contemporary visual art+culture
broadsheet CRITICISM | THEORY | ART
VOLUME 42.4 DECEMBER 2013
Worlds in Collision Adelaide International 2014 27 Feb – 30 Mar CURATOR RiChARd GRAysOn
Benedict Drew (UK) Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige (LEB/FRA) Susan Hiller (USA/UK) Paul Laffoley (USA) Rä di Martino (ITA) Katie Paterson (UK) Fred Tomaselli (USA) Artur Zmijewski (POL)
Photo: Paul Laffoley, The Zodiac Wheel 1967, oil, acrylic and vinyl lettering on canvas, 126 x 126cm. Courtesy the artist and Kent Fine Art, New York.
Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art Australian Experimental Art Foundation Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia SASA Gallery
A r t i s t s’ We e k 2 0 14 28 Feb – 2 Mar Allan Scott Auditorium, UniSA City West From visions of enlightenment to ways of imagining alternatives, subcultures and technological and psychedelic thinking, this free three-day forum includes presentations by Erik Davis, Colin Rhodes, William Yang, Gordon Hookey, Lynette Wallworth and Marco Fusinato, along with a specially-curated day from Lars Bang Larsen and the Radical Enlightenment project. AlsO AT AdelAide FesTivAl
River of Fundament A film by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler adelaidefestival.com.au or BASS 131 246
Contributors Sheyma Buali: London-based independent writer and researcher; interests include popular relationships with social and political visual documents; urban studies of the Arab Gulf; and Arab cinemas; culture correspondent for the pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq AlAwsat and an Editorial Correspondent for online visual culture forum Ibraaz; her work has appeared in publications including Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia, Little White Lies, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, AlArabiya and artist and exhibition catalogues. Buali holds an MA in Critical Media and Culture Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Prior to this, she worked for ten years in a range of roles in TV, film and documentary production in Boston, Los Angeles and her native Bahrain Ali Cherri: Beirut-based visual artist and designer working with video, installation, performance, multimedia and print; graduate in Graphic Design from the American University in Beirut (2000); recent exhibition include Bad Bad Images, Galerie Imane Farès (Paris, 2012), Dégagements, Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris, 2012), Exposure, Beirut Art Center (Beirut, 2011), Southern Panorama, VideoBrasil (Sao Paolo, 2011), Beirut, Kunsthalle (Vienna, 2011) and A Fleur de Peau, Gallery Regard Sud (Lyon, 2011). Cherri’s work has been presented at various venues and festivals including Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Delfina Foundation (London), Rotterdam International Film Festival (Rotterdam), Modern Art Oxford (Oxford), Tate Modern (London), HomeWorks (Beirut), Contemporary Image Collective (Cairo), Festival Paris Cinéma (Paris), Makan Art Space (Amman), Arnolfini (Bristol), Raster Gallery (Warsaw), KunstFilmBiennale (Cologne), Darat El Funun (Amman), Medien und Architektur Biennale (Graz) Pedro de Almeida: Program Manager at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney; curatorial projects include the forthcoming Beijing Silvermine–Thomas Sauvin (2014) for 4A; writes essays and artist interviews regularly including in American Suburb X, Art & Australia, Art Monthly Australia, Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet, Das Superpaper, un Magazine and the occasional exhibition catalogue Adam Geczy: Sydney-based artist and writer, and lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts. His most recent exhibition is (in collaboration with Blak Douglas aka Adam Hill), BOMB at the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art (AAMU), Utecht, Holland. Editor of the Australiasian Journal of Popular Culture, his latest book (with Vicki Karaminas) is Queer Style (Bloomsbury) Paul Gladston: Associate Professor of Culture, Film and Media and Director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham; he is also principal editor of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art Tony Godfrey: Singapore and Manila-based writer and art historian; has published six books including Conceptual Art, (Phaidon, 1998) and Painting Today (Phaidon, 2009); has written for many magazines and exhibition catalogues since 1978; managed MA in Contemporary Art and Director of Research, Sotheby’s Institute London 1991-2008; moved to Singapore in 2009 where he was Director of Research, Sotheby’s Institute Singapore; currently resident curator Equator Art Projects, Gillman Barracks, Singapore
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 r o a d s h e e t Editor Assistant Editor Advertising Manager Publisher Design
Alan Cruickshank Wendy Walker Matt Huppatz Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia Inc. Alan Cruickshank, Nasim Nasr
ISSN 0819 677X © Copyright 2013, 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 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 Germany Writer, Berlin; Editor-in-Chief, Randian online VASIF KORTUN Turkey Director SALT, Istanbul
Richard Grayson: London-based artist, writer and curator; Artistic Director, 2002 Biennale of Sydney, (The World May Be) Fantastic; his critical writing has been published by Art Monthly, UK and Broadsheet. He has written catalogue essays and monographs on Mark Wallinger, Roy Harper, Mike Nelson, Susan Hiller and Suzanne Treister; recent exhibitions include His Master’s Voice, HMKV Dortmund (2013), and Rebirth and Apocalypse: 2012 Kiev Biennale; currently artistic director Adelaide International 2014 Worlds in Collision for the 2014 Adelaide Festival
JULIE UPMEYER Turkey Artist, Initiator, Caravansarai, Istanbul
Boris Kremer: London-based freelance translator and editor; participated in the 1999/2000 Curatorial Training Program, Stichting De Appel, Amsterdam before being appointed Project Manager of the International Studio Program, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, a position he held until 2005; co-curator of the New Zealand Pavilion, 2003 Venice Biennale (Mike Stevenson: This is the Trekka) and curator of the Luxembourg Pavilion, 2005 Venice Biennale (Antoine Prum: Mondo Veneziano); has curated various freelance exhibitions including Audit at Casino Luxembourg/Forum d’art contemporain in Luxembourg and Elvis has just left the Building, Perth Institute for Contemporary Arts
BILJANA CIRIC China Independent curator, Shanghai
Andrew Maerkle: Tokyo-based writer and editor; Deputy Editor of the online Japanese-English art publication ART iT; contributor to international publications including Broadsheet, Eyeline, Frieze and Photofile; contributor of essays and interviews to monographs including ‘Koki Tanaka: Abstract Speaking’, ‘Thea Djordjadze: our full’ and ‘Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves’; translations include the novella ‘Dear Navigator’, by the Chinese writer and curator Hu Fang, published in e-flux journal; adjunct lecturer at Tokyo Zokei University Vali Mahlouji: London-based independent curator, art advisor, writer and translator, who trained first in archaeology and philology and later as a psychoanalyst; curatorial adviser to the British Museum on its modern/contemporary Iranian collections; curator and associate producer of Iran: New Voices, Barbican Arts Centre, London (2008); published widely and has collaborated with the Asia Society Museum, New York (2013); Abraaj Group Art Prize, Dubai (2013); Darat al Funun, Amman (2013); Sharjah Biennial (2011), National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (2009); Musée du Quai Branly (2012); Delfina Foundation (2011/10); Galerie Krinzinger (2011); Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (2011/10/09); Sprovieri Gallery (2011); Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde (2012/11/10); Galerie Nathalie Obadia (2012); Kalfayan Galleries (2011); Saatchi Gallery (2010); the London Middle East Institute; Canvas Magazine; City University of New York; Institut Français; BBC; and The Guardian John Mateer: Perth-based writer and independent curator with a mixed heritage and a deep interest in cross-cultural relations. He has for some time been observing Australia’s associations with Europe, America and Asia and how this feeds artists living within these environments Nat Muller: Rotterdam-based independent curator and critic based. Her main interests include the intersections of aesthetics, media and politics; media art and contemporary art in and from the Middle East; regular contributor to Springerin and MetropolisM. Her writing has been published in Bidoun, Art Asia Pacific, Art Papers, Canvas, X-tra Majalla, ARTPulse, Daily Star, De Gids, De Volkskrant, Art Margins and Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. She has also written numerous catalogue and monographic essays on artists from the Middle East. In 2012 she curated Spectral Imprints for the Abraaj Group Capital Art Prize 2012; editorial correspondent for Ibraaz and most recently was a speaker on BBC World’s awardwinning program The Doha Debates Stuart Munro: Tokyo-based writer, designer, photographer and filmmaker; contributor to journals, newspapers and magazines including The Japan Times, Design Ecologies and Tokyo Art Beat; generally writes about contemporary art and design culture; www.stuartmunro.net
volume 42.4 DECEMBER 2013
RANJIT HOSKOTE India Curator, writer, Mumbai COLIN CHINNERY China Artist, writer and curator, Beijing
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 EUGENE TAN Singapore Director Special Projects, Singapore Economic Development Board TONY GODFREY Singapore Art historian, writer, curator NATASHA CONLAND New Zealand Curator Contemporary Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tämaki, Auckland
ROBERT COOK Perth Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia 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 Assistant Director, Curatorial and Digital, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia ADAM GECZY Sydney Artist and writer, Senior Lecturer University of Sydney 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 r o a d s h e e t
COVER: Craig Walsh, In Country–Lawrence Kerr, 2012; from Embedded: Craig Walsh, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 12 September–24 November, 2013 Photo courtesy the artist and Lawrence Kerr
IF YOU PAINT A TREE... Richard Grayson
A FATAL SHOW Boris Kremer 241
“Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao”: A strategem towards a post-critical art Part II Paul Gladston
IN WHOSE HOUSE? CRAIG WALSH EMBEDDED Adam Geczy
MY TONE OF UNCERTAINTY John Mateer
looking at an Ingres painting Pedro de Almeida
<<if the world changed>> Singapore Biennale 2013 good intentions, not a good idea? Tony Godfrey
the island over there: how culture travels in japanese contemporary art Stuart Munro
masata takasaka at roppongi crossing Andrew Maerkle
found archives or, what we can learn from youtube Ali Cherri
image and imagination: Ali Cherri in conversation with Sheyma Buali Sheyma Buali / Ali Cherri
bones of contention: notes on the mediated body, performance and dissent Nat Muller
symbols of transformation Vali Mahlouji
volume 42.4 DECEMBER 2013
Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art
2014 s a m s t a g The University of South Australia congratulates our 2014 Samstag Scholars
Madison Bycroft and Linda Tegg
Image: Madison BYCROFT, Omelas (detail) 2012, single channel video, 7:30 minute loop
Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Art Scholarships
16 JAN — 16 FEB 2014
Alex Davies The Very Near Future
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 arts funding and advisory body. Artspace is a member of CAOs (Contemporary Art Organisations Australia).
43–51 Cowper Wharf Road Woolloomooloo NSW 2011 Sydney Australia www.artspace.org.au
T +61 2 9356 0555 firstname.lastname@example.org Office 10am–6pm, Mon–Fri Gallery 11am–5pm, Tues–Sun
Alex Davies, The Very Near Future, 2013, installation view, Carriageworks, Sydney, courtesy of the artist
MONASH UNIVERSITY MUSEUM OF ART PRESENTS
14 February - 17 april 2014 Monash University museum of art, Melbourne 9 august - 4 october 2014 Institute of Modern art, Brisbane
This exhibition is a joint project by Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; and City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi. With support from Catalyst: Katherine Hannay Visual Arts Commission
DATES TO BE CONFIRMED CITY GALLERY WELLINGTON Te Whare Toi
Ground Floor, Building F Monash University, Caulfield Campus 900 Dandenong Road Caulfield East VIC 3145 Australia
www.monash.edu.au/muma Telephone +61 3 9905 4217 email@example.com Tues – Fri 10am – 5pm; Sat 12 – 5pm
Stuart Ringholt Anger Workshops 2008/12 courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery photo: Nick McGrath
CACSA CONTEMPORARY 2013: PROVISIONAL STATE PART II Johnnie Dady | James Dodd | KAB101 8 Novemberâ&#x20AC;&#x201C;15 December
CONTEMPORARY ART CENTRE OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA 14 PORTER STREET PARKSIDE SOUTH AUSTRALIA 5063 Tel +61  82 72 26 82 www.cacsa.org.au
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 the contemporary art centre of sa is supported by the visual arts and craft strategy, an initiative of the australian, state and territory governments
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE THE REFUSAL OF TIME CENTRAL GALLERIES
RICHARD BELL EMBASSY
WEST END GALLERY
13 FEBRUARY – 27 APRIL 2014 Perth Cultural Centre, James Street, Northbridge | Tue–Sun 10am–5pm | tel +61 8 9228 6300 | firstname.lastname@example.org | pica.org.au The Refusal of Time is a collaboration between the artist, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Perth International Arts Festival, and is supported by Visual Arts program partner Wesfarmers Arts. Embassy is co-presented by PICA and the Perth International Arts Festival. Richard Bell is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Above: William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012. A collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison. Five-channel video with sound, 30 min, with megaphones and breathing machine (“elephant”). State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Tomorrow Fund, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2013 Below: Demonstration in support of the Yirrkala petition on land rights to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (Aboriginal Tent Embassy), Canberra, 1974. © National Archives of Australia (A8739, A10/7/74/1A).
JAMIL YAMANI MADE IN AUSTRALIA
4645 4100 ONE ART GALLERY RD C-A-C.COM.AU
25 JAN – 9 MAR 2014 LAUNCH 24 JAN, 7PM
LOUISA LOUISA DAWSON MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES
Campbelltown Arts Centre is a cultural facility of Campbelltown City Council and is assisted by the NSW Government through Arts NSW. Jamil Yamani’s Made in Australia exhibition has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. IMAGE 1: Jamil Yamani, Kitchen 2008, Backlit Lamda Print 1311 x 941 IMAGE 2 : Louisa Dawson Survey 2007, wood, paint, dimensions variable. Images courtesy of the artsists.
14 Feb - 09 Mar 2014 Drill Hall, Torrens Parade Ground Victoria Drive, Adelaide helpmannacademy.com.au
Olivia Kathigitis, Figure #3
Helpmann Academy Graduate Exhibition South Australiaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s emerging artists on a pedestal
Image: Andrew Dearman, Untitled Ambrotype, 2013 from the upcoming SASA Gallery Exhibition Program 2014: Moriendo Renascor: 19th Century photography techniques in contemporary context.
An expansive exhibition about the dynamic relationship between WA and Bali
ACTS OF EXPOSURE LEIGH HOBBA MICHAEL SCHLITZ MARK SHORTER 14 DECEMBER 2013 / 22 FEBRUARY 2014 A joint initiAtivE oF ContEMpoRARY ARt tAsMAniA AnD thE tAsMAniAn MUsEUM AnD ARt GAllERY ExhiBition pREsEntED At thE tAsMAniAn MUsEUM AnD ARt GAllERY WWW.Contemporaryarttasmania.orG 27 tasma street, north hobart, tasmania t +61 3 6231 0445
fremantle arts centre
bali: return economy Marketing image by Toni Wilkinson
feb 1 - mar 27
WWW.tmaG.tas.GoV.aU DUnn pLaCe, hobart, tasmania t +61 3 6211 4134
Image: Michael Schlitz, Explorerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Dream, 2006, relief woodblock print on Japanese Kozo paper (detail) Photo: Simon Cuthbert
A Perth International Arts Festival event supported by Visual Arts Program Partner Wesfarmers Arts 1 Finnerty St, Fremantle WA | fac.org.au | +61 8 9432 9555
Honouring almost fifty years of supporting creative professionals, Guildhouse continues to develop a sustainable community of visual artists, craftspeople and designers by providing support services and creating industry pathways. INFORM
THE COLLECTIONS PROJECT
Our series of workshops, artist and industry information sessions and networking events will offer you all the essential information you need as you build your sustainable practice and grow your small business.
A collaboration between Guildhouse, the Art Gallery of South Australia and the South Australian Museum this project provides artists the opportunity to work with the collections of these two South Australian institutions.
Guildhouse offers five types of membership to meet the varying needs of practitioners and the South Australian visual art, craft and design industry.
INFORM REGIONAL ACCESS In 2014 we continue our partnership with Country Arts SA to deliver our INFORM sessions in regional South Australia. Picture Perfect: Berri, Bordertown and the Barossa Valley How to price your work: Goolwa
STUDIO SESSIONS This popular program that offers a rare opportunity to visit the private studios of some of Adelaideâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s most successful artists continues in 2014.
2014 artists: Art Gallery of South Australia: Deidre But-Husaim and Daniel Withey South Australian Museum: Robin Tatlow-Lord and Deborah Prior
HITNES Internationally renowned Italian street artist Hitnes is coming to Adelaide in February to teach a 3-day master class in the art of painting large-scale murals. Contact Guildhouse for more information about how to be involved.
Depending on your membership, benefits can include public liability insurance, free professional development assistance by appointment, free entry to Guildhouse INFORM events, eligibility to apply for Guildhouse projects and initiatives, our regular eBulletins full of news and opportunities plus discounts with our membership support partners. Visit our website for more information about Guildhouse membership and events.
Level 1, 38 Hindley St, Adelaide. Tel: 08 8410 1822. E: email@example.com
Corner Kembla & Burelli streets Wollongong â&#x20AC;˘ phone 02 4227 8500 www.wollongongartgallery.com open Tues-Fri 10am-5pm weekends 12-4pm
Wollongong Art Gallery is a service of Wollongong City Council and receives assistance from the NSW Government through Trade & Investment Arts NSW. Wollongong Art Gallery is a member of Regional and Public Galleries of NSW
Image: Ben Cauchi, (detail) One more reason to forget, 2012, wet-collodion on acrylic plate 36 x 27.5cm. Courtesy Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney
Sundari Carmody The Build Up Opening 6pm Friday 24 January 2013 Exhibition closes 16 February 2013
CACSA Project Space | Tues-Friday: 11am-5pm, Sat-Sun: 1-5pm
Sundari Carmody, The Build Up (maquette), 2013, velveteen, poly-fill wadding, calico, steel and sequins.
This project has been assisted by the South Australian Government through Carclew
VCA School of Art
Live your art The School of Art 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 Australiaâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s most progressive art educators and respected artists within a creative learning environment.
Late applications for the Graduate Certificate in Visual Art close Friday 17 January 2014. Visit vca.unimelb.edu.au/art for details.
Fred Fowler, Master of Contemporary Art
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
the basic project of art isâ&#x20AC;Śto close the gap between you and everything that is not you Robert Hughes
S t u dy a rt h i S to ry with the art GaLLEry oF South auStraLia and thE uNiVErSity oF adELaidE
Scan to watch video
2014 postgraduate courses: Contemporary Art, Curatorial and Museum Studies, Interrogating Australian Colonial Art, Modern Australian Art, European Art: Renaissance to Revolution online courses: Australian Art, Australian Indigenous Art, European Art: Renaissance to Revolution, Japanese Art For more information visit www.arthistory.adelaide.edu.au, phone 08 8313 5746 or email firstname.lastname@example.org Installation view Deep Space: New acquisitions from the Australian contemporary art collection featuring Gemma Smith, Boulder #6 (radiant), 2010; South Australian Government Grant 2010, Art Gallery of South Australia.
ENRAPTURED 7 DECEMBER 2013 TO 27 JANUARY 2014 TONY MOTT ROCK PHOTOGRAPHS THE ART OF COSTUMING: COSTUMES FROM OPERA AUSTRALIA CHRISTO: JOHN KALDOR FAMILY COLLECTION ARTIST ROOM FROM THE ART GALLERY OF NSW CURATED BY VI GIRGIS
CASULA POWERHOUSE ARTS CENTRE 1 POWERHOUSE RD, CASULA (ENTER VIA SHEPHERD ST, LIVERPOOL) P. 02 9824 1121 E. RECEPTION@CASULAPOWERHOUSE.COM W. CASULAPOWERHOUSE.COM IMAGE: QUEEN, TONY MOTT CASULA POWERHOUSE ARTS CENTRE IS A CULTURAL FACILITY OF LIVERPOOL CITY COUNCIL
grid festival Adelaideâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;20 February to 6 March 2014
connecting the ARIs of Adelaide & showcasing new contemporary visual art by emerging and unrepresented Adelaide based artists.
ARTISTS Include Celeste Aldahn Lewis Godwin Andrew Dearman Daniel Feuerriegel Liam Fleming Amy Herrmann Anna Horne Matt Huppatz Sophia Nuske Sophia Phillips Kate Power Patrick Rees James Tylor Malia Wearn Meg Wilson
The 2014 Grid Festival is supported by the South Australian government through Arts SA & the Adelaide City Council through splash Adelaide.
INVISIBLE CITY Join the Art & Heritage Collections mailing list to keep your finger on the cultural pulse of the University of Adelaide To register for electronic invitations email email@example.com or call 8313 3086
a pdf magazine for emerging australian and international art, sound and film curating and collaborating researching and documenting engaging the community stimulating events
supporting university values
as/1003 broadsheet 05/04
ADELAIDE FLOWER HOUSE
enhancing university experience
43 unley road parkside sa 5063 tel: 08 8373 4800 www.adelaideflowerhouse.com.au
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&#x20AC;&#x2122; 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.
2 3 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 4 2 . 4 2 013
2 37 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 4 2 . 4 2 013
if you paint a tree… RICHARD GRAYSON The Royal Academy sits ‘four-square’ on Piccadilly, a broad avenue running through the centre of London. If you walk three minutes in one direction, you end up in Piccadilly Circus looked over by Alfred Gilbert’s winged figure with bow, known as Eros but in fact not (his brother), a copy of which can also be found, slightly incongruously, in the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide. Across the road from the Royal Academy is the Ritz Hotel, and just behind that the area of St. James, where both the Queen and the Prince of Wales maintain palaces and the Queen an additional chapel. You’re close to Berkeley Square and the Café Royal, and the jewellery shops of Bond Street and the Burlington Arcade are just around the corner. This is the heart of Establishment London, of gentlemen’s clubs and bespoke tailors, mandarins and Royalty, the sort of London that’s represented in movies with moustachioed men in immaculate tailoring bearing furled umbrellas and whispered secrets of State, and which for tourists and visitors seems to hold some essence of what it is to be British. All this accounts for the large number of retailers, bars and restaurants in the area designed to succour Russian oligarchs and Arab millionaires who like to claim commonality with (and perhaps make subservient) these expressions of deep-seated empire, wealth and power. The Royal Academy itself is a handsome building. One enters through ceremonial gates to cross a square, in the centre of which stands a statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder president who has been caught in cast metal, eyes and arm aloft, in a moment of inspiration by later Royal Academician Alfred Drury. This sculpture looks as if it could have been made anytime over the last three hundred years, but in fact was made in 1931, and this happy embrace of tradition exemplifies how the Academy has operated over the years as the guardian of sclerotic establishment values. Its president Alfred Munnings achieved a certain fame for a radio broadcast he made in an over-refreshed condition from an Academicians’ banquet. “I find myself a president of a body of men who are what I call shillyshallying”, he said, “they feel there is something in this so-called modern art… Well, I myself would rather have—excuse me, my Lord Archbishop—a damned bad failure, a bad, muddy old picture where somebody has tried... to set down what they have seen than all this affected juggling… Not so long ago I spoke in this room to the students, and… I said to those students, ‘if you paint a tree, for God’s sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky’”. He expanded into a consideration of the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso as having corrupted art, recalling that Winston Churchill had once said to him: “Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his…?” To which Munnings said he replied, “Yes Sir, I would”. Alfred Munnings was awarded a knighthood in 1944. There are only eighty Academicians at any given time and of these there must always be at least fourteen sculptors, twelve architects and eight printmakers, with the balance being painters. Despite recent attempts to modernise both the image and makeup of the Academy through the appointment of such Munnings-unfriendly figures as Tracy Emin (who is also a professor of drawing at the Academy Schools) it still remains an epitome of Establishment, conservative and obscurely British values.
Page 234-35: Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly, 1946 Photo courtesy the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Opposite: Australia banner outside the Royal Academy of Arts, London Page 238 top: Ned Kelly bag, part of the exclusive range of Australia exhibition gifts, Royal Academy of Arts shop; sale price £14.95; bottom: Ned Kelly mug, sale price £12.95
Which is why the idea of the Royal Academy staging an exhibition of Australian art caused such a strange Freudian or Oedipal flutter in parts of the Australian establishment. It’s not surprising, behind this sedate patrician facade there’s a weirdly complex, and possibly indecent, pulse to be felt in this collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Australian National Gallery—a relationship between seemingly individuated and autonomous institutions, but which are subterraneanly linked by their singular relationships to a shadowy matriarchal figure of a Queen. Perhaps it has been writers unconsciously picking up on these febrile incestuous energies that has shaped the rather strange reception of this exhibition. For Australia has had rather mixed reviews, delivered with more energy than you’d imagine any other national exhibitions at the Royal Academy —Polish or German or Peruvian maybe—might generate in the UK press. This hasn’t added up to the full-on dismissal that has been reported —perhaps masochistically desired for—in the Australian media, but certainly it has been veering towards the negative, and in a couple of instances, straightforward brutal rejection of almost Freudian weight, a brutality given extra malicious energy by a distant but distinct Anglocolonial sneer that can be detected curling though much of the commentary. When one enters the courtyard of the Academy’s Burlington House, you see boldly suspended on Palladian façade above Sir Joshua’s statue, a gigantic banner of a retreating horse’s arse with a silhouetted letter-box Nolan Kelly on top of it, shambling towards a distant horizon and the word “Australia” emblazoned above. Entering the exhibition proper there is a Shaun Gladwell Christ (on a motorbike) ‘outback’ projection that fills the wall immediately before a large room of paintings by some of the great Aboriginal artists, such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. These juxtapositions set out some suitably symphonic Australian themes—space, the desert, mythic modes of relationship et al. —a stylistic dislocation that although mannered, is effective. Then the layout produces a transformation from this fractured essayist, contrast/ comparison approach of a contemporary exhibition—and maybe its last moment of representing contemporary practice in an effective way—into unfolding a chronological narrative of images made since white settlement in a linear traditional historical mode of installation, with outbreaks of subthemes. There is some truly terrific art within this narrative, particularly in the section that introduces representations of Australia with its nonindigenous population as colonials and visitors, rather than as Australians —images that capture to almost an hallucinatory degree the strangeness that this new land presented to eyes from European traditions. For example, Fern Tree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges (1857) by Eugene von Guérard, has all the fevered intensity of a Douanier Rousseau, generating a disordered surrealist intensity that traces the forms of the damp entangled plants; Edward Charles Frome’s First view of the salt desert called Lake Torrens (1843), which possesses a minimalistic calm in the face of the indifferent terror of scale and emptiness that his small watercolour is seeking to record; and Robert Howell Jnr’s Panoramic view of King George’s Sound, part of the Colony of Swan River (1834), a scroll of a fantastic realm, as magical as any scene from The Arabian Nights, complete with little brown sprites and djinns. The press release for the exhibition boldly proclaims that “The story of Australian art is inextricably linked to its landscape” and that “for Australian artists this deep connection with the landscape has provided a rich seam of inspiration for centuries”. These early works seem to give evidence supporting this beloved art-historical truism about the Australian Aesthetic. But as the exhibition unfolds, its limitations and banality—either as a rationale for an exhibition or for a practice—are revealed, and having fully navigated it to its end you want to leave ‘the land’ far behind as any
sort of organising curatorial principle. There is a multitude of landscape representations in the history of Australian art (as there are in many of the nation’s historical records), but a suspicion begins to emerge that perhaps this owes as much to pragmatism as some essentialist aesthetic identity. After all, there is an immensity of land to paint and initially not that many people or buildings in it. So as a painter one’s choice was limited. And one gains the impression that when there was a building or town to represent they were relieved that there was something else to paint other than the seemingly incomprehensible ‘bush’. John Lewin, the first “professional” artist of the colony of New South Wales, was expeditious, ingeniously constructing a still-life from a basket of fish, and the eager representations of new settlements by other artists seem to be both relieved and to presage a nation which is one of the most urbanised societies in the world. In addition, painting was the dominant means of documentation of the day: Frome’s First view of the salt desert called Lake Torrens is essentially a photograph done in watercolour, recording the landscape being his ‘job description’. Of course, Hans Heysen and the Heidelberg School were finding a new vocabulary to fully voice these new landscapes, but one glance at Frederick McCubbin’s The pioneer (1904) gives the impression that rather than representing any deep engagement with nature, the muted bushy greens and browns are merely a backdrop for a dejectedly sentimental Victorian morality tale of struggle, life and loss, much in the same way that a smoky cottage interior would have been for a similar homily by one of his northern hemisphere colleagues. When moving into the early to mid-twentieth century section of the exhibition and being confronted with for example, the Whistler-meets-Richter-in-a-suburban-street work by Clarice Beckett, we can feel our Great Australian Cliché start to strain the exhibition’s curatorial concept. It has been useful however in allowing Aboriginal art to be accommodated within establishment narratives of Australian-ness, and moreover to claim some sort of link and community between their work and those of the non-indigenous artists that form the canon. This is a rather queasy undertaking. If the exhibition establishes anything, it is how exceptional and powerful the cultural production of indigenous Australia is in contrast to work derived from Western traditions. Has there been a more compelling painting done in Australia than Sandhill country west of Wilkinkarra (1972) by Timmy Payungka Tjapangati? Certainly not Ken Whisson’s Jean’s Farm (1972), which limply echoes American and British abstract-painterly traits in a slightly distracted manner—perhaps A bush tucker story (1972) by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula? What seems equally clear is that Australia has never known what to do with this art: neither in the exhibition—where it erupts randomly in dark side-rooms, as well as random clusters in the main thoroughfare of the installation—nor in the wider realms of its culture. Perhaps it is so much of itself, and separate
from Western models of contemporary practice (and so loaded in guilt and complexity for mainstream Western culture) as to refuse any easy use or assimilation. But to facilely suggest some sort of communality or community with these practices on behalf of non-indigenous art production through the broad brushstroke of a shared “deep connection” with the land is at best wishful thinking and at worst a cynical exploitation of the very cultures that have been displaced, and whose ways of life have been destroyed by those who now seek some misty mystic authorisation from their work. By the time the viewer moves on, leaving the Papunya artists behind, ‘the land’ theme is running into deep trouble. Not only historically has Australia become a land of cities and suburbs clustered around the coast but Brett Whiteley’s Big orange (sunset) (1974), a work that consciously enacts the Oz Art Land thing in its sort of abstract description of Sydney Bay, is a facile garish sweep of line and paint that only an interior decorator could truly love—particularly if working for a client who favoured bold colours. Contemporary 1990s to 2000s in Room 12 is bizarrely authorised by some diary note from visiting Brit grandee Sir Kenneth Clarke about the nature of Australian light —our “rich seam of inspiration”, that produces an installation of such vacuous banality that it looks more like the foyer of a Macquarie Bank in Bahrain than a room in an exhibition of contemporary art. Room 12 proves, if it ever did needed proof, that despite what Alfred Munnings claimed, bad muddy old pictures of trees are no replacement for an intelligent and questing contemporary practice. This is probably not an Australian problem in particular, as any country would be hard-pressed to make a convincing case for the vibrancy and depth of its visual arts culture in the last decade of the twentieth century by bringing together clichéd and clunkily romantic paintings of forests, photographs of dead gums, an insipid representation of a mountain and what may be a sun, and have them balefully arranged over a random assembly of different works that distantly reference gardens or landscape. But it is a problem that is particular to Australia. The past few decades has seen a far greater diversity of compelling and intelligent practice by artists in Australia than the restrictive approaches of the Academy and the National Gallery of Australia as organiser were able to recognise.
Australia Royal Academy of Arts, London 21 September—8 December 2013 Organised by the National Gallery of Australia with the Royal Academy of Arts
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the fatal show BORIS KREMER Anyone ‘down under’ reading this text will be acutely aware of the thrashing the pommie press has handed out to Australia, the ‘grand national’ exhibition currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Contrary to what the chest of medals on the posters and the rhetoric of the Royal Academy’s website suggest (“detailed, comprehensive, omniscient, in places beautiful”),1 the “first major survey of Australian art in the UK for 50 years”2 has actually garnered a string of unflattering adjectives such as “problematic”,3 “inadequate”,4 and “rushed”,5 even catapulting one critic, The Sunday Times’s truculent Waldemar Januszczak, into a public fit of anal regression.6 But what exactly about this joint effort of the National Gallery of Australia and the Royal Academy warrants such a violent response? A first hint can be gleaned in the compulsory introduction to the exhibition, a black antechamber with a map of Australia facing Shaun Gladwell’s video Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007). This wellknown artwork, in which the artist is seen riding his motorbike into an archetypically Australian desert landscape, is the obvious opener to this exhibition because it encapsulates the double dialectical relationship under which the two main curators, the Royal Academy’s Kathleen Soriano and the National Gallery of Australia’s Ron Radford, propose to view the history of Australian art—the relationship between the “native” and “Western” cultures, and the relationship between Australian artists and the landscape. Indeed, Gladwell’s meditative travelling shot reminded me of Bruce Nauman’s Setting a Good Corner, a video from 2000 in which the artist is seen on his ranch in New Mexico building a corner to install a fence and hang a gate—an arcane metaphor for the way the West was won and how the very concept of property drove the oppression and extermination of indigenous populations. Unfortunately, the sombre setting in this instance and the projection of the video like a high altar piece, emphasising the oftnoted “Christ-like”pose of the rider,7 highlight what this exhibition lacks most: subtlety. This first impression is corroborated in the next room, a mildly spectacular display entirely dedicated to the work of contemporary indigenous artists. This emphatic homage obviously aims to evidence the curatorial decision to tell an inclusive tale of Australian art—a tale in which the two aforementioned traditions coexist within the same discursive framework. Incidentally, it also serves as a crash course in “modern” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, from bark painting to acrylic on canvas—or “tourist tat”, as Januszczak calls it.8 After this attention-grabbing statement of intent, the exhibition quickly settles into the comfy pace of a well-rehearsed, orderly narrative: naive renderings of early settlements by untrained convict artists, tentative landscapes by free settler artists, the influence of varying European academisms throughout the nineteenth century, the Australian landscape coming into its own with Impressionism, a glimpse of cosmopolitanism with the advent of modernity, the variously broody or gaudy psychologism of the interwar years, the disenchanted realism of post-war modernism, the self-assertive gesture of abstraction in the 1960s and 1970s with its few figurative oddballs such as Sidney Nolan, and finally the much-lauded diversity of cultures and media of today’s artistic production. This is all fair dinkum, of course, yet it also strangely lacks any true appeal, not to say excitement.
The chronicler of The Economist sums up the discouragement that, after an interesting start, quickly befalls one in view of the listless succession of drab vistas: “Australia is big and red, and a lot of it looks the same.” His assessment echoes Robert Hughes’s warning in The Fatal Shore that “the bush crushed the eye with its monotony”9, and it is hard not to disagree with Januzsczak that large swathes of this exhibition are, for want of a better word, “ugly”. Much has also been said about the weighing of the different artistic movements, with the Australian takes on Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism all but brushed over, and much, too much room made instead for the likes of Margaret Preston, whose unspeakable Expulsion (1952) casts Adam and Eve as indigenes who are expulsed by a white settler. The wall text informs us that this is an “anti-colonial” picture, but like other attempts to evidence some Bhabaesque process of hybridisation, it fails miserably with its befuddled humanistic outrage. In this respect it is a garish foreboding of some of the modern or contemporary work which, we are ominously told and retold, sets out to “explore complex identity issues”, but in fact hardly ever ventures out of the containment zone of socially accepted truisms. Another blatantly grotesque illustration of this wishful cross-cultural pollinisation is Rover Thomas’ Roads Meeting (1987), which depicts two hands separated by an asphalt road crossing an ancestral indigenous track and deserves pride of place in any homeless shelter in Kalgoorlie. Trying to stay afloat in this quagmire of banality and do-gooder rhetoric, the mind grasps for the divergent or incongruous detail: William Westall’s recordings of native cave paintings, sketched in 1803 as part of Matthew Flinders’ exploration of the Australian coastline, achieving a powerful mise en abyme of the continent’s art history, or, on a more trivial note, the frame around Arthur Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889), which informs us that the picture was awarded a honourable mention at the 1892 Paris Salon, the equivalent of a pat on the back—“good on you, mate!” But one has hardly time to muse over the puzzling moniker “Federation Landscapes”, which seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of classifying the otherwise unclassifiable, before again getting sucked in by the monotony of single, unrelated and often grisly pieces hung side by side, each with its savvy little comment, none with any momentous context.
The worst element of the exhibition is assuredly the contemporary section, which looks like somebody played pin-the-tail-on-the-kangaroo. In many ways it reminded me of Jean Clair’s Melancholie (2006) when it travelled from Paris to Berlin, where his German counterpart, Peter-Klaus Schuster, insisted on adding a contemporary section, albeit confined to a hapless program of video screenings in a black box on the ground floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie. While in Australia, the living are not separated from the dead (or living dead), their presentation seems strangely inconsequential and lacks any attention to the specific conditions required by this type of work. The general shortage of engaging curatorship that mars the hanging of the historic paintings here creates havoc, as there is no discernable effort to combine this medley of videos, collages, photographs, installations, paintings and drawings into any coherent, let alone interesting narrative. Again, how not to agree with The Guardian’s Adrian Searle when he writes that “the exhibition just sort of gives up, representing neither the artists, nor Australian art, in a meaningful way”. But maybe this is all just a terrible misunderstanding. Because unlike what the paying public is led to believe, Australia is not an exhibition about Australian art from 1800 to the present. It is about ‘the landscape’ in Australian art from 1800 to the present—a crucial difference, and a fatal one. For reasons that can only be surmised, this subtle detail is indeed advertised nowhere. In fact, it is as though somewhere along the way someone had decided that this curatorial fine point would confuse and frighten off the masses. (Not that it helped much: attendance figures are by all appearances low and the few visitors I encountered during my visit were expats with their families or old gents in navy blazers rambling on about Gallipoli.) So what—other than that it accounts for the conspicuous underrepresentation of sculpture and photography—is wrong with choosing ‘the landscape’ as the main and unifying topos of Australian art? After all, a hostile landscape was what the first colonists had to contend with, and the outback and the desert are familiar tropes in Australian culture and thought. The assumption here is that the landscape can act as a level playing field upon which the two strands in Australian art come together. This is a laudable undertaking, but one that is bound to fail for more reasons than can be expounded in these pages. The first problem is a lack of contextual knowledge which makes it virtually impossible for most, if not all, visitors to situate indigenous art in a wider cultural and historic context, let alone to understand its rationale. Yet at no point does this exhibition suggest that to appreciate these works it takes more than an emphatic sensibility for the mystical undercurrents of an ancient form of art or a good eye for formal likeness with Western art. In other words, the thinking behind this approach effectively hinges on the assumption that indigenous art may be contemplated by virgin eyes purely for its spiritual or aesthetic qualities. Of course, like any type of art, it can, but the result is perverse; rather than Page 239: Bethnal Green (London) Tube station advertising for Australia photographed by the author Above: Shaun Gladwell, Approach to Mundi Mundi (video still), 2007 Photo courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne/Sydney
instigating viewers to question their (implicitly Eurocentric) perception of art, it caters to our deeply ingrained Rousseauan reflexes: “The indigenous pieces”, writes The Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke, “rippling with constellations of abstract swirls, squiggles and stippled patterns using the red-andochre palette of Australia’s wild interior, are an Aboriginal equivalent of Op Art or gestural Abstract Expressionism, infused with ancestral magic.”10 I suspect he is not the only one to entertain such a vision. This is only made worse by some of the sentimentalist prose accompanying the works, such as Beerdayal Nadjamerrek’s Dead Man (c. 1968), an X-ray-like image of a skeleton, of which it is said that “this painting was executed one week before the unexpected death of Nadjamerrek’s baby daughter”. In other instances the wall text reads like an ethnographer’s record, as with a work by the Martumili artists, where we learn that “when it was finished they laid the canvas on the crystalline surface of the lake and performed a ritual in honour of their ancestors”. In retrospect it feels like the whole exhibition is essentially a pretext to demonstrate to the world how Australian culture and mentality have evolved (favourably, of course). This would at least account for its lazy title, with its misleading implication that the country’s two fundamentally conflicting cultural and ethnic histories have finally been patchworked into one big artistic come-together. This vision is also reflected in the hanging and its crude attempts to “establish a dialogue” between works, for instance by mirroring the horizontal display of Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s Untitled (2007) with John Olsen’s Sydney Sun (1965) gushing out at spectators from the ceiling (and unleashing Januszczak’s verbal incontinence as he describes his experience of it as “standing under a cascade of diarrhoea”).11 Not least, it would explain why the contemporary part of the show has been treated with such sluggishness. This is maybe Australia’s greatest fault. Because no matter what you think of the country’s current artistic production, a contemporary section curated with more circumspection by turning an incisive eye on today’s realities and problems could have problematised matters and put into perspective the inclusive premise of the show—had the curators wished to do so. Instead, this blatant absence of any real topical references (or the slightest sense of urgency, for that matter) suggests that the country’s problems lie in the past, or worse, that Australia’s younger generation of artists has nothing to say about the country it lives in, leading one critic to conclude: “No wonder [the exhibition] puts so much emphasis on its native Aboriginal artists. They at least seem confident in their dreaming”12—an unwittingly macabre observation that drives the final nail into the coffin of a fatal show. Notes 1 http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/australia; accessed 5 November 2013 2
Adrian Searle, ‘Australia at the Royal Academy: Ned Kelly to the rescue’, The Guardian, 16 September 2013
Brian Sewell, ‘Australia, Royal Academy–exhibition review’, London Evening Standard, 19 September 2013
‘New frontier’, The Economist, 23 September 2013
Waldemar Januszczak, ‘A Desert of New Ideas’, The Sunday Times, 22 September 2013
See Alastair Sooke, ‘Australia at the Royal Academy, review’, The Telegraph, 16 September 2013
Januszczak, op. cit
Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore , London: Vintage, 2003: 93
10 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/10312476/Australia-at-the-RoyalAcademy-review.html 11 12
Januszczak, op. cit
Adrian Hamilton, ‘Australia’s day in the sun, at the Royal Academy of Arts’, The Independent, 22 September 2013
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“besiege Wei to rescue Zhao”: a strategem towards a post-critical art* part II PAUL GLADSTON *(Erratum: the intended title of this two-part article was ‘“Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao”: A stratagem towards a post-crisical art’. The term “crisical” is a recognised but uncommonly used one. The unintended slippage from “post-crisical” to “post-critical” as part of the editorial and printing process in the previous issue of this journal is therefore an understandable one. The term “post-crisical” refers here to the notion of an art beyond that of the crisis-driven criticality characteristic of Western post-Enlightenment discourses and not that of a non-critical art.) In Part I of this article I analysed critically Western post-Enlightenment conceptions of artistic criticality and in particular the supposed necessity of some sort of critical separation between art and society, as well as the perceived relationship between the artistic avant-gardes and crises in the socio-economic sphere. I argued that the question of art’s optimum critical distance from society is ultimately an unresolvable one and that this significantly problematises fixations on a critical relationship between art and socio-economic crisis. I also asked the question whether it is possible to envisage a critical art under circumstances in which Western postEnlightenment conceptions of art’s necessary critical distance from society do not hold sway. In response to this question, in Part II I shall examine the conditions of artistic production which currently prevail within the People’s Republic of China, where Western(ised) notions of a critical separation between art and society have relatively little currency, but where there are nevertheless, I will argue, historically durable forms of artistic criticality. Throughout much of China’s history prior to the twentieth century, visual art in the form of ink and brush painting and calligraphy was closely associated with values supposedly embodied by the imperial Chinese State’s scholar-gentry class. The scholar-gentry in general and in particular the sub-set of that class widely referred to in English as the literati (shi dafu), who took up official positions throughout the empire after passing rigorous State-run examinations, not only administered the practical workings of China’s imperial government but, from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) onwards, were also upheld as living representatives of a neo-Confucian order based on secular-idealist notions of humanistic altruism, self-cultivation, moral righteousness and an often rigidly held system of norms determining social hierarchy and interaction between individuals and classes as part of everyday life. As such, China’s scholargentry were morally obligated to uphold the stability of the Chinese State and to signal—often, understandably in the context of an absolute imperialist monarchy, through passive retreat from public life—any concerns they might have with the direction and administrative conduct of imperial rule. Ink and brush painting and calligraphy produced by China’s scholar-gentry were, as strictly amateur forms, conventionally regarded as aesthetic expressions, not only of the high moral values underpinning the imperial social order, but also the virtuous independence of their makers as defenders of the continuity of China’s civilisation-specific identity. In short, visual art in its highest cultural forms was inextricably and durably enmeshed as a form of cultural-linguistic signification with the workings of power and State in imperial China.
In the PRC, the relationship between the specialist concerns of those involved in the making and showing of art and the wider social, cultural, economic and political conditions of art’s production, display and reception remains in many respects an especially close one. Since the ending of dynastic rule in 1911, the development of art—particularly public art—in China has been intimately bound up with the construction of the modern Chinese nationState. Even the most culturally elevated forms of artistic thought and practice have been assigned positions of intense ideological significance as part of a continuing struggle to give definition to China’s indigenous sense of its own present modernity. Indeed, throughout the period from the founding of communist New China in 1949 up to the present day, all publicly exhibited art in the PRC has been required to conform—explicitly or implicitly under changing political circumstances—to the strategic aims of the country’s ruling communist party; an exclusory discourse intended explicitly as a means of limiting and enabling artistic practice in the service of ‘revolutionary’ social progress. Discursive conditions in post-imperial China are such that wider events, and in particular those related to political governance and its attendant social and economic crises (viz. the Cultural Revolution and the aftermath of Tian’anmen) have therefore played what is an often ostensibly definitive role in the formation and organisation of cultural thought and practice. The term “contemporary Chinese art” is now used widely in Anglophone contexts to denote various forms of avant-garde, experimental and museum-based art produced as part of the liberalisation of culture that has taken place in the PRC since the confirmation of Deng Xiaoping’s so-called policy of ‘Opening and Reform’ (Gaige kaifang) at the Third Plenum of the XI Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in December 1978. The confirmation of Opening and Reform secured Deng’s leadership of the CCP over Mao Zedong’s designated successor Hua Guofeng as well as initiating the PRC’s centrally driven and increasingly prodigious social and economic transformation of the last four decades. It also resulted indirectly in a departure from the extremely close relationship between cultural production and politics that dominated the Maoist period after the founding of communist New China in 1949. The comparable term to “contemporary Chinese art” currently in use within the PRC and other Chinese speaking contexts is “Zhongguo dangdai” yishu (literally “Chinese contemporary art”). Since its inception during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinese contemporary art has been characterised by an overt use of images, attitudes and techniques appropriated from Western(ised) modernist and international postmodernist art. This appropriation imputes a strong sense of present modernity to Chinese contemporary art that distinguishes it from traditional and more obviously culturally mixed forms of modern Chinese art. Chinese contemporary art is not simply an extension of Western(ised) and international cultural influences, however. With varying degrees of openness, it also incorporates aspects of indigenous Chinese cultural thought and practice. Consider here, for example, Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series of paintings (early 1990s onwards), which combine stylistic influences taken from European and North American Pop Art with images associated with the poster art of the Cultural Revolution.
Within the context of an English language dominated international art world, contemporary Chinese art is widely considered to be a localised variant of postmodernism, whose hybridising of differing cultural outlooks/modes of production has the potential to act as a focus for the critical deconstruction of supposedly authoritative meanings. Symptomatic of this international art world perspective is the persistent inclusion since the late 1980s of works of contemporary Chinese art in international survey exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale, documenta and the Biennale of Sydney1 whose curators have sought to uphold cultural hybridity in the visual arts—chiefly in light of influential critical writings by Edward Said2 and Homi Bhabha3—as a deconstructive postcolonialist resistance to Western modernism’s orientalising belief in the historical ascendancy of the West over the East as part of the unfolding of modernity.4 Included among those who have sought to frame contemporary Chinese art as a vehicle for postcolonialist critique within an international context is a group of Chinese artists and curators living and working in Paris. One of the most high-profile members of this Paris-based group is the curator and critic Hou Hanru, who has published a number of texts that seek to align postcolonialist discourse with aspects of traditional Chinese cultural thought and practice. Included among these is the essay ‘Entropy, Chinese Artists, Western Art Institutions: A New Internationalism’, which looks towards the Paris-based Chinese artist Huang Yongping’s bringing together of collage-montage techniques historically associated with Western Dada with traditional Chinese divinatory practices associated with the Yi Ching (Book of Changes)—in works such as Non-Expressive Painting (1985), Big Roulette (1987) and Small Portable Roulette (1988)—as something that “not only suggests a process of constant change in the universe, the duality and interconnectedness of necessity and chance, of the rational and irrational, culture and anti-culture, but also a strategy to launch ‘attacks’ on the legitimacy of the West-centric monopoly in intellectual and everyday life”.5 The implication of Hou’s reading of Huang’s work here being that non-rationalist aspects of traditional Chinese thought and practice associated with the Yi Ching can be understood to have presaged the conceptually uncertain outlook of Western(ised) deconstructivist postmodernism,6 thereby suspending any sense of the latter’s ascendancy over the former as part of the unfolding of modernity. This deconstructivist view of the significance of Chinese contemporary art is not shared widely within the particular context of PRC, however. While the adjective dangdai in the term “Zhongguo dangdai yishu” can be understood to signify a specific period of time running from the end of the 1970s through to the present day, within the localised context of the PRC dangdai also points towards a more complex, culturally specific notion of ‘present time’ signified by the use of the term “dangdaixing” (contemporaneity). As the critic, historian and curator Gao Minglu indicates, dangdaixing is frequently used within the Mandarin-speaking context of the PRC as a substitute for the word “xiandaixing” (modernity).7 The significance of the word xiandaixing should not, however, be conflated here with that of the English word “modernity” as the marker of a sequential shift from the pre-modern to the modern (and, as Gao would—mistakenly —have it, the subsequent sequential emergence of the postmodern). Instead, xiandaixing signifies what Gao refers to as “the particular social and cultural environment of a specific period, or what modern Chinese call ‘shidai jingshen’, or ‘spirit of an epoch’”. The use of dangdai in relation to the term Zhongguo dangdai yishu consequently suggests a departure not only from the sequential logic of a Western modernist conception of history in favour of a rolling, non-sequential sense of the condition of present modernity that remains in some sense continuous with the past and future. It also points to a decidedly non-synchronous view of present modernity as something experienced differently according to the specificity of prevailing localised (that is to say, spatially bounded) socio-cultural conditions. These conditions, within the particular context of the PRC, are strongly informed, as Gao makes clear, by an abiding consciousness that since the ending of dynastic imperial rule and the establishing of the Chinese
Republic during 1911–12, “Chinese modernity has been determined by the idea of a new nation rather than a new epoch”.8 Moreover, this idea involves “both transcendent time and reconstructed space with a clear nationalcultural and political territorial boundary”. In light of which, Chinese artists, curators, art historians and critics involved in the production and displaying of contemporary Chinese art within the PRC have, more often than not, fought shy of international postmodernism’s pervasively deconstructivist transnational vision of cultural hybridity, choosing instead to maintain a starkly exceptionalist view of Chinese cultural identity in spite of the undeniable mixing of Chinese and non-Chinese cultural influences involved in the making of contemporary Chinese art. Although relatively marginalised within the PRC, other Chinese commentators have sought to look beyond the rigid dialectics of nationalist exceptionalism. Gao Shiming of the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou has, for example, mobilised the term “bentu” (homeland, literally, original native soil) in the context of debates on contemporaneity in an attempt to re-envision contemporary Chinese art, not as an expression of essential national-cultural identity, but instead as the outcome of a process of historical return and re-discovery involving cultural dissolution and reconstruction. In relation to which Gao argues: Today we are no longer satisfied with… struggling for space and position in the globalised edifice as we would like to even create a new homeland, a historical site of cultural creation and renewed subjects. That is the site of ‘contemporary Chinese art’ although we lack a profound understanding of ‘contemporary Chinese art’; we even lack the basic discourse and a cognitive framework. ‘Contemporary Chinese art’ is an unfinished plan, a possible world. It is precisely because it is a ‘possible world’ that ‘contemporary Chinese art’ has nothing to do with any forms of nationalism or fundamentalism.9 Such thinking is on the face of it almost directly commensurate with post-structuralist conceptions of a shift from historiographic certainty to the pervasive scepticism of a critical archaeology of historical discourses. However, as writings by Gao accompanying the Third Guangzhou Triennial, Farewell to Post Colonialism make all too clear, in practice it also serves to gloss over the particularity of the localised socio-political conditions under which contemporary art has developed within the particular context of the PRC; conditions which continue to place artistic production and display under significant discursive constraints in relation to criticism of governmental authority. In Gao’s view we are now moving into a ‘postWest’ society where differences between the politics of democracy and autarchy have all but been erased; a view redolent of the worst excesses of postmodernist relativism/formalism.10 The prevalence of oppositional readings is further buttressed by a continuing identification of contemporary Chinese art in that context with avant-garde cultural practice. During the 1980s and early 1990s contemporary Chinese art was often referred to within the PRC as “qianwei” (literally, “qian”–advance, “wei”–garde); a term used, as Martina Köppel-Yang indicates, to identify works of art that can be understood both to merge with and semiotically oppose established social, political and cultural norms in a manner broadly commensurate with the negative (dialectical) social-critical function conventionally ascribed to the work of the early twentieth-century European and North American politicised avant-gardes.11 While the term qianwei is most closely associated with ‘modern’ Chinese art of the 1980s, and in particular the work of the movement known as the 1985 New Wave —reflecting a time when exposure to international postmodernism was still relatively limited—as Franziska Koch indicates, it was also applied to contemporary Chinese art of the early 1990s precisely and explicitly as a means of distinguishing the “experimental, non-affirmative” work of artists who had not “succumbed to political pressure after 1989”.12
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Although current during the 1980s and early 1990s, the use of qianwei as a synonym for the terms Zhongguo xiandai yishu (Chinese modern art) and Zhongguo dangdai yishu was by no means a universally accepted one. The adjective qianwei carries with it historical connotations of Maoist revolutionary avant-garde (“xianfeng”) thinking and practice, from which those associated with the making of Chinese modern/contemporary art during the 1980s and early 1990s often wished to distance themselves in favour of a more general (and politically progressive) sense of cultural modernity/contemporaneity.13 Indeed, since the early 1990s the use of qianwei as a synonym for Zhongguo dangdai yishu has waned significantly within the PRC as a result of contemporary Chinese art’s increasing alignment with the distinctly non-oppositional (relational) and marketfriendly nature of much international contemporary art. This waning is reflected by shifts first towards the use of the term “experimental”14 and then “museum-based”15 as adjectives to describe contemporary Chinese art produced since the early 1990s. Nevertheless, a linguistic trace connection between the terms Zhongguo xiandai yishu, Zhongguo dangdai yishu and qianwei has persisted within the PRC right up to the present day. In recent years there have been attempts within the PRC to reaffirm the connection between contemporary Chinese art and avant-garde cultural practice. Among these are writings by Chinese scholars, curators and critics such as Wang Chunchen16 and Zheng Bo17 identifying the renewed use of contemporary art as a means of social intervention within the PRC; some of which (by Wang for example) seek to make an explicit historical and therefore ideological connection between socially engaged forms of contemporary Chinese art and left-wing/revolutionary Chinese art of the early and mid-twentieth century.18 This attempted reaffirmation has been accompanied by a growing interest among Chinese scholars, including Gao Shiming of the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou and Zheng Bo of the City University Hong Kong in neo-Marxian debates outside China associated with the writings of Alain Badiou and Jacques Ranciére19 as well as Claire Bishop’s linking of radical democracy to an “antagonistic aesthetics”.20 In spite of these enduring discursive connections, it would, however, be a mistake to align contemporary Chinese art directly with established Westernised conceptions of avant-garde cultural thought and practice. While the Western historical and neo politicised avant-gardes are widely acknowledged to have sought a blurring of the boundary between art and life, as a means of bringing about a dialectical reworking of the meansend rationality of the latter along the more playful lines of the former, this is by no means straightforwardly the case in relation to qianwei art produced within the PRC during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is important to acknowledge that the emergence of qianwei art within the PRC during the 1980s involved necessary reconstruction of a relatively autonomous sphere of artistic self-expression as a move away from the party-dominated and distinctly non-autonomous socialist-realism and street propaganda of the Maoist period. Consequently, while the term qianwei signifies an apparently oppositional (dialectical) stance towards established convention broadly consonant with that of the Western historical avant-gardes, the general trajectory of avant-garde art within the PRC after 1979 can be seen to run, as Zhenming Zhai has argued, more or less contrary to the Western historical avant-gardes’ desire to negate artistic autonomy as part of a critical sublation of art within the life-world.21 Indeed, in seeking to rebuild a relatively autonomous aesthetic sphere after the ravages of the Maoist period, many of those involved in the making of avant-garde art during the 1980s were involved in a self-conscious and explicit re-visiting and re-working of aspects of traditional Chinese cultural thought and practice. Consider here, for example, local responses to an exhibition of the work of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg in Beijing in 1985, whose bringing together of Western collage-montage with traditional Chinese craft techniques was viewed as exemplary of the possibilities of a hybrid Chinese-Western modern/contemporary art.22 It is therefore necessary to make a distinction between qianwei forms of art produced since 1979
and the work of the Western avant-gardes on the basis that the former can be understood to go against the grain of the latter’s intentions by actively seeking to reinstate a relatively autonomous cultural practice and tradition as part of its opposition to established social, political, and cultural norms. That said, it would also be a mistake to assume that avant-garde art produced during the 1980s and early 1990s was entirely successful in distancing itself from the interests of the State. In spite of the progressive liberalisation of many aspects of Chinese culture and society after 1979 —including the effective freeing of artists from any direct responsibility to serve the interests of the masses and the revolutionary aims of the CCP —within the PRC during the 1980s and early 1990s artists were still subject to significant restrictions with regard to open public criticism of the CCP as well as anything that might be perceived to threaten the integrity of the Chinese nation-State. Consequently, while avant-garde artists within the PRC during this period occupied a position of relative freedom from ideological government intervention, they were nevertheless strongly discouraged from using their art as a platform for anti-authoritarian criticism by the constant threat of State violence; a position strongly conducive to artistic complicity with governmental authority. Since the mid-1980s, avant-garde artists have also been subject to the limiting effects of the CCP’s chosen way of doing governmental business after the death of Mao Zedong, which, following the ending of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in 1984, has tended strongly towards the handing down of vague rather than explicit directives on individual and collective behaviour, thereby making space for greater social freedoms, while at the same time instilling a pervasively controlling (panoptical) sense of self-surveillance/self-discipline throughout Chinese society with respect to imprecise boundaries of social acceptability. Moreover, while aspects of avant-garde art during the 1980s and early 1990s most certainly did act as a vehicle for coded socio-political critique —consider here, for example Zhang Peili’s video 30x30 (1988) whose depiction of the artist repeatedly smashing and repairing a mirror can be interpreted as a metaphor for the persistent precarity of modern Chinese politics and society—its part in the opening up of a relatively autonomous cultural-artistic sphere after the ending of the Cultural Revolution can also be seen to be very much in keeping with Deng’s modernising program of economic and social reforms and the associated clearing of ‘depoliticised’ space for entrepreneurial activity. To which extent, avant-garde art made itself very much party to the political/ideological aims of the CCP. Since the late 1970s, the PRC’s economy has become evermore closely bound up with the workings of international capital as a result of the major economic, social and political changes initiated by Deng’s reforms. As a result, and especially after the reassertion of Deng’s reforms in the early 1990s following the post-Tian’anmen political crackdown, contemporary Chinese art has become a major commodity on the international art market, as well as a significant focus for the development of an indigenous art market within the PRC. This has made art produced and shown subject not only to the persistently restrictive effects of localised political authoritarianism, but in addition those brought about by an increasing complicity with the demands and pressures of the international market-place. Current political discourses therefore place contemporary art in a highly restrictive doublebind by neither supporting its critical autonomy as a necessary adjunct to social progress (indeed they continue to do the opposite), nor by seeking to protect it from the critically debilitating snares of the market-place. It would also be a mistake to assume that artists involved in the production of avant-garde art during the 1980s and early 1990s were in direct opposition to governmental authority. Consider here, for example, statements made by the artist Yu Youhan—who along with Wang Guangyi, was one of the originators of the Chinese art movement known as ‘Political Pop’—in which Yu discusses his intentions in making a series of paintings incorporating images of Mao Zedong made at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s:
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Page 243: Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism–Coca-Cola, 1993 Photo courtesy the artist Page 254: Birdhead, Suitcase 1, 2005 Photo courtesy the artists and ShangART, Shanghai Above: Huang Yongping, Big Roulette,1987 Photo courtesy the artist Page 248: Zhang Peili, 30x30, 1988 Photo courtesy the artist and Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing Page 249: Birdhead, Welcome to the World of Birdhead 2011–For Passion, 2010 Photo courtesy the artists and ShangART, Shanghai
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When I painted the Mao series, though I cherished the Maoist period, I also held more reflective and critical feelings about that period too. So, some paintings, which may appear to be a form of bohemian realist art, didn’t express optimistic feelings at all. Instead, they were trying to reveal feelings about the betrayal of socialism. I think the Mao series of Pop paintings should belong to the history of China’s folk or historical paintings. In these paintings, the background colours are very bright. But, if you look carefully, there are unstable elements in the background suggesting that disaster may take place at any time. As for my feelings towards Mao, though I no longer admire him as I used to during the Cultural Revolution, I don’t think we should deny him totally. And I don’t think Western propaganda about Mao is right either. I think every leader would like to lead their country toward a better future.23 As numerous commentators, including Köppel-Yang24 have suggested it is possible to view the appropriation of images of Mao by contemporary Chinese artists as part of the making of Political Pop as a covertly oppositional counter-authoritarian gesture. Nevertheless, as the statement above shows, Yu’s own intentions in doing so would appear to be far less than straightforward. Avant-garde art produced within the PRC since the 1980s can thus be understood to occupy a highly indeterminate position in relation to the prevailing socio-political/economic mainstream within the PRC; one in which it has shuttled continually—like Western(ised) postmodernist art but under somewhat different socio-political and economic circumstances—between resistance to and entanglement/ complicity with established authority. It is therefore necessary to qualify perceptions of the use of dialectical avant-garde tactics insofar as qianwei art can be seen not only to upend the negative anti-autonomous tendencies of the Western historical avant-gardes, but also to share in postmodernism’s somewhat uncertain positioning in relation to established authority. The relationship between public political discourse and artistic practice in the PRC may then be described as a fundamentally entangled and highly context dependent one, in which the latter is (in much the same way as the scholar-gentry art that preceded it) simultaneously complicit with and a recognised site of largely oblique moral-critical resistance to established political authority. Norman Bryson has argued that qianwei art’s status as avantgarde in the acknowledged Western(ised) sense of the term is powerfully compromised by its complex entanglement with the recuperating forces of the Chinese State. While problematic from a conventional dialectical avantgarde perspective, in Bryson’s view this positioning does not, however, disqualify qianwei art entirely as a focus for criticality. Bryson writes: What is perhaps being sketched here is an idea of power that, in the West can be expressed only in tentative terms: that in societies of disciplinarity, ideology may no longer be required to be the primary cohesive force binding the subject in social space. What holds the social formation together are modes of activity whose basis lies at the micro level, in the myriad acts of repetition and self-regulation by which the subject inscribes itself in social discourse. Viewed negatively, the art that enacts this position can be thought of as the expression of “cynical reason”, as Peter Sloterdijk has described it. The cynic knows his beliefs to be empty, he is already ‘enlightened’ about his ideological relation to the world; to that extent he has rendered himself immune to the charge of bad faith, or of complicity with the dominant order. What this position constructively opens up, however, is a new territory of analysis and practice. For if power is no longer to be located at the macro level of the great ideologies, in the colossal and mythic confrontation of socialism and capital, and if it is instead to be found at a micro level that
is ‘below’ politics and ideology, then individual subjects are able to intervene and innovate at their own scale and on their own terms. If the basis of cultural reproduction lies in the subject’s own capacities for compulsive repetition and system-building, the significance of aesthetic practice is that it permits those capacities to be deflected or redirected toward the subject’s own ends. The art of the avant-garde becomes a model of the ways in which subjects—however great the historical pressures acting upon them—may organise and lead their own lives.25 In short, Bryson would have us see qianwei art in the context of postMao China as opening up the possibility of a micro-critical/relational engagement with society beyond the now redundant and stultifying macropolitical opposition between capitalist and socialist ideology; one capable of divergences from authority conducted very much at a ‘micro level’. Bryson’s assertion is, however, neither entirely novel nor sufficiently sensitive towards indigenous Chinese cultural perspectives. While Bryson frames the translation of avant-garde thought and practice in the PRC as a locus for the deconstruction of the macro-political opposition between capitalist and socialist ideologies, his supposed witnessing of the outcomes of that deconstruction would appear to amount to little more than a rehashing of abstract postmodernist/deconstructive notions of micro-political involvement with socialised constructions of the self and social relations of dominance in play since the 1960s. As Franziska Koch has argued, Bryson’s “faith in the Chinese artist as an enlightened, selfcontained, and independent subject flying below the radar of ‘macro level’ politics and ideologies” is one that not only seems “strikingly romantic”, but that also chooses to ignore the overwhelming complicity of artistic production with governmental commercial and ideological interests.26 It is, therefore, necessary to qualify Bryson’s vision of the Chinese artist as a critical subject by acknowledging the inescapably and hugely overdetermined complicity/entanglement of artistic production within the PRC with local as well as international governmental and commercial interests.27 Indeed, the metaphors inherent to Bryson’s argument remain insistently spatial, shifting, as he does, the notion of oppositional criticality away from dialectical (avant-garde) critique to (postmodernist) subterfuge in a manner that ignores the inescapable embeddedness of contemporary art with prevailing political discourses within the PRC. What Bryson overlooks are the specific discursive conditions surrounding the development of contemporary art within the PRC, which are characterised in part at least by the continuing marginalisation of Westernised post-enlightenment notions of art’s necessary critical distance from established authority. In that context it is simply not possible, as recent events surrounding the detention and effective silencing of Ai Weiwei amply demonstrate, to sustain any sort of public antiauthoritarian artistic practice or to avoid the recuperation of such practices by the State. As a consequence, the vast majority of artists working either eschew any form of critical art or pursue forms of artistic criticality that are in plain sight of and do not take up definitively oppositional/seditionary positions in relation to governmental authority. Among those who take such a line is the Shanghai-based duo Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu). On the face of it, Birdhead’s work has little or no obvious political/critical content, depicting photographically as it does aspects of everyday life with all the apparent casualness of images uploaded to Facebook. Indeed, like many other Chinese artists, in public at least, Birdhead have consistently rejected any political or critical connotations that might be attached to their work, asserting instead the value of their photographs as localised representations and affirmations of a specifically Shanghaianese identity. As such, it is however also possible to interpret Birdhead’s work as a knowing form of critical proposition; one that affirms the possibility of difference from within rather than in direct opposition to prevailing discursive conditions and certainly without any obvious reference to China’s crisis-laden recent past.
Contemporary art’s role as a locus of criticality is, in principle at least, far more clearly delineated and protected in Western(ised) neo-liberal/ democratic contexts.28 The relationship between public discourse and artistic practice in Western(ised) contexts is, given the nature of neoliberal/democratic politics, neither so tightly or overtly organised nor, given current mainstream political commitments to multi-culturalism, as fundamentally concerned with socially and geographically bounded notions of national identity as is currently the case in the PRC. However, while there are no official, centralised and explicitly stated political directives in Western(ised) neo-liberal/democratic contexts requiring artists to conform to the aims of globalised capitalism—namely, the sustained maximisation of profits against the background of increasing transnational competition and social mobility—dominant socio-political and economic discourses in those contexts nevertheless foster a pervasive and more or less inescapable complicity with the workings of the market-place that in many cases severely compromises the critical distancing of art from social praxis, while at the same time enabling the commercial production and spectacular showing of the former (a point made most forcefully during the 1960s by Guy Debord).29 As a consequence, the exact nature and extent of art’s critical impact on society is rendered profoundly uncertain. We should therefore be highly sceptical of idealised notions of artistic criticality in the public sphere as set out by Jürgen Habermas as part of his durable defence of the project of modernity.30 Contemporary art in Western(ised) neo-liberal/ democratic contexts could thus be said to occupy an effectively similar, if differently ‘grounded’ position of problematic discursive entanglement with established political authority to that occupied by contemporary art in the PRC. Indeed, one might reinforce this outlook by drawing attention to the
increasingly anti-democratic nature of neo-liberal politics in Western(ised) contexts—viz. the actions of the Tea Party in the USA. Looking forward, the embedded propositional criticality of a great deal of contemporary Chinese art may therefore come to be seen as more of a norm than an aberration. Exactly what its effects on society will be in the short, medium and longer terms is a subject for further analysis and debate. Notes 1 The first international survey exhibition of contemporary art, Magiciens de la Terre, was held at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris in 1989. The exhibition, which was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, included the work of three artists from the PRC: Gu Dexin, Yang Jiechang and Huang Yongping 2
See Edward Said, Orientalism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978
See Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994
See for example, Zones of Contact: 2006 Biennale of Sydney, Charles Merewether (ed.), Biennale of Sydney, Sydney 2006 5 Hou Hanru, ‘Entropy, Chinese Artists, Western Art Institutions: a New Internationalism’ in Hou Hanru, On the Mid-Ground: Hou Hanru, Selected Texts, Yu Hsaio-Hwei (ed.), Timezone 8, Hong Kong 2002: 62 6 Traditional Chinese thought and practice is informed by a ‘non-rationalist’ dialectical way of thinking associated with the Daoist concept of “yin-yang”, which refers to the notion that seemingly opposing forces/terms (e.g. light and dark, and male and female) are in actuality both interconnected and interdependent. It is important to note that the similarly non-rationalist view of dialectic thinking associated with the Derridean term “différance” looks towards a persistently disjunctive deferral of absolute meaning, while yin-yang is conventionally understood within a Chinese cultural context to support the possibility of reciprocation between opposites. See Paul Gladston, ‘Chan-Da-da(o)-De-construction or, The Cultural (Il)Logic of Contemporary Chinese “Avant-garde” Art’, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 7/4, 2008: 63-9
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7 Gao Minglu, ‘“Particular Time, Specific Space, My Truth”: Total Modernity in Chinese Contemporary Art’, in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, eds Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008: 133-4
See for example, Alain Badiou and Oliver Feltham trans., Being and Event, New York: Continuum, 2005, and Jacques Ranciére and Steven Corcoran trans., Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, London: Continuum, 2010
Gao Minglu, ‘“Particular Time, Specific Space, My Truth”: Total Modernity in Chinese Contemporary Art’, 2007: 134 9 Shiming Gao, ‘The Dismantling and Re-Construction of Bentu (‘This Land’ or ‘Native Land’): Contemporary Chinese Art in the Post-colonial Context’, in Jörg Huber and Zhao Chuan eds., A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China: Critical Voices in Art and Aesthetics, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2011 10 Shiming Gao, ‘Observations and Presentiments “After Post-Colonialism”’, in Maharaj, Sarat, Chang, Tsong-Zung and Shiming Gao, Farewell to Post-Colonialism: The Third Guangzhou Triennial, Guangdong, 2008: 34-43 11
Martina Koppel-Yang, Semiotic Warfare, Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2003: 22-23
Franziska Koch, ‘“China” on Display for European Audiences?: The Making of an Early Travelling Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Art–China Avantgarde, Berlin, 1993’, Transcultural Studies, 2, 2011: 106 13
Hung Wu (ed.), Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000), Guangzhou: Guangdong Museum of Art, 2002 15
Gao Minglu, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art, Buffalo and Beijing: AlbrightKnox Gallery and the Today Art Museum, 2005
Chunchen Wang, Art Intervenes in Society–A New Artistic Relationship, Beijing: Timezone 8 and the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, 2010
Bo Zheng, ‘The Pursuit of Publicness’, in Birgit Hopfener, Franziska Koch, Jeong-hee LeeKalisch and Juliane Noth eds., Negotiating Difference, Weimar: VDG, 2012: 157-170 18
See for example, Chunchen Wang, Art Intervenes in Society
Claire Bishop, Installation Art, London: Tate Publishing, 2005: 120-127
Zhenming Zhai, ‘Answering the Question: What is the Chinese Avant-Garde? – Zhenming Zhai in Conversation with Paul Gladston’, 2011 (www.randian-online.com; accessed March 2011) 22 Ye Zhu, ‘Beijing Theorists: Reactions to the Art of Robert Rauschenberg’, in Wu, Hung with Wang, Peggy eds., Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010 : 42-45 23 Paul Gladston, ‘Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese artists’, Hong Kong: Timezone 8-Blue Kingfisher, 2011: 32 24
Köppel-Yang, op cit: 152-153
Norman Bryson, ‘The Post-Ideological Avant-Garde”, in Inside/Out: New Chinese Art, Gao Minglu (ed.), Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 1998: 57–58
Franziska Koch, op cit: 99
Since the late eighteenth century, Western post-Enlightenment modernity has persistently upheld aesthetic feeling as a crucial site of critical mediation between the spheres of instrumental and moral reasoning, albeit from often radically differing as well as constantly shifting political perspectives. For a concise account of these differing perspectives, see Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Socialism and the Avant-Garde, 1870-1914’, in Uncommon People: Resistance, Rebellion and Jazz, London: Eric Hobsbawm, 2010: 171-186 29
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books, 1995
Jürgen Habermas, ‘Modernity–An Incomplete Project’, New German Critique 22, 1981: 3-15
in whose house? Craig Walsh embedded
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ADAM GECZY embed, imbed: verb rhinestones are then embedded in the leather trim: IMPLANT, plant, set, fix, lodge, root, insert place; sink, drive, hammer, ram In the darkened cavern of the gallery space, faces loom from the darkness, as if speaking from the soil or stone like pagan deities. The landscape changes colour, from rich red to purple. The faces speak about the land, inhabited for thousands of generations of Murujuga people. Craig Walsh, one of Australia’s most accomplished video artists, has pulled off another technical feat. But one wonders if he had found himself in the eye of an ideological storm, himself embedded, to follow his title, in a crevasse of political misprisions and decoys. “Embedded” is the new word du jour, and many artists have shared its enticements, particularly those as (Australian War Memorial commissioned) artists in recent years. The word itself has a rather stately if not macho cadence, and when applied to war artists, is sufficiently oblique to give it a sort of encoded authenticity, in the tradition of the way that military language plays havoc with semantics. “Embedded” was once a word more used to apply to an object firmly lodged into a surface, such as gem of a ring. Until recently, were it to apply to a human, the best approximation would have to be Winnie, the character in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, who is embedded into ‘big bosom’ by a mound of earth that gradually rises as she gets older. Levity aside, the word was perhaps chosen for the way war artists find themselves entirely surrounded by places and circumstances that are radically foreign and which they must translate into works of art. But since they are sponsored by the public coin, these works of art must make some sense to the public eye and be exhibitable in the Australian War Memorial
Museum. It is unlikely that a series of abstract monochromes expressive of some cataclysm is acceptable. Such works need to describe and narrate in way that transcends documentary photojournalism. These artists may have been chosen for their ability to be apt to the task. Either way, their embeddedness is not only in the war but in a set of emotive and politically circumscribed expectations. Images of drunken troops, rape or civilian casualties are out. No negativity will be brooked: soldiers are heroes—think patron and destination, the artist as serviceman. Walsh’s work is next in a sequence that began with Craig Walsh: A Visual Odyssey 2010-11, where the artist undertook to visit eleven remote communities over an eighteenth-month spell. Embedded: Craig Walsh was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Rio Tinto for the artist to visit the Burrup Peninsula of northwest Western Australia. The press release states: “The brief was to explore the unique rock art set within the site’s compelling natural beauty and open ruggedness and to realise a new body of work from the experience.” Residencies are strange beasts at the best of times, but many are built on the premise of what we might call romantic osmosis, or romantic osmotic absorption. This is when an artist, usually from the city, is transplanted to an entirely new place, absorbs the setting, and responds with a work of art. It is the artistic equivalent to what in computing and cognitive science is flatly called inputting and outputting. The artist inputs the environment and outputs a work of art. The mythology of romanticism lies in the presumption that the artist is the best person to respond to nature, in the sentimental pantheism, and in a more unspoken but still very thick notion that the artist has access to and can deliver something essential about that place. The artist then returns to his safe urban haven, delivering some intangible essence of that place to city-dwellers with no contact or knowledge of the place in question.
Unbeknownst to him, Walsh is following a trajectory that is at least as old as the nineteenth century, if not from the birth of landscape as a genre with Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin in the middle of the seventeenth century. The point to be emphasised here is that landscape as an independent genre began at precisely the time when Europe was asserting its imperialism upon the world. Thus acts of claim and conquer found their visual corollary in art. Landscape is about ownership, especially the genre of the picturesque at the end of the eighteenth century, where landowners commissioned artists to paint their estates in the best possible light. In a semi-narcissistic affirmation, these landscapes were then exhibited within the manorial home. Moreover, the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and his contemporaries, and his epigones until well into the nineteenth century (John Glover was called the “English Claude” before his art changed when he moved to Tasmania late in his life), were a highly studied affair, adhering to canons of colour and hue (dark in the foreground progressing to an ever lighter background), and pictorial organisation. But it is also by the time of Australia’s colonisation, with the works by former convicts such as Lycett and Watling that we begin to discern the extent to which pictures represented ownership. These artists, both convicted of forgery (as was Greenaway the architect), served the colony by representing it, to show the people back in England what the remote colony of Australia looked like. Hence their pictures were not just picturesque fancies, but were also strikingly topographical: locating buildings, describing peninsulas, showing unusual flora and fauna—and the local natives. The local Aborigines were also embedded within these pictures, which are themselves hallmarked by pictorial conventions and underscored with a State purpose. The final remark to be made about landscape is that it is fundamentally of rural scenes for urban consumption. For example, reeling from the Prussian obliteration of Napoleon III’s forces in the war of 1870-71, French society underwent a dramatic change, with numerous people migrating from the country to the cities. It was at this very time that the quantity of landscape painting accelerated; especially popular were images of peasants in the field, robust and healthy. An expert in this kind of painting was the Academic Naturalist Jules Bastien-Lepage, who exerted a strong influence over Tom Roberts. Bastien-Lepage was an expert at the heroic rural fiction, much as we might see peasants with bulging muscles, deloused hair and gleaming white teeth in B-Grade Hollywood period dramas. Even Monet, known for his forensic eye (Cézanne: “Monet is all eye, but by God what an eye!”), heavily doctored his paintings. Instances of this are the various paintings of the bridge at Argenteuil he did over his career, where the river appears sparklingly pristine, when in reality it stank of sewage and industrial filth. Did Roberts paint Shearing the Rams (1890) or The Golden Fleece (1894) on a whim? Far from it. There was little truly Impressionist about them. Rather, they were studied and deliberate; meant as manifesto pieces about what was then the mainstay of our economy. In short, just as Aboriginal art is “a white thing”, to quote Richard Bell’s famous dictum, landscape painting (and its offshoots) is a ‘city thing’. In contrast, traditional Aboriginal art cannot be grouped with the complex inheritance of the landscape painting that originated from Europe—despite the many curatorial attempts to do so. Such attempts, beginning with the permanent collections of our State museums, betray an egregious misunderstanding. And to try to argue that to place traditional Aboriginal art next to such landscape painting is an artistic gesture of reconciliation is a gross solecism, one that reveals such acts for what they are. For just as our indigenous peoples have phrases like “commitment to reconciliation” rammed down their collective throats, while the day on which they were “invaded” remains the national day, indigenous artwork in supposed cultural solidarity with non-indigenous is placed together on a wall. Just as the victor writes the history, the terms of reconciliation—the law and language in which it is transacted—are laid out by the dominant party.
The other error pertaining to Aboriginal and landscape art is more rudimentary. Traditional indigenous peoples’ connectedness to land and the representations through ritual and storytelling are not to be confused with landscape painting, which began in the very period in Europe when the grip of the Church on art was loosening. If anything, when traditional Aboriginal art became ‘art’ after 1971, and was painted on surfaces and placed on walls, it was closer to mapping. But such work had a seamless relationship to place. It didn’t represent it as such, much less represent (as with Claude or Rosa) places that had never been and to which one could only aspire. If you like, the Aboriginal dreaming is embedded within the image which has a reciprocal relationship with the actual place. And the actuality of place is only preserved inasmuch as the rituals (which have been translated into our idiom, of paint on canvas) and stories are acted out and preserved. If both landscape painting and Aboriginal art are conventions, the former is historical, the latter is pathological-spiritual. “The landscape” has returned to have a special, if immoderately problematic, place within Australian culture. A great deal of bad Australian contemporary art has exonerated itself with recourse to the Australian landscape tradition, in all its woolly, sentimental grandeur. Like ANZAC Day, it can be used to support a raft of myths and presumptions that can go unquestioned because of a ventriloquising consensus. What makes this genre even more present is fourfold. The first has to do with the waves of xenophobia that centre on refugees. How many elections were won and lost over this issue? The second has to do with the ecological movement, environmentalism and the premonition of environmental catastrophe. The third has to do with the indigenous people themselves. And the fourth has to do with the cardinal role that mining plays in Australia’s economy. The first two factors can be understood as posing threats to our environment: Australia will be overrun, over-burdened and spoiled. It is a common reflex of social anxiety to place the blame in the hands of the unspoken Other—not your immediate neighbour but your metaphorical neighbor—and to impute all manner of ills to them. So, the environment is being threatened, and the immigration threat in turn threatens the environment all the more. But it is also our concept of land and the environment that needs considering. As noted already, the earliest forms of landscape painting were idealised and were highly encoded. Today the idealisation, and encoding that is all too evident in the pictures themselves has now surreptitiously shifted to the realm of the covert politicisation of nature. Here nature is viewed as a benign force that is being wrongfully, profligately ruined by global corporate rapine. Hence nature, of Nature, is left unquestioned, having replaced the utopia of modernism. Thus the ecological movement presumes upon an unadulterated Other that is the unspoken conscience of ever rising capitalist production. Such a view choses to omit the inconvenient truth that Nature is also irrational and merciless. But note the way in which people today react to natural disasters as those in much older times would in terms of religious fury. Only now they are viewed as our just desserts visited on us because of our heedless mistreatment of our environment and wastage of natural resources. Connected to these two factors are the Australian indigenous peoples, their connectedness (embeddedness?) to land, and the spoliation of land through mining. Although there have been small moves to grant identification to ancient Aboriginal lands, this is done not in order to slow the mining process but to maintain its momentum. In other words, recognition of Aboriginal peoples—much as Kevin Rudd’s apology without follow-through—is the empty vessel that allows the chalice of mining to remain full. In this regard Aboriginal culture is a symbolic embodiment, though still nebulous and hypothetical, of nature so fetishised by the ecological movement. It is the bulwark of the imaginary for both the Left and the Right. For the Left, Aboriginal cultures comprise the ultimate frontier to be recognised and saved, whereas for the Right they are the rhetorical avatar to be manoeuvred for the sake of the smooth running of their operations.
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Hopefully now the reader will begin to deduce the reason for this long peroration, as it informs an historical and ideological background to Craig Walsh’s work. Let it be said that my commentary is not aimed at Walsh in particular, who, as I mentioned already, is an artist of skill and integrity. Yet in visiting remote communities and taking on content about indigenous people, there is much more to consider. (And if he didn’t take up the commission, someone else, possibly of inferior calibre, certainly would.) Add to this the patronage of Rio Tinto. This apparent largesse more than amply illustrates the predicament described above: the generosity of mining giants vis-à-vis the indigenous population, so that they may continue to dig up ancestral land. This is not to advocate a radical Green Party political agenda that suggests mining stop altogether so that we may frolic in an unspoiled Elysium—since the latter must somehow be paid for. Rather, what is being argued, is that the relationship between mining and the half-baked recognition of indigenous people be more transparent. For it is also necessary to point out that art is by far the most attractive medium to transact this lie. This is because on one hand, art is associated with beauty and spiritual veneration, a higher power of expression, while at the same time, by very virtue of its supposedly higher abstractions, it does nothing. As Gustave Flaubert once stated, the virtue of art is its uselessness. In his time this was intended as an anti-rationalist statement; art cannot be translated or materially transacted (except for being reduced to a commodity. But still its abstract qualities are preserved). Art may have a use, but it is always as art, but from an economic standpoint it has no intrinsic use-value. Now we see that it is precisely this quality, art’s uselessness, being co-opted by corporations that drive levels of use-value within the national and international economy. The issue of ‘dirty money’ is a particularly vexed one for Aboriginal cultures, already conscious of this in, for example the New South Wales Parliamentary Art Prize, the most lucrative (most coveted?) in the State, sponsored again by Rio Tinto. In such cases we can pinpoint the most conflicted questions of money and patronage. Does the (indigenous) artist elect to boycott the prize thereby, in one sense, cutting off his/her nose to spite his/her face? Such an evasion effectively deprives the exposure to Aboriginal culture in general and, more specifically, perhaps to give voice to their cause. Yet if an artist does decide to add voice to their cause and submit a work, the mining giant is working its inimitable magic, palpably supporting Aboriginal culture so that it may, just as palpably, conduct business as usual. In a cruel, if not sinister twist, Aboriginal artists are given a prize, allowed to express themselves, are given exposure and a voice at the expense of their lands being ruined. To stretch this more graphically, an artist is encouraged and supported to make an artwork of sacred lands being ruined at the behest of those people who ruin his or her land. The artist as living being is displaced into a political floating signifier. And in the end whom does he or she serve? Then we might turn to what it means for ‘whitefellas’ to do work about ‘blackfellas’. I have already canvassed some of the problems with this in the previous issue of Broadsheet (‘Who owns dots?’), arguing that there is a qualitative difference between appropriating the image, say, of a coke bottle on the one hand and of sacred designs by a subjugated people on another. While it may be acceptable, desirable even, to go on an art residency to somewhere in Europe, America or Asia to respond to the new surrounds, it is an entirely different matter to parachute into a place of sacred heritage and to respond to this place and its indigenous community. The reason for this is that one of the positive aspects of globalisation is that it has made artists more conscious of cultural exchange and cross-cultural networks (all popular buzzwords). But here’s the rub: is the obverse in play? Has Rio Tinto sponsored a member of the same community, the Murujuga, to do a residency in the suburb that Walsh lives in? Of course not, because that has no bearing on the mining giant’s covert propaganda. International residency programs are sometimes done on a reciprocal basis, but it is always presumed that the artists are as mobile or wanting to be as mobile as the other. But the language of colonisation or intrusion is elsewhere.
Page 250: Craig Walsh, In Country–Pansy Hicks, 2012 Photo courtesy the artist and Pansy Hicks Page 251: Craig Walsh, Embedded installation view Photo courtesy the artist
Did the Murujuga ask for this residency to take place? The press release quotes Walsh as saying: I see the Pilbara as a place which uniquely presents a concentration of extremes... The contrast between the ‘land’ as commodity and ‘Land’ as spiritual and cultural guidance are co-existing in the installation, and the audience will be physically positioned somewhere between the two. Walsh is a highly intelligent artist and has correctly cited land as commodity, as exemplified in the single-screen work, Standing Stone Site (2012). It is however an acknowledgment that hits far too low of the mark. After all, one does not want to bite the hand that feeds. Better still, it is in Rio Tinto’s best interests to be supporting an artist who ‘sees it as it is’. What is far more problematic is the blithe and airy use of the word “spiritual”. This is the extent to which white Australians recognise indigenous art and culture —the rest is relegated to a sublime beyond: ‘the limits of my faculties, what escapes my cognitive frame’. The multi-screen work reflecting this venerative “spiritual” unknown is entitled In Country (2012). Here the faces of Murujuga elders appear as if from the stone reciting speeches over their people who have occupied the land for thousands of years. Walsh has done all he can do, namely to let the Other speak, as opposed to the imperialist who speaks for the Other, or thinks to modify what the Other says for the better. Yet is this wholly the case? For the Other speaks from within his work, his agency. Nor is there much sense of conflict between the two works. In short, ‘land’ in no way appears to be impinging upon ‘Land’. We might also recall the two poles of representation of indigenous peoples that existed since colonial settlement: the simian or monkey-like figure and the noble savage. There were a few singular exceptions, as in the Port Jackson painter and in Joseph Lycett’s depiction of a corroboree at night (Corroboree at Newcastle, c. 1818). Like the Madonna-whore paradigm exposed by feminism, this typologising of the Aborigine according to the degenerate or the primal Arcadian situates him or her outside reach of the living subject. One is either sub-human or so virtuous and innocent that they remain unreachable to mere mortals. In the wake of such a history and in the present context (where our indigenous people are still not embraced in the Constitution, where land rights continue to be violated, where health issues are insufficiently dealt with, where most urban non-indigenous people are imperfectly educated of the history of indigenous people since colonisation, and so on), we should be hesitant to the point of apprehensiveness about decisions to ennoble and glorify the Other. In this work, these living elders speak from within the earth, as if they speak for the earth itself—another delicate stereotype. They speak from within their home, yet where they speak is outside of it, in the home of the gallery, which is a far remove, physically, sensorially, spiritually and philosophically, from their own home. Are they embedded, or are they entombed?
Embedded: Craig Walsh Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Sydney 12 September–24 November, 2013 Organised in partnership with the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane and co-curated by Judith Blackall and Robert Leonard
my tone of uncertainty
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John Mateer This book would simply like to interrogate the tone of certainty that prevails so often in the beautiful discipline of art history. Georges Didi-Huberman This is not an essay, as might be expected, about the works of the artists included in the exhibition, In Confidence: Reorientations In Recent Art.1 Rather it is an essaying, a thinking through, of that ambiguous yet essential impulse we call “confidence” and a consideration of what it might mean for us and for art made today. I will refer to figures active in the global art scene, seemingly in contradiction to my interest in a geographical imaginary. This is necessary because too seldom is criticism of the perceived global art hierarchy seen as conceptually relevant to the sort of work made by artists like those in this exhibition. This is in part due to the way discussions of the global art structures have interrupted the conversations that could effectively critique it. I believe we are still in the early stages of trying to describe just what the effect of the global is in art. This essay is one attempt to make some of these critical observations. The artists whose work shares the pages of this small book should remind us of the difference between writing about art and experiencing it. The exhibition itself will reveal that, as always, art is ahead of that which is written about it. In curating the 2012 Paris Triennale Intense Proximities, the curator Okwui Enwezor spoke of being led to its theme by discovering there were soup kitchens serving the poor of Paris that had been revealed to be cooking with pork.2 The kitchens didn’t want to be feeding Muslims who might be affected by the poverty experienced in the first shocks of the European Financial Crisis. This act was a form of culinary racism, though not racism exactly because the ‘contamination’ was dependant on cultural difference of the most visceral kind. It was, as Enwezor observed, an intervention necessitated by the fact that on so many other cultural levels there are few demarcations between Western and Muslim French citizens. Enwezor, with his usual insight, saw that the cooks’ political act was an illustration, albeit a very bleak one, of the nature of the new relationship between the West and its Others; as the proximity of everyday living increases between the two groups, so will the intensity. There is an aspect of this situation that Enwezor didn’t remark on—that in the expression of an attitude to proximity there must be a confidence of action, there must be a sense that one can or should do what one wishes to, and be definite in that decision. The implicit hostility in serving food that one knows other hungry people can’t eat may seem to stem from a confidence that the right thing is being done, that those nonWestern, ‘un-French’ people are being shown that they are alien. What is revealed, in the case of these charity kitchens and what would be called by many Europeans as their “fascism”, is a desperate assertion of explicit cultural difference. Many of the excluded Muslims would speak French and would have been born in the country—and be angered at the failed conjunction of culture and nationality. In recounting these sinister acts, I find myself wondering whether equivalences could be seen in this part of the world. Would the intense proximity of various ethnic groups in certain Perth’s suburbs, for instance, ever feel that at odds with the Australian mainstream and vice-versa? What is striking in this terrible anecdote Enwezor uses as a point of orientation, is the idea of proximity as tension. Under the intellectual and political regimes of colonialism and even anti-colonialism there was always distance between the West and its Others. Now, in the new universalism of globalisation, with its accelerated mobility and migration which, oddly, is affecting Europe by allowing the return of peoples who last had direct interaction in the Middle Ages, there is an intensification of proximity and of dramatic assertions of certain kinds of confidence.
Opposite: Max Pam, Reporting Madagascar, 2003 Photo courtesy the artist Above: Rodney Glick, Everyone No. 177, 2012 Photo courtesy the artist
Here I am using the idea of “confidence” as that affirmative presumption needed for the impulse to act. However, confidence is various and often ambiguous. Despite that, it is almost always seen as a necessary and positive quality. The emphasis on confidence can be seen as a perverse corollary to the financialisation of almost all world economies in which the idea, the feeling, that used to be most obviously a principle of stock-markets, has become a necessity for everyday life. “The markets need confidence”, finance ministers worldwide can be heard to say almost daily. More than ever before, governments and their citizens, as consumers and investors, are expected to act in such a way that they only exhibit confidence and only affirm the system, and do so in such a way that it can keep functioning positively. Of course, this suggests the possibility that if the public and their governments lost that mood, then entire political and economic landscapes would be devastated. This is the risk of crisis and revolution. So just as with the dreadful gesture of offering unsuitable food to fellow citizens, the injunction that everyone should be confident has fear embedded within. The fear of certain insights into the economic and political circumstances of the citizenry, if openly declared, could lead to an angry questioning of public imperatives, and that could lead to revolt. What this conjunction of governance and economics under the aegis of confidence means in the world of contemporary art has only been seriously discussed in the mainstream since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Interestingly, the debate doesn’t seem to have arisen in the Asian art context,
probably because at this point the crisis is seen as something primarily affecting the West. Prior to the GFC, confidence was seldom considered as a kind of desperate dependence that stemmed from globalisation’s exploitation of national, cultural and intellectual differences in the pursuit of marketable products, whether services or objects. The global art market, more than its forerunner the international art market, the latter being a Euro-American phenomenon, has, despite its own ambition to retain cultural difference for the sake of both cultural and economic value, created a circumstance in which artworks are often being circulated so quickly that the works themselves have become akin to financial products, to the extent that the very aesthetic and historical significance of art is becoming ever more difficult to assert. For artists, especially the artists I have selected for In Confidence, working in parts of the world removed from both the art-market centres and the constantly shifting hot-spots of current interest (which at the time of writing seem to be the Middle East3 and, increasingly, Africa), the conceptual shift to seeing artworks as quickly traded products—for most of history world-wide art has been a product of slowness—means that much that was admirable about their works starts to be difficult to describe. The decreasing value placed on the role of the art-critic has been remarked on in various ways before.4 The emphasis on art’s marketability has to a great extent displaced critical discussion. The proportion of critical writing compared to advertising in any art magazine is only one indication of this. Another is the relatively recent development of magazines like Art+Auction and Art Collector. The writing in those magazines is actually a kind of advertising. That would be fine were there more examples of critical writing to be found elsewhere. It is true that there is a proliferation of artbloggers, but few of them can provide quality and sustained criticism
simply because their critics aren’t paid to write. There are very few professional art critics even in major art centres like London and New York5. All this doesn’t mean that historical and aesthetic questions have been superseded or have ceased in their demands, only that currently it is not sustainable to engage in that kind of contemplation. The gradual abandoning of the practice of art criticism has seen the writer, the articulate citizen in the face of the public presentation of debatable imagery, become the first protagonist of the art world to be made redundant. I use the expression “debatable” because one of the greatest achievements of modernity was confluence of the public press, opinionated writers and the art gallery. If one wants to revive one’s faith in art criticism all one need do is read some of the essay-reviews penned by Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century. The confidence of his thoughts on the art of his time had a public and personal urgency. It is Baudelaire, too, who gave us that key trope of the modern flâneur, the urban wanderer. The art critic, really, was the flâneur who entered a gallery. It’s often said that with the proliferation of publications and blogs on the Net there would be an increased criticality. This hasn’t turned out to be the case, not because expression is limited or framed but because the very idea of a public has been transformed by that technology. When Baudelaire was writing his public were people who were directly engaged by the questions he was raising. Today, it seems, artists have to decide, whether consciously or not, what relationship their practice might have to the pressures of erasure that globalisation produces and to the possibility that any ‘anti-global’ aesthetic decision they make could result in future exclusion from the new, larger international art system. In the case of In Confidence, all of the artists, even the Aboriginal painter Lisa Uhl who resides in the isolation of Western Australia’s Fitzroy Crossing, are working
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in modes that are both internationally comprehensible and a product of a local, nuanced circumstance each with its own unique history. Whether looking at Tom Nicholson’s multi-media conceptual work on the history of Australia’s relationship to Timor or Lynn Lu’s video documenting a performance, the viewer is profoundly aware of the micro-politics they are critiquing while staying, in terms of their medium, thoroughly contemporary or “global”. Artists in places like Australia, Malaysia, Iran or Africa have a similar circumstance: namely, that the global art world requires them, at the very least, to have confidence in its operations. Artists who question or reject that system, with its access to lucrative gallery circuits and LondonNew York-Hong Kong auction houses, aren’t necessarily anti-global, nationalist or provincial, but are, with their eye on other possibilities, differently confident. What this might mean can only be answered through interpreting their works as differing from the aesthetic norms of successful global art. As soon as there is a contemplation of the affect of confidence it soon becomes apparent that with any artwork there is not only the polarity of “possessing” or lacking confidence, there is also the question of whether it is the confidence of the viewer or the artist that is at stake. If it is the viewer, it is now the viewer as an individual because with globalisation’s transformation of the composition of cultures it is almost impossible to assume that there is a shared subjectivity in a contemporary art audience. It is possible to see the past decades’ emphasis on artist’s interviews as a way not only of filling the gap left by the art-critic, but also as a personalitycentred way of deflecting discussion from the question implicit in any interpretation, from that beautiful simplicity every time someone asks “What do I think of this work?”. By placing the artist in the most visible position in the process of the discussion of art and by relying on the artist’s conversation as an articulation of the work the audience is led into a dependency on the artist’s presence as the confident authority. The creator now also becomes a confidant, whispering the secrets of the work. As artworks are often silent, this kind of exchange can be seen metaphorically in the portrait or self-portrait. The portrait as a device is an important part of In Confidence. Max Pam, Christian Thompson, Simryn Gill, Hossein Valamanesh and PUNKASILA each use that genre for a different purpose. Their stares hold us at the moment before speech, before the interrogation or interview, as is often the case with portraits. The global aspect of this performance of the artist’s interview is seen most startlingly in the massive, ongoing interview project of Hans Ulrich Obrist, almost reaching a point of near, unintentional selfparody in his interview ‘Marathons’.6 Obrist’s excessive interview project can be seen as a performative work itself, one that mirrors the astonishing influx of capital over the last three decades into a market that for much of its history was a rarefied conjunction of taste and wealth. This is not to say that the interview or dialogue is to be condemned. The artist Tom Nicholson has used it skilfully in various publications to open up discussion of his work in ways that allow an articulation of his thoughts and reflection on future work.7 The charm of this kind of practice can be very affecting, too. Artists can expand on this strange genre of enactments, as Marina Abramovic did in her wonderful 2010 work The Artist is Present, which in many ways is the culmination of her practice and a critique of the audience’s eerie desire for the artist’s unadulterated presence.8 That work, much more thoughtful and clear than endless exposition or clarification through discussion, was literally a presentation of personal confidence. Little in the art world could be more proudly central than that the seven-hundred and thirty-six hour performance by Abramovic in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where individuals could sit face to face with her. And what could be more certain than the artist’s body itself, the body that creates the corpus? What could be more definite than that godliness? Or, maybe, we should say “goddesslikeness”? It is as if Abramovic wanted to remind us of Wittgenstein’s first sentence in his treatise On Certainty: “If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.”9 Watching the performances of Lynn Lu or PUNKASILA with Abramovic in mind reveals just how much of her
local and personal history the Serbian has to shed to attain such a massive, radiant presence. To reflect on the quality of confidence asserted by artists distant from the art world centres, the viewer, whether a member of the public or a professional like a curator, is required to consider the nature of the artist’s practice within the circumstance in which they make and present their work. The difficulty these artists experience in explaining their work may not be, as is often assumed, a lack of a sense of context, rather that their very constitution as articulate figures may be compromised by their inability to imagine or embody or presume the confidence required to give their work its proper, nascent discourse. But to produce one’s own discourse in defiance of transnational narratives runs the risk of obscurity. The substance of a national art history can vary substantially. Brazilian modernism, for example, is highly recognised and easily compares with that of Europe or the USA, whereas the same might not be said of that in Malaysia or Singapore. In the case of Australia there is a local awareness of the particularity of Australian modernism, yet that doesn’t mean it is comprehended elsewhere. At a reception in Kassel during the last documenta I discussed the inclusion of the Australian modernist Margaret Preston with its artistic director Caroline Christov-Bakargiev and found that she characterised Preston as a feminist and her work a practice vis-à-vis Aboriginal art. Preston’s place as a modernist was not articulated. When we reflect on the work of an artist like Rodney Glick, especially his work produced in Bali, it is unclear as to how it may be situated in the postmodernism it seems to have emerged from and against Indonesian contemporary art, like that of Agus Suwage, with which it might be fruitfully compared. We should remember, too, that it is the myth of the reclusive artist’s eventual discovery that sustains much art practice. The emphasis on so-called “Outsider Art” in the core exhibitions of the 2013 Venice Biennale, The Encyclopaedic Palace curated by artistic director Massimiliani Gioni, may be seen as an attempt to revivify this myth, and in an effort, I believe, to distance curatorial practice from the unreliable processes of the art market. The artist as outsider was essential to the modern archetype of the artist until the rise of the apparent professionalisation of that role. This occurred differently in different places but at roughly the same time as the financialisation of economies and the globalisation of industry. I say “apparent professionalisation” because artists have always been well aware of their professional role as makers. This was occurring at exactly the time when there was a steep increase in values in the Euro-American art markets. This process is being replicated in the new contemporary art markets of Asia and the Middle East, assisted by the development of galleries, such as those within the government-supported Gillman Barracks precinct in Singapore, and institutions like the Delfina Foundation, a London-based organisation that fosters Middle Eastern artists within the global art scene. Artists on the edges of the global art market, like those in In Confidence, have an advantage in that their audiences can’t be too sure of the conventional, art market value of the work. This means that those artists and their audiences are free to have or lack confidence as they will, being able to radicalise interpretation. Instead of the meaning of their work being repeatedly consolidated within some kind of art history with the assistance of curators, collectors, gallerists and prominent public institutions the role of these artists can present their audience with works that are only interpretable and articulate under the pressure of a clearly, differently assumed critical and individualistic confidence. Describing the circumstance like this is a simplification because artists can have gallery representation in various cities, in Australia and internationally, and it is a mistake to think that there is an equivalence between the artist’s global visibility and the practices of collectors. By that I mean that the same artist can be a regional artist in one context and a global artist in another, even with exactly the same artwork. What I am calling “confidence” might be understood by readers of a figure like Jacques Rancière as the formation of new subjectivities.10 That would not be a distraction, though that would be a misunderstand of what is at issue here. To have confidence is to know the feeling that is the basis of surety for
decision-making and action, to be confident is to have a definite relationship with one’s Self. In the circumstance of art-making the irony is that for an artist who lacks a place in a single system making what will ultimately be regarded as good work requires far more confidence than if she were wellplaced and already well-recognised. It is important to observe the importance of reference among the artists in this exhibition, with their strong awareness of land and seascapes, portraiture, biography and historical concerns. Their sense of history and their place in it might not always be overt, yet it is traceable in every work, largely because culture in this part of the world has been shaped by colonialism and living here now requires a remaking of those inhabited places. An engagement with the question of articulation of the kind that is Obrist’s massive, ongoing interview project distracts from the necessary plurality of interpretation that art can facilitate. By the curator positioning himself as the curious, questioning everyman, getting the answers straight from the artist who has accepted him as confidant, Obrist is not only occluding the role of the critic, whose own confidence or lack thereof in ascribing interpretations is constitutive of a highly-visible act of articulation; and, if these interviews are indeed to be relied upon as documents, Obrist is also effacing the art historian, preventing viewers from questioning those authorities that produce the meaning and economic value of the work. Said differently, confidence of Obrist’s performative kind evidences an anxiety, fears the very profound insights that doubts about meaning, value, histories and the explanation of the “art circumstance” can provide into those very categories. In the figure of Obrist we have the now common conflation of curator and art-historian. My own incarnation, I must admit, is as curator-writer. Today, roles are sometimes only distinct from one another when professional obligations demand it: a curator at an institution is unlikely to review exhibitions, while, on the other hand, a published art historian employed as a sessional lecturer at a university might curate and review out of sheer economic necessity. There is a further challenge to the conventional, reiterative confidence of the art world that can be produced by artists from its edges. Their work necessitates new histories through art, going beyond the formation of new subjectivities. I suspect the lack of a clear sense of how this process is occurring in Australia is one of the reasons why the country’s key role in the early development of the internationalisation of certain Asian art scenes, including those in Indonesia and Singapore, has not been well recognised. Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio’s Asian Art Now, with its companion volume Contemporary Art in Asia: a Critical Reader, largely represents the Asian scenes through those figures who have already achieved global visibility, many of them in shows in New York, where those two Australian writers are now based. Alison Carroll’s valuable The Revolutionary Century: Art in Asia 1900-2000, a study that includes Australia, is an impossibly ambitious overview in which the logics and connections between the various national scenes are hard to discern. The writing of new histories is an important possibility, one conditional on the audience’s faith in its own articulacy. If artists or their audiences lack this self-belief, no matter how good the art, how interesting the culture it emerges from, how astonishing its possibilities, there will be nothing that will be seen to have been done. In countries where socio-political transformation is in concert with exciting aesthetic experimentation, very often developing countries like Indonesia, Vietnam or Malaysia, the creation of new histories beyond art history is inevitable. In countries like Singapore or Australia, where significant, if undramatic, demographic change is taking place and with it corresponding cultural change, it may still not be the case that the necessary conditions for confident articulation, what might be named “historicising”, can emerge because there might not yet have been a clear confrontation with those modes of conformity that have shaped its past and continue to shape its present. In Australia this would mean a reinvestigation of the way the national art history has been written as a Western art history. While this might sound over-political, it should be noted that even the term “South-East Asia” was
a creation of the concerns of the Cold War era, that formation of the West. It might be that Western designations are preventing us from seeing how much Australia shares with other countries of the Indian Ocean. In terms of the art market, the Australian presumption of a connection to New York and London could be the obstacle preventing effective participation in regional art markets. For the Australian art world a consideration of confidence, that mood, could suggest that those individuals active within it should not rely on the possibility that work produced in their midst might find its way out into a system that will affirm its meaning and value. Perhaps that hope should be abandoned because by harbouring it, there is a hindering of the development of articulacy that is descriptive of what the works mean in their independence, in their shocking, non-Western newness. Implicit in this possibility is the sense, to me at least, that it may be that our conventional modes of writing about art, whether as criticism or history, are not suitable for describing what art of this region has already achieved. Increasingly I believe that the dissatisfaction artists, critics and viewers feel at the lack of adequate reflection on their work and experience is a consequence of their art world’s replicating the models of art history and art writing that are in essence European and a distant product of what was originally theological thinking. It could be that the best way forward is to reflect on what kinds of writing suit our subjectivities, our part of the world. It may be that anecdotal, poetic or autobiographical accounts, rather than published art criticism are the kind of criticality we need as the driving force of historicising here. Anyone convinced by this argument has another dilemma waiting: What is the immodest, excessive confidence of art history itself? We, here on the edge of the Indian Ocean, can have the false impression that Western art history itself is fixed. In a paper presented recently in Berlin the formidable German art historian Hans Belting discussed the strange construction that is modern art and how it was actually reshaped in New York by the Museum of Modern Art—the site, of course, of Abramovic’s performance—before being exported back to Europe. If Belting is to be believed, what Europeans think is modern art is in fact a simplification, an Americanisation of their own cultural production!11 While Enwezor can be seen as re-framing the contestable terrain between the Western audience and its art-producing Other through his emphasis on the tension of proximity, and if Obrist’s curator-interviewer functions as a stand-in for both the general viewer and the art specialist, then the French, deconstructionist art historian Georges Didi-Huberman’s questioning of the certainty of Western art historiography is a further, deeper move into the consideration of the intimacy of confidence, a questioning of being in confidence. Enwezor and Obrist want us to ask how the work and artist become articulate within the social circumstances of art; Enwezor takes historical change as his mode of orientation, Obrist takes the artworld itself as his stage. By contrast, Didi-Huberman, a traditional art-historian by training and activity, whose work on Fra Angelico is a major contribution to the study of the early Renaissance, takes the most basic presumption of his field—its authoritative tone—as the beginning of his investigation into the structure of the practice of Western art history. To follow just one point of entry into the argument of his substantial book Confronting Images: This book would simply like to interrogate the tone of certainty that prevails so often in the beautiful discipline of art history. It should go without saying that the element of history, its inherent fragility with regard to all procedures of verification, its extremely lacunary character, particularly in the domain of man-made figurative objects—it goes without saying that all of this should incite the greatest modesty.12 Didi-Huberman’s characterisation of his focus is as an interrogation—a forced interview—of “the tone of certainty that prevails so often in the beautiful discipline of the history of art”. It is his encapsulation of the affect of the art historian’s activity that is striking. Might “certainty” not be read as “confidence”? And the art historian, in this mode, in this tone, is art’s greatest authority, his force accruing as much from institutions as from the
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time the work has had to mature into value; his voice in his own kind of art-interview being the voice of objectivity, of objecthood. The art historian can be seen as speaking back to the audience and the artist as if from within the artwork itself. It is not an interview, nor an interrogation, but an act of ventriloquism. According to this conventional model of the discipline, the art historian is the person who knows what the art-object means, the person who, more than the artist, has confidence in his own articulation. The art historian, far more than any other figure in the art world, is the figure on whose assurance the work, the artist and much of the system are seen to depend. In the case of the kind of artists in this exhibition any art historian would be presented with the conundrum of how to assume a position of
authority on work emerging from such various contexts. How, for example, could he speak back from the inside, from the beach, of Hayati Mokhtar and Dain-Iskandar Saidâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s video? Yet, as is often the case in society, the reassurance that the art historian provides and which his institutional power officiates, is notionalâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;few parts of the art world really depend on art historians, significantly they are those parts in which valuation is dependant on identity, retrospective identification. Anyway, in a sense, contemporary is not a fit subject for an art historian because any history is discursive and must be retrospective. The desire to talk about art history in relation to all art is, perhaps, nothing more than a bad habit, just as it is to confuse art history and criticism. Both are habits easy to develop when historical and institutional structures are in flux.
The kind of certainties through which curators like Enwezor and Obrist operate are at a remove from the inner realm which Didi-Huberman is “interrogating”. It is interesting that the Chinese curator Hou Hanru, who in many ways is a peer of Enwezor and Obrist, has not developed an equally strong critical presence. That could be because, as I have implied above, the Asian context is far from having a consolidated sense of its history. The discipline of Western art history with its self-confidence, at least as Huberman is questioning it, is a field that possesses a number of structures that each have their own methodologies and histories. In Confronting Images Didi-Huberman is asking the reader to accompany him in his particular deconstruction of their logics. That is different, though, from what is implied in his contemplation of certainty—here I regard it as “confidence”—with which he begins his book-length essay.
For readers unacquainted with the controversies of Western art historiography, Didi-Huberman’s doubting of the discipline’s tone of articulation can nonetheless have profound implications. In fact it might be that artists, curators and writers in those places that haven’t been absorbed into the mainstream of Western art history or have only nascent independent art histories are better placed than others to understand the kind of doubt he is interested in. It could be that art from those places, from our part of the world, has been crying out for a discussion of the confidence of art history. “How”, the artworks might have been asking, “do art historians know which of us aren’t part of their history?” That question, too, has its tone, a plaintive tone. Didi-Huberman’s investigation is a good place to start from because it forces us to reflect on our reliance on the assertion of confidence that is everywhere in art.
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For those individuals, whether artists or viewers, distant from centres of art history and the market, personal invisibility and lack of art historical affirmation should be seen as a great opportunity because it can allow the development of smaller, disparate art worlds in which they might play with confidence, producing work and histories that are freer, more imaginative, even more critical of politics and capital, for the reason that they have escaped the quiet discipline of art’s conformity.13 For artists in our part of the globe there is, more than for many in the centres, the incredible opportunity to make and remake our worlds by doubting, parodying or rehistoricising. These techniques are used throughout In Confidence: Gill and Nicholson question given histories; Pam traverses geographies with an ironic self-awareness; PUNKASILA and Thompson theatricalise political presence; and Valamanesh, Uhl and Mokhtar are both deeply historical in their attachment to memory and place. Often it seems that the circumstance of being at a remove from the art centres is a predicament, but that is to reinscribe a conventional sense of Western art history. My sense is we need to experiment with curating and with writing, instead of first attempting to establish a critical context. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have exhibitions comparing modern Balinese painting and painting from the Papunya School, as both have a similar origin in being initiated by Western influence and both have served to sustain their cultures. Or we could have an exhibition including the Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere, Joseph Beuys, San painters from Botswana and images of rock-art from the Kimberly as all are concerned with universal, pre-modern images of the animal. New genres of critical writing might emerge in relation to this localised, non-Western art. The Slovene art group IRWIN’s East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe is one strategy for reframing an art history. Although it is concerned with that part of the world formerly known as the Eastern Bloc, as a model of archiving and discourse formation it could be informative for the remapping of this region. The current fascination with “Afro-Futurism” is a good and striking example of how the imaginative assertion of confidence can take a whole continent of work in new, lively directions.14 Similar things could be said of the late twentieth century Latin American literary movement of the neo-baroque, in which the obscurity and fusion of cultural origins enabled powerful new styles of imagining. Both demonstrate that uncertainty need not equate with a lack of confidence and exuberance.15 It should be remembered that the various European modernisms did not originate out of a belief in innovation but actually out of a loss of faith in the earlier techné of image-making and its institutions. At present there is significant transformation taking place in the field of Western art history itself and it is producing a number of interesting scholarly reflections. Among them there is David Summer’s Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, a study which is premised on the consideration of artworks in relation to the architecture and cities for which they were originally designed, and Christopher Wood’s Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art which identifies the important role that what we now call “media technologies” played in the construction of the German, as distinct from the Italian, idea of the Renaissance. Then there is Belting’s monumental Likeness and Presence: a History of the Image before the Era of Art, his study of early Christian imagery, its sacred functions and how they were distinct from aesthetic considerations. Although Belting is now a well-known figure in global art studies, little attention is paid to this early work, even though its title itself is an indication of his awareness of the fleeting nature of the era of art, of Western art. All that might seem very removed from the transforming art scenes of the twenty-first century Indian Ocean, yet this new research does demonstrate that even for the established culture of Old Europe, a new art history is in process. But this is another, demanding debate we need to have. It is against these kinds of investigations that we should confidently reorientate our work.
Notes 1 This essay by curator John Mateer was written for the catalogue to the exhibition In Confidence: Reorientations in Recent Art, 31 August-13 October, 2013, at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), Perth. The artists were Simryn Gill, Rodney Glick, Lynn Lu, Hayati Mokhtar & Dain-Iskandar Said, Tom Nicholson, Max Pam, PUNKASILA, Christian Thompson, Lisa Uhl and Hossein Valamanesh 2 The monumental publication accompanying the exhibition was Intense Proximity: an Anthology of the Near and Far, edited by Okwui Enwesor et al., Paris: CNAP/Réunion de Musees Nationaux, 2012 3 One sign of this is Global Art Program of Deutsche Bank’s selecting the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi as Artist of the Year for 2013. The effect of this kind of “claiming” of the artist can mean an evacuation of the meaning of the work. His striking exhibition at Kunsthalle Berlin (April 18-August 4, 2013) seemed to me full of references to drone-strikes and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, yet nowhere was this acknowledged in the lavish catalogue 4 What Happened to Art Criticism?, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003. This book is only one of many similar enquiries. Another book on this subject is Pressures on Art Criticism: What is an independent Art Critic Today?, Margareta Tillberg (ed.), Lund: Swedish Art Critics Association, 2010 5 PICA’s curator Leigh Robb brought the following article to my attention in which it is revealed that the USA too, faces this predicament; http://galleristny.com/2013/05/there-are-now-lessthan-10-full-time-art-critics-in-the-u-s/ 6
Part of the larger project is the publication of individual interviews published in The Conversation Series by Verlag Walther Koning, Cologne. ‘Serpentine Memory Marathon’ is the name given to the cycle of interviews conducted at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2012 7
See ‘A Dialogue between Jan Svenungsson and Tom Nicholson’ in the exhibition catalogue; Ocular Lab, 2005, and Shelley McSpedden’s ‘Interview with Tom Nicholson and Raafat Ishak’ in Discipline No. 1, 2011: 94-99 8 Information about the affecting film may be found at marinafilm.com. A further development is the book of photographs by Marco Anelli, Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramovic, Bologna: Damiani, 2012, which consists of portraits of the artist and portraits of those audience members who chose to sit opposite her in her/their performance. Abramovic’s Video Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist may be found on Youtube 9 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright eds, New York: Harper and Row, 1972 10
An insight to his work is The Emancipated Spectator, Gregory Eliot trans, London: Verso, 2011. An interesting example of this in action is a South African venture, the Johannesburg-based Centre for Historical Reenactments
11 ‘When was Modern Art: the Museum of Modern Art and the History of Modernism’. Paper presented at Rethinking Cosmopolitanism: Africa in Europe/Europe in Africa at Akademie der Künste, Berlin, February 2013 12
Confronting Images: Questioning the End of a Certain History of Art, University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2005: 2
13 This is an argument I make through the example of Rodney Glick’s Balinese works in ‘A Crowd of Eyes: the Collector, the Artist and the Balinese Gods’, Art Monthly Australia 258, 2013 14
The 2012 exhibition Superpower: Africa in Science-Fiction at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery is a good example of this trend. Tate Modern’s 2013 retrospective of the African-American artist Ellen Gallagher, AxME, is also been discussed in these terms
15 See Lois Parkinson Zamora, The Inordinate Eye: New World Baroque and Latin American Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006
Page 256: Hayati Mokhtar & Dain-Iskandar Said, Near Intervisible Lines (video still), 2006 Photo courtesy the artists Page 259: PUNKASILA, Crash Nation, 2012 Photo courtesy the artists and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney Opposite: Tom Nicholson, Indefinite distribution, 2010; public action on 15 November 2010 with two aeroplanes and aeroplane texts, and the distribution of 30,000 leaflets by 60 volunteer participants, in and around the centre of Porto, Portugal Photo courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane
looking at an Ingres painting
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Pedro de Almeida Thomas Hirschhorn writes—a lot. He writes about who he is (“I am an artist, I am not a social worker”); he writes about what he believes (“I believe that art can include every human being”); he writes about what he wants (“I want to be engaged with art in absolute equality”); he writes about what he needs (“I need philosophy as a human being, as a man”); he writes about what he doesn’t need (“I don’t need philosophy to legitimise my work as an artist”); he writes about what he must do (“I must cooperate with reality in order to change it”); he writes about what he always does (“I always reject this question”); he writes about what he never does (“I never make ‘relational aesthetic’ art”); he writes about his challenges (“I am confronted with the question of ‘authorship’”); he writes about his successes (“I am proud of the workers and I am proud of myself”); he writes about his failures (“I am really a bad theatre director”); he writes about thinking (“I like full-time thinking”); he writes about philosophy (“I like philosophy, even when I don’t understand a third of its reflections”); he writes about philosophers (“I am a fan of Spinoza”); he writes to philosophers (“Dear Jacques Rancière, I am happy to have the opportunity to write to you”); he writes about what he loves (“I love to encounter the Other through an Idea”); he writes about what he hates (“I hate volunteerism for the sake of art!”); he writes about why he writes (“I write because I can write—just as everybody can—and I want to write in an egalitarian way. This means: I simply write with my own words!”); he writes about not writing (“I do not use Twitter”).1 A Swiss-born resident of Paris, Hirschhorn doesn’t just write, of course, he is an artist best known for his projects in which he makes things before destroying them: his Altars in dedication to the memory of the painters Piet Mondrian and Otto Freundlich, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann and the writer Raymond Carver; and his Monuments to philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze and Georges Bataille;2 and his more recent, genuinely idiosyncratic installation Crystal of Resistance for the Swiss Pavilion in 2011’s Venice Biennale, none of which I’ve seen dans la chair, such is the perennial disappointment of an antipodean of non-jetsetting status. But I did however have the pleasure of having the opportunity of making pilgrimage to Hirschhorn’s most recent and final Monument, this time dedicated to the Italian writer, philosopher and Marxist martyr Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), on a perfect sunny afternoon in August this year in New York’s South Bronx. It was here that I came to the reluctant acceptance of Hirschhorn’s unapologetic, harshly assertive declaration of what he calls “Unshared Authorship”. Yes, even when on the other side of the world grappling with the physicality of the artist’s monumental structure, it was his words that triggered a little jolt of exhilaration at finding myself intellectually dispense with—permanently, one hopes—the worst of the politically correct fallacies imposed by participatory practice in contemporary art and its bastard sibling, relational aesthetics. In other words (let’s stick with Hirschhorn’s words): “Unshared” means saying yes to complexity and implies multiplication, not division. Today’s issues about claim for “responsibility” come from those “shared responsibilities”, which push you to the “I am not responsible for this, I am only responsible for that!” excuses. I’m certainly guilty of making excuses in this regard—I suspect very few among you, dear readers, are not—and Hirschhorn knows it. His distinction as an artist and writer, now self-evident after two decades of challenging work, lies in his unswerving commitment to never make excuses where others are easily self-deceived into accepting themselves as victims of historical inequality, ideological inertia, cultural hegemony or everyone’s favourite bogeyman, capitalist subjugation. Hirschhorn pursues his loves (“My love for Antonio Gramsci”) not at the expense of others, but by expending with others (“I am entirely and completely the author regarding everything about my work”). He does this not in self-service—though some have suggested this3—but in an artistic fission that ignites what Hirschhorn
terms the “Non-Exclusive Audience” by separating the element of curiosity from the substance of prejudice, atomising the suppositions of individual agency to look, listen, learn and, yes, participate—or failing that ultimately reject the artist entirely, which is fine by him (“I do not distinguish between a person who could be a ‘receptive participant’ and the person ‘hanging around’”). So it was that I found myself on the No. 5 line of Manhattan’s subway, heading north into the Bronx, where before arriving at Prospect Avenue at East 160th Street, I noticed the conspicuous change in the racial make-up of my fellow passengers relative to those on the other side of a geographic divide I had failed to observe. I had crossed a spurious border that New Yorkers feverishly erect, or are otherwise coerced into imagining, only a slightly more pronounced malady than that of Sydneysiders, who giddily backpack across lands of poverty-stricken aqua-marine, yet would never dream of passing through less prosperous neighbourhoods at home than their own. A short stroll past Amigo Discount, Fuente’s Barber Shop, David’s Check Cashing and Johnson Bar-B-Q, and I had arrived: “Destruction is difficult; it is as difficult as creation”, read a spray-painted banner, words attributed to Gramsci’s Prison Notebook confessions penned during the final years of his life as a political prisoner. The banner was affixed to a shallow walkway that bridged two islands constructed of generic domestic materials: thickets of untreated two-by-fours, canopies of plywood and plastic tarpaulins, sheets of plexiglass, secondhand furniture and hand-painted designs and graffiti, appearing all of a piece by Hirschhorn’s familiar use of duct and packing tape entwining itself around this structure like the vines of a tropical rainforest hugging the ruins of a lost civilisation. An alternate view might be that the Gramsci Monument looked rather like an arty shantytown, one that had incongruously and conspicuously appeared amid an otherwise pleasant neighbourhood
courtyard and children’s playground.4 Advancing up a rickety ramp to the Monument’s upper platform I discovered the Gramsci Library, well-stocked with the eponymous literature in Italian original and English translation, along with books by like-minded thinkers (Marxism and the City by Ira Katznelson); the daily Gramsci Monument Community Newspaper print room (“Resident of the Day: Nilmia Polonia”); the Gramsci Bar (“Hot dogs $1”); the Gramsci Workshop with children’s art and craft creations on display (Quote of the Day: “I am Flawless and Sexy–Jahsiah”); the Antonio Lounge (Today’s lecture: “What is Identity?” by Marcus Steinweg); the Gramsci Radio Studio broadcasting an interview on 91.9FM with a curious visiting German couple (“Ja, South Bronx is very interesting”); and, finally, as I entered the main common room, a glimpse of Hirschhorn himself, seated at a table in conversation with a young black resident, visibly annoyed by his interlocutor’s commitment to his project (“You must turn up! You agreed to do this. To do the newspaper everyday you must turn up. I am relying on you to meet this objective”).5 Hirschhorn’s astuteness in selecting a site so rich in symbolic potential is self-evident with the locale of his Gramsci Monument, a courtyard nestled within a collection of New York City Housing Authority buildings known as Forest Houses, easily conjuring a View-Master slideshow of vivid imagery from contentious recent social histories. Indeed, there is hardly a more infamous case study for the calamitous dovetailing of a city’s de-industrialisation, subsequent ‘white flight’ and urban planning imperiousness with State sanctioned neglect, chaos and a slow re-emergence of pride instigated by local culture (in the worldwide dominance of the indigenous emergence of hip hop), than this small patch of earth called South Bronx. This multifaceted history is at once exhilarating and challenging to contend with. As a critic writing about Hirschhorn’s Monument I’m entirely self-conscious of the inherent irony of this task in light of the iron-strong arrogance of Robert Moses, the Baron Haussmann of New York City’s megalopolis, best illustrated by his oft-quoted aphorism (itself a variation on a George Bernard Shaw coinage): “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticise.”6 It’s sobering to recognise the nationalistic drive in America—though this holds true for all powerful nation States—to valorise Great Men in memoriam (see Washington D.C.’s Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt memorials alone), at the expense of the masses whose sacrifices are unjustly inversely diminished by their sheer aggregate horror: witness Maya Lin’s noble defiance against this impulse towards her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, perfectly encapsulated in her devastating anecdote that tells of being confronted with the singularly offensive question, “doncha just think they need a parade?”7 The ‘people’—collectively, not just artists like Lin or Hirschhorn—are demonstratively capable of conceiving their own monuments, as when over three days in August 1980 the Counter Convention for the People’s Alternative, an informal hotchpotch coalition of local community constituents and interlopers, erected three small timber shacks on the rubble of demolished blocks and announced a ‘People’s Convention’ to compete with the Democratic Party’s National Convention that was being concurrently held at Madison Square Garden, intended to embarrass President Carter who had stood on Charlotte Street three years earlier promising to turn around its urban decay. But this kind of civic activity (‘participatory’ if you must) wasn’t accepted as art then (not discounting the contributions of now legendary pioneering street, multimedia and conceptual artists John Fekner and Don Leicht), nor is it now. This is precisely the reason why it shares a brand recognition problem with Antonio Gramsci’s stale Marxist philosophies: the irony has always been that searing individual greed is a vital ingredient in making the soufflé of mass change rise—a commandment Robert Moses enacted to his mastery before the inevitable tipping of the scales in favour of public opinion.8 The question of what ‘they’ might ‘need’ is a point of heated conjecture in relational aesthetics and participatory art, which must grapple with the politically expedient realities of social-inclusion agendas borne of neo-liberal philosophies that, in the concise analysis of leading critic in the field Claire Bishop, “are less about repairing the social bond than a mission to enable all members of society to be self-administering, fully functioning
consumers who do not rely on the welfare State and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised world”.9 Bringing this observation of Bishop’s closer to home repositions us to consider local contemporary art projects that specifically engage with or take place in public housing sites such as the recent first stage of Temporary Democracies, a panoply of artists’ projects situated in the south-west Sydney suburbs of Airds and Bradbury, blighted —though changing (and fast) thanks to the perspicacious powers of Public Private Partnership—by decades of seemingly endemic welfare dependence fused with the worst of the architectural and social engineering follies of modernism’s sclerotic decades of influence. Organised by Campbelltown Arts Centre’s Live Art Curator Paul Gazzola, Temporary Democracies seeks to “open up new strategies of engagement to support and involve residents through participation, dialogue and interaction” and—wisely it must be categorically stated—“make first-hand experiences of a contemporary art practice more readily available through these localised residencies as it simultaneously offers a distinct and evocative situation to the artists’ processes of producing site-based art”.10 The smart distinction is in the offering of a “situation” to the artist and not pre-packaged audiences, communities or participants, the latter being the decision entirely of others. Watching a video online of artist Brian Fuata playfully pondering his Temporary Democracies work by declaring “it’s part of a series called the Privileged Performances where dressed as a faun I kinda describe practice that I’m not familiar with… and appropriate my inadequacy or inability under this persona of a faun”,11 I empathise with how he feels! What is an honest critic if not this faun? With Temporary Democracies I’ll resist the urge to pretend that I was there to throw a shadow on a wall and instead look forward to catching the next stage of developments if I can. How to talk about art you haven’t participated in much less seen? This is not just an academic question for the thinly stretched art critic, but one that is central to the entire conception of an artist’s audience. I’ve both seen and produced enough community engaged contemporary art projects to know that a root cause of missed opportunity at mutual understanding is a commonly held but uncommonly admitted fear of humiliation: intellectual, bodily, irrational or otherwise. This is true beyond mere art circles: witness the collective denunciatory shriek at Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “there are known knowns” observation despite its rhetorical clarity and logical truth. Indeed, unchecked this fear induces private shame that inevitably manifests itself in public aggression, as it did during the making of Tony Schwensen and André Stitt’s BIG PINKO (2009) that saw the artists transform a decommissioned public housing terrace in Minto, a neighbourhood suburb of Airds, into a large-scale readymade sculpture entirely covered in pink paint, a construction and performance that reflected still current social, political and environmental concerns around urban renewal, displacement, social cohesion and abstraction. Writing about this in 2010 (forgive me in quoting myself as you do Hirschhorn), I observed: When we describe contemporary art projects as “community engaged” we signal mutual activity between artists and community members in the art making process. The difficulty in qualifying exactly what this activity might be, let alone its outcomes, is that the really valuable stuff is the subtle, private recalibrations of interior perspectives. It’s that spark that ignites the imagination to see more than what’s in front of us, pushing us to have the audacity to embrace the unknown for its own sake. It’s a difficult proposition. For every person who turned up that day and vocally expressed their wonder at the artists’ efforts, there remained others for whom letting down their barriers proved a challenge: “Pink! That’s for faggots.”12 I’ve yet to come across this question of shame in public conversations in the art world (a recipe for social isolation I’m sure), but in the literary sphere this topic has at least been breached by popular means by Parisian professor of French literature Pierre Bayard in his manual for charlatans and nonreaders, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read:
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To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannises us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.13 I’ve little doubt in the veracity of Bayard’s contention. It’s this base-level instinct for shame, democratically spread across all classes in society that distances people from art by simultaneously repelling the easily intimidated from their own desire to try new things, while driving shallow obsessives towards illusory simulacra of art instead of the palpably dirty, defiant and fallible thing itself. What remains are screen-based phantoms of ideas and their rendering by bodies in space that are permanently unattainable in the corporeal sense and thus permanently inadequate bedfellows. It would be dishonest of me to profess to really know what Brian Fuata’s special kind of performance art is about, much less in the specific context of that sunny day in August in Airds; I see him more often in bars and at parties than in performance, which is a reflection on me, not him. What I do know is that it’s utterly commonplace for those who pontificate or care to scribble about such things to unleash a cascade of platitudes in praise of that which they have either experienced secondhand, principally through the seductive mediation of the internet (witness the torrent of unsubstantiated words heaped on the recent Kaldor Public Art Project 13 Rooms in advance of its Sydney showing, another thing I missed but was nevertheless all too tempted to make my mind up about), or through sheer discounting of personal responsibility in allowing oneself to be as vulnerable as the artist. I’m occasionally guilty on both counts and the comforting delusion is that it hardly matters because everyone is at it. This is anathema to the obsessive, committed, recalcitrant artist like Hirschhorn, as it is for his peers Schwensen and Stitt and, I suspect, Fuata. Let this be a pledge to never again utter the words “participatory art”, lest there be confusion as to who exactly is required to do the heavy lifting in the production of meaning. As Hirschhorn astutely observes: I have never used the term “participatory art” in referring to my work—that is a meaningless term, because someone looking at an Ingres painting, for instance, is participating. He can participate without anyone noticing. It’s a delicious irony—completely intended, no doubt—that Hirschhorn should choose a staunch defender of Western art’s academic propriety, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres to make his point, given Ingres’ selfappointed guardianship of classicism’s disciplined line and rational thought against romanticism’s rough wildness and abandon proved a catalyst for the breakneck metastasisation of art history as modernism took hold and progressed to malignancy. In the feverish tumult of the second decade of the twenty-first century we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that contemporary life has a monopoly on complexity—in colossal leaps in communication, technology and migration. But all of this has only been made possible by a vast forgetting that ensures that for much of the time —too much by far—our lives are a mad rush of restless, ceaseless, baseless associations between spectacle and communion, anything but the difficult pleasure of being left alone to activate an inert object with the power of one’s own mind. Looking at an Ingres painting, you start by turning up to meet yourself: present, willing and able to accept the responsibility the artist requires of you to realise his work (“I am relying on you to meet this objective”). Pages 262-3 and above: Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument: A Work in Public Space, 2013, produced by Dia Art Foundation, New York, located at Forest Houses, The Bronx, New York City, 1 July–15 September 2013, photographed by the author Photos courtesy the artist
This is the second of two consecutive commissioned texts on the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, the first being ‘Touching Reality’ by Adam Geczy in the September issue, Volume 42.3, 2013 Notes 1 All Thomas Hirschhorn quotes throughout this essay (unless otherwise attributed) are taken from the artist’s writings packaged as a PDF titled ‘Timeline: Work in Public Space, 2012 –The 14 Included Texts’ to accompany both his Dia Art Foundation exhibition of a large-scale collage, Timeline: Work in Public Space (2012), presented at Dia: Chelsea project space, New York, 15 September–3 November 2012, and available for download on his Gramsci Monument website http://gramsci-monument.com/ 2 Mondrian, Geneva, 1997; Freundlich, Basel and Berlin, 1998; Bachmann, Zürich, 1998, Hall in Tyrol, 1999, Berlin, 2006; Carver, Fribourg, 1998, Philadelphia and Glasgow, 2000, Miami, 2006; Spinoza, Amsterdam, 1999; Deleuze, Avignon, 2000; Bataille, Kassel for Documenta 11, 2002 3
For example, “Hirschhorn is the type of Continental sophisticate who traffics in the naïve… His shoddy constructions are poststructural manifestations representing the inverse of his own sense of greatness”, James Panero, ‘The Artist is Present in the Bronx’, The New Criterion, 15 September 2013; and “It all made me sad: I had a vision of the great man descending upon the benighted residents of Forest Houses to spread his manna and impregnate the community with an embryo of hope, but one that was doomed to fade after the construction is dismantled at the end of the summer”, Ken Johnson, ‘A Summer Place in the South Bronx’, The New York Times, 25 July 2013 4 “As a community member I think it’s an eyesore. When I first saw it, it looked like one of those shantytowns… I’m glad it’s leaving tomorrow”, observes a visitor at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=bYNRyu_TMi8 5
Thomas Hirschhorn paraphrased by the author who overheard this partial conversation, 7 August 2013 6
Robert Moses quoted by Paul Goldberger in his obituary, ‘Robert Moses, Master Builder, is Dead at 92’, The New York Times, 30 July 1981
7 (Henry) Ross Perot, American businessman and one-time Independent Party Presidential Candidate, as quoted by Maya Lin to Louis Menand in ‘The Reluctant Memorialist’, The New Yorker, 8 July 2002: 59. The context is Lin recalling Perot’s question during discussions leading up to the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1982. Perot was allegedly to have harassed Lin about her Asian race and gender and is alleged to have called her an “egg roll” 8
For a multidimensional survey of this history see Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson eds., Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, New York: WW Norton & Company, 2007; Jill Jones, South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City, New York: Fordham University Press, Bronx, 2002; legendary social activist and New York State Assemblyman José Rivera’s YouTube channel; veteran journalist Bill Moyers’ news documentary ‘The Fire Next Door’ for CBS Reports, on the social plight of the South Bronx at the height of its arson firestorm, that screened on American television on 22 March 1977; and artist John Fekner’s Research Archive at http://johnfekner.com/ 9 Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’ in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso, 2012: 14. See also Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ in October 110, 2004: 51-79; ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”’ in October 115, 2006: 95-107 10
Paul Gazzola, ‘Curatorial Statement’, June 2013, published on the website http://www. temporarydemocracies.com/ that will continue to showcase, document and elaborate on Temporary Democracies over two years (2013-2015), and which forms part of project artist Rebecca Conroy’s commissioned work, Site Narratives
As can be viewed at http://www.temporarydemocracies.com/
Pedro de Almeida, ‘The Lives of Others’, Art Monthly Australia 230, 2010: 5-7. At the time the author was project manager of BIG PINKO in his capacity as staff at Campbelltown Arts Centre
Pierre Bayard, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Jeffrey Mehlman trans., New York: Bloomsbury, 2007: 129-130
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Opposite: Brian Fuata, Privilege (house), Temporary Democracies, 2013; commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre Below: Tony Schwensen & AndrĂŠ Stitt, BIG PINKO: Cy & Dusty, 2009; durational performance, Minto, Australia; commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre Photos courtesy the artists
<<if the world changed>> Singapore Biennale 2013: good intentions, not a good idea?
TONY GODFREY The previous three Singapore Bienniales have been organised in a relatively traditional way: a chief curator (in the first two Fumio Nanju from the Mori Museum in Tokyo, in the third Singaporean artist Matthew Ngui) who then appointed two assistant curators. The work chosen was international, with a strong showing of Southeast Asian artists, especially Singaporean. Whereas the first had a clear thematic title “Belief” (2006) and agenda (many works were shown in churches and temples), and the third had a reasonably clear title and agenda “Open House” (2011), this third iteration has an insipid title that, like that of the second Biennale (“Wonder”, 2009), doesn’t mean much at all—“If the world changed”. On hearing there would be no fewer than twenty-seven curators, many of us locals were reminded of that old adage that one definition of a camel is a horse designed by a committee. What would a ‘meeting’ of twenty-seven curators selecting an exhibition be like? The notion was to appoint curators from different countries of Southeast Asia to tap into not just national but regional knowledge—so Yee I-Lann would act not for Malaysia singularly but specifically for Sabah where she came from; Kawayan de Guia not for the Philippines—which normally means Manila —but for Bagiuo (a highly urbanised city located in the province of Benguet in northern Luzon island). Several of these twenty-seven curators, like Yee I-Lann and Kawayan de Guia, have significant careers as artists. “To harness the energy of the region and build a distinctive Asian identity for the Singapore Biennale, SB2013 has adopted a bold new collaborative curatorial structure. A team of co-curators, made up of twenty-seven art professionals with distinct knowledge of Southeast Asian art practices are on board to offer their viewpoints and local knowledge. SB2013 promises a showcase of new artists and fresh works from the region. With the benefit of tapping into differing curatorial perspectives, SB2013 will serve as a premier international platform and vital entry point for artist presentation and discourse on regional contemporary art practices in the context of developments worldwide. This new format, which sees the combined efforts of individuals who each bring specific expertise and understanding, also allows SB2013 to expand its focus beyond the major metropolitan centres to present a greater diversity of artistic responses.”
That is how the Singapore Biennale’s mission statement is presented on the website and of course, it sounds grand, sensible and well intentioned. Discourse, democracy, diversity etc. But is it a good idea to give a “distinctive Asian identity” to a biennale in Singapore? Is this a sensible focus or is this just a provincial retreat to the ghetto? In a period when museums like Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim and Tate are finally trying, however lamely, to be global in their collecting and exhibiting, is “If the world changed” a good idea or is it not somewhat retardataire? Though I am citing museums in this example and not biennials, this Biennale is organised by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and is in effect a manifesto for their policy of collecting only Southeast Asian Art. It is no surprise therefore that twelve of these twenty-seven curators are from Singapore and of these eight have worked at SAM—(subsequently three, including the director, have since left the Singapore Art Museum before the Bienniale has opened). Might this be an attempt to assert the primacy of Singapore, and specifically SAM, as organisers and interpreters of Southeast Asia? And, has any other museum or country shown the willpower, finance or administrative skills to undertake such a role? Singapore and its museums have a major, or even unique, position therefore in the region. Inevitably, over the past few months, there have been rumours, false or true, of disagreement amongst the curators. At the time of writing the exhibition is not operational with all the indications being it will not be a cohesive exhibition. In fact one doubts that even the clusters of art presented in the eight assorted sites will be cohesive. There are major, indeed crucial issues that this project foregrounds that must be aired as corollaries to, and a context for, the actual Biennale. What is the point of a biennale in Singapore? Who is it for? Is it to energise or promote national or regional artists, or to engage in a global discourse? The crux of the matter has to be this concentration upon Southeast Asia alone, and here we must see it in the wider context of museums and other institutions in Singapore.
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As an English person, one is painfully aware of the dangers of smug isolationism. English art was vitiated by its establishment’s one hundred year refusal to engage with modernism over The Channel, in Paris, Munich and Vienna etc. But from 1950 when the Tate finally bought a Picasso painting to 2000 when Tate Modern opened, it was a painful struggle to catch up. I should also add that before 1950 the best artists, bar a few visionary eccentrics, were those who ‘went abroad’ to see what was going on elsewhere. The founding of Tate Modern, a museum with no specific commitment to prioritise British art, has had an extraordinary effect. Above all else it has (a) drawn the international art world to London, and (b) helped make contemporary art popular within the UK. (And it has forced Tate Britain to raise its game too.) Doubtless, there are problems with Tate Modern: an excess of the spectacular and the ‘wow’ factor, and some crass popularisation. But its effect has been similar to that of the Pompidou Centre or the Guggenheim Bilbao—it has energised a district and a community. Inevitably, SAM has not been able to do that, as it is too small and tucked into a quaint but awkward pair of buildings. Singapore’s National Art Gallery that opens in 2015 will not do it either—despite the $700 million construction cost of its building—if all it shows is Southeast Asian art made between 1850 and 1990. Pompidou, Bilbao and Tate Modern work because they are big, global and ‘now’. It might also be humbly suggested that SAM’s obsession with “Asian identity” is because Singapore is probably the least Asian country in the region? It is after all often referred to as “Asia-lite” in travel guides. An increasing number of residents speaks English, the elite are educated in England, USA or Australia, it has a massive expat population and their national icon (Raffles) is European.1 It is an international ‘cosmopolitan’ city and its financial success depends upon that fact. What makes Singapore actually interesting is not that it is Asian, but that it is a hybrid of European (mainly Anglo-American) and Asian cultures (not just Chinese, but Indian, Malay and Peranakan). There is a surprisingly large number of interesting artists in Singapore, but they are not interesting because they are hymning their “Asianness”, but because they respond to this strangeness of Singapore, its hypermodernity, its globalism, its in-between-ness. Building a “distinctive Asian identity” clearly echoes this obsession with creating a Singaporean identity by events such as the National Day Parade and The Pledge (of national allegiance—every individual, when reciting The Pledge should clench their right fists to the left side of their chests as a gesture to symbolise loyalty to the nation while reciting; “We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”) Maybe there should also be a Regional Day Parade where the various nations parade in their respective national costume—though Singapore may be somewhat embarrassed at having no national costume other than the European business suit and white shirt. In a recent roundtable discussion international artist and educator Milenko Prvacki, who has lived in Singapore for twenty-two years and like many is exasperated by this obsession with ‘Southeast Asian art only’, railed with a string of double negatives against the myopic approach of the museum: “Why do Singapore’s banks not make business with Southeast Asian countries only? Why do big construction projects are not constructed by Southeast Asian companies only? Why do Singapore supermarkets not sell Southeast Asian products only? Why do Singapore businessmen not make business with Southeast Asian countries only? Why we are not driving cars produced in Southeast Asia only? Why we do not drink alcohol produced in Southeast Asia only?”2 In an international city one would expect to find international art—it is where artists might also expect to exhibit with international artists. Quite realistically does an artist from Southeast Asia (Singaporean, or whatever) desire to exhibit next to an artist from Myanmar, Brunei or the USA? The great ambition of most serious artists is to exhibit internationally; especially so in Southeast Asia, being a region rarely visited by international
Opposite: Boo Junfeng, Happy and Free (video still), 2013 Photo courtesy the artist
curators and gallery dealers. Relatively few local artists get to travel overseas unless they come from elite, wealthy families. (Singapore is exceptional with its strong policy of sending bright students to colleges abroad—there are currently more Singaporean students on Goldsmith’s Fine Art course than any other nationality other than British.) Why is there this official emphasis at Singapore’s two museums on Southeast Asian art? Politically this has much to do with firstly, the ethnic mix of Singapore (officially 74% Chinese, 13% Malay and 9% Indian3) and secondly, Singapore’s bizarre position as a small but very wealthy Chinese enclave surrounded by very large Malay populated nations. For example, the GDP of Singapore (population five million) is greater than that of the Philippines (population 98 million). To survive it has had to be economically indispensable in providing financial, medical and other services for the surrounding countries, or at least for their wealthy elites. As a result, they are the only country in Southeast Asia with the managerial ability, geographical centrality, available money and the perceived desire to build a regional art centre—or in an archetypal Singaporean buzzword—“hub”. But are they constructing such a platform for international discourse or a ghetto for regional discussion only? Indeed, if SAM is to be ‘the Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Museum’ why are the curators not selected from all the ASEAN countries (and elsewhere), rather than exclusively from Singapore? In Europe we have seen in recent years a growing tendency to recruit international curators. Such militant regionalism seems curious given the internationalist brief of other Singapore initiatives —the Art Stage art fair, and the Gillman Barracks complex of galleries. Would it be the act of a renegade to want to bring in international art? For example, the major collector Karl Ströher collected as a German and for Germans, but he did not just collect German art. From the 1950s onwards he opened his house in Darmstadt every week so people could see what he had bought in France, Spain or the USA. When in 1968 he sent his collection of American pop around museums in Germany he said; “I want this to have a stimulating effect on the German art scene: this too should be seen as the act of a patron.” The incredible growth of German Art could not have happened if he and other collectors, curators and designers had not been so receptive to art from abroad, especially the USA. There is more and better American Pop in German museums than in American museums. It might be further said that the quality of German art at a practising and theoretical level is the result of a concerted engagement with art and theory from beyond its own national boundaries and regional (EU) boundaries. Meeting artists from other countries is challenging. Personally, it has been challenging for me to move from the UK to this region and work with artists from Indonesia, The Philippines and Singapore—challenging, but exciting and fruitful. More challenging, one might add, than just working with European artists. In 2006 Lee Boon Yang, then Minister for the Arts, opened the first Singapore Biennale by saying it would “enable our artists to meet and engage artists from all over the world for a productive discourse. Such exchanges should be mutually inspiring and from which may spring new ideas for a better tomorrow.” He was proud to say that the exhibition included ninety-five artists from thirty-eight countries—some like Yayoi Kusama, Xu Bing or Barbara Kruger were famous, others were not. It is dismal that the vision of Singapore’s Biennale initial curators has diminished from “all over the world” to just the Southeast Asian region. Surely, its presumed brief to support and promote regional art would be better achieved were it a fully international exhibition. While this Biennale might present some interesting artists from lesser known parts of the region, shouldn’t SAM be searching for good regional artists and exhibiting them on a regular basis anyway?4
The consensus word in response to SB2013 has been “underwhelming”. It was not just a matter of ignoring the world outside Southeast Asia —though a Japanese art group and a Korean artist were included—perhaps, as someone suggested, to commemorate the fact that Japan along with its Korean soldiers invaded Southeast Asia during the Second World War. It was also a matter of not including the best known or most internationally exhibited artists of from the region—no Eko Nugroho, Simryn Gill, the Aquilizans, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Dinh Q. Le, and so on. It further seems artists who had shown in previous Biennales were precluded. Is it not possible that some artists, even including those from Singapore, might not had created some interesting work in the last seven years? There were far too many artists (eighty-eight) generally represented with too few works. Some of the paintings were especially weak, with the honourable exception of a large painting by Leslie de Chavez that managed to be both dour and carnivalesque. The most surprising work was by Indonesian Toni Kanwa, where hundreds of miniscule wooden figures were spread across an illuminated tabletop. Some were like mini-Giacommetis, some like Batak figures. It was a crowd pleaser. There were also good works by Nipan Oranniwesna, and Eko Prawoto’s bamboo structure outside the National Museum was notably elegant and appealing. Ultimately there were too many dull and weak artworks. Nor did the Biennale with its subtitle “If the world changed” have any thematic coherence. Simply, it was a survey of sorts, of lesser-known artists often from outside the metropolitan centres of Southeast Asia.
Focusing on the margins and forgotten areas is a fine and noble thing to do, but the brutal truth is that almost all the best artists—especially those young and ambitious—are drawn to the big cities where there are galleries, collectors and other artists. If the 2013 Singapore Biennale: If the world changed is meant to be a showcase to the world outside of what is best in Southeast Asian art (only) it has failed. Too many artists have been placed in a situation for which they are not yet professionally ready. No doubt it has been a good experience for them to meet other artists, but it would have been a far better and more challenging if there had been artists from around the world and more established regional artists had also participated. Notes 1 Others might say the icon is Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister, Oxbridge educated and once known as “Harry” Lee 2
‘Roundtable on Painting in Singapore’, in Painting in Singapore (exhibition catalogue), Equator Art Projects, 2013
3 The official figures are perhaps skewed by ignoring the substantial population of expatriate Filipino, Japanese, Australian etc. 4
These remarks were made after a visit to the opening of the major sites of the Biennale. The impending deadline for this edition precludes any fully considered or detailed response
Above: Leslie De Chavez, Detritus (detail), 2012-13 Photo courtesy the artist
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the island over there: how culture travels in japanese contemporary art1 Stuart Munro It is impossible not to write about Japan in 2013 without referring to the events that befell the eastern coast in March in 2011. The effect of the earthquake and tsunami on the towns and villages along Japan’s Tohoku region is probably best described clearly and simply as devastating. The ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi however is more complicated. A wavering of government and corporate responsibility has meant the crisis continues with no real sense of what the effect will be on the local landscape, on the exclusion zone surrounding the power plant, on Tokyo and beyond. This invisible presence of radiation has in itself created a space of doubt, which while traumatising has empowered and, in some cases, radicalised awareness, stimulated debate and conversation on the form of present society. As well as this, a more conceptual metaphysical space of nature has grown from these issues, where the temporal and momentary, the political, the communal and the performance now reside. Roppongi Crossing 2013: Out of Doubt is the latest exhibition of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum’s triennial event offering a survey of Japanese contemporary art. In light of the continuing events of 2011, this survey has become more worldly and speculative, offering more ambitious examples of what art means when confronting “the complexities, contradictions and ambiguities that have accumulated in the society and culture of this country ‘now’”.2 To understand this current social and cultural landscape and how it is viewed both at home and abroad you need only look back through what has been a series of critical moments heralding fundamental change along the way. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 saw Japan open its borders and begin one hundred and forty-five years of modernisation. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 would later inspire a desire for more meaningless distractions both recreational and artistic in the face of tragedy. The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis triggered memories of the Second World War and for some that wished to forget, a younger generation born between both events have become aware and begun to question events they had only heard about indirectly. The post-earthquake community brought back ideas of how we were, what we were like. The younger generation, central to this exhibition, started to look at things like the war which the previous generations never really touched upon, except for people like Makoto Aida and so on. There has been enough distance somehow since 1940 and they are now interested in why did this happen and what did our grandparents do?3 In the exhibition, parallels become clear from the very first room, between the past and present. Nakamura Hiroshi’s 1964 painting The Sacred Fire Relay (1964) may illustrate atrocities of war and peacetime leadership, but it also points towards the way past events have been viewed both from outside the country and within. He is interested in a type of “tourism” art, where the idea of sightseeing would engage views from outsiders visiting Japan and facilitate a critical view of the ‘self’. Meanwhile, Sachiko Kazama’s Prison NUKE FISSION 235 (2012) depicts the nucleus of President Eisenhower, an early supporter of Japan’s post-war nuclear power policy surrounded by Japanese politician-electrons.
Curators Mami Kataoka (Chief Curator, Mori Art Museum), Reuban Keehan (Curator of Asian Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane) and Gabriel Ritter (Assistant Curator, Dallas Museum of Art) looked to Japanese artists who worked not simply in one particular field, but that stretched their ideas across various methods of representation to explore themes pertinent to their own cultural identity. The prospect of including Japanese artists, international by birth with close or distant family in Japan, meant that the idea of viewing the country and culture from abroad would present the show with a critical view of present day Japanese society akin to an out-of-body experience. Different systems of education and being part of other art communities would also give a Japanese audience the opportunity to witness how Japanese sensibilities are received abroad when
Fellow Roppongi Crossing exhibitor Mika Tajima, born in the USA and based in Los Angeles, is placed next to Akira’s Spillberg (2009). His material indirectly reflects the language Tajima explores—time and duration through reference to film and the vacuum-formed acrylic she obscures with generous colour. The arrangement of Tajima’s wall hung pieces against wallpaper suggests the possibility of change, while her pallet-crate of previous work stands obliquely to the wall like actors and actresses waiting side of stage, hinting at their possible mobility, as events around them unfold. Making use of Le Corbusier paintings from Mori Art Museum’s permanent collection, the conceptual conversation between Tajima and Akira hints at the character of each piece, characters that appear part of some delicately drawn novel that depends on their changing identity and unfolding time. Conceptually, Spillberg was conceived as a kind of painting. Or for me, it constituted an attempt to make ‘paint that never dries’. Since ‘painting’ as a medium has been killed and resuscitated so many times, I feel it ought to be treated like a troubled identity. As with any identity in the globalised, trans-cultural and trans-historical context, there can be no single element underpinning its overall makeup. So I see Spillberg as a spill of paint that continues to morph into its future self even at a pace as slow as an iceberg.6
they are integrated into foreign cultures, what is different and what is not. In all, eight of the artists in Out of Doubt live and work abroad with Akira Akira, Koji Ryui and Masato Takasaka all based in Australia. The urge to be contextual, specific to place and circumstance has proved a vital and necessary ingredient when gathering artist proposals. Much of what is shown uses artwork as something mobile, in some cases physically carried and documented as either performance or film and at times both. Akira, Ryui and Takasaka have come through the Australian system, which places a far greater emphasis on historical knowledge, theoretical reflection and awareness of other practices.4 OBJECTS OF DESIRE Melbourne’s Akira Akira (originally from Kobe, and then Adelaide), is someone fascinated by detail, finish and presentation. His fascination with the materiality of alien surroundings is afforded a corner in the show almost uncanny in being. His choice of material delicately composed on plinths, as varied in what they’re made from as what they hold, results in an environment not dissimilar to a catalogue-moment in a photographic studio of products and commodities. In this way Akira’s staged setting and epistemology of materiality could see casual observers walk past and overlook one of the exhibition’s more unusually provocative pieces. When we think of Japan we instantly think of the shape of the island but actually that’s national boundaries, a political boundary but it doesn’t mean culture is cut off in that shape so I’m interested in how culture travels. Going to Australia and then seeing Japan from outside still carrying something about it with him, the way he (Akira) chooses material and arranges the space, making an extra ceiling with visible cabling and ceiling panels, in three different shades of white, probably not noticed by everyone. Those subtle differences are very important for him.5 His ambiguous productions give a sense of how the cultural heritage and ethnicity of other countries provide less cut-and-dried environments for this kind of experimentation. Other notable contemporaries like sculptor Ricky Swallow from Victoria, now based in the USA, and American Takeshi Murata express similar concerns. Swallow is an artist working with everyday images distorted through their manipulation, while Murata uses image technology, image degradation and photorealism to juxtapose ideas of handmade things with concepts of mass-production.
Roppongi Crossing: Out of Doubt registers itself in the work by the very nature of the material, on whether it’s dry and how it sits within the space, getting in the way. Tajima’s flat-packed studio of readily assembled screens is structural. Doubt here serves to suggest an uncertainty but one that expresses that uncertainty though the works’ ensuing performance, with itself, with each other and with visitors who pass by. Tajima’s flatpacked studio of readily assembled screens is structural. Belgium-based Yukio Okumura reinterprets other artists and their work to create a history that runs parallel to their own. Okumura discovered artist Hisachika Takahashi while flicking through an old exhibition catalogue and became obsessed with his 1967 exhibition tour while investigating this long forgotten artist. Okumura’s intention is to explore the (mis)interpretation of language and build on communication less dependent on the self but on others by ‘involving’ the figure of Takahashi, once an assistant to both Argentine painter Lucio Fontana and Robert Rauschenberg, pop-artist and originator of the “combine”. Takahashi’s enigmatic figure serves to involve people watching, listening and reading about him. Facing Tajima’s work Okumura’s video of Takahashi draws one in. The film’s attending crowd watching Takahashi speak could also be Tajima’s audience watching her work reorganised on both wall and floor, a timeline shared by Akira and prepared in the shape of constant material research and redevelopment. FREEDOM IS ON THE SIDE OF ‘THINGS’7 For sculptor Koji Ryui, his material performs. Born in Kyoto and currently living in Sydney, the liminal space between pieces is important. Potential relationships are found and nurtured though performance and the odd re-appropriation of everyday furniture. Objects and images leave you wondering where you place yourself in amongst all of this. It’s the performances he undertakes between objects that begin to hint at the nature and identity of the figures and characters he presents, though never directly. For the exhibition his ‘performance’ is simply the sculptural arrangement of crumpled faces (Soul Collector, 2010), amorphous characters (HAVE A NICE DAY, 2013) and scientific models (Special Arrangement #2, 2010) that together suggest structures embedded within all living things. Their loose arrangement creates a field of uncertain property; spaces, proximities and loose narratives stacked on misassembled shelving. “Moving through Ryui’s world we are encouraged to re-code our relation to the familiar.”8 The space afforded Ryui is generous and visually overlaps his neighbouring photography. Ryui’s networked creatures that are more anthropological than animal and Takuma Nakahira’s political space of photographic vignettes all create a diversity regardless of agenda and intention, with each piece supporting the next and a critical understanding
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of place and position in the uncertain territory of images against objects. The identity of these pieces doesn’t desperately seek meaning, but rather they identify themselves amidst a backdrop far more universal than you might expect. Japan in this case serves only as a starting point. As Kataoka points out; “It’s not only about Japan. The same format could be applied anywhere.”9 I started to recognise that that is very Japanese to be able to accommodate and accept two different things together. That’s a more polytheistic way of thinking. You start seeing a conflicting structure, but it’s not really. The modern and traditional are somehow loosely accepted in this society and that’s the beauty of this place. That way of looking at the structure of the world could be applied to a lot of indigenous culture and other non-Western places that are doing the same thing and having different things together.10 Ryui’s sculpture field sits alongside USA-based Aki Sasamoto whose work performs as much as the visitor who navigates her forest of familiar objects spliced together and intersected by small pieces of video. With the glove paintings of Chiba Masaya, the large paintings that accompany them embody subliminal reactions to identity and crisis, the nature of the world and how that nature is occupied. The glove paintings are treated as deities —Wandering Jizo—that show the way presented as pieces to wander through, to encounter and ultimately come to terms with turbulence and tragedy. The freedom these pieces express comes from their intelligent scattering as much as the message they emit, the subliminal reading of events and the nature and reality of their identity. COLLECTION AND COLLABORATION Japanese artists are increasingly mobile, however, so most of the artists included in this show have done their postgraduate research abroad, or have at least undertaken an exchange project, and they’re more than capable of engaging on the same level as the overseas-based artists.11 Masato Takasaka’s family-run Japanese grocery store in Melbourne has supplied him with more than a steady flow of raw material. The accumulation of everyday stuff has become a substance he can edit and re-edit as if writing his own autobiography or processing his relationship with both Melbourne, the place of his birth, and Japan, the home of his parents. His previous attempt to be an architect came with the realisation that the final outcome of an assembling process need not be fixed and regimented, but sporadic, whimsical or even nonsensical. He pulls together old magazines, records, books, and posters; the flotsam and jetsam of his adolescence, and composes it in the guise of a musical riff, guitar solo or lyrical improvisation (Post-structural Jam [Shut Up! We know you can play!], 2009). For Roppongi Crossing his parents would send him boxes of material and old Japanese packaging that he would later combine to establish a new order of things. All the while the goods shipped to the museum, ostensibly goods being returned as they had originally been sent from Japan to his parents’ store in Melbourne, would form a density worthy of Kurt Schwitter’s own Merzbau. Here he stages and reclaims a familiar but distant ancestry, oscillating between these two places with a sense of possibility, the possibility that things won’t work out (Another Propositional Model for the Everything Always Already-made Watanabe Studio Masatotectures Museum of Found Refractions 1994-2013, 2013). I studied architecture for a while, thinking I could turn my artworks into buildings. In the end I realised that the great thing about art is that it didn’t have to work. It’s more like whatever works—or more accurately whatever doesn’t work for me—works for me.12 Page 271: Iwata Sohei x Prominority, Pavilion for Unexpected Guests, 2013; installation view, Roppongi Crossing Page 272: Iwata Sohei x Prominority, Pavilion for Unexpected Guests (detail), 2013 Page 273: Suga Kishio, installation view, Roppongi Crossing Photos courtesy the artists
Takasaka’s installation of accumulated daily fragments matches the visual frenzy of Teppei Kaneuji’s lenticular diagrams and larger freestanding sculpture. For Keneuji, collage is a conversation between what’s on the wall and how it might be encountered and consumed. The accidental and chance relationships expressed by Ei Arakawa and Shimon Minamikawa sees painting as mobile, sculptural and performance. People come together and move away with Arakawa covertly dancing in a gallery performing his own visual edit of a painting by attempting to dangle his cape over one painting in front of bemused onlookers with the spectre of security just out-of-sight. I was starting to become aware of those people who were originally from Japan but now living as a part of the Western art community, not as somebody just living there but instead quite visible. Sasamoto was in the Whitney Biennale (2010) and Arakawa was invited by MoMA to do a performance (Paris & Wizard: The Musical, 2013). So it’s a different way of Japanese artists living in New York (for example) from 1950s and 1960s. They are completely part of the network and platform.13
Roppongi Crossing: Out of Doubt is conscious of the flow of creative talent leaving and then returning to Japan. This is not always the case though as some of the artist’s here demonstrate. The definition of foreign-ness in Japan may seem fairly cut-and-dried, but in fact is far from simple. Japan’s preference for a single-ethnicity is perhaps partly to blame for this, but central to the issue is the type of critical awareness of ethnicity absent from Japanese schools and universities in the first place. In the cases of Akira, Ryui and Takasaka their education in Australia has brought out an appreciation of diversity that is rarely experienced in Japanese art schools. The concept of multiculturalism in Japan is still embryonic and will grow. The explicit introduction of outside curators to Roppongi Crossing is the clearest indication that artists travelling abroad benefit and enrich the art community back home too. A renewed interest abroad almost certainly filters back to its source. Recent cultural interest in Asia-Pacific art cultures, art fairs and the onset of fledgling collector markets will see this interest increase. The perception of the role of contemporary art in Japanese daily life is a question as much for an audience accepting of craft, but not conceptual art approaches. A clearly energetic generation born around the late 1970s and early 1980s is proof that the spirit of protest continues to flourish with frustration and anger rooted in genuine passion and speculative thinking and not something sporadic, fleeting and momentary.
The legacy of multiculturalism has left Australia with a particular fascination for cultural backgrounds, so the ‘Japanese-ness’ of all three artists has to varying degrees been over-fetishised in some Australian receptions of their work. In Australia they are regarded not so much as foreign as ethnically and cultural specific. I don’t think any of this is an issue for the artists themselves, however—more their audiences.14 THE EXISTENCE OF RAW POTENTIAL “What is a samurai? What is a samurai, not in general, but at this time?” is hugely significant because I feel like I am, as I believe many artists are, haunted by the very troubling and perhaps unanswerable question: “What is it to make something.”15 Akira always finds himself returning to Deleuze’s description of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai where, at the story’s end, the head Samurai and his men are left wondering who they are and their purpose as ‘hired swords’. As Deleuze notes, the Samural drenched in mud, caught up in battle to free a village from marauding bandits, gallop desperately from one end of the village to the other seemingly battling and avoiding their aggressors at the same time and are left to lament their role in this unfolding drama. The villagers’ initial hostility only compounds the unavoidable truth; that the village will learn to defend itself and render these hired mercenaries obsolete. For me, doubts signal the existence of raw potentiality. Since they can diminish me completely and prevent me from acting on something, if something does survive this overwhelming criticality, then I think it is rather remarkable. I’m not saying that the quality of the resulting work should be of significance but it in itself marks a very clear difference between something coming to existence and not coming into existence at all.16
By his own admission, Akira’s work is received with a perceived sense of Japanese-ness though this heritage and his ethnicity is not a major concern having lived in Australia for so long. With this being his first exhibition in Japan he wonders how this perceived sense resonates with his ‘homeland’.17 Roppongi Crossing: Out of Doubt plots people and relationships with cultural boundaries that both limit and extend the perception of what constitutes a country and culture and what difference can be made in light of dramatic change. In Australia, with its own rich history of mixedethnicity and cultural heritage shared with Europe and America, the measurement of cultural wellbeing by artistic critical engagement shows a willingness to explore both past and present. The next seven years before the Olympics return to Tokyo in 2020 will be of utmost importance, rethinking the boundaries and limits media, government and in some cases its own culture places upon itself. For Mori Art Museum, this year marking its tenth anniversary, the next ten years will see Roppongi Crossing focus even further on the challenges that lie ahead in the intervening period. Hopefully this show will find itself travelling too. “Out of Doubt, or having this view of re-thinking about what you have or the existing system was very important for the show. A lot of people, not only the art community, are talking about the traditional perception of nature and having a critical view of society and politics. The earthquake just became a trigger to people’s perception and awareness of the situation. There was already a critical state of urgency that people needed to think like that. Roppongi Crossing was simply a trigger to think or collect these opinions.”18 Notes 1 Fumiko Kobayashi, The Island Over There (2008). This essay refers to Kobayashi’s piece recreated for and which opens this exhibition 2 Mami Kataoka, ‘In Search of Something Fundamental–Beyond Complexity, Contradiction and Ambiguity’, Out of Doubt (exhibition catalogue), Mori Art Museum, 2013: 233 3
Interview with Kataoka, chief curator, Mori Art Museum, 9 October, 2013
Email conversation with the co-curator Reuban Keehan, 11 October, 2013
Interview with Kataoka, op cit.
Email conversation with Akira Akira, 21 October, 2013
Taken from Takuma Nakahira, ‘Preemptive Strike–Seeing and Reading, Out of Doubt (exhibition catalogue), op cit: 193
Geraldine Barlow, Networks (Cells and Silos), Monash University Museum of Art, 2011: 12
Interview with Kataoka, op cit.
Email conversation with Reuban Keehan, op cit.
Interview with Masato Takasaka, Out of Doubt, op cit:139
Interview with Kataoka, op cit.
Email conversation with Reuban Keehan, op cit.
‘What is the Creative Act?’, in Two Regimes of Madness, Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), David Lapoujade (ed.), Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina trans., Semiotext(e), 2007: 312-324 16
Email conversation with Akira Akira, op cit.
Interview with Kataoka, op cit.
Left: Akira Akira, installation view, Roppongi Crossing Photos courtesy the artist
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masata takasaka at roppongi crossing
Andrew Maerkle A triennial survey of contemporary art in Japan, Roppongi Crossing has served as the flagship exhibition of the Mori Art Museum (MAM) since the series began in early 2004, just months after the museum itself opened. Each edition has taken a different stance toward defining contemporary artistic practice in a country where multiple strains of modernism independently coexist. Subtitled “Out of Doubt!”, Roppongi Crossing 2013 marks the first time the curatorial team, which traditionally comprises a representative from MAM working with independent partners, has been opened to curators from outside of Japan. Mami Kataoka, Reuben Keehan of Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art and Gabriel Ritter of the Dallas Museum of Art have pushed the scope of Roppongi Crossing further beyond national borders than previous iterations to include numerous artists who are based overseas, at the same time positioning the exhibition within the context of a society dealing with the aftermath of the 11 March disaster of 2011 and the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. Masato Takasaka is among three artists from Australia invited to participate in Roppongi Crossing. Born and raised in Melbourne, Takasaka makes Uroboros-like works that feed upon and update their predecessors. On display in Tokyo, Another Propositional Model for the Everything Always Already–made Wannabe Studio Masatotectures Museum of Found Refractions 1994-2013 ® eternal return to productopia–almost everything all at once, twice, three times (in four parts… RX2013 remix) (2013) is the latest in a series of installations with elements ranging from drawings, photographs and sculptural objects to found objects, commercial packaging and ephemera, all arranged and presented together on sheets of perforated board. Evoking Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935-41), the disparate contents of this work, accumulated over time, are envisioned as a self-curated retrospective constantly travelling in three customised boxes displayed nearby. The reference to Duchamp is not incidental, as Takasaka’s work also functions as an existential meditation on the readymade, and the intersections between the industrial and the autobiographical. In the context of Roppongi Crossing, this project also becomes a metaphor for the circulation of goods and people across the world amidst the different economic and societal forces that shape that circulation. Conducted on the eve of the opening of Roppongi Crossing, the following interview developed from several informal conversations with Takasaka over the course of his stay in Tokyo preparing for the exhibition, as well as a talk he gave on his practice to students at Tokyo Zokei University.
Above: Takasaka Masato installation view, Roppongi Crossing Photo courtesy the artist
ANDREW MAERKLE: In one of our earlier conversations you mentioned the idea of culture as a readymade. Could you talk about how this concept feeds into your work? MASATO TAKASAKA: My research interest has always been in the readymade and the idea that the artist’s practice is always already made, in that your own work is also a possible readymade or found object. When I was invited to participate in Roppongi Crossing, I extended that idea to my own situation of having Japanese heritage, but being born and raised in Australia. The appearance of me being Japanese is a given, and in that respect it’s like the readymade in terms of Duchamp’s objects: they look like what they are, but they’re not what they look like, because the title changes the work or the experience of the viewer. The way other Japanese people perceive me here is obviously different to the way people in Australia perceive me. There, it’s almost the reverse. I have a conversation with someone I’ve met for the first time and they say, “Your English is really good!” They don’t know that English is my first and essentially only language. In some ways you could say it’s my second language, too. It sounds a bit cheesy, but art is probably my first language. It’s a material language of objects and materials that have a history or memory. For example, we’ve got a memory of this place now because two weeks ago, when I first arrived, we met here and had a similar conversation. We can’t recreate that now, but in a way this action of repetition is like a relational aesthetics version of my practice. That is what interests me, similar to how at the lecture at Tokyo Zokei we talked about the expansion of time between what you knew when you first did something and what you know when you come back and redo it a week later or two or five years later. In my case, my practice is always cyclical. As part of my practice-led PhD research I’ve been looking at certain ways of thinking and philosophy related to eternal return, specifically, the way Deleuze thinks about the idea of repetition as a positive affirmation. That is to say, the idea that what repeats always comes back differently. I’ve been taking that concept quite literally in using the same objects and materials over and over again in my practice, where the act of reassemblage gives the same objects a new representation.
ANDREW MAERKLE: Maybe the readymade is the embodiment of the eternal return? MASATO TAKASAKA: Yes, that’s really good. In terms of the readymade, a good example is the delay in time from when Duchamp first presented Fountain in 1917 and then remade his readymades as miniature replicas twenty years later in the Boîte-en-valise. There’s a bridge between the eternal return of difference—things coming back differently—and the delay in repetition where sometimes things can only be fully understood after a long gap in time. Think of how we describe an artist’s work as being “ahead of its time.” So I’m interested in embedding that thinking about time into the structure of the work. For Roppongi Crossing I’ve been collecting objects and materials to add to my installation here, including a digital delay pedal that I bought at a guitar store in Shibuya. I saw in one of my Facebook streams that a new Steve Vai signature model had come out, and liked the idea of the signed digital delay pedal meeting the signature that makes the readymade. There was another pedal that I also had to get, which is an overdrive pedal called “Future Overdrive”. Both pedals are sitting together in the Roppongi Crossing installation. It’s like the philosophy of time and the readymade in the guitar shop for the guitarist, which is what I was looking at in the guitar posters from my Post-Structural Jam exhibition at Y3K Gallery in Melbourne in 2009. It was an autobiography through objects and materials. It might sound pretentious, but there was a Proustian sense of going back in time and memory to that project, only instead of the madeleine, for me it was the guitar magazine. So through the idea of culture as a readymade or found object, I was able to find something I was always looking for where I didn’t expect to find it. That’s the definition of hoarding as well. Hoarders always collect things because they think they’ll save it for later or just in case, and I think that applies equally to the readymade, because you don’t know when it will make sense until the proper time comes. ANDREW MAERKLE: Did you get a chance to talk to the other artists participating in Roppongi Crossing from Australia, Akira Akira and Koji Ryui, about how they feel about being in the exhibition and what it means to represent both Australia and Japan at the same time? MASATO TAKASAKA: I think it’s very interesting for the three of us, but also Koji and Akira have different perspectives from me, because they’re originally from Japan and independently chose to live and work in Australia. It goes back to the idea of cultural cubism and seeing things from a different perspective from someone who is completely embedded in a culture. I remember Akira telling me that his work is not Japanese, there’s literally no reference to Japan in it. Maybe this is what interested the curators: the way that artists outside of Japan can contribute to dialogue here through having an outside perspective and experience of living in another country. Koji commented that a lot of the installations seem to have an aspect of being readymade in the sense that they could be presented anywhere or in any white cube. One thing that Akira, Koji and I have in common is that we’re very aware of how objects and materials are activated in a spatial consideration. Maybe we connect more with the Mono-ha artists like Kishio Suga than the younger artists. I’ve been joking that my work is Nisemono-ha (a pun combining the “School of Things” of Mono-ha with the word nisemono, meaning an imitation, a counterfeit object), with the appearance of imitating things. I guess it revisits the idea from “PostStructural Jam” that to be a really good guitarist you have to imitate your heroes, and so again I was interested in that concept as well.
ANDREW MAERKLE: Previously we discussed the ambiguities of what opening up Roppongi Crossing to artists from outside of Japan implies about the commonalities among the artists. Does it reinforce already circulating racialist or chauvinistic interpretations of what makes someone Japanese; does it privilege the idea of contemporary art as a discursive commonality? Is the exchange taking place under this rubric different from what would happen in a typical international exhibition? MASATO TAKASAKA: I guess there are all these things you can’t see on the surface that you have to taste or experience. Mami Kataoka was talking the other day about how, even though some of the artists are from different parts of the world, this is an opportunity for all of us to contribute to the discussion of Japanese contemporary art, whether it’s from a Japanese or Australian perspective. I personally think it’s a really interesting survey in general, only everyone happens to have Japanese heritage. That’s why I think of culture or identity as a readymade or found object. Coming back ten years after my last trip to Japan, which was also for an exhibition, I’ve been able to revisit some of the things I already knew and memories I have of growing up around Japanese food culture and the consumer products you can buy at the combini (convenience store) or supermarket. Whenever I go into a combini, I’m automatically reminded of all the things I grew up around in Melbourne. It’s this weird object recognition or misrecognition. All the products are the same but totally different, as though at some molecular level they’ve been brought into being through completely different relations of space and time. ANDREW MAERKLE: Despite their sameness they reflect a kind of socioeconomic terroir? MASATO TAKASAKA: Yes. It’s funny that the objects in my Roppongi Crossing installation were actually produced in Japan and brought to Melbourne through my father’s importing company, and then reclaimed by me. So now here in Tokyo it’s like they are found objects that have been refound. It’s like the circularity or the eternal return. A lot of people who see the work might think that I found all the objects locally. ANDREW MAERKLE: So the return of the found objects to Japan parallels your return to Japan as a presumptive Japanese artist? MASATO TAKASAKA: It’s like going back to where you came from even though you never came from there in the first place. The objects keep coming back through repetition because I keep redisplaying or reconfiguring them, but there’s also the mechanism of the socio-economic terroir: a reterritorialisation or reconfiguration of that trajectory. The export object was never meant to come back, and it’s coming back this time in the form of an art object, which is not for sale, because it’s in a museum, so it’s on display as this weird object of meaning. But when I go into a combini I feel like it’s a people’s museum that is direct to the public. Similarly, the vending machine embodies the idea of capitalism providing a selection for everyone. The drink in a vending machine is a drink that everyone can buy, and it’s a drink that’s of the street, so it relies purely on when you’re thirsty, and it’s also very convenient. I was thinking of that idea of convenience, and how in Japanese the word for convenience store is shortened to “combini”, which evokes the “combine,” the specific word Rauschenberg used for material assemblage: the combini as combine. For me that is perfect. This is the convenience of the readymade and the found object. It’s already made so you have the convenience of not having to make it. It’s the thought of the object through selection; for the artist, the most direct route to something is simply through presenting it.
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found archives or, what we can learn from youtube
ALI CHERRI No one knew, in 2009, when young middle-class Iranians took to the streets to contest the election results in what would become known as the “Green Revolution”, and that the amateur YouTube footage, often shot on camera phones by the protestors themselves, would be the precursor of a new way of viewing and experiencing the news, that barely two short years later, YouTube would become the premiere witness to the upheavals sweeping the Arab world. In the last days of 2010, footage began appearing from the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid and soon, the rest of the country: demonstrations turned into riots turned into a countrywide revolution in the wake of a young street vendor’s self-immolation in protest at the confiscation of his wares. The uprisings unfolded and spread—to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and Syria—all in real-time, with YouTube footage acting as incontrovertible proof that what we were witnessing was “real”, was actually happening. The dictators’ propaganda had at last met its match in the form of shaky, unofficial footage, and no amount of crackdown could repress the wildfire spread of those images, which acted as both testimony and incitement, documenting and reconstructing reality at the same time. YouTube footage, accumulating at a rate of seventytwo hours of video uploaded per minute, calls into necessary question the whole idea of an archive: a sourced, unique and select record of history, both recent and distant. As concept and as object, the idea of the archive is evolving, as the idea of interactivity, of the spectatorial experience, that is, the relationship between viewer and text, as Jamie Baron puts it, enters into the discussion. Certain audiovisual documents, she maintains, come to produce an “archive effect”.1
Above left and right: Ali Cherri, Pipe Dreams (video stills), 2012 Photos courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris
It is safe to say that YouTube constitutes today the largest video database for mankind. It has been growing into an archive because of the way it is being used, and “is thus evolving into a massive, heterogeneous, but for the most part accidental and disordered, public archive”.2 And because YouTube footage doesn’t carry the weight of authenticity and authorship, nor is it subject to a curatorial authority, it liberates us from the anxiety facing the archive. Found footage is different from archival footage: the archive is an official institution that separates historical record from what might be considered, in filmic terms, as an outtake. There are simply too many documents, and it is difficult to decide which ones should be preserved by technologies rarely available outside of official archival institutions. This relatively recent situation leads to a breakdown in the distinction, which was never very stable, between “archival” and “found” documents. Found footage artists critically investigate the history behind the images, their modes of production, circulation and consumption. I come from a region where our relation to archives is quite problematic. After the Lebanese Civil War in 1991, the parliament passed an amnesty law that retroactively pardoned all political crimes committed up to that point. The official reading of the war was that there were no winners and no losers, and therefore no one official narrative of history. Archival documents relating to the war remain highly contested, and each camp holds a different official archive. So my interest in archives, or more specifically their malleability, the porousness of their representational authority, is a personal issue. Recently, I have become more and more interested in this blurred distinction between archive and found footage, as well as the potentiality it opens for new readings of reality. In her essay ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, Hito Steyerl suggests that what poor images lose in quality, they gain in speed: they become easier to be “uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and re-edited”.3 The repurposing of that poor or “bad” image —the adjective here refers to both content and resolution—has the potential to re-gift it with life, with its essential aspect as witness; the images are, after all, part of a public domain and are endlessly bound to that public.
Following that line of thought, and saturated by countless hours of footage shot from inside the media blackout in Syria by the demonstrators themselves, I put together my 2012 exhibition Bad Bad Images. I used stills from low quality videos from the Syrian uprising, enlarged to the size of monumental classical paintings. At that size, images are no longer pixilated; they become ghostly, gaining an impressionist painterly quality. It was an attempt to give back to these images their imagination; to give them back their poetic language, their capacity to suggest the political, not to represent it. Another such project that sought to continue breaking down the distinction between “found” and “archival” documents was Pipe Dreams (2012).4 (The following two paragraphs I am quoting, and extending fractionally, from an interview with Sheyma Bulai, which appears on page 282 of this issue): Pipe Dreams captures an historic phonecall between the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Syrian military aviator and astronaut Mohammed Faris, who was part of the 1987 Soviet space program.5 In this archival footage, we see the “father of the nation” questioning the “hero” about his impressions as Faris looks down on Syrian lands from space. The conversation features the “eternal leader”, who from the comforts of his office casts a watchful eye on the children of the nation, even when they are thousands of miles away up in space. Exposing power structures that are embedded in this five-minute conversation goes beyond the Syrian example. This was the end of the 1980s, a time when young revolutionaries—in Libya (Muammar Al-Gaddafi), Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and Syria (Hafez Al-Assad)—had asserted themselves as the sole and eternal leaders of their countries, often taking power following coups that deposed previous governments. Power in these countries was—and in many respects, still is—communicated through symbols: statues of “founding fathers”, larger-than-life billboards, speeches by the countries’ leaders and of course, by the nations’ heroes. In a sort of mise en abyme, the installation depicts President al-Assad (through a monitor), who addresses the cosmonaut in his spaceship through an identical monitor: an infinite loop of the image of the leader looking at the hero. Archival government footage is juxtaposed with amateur YouTube footage from early 2011 in the background, when Syrian unrest began: the authorities, fearing vandalism, dismantled the statues of al-Assad across the country’s protesting towns, including Hama and Deraa. Haunted by the images of destroyed statues, from Stalin to Saddam Hussein, the Syrian regime tried to head off the inevitable, sacrificing the symbol in order to safeguard the image. For me, this was a major shift in
Above left and right, and opposite: Ali Cherri, Pipe Dreams (video stills), 2012 Photos courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris
the strategies of totalitarian regimes. You know the end is imminent when power begins to lose its monuments. This interface between two moments in recent Syrian history encapsulates the history of the entire region: the mechanisms of the construction and deconstruction of totalitarian power, the dreams and disillusions of an entire nation. It’s exactly by fragmenting moments in history, reducing them to debris, that we can put them in a dialectical process, namely montage. I try to link my approach to found footage as a cinematic practice, consisting of re-using and re-editing archival images, to Walter Benjamin’s remarks on “historical knowledge” and its relation to montage. In Benjamin’s words, historical knowledge “has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation… Its theory is intimately related to that of montage”.6 For Benjamin, history is connected to editing practice, through which we deal with the relationship between a reminiscent present and a vanished past. We can never see the past in its entirety, but only through a series of fragments, a discontinuous succession, a broken sequence of “dialectical images.” For Benjamin, dialectical images are “images that emerge suddenly.” These images operate in a continuous coming and going between the present and the past, and by decontextualising them, I try to decipher how History unfolds in our visible world. Such an imperative is perfectly summed up by Georges Didi-Huberman in The Eye of History:7 “We need images to create history, especially in the age of photography and cinema. But we also require imagination to re-see these images, and thus, to re-think history.”8 Notes 1 Jaimie Baron, ‘The Archive Effect: Archival Footage as an Experience of Reception’, Projections, Volume 6, Issue 2, Winter 2012 2 Rick Prelinger, ‘The Appearance of Archives’, The YouTube Reader, Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau eds, 2010 3
Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, e-flux Journal 11, 2009
Pipe Dreams, 2-channel video installation (6’ loop); produced by Galerie Imane Farès, 2012
5 Muhammed Faris flew as Research Cosmonaut in the Interkosmos program on Soyuz TM-3 to the Mir space station in July 1987. He was decorated Hero of the Soviet Union and Order of Lenin. In August 2012, he defected from the Syrian Army and fled to Turkey 6
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999
Georges Didi-Huberman, L’oeil de l’histoire–Tome 2: Remontages du temps subi, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 2010 8
“Il faut des images pour faire de l’histoire, surtout à l’époque de la photographie et du cinéma. Mais il faut aussi de l’imagination pour revoir les images et, donc, pour repenser l’histoire.” (Translation by the author)
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image and imagination: Ali Cherri in conversation with Sheyma Buali
SHEYMA BUALI “We need images to create history, especially in the age of photography and cinema. But we also need imagination to re-see these images, and thus, to re-think history”,1 is a quote by Georges Didi-Huberman, which was shared by Ali Cherri at the beginning of the following interview. The quote reflects the conflicting ideas and the crux of questions that Cherri faces in his work regarding history, politics, violence, images and their meaning and power. This interview follows the changing trajectory of Cherri’s work, which explores sources, formats and platforms for historical visual documentation. Cherri discusses various factors of how imagination and image come together in defining our world, and considers the artist’s interception to redefine it. The questions that arise are as follows: how are these images kept, how is the form of images changing the archive and meaning of historical visual documentation, how can we talk about violence while avoiding turning horror into showmanship, and how, with time, do these meanings change?
Above: Ali Cheeri, Le dormeur du val, 2011 Opposite; Ali Cherri, My Pain is Real (video still), 2010 Photos courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris
Sheyma Buali: Let us start out with basic definitions. Can you tell me the difference between your definitions of “found footage” and “archival material”, and how you approach them? Ali Cherri: Found footage is different from archival footage: the archive is an official institution that separates historical record from what might be considered, in filmic terms, an outtake. The etymology of “found footage” suggests its ability to uncover hidden meanings in film material. “Footage” is an archaic British imperial measure of film length, evoking a bulk of industrial product—waste, junk—within which treasures can be ‘found’. The absence of official source or authorship distinguishes them from archived material. The widespread of still and video cameras (analogue and then digital) created a huge number of indexical documents outside of official archives: this situation lead to the blurring of the distinction, which was never very stable to begin with, between ‘archival’ and ‘found’ documents. With all the documents that exist, it is difficult to decide which ones should be preserved by technologies that are not always available outside of official archival institutions. I use either of them in my work the same way: as ‘cited’ images, and not ‘quoted’. Found-footage artists’ approach is to critically investigate the history behind the images, their modes of creation, consumption and distribution. Much of the material used in experimental found-footage films is not archived, but from other sources. As concept and as object, the archive is evolving. The idea of the interactivity of the spectatorial experience, that is, of the relationship between viewer and data, is changing. As Jaimie Baron puts it, certain appropriated audiovisual documents can produce, for the viewer, an “archive effect”,2 giving these documents a particular kind of authority as ‘evidence’. By looking at the archival document not as an object but as an experience, we may begin to rethink how information and knowledge are constituted in today’s world. Reading a film sequence is not determined by the ‘inherent’ and ‘objective’ characteristics of the footage, but by the particular kind of consciousness that it evokes in the viewer. YouTube, as a found-footage database that accumulates at a rate of seventy-two hours of video uploaded per minute, calls into necessary question the whole idea of an archive: a sourced, unique and select record of history, both recent and distant. Sheyma Buali: Let us look at the relationship between YouTube and archives. You have referred to YouTube as “a promise of an infinite archive”, and much of your work sources images from this “infinite archive”. Can you tell me what you mean by this and talk about your use of it as a resource? Ali Cherri: Maybe I should begin by stating that YouTube itself is not an archive in the formal sense, since preservation is neither in its mission nor in its practice. As found-footage artists we got used to the coexistence, without any conflict, of degraded, low-resolution images alongside captivating high-quality media. This helped the disintegration of the fine line of what defines an archive. It is safe to say that YouTube constitutes today the largest video database for mankind. It has been growing into an archive because of the way it is being used, and is thus evolving into a massive, heterogeneous, but for the most part “accidental and disordered, public archive”,3 as Rick Prelinger names it. And because YouTube footage doesn’t carry the weight of authenticity and authorship, nor is it subject to a curatorial authority, it liberates us from the anxiety we feel when facing an official
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archive. When approaching an archive, there is the excitement of interacting with a ‘precious’ collection, but also frustration for not having the time to view all the material, and the fear of missing out on some ‘treasures’. With YouTube, none of this anxiety is present. There is no guilt in not having time to view all that is there, because most of the videos are banal anyway. We can ask what makes YouTube so attractive, and where did archives fail and YouTube succeed? Most archival institutions, because of their worries about copyright holders, about ‘losing control’ of their collections, or about the qualification of the researchers, have made access to their archives complicated. YouTube can give the impression for users of a ‘complete’ collection. It’s an open source platform, so anybody’s video can appear on the same level as their favourite programs and actors without any prior permission. In this aspect, it seems closer to the Wikipedia project: a massive, crowd-sourced project to index and categorise video footage. While archives need authorisations for accessibility, YouTube offers instant access with very few limitations. YouTube offers basic social networking, and breaks from the image of the lonely researcher doing private studies. One of the important uses of YouTube is the ability to embed videos, and therefore to restore the idea of using images as a ‘citation’. The low quality of YouTube footage gives the viewer the feeling that he is not really violating any owners’ rights: it’s just like watching a picture of a video; like being in a permanent preview mode. The question that we are asking ourselves now is, who will archive the archive? Sheyma Buali: Interestingly then, just to complicate things, many official archives now have YouTube channels. But most are definitely digitising their collections. However, they remain to be pictures of pictures, as they are watermarked and, depending on the footage of course, heavily copyrighted. How does that fall into your definitions and the way you work with them?
Ali Cherri: YouTube left the archival institutions in a paradoxical situation: while they insist on the importance of classical archival needs, they appear to be less accommodating, less relevant than YouTube. YouTube has set the standards, and created users with the expectation that archival material should be accessible. Lots of institutions are making the effort to catch up with the new modes of accessibility: institutions have started to understand that YouTube and internet access are not the archive killers, but rather they are platforms that could be used to give a new lifecycle to their media. Sheyma Buali: In your work, you re-interpret images quite a bit. You noted once the Brechtian phrase on how meaning can be ascribed to the image, but it cannot be claimed by the image itself. What is your mechanism when you do that? Is there a difference between working with archive (contextualised) versus found (without context) images? Ali Cherri: I try to link my approach to found footage as a cinematic practice, consisting of reusing and reediting archival images, to Walter Benjamin’s remarks on “historical knowledge” and its relation to montage. In Benjamin’s words, historical knowledge “has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation… Its theory is intimately related to that of montage”.4 For Benjamin, history is connected to editing practice, through which we deal with the relationship between a reminiscent present and a gone past. We can never see the past in its entirety, but only through a series of fragments, a discontinuous succession, a broken sequence of “dialectical images”.5 For Benjamin, dialectical images are images that “emerge suddenly”.6 These images operate in a continuous coming and going between the present and the past, and by decontextualising them, I try to decipher how history unfolds in our visible world. Through montage, image re-interpretation reminds us how the most benign everyday work around us is saturated with political discourse, and how our ideological baggage informs our observation of images.
Sheyma Buali: Images do have power; propaganda is very much based on re-contextualising images, tweaking details, creating moods, and so on. In Pipe Dreams you work with the images of the statue of Hafez al-Assad being removed, in order to avoid the image of it being destroyed. The video of the statue being removed retains a sense of control because the government documenting this pre-emptive decision shot the footage. On the other hand, it was pre-emptively responding to a looming fear. In your film, you show it in the light of the latter, this footage as a sign of weakness. You decontextualised the meaning into the visual phrase that you created, putting the video to follow the virility of the successful space launch. What is your crux when dealing with the malleable meaning of images, particularly in the area of history and politics? Ali Cherri: Pipe Dreams7 captures an historic phone call between the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Syrian military aviator and astronaut Muhammed Faris, who was part of the 1987 Soviet space program.8 In this archive footage, we see the ‘father of the nation’ questioning the ‘hero’ about his impressions, as Faris looks down on Syrian lands from space. The conversation features the ‘eternal leader’, who, from the comforts of his office, casts a watchful eye on the children of the nation, even when they are thousands of miles away up in space. Exposing power structures that are embedded in this five-minute conversation goes beyond the Syrian example. This was the end of the 1980s, a time when young revolutionaries—in Libya (Muammar al-Gaddafi), Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and Syria (Hafez al-Assad)—had asserted themselves as the sole and eternal leaders of their countries, often taking power following coups that deposed previous governments. Power in these countries was ‘founding fathers’, larger-than-life billboards, speeches by the countries’ leaders, and, of course, by the nations’ heroes. In a sort of mise en abyme, the installation depicts President al-Assad through a monitor, who addresses the cosmonaut in his spaceship through an identical monitor: an infinite loop of the image of the leader looking at the hero. This juxtaposition of archival government footage with
amateur YouTube footage from early 2011 in the background, when Syrian unrest began: the authorities, fearing vandalism, dismantled the statues of al-Assad across the country’s protesting towns, including Hama and Deraa. Haunted by the images of destroyed statues, from Stalin to Saddam Hussein, the Syrian regime tried to heed off the inevitable, sacrificing the symbol in order to safeguard the image. For me, this was a major shift in the strategies of totalitarian regimes. You know the end is imminent when power begins to lose its monuments. This interface between two moments in recent Syrian history encapsulates the history of the entire region: the mechanisms of the construction and deconstruction of totalitarian power, the dreams and disillusions of an entire nation. It’s exactly by fragmenting moments in history, reducing them to debris, that we can put them in a dialectical process, namely, montage. Sheyma Buali: Your work often looks at the meaning of images, particularly of violence, catastrophe, and trauma. In a way, the last few years of so-called ‘revolution’ have also created a new archive of violence. The content of these images gets gruesome and dark. In your project Bad Bad Images (2012), you work with found images that you took from the net, referencing “bad” in a wide spectrum of the word. Technically speaking, the lower the quality or smaller the file, the farther it reaches, the more it is seen. But you are also referring to ‘bad’ as in ‘tasteless’—or as you put it, “flawed, nasty, unpleasant, immoral, dangerous, inefficient, inappropriate, and mainly, violent images”. Your idea breaks into two areas: the (violence of the) technical ‘value’ (authors of the images don’t mind that the quality of their images are bad because more people will see them), and the violent content within the frame. You also note the cycle of violence where people are enacting, witnessing, recording, viewing and reviewing violence repeatedly, in real time and on repetitive screen time. This hyperreality has, in more ways, moved us away from reality towards a screen-protected shock, a saturated banality where these strange images are no longer strange. All the while, though, you question the possibility of representing violence. In your work My Pain is Real (2010), which looks
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more directly at this, you note that images of suffering have become part of everyday life. You talk about the inevitability of them being the source from which people learn what war is, mirroring what Rancière said about images as a way to define the world. How though can images framed with so much violence be disassociated from it? Ali Cherri: In my work I was always interested in the body as a site where violence happens. Mark Seltzer talks about the rise of a “wound culture” that he describes as “public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound”.9 The effect of being surrounded by graphic images of death and war does not create a distancing from reality, rather an excess of reality. Our “wound culture” is unable to differentiate between the figurative and the literal, between the virtual and the real. The wound becomes then the touch-point between the inside and the outside. Violence has become not only a collective spectacle, but it’s also the place where private desire and the public realm meet. I made the video installation My Pain is Real10 in 2010, four years after the end of the July War. In this work, a computer cursor draws on my face wounds taken from actual people who where injured during the war between Lebanon and Israel on the summer of 2006. Despite the overtly computer-generated image, to look at my wounded face was highly disturbing. With the beginning of the uprising in the Arab world, I was watching hours and hours of this shaky, unofficial footage, which was acting as both testimony and incitement, documenting and reconstructing reality at the same time. At the end of 2011, I put together my exhibition Bad Bad Images (2012),11 where I used stills from low-quality videos from the Syrian uprising, enlarged to the size of monumental classical paintings. At that size, images are no longer pixellated; they become ghostly, gaining an impressionist, painterly quality. It was an attempt to give back to these images their imagination; to give them back their poetic language, their capacity to suggest the political, not to represent it. Images from the Arab uprising should be treated as found footage, and not as documents. After 2012, I witnessed how violence in YouTube footage was escalating; the images became more and more embedded with sudden discharge of blood and death. With the dramatic acceleration of the events in Syria, I refrain now from watching any of these clips. This level of violence in images does not procure knowledge, only fascination and stupor. I don’t have any critical distance to understand or read these images. But maybe witnessing violence has become an inevitable condition of modernity. Sheyma Buali: Looking back at the work you have done surrounding violence and image, such as My Pain is Real, how have your thoughts changed in the last couple of years? Ali Cherri: In my earlier projects I was working with explicitly violent images, in an attempt to expose modes of operation of media violence. This kind graphic material is becoming less and less visible in my work. I think I don’t want to produce more violence. Problematising the dissemination of violent images can also happen in other types of representation. I think we’ve had enough! Sheyma Buali: In your latest work, the twenty-minute film The Disquiet (2013), you talk about tension in Lebanon based on seismic waves. You go back about 2000 years of earthquakes, and note that the time is simmering for them to happen again. You use archival images of destroyed villages, but only minimally, for instance showing how catastrophe turns into a slide show, showing images of the 1956 earthquake in a series of archive photos. Mainly, though, you create a haunting and moody feel of tension by showing images of the earth, the land, nature, and the squiggly lines of the seismometers. How do you think we can avoid aestheticising these events?
Opposite: Ali Cherri, The Disquiet (film still), 2013 Photo courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris
Ali Cherri: Seismic studies are an act of writing par excellence. A seismograph embodies the relation between language and catastrophe, or the failure of being able to fully represent history, or catastrophe, as comprehensible and complete. We cannot assume to understand the full scale of a catastrophe, or the traumatic reality of historical events. Even with the use of a witness, or a text, or a photograph: catastrophe is always off-screen, beyond our grasp. With the long shots of seismometers registering on paper or on monitors the movements of tectonic plates, I wanted to highlight our position as witnesses; we observe the catastrophe in the making. In the film, we see historical images of earthquake destructions and memorial stamps in a form of a flashing slideshow: if catastrophe annihilates speech and compels us to silence, it nevertheless produces images as emblems. These emblems can assume their own authority, and tend to overwrite historical reality. A memorial stamp is there to remind us of the importance to remember, in order not to forget; but more important still, they should remind us that remembering can itself be a form of forgetting. In The Disquiet12 I wanted to shift the discussion about violence, war and destruction to a seemingly scientific discourse. What can science tell us about all this? Behind the analytical research about the seismic history of Lebanon and the region is a quest to excavate the traces of our imminent destruction. Sheyma Buali: How has this change in direction affected the work you are currently producing? Ali Cherri: For my upcoming exhibition13 I am producing lithographic prints; poetic forms that could survive the next catastrophe. It’s an Archeology of a Catastrophe: archeology not as the love of ruins, but as the excavation of what has survived. Catastrophes leave us in a landscape of dust, debris, fragments and residues, but it’s also a moment of clarity. Notes 1 Georges Didi-Huberman, L’oeil de l’histoire–Tome 2: Remontages du temps subi, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 2010: 78 2
Jaimie Baron, ‘The Archive Effect: Archival Footage as an Experience of Reception’ in Projections, Volume 6, Issue 2, 2012: 5 3
Rick Prelinger,’The Appearance of Archives’ in The YouTube Reader, Pelle Snickars & Patrick Vonderau eds, National Library of Sweden, 2010: 268
4 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin trans, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999: 473 5
Pipe Dreams, 2012: 2-channel video installation (6’ loop), produced by Galerie Imane Farès
Muhammed Faris flew as Research Cosmonaut in the Interkosmos program on Soyuz TM-3 to the Mir space station in July 1987. He was decorated Hero of the Soviet Union and Order of Lenin. In August 2012, he defected the Syrian Army and fled to Turkey 9
Mark Seltzer, ‘Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere’, October 80, 1997: 3
My Pain is Real, 2010, 3-channel video installation (5’ loop), produced by Galerie Imane Farès
Bad Bad Images, solo exhibition at Galerie Imane Farès, December 2011/February 2012
The Disquiet, 2013: video (20’), produced by Ali Cherri with the support of AFAC
Archeology of a Catastrophe, solo exhibition opening on 16 January, 2014, Galerie Imane Farès, Paris; www.imanefares.com
This interview, commissioned for Ibraaz Platform 006 and published on Ibraaz, 6 November 2013 (see www.ibraaz.org, along with a commissioned project by Ali Cherri for Ibraaz, Ventriloquism) follows their participation in the Shifting Sands Symposium in Australia, August 2013. Sheyma Buali’s paper, ‘Fragmented Images: framing, performativity and networks of circulation’, was reproduced in Volume 42.3, September 2013. The following text by Nat Muller was also presented at the Shifting Sands Symposium. Vali Mahlouji’s text (pages 287-8) is published in lieu of his personal presentation.
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bones of contention: notes on the mediated body, performance and dissent
Nat Muller Much critical ink has flowed on discussing how the body moves, is conditioned, or is disciplined, in public space. The singular use of “the body” is telling. It indicates that this singular body stands as a part of the whole within a social order. What follows are notes that discuss what happens when the singular body breaks out of that order and refuses to be complicit in, or subjugated to, a certain regime of power. In other words, it refuses to represent the collective body that can be silenced and sidelined. Defining what public space constitutes nowadays, in particular in the Middle East, is becoming increasingly difficult as situations are spatially fluid and politically volatile. Whether we speak about urbanised public space such as city squares or the virtual sphere of the Internet, the freedom of movement and expression in both domains is closely monitored, and under pressure. Artists have used strategies of embodiment and disembodiment to challenge specific political and social issues in a performative way. It is striking that many of the strategies involved, require a certain erasure of the body, as if there is a refusal to fully pin things down and fully surrender to the act of representation. What follows are examples of how artists have employed the body as an active site and medium for dissent. By drawing on bodily absence, substitution and fragmentation as a critical means of expression they question the making of public spheres, whether these refer to the street, the Internet, or the public sphere art can create. A recent example of all these spheres coming together is the symbolic gesture of Turkish performance artist Erdem Gündüz, better known as “standing man”. In the light of the June 2013 demonstrations contesting the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the subsequent police brutality and deterioration of democratic freedoms in Turkey, Gündüz took to the street and stood silently staring to his front for eight hours as an act of defiance. This gesture went completely viral and was copied by hundreds across cities in Turkey and abroad. In this case the body of the protestor, whether it is male or female, remains anonymous. Here the act of protest is severed from persona and from identity. Its main purpose is to insert the body in public space with a minimal gesture. It turns physical presence in public space into a deliberate political act. Gündüz’s body simultaneously performs the role of a bystander, looking at the events unfolding in front of him, as well as a silent witness to these events. “Standing man” is reminiscent of the early iterations of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali’s well-known character Handala, a ten-year old Palestinian boy dressed in rags, his back turned to the viewer and his hands clasped behind his back. Here too statically observing and insisting on being present, becomes a defiant deed.
Opposite: Erdem Gunduz as “standing man”, Gezi Park protests, Istanbul, June 2013 Above: Naji Al-Ali’s well-known character Handala Page 286: Emily Jacir, Where we come from (detail), 2003 Photo courtesy the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York
Performed Absence in Rabih MrouÉ & Lina Saneh’s 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds (2012): In their latest piece 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds (2012), Lebanese theatre makers Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh counter the online disembodied hyperpresence of social media with the ultimate form of absence, namely death. The play focuses on the suicide of a young activist and artist appropriately named Diyaa Yamout, Arabic for “light dies”. Rumour has it that the story of Yamout is based on the actual suicide of Nour Merheb, a young Lebanese secular activist who, like Diyaa Yamout, took his life and sent a suicide note to friends and family expressing the desire to be cremated, which is forbidden in Lebanon. This is a topic Saneh has tackled in an earlier performance, Appendice (2007), in which she devises strategies for signing over her body parts to artists who are to transform them after her death into works of art, or incinerate them. 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds is completely devoid of human actors, and human presence is mediated through the tools and devices of modern communication technology. The stage is designed to resemble a domestic workspace or living room: phones ring, printers spit paper, a pick-up plays a record, the TV shows a twenty-four hour news cycle and half-drunk cups of coffee sit on the desk. The technological artefacts are not exactly props, rather in the absence of human presence they take on a subjectivity that supports, and at times breaks, the unfolding of the play’s narrative that concentrates itself mainly on a large projection screen displaying Diyaa Yamout’s Facebook page. On this Facebook page comments of Yamout’s friends come up incessantly. First the comments
express dismay and disbelief at his death, yet as the play progresses the online discussion turns more violent. Yamout’s absent body becomes the battleground for airing ideological differences. Moreover, there is a double absence at work here. Yamout’s Facebook page lacks a profile picture, meaning that there is an absence of the photographic representation of his physical body in addition to the absence of his physical body from this world, his death. A closer look reveals that no picture of Diyaa Yamout can be spotted on his Facebook page at all. The sole images Yamout has left on his profile page are those that show up in his photo stream. They show the ‘Arab Spring’, demonstrations across Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain, and images of self-immolation. Lebanon, a country that did not join in the uprising, is as conspicuously absent as Dia Yamout. Not only does this serve as a reminder of the geopolitical context Yamout found himself in, a region in disarray and turmoil, but it also stresses that Lebanon with its dysfunctional sectarian political system, remains mired in stasis, and therefore is unworthy of an image. Yamout does not exist as an image in the whole play; we only get to know him by proxy. This begs the question whether in the performative realm of social media, and by extension the theatre, he actually exists at all as an agent. Paradoxically, Yamout is only defined by his absences. In addition to Yamout sending his suicide note, he allegedly also filmed his own death, but no one can retrace the tape. There is a paucity of images in this piece. Mroué and his peers, often dubbed the post-civil war generation, have been very much involved in the question what kind of images artist can produce in the advent of war and catastrophe. This is something that has often led to a withdrawal from visuality, but in 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds this idea is pushed to a withdrawal of presence. Yamout has not only denied himself a profile picture or any type of visual referent in the virtual sphere, but his desire to be cremated, that is to deny himself a body after death in the physical world, emphasises he wants to undo himself of any kind of presence. 33 Rounds and a Few Seconds challenges the premise of disembodied political agency, and though it never offers a direct critique on click-on-the-button activism it can subtly be read as such. Performed Substitution: Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From (2002-03) Very different from Mroué and Saneh’s work is an older project by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, titled Where we come from (2003). In this performative work, Jacir addresses one of the main effects of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, namely forced exile and severe restrictions on mobility. In order to travel between the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and within the Israeli Green Line, Palestinians need to go through a punishing and lengthy process of Israeli authorisation. Often these permits are issued with severe delays, or simply never come through. Exile can be interpreted as a forced displacement of the body. In Where we come from Jacir makes use of her American passport to travel throughout Palestine and within Israel to fulfil the wishes of Palestinians who are banned from travelling to or within their home country. She asked them: “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Jacir’s Where we come from resembles wish fulfilment by proxy wherein she substitutes her own body for the body of a fellow-Palestinian. The project is shown with a photo documenting the fulfilling of the wish, and a text explaining the wish, by whom, and what their legal status is. Wishes range from general activities like being asked to walk on the beach in Haifa, eat a fish dish specific to Gaza, pray in Jerusalem, to very personal requests like visiting family, paying a phone bill at the post office, or putting flowers on a parent’s grave. Jacir becomes the substitute(d) body, a mediator for the wishes of Palestinians in exile. But here too the substitution or bodily representation is not complete, as she adds personal notes and anecdotes to some of the stories, hence personalising it even more. Moreover, she is Palestinian too. Her liberty of movement is precarious, and her own body is always at risk of befalling the same fate as that of her countrymen. By placing herself in someone else’s shoes she highlights the strong connection between territory, land, identity and the body.
Performed fragmentation: Mona Hatoum’s So Much I Want to Say (1983): Lebanese-born Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum gained acclaim in the 1980s with her video work and performances involving the body. In her practice Hatoum draws on issues of identity, dislocation, gender and trauma (political or other). Based in London since 1975, her work has been mainly produced in the diaspora. Similar to Jacir’s project, Hatoum’s oeuvre too emphasises diasporic and exilic properties as an indicative trait for many Palestinian artists. Notions such as distance/proximity/exile and the self feature heavily. With her family stuck in Lebanon during the civil war (1975-1990) and herself being in London, much of Hatoum’s early work is about dislocation and about the body being physically absent but implicitly present. In So Much I Want to Say (1983) we see a highly granulated sequence of black and white still images of a woman’s face being gagged by a male hand, while the words “so much I want to say”, are repeated over and over again by a female voice. The image is refreshed every eight seconds, and is de facto the registration of a live slow scan video transmission between a gallery in Vancouver and a gallery in Vienna. There is an obvious disconnect between the (im)possibility of technology to convey a certain message, and the wish of the speaker who has so much to say, but is stifled in her speech, and reduced to uttering her wish ad infinitum. Here the idea of distance versus proximity and the activation of fragmented embodiment is key: the image/the body is partly in Vancouver, partly in Vienna, a technological manifestation of dislocation. The desire of wanting to say so much, or anything at all, is always being frustrated. At the same time it is a stubborn attempt at trying to say something all the time; so the speaker (Hatoum herself) is never fully silenced. The artist is both mediator and experiencing subject here. Her mediated telematic body is incomplete and fragmented. She can never complete the cycle of full representation because the transmission is too slow, frustrating the viewer’s expectation, never bringing full closure. Yet like Mroué, Saneh and Jacir she articulates pressing social and political issues, and makes the body—however fragmented, substituted or absent —speak.
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symbols of transformation VALI MAHLOUJI Iranian art has gone through a massive transformation since the turn of the twenty-first century, the first decade of which has produced an unprecedented proliferation of Iranian artists and work, putting them firmly within the global art discourse. This artistic shift is the result of a double transformation. On the one hand it is the manifestation of the rekindling of millennia-old creative energies that are undisputedly an integral and primary component of the multi-layered and complex culture of Iran. I use the word rekindling, because the injuries of recent history, with the inexorably ferocious dismantling and internal restructuring of socio-political structures, and the deep psychic and real wound of a murderously unwarranted eight-year war, not only affected production but brought it to a near standstill for a period. The relative ‘healing’ of those assaults, which came with the evolution of the historical process, unleashed an insatiability to communicate and reflect, a rejuvenation of expression, and an unprecedented multiplicity of approaches to an aesthetic view of life. The intellectual energy has gone beyond the didactics of time and place towards a new self-reflection that has brought the individual to the fore, more than ever before and the infinite possibilities of expression that come with it. On the other hand, there has been an external transformation of the global cultural world, which has allowed ‘fringe’ cultures, such as that of contemporary Iran, access to the global arena, and to what was until recently the domain of Western dominance and discourse. As the distance between the fringes and the centre is straddled by the Other cultures, we are witnessing a development towards a shared sphere and unitary reality. Such a trend removes the artificial distance between the West and indigenous cultures, allowing for a true synthesis of expressions about the totality of the human experience. The idea of Iran conjures up contradictory images and representations not just in the mind of the outsider but that of the Iranian him/herself. Plurality of images in itself need not be a reason to decipher conflict but rather an astounding diversity, unless the recipient of the imagery is in search of a ‘unified’ truth and of isolating an ultimately reassuring ‘simplified form’. This will certainly not apply in the conceptualisation of the Iranian current cultural reality. Far from being homogenous, contemporary Iranian reality is a mosaic of layered
complexities and juxtapositions of opposites—this being itself a significant aspect of its modern condition. The possibility of ‘un-unified’, dispersed and interchangeable points of view is intrinsic to modern society. Plurality, however, as a structure as well as a condition of being, predates the modern historical process in the Iranian narrative. It is a unique characteristic that has resulted from the archaeological layering of identities—not unlike Freud’s early model of the mind—acquired and accumulated through the consecutive stages of its metamorphous evolution. These numerous identities provide a rich set of meanings. Therefore, to borrow from Daryush Shayegan,1 it is only through the notion of the “kaleidoscopic vision” that one could propose to decipher its internal paradoxes and its spectrum of perceptions. The inter-layering of identities and the concurrence of old and new and the coexistence of opposites—which, as Shayegan points out, was engrained in the Iranian psyche from the time of its conception by its ancient prophet Zoroaster—drives and defines what it means to be or feel Iranian. Whilst the soul of the culture is intoxicated with a quest for archaic idealised abstractions—for it was here that Paradise was conceived—its vitality is fed by the opposite: a totally modern yearning for liberation from all that is archaic or traditional, and a desire for adapting to all that is modern. That simultaneous infatuation with the mythic and the modern has rendered the Iranian a polylogue. Therefore, as we observe today, any attempt at enforced homogenisation through ideological and religious constraints serves to enhance and compound the innate Iranian drive for heterogeneity, pluralism and now, in its modern state, individualism. Consequently, what we observe in critical contemporary culture in Iran is the negotiation of a crisis of cultural disorientation—a crisis that is directly caused by the ideological imposition of a concretistic interpretation of society, leading to the negation of the plurality of culture. The vitality of the Iranian contemporary reality is a testament to a process of individuation and the manifestation of a deep-rooted psychic resistance to a monistic vision of existence. It is a reaction to, in Susan Sontag’s2 words, the “Great Monologue” that aims to define history with “clearly outlined, morally coloured meanings”, serving up reductive representations. This antihermeneutic contemporary drive re-instates a complex and variegated picture of the individual and society, and it is this that encapsulates the sophistication of the Iranian phenomenon today.
Let us make reference to a number of artists with whom I have worked very closely over the past years. Farhad Moshiri explores a satirical/pop aesthetic, often appropriating commercial advertising, through which he inverts deep-seated incongruities within the core of Iranian society. Moshiri cleverly glorifies, romanticises, commodifies and ultimately critically subverts colloquial culture as it manifests itself through the commercial marketing of goods for the urban consumer. Moshiri’s creations are fabricated fantasies of “promised goods” ready for mass consumption, a parody of art and the art world itself. Rokni Haerizadeh often employs a “madness of magic” as a social and political critique of urban life in his floating landscape of “surfaced characters and memories”. Rokni’s ‘dreamed’ narratives are a kind of Gabriel Garcia Márquez in paint, often bringing forth the burden of ‘forgotten’ histories in order to define the current moment. Devoid of pitiful moralising and surpassing fetishistic infatuation with depictions of human sordidness, in the series entitled Fictionville Haerizadeh cunningly (and controversially) violates and perverts found photographic media images depicting human suffering and appropriates images from anywhere and of any disaster—inflicted by nature or man—sometimes unrecognisably, into an anthropomorphic Orwellian world of fairytales: humorous, grotesque, satirical, bitter. With spontaneous violent fantasy Haerizadeh applies layers of gesso and bonding, breaks down the apparent integrity of the image, drains away the reductive moral stance, absolves his found canvas of its account of truth—in the Nietzschean sense unmasking all accounts of the truth in order to arrive closer to the truth. It is ruthless criticism in the spirit of creative play. Rokni’s brother and intermittent collaborator Ramin Haerizadeh, creates collages in which he often appears as a phantom in a chaos of appearances to emphasise a fractured self. Multiple cross-gendered selfportraits appear to celebrate a kind of triumphant bestiality. The artist masterfully uses the ‘safety’ of humorous juxtapositions and candy-soft background colours to ‘contain and camouflage’ the grotesque absurdity of the ‘exposed’ internal conflicts, highlighting the schism between the individual’s internal and external realities. In contrast, as fragments of philosophical reflection, the earthy portraits of Y.Z. Kami evoke the universal fragility of human existence. His hazy “mirages of people” are a kind of ‘human reality in soft focus’. This is modern portraiture far removed from the delicately idealised and abstracted, archetypal vision of Iranian miniatures. Sophistry, here, is of modern psychological nature. The haze that occupies the colossality of the portraits points to the ephemerality of what is most real to us—our own human life (existence). His portrait of a bald woman (Untitled, 2008) is an example of a work whose dimensions interact powerfully with the context of its exhibition. Such an image, unintentionally, assumes a provocatively political dimension in a society where a woman’s hair is banned from public display or representation. As existential investigations, Laleh Khorramian’s chance paintings are “psycho-physical dreamscapes”—violent lacerations across tectonic layers exposing infinite storylines embedded at the core. Whether forgotten, repressed or ignored, the tensions, memories and energies brought to light bring the viewer into an ambivalent intimacy with the possibility of eternal histories and ultimately his own mortality. Away from the epic and transcendental, in her iconic and ongoing home movies, by always sporting the black veil, the protagonist Ghazel adopts an officially sanctioned near mythical and narcissistic persona, which is absurdly at odds with the self and the personality’s actions. She is at once an incongruous hybrid of individual longing and collective control. So long as the struggle for basic rights and gender divides go on in Iran, these series of veiled adventures in the home and outdoors will remain poignant in their political wit.
Page 287 left and right: Rokni Haerizadeh, Fictionville (video stills), 2010 Photos courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai Below: Ramin Haerizadeh, collage from the limited edition book accompanying the exhibition But I prefer dogs with uncropped tails, 2012 Photo courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai
Straddling the interface between the self, the collective and the psyche, Bita Fayyazi’s “theatre of life” deconstructs and reinvents fragments of the self. Here personal anxieties, conflicts and instincts are displaced, sublimated or directly expressed in a playful attempt to master, contain and psychically order the chaos of repressed materials, taboos and the ravages of time. The conflict of the internal and external worlds, and that of exposure and containment of fantasies, is symbolised by the final appearance of a phallus clawed by giant cockroaches. Socio-political critique and a comment on the nature of power is the driving force behind the video vignettes of Shahab Fotouhi. In his Direct Negotiation (2008), a cat claws incessantly at a closed window. Impotence is made more pronounced by the transparency of the dividing barrier. Similarly, Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar series called Industrial Revolution (2008) inverts the tragic, albeit with darker humour, taking the reality of the contemporary Iranian historical process to direct scrutiny. His installation displays a set of eight red neon lights designed as a hybrid form, representing a stylised red tulip (a revolutionary symbol of the martyr) as well as the emblem of the republic (the stylised Allah as it appears on the national flag). Propped up on tin bases and wired into the mains, the electronically operated and lit tulips gyrate at different speeds, ‘bringing to light’ the very wounds inflicted on the individual and society by the painful realities of a tumultuous recent history—funfair that parodies the very iconography of the Revolution with all its controversial associations. It is clear that the artists’ voices not only reach beyond perceived national, political, linguistic, religious or social stereotypes, but they are also a testament to the hybridisation, fragmentation and diversity of the contemporary Iranian reality. They manifest a powerful drive for plurality and individual expression and symbolise the radical transformation that contemporary Iranian culture is undergoing. As symbols of transformation, these fantasies of the imagination are at once both the driving force and the product of cultural change through a time of complex internal and external conflicts. Notes 1 Daryush Shayegan, Le Miroir de L’Ame d’un Peuple, Paris: Le Regard Persan, Espace Electra, Les Musees de la Ville de Paris, 2001 2
Susan Sontag, On Photography, London: Penguin Books, 1977: 173
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Visual artists come to WOMADelaide The Helpmann Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts has brought together a talented group of emerging and established visual artists to exhibit and sell their work at WOMADelaide 2014.
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This year, artists will exhibit their work in a dedicated tent featuring paintings, drawings, sculpture and jewellery. Local artists will also work live during the festival to capture the energy, colour and movement of the performances and crowds. helpmannacademy.com.au
AD Dancer, Fran Callen’s WOM nvas, mixed media on ca 137cm x 153cm
“A blend of intimate performances and crowd-shaking sessions” The Australian OUT NOW
A LL T I CK E T S N OW O N S A LE
Visual ar tist Thom Buchanan created a collectio n of live artworks at WOM AD 2013