectivity as far as it relates to technologically networked systems like so-called social media, does not automatically discount the usefulness, convenience or pleasure of such systems. However, outright adherence to the idea of the inherent sociality of such systems conceals a historical and philosophical legacy that coincides with a belief in the benevolent objectivity of economic, ecological and cybernetic systems based on hyperrational calculation. Therefore, as a proposed organically occurring process, the 2012 Biennale of Sydney is not really akin to the processes of thought itself, but instead merely represents a rationalised image of thought. Similarly, an image of the endless possibilities of connection and collaboration—as framed by the in-fact, non-inclusive hierarchy of the Biennale superstructure—does not actually preempt genuine affiliation or connection: artists coerced to collaborate, even if only via constant emphasis, are not necessarily better off for the experience and neither is their art rendered more purposeful. Collaboration may indeed open up creative processes to previously unimagined potentials, but it does not automatically guarantee better or indeed, more socially acute art. Finally, we have to remind ourselves that art like nature, and like the irrationalism of global economic systems is Manichean in its volatility and unpredictability; simply being ‘positive’ is not what art is best at. Page 98: Euraba Artists and Papermakers, White Baagaay (River), 2000 Photo courtesy the artists Pages 100-101: Pinaree Sanpitak, Anything can break, 2011-ongoing Photo courtesy the artist Opposite: Jonathan Jones, Untitled (oysters and teacups) (detail), 2012 Photo courtesy the artist Pages 104-105: Phillip Hastings, Steadfast, 2009 Photo courtesy the artist
Notes 1 Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, Biennale of Sydney 2012, press statement, www.bos18.com 2
The Russian émigré writer Ayn Rand, who eventually fled the mounting fallout of the 1917 Russian Revolution, became famous in the USA for her two novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). In these books Rand outlined her theory of the social primacy of the rationally self-seeking individual against the social(ist) emphasis on ‘ethical altruism’. For Rand, laissez-faire capitalism was the sole system capable of preserving human rights. Unsurprisingly, Rand’s novels were especially influential in USA advertising and business circles. See Adam Curtis, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, BBC Two, London, UK, 2011 3 Systems Theory, although a somewhat nebulous term, nonetheless distinctly relates to notions that all manner of large-scale phenomena, including human societies, can be accurately studied according to purely mathematical and statistical criteria. The term in particular applies to the concept of selfregulating systems, such as the neo-liberal economy, that it was argued would ultimately return to optimum functioning if left to their own devices without the need for external intervention; ibid. 4 The pivotal neo-liberal economist Alan Greenspan was part of Ayn Rand’s influential inner-circle curiously called The Collective. Greenspan, a Rational Positivist, argued that economies should be allowed to grow uncontrolled thence their activities could be stabilised via the wholesale application of predictive computer models. Needless to say, such an approach had and continues to have, dire consequences for domestic and global economies; ibid. 5
Most famous among these cybernetic pioneers was Jay Forrester; ibid.
Inheritors of the utopian cyber-culture impulse, albeit who focused on critical interventions in virtual and real-time include master art hacker Vuk Cozic and the net.art generation of artists as well as later global art/activist collectives like eToys, 0100101110101101.ORG and the S-77CCR Consortium 8 9
See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, France: Les presses du réel, 2002 Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, press statement, op cit.
In such examples, “authorial intentionality (or a humble lack thereof) is privileged over a discussion of the work’s conceptual significance as a social and aesthetic form. Paradoxically, this leads to a situation, in which not only collectives but also individual artists are praised for their authorial renunciation. And this may explain, to some degree, why socially engaged art has been largely exempt from art criticism: emphasis is shifted away from the disruptive specificity of a given work and onto a generalized set of moral precepts”. Claire Bishop, The Social Turn, Collaboration and its Discontents in Right About Now, Art and Theory since the 1990s, Amsterdam,Netherlands: Valiz, 2007: 63-64 11
Serbian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinovic, An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is no Artist (1992)
Consider the action of Russian artist Alexandr Brener, who in collaboration with co-artist Barbara Schurz, rose from the audience at the opening press conference of Manifesta 3, Ljubljana and proceeded to recline across the main speakers’ desks before spray painting “Demolish Neoliberalism, Multiculturalist Art-Sistem Now!” across a projected image of the exhibition’s logo. A gesture of this sort connects with Brener’s previous performances and therefore could be considered ‘art’ despite its activist leanings. As such, the gesture could be tolerated by the Manifesta board despite the palpable distaste they display in documentary evidence of this unexpected public action. See The Manifesta Decade, Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic eds., Roomade, the Netherlands and MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass: London, 2005: 274 15 Ask yourself honestly how many friends you have on Facebook and how many of them you actually know 16 In this climate too it is the “neo-liberal possessive individual, who is now creative, cooperative, owner of (fixed) capital, which is itself inscribed mainly in her/himself, in his/her capacity for adaptation and discrimination among the possibilities offered by the market”. Raul Sanchez Cedillo, Towards New Political Creations: Movements, Institutions, New Militancy in Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray eds., Art and Contemporary Critical Practice, Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: Mayfly, 2009: 233 17 “It is an ingenuous form of control, namely the control of people’s actual lives. After all, informalisation makes it possible to biopolitically catch out the immaterial worker in his capacity to generate productive ideas.” Pascal Gielen in The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude, Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Valiz Antennae series, 2009: 23-24 18 Coinciding with this scenario “living labour today is a priori presented as multiplicity, and the deployment of common cooperative capacities is inseparable from the process of singularisation of each of its operators”; ibid: 229 19
Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, press statement, op cit.
21 John Kelsey, ‘Escape from Discussion Island’ in Monika Szewczyk (ed.), Meaning Liam Gillick, Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press, 2009: 61
10 3 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
10 5 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
ENDLESS FORMS MOST BEAUTIFUL
Jacqueline Millner There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (1859) Humanity is an interspecies collaborative project. Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and extinction (2011)1 It is not an overstatement to suggest that all of Western morality has been “an effort to curb, even to deny, our animal nature”, writes philosopher Christoph Cox, adding that “the distancing of animals and nature in general from human beings is what enabled the great classificatory schemes of the 17th and 18th centuries”.2 Rene Descartes’ definition of humans as distinguished by their capacity for thought, and the classification of all else—non-human animals, plants and minerals—as “matter”, encapsulated the underlying assumptions of Western philosophy for centuries. Humans were set apart and superior, hence entitled to instrumentalise ‘matter’ to their own ends. Charles Darwin dealt this idea a fundamental blow, with his theory that the diversity of living things stems from successive branchings starting from a single bacterium-like ancestor that lived between three and four billion years ago.3 The theory of natural selection insists that there is a basic continuity in nature, not just among species but among all living things. However, as we are all too aware today—when in many forums the euphemism for Creationism, “intelligent design”, and evolution are granted equal legitimacy—Darwin’s theory has been much misunderstood and misinterpreted. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has dedicated himself to addressing one central misapprehension: that the diversity and complexity of living things on Planet Earth is the result of random selection. As Dawkins explains, Every living creature has ancestors, but only a fraction have descendants. All inherit the genes of an unbroken sequence of successful ancestors, none of whom died young and none of whom failed to reproduce. Genes that program embryos to develop into adults who can successfully reproduce
automatically survive in the gene pool, at the expense of genes that fail. This is natural selection at the gene level, and we notice its consequences at the organism level. There has to be an ultimate source of new genetic variation, and it is mutation. Copies of newly mutated genes are reshuffled through the gene pool by sexual reproduction, and selection removes them from the pool in a way that is non-random… Chance cannot explain life.4 This misapprehension, according to Dawkins, has done more than anything to open the door to advocates of intelligent design, who argue that the complexity of life cannot be the result of random occurrences. But Darwin’s theory has also been subject to another serious misreading: namely, that evolution is a process that works incrementally towards the emergence of ever-better creatures, ‘the fittest’, and that the human inheritance of the world is justified by our evolutionary superiority. On the contrary, Darwin’s theory denied that evolution is progressive. Rather, natural selection is local and temporary, lacking any longterm goal. Complex creatures are not better, but represent life’s diversification in the only direction available to it. In this way then, the theory of evolution in effect eliminated the hierarchy that places humans at the top of the developmental tree. Yet, despite Darwin’s radical reconceptualisation, in the modern era animals have been largely constructed as a fundamental other: base, bestial, dumb. This insistence on the absolute distinction between human and animal has necessarily contributed to human beings’ growing disconnection from nature, and helped foment that “terrible loneliness” that comes from humans not feeling at home on Earth.5 Human estrangement from Planet Earth, climate change and the actual loss of co-evolved species are some of the phenomena that characterise what science Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen has termed the “Anthropocene”, the current geological epoch when the entire global ecosystem has been altered by the human species.6 Questions about the animal/human divide have been at the core of critiques of modernism. As British theorist Wendy Wheeler argues, postmodernism ushered in a “more holistic” perspective, where notions of order, reason and the body were expanded “through a growing understanding of the creative complexity of the world, and of the creatures amongst whom we move and in whom we have our being—as do they in us”.7 A key aspect of post-humanism—the attempt to rethink human existence in the wake of the massive technological and social changes of late capitalism—has been the assertion that the human future
107 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 is intimately and creatively bound up with that of the animal. Such thinking is powerfully evoked in the post-structuralist critiques of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, which revived two of the defining tenets of Darwin’s evolutionary theory we encountered earlier: the non-hierarchical, local and temporary nature of species development, and the basic continuity among all living things. Through their notion of “becoming animal”, Deleuze and Guattari assert that there are no essential divisions in nature, “no absolute differences between minerals, vegetables, animals and humans. Rather, matter is a vast continuum. A field of virtual forces, intensities, thresholds and powers that under particular conditions, is actualised in the things and bodies we know”.8 In this vast continuum, all bodies are “materially related to all other bodies”, their distinctiveness to do with the particular selection of capacities and powers they actualise.9 This way of conceiving of living things is not only consonant with evolutionary theory, but also with contemporary ecological science which has demonstrated that cross species kinship is a foundational condition of human life. According to British art historian Steve Baker, late postmodernism—or what we might call “the contemporary”—is defined in part by the radical reconsideration of the animal, as humans confront the terrifying realities of the Anthropocene epoch, such as climate change and mass extinctions. The transdisciplinary field of animal studies has emerged in recent years to think through these challenges, encompassing the many and varied ways in which animals and humans interact and intersect—from bio-mimicry in design, to the ethics of factory farming, to the therapeutic value of companion animals and the benefits of biodiversity, and beyond. Animal studies is a field to which artists continue to make important contributions, particularly those artists who, like Maria Fernanda Cardoso and long-time collaborator Ross Rudesch Harley, consciously work at disciplinary and institutional boundaries—between art and science, between the natural history museum, the studio and the academy. Colombian-born Cardoso came to prominence some years ago with her quirky performance piece, The Cardoso Flea Circus (1994). She worked intimately with the insects, rearing, nurturing and training them before orchestrating their performance of various feats and magnifying them for the audience’s delight. Cardoso’s fascination with non-human animals as much as with the complexity of animal-human relations has extended to working with a variety of animal specimens including butterflies, bleached starfish, preserved frogs, and emus. She has developed an oeuvre that poetically weaves the Otherness of non-human animals with topical questions around aesthetics, science and ethics. But The Flea Circus set off a line of inquiry to which the artist kept returning: she became fascinated with the microscopic intricacies of insect life that remained unknown (and perhaps even unknowable) to humans, and intrigued by the questions raised by her close relationship with these conventionally shunned creatures. Her practice became a means to think through current theories of evolutionary biology and to test ideas about cross-species kinship with her latest work—that includes videos made in collaboration with Harley and features in this year’s Biennale of Sydney—a unique exploration of these very issues. Cardoso’s Museum of Copulatory Organs comprises a tantalising array of the artist’s impressions of wonders of the natural world not visible to the naked eye, namely insect penises. By working with scientists at the Australian Museum and the University of Sydney, and conducting literature searches, exchanges with evolutionary biologists, and video research, Cardoso brought together a critical mass of data on insect sexual reproduction. Using a combination of high and low tech methods—including hand-modelling, bronze casting, glass-blowing, electron microscope photographs and rapid prototyping—Cardoso transformed this data into art, creating sculptures of these tiny organs in all their astounding variety and wondrous complexity, at a scale that allows the audience to appreciate their beauty. For the scientists, too, this three-dimensional visualisation is significant, giving them a novel way to understand their objects of study. The sculptures are accompanied by tiny slide shows of insect sex, and a video lovingly recorded by Harley and Cardoso of stick insects mating; lovingly, as the artists raised the creatures in their own home and recorded their coupling over a long period amid their own domestic routines. Under slender bell jars or in museum vitrines, these infinitely complex forms attest to the efficacy of evolutionary processes, that through non-random selection develop the most specialised, fit-for-purpose designs to ensure the propagation of their species. Museum of Copulatory Organs attempts to honour the otherness of nonhuman animals and to evoke the specificity of the insect world by questioning, if not suspending, the anthropocentric assumptions we rely on to make meaning of animals. Steve Baker suggests that “humans have typically wanted things of animals, wanting them to be meaningful and wanting to control and be consoled by those meanings”. Therefore, the most ‘radical’ option for contemporary artists has been to regard the animal as “a strange being encountered and experienced, rather than rendered familiar through interpretation”.10 To understand the animal as Other in its otherness, so that it remains what it is and how it is, requires an imaginative human transposition into animal. As Steve Baker puts it, “Transposing oneself into this being means… being able to go along with the other being while remaining other with respect to it.”11 But, how far do animals exist beyond the realms of human-made systems of knowledge? How much do they
belong to a nature whose properties are unknown and unknowable and exceed representation? According to the Cardoso, humanity’s inability to imaginatively transpose itself into animal has thoroughly impoverished the scientific enterprise. Much scientific knowledge has been shown to be based in poor science, and much poor science has resulted from moralising about nature, that is, interpreting the evidence according to human values. For instance, assumptions about what is ‘proper’ sexual behaviour for males and females, and the stereotypes that ossify around these assumptions, have resulted in some serious blind spots in biology. Cardoso has been struck by how thoroughly the kingdom of non-human animals refutes stereotypes about male promiscuity and female chastity. In her research, she has encountered endless examples of the discriminating sexual selection of the female, such as insects that have evolved the ability to store and expel sperm, or have rendered their fertilisation a navigation of dangerous obstacles, in order to choose the optimal mate. Erroneous assumptions about sexual selection are partly a result of unfinished aspects of Darwin’s work that led him to postulate that the survival of species was the main aim of evolution. The most recent science points to the importance of reproduction over survival: the ingenious and aesthetically sophisticated adaptations that Cardoso’s work honours are means to ensure the reproduction of species rather than their survival. Sex is the ‘pointy end’ of evolution, its avant-garde, the context in which adaptive change is at its quickest and most varied, and where intra-species competition is at its fiercest. These evolutionary adaptations driven by sexual selection call attention to the links between form and communication, one of art’s core concerns. Cardoso’s project foregrounds the relationship between aesthetics, in particular beauty, and the evolutionary process. Darwin made two (controversial) findings in explaining the role that beauty played within mate choice: “he believed that (with the notable exception of humans) the females did the choosing, and that animals as well as humans had a taste for the beautiful”.12 The appeal of aesthetic displays like a peacock’s tail or a nightingale’s song is hardwired into human and non-human animals alike, according to Darwin’s theory: we find beauty in virtuoso displays and skilled performance as evidence of competence and status that have distinct reproductive advantages, and so do other animals.13 Darwin also recognised another kind of beauty in nature: fitness of form for purpose. In On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by Insects (1862), for example, he argued that the orchid’s complex structures, far from being evidence of the “creative intelligence of the divine artificer”, were products of natural selection, beautifully adapted to ensure the plant’s survival.14 Museum of Copulatory Organs is a cornucopia of beauty, in all Darwinian senses of the word. It strikes us with wonder at the infinite ingenuity and virtuosity of nature, but also reminds us of our fundamental kinship and co-evolution with non-human animals. Cardoso’s and Harley’s lovingly rendered forms and images help to assuage the terrible loneliness of the Anthropocene era by allowing us to recognise ourselves as an integral part of nature. Notes 1 Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and extinction, Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2011: 11 2
Christoph Cox, ‘Of humans, animals and monsters’, in Becoming Animal (exhibition catalogue), MassMOCA/MIT Press, 2005: 19-20
Richard Dawkins, ‘Big Ideas: Evolution’, New Scientist, Issue 2517, September, 2005: http://www. noanswersingenesis.org.au/dawkins_evolution.htm
Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 2001, cited in Deborah Bird Rose: 9
Paul Crutzen, cited in Deborah Bird Rose: 9
Wendy Wheeler, cited in Steve Baker, ‘What is the postmodern animal?’ in The Postmodern Animal, London: Reaktion Books, 2000: 17
Cited in Christoph Cox, ‘Of humans, animals and monsters’ in Becoming Animal: 23
Steve Baker, ‘The Unmeaning of Animals,’ in The Postmodern Animal: 81
Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, exhibition held at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK, in 2009, on Darwin’s impact on nineteenth-century art: http://www. darwinendlessforms.org/exhibition-overview/
See philosopher of art Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, pleasure and human evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010
Opposite: Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Intromitent organs of Tasmanian harvestman modelled after electronic microscope scans, 2008-09 Photo courtesy the artist, ARC ONE, Melbourne and GRANTPIRRIE, Sydney
BLUE BUTTERFLIES ON SHADOW SITES 1-11 AND THE WORK OF JANANNE AL-ANI
10 9 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
Duygu Demir A loving man, who broke my heart; he was so optimistic once. He was my hero. He was loving and he made me laugh. He was in love and he made promises he couldn’t keep. I am my father’s daughter in so many ways. I understood his dilemma. He never joined us. He tried, but did he try hard enough? Complete disbelief, frustration and deep anger. When politics, religion, war and cultures clash, it is the ordinary family who pay the price. He wrote to me of his anguish and loneliness, and of his memories of us, as though we had all died. He feels deserted by us and we feel deserted by him. Regrets; my regrets, your regrets, his regrets. He has been a stranger to me for many years. There is no special person for me now. I can live my life more fully with him not near me. I have freedom from the exile’s gloom. He is full of contradictions. Will he ever understand? Will he ever love me for who I am? He has broken my heart.1 In A Loving Man (1996-99), five female heads in a row against a black background repeat the above lines. The video starts with just the first few lines uttered by the first character, and as it is repeated by each woman, a new sentence is added, until the full text is heard after several rounds. The five women are the artist Jananne Al-Ani, her mother and her three sisters, lined up from the eldest to the youngest. The work generates empathy, as most women have had similar difficulties with men in their lives; these women could be archetypes of any family. It hints at the way personal and familial memories are remembered always slightly differently by each member at different times and that they are always fragmented. The repetition of the text by each performer, sometimes completely seriously, and sometimes falling out of character, as one of them forgets her lines, or another starts giggling, also hints at a space between what is scripted and reality. There is an awkward intentionality in the amateurism of the performers, and the heaviness of the subject matter is undermined by the constant reminders that this is a performance, and that we are looking at fiction. But the touching story of a man who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep his promises also awakens the curiosity of the viewer. It is hard to set aside Jananne Al-Ani’s personal life while looking at A Loving Man, or other videos such as Veil (1997) or She Said (2000), in which she works with the same cast of immediate family. Born in 1966, in Kirkuk, Northern Iraq to an Iraqi father and British-Irish mother, Al-Ani lived in Kirkuk until she was about fourteen. In the summer of 1980, Al-Ani, her mother and sisters left Iraq for a holiday in the UK, coincidentally just a few months before the Iran-Iraq War began that September. They never returned to Iraq. Al-Ani’s most recent work, such as the installation described above, which deals with narrative, voice, ideas around memory and forgetting (instilled with vague biographical details) is quite different from her previous projects. She says she used to work in the studio and didn’t consider landscape until a turning point that deeply affected her practice, when a radical shift in the way that war is represented—beginning with the 1991 Gulf War—reached its peak during the 2003 Iraq war. A long-term interest for the artist, during the invasion of Iraq, representation of war was controlled and produced by the American forces and the imagery was often created through an aerial perspective, disassociating the war from the physicality of human bodies. Jananne Al-Ani started filming in the field and her first work in response to the war was The Visit—a two-part project that contains Muse (2004), a video shot in the Eastern desert in Jordan. In this video work, the landscape of the desert, which should be endless, is confined by the framework of the stationary camera, becoming a very restricted and tight space. Al-Ani says that she wanted the site depicted to be as close to the Iraqi border as possible. This is not explicit in the video, but is nonetheless important for the artist.2 A middleaged man in an old-fashioned grey suit paces from one side of this frame to the other. This is not the idealised desert with soft-edged golden sand dunes; it is an uninviting, bleak piece of stony land. The passage of time is marked by the growing shadows the protagonist casts on the desert, but not much happens. The flickering line of heat on the horizon disappears; we hear some engines, hinting at a nearby road, but nobody comes; the man is left in a state of unresolved stasis. Muse was shown together with Echo, in which four women (again the artist’s mother and sisters) are talking about a man who entered their lives. The four women are perhaps discussing the man in Muse, or perhaps he is the absent paternal figure referred to in most of Al-Ani’s work—in a persistent state of waiting, confined to a desolate landscape. He is most probably both. The Visit is a transitional work, which led Jananne Al-Ani to develop Shadow Sites I (2010) and Shadow Sites II (2011). While she was filming Muse at the desert, the artist noticed tidy piles of black stone, which she later discovered was basalt. She observed that these organised stones hinted at human activity, but what they formed didn’t reveal itself from the perspective she used. She only
found out later, while looking at aerial photographs of the area taken by English archeologists that these formations were part of relatively recently discovered disappearing archeological sites in Jordan. This discovery, along with Al-Ani’s interest in disembodied depictions of warfare through news media, especially after the Iraq war in 2003, led the artist to start working on a project she titled, “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People”. The title comes from French philosopher Paul Virilio’s notion of the “trickery and magic of cinema”, referring to how, from certain perspectives, the body disappears into the landscape, which Al-Ani connects to the representation of war. She considered this idea in relation to the Middle East’s history, where people have disappeared in large numbers during political conflict, from the civil war in Lebanon to the Syrian uprising of the 1980s, the Armenian genocide, or Palestine, “a land without people for a people without land” (as it was described in early Zionist dictum), where entire villages were razed to the ground. Thinking about the idea of the desert, of distance, and of being able to show the micro as well as the macro level, Al-Ani started researching the archeological history of the region through photographs. She came across the work of a German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld, whose panoramic photographs were a source of inspiration. She says they look almost extraterrestrial; the desolation of the landscape reminded her of images taken on Mars.3 She was also interested in the reading of marks, and how some marks require a certain distance in order to be read. She looked at the Nazca lines in Peru, which are images depicting animals and symbols that are hundreds of feet wide. The lines in these ancient drawings are formed by removing the stones from the ground and exposing the sand of the desert landscape. Her research also involved looking at aerial photos of World War 1 trench systems on the Western Front, taken by a unit of the American Air Force as reconnaissance images in 1918. She noted that the distance inherent in these photographs of heavily shelled grounds makes a site of destruction into an aesthetic experience. Al-Ani also found out that when air forces became much bigger players in warfare during World War II, the pilots who flew from Britain to mainland Europe reported seeing archeological sites that nobody had seen before. After the War was over, a number of these pilots were used by archeologists to locate these sites. Al-Ani was interested in the idea that something revelatory, or maybe even redemptive could come out of conflict. After what the artist calls “a painful process of fundraising”, Al-Ani was able to go to the south of Jordan, the Wadi Rum area to film. She chose a location with a small airport where there was a flying school and filmed for ten days. She shot with super-16mm film, which she had started using with Muse, as well as taking photographs. She and her crew attached a camera to a strut on the wing of a small plane; they had a maximum of seven-to-eight minutes per film before they had to land and change the film. Filming and taking still images from a few hundred feet high, Al-Ani recorded archeological as well as contemporary marks. They came across crop circles—a form of industrial farming imported from the USA— as well as intensively farmed ancient village settlements. The dry and sparsely populated land in South Jordan allowed for the preservation of marks from even thousands of years ago. Al-Ani recorded signs of prehistoric settlements, Roman forts, Ottoman trenches from World War I, as well as the contemporary marks of mining, sheep farms, an unauthorised American military zone used for landing and fuel change, the Hijaz railway line (now used to transport phosphate), foundations for a housing estate, or signs of infrastructure. Pages 108-09: Jananne Al-Ani, Shadow Sites II (video still, detail), 2011 Above and below: Jananne Al-Ani, Shadow Sites II (video stills), 2011 Photos courtesy the artist and Rose Issa Projects, London
The footage resulted in two works. Shadow Sites I (2010) is made exclusively from footage on 16mm film. Its focus on extreme vertical perspective does not allow for seeing anything expansive in the landscape. Compared to Shadow Sites II (2011), Shadow Sites I is gentler; its soundtrack is composed of ambient sounds recorded in the landscape and mechanical sounds at the airport. Shadow Sites II is made of aerial photographs. These high-resolution digital stills are more violent, the language of photography allows for an exact replication of the sense of “locking onto target”. The zooming effect of the camera permits the isolation of certain forms or locations in the landscape. The soundtrack of this piece is also more manipulative, more ominous. Similar to Shadow Sites I, Al-Ani uses ambient sounds collected during the trip to Jordan, including sounds of animals and birds, but in Shadow Sites II, she combines these sounds with those appropriated from military recordings; they are indecipherable but certainly reference the idea of modern warfare. Another work, shot in the same location, and part of the larger body of work The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People (2010) is a film called Excavators, in which ants are moving swiftly, building a nest. Shown on a very small monitor in contrast to Shadow Sites, it serves as a reminder of the micro level in tandem with the macro level. In Shadow Sites I and II, Jananne Al-Ani’s camera replicates the point of view of fighter planes, and as in the news broadcasts, there are no people in these works. The landscape is abstracted and buildings are flattened into drawings. However, unlike mediated representations of war, Al-Ani’s work hints at human presence; she depicts life through marks on the ground, made by those who are no longer there. She employs the representational language that she is critical of, but does it in such a way that the idea of the unpopulated desert land is completely subverted. Here, the desert bears the traces of human life—not only of the present time, but also of a distant past. The “drawings” on the ground testify to the presence of “disappeared people” from thousands of years or just a few days ago. This abstracted survey of land becomes a plate for associations, heavily implicated by the history of the region. The title of the work Shadow Sites is a term used in archeology; shadow sites are sites that only appear very early in the morning or late in the evening, because the degree of the sun is only then able to cast a shadow long enough to make them visible to the eye from a plane. During a talk at SALT in Istanbul, Jananne Al-Ani told a striking story that she came across during her research for this project. She found an article on a forensic anthropologist who was commissioned to investigate how people were killed in Kosova during the war. The anthropologist and her team started looking for a precise species of blue butterflies in the area. These butterflies were attracted to a particular wildflower, and this flower only grew in areas where the soil was recently disrupted. The team would follow the butterflies, find the flowers that grow on rich soil, and start digging and would find mass graves. The butterflies and the flowers, the small signs on the surface of these beautiful landscapes, which had to be read in the right way, were in fact signs of mass destruction. The beauty of the form pulled you in, but you knew that it was the indicator of past violence. Shadow Sites I-II are very similar to these blue butterflies in the way they operate; hinting at stories of disappearance, these beautifully composed videos are as alluring as they are menacing. Notes 1 Jananne Al-Ani, A Loving Man (1996-99), 5 channel video installation, 15 minutes 2
From Jananne Al-Ani’s artist talk at SALT, Istanbul, February 2012
111 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
SANGUINE IRRIGATION A LOOK AT THREE SITE-SPECIFIC WORKS BY IMRAN QURESHI
Haig Aivazian Shortly after being awarded the Sharjah Biennial’s Jury Award for his contribution to the 10th edition of the exhibition in March 2011, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi, in an interview with the BBC, said; “When I gave the proposal for this installation, the situation was not like this in [the] Arab world.”1 By the time the Biennial was inaugurated however, it was amidst the frenzy of what many were referring to as “the winds of change” sweeping across the Middle East. Those events became subsequently known as The Arab Spring, and they have since become a more complicated, more drawn out and much bloodier affair. Indeed, the peaceful popular uprisings in the Middle East, which started in Tunis and spread like wildfire to Cairo, Sana’a, Manama, Benghazi and Damascus, were met with increasingly ruthless crackdowns by the very dictators they sought to topple. In that same BBC interview, Qureshi claimed that this intensity which was surrounding him as he began actualising the piece, somehow fed into his process: the final result, he claims was “more intense than what I had visualised”.2 The Biennial took place in the so-called “Heart of Sharjah” which consists of the Fine Arts Museum, as well as its surrounding Cultural and Heritage areas. These areas are made up of existing (though at times heavily renovated) traditional coral reef houses, several of which were built as a succession of rooms, forming a rectangular frame around a central courtyard. Imran Qureshi’s Blessings Upon the Land of My Love was located in the courtyard of one such house: a repurposed old hospital called Beit Al-Serkal. The floor of the courtyard is made of interlocking tiles, which have lost some of their reddish hue, bleached from continued exposure to dust and an often unforgiving sun. In order to get a fuller sense of the work, the piece is best viewed from the second floor of the house, where one can look down onto the entire courtyard: it is almost completely stained with splashes of red paint copiously applied by Qureshi. There is a concentration of pigment in the centre of the yard surrounding the grill of a drainage duct, where the colour becomes particularly deep. Then lighter gestures splash outward and towards the exits. Then again, sporadic bursts of intensity by a door, close to windows, onto the walls and so on. The stains immediately and viscerally register as placeholders for blood. The variation of the thickness and the gestures of the application allow for an imagining of the potentially horrific incident that might have taken place just prior to the viewer walking in. The absence of the bodies whose blood would have so abundantly stained the ground and filled its crevices, may be explained by the fact that they might have been removed hastily, dragged out of sight by their feet, stashed away just prior to the viewer’s arrival in the space. The parts where the red is especially vivid do indeed seem to literally coagulate: they form stagnant puddles frozen in time. The sight of this caked pigment conjures up thoughts related to vivid senses: the taste of iron in one’s mouth, the smell of oxidation etc. The moment of happening upon the work is a flash transportation to a different place and a different moment. A familiar event that we would know either through having lived it ourselves or through having witnessed it in mediated/mediatised form: the work of a car bomb in the midst of a convoy, a suicide detonation at a crowded shrine or market place, or some other indiscriminate and maximum casualty apparatus in action. In addition to the obvious three-dimensional aspects of Qureshi’s work —such as the fact that it adheres at once to walls and floor and that one has to walk through it in order to experience it—the spatial transposition and the condensation of meanings, associations and feelings, would clearly locate the piece in the realm of installation rather than in that of drawing. However, this reading is complicated once we look more closely at the lighter portions of the sanguine paint. Here, as if rising from the bloody swamps, a delicate floral pattern emerges with white brush strokes delineating a lotus, petal-like foliage.
Qureshi is most recognised for his miniature paintings on wasli paper. This art form has undergone a revival in the last decade or so, which has been mainly attributed to the arts department in the National College of Lahore, where Qureshi teaches. Artists like himself, his wife Aisha Khalid (also included in the Biennial) along with others have been at the forefront of this revival, engaging with the traditions of the form wholeheartedly, investing it with contemporaneity, while considering the perceived split between traditional and contemporary art practices to be an arbitrary one. In fact, in addition to Blessings Upon the Land of My Love, Qureshi also had a number of small framed works on paper exhibited in the Fine Arts Museum in Sharjah, from a series entitled Moderate Enlightenment (2006-09). The portraits depict Muslim men dressed in varied attire, from salwar kameez to jeans and button-up shirts, standing in front of a number of natural backdrops and engaged in varying mundane activities. The artist has been making these portraits since 11 September, 2001 in order to address and offer a counterpoint to the vilification of Muslims in the media since the notorious twin tower attacks. Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Qureshi’s repertoire is precisely this ability to shift from the miniature to the architectural, from the framed and contained to the spatial and sprawling, from the figurative to the viewer embodying the figure. The 2006 Singapore Biennale had also included a number of portraits from the Moderate Enlightenment series, which were hung in a row on the wooden veneer lining the walls of one of the rooms in the City Hall. Elsewhere, the famed Masjid Sultan housed a large architectural scale intervention. On the roof of the mosque, Qureshi had zeroed in on the existing plumbing, which included a network of brightly painted turquoise pipes that ran horizontally along the outside of the walls. These pipes often started close to the ground, then climbed up to clear the height of doorways, to then dip back down slightly before abruptly disappearing into the walls. The artist’s intervention started at these perceived extremities of the pipes, where he had painted water pouring down along the wall and onto the ground. The piece was entitled Wuzu (2006), or ablution, a simple and poetic gesture, referring to the act of purifying oneself prior to prayer. The flowing liquid was painted in blue, and its splashes are much more directional than the red splatterings in Sharjah. However, the white brush strokes that break up the solidity of the color and form flowers were also evident—the pattern emerging from the water in the Masjid, identical to the one emerging from the blood in Beit Al Serkal. How do we then interpret the similarities between two works that point towards the opposite ends of the spectrum of conceptions of Islam? If Blessings Upon the Land of My Love is ‘9-11’, then Wuzu is Moderate Enlightenment—showing the softer, humbler and more spiritual side of the faith. Indeed, both works have a site specificity that goes beyond a simple play with architecture (reddish tiles drenched in red, blue pipes spewing out blue water): Beit Al Serkal would likely have seen its fair share of blood from its days as a hospital, whereas ablutions with water are an act performed and witnessed five times a day in the Sultan Mosque. Both of the works are devoid of human figures, yet they both refer to the body directly: water goes into the body, while blood is what comes out of it. Qureshi himself speaks about his installation works in bodily terms. For the 18th Biennale of Sydney, the artist has been commissioned to make another site-specific work on Cockatoo Island in the city’s harbour. The piece will be similar to Blessings Upon the Land of My Love and will be at an old ship repair facility. In his video for the Biennale’s Artist Interview Series, Qureshi talks about the cracks on the floors of the site, and relates them to human veins.3 In the same video, he speaks about the painted red liquid on Cockatoo Island, not as splattered in all directions, or flowing from some sort of tap line, but rather as rising to the surface, starting from the basement of the complex and up to the ground floor. Here the drainage system that may have kept the residue of the carnage flowing freely in Sharjah, is perhaps clogged by chunks of flesh and causes the drains to overflow.
113 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
While this shift in the movement, or rather stagnation of the fluids in this new work is not insignificant—since it allows for a different set of images to emerge from the work—there is a fundamental question. Two installations, specific to two very different sites (Serkal/Cockatoo Island) in two very distant cities (Sharjah/ Sydney) somehow carry a very similar vocabulary. Yet speaking about his process in Sydney, Qureshi claims: “Usually, in my site specific works, I try to create a dialogue between the architectural space and my own vocabulary or imagery.”4 How then do we reconcile this vocabulary, which remains essentially unchanged from Lahore, to Sharjah and then to Sydney? What happens to imagery that emerges from the experience of suicide bombs in Pakistan, which is further intensified by Arab uprisings and which then travels on to an abandoned navy shipyard? Presumably the space, context and timing of the two pieces will cause the audience for the respective works to react with a drastically different sense of urgency and set of associations. If the cracks in the floors of the shipyard are, as Qureshi states, “human veins”, then the same could be said about the gaps between the interlocking tiles in Beit Al Serkal. This violence to which Qureshi’s work refers (the terrorising and devastating kind) not only profoundly affects the manner in which those subjected to it navigate the entire range of their spaces—from the urban/public realm, to how we relate to our vehicles, to the very intimacy of our domestic spaces etc. —but is even more deeply destabilising than that. In Qureshi’s work, blood is an organic growth, it literally changes the landscape: it is at once what nourishes the soil to promote vegetation, and the weeds themselves growing in the post apocalypse. It is at simultaneously the eradication of civilisation and the creation of history. This violence is so deeply ingrained within us, that it is our every bodily mechanism: we ingest it through our pipes, and it overflows our sewers. Indeed the blood would have presumably flowed through more than just the cracks of the bricks on Cockatoo Island, it would have soaked its soil, which after being shaped
by the disappearing prints of the footsteps of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, later served as a prison complex for its convicts and a shipbuilding centre for its maritime industry. This is how Sharjah and Sydney are one and the same: the site which the work is specific to, is in fact Qureshi’s own body. He is the carrier of the experience of violence; he embodies it just as he is disembodied by it. He spreads it from one place to the next like a sprawling disease. Yet he, like the stashed corpses in Beit-Al-Serkal, is absent from the site. The only bodies remaining in the work are the viewers who walk in what Qureshi refers to as “a sea of blood”.5 Notes 1 ‘Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi wins Sharjah prize’, 27 April 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/worldmiddle-east-13051617 2
Artist Interview Series: Imran Qureshi, 4 April, 2012; http://bos18.com/artists-watch-and-listen
‘Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi wins Sharjah prize’, op cit.
Opposite: Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love (detail), 2011 Photo courtesy the artist and Corvi Mora, London Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love (installation view Sharjah Biennial), 2011 Photo courtesy the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah
Helen Hughes Gabriella and Silvana Mangano are two Melbourne-based artists who have been working collaboratively since 2001. Their practice primarily comprises performance-based video, in which a fixed-vantage camera set to auto-record captures the artists carrying out vaguely mirrored actions—sometimes with the use of sculptural objects that physically connect or frame their unchoreographed gestures. While Gabriella and Silvana are identical twins, and their physical likeness is emphasised on screen by their frequently matching outfits and roughly symmetrical mise-en-scènes, it is the gestures suspended between their bodies that form the focus, and indeed the point of their work. In their 2008 video work Absence of evidence, for instance, the artists stand on either side of a wall with their backs to one another, separated by an architectural division. Without verbal or visual communication, they take it in turns to extend a long strip of white paper up above their head and pass it over the dividing wall to the other, who knowingly reaches up to receive the paper. An external light source is trained on the surface of the white paper, while the figures of the artists (clad in black, in a black room) assume a subordinate focal point. By visually highlighting the product of their collaboration—the connective gesture of passing the paper between the two artists, figured as a white line snaking its way back and forth throughout an otherwise dark space—the work is divested of any emphasis on individual identity. Indeed, there are more complex concerns pertaining to collaboration in their practice that can help reconfigure the relevance of their twinness away from biological and biographical fact. Even if the artists were not twins, their collaborative work would still explicitly reference the notion of doubles or doppelgangers. It would do so in the very precise sense of the term “double” as it is employed by Charles Green in his book The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism (2001), in which Green argues for the emergence of a spectral third artistic identity during the process of artistic collaboration by couples.1 While acknowledging the fact that collaborative artist couples often assume an uncanny air of double- or twinness, citing examples like Marina Abramović and Ulay, or Gilbert & George, Green likens this spectral third party to a phantom limb. This limb occupies an atomised, interstitial space between the collaborative couples: the palpable tension enveloping Abramović and Ulay poised at either end of a bow and arrow, with the arrow pointed directly at Abramović’s heart (Rest Energy, 1980); the immense gravitas with which Gilbert & George go about their lives as artwork; or, we might extrapolate, the strange sense of a telepathic communication guiding the hands of Gabriella and Silvana.2 In such cases, Green suggests that the action of “collaboration itself be[comes] the artists’ subject matter”: it becomes a “double of the collaboratively created third artist”, an “auratic and fictive presence” or “persona” into which the collaborative couple have folded their individual identities.3 As opposed to the examples of Abramović and Ulay, and Gilbert & George however, this collaborative, interstitial, third identity in the Manganos’ practice is often also literalised on screen: through an expanded practice of drawing effected through the passing of sculptural objects between the two artists, as with the white paper in Absence of evidence.
While they now exhibit solely as “Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano”, both originally had individual drawing practices, graduating with degrees majoring in the medium from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2001 (Gabriella) and 2003 (Silvana). They first explored the ontology of collaboration in their 2001 video work Drawing 1. Reflecting both artists’ academic training in the discipline, their understanding of the medium—or gesture—of drawing as an intrinsically openended, direct and largely private process greatly informs their collaborative work. In Drawing 1, the artists stand facing one another before a large sheet of paper taped to their studio wall. With one arm extended sideways, they maintain strict eye contact, while their hands somewhat automatically sketch mirrored forms on the paper beside them. This action is repeated on a more intimate scale in the 2006 black and white video work if … so … then, in which the artists again stand with eyes locked in a mutual gaze, but this time in much closer proximity—an arm’s width—bracketed on each side by walls, perhaps a corridor. Here, both artists extend their right arm over the other’s shoulder in a restrained embrace to sketch synchronised forms on the walls behind them. The decision to shoot the film in black and white also reflects their previously separate and always monochromatic drawing practices, both of which pivoted around the idea of drawing as an index to an action, rather than the illusory realisation of form. In the examples of Drawing 1 and if … so … then, a traditional conception of drawing as mark-making is layered over a physical and spatial performance of drawing as an expanded process: both of which are presented here as intrinsically abstract in form and function. The basic premise of collaboration is taken as the principal operational structure for the 2012 Biennale of Sydney. This application of the collaborative gesture is reflected in de Zegher and McMaster’s chief creative decision—to act as joint-artistic directors—and has theoretically filtered down to govern each of their curatorial decisions made thereafter. In their Biennale, de Zegher and McMaster employ the concept of collaboration as a means for opening art out onto both the social and art historical worlds: as a way of paying a “renewed attention to how things connect, how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit”.4 The curators pinpoint art as creating a space in which to consider the efficacy of these types of collaborative connections, attributing them with a “consonantal” value that runs parallel alongside the world at large. With this virtue in mind, they have selected a series of artists based on the structures of “exchanges, affinities and empathies” via “collaboration, conversation and compassion”.5 These structures describe Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s artistic methodologies well; however, their mode of collaboration is decidedly different to the curatorial model deployed by de Zegher and McMaster. Indeed, it moves in the opposite direction: centripetally. While de Zegher and McMaster speak of the principle of collaboration as a lens through which to telescope out onto the world, Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s practice is almost purely formal. It abstracts and effaces its gestures from the realm of legibility, as well as from the realm of the social. This was particularly evident in the video work Monument for Sea (2011), shown as part of their most recent exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne (Shapes for Open Spaces, November–December 2011), in which one of the artists stands with her back towards the viewer enacting a series of cryptic, ritualistic hand gestures towards the ocean before her.
115 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 In fact, the two works by Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano that were selected by de Zegher and McMaster can be seen as chiefly exploring the quintessential binary approach to form: that of line versus colour. While methodologically unified in their collaborative, performative approach to an expanded drawing practice, the selected video works Between near and far (2008-09) and Neon (2010) are formally opposed to one another. Between near and far is an explicit meditation on line. It is a three-channel, fixed-angle, eight-and-a-half minute black and white video created in September, 2007 while Gabriella and Silvana were undertaking a month-long residency at the Can Serrat International Art Centre in Barcelona. The work presents a rare foray beyond the scope of the studio to capture the artists in an expansive, outdoor countryside setting. As is customary, they appear as the work’s protagonists. In the central panel, set against a backdrop of rocky cliffs, the artists weave their way around a grassy plane, passing an entanglement of black paper streamers back and forth between one another, throwing the mutable object through the air in a slow zigzagging gesture. They are flanked on either side by the extension of a distinctly horizontal bar composition that is created by the three-tiered structure of sky, cliff face and grassy foreground. At one point in the video, the picture plane is vertically bisected and mirrored—causing the figure of Silvana to double and the streamers that she waves in the wind to meet perfectly in the centre of the screen, like a Rorschach blot set into motion. Here, the drawn line takes both the flexible form of the perambulatory, black-clad bodies and the tangle of paper streamers that traverse, flicker and striate the picture plane of the Spanish backdrop. The short video work Neon, on the other hand, is an exercise after Matisse—it explores the potential of colour to create form. Made in 2010 for their Studio 12 exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary, Neon captures—again from a fixed point perspective, but this time in full colour video—the two artists dressed in black, in a completely blacked-out interior, manipulating the shape of a coloured paper, quilt-like object by holding its edges, shuffling outwards, pushing the object up in the air, then shuffling back inwards to meet at the centre. Their faces remain largely inaccessible to the video camera’s lens, obfuscated by the bunched paper object. Spotlit by a strong external light source, the continuously morphing sculptural object is the focal point (as with Absence of evidence), while the blackclad artists bridge the divide between figure and ground. The video itself is edited to create an asymmetrical rhythm between the artists’ and object’s movements. The repeated expansion and contraction of the paper quilt is reflected in a strange, percussive soundtrack comprising sporadic, single drumbeats interspersed with a series of alternately protracted and staccatoed inhalation- and exhalation-like sounds. This emphasis on abstracted physical and spatial gestures links Gabriella and Silvana Mangano with a number of, interestingly mostly women, mostly Melbourne-based contemporary artists who are similarly working with the trope of the body in motion. These artists include Bianca Hester, Alicia Frankovich (now based in Berlin), Laresa Kosloff, Katie Lee, Alex Martinis Roe (also now based in Berlin), and some of the earlier work of Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley. In pursuing concerns pertaining to the representation of the body in motion, in space, these artists form—alongside Gabriella and Silvana—a type of un-selfdetermined movement that sees the physical body of the artist posited back into the centre of the work, revisiting certain strains of west coast American conceptualism from the 1970s in the process. Alexie Glass-Kantor picked up on this trend in a 2009 article ‘Extimacy: A new generation of feminism’, in which she explored the landscape of multiple and conflicting feminisms in contemporary Australian art by making reference to the work of the Manganos, Martinis Roe, Anastasia Klose and several others. Speaking of this new generation, “born under the omnipresent lens of myriad media formats”, Glass-Kantor suggests that its canny manipulation of the gaze has “led to evolved tactical ways to articulate and disseminate [these female artists’] own representation”.6 More tellingly for our purposes, she also notes: “What is interesting about Martinis Roe that is also indicative of her peers is the refined understanding of the politics of spatial intervention.”7 As Claire Bishop has argued in her 2005 book Installation Art: A Critical History, the physical negotiation of a space implicit in the experience of installation art emerged almost half a century ago alongside the rise of second-wave feminism, the irreconcilably decentred subject, and the growing trend of institutional critique. “[B]y using an entire space that must be circumnavigated to be seen”, Bishop argues, “[installation art] came to provide a direct analogy for the desirability of multiple perspectives on a single situation”.8 In an analogous fashion, Glass-Kantor pinpoints the intersection between the female body and spatial politics as a new and highly charged feminist trope for contemporary art, one in which the mediated and refracted gaze of the video camera assumes a new documentary importance by simultaneously distancing, dissolving and reconstructing its authorial subject. (In doing so, it must be noted, Glass-Kantor presents an infinitely more discerning attempt to articulate a strand of feminist politics in contemporary Australian art practice than the more recent exhibition Contemporary Art: Women at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, in which Gabriella and Silvana Mangano are also represented.)
In drawing a tentative stylistic perimeter around these various artists’ practices, however, it is important to also consider how the Mangano’s approach to depicting the body in movement and in space is different to the approaches of their contemporaries, as well as to ask whether it fits within a strictly feminist agenda at all. Their somewhat introspective preoccupation with form delineates their work from a number of the practices listed above: where Bianca Hester’s practice physically engages with bodies and spaces extrinsic to the work (the ‘public’), and Alex Martinis Roe’s work is stitched intricately into a specifically feminist, theoretical, discursive framework, Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s videos are poetic in an excessively private language of abstraction. This notion of privacy is a quality that they deliberately sought to transpose from their individual twodimensional practices to their combined performative work. Noting the economy of means (limited space, limited materials) required to constitute a drawing practice, the medium appealed to the artists’ preferred private method of making work. In the same breath, it almost wholly stages its excision from the social realm. When speaking of their first video work made outside the studio, Between near and far, both noted that they also unintentionally transposed the physical architectural perimeter of their studio onto the vast, expansive outdoor setting in Spain.9 When reviewing the performance on screen, they realised that the lines they were tracing in the grassy field actually adumbrated the architectural confines of their studio: a revealing gesture that illuminates the restrained and private nature of their formal explorations, as well as solidifying its art historical heritage in west coast American conceptualists like Bruce Nauman. This abstract, introverted impulse is also, then, what distances Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano from another important counterpoint to their work: the highly stylised and formal representations of bodies in motion that populate Shaun Gladwell’s video practice. Despite the similarity in subject matter, in Gladwell’s work the body in motion is always depicted as indexing a site (even if it is a generalised, non-site—like a service station or a streetscape), as with skateboarding or break-dancing as forms of socio-spatial critique (Storm Sequence, 2000 or Pataphysical Man, 2005). In Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s private world, site is muted (Drawing 1), eradicated (Absence of evidence, Neon), or exploited for formal effect (Between near and far, Monument for Sea). The comparison between Gladwell and the Manganos yields a further important point of distinction: that of technical realisation. Where the moving bodies in Gladwell’s videos are slowed down, cropped and focused in order to best showcase their balletic beauty (a resolutely hi-fi technique that counters the chaotic, MTV-style with which a skateboarding contest might typically be captured, for instance), Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s approach is comparatively low-fi. In other texts on their work, commentators have likened this approach to the artists’ stated interest in Neo-realist Italian cinema. But perhaps the true appeal of the Warhol-like set up—of placing the video camera on a tripod, pressing record, then walking off (or in, as it were)—is linked to the artists’ efforts to transpose two essential qualities of drawing from their earlier individual practices into their collaborative films: those of immediacy and privacy. By insistently enforcing these dual qualities in their video works, Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano largely close their work off from the world. This gesture of self-effacement is carried out not in order to deliberately eschew social relevance, but rather in an attempt to develop a meaningful space for experimental medium-recursivity in a newly expanded field of drawing. Notes 1 Charles Green, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001: 179 2
In a recent review of Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano’s exhibition Shapes for Open Spaces in Artforum, Green speaks of there being an “overwhelming sense of the artist doubled” in their video work. See Charles Green, ‘Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano, Anna Schwartz Gallery’, Artforum, Vol. 50, No. 6, February 2012: 248 3
Green: 159, 180 and 155
Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, ‘18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations: exhibition overview’, 18th Biennale of Sydney, http://bos18.com/exhibition-overview; accessed 2 May 2012 5
Alexie Glass, ‘Extimacy: A new generation of feminism’, Art & Australia, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring 2009: 135
ibid: 139 (author’s italics)
Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History, London: Tate Publishing, 2005: 35
Conversation with the artists, 26 April 2012
Opposite: Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano, Between near and far (video stills), 2008 Photos courtesy the artists and Anna Schwartz, Melbourne Pages 116-117: Robin Rhode, Arm Chair, 2011 Photo courtesy the artist and White Cube, London
117 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
DANCE OF HISTORY SRIWHANA SPONG LEARNING DUETS
Melanie Oliver When she walked she carried herself like a ballet-dancer, not slumped down on her hips but held up in the small of her back… Fifty yards away the Mediterranean yielded up its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night1 It seemed… that she would be able, through the medium of dance, to command her emotions, to summon love or pity or happiness at will, having provided a channel through which they might flow. She drove herself mercilessly, and the summer dragged on. Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz2 The body moving through time, place and memory, especially in relation to dance, has been central to Sriwhana Spong’s work for the past few years. Developed for the 2012 Biennale of Sydney, the films that comprise her work Learning Duets capture two performers, Benny Ord and the artist herself, on neighbouring beaches as they enact a mixture of choreographed dance pieces and improvised movements in response to the surrounding environment. The starting point for this work was two texts by the American authors Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz and Tender is the Night, both novels that were based on the couple’s memories of the coastal town Antibes in Southern France. Spong transplants the premise of their stories, as well as the controversial biographical associations, to a distant and radically different coastline—Waiheke Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf—a place that evokes strong personal memories for each of the performers
and locates the work in the familiar context of home. The duets of the title could refer to the dancers or the two main films that are in conversation in the installation; but also to the combination of dance with everyday movements, or the relationship between the historical source material and its contemporary reading, as all are aspects of the learning and research process that underpins Learning Duets. Past and present, foreign and local, text and gesture, are momentarily aligned through the contemporary bodies in motion, activating the state of being in-between times, places and cultures, and thereby highlighting the continuous potential of now. For the past decade, concepts of time and of history have been ubiquitous in contemporary practice, typically understood as fragmented, unknowable and incomplete, the “last romantic frontier”.3 Similarly, over the same period historical and personal narratives have been consistent features in Spong’s practice. Early works such as Muttnik (2005) addressed her Aotearoa New Zealand and Indonesian descent, exploring her estranged relationship to Balinese heritage as experienced through the exoticising lens of popular culture and mythology. Using common and found materials to assemble Balinese ritual forms, Spong obscured their context and location with video. Shifting focus in 2010 to a particular moment in history, Costume for a mourner marked a new direction in her practice. For this work, Spong remade a thick felt costume that Henri Matisse had designed for the Ballets Russes production Le Chant du Rossignol in 1920, originally choreographed by George Balanchine. There is no film documentation of this ballet, only still images and remnants from the costume wardrobe. Spong invited Benny Ord to improvise the imagined dance while inhabiting the bulky costume, adapting to the forms that the structure allowed. The resulting film, Costume for a mourner, acts as an archival document as well as contemporary reading, a ghost that slips into the absence of record and reminds us that by nature, dance is always ephemeral and based on loss. The original ballet costumes—recently on display at the National Gallery of
119 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 Australia—look somewhat tired and less refined than might be expected, yet Spong brings the historical relationship between visual arts and dance to life by remaking and animating Matisse’s garment through movement. Developing out of her experience making Costume for a mourner, the work Learning Duets continues to explore history with dance but also introduces another historical narrative thread, this time from modern literature. The first and only book written by Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz (1932), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s more commonly known and last complete novel Tender is the Night (1934) are both based on the couples’ experiences and recollections of Antibes. Spong has spliced together parts of the texts, as she describes: “blending both voices to describe a place that wavers between two different voices, hinting at differing hues, seasons and temperatures”.4 Overlaying this compilation of text onto Waiheke Island, the two performers, Ord and Spong, respond to the physical site and to their individual memories of this place through movement and dance. Documented as two separate films, they offer a comparative view on how place is remembered and the harmony or discord of voices across space and time. Although the beaches on Waiheke where the films were shot are publicly owned land, access to them is private, so they can only be accessed by water. In the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, it is difficult to ignore the significance of this in terms of the foreshore and seabed debates that foreground indigenous rights to ownership, though more general notions of this littoral space seem more relevant here. Regardless of access, the beach setting is a space with particular qualities and behavioural codes, as the social etiquette described in Tender is the Night reinforces, and the relationship of public and private land in the work is used to echo the public and private relationship of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. Writing in the context of the early twentieth-century, the challenges commonly experienced by women in creative couples are part of the rumour and intrigue that surround their work. It is assumed from surviving correspondence that Scott demanded radical revisions be made to Zelda’s manuscript for Save Me the Waltz before it was published and, while struggling to finish his own account set in the same location, Zelda was admitted for psychiatric care. “The mixture of fact and fiction is calculated to ruin us both”,5 he wrote, though both novels contain semi-autobiographical references, and the lives of the Fitzgeralds seem symbiotically linked to their work. In addition to the specific literary references that underpin the work, Learning Duets is also a continuation of Spong’s research into the history of moving and the relationship between everyday movements and specific dance forms, in particular the Western tradition of ballet. Spong possesses a strong knowledge of dance that stems from many years spent studying ballet in her youth, and she has recently returned to classes as an adult. The upright posture and ways of moving that become ingrained habits for dancers are embedded through discipline and repetition; imposed on the body like a kind of cultural colonisation, lingering in muscle memory and impacting on all areas of life. This intersection of history and dance is significant and productive, as both are transient, in constant motion and centre on the body as agent. Akin to Spong, the Canadian artist Luis Jacob has similarly integrated historical fragments to generate new narratives and associated this with the history of dance. In his ongoing Album series of archival projects, Jacob montages images from diverse sources with formal similarities to generate creative mis-readings. Correspondingly, his work A Dance for Those of Us Whose Hearts Have Turned to Ice, Based on the Choreography of Françoise Sullivan and the Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth (2007) features a performance artist reenacting the eccentric choreography of Françoise Sullivan, whose 1948 performance of Danse dans la neige was a seminal event for modern dance in Canada. The parallel between these artists’ works and processes reveals how the amalgamation of history and dance is a model that enables the choreography of images and archival documents, through space and movement. Accompanying Learning Duets is a reading room that features a range of other artist publications showing other approaches to a specific place through performance, sculptural intervention, film or photography. As well as featuring Jacob’s installation, documenta 12 (2007) included significant components of dance through the work of Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. Curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack attempted to revision its history and signal the critical role for dance in contemporary practice—as subsequent interest and projects has sustained—and Rainer in particular has influenced Spong. For over fifty years, Rainer’s interdisciplinary approach has traversed art, dance and film, and the comparison of her work with Minimal Art is instructive, as it demonstrates the exceptionally close relationship of visual artists and dance in the 1960s. The contemporary connection between sculpture, film and dance is vastly different, but there is a growing correlation and synergy. For the installation of Learning Duets a large silk fabric hanging divides the main space, suggesting a curtain or a backdrop, but really acting as neither. The gusts of air that are generated as the building breathes gently catch the fabric, creating subtle movement in this sculptural intervention. The silks are dyed in everyday liquids, such as coke, tea or coffee, similar to those used in her earlier ritual assemblage works. Spong has described how beverages can be a reflection of colonial culture, since they are imported and take hold in a place, like the Earl Grey tea of England or Coca-Cola synonymous with American culture.6
Some of the silk fabric is also doused in Chanel No 5, a classic scent—alluding to a comment in Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz—that is used to convey a vague observation, since smell is the sense most connected with memory, but also the least specific to grasp as a description. Occasionally, lifeless objects appear in Spong’s installations and the stillness, rather than signifying potential, seems stultifying. Yet with even just the light flutter of a breeze, this sculptural silk divider takes on the ungraspable character of movement and of dance, intertwining with the historical narrative and contributing to the many meaningful interpretations this work generates. Throughout Learning Duets, there is a play on memory, traces and iterations of the double that exists in the work itself and Spong’s process of consistently evolving projects in conversation with previous work. The dyed silk fabrics are an evocative, physical trace, as is the medium of film that documents the fleeting actions of the performers, and the primary narrative that is apparent in the two films addresses the notion of memory. However, the installation is also accompanied by a subsequent work, Beach Study that was informed by the process of making Learning Duets and is the B-side or epilogue of the project. Beach Study is Spong’s first film made using 16mm and the grainy materiality of the medium echoes the relationship of the bodies to their surrounding physical environment. Through playing with balance and gravity, the performer attempts to escape the restrictive movements of dance in favour of everyday actions and shapes that are more sculptural, forms which deny the body’s memory—a distillation of the learning from Learning Duets. A slightly earlier work by Spong, Whether standing or sitting or lying or in some other position in the dark (2011) depicted a dancer ‘marking’, which is the process of taking an old dance piece and transferring it to a new space, in this case having to work over, under and around a table. It is this act of marking that occurs across Spong’s practice, translating aspects of previous work to new situations, reframing and adjusting to explore fresh terrain. The two-channel work Lethewards (2010) developed out of Costume for a mourner, and the ideas introduced then continue to be rolled into and evolved in Learning Duets, and so on. In this way, a momentum is maintained in her practice, consistent with the focus on history, dance and movement that is central to her work. Within Learning Duets, the small projection Beach Study acts as a sort of punctuation mark within the ongoing conversation; in defining the critical concept at the heart of the work, and also breaking, providing the turning point towards whatever comes next. These reflections on history are always moving on. Notes 1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1934), London: Vintage, 2010: 11 2 Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz (1932), Matthew J. Bruccoli, Zelda Fitzgerald: The Collected Writings, New York: Macmillan, 1991: 118 3
Guillaume Desanges and Helene Meisel, ‘After Marcel Broodthaers, on Relationism & Lost Articles’, Mousse, Milan, issue 29, June 2011: 182 4
Email correspondence with the artist, 17 April 2012
Email correspondence with the artist, ibid.
Opposite: Sriwhana Spong, Costume for a mourner (video still), 2010 Below: Sriwhana Spong, A twitch upon the thread, 2010 Photos courtesy the artist and Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland
PROCESS AND MATERIALITY
121 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
Kathy Zarur Emirati artist Hassan Sharif has seen it all. In 1979, his extraordinary drawing skills got him a scholarship to study art in England. His patrons were happy to devote their resources to developing the United Arab Emirates’ first great artist.1 After a year of foundation classes in studio art and art history, Sharif began investigating more conceptual modes of art making. Upon graduating, he returned to Dubai with the intention of contributing to the nascent art scene. Though some people were intrigued by his experiments with chance, statistical equations or the grid, most had a hard time associating it with what they understood art to be. What could such a practice do for those who wanted paintings of Emirati landscapes? That was of no concern to Sharif, for he never intended to paint canvases of falconers against dramatic sand dunes. His interest lay in developing a practice, which rejected aesthetics in favour of ideas and created critical engagements that could impact on the status quo. Sharif’s commitment did not come without its sanctions. His works have been censored and his exhibitions closed.2 Starting around the mid-1980s, Sharif was subjected to what Cristiana de Marchi describes as a “long period of censorship and marginalisation” in the UAE.3 Despite this, Sharif continued producing and exhibiting art. In addition, he put forth tremendous energy towards building an active cultural environment by teaching classes, starting art ateliers, hosting exhibitions, writing articles about art and culture and co-founding the Emirates Fine Arts Society.4 Sharif stands out among Arab artists of his generation (and many of younger generations) because he has never been interested in developing an art practice that explored his cultural identity. For Sharif, such work is propagandistic. As Catherine David indicates, “there will always be Emirati nationals who consider his work to be ‘unrepresentative’ of regional artistic production”.5 In contrast, some have attempted to characterise his work using a strictly Euro-American art historical language, particularly connecting him to Marcel Duchamp and Fluxus. Though these legacies are apparent in Sharif’s oeuvre, David is right to situate his practice within a context that moves beyond a simple East/West binary. The conspicuous materiality and critical eye that characterises his work today was present in his caricatures long before his exposure to courses in art history. Sharif’s work developed in the context of a new nation that quickly went from economic sluggishness to a seemingly endless process of urban and infrastructural development. With this came a tremendous influx of people from all over the Middle East, South Asia and beyond who contributed to the growth and brought with them the diverse cultures that characterise the UAE today. Sharif’s work is best understood in the midst of these overlapping contexts—his critical tendencies, isolation from the Emirati art world, and the rapidly transforming nation. Given these complex and difficult histories, and having had to fight long and hard to promote contemporary art practices in a place that mostly misunderstood him, I expected Sharif to be an extraordinarily resilient and committed person. We met at the Flying House (the non-profit art space where he lives and works), with his friends and collaborators Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem and artist/poet Cristiana de Marchi outside the unmarked building.6 I was led through metal gates that typically surround houses in Dubai and immediately recognised the place from photographs I had seen. The bright courtyard wrapped around the house perimeter and displayed artworks integrated in creative ways —Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim wrapped the trunk of a tree that peers over the wall to the street in colorful cloth. Rocks wrapped in wire were embedded into the floor and framed by two white rectangles. A glass display case contained examples from Sharif’s Object series, lending the ordinary an air of museological significance. Crushed tin cans were displayed in the glass-topped stairs that lead into the twostory building. As we walked from one room to the other, Sharif made sure to point out works by other Flying House artists, including paintings by Layla Juma.7 I realised the significance of community to Sharif, and it all seemed to culminate in the Flying House. The unpretentious exhibition space makes manifest the work Sharif and his friends have contributed towards developing an intellectually and critically engaged Emirati art scene. Sharif and I started our conversation in a small corridor-like room, where photographic and textual documentation of his performances were displayed in individual frames.8 We stood for nearly forty minutes discussing Sharif’s preference for prosaic objects, his tendency to incorporate simple actions into his performances, and his reliance on statistical methods to produce his artworks. Though I had initially understood his use of numerical equations as a rejection of subjectivity, I quickly learned that binary terms do not figure in Sharif’s thinking. His works, he stated, are neither subjective, nor objective. Rather, he derives form and concept from the spaces and places he occupies, churning them through complex strategies. The result is a deceptive simplicity that permeates all of his work. Suspended Objects (2011) is a commanding piece comprised of two parts; one that hangs from above like a mobile and another that hangs horizontally against the wall. Both objects are composed of brightly coloured materials such as foam, masses of string and reflective material, all of which are wrapped and strung together with colourful thread or shiny copper wire.
Like many of Sharif’s Objects, Suspended Objects is all about consumption—of the commodity, that is.9 The sheer mass of stuff, sometimes bright and shiny and new, sometimes used and refused, appears to invite consumption, even though Sharif’s manipulations stymie any possibility that they might one day be useful. But Suspended Objects is about more than an obsession with things. Sharif recently moved his works from the floor and suspended them, which prompted the need to connect the otherwise disjointed parts of his Objects. He was moved to explore the idea of suspension after the economic crisis in Dubai in 2008, when company profits took a nosedive with the decline of the global economy. Building projects came to a crashing halt, the evidence of which is still visible in the Emirati skyline, where skyscraper skeletons and half-built bridges puncture the sky. Sharif likes these monuments of indeterminacy. Left alone for so long, they have acquired a dusty desert hue, making it difficult to decipher whether they are ruins soon to be demolished or whether the cranes will once again rev their collective engines to finish what they started. Chatting with Sharif in the simple exhibition space, I began to glean the philosophical import of his thinking and its reflection in his production process. Sharif wraps, twists, stacks, strings and most recently, weaves things. As his Objects attest, repetition is a key element in his process. Blanket and Wire (1995) is made of pieces of blanket that Sharif cut, rolled and then secured by wrapping them with wire. Next he attached each small bound roll to the other, creating long plait-like pieces of material. Each instance of its exhibition is unique, for he orchestrates the relationships among the components anew, juxtaposing reds, yellows, oranges, greens and whites. Sharif works alone, and when he does, he neither listens to music nor watches television. Without distraction, he engages in repetitive actions while remaining fully present in the process. Asked about repetition, he indicates that sameness is not inherent in repetition because each moment is unique. At the same time, the boundaries that distinguish past from present and future are morphous. The thoughts that transpire in his process dissipate just as soon as they appear, and he makes no attempt to memorialise them in any way, but to continue with his repetition. The objects therefore become indecipherable records through their embodiment of those fleeting moments. As he indicates, “I am moulding my thoughts.” I asked Sharif what was inside the hundreds of wrapped objects, but again, dichotomies dissolve when he describes his practice. His objects simultaneously lay bare and keep secreted all there is to know. For Aluminum and Paper (1998), Sharif wrapped crumpled balls of newsprint yellowed with time in thin aluminum mesh. Like oversized candies, hundreds are piled upon each other, the natural feel of the paper contrasting with the pliable silver of its industrial wrapper. He describes his use of contrasting features and textures in terms of the erotic, though in the work itself, it manifests rather subtly. This is perhaps more useful to Sharif, who indicates; “It is important to look at these critical features of the erotic… Society ignores them. You have to stimulate them. You have to use the erotic as a weapon to destroy conventions. It is a tool for artists to use.”10 In a place like the UAE, where sexuality is a highly private matter, understated references to the erotic are more useful because they can go undetected, all the while making their way subconsciously. Sharif’s approach to materialising concept through reference to the world around him reaches back to his days as a young man. In his early twenties he began drawing weekly caricatures for a magazine called Akhbar Dubai (Dubai News). In them, Sharif employed irony and wit to comment on a broad range of subjects from sports, education and censorship to economics, regional politics and the changes in the urban and societal fabric prompted by the discovery of oil in the early 1960s and the subsequent establishment of the nation-State in 1971. Alongside Sharif’s sophisticated understanding of iconography and ability to visually and textually narrate complicated situations with brevity, the caricatures reveal Sharif’s penchant for critique that has continued throughout his oeuvre. In 1979, Sharif began his formal art education in England, first at Warwickshire College in Royal Leamington Spa and then at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. There he studied the conceptual art strategies that he would apply to his socially-based work. Sharif had little exposure to art history prior to his studies, but when he was first confronted with Marcel Duchamp’s work, the young man was jarred by the idea that an ordinary object could be considered art. Thus he began cultivating an art practice that moved away from concern with aesthetics, in order to question its role and function in society. Sharif incorporated impersonal modes of art making such as the use of statistical equations, systematic procedures and chance to determine the shape of his early experimental works, most of which focused on objects and simple actions from everyday life. A significant resource was his English-Arabic dictionary Al Mawrid, which he continues to use today. In Dictionary (1981), Sharif used the page number upon which a letter began in order to determine the distance between the camera and the subject. For example, the letter “E” began on page 301. The sum of 3+0+1 being 4, he photographed the page from the dictionary at a distance of four steps.11 Such experimentation led to the production of a series called
Semi-System Drawings (1983-85), in which the artist would use equations he created to determine the shape of his drawings. Movement of a square’s side (1985) is a drawing of a grid comprised of twenty squares, where the sides are depicted in various positions moving toward the centre of the square. While he was producing the Semi-System Drawings, Sharif began working with the genre of performance art, in which figured his interest in the prosaic and the systematic.12 Sharif’s decision to undertake performance art in Dubai is extraordinary, for no-one in the country, let alone the region, was engaging with such practices. Though the audiences were always quite small and comprised of family and friends (who also photographed the events), these performances indicate the extent to which Sharif would go to develop a critically minded artistic community. Many of his performances incorporated simple actions that were titled accordingly, such as Jumping No. 2 (Hatta Desert, Dubai, 1983) and Throwing Stones (Hatta Desert, Dubai, 1983). He defended his performances in very simple terms: “Children jump while playing, men jump from parachutes and people jump at the beach. In this performance, I jump in the Hatta Desert. Many people jump in many ways. So why shouldn’t I jump in the desert?”13 Again, Sharif’s simplicity is deceiving, for it can lead to an unending interrogation. While in conversation with the artist, I realised that Sharif must have been made to defend himself over and over. His detractors often ask him questions like, “so if I jump, is it art?” He responds with a challenge: “Do it and then we’ll talk about whether or not it is art.”14 He knows they lack the courage required to take up his challenge, and his response highlights the audacity required to be an artist. Upon graduating from Byam Shaw, Sharif returned to Dubai with the intention of building an art scene. He never compromised his commitment to conceptual art, eschewing the desire for living room art among those to whom his work was an enigma. Instead, he looked to his country through the eyes of someone who had been gone for some time and found himself drawn to the material-filled markets. Around this time, he started making works that would become his Object series. Initially, he worked with natural materials, as with Jute, Cloth and Rope (1985), a heap of circular objects of various thicknesses and diameters he made by twisting, stuffing, wrapping and tying. But soon Sharif started appropriating refuse and readymade objects like cardboard boxes that he
would take apart, stack and string together using rope. Cardboard and Coir (2001) is a twisted mass of cardboard brought together in this way. The texture of the torn edges contrasts with the carefully printed product names and quantities, a reference to the circular processes of marketing, branding and consuming. Little distinguishes Cardboard and Coir from stacks of cardboard left next to shops to be thrown away, and this is exactly Sharif’s point. In fact, another piece, Cardboard, Newspapers and Glue (2004), was mistaken for garbage and destroyed while placed on the sidewalk during Sharjah Biennial 7 in 2005.15 Conceptually, there could be no better end for one of Sharif’s objects, for its fate exactly mimicked that which Sharif was critiquing. Despite Sharif’s long toil, his resolve is finally starting to pay off. In 2011, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage hosted a major exhibition, Hassan Sharif Experiments & Objects, 1979-2011. This year, his work was featured in two solo exhibitions—at the New York gallery Alexander Gray Associates and Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut—his first outside the UAE. Alongside Uruguayan artist and academic Luis Camnitzer, Sharif was awarded the inaugural John Jones Art on Paper Award, and is a finalist for the 1st Annual Alice Awards. This attention should be gauged with as critical an eye as Sharif casts over most things. After all, artworks are also commodities and Sharif is well aware of this. I doubt that this will stop his incessant practice, however. What’s more likely is that, as with Press Conference No. 1 (2009), he’ll find a way to critique the art market through his work. A heap of newspapers, folded into thirds and tied up in strips of yellow, red, purple, blue and green cloth, Press Conference No. 1 refers to the over-active media machine in the UAE. But by tying up and therefore preventing access to the newspapers’ contents, Sharif points to the dangerous potential of superficiality. Notes 1 The United Arab Emirates became a nation-State in 1971 2
Bakh Bakh (1985) was removed from the 1985 exhibit Sea and Desert, which was organised by the Ministry of Information in Abu Dhabi. See de Marchi: 306
Cristiana de Marchi, ‘Chronology’, in Hassan Sharif: Works 1973-2011, Osfildern, Germany: Hatje Canz Verlag, 2011: 306
12 3 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
4 The Emirates Fine Arts Society recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with an exhibition of artworks produced by its members. With the support of the Sharjah government, in 1984 he instituted the shortlived Marijah Art Atelier, a workshop in Sharjah’s Heritage Area. In 1987, he founded Marsam al Hoor (Art Atelier) in the Youth Theatre and Arts in Dubai. Supported by the Ministry of Education, the workshop offers classes (partly taught by Sharif until 1999) in drawing, painting and art history. He contributed to the initiation of the Sharjah International Art Biennale, (now called Sharjah Biennial), which debuted in 1993. In the midst of this educational and community-building work, Sharif regularly produces and exhibits his work locally and internationally and writes about art 5
Catherine David, ‘The Art of Weaving’ in Hassan Sharif: Works 1973-2011: 13
6 The Flying House is a Dubai non-profit art space founded in 2007. It represents Emirati artists Hassan Sharif, Hussain Sharif (Hassan’s brother), Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Layla Juma and Abdul-Rahman Al Ma’aini. The Flying House is without signage because it is located in a residentially zoned area 7
Juma is currently the first woman president of the Emirates Fine Arts Society
Sharif has always been careful to document his work with photographs and preserve preparatory drawings. Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar has collected some of these archival records 9
For a discussion of Sharif’s critique of commodity consumption, see Hassan Sharif, ‘Rolling’, in Sharjah Biennial 7, Sharjah, UAE: Sharjah Biennial, 2005: 390
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, ‘Collector, recycler, game changer, enigma’, The Daily Star, 7 April 2012, accessed on 29 April 2012 at http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2012/Apr-07/169491-collectorrecycler-game-changer-enigma.ashx#axzz1tOf8uVVQ
Dictionary is described by Paulina Kolczynska in a highly detailed account of Sharif’s history and art practice. See Paulina Kolczynska, ‘Hassan Sharif: A Rare Bloom in the Desert’, in Hassan Sharif: Works 1973-2011: 38 12
The bulk of Sharif’s performances took place between 1982-84
Quoted in Kolczynska: 46
A similar conversation took place in 1985 during Sharif’s solo show at the Emirates Fine Arts Society. Hassan Sharif, interview with the author, Flying House, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 8 April 2012 15
See de Marchi: 310
Page 120: Hassan Sharif, Classic 2, 2008 Opposite: Hassan Sharif, installation view, SADACH pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2009 Above top: Hassan Sharif, Slippers and wire, 2009 Above bottom: Hassan Sharif, Rubber bands & cloth No. 9, 2006 Photos courtesy the artist and The Flying House, Dubai
Natasha Conland Peter Robinson’s large-scale sculpture Gravitas Lite commissioned for the 2012 Biennale of Sydney explores a compressed binary, or an oxymoron… I can’t decide. The polystyrene chains are light things made suggestively heavy and muscular. Both the ideas and forms in the work, ping-pong within this simple metaphor and its unlikely substance, offering spectacularly nothing (they are entirely selfcontained) and everything (a game fit for observational sport). There has much said in the last six years of Robinson’s work with polystyrene, perhaps more than any other aspect of his already well published career. Either these works inspire comment, or in the world of art production, we want to make sense of this new phase of the artist’s practice—his white-out, his return to form, his move towards the spectacle, his implicit nihilism. It is all there in the wordage to date. For sure, the work in turn is also ambitious for its reception. The scale is large (Gravitas Lite reaching approximately 30x30 metres), the somewhat glorious white is captivating, and in the artist’s words, it seeks to entertain.1 Despite the obvious spectacle, Gravitas Lite reveals a spirit of deadpan more clearly than his polystyrene installations to date. These have ranged through the architectural proportions of Artspace, Auckland, from Ack (2006), through the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in chain sculptures with Snow Ball Blind Time (2008); and in monoliths from Polymer Monoliths 1, Artspace, Sydney to Cache (2011), at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Gravitas Lite also reunites in more definite terms the polystyrene monoliths with the gargantuan chain installations, which had separated themselves off in more recent exhibitions.
There is an attraction to the deadpan through much New Zealand art practice, for which Robinson may be in part responsible. This attitudinal strain—occurring in his work as far back as the mid-1990s—is marked by a mock seriousness, or express failure to win (for example, arguments, tricks, the market or audiences). What is deadpan if not an epic testimony to what could have been, but is not. In this case perhaps, what could have been was the revolutionary artistic statement of the 1990s, the reappraisal of the canon, and the repositioning of the contemporary specifically for Māori. This failed (perhaps in New Zealand at least) because it never (and still hasn’t) successfully shifted the binary of Māori and Pakeha towards a greater complexity of individual positions. Robinson however describes the metaphoric binary in Gravitas Lite as a “kitset”.2 It can and should be refitted for different relativities, in which case its components are interchangeable. The seven different chain lengths can be set or delimited for a given architectural environment, budget or exhibition context. It is clear Robinson wants to detach himself from the metaphoric loop (the decision making, either/or), while inviting the game. Literal detachment is of course an express possibility from material so weak to the touch. The smallest of chains easily break during handling, and the expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam gives up tiny balls from its edges. This vulnerability is part of the seduction of the material which allows viewers to easily imagine its weakness and dissolvability in contrast to the perceived strength.
12 5 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012 An important early experiment with oppositional force in material and form was the work Promethean Dreams (2007), from the exhibition of the same name at Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland. Borrowing quite directly from the myth of Prometheus, the work depicts what appears to be a stack of large boulders over which lie tiny hair-like strands of chain. The chain is almost feathery at a distance with loose willowy ends just touching the floor. These links could in no way hold Prometheus chained to the rock from whence Zeus imprisoned him, but from this work develops the large forceful looking structures with the chain hairs now wrapped among them, and their imposing regularised monoliths. The more illustrative strands of the story fade into the dynamics of these oppositions in front of the viewer, who walks in and around them. The grand extension of this was the solo exhibition Snow Ball Blind Time, which wrangled with the entirety of the Govett-Brewster’s interior exhibition space. Subsequently, the monoliths stand alone in a series of exhibitions, which seem on the face of it to stage then erode the theatre of sculptural mass in relation to the white cube. Following the trajectory of the work’s development (and perhaps contrary to popular analysis), it wasn’t the artist chained to the rocks, but the viewer. In other words, Robinson makes the subject of the work the viewer’s ability to problem-solve the mass, scale and space around them, escaping their binds. The problem grows into something like a polystyrene chain maze, snaring the viewer within the architecture of the rabbit/duck problem. The chains and monoliths with their geometic regularity, their conversation with architecture and reductive space, display strongly formal concerns, while simultaneously decomposing, slackening, loosening the strictitude of these relationships. His touchstone for these works is the waning of minimalism, with the late Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Dan Graham, Robert Morris, John McCracken and Barry Le Va.3 Cubes both architectural and sculptural are penetrated, scattered or deflected into social space, all the while maintaining a formal backbone and possible solution. Once-removed again from the postminimalist generation, Robinson makes the modern his concern by redeploying this moment of dissolution. The juxtapositions of concrete and inconcrete states, presence and absence in form and space are made explicit through the simple effects of the EPS foam. How, for example, does the ultra-white of the substance fade into the background tone of ‘gallery white’ when it is used en masse, creating an eerie dimensionless space around the edges of the work? Equally, its aerated composition through which light can penetrate, fails to create the illusion of substance despite its scale reaching over three metres. Moreover, this frankly synthetic matter fails to be grounded—both chemically and conceptually. Somehow despite these oppositions, the sublime within these structures wins out over its supposed foil, rubbish and decay. Decay is only ever a tool for emphasising strength in these forms. With reference points stretching back to the monoliths of ancient times and in contemporary terms to artists such as to David Altmejd, Robinson it seems has put his art historical reference points into a compression chamber, and they have spat out a series of cast oppositions, amongst which the interplay of solid and molten states is paramount. In the scene of the compression chamber, the facilities of the polystyrene are of course ideal for their capacity in injection moulding, insulation, and acuity with known capabilities for kit-set componentry. Polystyrene is a blatantly modern material. Compatible with the emergence of the late modern period, it gains widespread visibility in the postWar period of the twentieth-century, and is found today in its original form in many household appliances. Often misplaced in the analysis of Robinson’s work as both ‘toxic’ and ‘disposable’, in fact at a technical level it is neither. Both the original polystyrene and EPS foam, which we more typically refer to, are relatively inert materials. While they are entirely synthetic, they do not give off gas, and are recyclable, but non-biodegradable. Given the degree to which we are surrounded by synthetic materials, and the common appearance of synthetic materials in art, it is interesting to consider why audiences might experience greater ‘toxic shock’ in front of these works. Without suiting-up as an apologist for polystyrene, it is an ever-present material, that much is true. Anyone who has recently acquired a computer has purchased nearly half a cubic metre of EPS foam polystyrene alongside it. While Robinson makes simple visual rhetoric with this mostly recycled form of the material, at some level the work is also about its own materiality. In the 1920s, German chemist Hermann Staudinger (1881-1965) not only laid down the foundations of polymer chemistry, but explained the structure of the styrene. Staudinger recognised the chain-like structure of the substance and proposed a name change from metastyrene to polystyrene.4 From that time, the commercial exploitation of these early polystyrenes took two different paths, one based on its high electrical resistance, and the other based on its reactivity. The expanded form was marketed in the USA as ‘styrofoam’ by Dow Chemicals in the late 1940s, but it bizarrely came to fame with a comical story of a rescued ship, which was floated with the aid of tiny foam balls inserted into its hull.5 In the 1970s and 1980s environmentalists took an interest in the product for its inability to decompose, which of course for industry was its advantage in the supply of most household and insulation materials.
Stripped of its industrial function, and used with the scale and density of Snow Ball Blind Time and Gravitas Lite, the polystyrene has a shock value which is awesome, in the eighteenth-century use of the word. But it seems we are also experiencing the shock of today. This is the scene Zizek dramatically enacts for his audiences, dressed in a high-vis vest in front of a Manhattan rubbish dump, a waste made ideological and therefore in his terms “unseen” in its true state.6 Standing in front of this whiteness it is possible to call forth a secular state of grace. In the case of Gravitas Lite, which sets the chains in Building 139 on Cockatoo Island, within a gargantuan building of industry, the aptitude is magnified, while the material is more contrastive to its surrounds. Knowing what he does about the medium, perhaps the most radical aspect of this work is that Robinson fails to give his audience an ideological cue. This is neither a mirror in the face of massive waste, nor a testimony to the spectacular waste within the sphere of art’s own production. There is no persuasive armature from which to view the work, rather we face a confounding quantity of seemingly glorious synthetics that we must somehow manage ourselves by adjectival diversion or ethical positioning. So, in the truest sense, we see ourselves in this raw material. While it is a pleasing affirmation of the artist’s coherency that the chains mimic the chemical structure of the polystyrene, chains have featured before in his work (in acrylic). This expansion and contraction of the infinite —idea and form—has resonance with a strand of his work which centred around binary code, and featured most prominantly in his installation Divine Comedy for the Venice Bienniale in 2001, in which chain links were composed of binary 0’s. The middle of these large 0’s, which might otherwise be punched out, were made into a stack in red acrylic ellipses of an alternative geometry. These would-be leftovers became the positive space, the sculptural substance in the installation, and the reference point again for the modernists. This interest in off-cuts and leftovers surfaced again recently in his solo-show Structure And Subjectivity (Sue Crockford Gallery) in March, 2012, the first since 2006 to avoid carved polystyrene, which may have seemed like an about-face. Amongst other materials, leftover cubes, strips and sheets from a felt manufacturer scatter the gallery floor, are stacked and sculpted—their reference to Joseph Beuys reordered amongst the variety of geometric interplay. Robinson also puts himself into the compression chamber, which now spits out felt versions of Andrew Cadere’s sculpture in the colours of his paintings and sculpture from the late 1990s. It is easy, perhaps, to see how Robinson found his way into packaging material aside from its capacity to kitset. This is an artist who has long had an interest in dislodging the perceived substance from its vehicle—whether that be conceptual or material—see his mock-apocalyptic statement The End of the Twentieth Century (2000) as a cartoon-town diorama. This isn’t to say that he has an interest in binarising his subjects into ducks and rabbits, rather that he likes to muddle the riddle of which follows which—the content or the form. In April this year British artist Jeremey Deller completed his inflatable ‘bouncy castle’ Stonehenge, Sacrilege, for the Glasgow International and year of the London Olympics. This mock tribute to Stonehenge, one of the world’s most famous archeological sites and sculptural structures, has a similar tone to Robinson’s polystyrene monoliths. Looking for the most expedient means to bring the experience of these extraordinary mythic structures into the era of experiential art, they are re-packaged as user-friendly, egalitarian, highly ‘fake’ structures for renewing our encounter with man’s first non-functional form. In this context the chains too read like the most primitive form of early industrial advancement. For Robinson, it is highly plausible that despite the sublime effect of the medium, he anticipates that as we stand there, overcome with the effect of form, we might forget in a slightly disorientated way, that we are looking at the monolith, and find ourselves staring into a mass of expanded polymer. Or vice versa of course. Notes 1 Notes from a conversation with the artist, May 2012 2
These stated influences come clearly from the artist, and have also been referenced in recent writing by Robert Leonard, ‘Peter Robinson: Gravitas Lite’ in Art & Australia Vol. 48 No. 2, Summer 2010: 310-317, and Allan Smith, ‘Hegel, Negation, and How to Levitate the Minimalist Object’, in Peter Robinson: Polymer Monoliths, Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2011: 5-14 4
Friederike Waentig, Plastics In Art: A Study From The Conservation Point Of View, Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2008: 279
Slavoj Zizek, in Examined Life: Philosophy Is In The Streets, written and directed by Astra Taylor, 2008
Opposite: Peter Robinson, Snow Ball Blind Time, 2008 Photo courtesy the artist Page 126: Khaled Sabsabi, Biripi (video still), 2006 Page 127: Khaled Sabsabi, Nonabel (video still), 2011 Photos courtesy the artist
127 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
IT'S ALL RELATIVE Chris Moore What are biennales for and what are they being used for? From an intellectual position, biennales must answer not only the contextual questions of “Why now?” and “Why here?”, but also “Why this story?” The replies are not necessarily cohesive—often incoherent and contradictory—and depend heavily on local political mores and how the biennale city identifies itself (officially and popularly), including how it wants to be identified, often revealing the fissures and anxieties of the city, its paranoiac vanities. The curator swims into these currents, more or less confidently, attempting to distil certain thematic trends or issues, sometimes provocatively, and inevitably with compromises, or even conflicts. Drawing on Hal Foster, Claire Bishop notes in her damning critique of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics treatise that, “the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star”.1 This year there will be a string of important biennials in East Asia and Australia, including in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Sydney and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. Meanwhile in Europe, the 13th Documenta will be held in Kassel, Germany, the most important marker of the state of contemporary art (particularly as the status of Venice has in recent years waned). This text tries to describe the different approaches of these art festivals, why some work better than others and asks what more biennials could do. Firstly a biennale is entertainment, like a clown or a video game, dubious and nebulous, intended to be gratifying and hopefully it is, too. Then there are self-fulfilling claims to culture, justified by their budget, advertising and visitor numbers, which can sometimes edge awkwardly close to the avaricious magnate who has bought a Damien Hirst, Edvard Munch or trashy Murakami simply because his neighbor has one. And as the cost of a biennale usually requires significant State support, accordingly it becomes a vehicle of State policy. Civic pride is a panacea for political promotion, albeit preferable to the crack-cocaine of nationalism. Inevitably it equates at some level with political selfpromotion. Nonetheless it can be benign and constructive, despite whatever other sentiments may be mixed up in it. With no race to be won, culture is sometimes a difficult thing to support, so you take your chances. But a biennial or triennial must not only be relevant to a time and place (and political whim) but to its public and for that there has to be a narrative: a story. Attempting to select the best of the last two or three or ten years, is a seemingly simple, neutral and transparent narrative. It underpins what are for me two of the most consistent art festivals, Documenta and the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Of course, even these two examples are anything but a diligent selection of a supposed ‘best of’, rather carefully curated confections but their simple raison d’etre works. It is clear what they must do before all else. The ‘survey’ biennale as a whole, whether Documenta, the APT or the Whitney Biennial of American Art, provides a moment and place to take stock of what art has been doing, and not necessarily the loudest or brashest art.
Yet selecting one biennale over another is largely pointless. A stinker of an exhibition (for example, the Italian Pavilion at Venice last year) is pretty easy to spot. Going beyond that is a matter of taste. So while I liked the last Biennale of Sydney, others can and do rigorously disagree. That debate be provoked is also central to the purpose of a biennale. Indeed, in spite of curatorial weakness and compromise, a biennale can still be vital to an emerging art scene. Certainly this has been the case with the Shanghai Biennale, which frequently has had to battle for funding, curatorial talent, curatorial ideas, curatorial space and yet, despite all its foibles, has become one of the more reliable public art institutions in China. And Shanghai and its sister biennale in Shenzhen have encouraged the development of other similar institutions. Last year’s Chengdu Biennale, curated by Lu Peng, was initially greeted with scepticism, but emerged largely triumphant, no doubt partly due to exceedingly low expectations. While Chengdu is renowned as a nursery of artistic talent, the cultural baubles that bless Shanghai are less evident in Chengdu, making the Biennale all the more critical. And sometimes a biennial or triennial can be transformative. In Brisbane, the APT was the very thing that made the Queensland Art Gallery meaningful and has been the momentum behind the museum’s growth ever since. Biennales also provide a chance to provoke. David Elliott, the curator of the last Biennale of Sydney, is renowned for being direct and wry. His enthusiasm for his work is only matched by his disdain for pretension, which no doubt upset a few people in the land of the long white bungalow (scratch the surface of Sydney, you find more surface). By the time this magazine goes to press, Elliott will be opening the inaugural Kiev Biennale. The title, ‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art’ alludes to how the past can be both a prison or a platform for change. The theme resonates with anyone living in the Russian “sphere”. At the time of writing, the former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko is imprisoned for “corruption” and on a hunger strike, with the German government threatening a boycott of the imminent European Cup football tournament, which Ukraine is co-hosting, unless Timoshenko is released. How “clean” Timoshenko is, is debatable but it seems clear that the charge is based more on revenge than civic righteousness (“clean” is relative in this part of the world). But here is Elliott—who speaks fluent Russian—tweaking their Gogolian noses. With a selection of artists from Paul McCarthy to Folkert de Jong speaking to power and its abuses, it is hardly a frothy selection. Kiev is a biennale with an acerbic narrative, one that clearly answers the questions of why here, why now and for whom. When I asked Elliott recently what reading matter should accompany a visit to Kiev, he answered Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the samizdat fantasy satire that predated Latin American Magic Realism by a few decades. As I write, Kafka’s castle towers over me. Prague’s own biennale came and went and no one really noticed. It included a number of reproductions from the Russian activist art collective, Voina (War), displayed on the wall below where Stalin’s statue once stood, now popular with variable skateboarders and graffiti artists (in Stalin’s place stands an oversized Political Metronome recalling Man Ray’s Indestructible Object of 1923—actually destroyed in 1957 by delinquent Dadaists). Voina’s posters lack context though—an image of an employee’s corpse hanging between supermarket isles in Moscow recalls a real-life incident, but in Prague on the side of a street it just seems obtuse. Meanwhile the tourists surge through the medieval streets, following the furled umbrella of their leader, headphones tuned in, and Russian is once again commonly heard; only the speakers are more likely to wear Milanese fashion than military fatigues. While Kafka’s symbol of
12 9 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
the surveyor attempting to reach the castle is almost the primary literary symbol of Prague (the Golem trumps it), the equivalent in the former Soviet States is that of Bulgakov’s devil, Woland, who turns everything in atheist Moscow topsy-turvy—and it says much about Bulgakov’s satire that he manages to make sociopathic Woland so appealing. A biennale cannot simply be provocative; there must be some sense to the provocation. In China, the equivalent of the samizdat edition are microblogs, which far from being published in secret escape into the Chinese blogosphere like gusts of wind, picking up threads and dust the authorities prefer to remain still. Often it is the lack of control, rather than the content itself that drives the censorious measures and despite ever-greater measures aimed at self-control (public security spending in China far exceeds its vast military budget). And while many choose to comment anonymously, itself anathema to the prying Party, interestingly the main microbloggers flaunt themselves, whether social critic and racing-car driver, Hanhan, or Ai Weiwei. So while Chinese artists are as thrilled as any to participate in their homegrown biennales, and can be provocative in a certain tonal register—whether in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai or even at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing—they are staid affairs compared with the firestorm of blogging. Away from home however, Chinese artists have greater freedom to be subversive and nowhere is more popular for that than the biennale they most revere: documenta in Kassel. Ai Weiwei is renowned for having brought one thousand and one of his countrymen, teachers, students, farmers, even policemen to Germany for the last Documenta (Fairytale–1001 Chinese visitors), at once challenging trade and immigration policies (and narratives) of both countries, and for the fact his Template (a sort-of oversized filterprayer-wheel of salvaged antique Chinese doors) fell over in a highwind, delighting Ai, who said it should remain that way. But this larrikin approach is not unique. Shi Yong put a banner over the main exhibition hall that read; “Sorry, there will be no documenta in Kassel in 2007”. Ten years earlier Yan Lei, before he was ever invited to Kassel himself, along with Hong Hao issued scores of fake invitations to his unsuspecting and later irate colleagues. As Hou Hanrou notes: “Interestingly, it is exactly this untenable position that forces Yan Lei and his fellow artists to continue to negotiate the non-negotiable, to search the margin inside the center itself, to turn the common ground into underground.”2 Yan’s contribution to the 10th Istanbul Biennial (2007) was Brain Failure, a Beijing punk rock band (apparently the Chinese Ambassador quite liked it). That Cai Guoqiang’s firework display at the first APT fizzed on opening night in retrospect seems fitting. Even for Cai, sometimes communicating with the stars is trickier than others, but we can only look back at that moment wistfully, because there was nothing left to chance when he organised the firework display for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a traditional apotheosis of the artist to the higher echelons of Middle Kingdom power. Sort of. Artists in China aren’t that important (are they anywhere?), more a mild irritation, particularly compared with the over one hundred thousand officially recognised “public disturbances” (read: riots) that take place in China each year. Why Beijing allows biennales at all is perplexing, and probably is due to it being rather less unified than it likes to acknowledge and a conflicting earnest desire to promote a particular view of itself to the world. A successful biennale must be orchestrated, but it must also fail a little bit, because perfect control is just that—this is the category error of Chinese government policy. In China, art and its exhibition as subsidised by the State is often seen as being owned or at least sullied by the State. We would be advised to note that ourselves. Money can give an artist freedom, but too much money can weigh art down, regardless who plays sugar daddy. For this very reason commercial galleries in China are often seen as refuges, or rather, at least in galleries one has greater choice over the compromises, whereas in a major State-funded exhibition, the compromises can cling quite closely. So in China blogs and commercial galleries usually provide greater scope for experimentation than biennales.
Do we need biennales or are they just convenient packaging? Every year something like a biennale occurs in Switzerland when ArtBasel takes place. Rarely do I recall the fair itself, its myriad booths and dealers, but the consistently high quality of the curated shows beyond the fairground resonate long after visiting them, including in recent years Felix Gonzalez Torres at Fondation Beyeler, Matthew Barney at the Schaulager, and Henrik Olesen at the Museum for Contemporary Art. This small city of only 170,000 people is awash in art. It does not need a biennale. But apparently many cities do. And the curatorial packaging helps to unify a lot of disparate stuff. The public, at least that portion which chooses to attend, can indulge in a throng of ideas, and play critic to boot. For me biennales must have an element of the flea market—you should not know exactly what you are going to find. There must be the promise of surprise, of the quiet discovery, satisfying recognition, confusion, disgust and ennui, sometimes excitement. However, it is unlikely, whatever the intention, to be a place of potential insurrection. Which brings us back to “banales”, because right now, they seem tritely precious little things compared with everyday hardships around the world, if not so much in Australia. As the Occupy groups picket art fairs like Frieze in New York (being hip protection no longer), even biennales seem removed only by degree from supermarkets: the major biennales are all very well attended by art dealers, for the collectors as much as the art. Venice has already descended into an art marketplace in all but name—though perhaps it always was one, just hiding under quaint national colors. Interactive performances have become a staple of biennales, partly because it’s good theatre, partly because it evidences engagement with the audience. A performance of cooking and serving Pad Thai in an upmarket art gallery or museum (the elision is deliberate), even when cooked by Rirkrit Tiravanija, upsets nothing (similarly Christoph Büchel’s Piccadilly Community Centre at Hauser & Wirth gallery last year in London—how ‘real’ can Mayfair get?). Engagement with the audience is not everything: context matters. This time last year Ai Weiwei was in custody in China (he remains under strict controls even as he challenges the dubious tax claim brought against him). Now (at the time of writing) a blind, selftaught lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, has escaped extra judiciary custody, finding shelter in the American Embassy. And this has occurred amidst the greatest political crisis in China since 1989, with the disgraceful implication of the former party chief of megacity Chongching, Bo Xilai, in the cover-up of a murder involving his wife (we must also not forget the rebellious Guangdong village of Wukan that won the right to hold free elections and then did so). Meanwhile, Europe appears to be perilously close to social, political and financial tumult and America appears more divided than ever. Even Australia is transfixed with a trivial political merry-go-round, where paranoia bizarrely overshadows a booming economy. All these things and umpteen others, narratives chosen, imposed and exploding, mean that biennales opening around the world this year are compelled to answer why here, why now and for whom? Otherwise they are irrelevant. Biennales need art and people but neither art nor people need biennales. Yet while the biennale model is frequently capricious and vain, I would not say it is doomed, for in their inevitable crevices and cracks are precisely the things that make biennales valuable, if unaccountable: different ways of speaking. My hope, like many who work in this frequently self-indulgent ‘sector’, is that art will help us to think more creatively and more critically about what we are doing and why. The most important aspect of the first Shanghai Biennale, the only one that has really endured, was not part of the official program but a Salon des Refusés. It was an exhibition that lasted all of two days before the police shut it down. It was curated by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi and it was called Fuck Off.3 Notes 1 Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October, 2004: 53 2
Hou Hanru, ‘Negotiating the Non-Negotiable: On the Work of Yan Lei’, San Francisco Art Institute; http://www.aspenartmuseum.org/archive_lei_hanru.html
3 The Chinese version was the equivalent of “Uncooperative Approach”. Ai’s studio, Fake, is a homonym for the Chinese pronunciation of the work “fuck”–fa ke
131 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
PARALLEL COLLISIONS IN THE SHADOW OF ALL OUR RELATIONS AND TRAUMATISED ART
Rex Butler Parallel Collisions was a magnificent title to give an exhibition of contemporary art. Eye-catching, provocative, literally impossible or self-contradictory, it was an ideal match for the art it was intended to showcase. And it was a perfect example of contemporary art curating, which now that it no longer is connoisseurial or about creating taste, no longer seeks to identify a style or trace the development of an artist’s career, no longer is theoretical or attempts to offer a meta-statement about art, necessarily works in the mode of something like poetic conceit. The curator—like the artist today in relation to the work of art —identifies some aspect of the work in question that is at once partial and all-encompassing, only one of any number of others and what stands in for everything else. They produce what is effectively a metaphor, to be assessed in terms of its wit and not truth, its brevity and ease of comprehension and not its authentic explanatory power. Of course, any attempt actually to explain such a logical impossibility can only seem heavy-handed, inappropriate, beside the point. And so it is with Parallel Collisions. Curators Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass-Kantor elaborate in their introductory text to the catalogue of the exhibition, “how ideas emerge, converge and re-form over time”. And the aim of the exhibition, they suggest, is to show how works of art gradually accumulate their meaning, by which they presumably mean how concepts and cultural objects that were previously separate —parallel—periodically intersect with each other—collide—to produce new interpretive possibilities. Describing their curatorial method of juxtaposing contemporary with historical work, they write: New or recent works are placed in dialogue with the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection of Australian art, amplifying the conditional nature of the interpretation of the collection. In a related way, the artists in the exhibition often employ the resources of the past to re-imagine the past and the present, or even to project into the future, creating a rich mosaic of interlocking temporalities.1 In one sense here, the curators are merely describing the problem of arthistorical revisionism and more generally the phenomenon of historical relativism. It is the idea—or even the image—that the course of time does not run in a straight line in an unbending determinism, but that the present diverges from the past, and hence we can only look back at what has happened from where we are and see it in a different way. We do not live in a seamless continuum that joins past and present, but history is the weaving together of many various and conflicting forces that emerge at different times and intersect with each other unexpectedly. As a result, it is impossible to see the past as it once was, or to put it another way, the past periodically breaks out into the present, reminding us of a way of life or thought that is no longer with us. And Parallel Collisions would speak of this paradoxical condition of history: the fact that at once past and present come together, collapsing the distance between them, and that in order for this to be possible the same time must also be shown to be two times, a distance revealed to lie between even the closest of moments.
But the question that dogs this exhibition—and it is a question that bedevils many exhibitions of contemporary art—is how to select particular works on the basis of the stated thematic. How to say that one work more than another embodies this historical condition when all works are necessarily subject to it? The exhibition did attempt to evidence these ideas through a series of what it called “incursions”, in which selected contemporary works were hung amongst the historical works of the Elder Wing of the Gallery, and a “redux”, in which past and present works by the same artist were shown both amongst historical work in the Elder Wing and amongst other contemporary work in the temporary exhibition galleries downstairs. Thus upstairs in the Elder Wing we had Rosemary Laing’s groundspeed (rose petal) #17 (2001) next to John Glover’s A View of the Artist’s Garden in Mills Plains (1835), Nicholas Folland’s Untitled (Jump Up) (2012) next to nautical maps and James Shaw’s The Admella Wrecked (1859), Susan Jacobs’ Snake Drawing (2011-12) next to Bertram Mackennal’s Circe (1893) and Marco Fusinato’s Parallel Collisions (2008) next to the work of Dusan and Voitre Marek. In some way, we were meant to see each time the contemporary artist’s work as a “commentary” on the art-historical original: the floral carpet in Laing’s photographs is intended to bring out the artificiality of the exotic flowers in Glover’s garden, the suspended glass profile of Folland’s installation the illusion of colonial topography, the sinuous movements of Jacobs’ video the sensuous feminine lines of Mackennal’s sculpture and the unplayed energy of Fusinato’s musical score the unrealised utopianism of the Adelaide Surrealists. The curators’ method was perhaps seen most clearly in Tom Nicholson’s mounting on the walls some thirty-to-forty copies of H.J. Johnstone’s Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia (1880), which depicts an Aboriginal family camped at twilight at a billabong or branch of a river that has reached a dead end. The work was the first acquired by the Art Gallery, and for many years it was the favourite of copyists working there until, legend has it, one particularly enthusiastic amateur splashed it with white paint. The point of Nicholson’s Salon-style hang of multiple copies of the original was to make the different versions metaphors for the historically shifting interpretations of this much-discussed work: from arguably its original meaning as a well-intentioned depiction of the “last Aborigines” and the hope their dying race would one day be bred out to the more contemporary understanding of the image and its message as racist. The historical refutation—but, really, it could have in this context only the status of another interpretation—of this seeing of Aborigines as a racial or cultural dead-end was brought out by hanging on the opposite wall from the Johnstones another “incursion” by indigenous artist Jonathan Jones, in which he conversely got out all of the works from the Gallery collection that showed the Murray-Darling still flowing, and analogously all of the descendents of those Aboriginal tribes that once lived along it as still alive. The danger of this approach is that it turns all contemporary works of art into commentaries on the art of the past. And the past for its part is reduced to being either a reflection of the present and thus valued or that against which the present measures its progress and thus condemned. However, for all of the apparent objectivity of this revisionism and the evidence it seeks in the work of art, it is in fact
13 3 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
mostly an opportunity for the modern-day interpreter to show off their ingenuity, with a whole series of previously peripheral motifs in the original work of art becoming the occasion for a re-reading of history. We might see this, for example, in the hanging of Shaun Gladwell’s mixed media silhouette of an old sailing ship with mainsail emblazoned with cassette and crossbones alongside other paintings of ships bought from junk shops. The best the gallery guide could come up when asked what was the connection was to suggest that Gladwell’s ship somehow referred to the notion of “piracy” in our new information age and that showing those other works in the Gallery was going to add to their value when they were resold by giving them some provenance (the very opposite, I would have thought, of the levelling of distinctions in internet piracy). And when the works appeared by themselves in the so-called “tracking shot” of the second part of the exhibition downstairs, they suddenly appeared flat. Where were the 1970s originals that Ricky Swallow was surely working off with his bronze castings of cups and bottles? Where were the Cubist prototypes, say, Dorrit Black‘s Music (1927), or some Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack monotypes from the Gallery’s collection that we might see Daniel Crooks’ sliced-up videos as updated versions of? Even Jonathan Jones’ cut-down, sawn-up and painted white red gum, Untitled (Marriney) (2011), seemed to lack something without the watercolours of the Murray-Darling upstairs that it saw itself as the riposte to. (Jones is protesting against the exclusion of Aborigines in those colonial depictions as emblematised by the dead trees in their foregrounds and the pushing of the bush in them towards the background.) The same might be said of Tom Nicholson’s charcoal rendering of Johnstone’s Evening Shadows, which reverses black for white, as though we were looking at a photographic negative of the original. (It is likely in fact that Johnstone did work from a photo while he executed the painting in London.) Here with all of these works—and this is strikingly unusual in an exhibition of contemporary art, which is why it registered as a kind of absence—our relation to the work is simply “aesthetic”. Without the accompanying art history that it is understood as an “incursion” into, it is as though we were suddenly confronted with just the work itself. And, in a way, there was a certain “aesthetic” argument, or let us say “taste”, to be discerned in Parallel Collisions. We might think here of Tim Silver’s disintegrating putty self-portraits and his strange polyurethane lumps called Traumas, the clay and bubble-wrap maquettes of Rob McLeish, the Munch-like homunculi of Michelle Ussher, Pat Brassington’s Belmer-inspired photographs, Philip Brophy’s splatter movie transgressions and even Timothy Cook’s reductive Tiwi designs. A few years ago, all of these would have been seen as examples of the “informe”, and thus not possible as a style, but such is the all-devouring nature of contemporary art that it is now readily identified as an aesthetic, alongside any number of possible others. Why didn’t the curators argue positively for this—or, indeed, for anything, apart from the inevitable and ubiquitous phenomenon of shifts in the meaning of things over time? Perhaps it is, indeed, due to the art-historical consequences of having a style like the informe or grunge. The curators are part of a post-theory, post-discursive, post-art-historical generation, for whom a sign of their youth, their independence, their break with what comes before is precisely that they don’t seem to have much to say about art. Or that they understand their task as the mere “asking of questions”, without really saying which ones and without attempting to answer any of them. The curators largely “outsourced” the writing of the catalogue and thus the underlying argument of the exhibition to other writers in what they called an “offering”. Needless to say, being writers, they wrote about what they pleased. (There was a poem, a dramatic dialogue and a short story.) Some of them were terrific—Justin Clemens wrote the essay the curators should have written, about the fact that there is never enough time to “look back” and Anthony Gardner attempts an ambitious overturning of Imants Tillers’ well-known essay ‘Locality Fails’—and others not so. Although it is not strictly one of the essays, the exhibition featured a mumblecore collaboration between curator Robert Cook and artist Max Pam, a blank assemblage of texts, diary entries and uncomposed snapshots, that is the last thing we need in a world of 100 million blogs.
The point is that nowhere did the curators put forward any coherent argument concerning the problem of historiography they pointed to. They, in their words, “incited” Walter Benjamin and his famous essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, but it remained a mere citation. They said they were inspired by the working method of Paul Anderson in his film Magnolia (1999), but from it they appear to have got no more than “a spirit of collaboration” and the fact that his “storylines result in honest, human films that tackle big subjects”. They said that the organisation of the lower level of the Gallery was inspired by the single continuous tracking-shot of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), but that film was as much as anything a lament for the destructive forces of history and the need to keep works of art away from them (the museum as a kind of ark in which the past can be preserved intact). The curation of contemporary art is in a crisis. It no longer sees itself as engaging in taste-making or connoisseurial selection. It no longer follows formal or stylistic developments or sees itself as undertaking historical research. It no longer has the confidence to offer theoretical meta-statements. It no longer, at the other end of taste-making, sees itself as making retrospective evaluations or canonising particular artists. As a result, it can resemble a form of interior decoration, either matching contingent formal features of art works (colour, shape, size) or engaging in an incessant and fictitious revisionism. And it mostly begins its conceptualisation by coming up with a title for the exhibition that cannot be evidenced in and therefore cannot be used to select works of art: Optimism, Signs of Life, Handle with Care, Before and After Science etc. This title has the same relationship to the works in the show as an advertisement has to the products it sells. It operates as a form of badging, a momentary distinction in the marketplace, a conceit that makes the art attractive exactly insofar as serves as the excuse to demonstrate the ingenuity of the curator who came up with it. But why, with all of the things one could put on a show about today—from contemporary women artists, to colour in the twenty first-century, to the relation between sculpture and installation, to the relevance of national identity—would one choose to curate a show on the “topic” of parallel collisions? That is, a show about the curation of the show itself, about the relationships the curator—or any historical framing—necessarily brings about in putting works together? In the exhibition’s obsessive “accessibility” and desire not to be definitive, it revealed itself as not even having the confidence in the slow advance of interpretation it sought to make its subject matter. In seeking to “put aside prejudice, persuasion and State borders to share at every moment”, it precisely attempted to outguess by taking into account those contingencies of history it says cannot be avoided. Indeed, instead of truly letting history play itself out and hoping that one’s (admittedly partial) meaning will be heard in the future by actually saying something, the curators of these contemporary blockbusters operate like a campaign manager, a product launcher or a film producer hoping that the show has a big “opening weekend” in order that its own reported success will become the reason why people subsequently come to see it. In the end, it was only fitting that Parallel Collisions was trumped by one of the “dumbest”—by which I suppose I mean one of the smartest—works in the show: Richard Bell’s mural in the vestibule of the Art Gallery, Solidarity (2011-12), with its magnificent one-liner about the greatness of a man who came second. Note 1 Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass-Kantor, ‘The Proposition: Parallel Collisions’, Parallel Collisions 12th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (exhibition catalogue), Art Gallery of SA, Adelaide
Pages 130-131: Fujiko Nakaya, Cloud Parking in Linz, Cloud installation #11060, 2011 Photo courtesy the artist
13 5 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
TRAUMATISED ART OBJECTS CAROLYN CHRISTOV-BAKARGIEV's DOCUMENTA (13)
Wes Hill What if, instead of the traumatised person, we were to stop a minute and think, and see things from the point of view of the apparently inanimate artwork? Instead of exploring how we express trauma through artworks, we might explore how artworks themselves become traumatised—losing their orientation, severed from their experience, severed from the experience of their environment. For example; in some exhibitions, for example; in some storage spaces, for example; on some walls, for example; in some public spaces, for example; in the minds of some people… What would the traumatised subject think or feel if that subject were an artwork or a cultural artefact? What does an object feel when it is attacked or destroyed, ignored or misunderstood, or even lost and misplaced? Traumatised artworks appear to be on a standby. They are silent, withdrawn from visibility and discourse.1 The above quote is from a lecture delivered in November 2011 by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, Germany. As the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13), Christov-Bakargiev discussed her approach to curating the notoriously sprawling exhibition, and outlined her interest in the theory of trauma, and her unusual notion of the traumatic artwork. In anthropomorphically portraying art objects as victims and violated subjects, she provided audience members with an indication of what to expect from the upcoming exhibition. Here I will reflect on Christov-Bakargiev’s notion of the traumatised artwork, which drove her selection of the dOCUMENTA (13) artists and influenced her staging of a satellite exhibition in Kabul, Afghanistan. Because it could be argued that it is impossible to comprehend the world without perceiving phenomena anthropomorphically, it is important to consider claims of ChristovBakargiev’s anthropomorphism cautiously, as more an attempt to highlight the creative potential of ascribing an inexpressible emotional life onto objects.2 Since the early 1990s, it has been increasingly popular for curators to declare that their exhibition isn’t about anything specific, before proceeding to talk about what their exhibition is about, as if they are then shielded from curatorial responsibility. In a late 2011 interview, Christov-Bakargiev stated to Karen Wright that dOCUMENTA (13) has “no real theme. The most important point today is for me is to work without a clearly stated concept”.3 After declaring this ‘non theme’ theme, she went on to reveal a clear directive to address issues associated with political conflict and the changed social conditions brought about by digital technologies. Although we all want to interact with art on our own terms, curators who deny that their motivations constitute their exhibition’s rationale can often end up producing exhibitions that are the opposite of what they intended—apparent open-endedness can look a lot like complacency.
Aligning her conception of traumatised artworks with a political agenda, Christov-Bakargiev also appeared to reflect on her evasive packaging of dOCUMENTA (13), stating that “the historical, technological and social system is being built around products of the brain in the same way that it was built around the products of machines in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, and around products of the land prior to that… In an advanced digital age, the dangerous fact is that companies such as Google control power and this goes against freedom, so a non-concept can mean a strike of the intellectuals against this control over their brains.”4 Whereas Karl Marx sought to ‘de-anthropomorphise’ and ‘de-fetishise’ commodity objects back into ‘things’ (where social relationships are not disguised and ‘fetishised things’ can become ‘things’ again), Christov-Bakargiev attempts to undermine the commodification of art by imbuing artworks with a more viable anthropomorphism; conceiving of them as subjects that do not respond to our demands. As embodiments of repression and political struggle—ChristovBakargiev’s hypothetical art objects aren’t dead like traditional museum objects, but are alive. The implication that museological objects are somehow alive contrasts with the more old-fashioned notion that they are things which were once alive—or operational in the world—but are now obsolete and ready for cultural contemplation. However, as Michelle Henning has noted, instilling artworks with life might “bridge the gulf between audience and things in one sense, but it does not necessarily mean a more intimate, comfortable and straightforward relationship between audience and displayed object. In fact, things can seem simultaneously alive and distant, unapproachable, recalcitrant.”5 The English word “trauma” stems from the Greek word “τραῦμα” which means “wound” or “penetration”. It is with these associations that a psychic trauma can be thought of as an event that penetrates the ‘skin’ of the wounded person’s mind. Labelling these wounds as traumatic neuroses, the neurologist-turned-psychiatrist Sigmund Freud claimed that the “chief weight in their causation seems to rest upon the factor of surprise, of fright”.6 References to anthropomorphism as traumatic are, of course, frequently found in horror films—featuring in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as a kind of trauma of origination. A related theme dominates Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine, in which Arnie, the lead male character, becomes obsessed with his newly purchased car Christine—an overprotective cherry red 1957 Plymouth Fury that soon starts killing Arnie’s friends and enemies, as if in his defence. Suggesting that we “explore how artworks themselves become traumatised”, Christov-Bakargiev’s hypothetical artworks don’t enact the vengeful girlfriend in King’s Christine, or the vengeful monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein; rather, they are frightened and inconsolable victims that don’t meet the viewer’s gaze—“silent, withdrawn from visibility and discourse”. If trauma is essentially the devastating experience of having one’s world fractured by an intrusive force beyond control, then minority subjects, who remain outside the realm of the social symbolic, bear the overwhelming weight of such an intrusive force. Christov-Bakargiev selected a record number of Australian artists for dOCUMENTA (13), including works by indigenous artists such as Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Warwick Thornton and Doreen Reid Nakamarra. The traumatic experiences of the culturally disenfranchised clearly directed ChristovBakargiev’s selection of these artists, as well as many of the other participants. However, there is an apparent contradiction between her avowed political directives and her claim that dOCUMENTA (13)
“has no real theme”. In an interview that I conducted with her earlier this year Christov-Bakargiev reiterated how the exhibition will enact a withdrawal from an “obligation to provide concept, knowledge capitalism, discourse, theory”.7 In aligning this apparent passivity with those artists whose practices are associated with issues of postcolonialism and cultural disenfranchisement, there is a possibility that their works could be construed as retreats from socio-political representation, condemned to a kind of romantic Otherness. In considering art objects as traumatised subjects without voices, and without discourses that can speak for them, Christov-Bakargiev presents us with a difficulty; foregrounding a structure of ‘undecidability’ or ‘unrepresentability’ in aesthetic engagement. She has stated that her “withdrawal from the production of knowledge” is to be substituted by “an engagement with embodiment, and with sensual relations to materials and matter,” as an attempt to question “why things matter”.8 Here she posits the political relevance of the selected artists on the one hand, but on the other hand she foregrounds the silence, the materiality, the presentness, but also the recalcitrance of art as a traumatised subject. If something is silent it cannot communicate its significance (why it matters), and Christov-Bakargiev’s approach itself is marked by this refusal to explain her exhibition’s logic—a curatorial approach that remains within the conceptual structure it proposes. This portrayal of artworks as obfuscatory and paradoxical phenomena—enacting ‘speechless’ engagements with materiality even as they depict complex political and philosophical theories—is something that William Kentridge’s work is closely associated with. His work is often accompanied by theoretical accounts that also, for me at least, rarely correspond with one’s actual engagement. A participant in dOCUMENTA (13), the South African-born Kentridge has long been one of Christov-Bakargiev’s favourite artists, curating his first major retrospective in 1998. Summarising his importance, she has stated that Kentridge “cannot pursue the fiction of making South Africa look ‘white’—yet he cannot speak for the ‘black’, nor provide a platform or voice for the ‘other’. He can only explore a zone of uncertainty and shifting meanings”.9 Despite, or perhaps because of, the so-called “uncertainty” of Kentridge’s work, many writers have tended to romanticise it. It has been claimed that his work depicts the “reality of human suffering”, it “marks a new course for contemporary art… is never guilty of male-centeredness”, refuses the “the fetishised mode of artistic production” and “builds a new medium on the technical support of a common cinematic practice of mass culture”.10 For those who prefer explicitly ‘hands-on’ treatments of medium (an aversion to pop culture also helps), Kentridge’s work spawns claims of paradox and poignancy —motivated by the desire to reconcile its tactile character and its imprecise references with its more direct political assertions. Fascinated by what can and cannot be represented, ChristovBakargiev’s notion of the traumatised art object has much in common with the perception that Kentridge’s works can represent complex sociophilosophical discourses, as well as embodied, ‘meaning-in-materials’ aesthetics. Indicative of her background in Arte Povera, ChristovBakargiev clearly has affinities with artists who blur past and present forms, and with artworks that combine political reflection with traces of the artist’s hand. However, her unwillingness to take responsibility for, or explicate, her curatorial selections, coupled with her encouragement of interaction with dOCUMENTA (13) artworks as if they were traumatised subjects, could be construed as an attempt to provide a protectant against interpretation, particularly negative judgement. Proposing artworks and ‘thought’ as unstable phenomena that might be distinct from ‘theory’ or ‘discourse’, Christov-Bakargiev’s approach recalls Jacques Derrida’s identification of a condition of undecidability at the very heart of language—a structure of undecidability in the ‘knot’ that links the formal dimensions of syntax and the pragmatical structure of the semantic.11 It is as if ChristovBakargiev is attempting to represent Derrida’s philosophical presentation of undecidability as a theme, in an effort to highlight, in the words of Noah Horwitz, how “the instability of the event of institution not only leads to politicisation, but also to a constitutive crisis of legitimation at the very heart of the political”.12 In interviews and publicity material, she pre-sets our experience of dOCUMENTA (13) as unstable experiences with traumatised subjects—objects that are affected by a trauma, unable
to be turned into experience or assimilated to a subsequent self-image. This approach has a clear affinity with post-structuralist discourse, which exchanged the search for ‘world views’ in favour of ‘the task of thought’. In Jacques Rancière’s account of an aesthetic regime, “nothing is ‘unrepresentable’”.13 He contrasts this with Jean-François Lyotard’s “representational regime”, which Rancière states, puts forward that one “can find unrepresentable subject matters”, when “form and matter cannot be fitted together in any way”. Rancière’s point is that “‘the loss of a steady relation’ between the sensible and the intelligible is not the loss of the power of relating, it is the multiplication of its forms”.14 He substitutes the category of the unrepresentable with that of dissensus, a productive openness of aesthetics and politics that consists of the reconfiguring of the sensible by means of a supposition foreign to it. In answer to the question “are some things unrepresentable?”, Rancière states: [t]here are no longer any inherent limits to representation… The assertion of ‘unrepresentability’ claims that some things can only be presented in a certain type of form, by a type of language appropriate to their exceptionality. ‘Stricto sensu’, this idea is vacuous. It simply expresses a wish: the paradoxical desire that in the very regime which abolishes the representative suitability of forms to subjects, appropriate forms respecting the singularity of the exception still exist.15 Given Documenta’s history, Christov-Bakargiev’s traumatised thematic is fitting, dealing with the issue of unrepresentability that is invoked by the Holocaust—a site of trauma in public memory. In the aftermath of the Nazi regime, the first Documenta was held in 1955, when Arnold Bode, professor at the Kassel Werkakademie, started his work in Kassel with the art historian Werner Hafmann. Working with an ambition to “document and trace the development of the fine arts in our century in Europe”, Kassel was a point of significance, not only because it was located on the newly established border between East and West Germany, but also because Kassel’s Fridericianum Museum, in ruins in 1955, was the first museum built in Germany, erected between 1769 and 1776.16 The exhibition’s history is therefore closely connected to the reconstruction of Germany’s identity, and with fathoming the trauma inflicted during World War II. In Images in Spite of All (2008), Georges Didi-Huberman argued for the importance of images in attempting to imagine the horrors of the Holocaust, opposing those who overestimate the power of images, as well as those who dogmatically reject images as a priori —as incapable of conveying historical truth. Basing his case primarily around four photographs from Auschwitz’s Crematorium 5, he stated: “It is no longer possible to speak of Auschwitz in terms of absolutes such as the ‘unimaginable’ or the ‘unrepresentable’… Must we say again… that Auschwitz is unimaginable? Certainly not. We must even say the opposite: we must say that Auschwitz ‘is only imaginable,’ that we are restricted to the image and must therefore attempt an internal critique so as to deal with this restriction, with this ‘lacunary necessity’.”17 Addressing what he saw as the dogma of the ‘unimaginable,’ DidiHuberman claimed that although images, like language, are ontologically fallible and can present only bits and pieces of the historical reality, the available fragments of this history are important and necessary, even where there can be no total image to convey the significance of atrocities.18 At once inventive and evasive, Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial approach to dOCUMENTA (13) ultimately, and perhaps suitably, leaves a few questions hanging in the air: can art exhibitions display ‘potentiality’ and ‘thought’ that evades ‘theory’, ‘discourse’, ‘criticality’ or a ‘theme’?; What motivates the desire to distinguish between art exhibitions that are political in nature from those that are ‘about’ politics? If trauma is unrepresentable, which language-forms enable the effects of traumatised objects to be read? Stating in a 2008 lecture that she is more interested in “the politics of the language of art rather than the language of politics”, it might therefore, be important when engaging with dOCUMENTA (13) to consider which ‘languages of art’ Christov-Bakargiev values over others, and why.19
137 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
Page 134: II documenta, 1959, installation view with works of Julio González, photographer unkown. Bequest of Arnold Bode, courtesy of documenta Archiv, Kassel © dOCUMENTA (13) Above: Goshka Macuga, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that is not 1 (detail), 2012 Photo courtesy the artist Page 138: Museum Fridericianum, 2012 Photo Nils Klinger © dOCUMENTA (13)
Notes 1 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ‘Auf dem Weg zur dOCUMENTA (13), ein Vortrag an der HFBK Hamburg’, lecture presented at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Hamburg, 24 November 2011 2 Here I’m thinking of how Friedrich Nietzsche argued that all forms of knowledge reflect the social conditions under which they are formed and are therefore illusory: “T]oday philosophy can only underline the relative character of all knowledge, its anthropomorphism, as well as the everywhere sovereign force of illusion.” Nietzsche quoted by Béatrice Han-Pile, ‘Nietzsche’s Metaphysics in the “Birth of Tragedy”’, European Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 14, 2006: 378 3 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev quoted by Karen Wright, ‘Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: In the Here and Now’, Under the Influence, New York: Philips de Pury, 2011: 35 4
Christov-Bakargiev, ibid: 37
Ida Gianelli, William Kentridge (exhition catalogue), Turin: Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, 2003: 9; Elisabeth Van Caelenberge, ‘Visual storytelling: a Progressive Strategy? The Animated Drawings of William Kentridge’, Image and Narrative, Vol. 23, 2008: 77; Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting”, October Vol. 16 (1981): 59; Rosalind Krauss quoted by Annamaria Monteverdi, ‘Cinematography of the Stone Age: Woyzeck by William Kentridge’, DigiMag, Vol. 49, trans. Luisa Bertolatti, 2009 11 Christov-Bakargiev has stated: “The fact that Documenta is held every five years makes it a space for thought and encourages one to participate in a process of asking questions. But I don’t know if thought is really theory or discourse.” Christov-Bakargiev quoted by Hill: 75 12 Noah Horwitz, ‘Derrida and the Aporia of the Political, or the Theologico-Politico Dimension of Deconstruction’, Research in Phenomenology, Vol. 32, 2002: 174-75 13
Michelle Henning, ‘The Life of Things in the Museum Age’, in Museums, Media and Cultural Theory, New York: Open University Press, 2006: 6
Jacques Rancière, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’, New Left Review, Vol. 14, 2002: 149
Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, London: Verso, 2007: 137
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961: 202
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev quoted by Wes Hill, ‘The Place Where Thought and Action Meet’, Art & Australia, Vol.49, No.4, 2012: 76 8 9
Petra von Olschowski, ‘Documenta’, Art Dictionary (Hatje Cantz, 2011) http://www.hatjecantz.de/ controller.php?cmd=kunstlexikon&id=14&lang=en (accessed March, 2012)
Christov-Bakargiev, ibid: 76
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge (exhibition catalogue), Brussels: Palais des Beaux-Arts, Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1998: 7
Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, trans. Shane B. Lillis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008: 45
18 Hal Foster has said recently (paraphrasing Alan Sekula): “We have passed from the myth that a photograph is the truth to the myth that it is always a lie. The reality, as usual, is more difficult.” Hal Foster, ‘Mere Licht/More Light’, Frieze d/e, Spring issue, 2012: 111 19 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev quoted by Jodie Dalgleish, “The Biennial as a Form of Contradiction: The 16th Biennale of Sydney, ‘Revolutions: Forms That Turn’”, Melbourne Art Journal, Issue 4, 2009: 155
13 9 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
LOST TO THE DEMONS KHADIM ALI AT DOCUMENTA (13)
Virginia Whiles Now Australian-based artist Khadim Ali’s concern is about “forced forgetting”, the trauma he describes as: ”not individual but social... where the collective memory of a society is wounded”. His people are the Hazaras, as Shi’ite Muslims a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan, who have been persecuted and massacred for over one hundred and fifty years up to the current oppression by the Taliban regime. Their capture of Bamiyan in 1997 foreshadowed the destruction of the fifth-century sandstone cliff Buddhas in 2001, six months before the attacks of ‘9/11’. Ali’s family was forced to flee from Bamiyan to Quetta in Pakistan, where he was born in 1978. Having spent time in Tehran studying mural painting and calligraphy, Khadim then studied at the NCA (National College of Arts) in Lahore, which has the only serious department of miniature painting in the world. It was here as a student that he began his series on the destruction of Bamiyan, probably the only documented art work on this catastrophe. From hardship through hard work to success in the global art world, Ali now lives and works in Australia and is due to show at dOCUMENTA (13), a romantic tale which is contradicted by reality: “Our times are not romantic... romance has nothing to do with miniature work today. I don’t have any choice in my subject matter.” The content of his work focuses on the subjection of his people to the brutality of the Taliban. Early miniatures on the Bamiyan theme from 2002-03 already displayed the range of visual vocabulary that would illuminate his production for the next decade. The main references are to Buddhist iconography and to weapons of mass destruction: opposing emblems of passive resistance and active aggression. Ali’s Buddhas are drawn with the intimate knowledge of Gandharan Graeco-Buddhist sculptures, gleaned from his experiences in Bamiyan as well as from the collection in the Lahore museum. Their graceful proportions are duly honoured, sometimes alongside a pertinent evocation of Leonardo’s universal man. Their features are handsome: eyes closed in contemplation, aquiline nose and full lips. Their robes are immaculately draped with the ease of Alexandrian haute couture, all elements that serve as counterparts to the grim demons of future works. In one painting, the Buddha’s torso has
circles like chakras, seemingly threatened by the larger circle of a cannon wheel, emblem of an overpowering colonial force.1 The Buddha’s central position is framed by the sombre outline of the cave. Its facade dissolves into a tea-stained morass punctuated by scars of shelling and protected by flowering lotuses. A black grenade squats on a lotus petal, like a frog awaiting its chance. Perhaps it hints at Ali’s fragile optimism: one that can only hover in hope through imagination. As a political refugee his visual discourse is ideologically charged, both with current events and with references to a cultural heritage of Persian legends, Sufi poetry, Islamic architecture and Buddhist philosophy Further variations on the Bamiyan series (2002-07) show pools of blood glowing amidst sombre tones of viridian green and pale purple against earth brown facades, a pastoral scenography about to be disrupted by the entry of catastrophe in the form of the Taliban. Perturbation already occurs through calligraphic texts. Exquisitely inscribed in dark red, they may seep insidiously into the image, performing as graffiti and possible subversion. Alternatively framed in boxes, black texts seem to impose order. Although the script is recognisable as Arabic or Persian, it is meaningless. “Gilded words seduce people into fundamentalism” says Ali. The only legible letter is ‘TOAE” the first letter of the word “Taliban”, often twisted into invisibility in the layers of script. Such layering recalls the prehistoric purpose of palimpsest, when drawings were overlaid on the same spot to focus attention on its potential fertility. Ali plays constantly with this technique, as do many other miniature painters taught at the NCA. The possibilities of gradual layering of line and colour—afforded by the use of fine brushwork and gouache—serve to build up the dense surfaces on the wasli/handmade paper. Sometimes—as in the Jashn-el-gul-e-surkh series of 2004-06—the layers of calligraphy are wiped out with a gestural flourish alien to Ali’s cautious mark-making. This is perhaps a sign of a growing impatience with order and solicitude. Satire replaces sentiment, anger dominates nostalgia as the quiet Buddha is overshadowed by the noisy Rustam. Ali’s vision illuminates the conflict through its formal deconstruction,
141 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 41. 2 2 012
as if performing a conceptual autopsy on a decaying corpse. He evokes the corporeal reality through a reflection informed by experience, his work is both phenomenological and intellectual.2 The Shahnameh or Book of Kings is the revered Persian national epic written in the late tenth-century by the poet Firdausi. Ali has strong memories of his father and grandfather reading a very special edition, which they had saved in their exile as refugees to Quetta. The hero of the epic, Rustam, was portrayed as valiant and virtuous up to the tragedy of slaying his own son in battle. Ali was shocked by his meeting in Bamiyan with a boy proud of being called Rostam, yet totally ignorant of the name’s origins. On research he discovered that it had been hijacked by the Taliban motif of Rostam e Parzan (Rustam with Wings): perceived as holy warriors, religious fanatics, ready to kill for global jihad. As a consequence, Ali chose to re-appropriate the Talibanised version in order to recount the horrors of their ongoing ’permanent war’. His representations owe their inspiration to a fusion of fiction and reality. The chance as a child to gaze at the marvellous illustrations of the Shahnameh painted by the great sixteenth-century Persian miniaturist Bihzad and reproduced by hand in the family edition, meant that as the story was sung to him by his grandfather, Ali could study the pictures —“I was lost in a world of fantasy”. In his studies at the NCA he was encouraged to study the images of the Indian version of the epic: the Padshahnameh/King of the World.3 However an earlier album: The Hamzanameh4 relates more in style to Ali’s work. This is on account of its fantastic demonology, where divs/demons lie in wait for any chance to attack the heroes. It contains “vividly delineated spectacles of the most brutal forms of violence… as a display of political power to teach a lesson to a potential adversary.”5 One example is Rustam slaying the White Div: the Seventh Course, from a Safavid version of the Shahnameh created in 1576. The div is hideous in traditional Persian demon style: grey skinned, black-faced, bulbous eyes and snarling grin, complete with goat ears and twisted horns. Not only has Ali emphasised the lyrical linear quality of Persian miniatures throughout his work, he has also adopted their phantasmagorical imaginaire.6 Ali’s Rustam series parodies the Taliban’s inflated self-righteousness, observed on his travels: “I saw demon-like characters all around in black with beards and sharp features.”They are portrayed as elegant, narcissistic beasts, their heads crowned with horns, not thorns, since rather than martyrs they are monsters. Grey bearded, goat-eared, they have several arms to multi-task their elaborate armory. Haloes aglow, they pose relaxed and assured, framed by soft white wings
promising them eternal life in heaven above. Sometimes cross-legged in yogic asanas, bells jangling round their necks, bangles, glittering in gold leaf, they show off the paraphernalia of priesthood. As warlords, they lean in pasha-like opulence on the traditional velvet cushions of Mughal emperors, their angular profiles treated with the same obsession for detail. Their frames either swell with pomp or shrink to shadowy silhouettes. As they sit conferring, their grey skin ripples like elephant hide, their well-fed folds of belly fat sag over their dhotis. One image has a Rustam nonchalantly leaning on a fallen Buddha. Another shows them in several frames lined up in front of a captured Buddha lying muffled behind: not unlike colonialist photos of Sahibs flaunting their hunting trophies. In works for DOCUMENTA (13), the Rustam demons have moved up-market towards corporate homogeneity. With sleek brown torsos and greying beards they now stand shoulder to shoulder, wings fluffed up, steely eyes focused on their line-manager. Ali’s flawless delineation exaggerates, yet exposes their apparent ease. Its mordant quality disinters their gruesome motives, masquerading behind a cool facade of mafiosi team spirit. In an eloquent text, the Iranian scholar Suroosh Irfani explains the crucial sense of re-visiting the Shahnameh.7 Its important role as a symbol of Indo-Persian culture and thus of Muslim identity within the Indian subcontinent had been effaced in triplicate.8 The epic poem inspired miniature painting in the Mughal court ateliers. It is interesting to reflect on the Sufi readings of the epic, whereby the heroic actions of the protagonists are interpreted as symbolic reflections of the inner psyche, very much like Jungian methodology concerning archetypes of the unconscious. As Irfani writes:” Inasmuch as symbols and archetypes intersect with events and images of everyday life, cultures have unconscious layers too”. Curiously Ali’s own language around his approach, not just to the poem but to his actual practice, reflects the importance of the unconscious: “Creation is not pre-meditative, it is not possible if you know the end result... it is about exploring your inner self... in the studio I never know what I am going to paint”9 Since Ali constantly repeats his iconography, such a denial of conscious preparatory stages might appear inconsistent, yet the very act of repetition here is revealing. It serves as a ritual to ward off trauma,
that of identity: “I am deeply affected by an identity crisis, I am Hazara, I have my homeland in Afghanistan yet live in Pakistan as a Shi’a amongst Sunni and speaking another language.” Recent pieces which truly disturb are those where the Buddhas and Rustams begin to meld into each other. This is the stuff of propaganda, when iconography is manipulated through the subliminal strategies used in advertising. The effects usually depend on a play with ambiguity, whereas Ali reveals his tactics. His delicate drawing becomes a metaphor for possible transformation: lost in their delusions of grandeur, even the Taliban may metamorphose? As in traditional miniature painting, the current aim of the practice is to produce chronicles of contemporary events, but whereas in Mughal times that meant glorifying the power of the court, today’s aim is to document the struggle for democracy. Despite such contrasts in aims, the traditional and the contemporary share an aesthetic: one where beauty plays a crucial role. “The beauty evident in miniature work is ingenuous, idealistic and yet perfidious. In fact the exquisite surfaces belie an often very disturbing content, in both traditional and contemporary work. Only a concentrated reading can pierce the veil of aesthetic ornamentation which serves the interests of both artist and viewer: that of protecting a certain content from abuse.”10 Is the viewer of Khadim Ali’s work duped by its beauty? In a conversation with the artist, Ruark Lewis, who asks him to explain how his “beautiful drawings” work within a context of visual expressions of pain and struggle, he replies: “they are beautiful yes, but I don’t think their content of screams or pain is beautiful... I need to draw the audience to my haunted vision of dark history.”11 Like the other miniaturists coming out of the NCA training, Khadim is aware of the need to test traditional aesthetic criteria, but believes that ‘interest’ need not exclude aesthetic play, even with ‘beauty’. The series which contradicts this appears in The Haunted Lotus. Neither gracious Buddhas nor grotesque Rustams narrate these stark still lifes of dying plants. Sad sunflowers droop over infertile land, where bloody snakes wreathe the viscera of guts and entrails: “The skin of the sunflower is drawn as animal skin portraying the open wound of forgotten history... growing on the martyr’s land... fertilised with their blood over the centuries”. This is far from the seductive poetry of his earlier work, there is something desperate transpiring in the frenzied strokes: a sense of liberty. The drawings were done just after the news of the assassination in January 2011 of Salman Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab erased for his democratic actions, a time when Ali turned to the inspiring poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Surely a time which renewed his anger about the oppression and losses; “We have lived in a state of mental and physical melancholia... which forced us to live in memories of the past.” However, this shift may well have been inspired by the parallel workshops conducted by Ali with children in Bamiyan and in diverse sites across the world: Japan, Australia and the UK. Entitled The Absent Kitchen Project, Khadim asked the children to draw pictures of their daily life. The grim results in Bamiyan were images of warfare, which were then shown to children elsewhere, who were invited to react. Ali experimented in combining some of these drawings with his own work—perhaps realising the potential of their imagination to help him loosen up. ”The social contract dictates to a child and moulds them from outside. I see this as something against the nature of our freedom... we need to experience that freedom of our childhood again, perhaps by closing our eyes and drawing. All we need is to be free on that paper which is to say that I am not free. I am thinking and translating all the time.”12 I wrote years ago that Ali’s story was that of a journey, wherein he acted as a passeur, a form of bodhisattva, someone who has been illuminated, yet who pauses to assist others.13 Khadim Ali is not just an extraordinary artist, he is an extraordinary human being whose social commitment to his people and artistic concern to ‘curate’ fellow Afghan artists proves he is still a formidable passeur. Khadim Ali has been selected to participate in dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel and the satellite exhibition in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Notes 1 This refers to Zamzammah or Kim’s Gun as featured in Kipling’s Kim, a canon, which still points its nose up The Mall, outside the NCA the National College of Art in Lahore 2 Khadim Ali has made frequent return journeys to Afghanistan and suffered not only harassment, but has also been wounded 3
The Padshahnameh was an album of fabulous illustrations produced in the karkhana (atelier) of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658)
4 The Hamzanameh was a colossal project of 1400 paintings, often much larger than the usual album size, which were produced in the karkhana of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) under the two Persian founders of the atelier: Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdul al-Samad 5
Gulam Sheikh, The Making of a Visual Language in Journal of Arts & Ideas, nos. 30-31, Dec 1997, New Delhi
6 This work was inspired by earlier Bestiaries produced by the Mongol court that were often curiously expressionist in style. It is interesting to note Khadim Ali’s exchange with Roger Mc Donald (published in the catalogue Rustam/Paintings by Khadim Ali, exhibition at Green Cardamom in 2007), where he recounts that the Hazara people are descendants of a few hundred warriors and settlers of Genghis Khan’s Mongolians who chose to stay in the region in the thirteenth-century 7
S. Shahnama Irfani, 2011, The Other Story in The Persian Book of Kings Today (exhibition catalogue), Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University
8 Firstly by the British colonial rejection of the Persian language, secondly by the collusion between Pakistan, USA and Saudi Arabia against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and thirdly by the Islamicist ideology of Zia-ul Haq’s military regime, opening a space for the extreme fundamentalism of the wahhabi oriented Talibans (Irfani: op cit) 9
Cited in a radio interview with Mark Franklin for the Blake Prize, 18 September, 2011
Virginia Whiles, Aisha Khalid: Artist’s Books, Hong Kong: Gandhara Art Publications, 2007
Interview between Khadim Ali and Ruark Lewis published in The Force of Forgetting, Lismore Regional Gallery 19 March-23 April 2011. This exhibition of works by Ali Baba Aurang, Sher Ali Hussainy, Sahraa Karimi and Khadim Ali was curated by Ali himself
From interview cited above
13 Virginia Whiles, Art and Polemic in Pakistan–Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting, London, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2010: 126-30
Page 139: Khadim Ali, Haunted Lotus, 2012 Page 140: Khadim Ali, from the Rustam series, 2011 Page 141 above: Khadim Ali, from the Rustam series, 2011 Photos courtesy the artist Page 141 below: Rustam Slaying the White Div. 1576, unknown artist Below: Khadim Ali, from the Rustam series, 2007 Photo courtesy the artist
fremantle arts centre
the irregular correct : new art from glasgow 21 julyâ€“16 september 2012
Sophie MacpherSon, A SerieS of MoveMentS (video Still), 2010, 16MM filM, duration 4:34 MinS, courteSy and ÂŠ the artiSt
Arts Space Wodonga 1 - 23 June Latrobe Regional Gallery 30 June - 25 August Nicholas MANGAN Flohetrauling 2008 (detail) Image courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne
10/05/2012 2:08:20 PM
Our approach to wine making at Paxton is straightforward. We want to help the fruit express itself fully by keeping the integrity of our McLaren Vale vineyards from vine through to bottle. To find out more visit www.paxtonvineyards.com
23/11/07 12:36:34 PM
as/1003 broadsheet 05/04
ADELAIDE FLOWER HOUSE
Art Stretchers offers South Australian artists an unparalleled combination of range, service and experience. A broad range of mediums is available including Art Spectrum oils (artistsâ€™ and student quality), watercolours, gouache, pastels, primers, mediums, papers, stretchers (and stretching service), linens and canvasses. We also stock sable, bristle and acrylic brushes and easels. Reliable technical advice is available. All Art Spectrum products are Australian made and of the finest materials. Parking is not a problem!
Art Stretchers Co P/L 161 Morphett Street, Cnr. Waymouth St., opposite Light Square. Adelaide. 5000. SA. Open Mon - Fri, 8.30am - 5.00pm and Saturday 9.00am - 12.00pm. Telephone: (08) 8212 2711 Fax: (08) 8231 7190.
43 unley road parkside sa 5063 tel: 08 8373 4800 www.adelaideflowerhouse.com.au
TRANSMISSION C A M P B E L LT O W N A R T S C E N T R E
Transmission presents a range of new commissions produced by pairing some of Australia’s most interesting contemporary artists and musicians
Co-curated by Carrie Miller and Dr Matthew Hindson
VISUAL ARTISTS MUSICIANS HEATH FRANCO_____________ ANDY RANTZEN TODD MCMILLAN____________ PETER MCNAMARA VICKY BROWNE_____________ DARREN SELTMANN RACHEL SCOTT______________MICK HARVEY RENNY KODGERS___________ SWEET TONIC CHOIR DANIEL MUDIE CUNNINGHAM__ STEPHEN ALLKINS NELL______________________ BABYMACHINE PARACHUTES FOR LADIES____SYDNEY CHAMBER CHOIR JUSTENE WILLIAMS__________TINA HAVELOCK STEVENS REBECCA BAUMANN_________IVAN ZAVADA & BENEDICT CAREY WHAT_____________________ JULIAN DAY ARCHIE MOORE_____________STIFF GINS CARLA CESCON ____________ KUSUM NORMOYLE
LAUNCH FRIDAY 8 JUNE, 6PM | EXHIBITION DATES 9 JUNE – 5 AUGUST
Campbelltown Arts Centre is a cultural facility of Campbelltown City Council and is assisted by the NSW Government through Arts NSW. This exhibition has also been supported by the Federal Government through Australia Council for the Arts, its Arts Funding and Advisory Body. Production shot - Nell and Babymachine project collaboration. Produced by Campbelltown Arts Centre for Transmission. Photographer Susannah Wimberley.
melbourne art fair 2012 1- 5 august royal exhibition building melbourne australia Want to know where the best galleries go… Melbourne Art Fair 2012 Leading galleries, representing over 900 living artists, exhibiting some 3,000 artworks gather together at the 13th biennial Melbourne Art Fair. Save the date! Alongside over 70 selected national and international gallery exhibitions, the Melbourne Art Fair 2012 Program will include: the Melbourne Art Foundation Artist Commission, Project Rooms featuring emerging and independent artists and art spaces; an Education Space and a public Lecture and Forum Program with artists, curators, writers and international guests. Melbourne Art Fair 2012 is presented by the Melbourne Art Foundation, a not for profit organisation promoting contemporary art and living artists. Melbourne Art Fair 2012 Vernissage Preview Party Wednesday 1 August 2012 Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne 7pm – 10.30pm Tickets AU$175 Bookings essential www.melbourneartfair.com Tickets 2 – 5 August 2012 Adult AU$30, Concession AU$22 www.melbourneartfair.com and at door Collector Packages Available for purchase prior to the event only, includes: 4 day unlimited exhibition pass, entry to Vernissage, VIP Lounge Premium Collector Packages AU$395 (includes access to the Exclusive Preview) Collector Packages AU$295 Travel and Accommodation Special accommodation packages through ACCOR hotels For online bookings www.melbourneartfair.com Platinum Travel & Cruise can arrange all your travel requirements Email firstname.lastname@example.org Tel 61 3 9835 3003 Fax 61 3 9835 3030
Melbourne Art Foundation Tel 61 3 9416 2050 Fax 61 3 9416 2020 email@example.com www.melbourneartfoundation.com
Contemporary Visual Art and Culture Broadsheet is a quarterly magazine which features international texts and essays on international contem...
Published on Dec 12, 2012
Contemporary Visual Art and Culture Broadsheet is a quarterly magazine which features international texts and essays on international contem...