Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit
By Anthony Torres
At the risk of over-saturating Whitehot’s readers with the ongoing program at SFAI, I decided to review an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute’s McBean Gallery—Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit—because, as said to Whitehot publisher Noah Becker, “I've looked around for something else and this is the most interesting and challenging project.”
Curated by Hou Hanru and Gabi Scardi, Wherever We Go, comprised of fifty works by twenty-three artists, premiered at the Spazio Oberdan, Milan, in October 2006, and is presented in association with the Museo della Fotografia Contemporanea.
The present configuration — Phase One — features Adel Abdessemed, Yael Bartana, Banu Cennetolu, Latifa Echakhch, Ni Haifeng, Huang Yong-Ping, Mella Jaarsma; Koo Jeong-A, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Adrian Paci, Shen Yuan, and Nari Ward.
The challenge of the exhibition flows from being situated between three highly-charged and complex transitional social constructs — art, identity, and culture — as sites of contestation.
The title, Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit brings to mind Raymond Williams’ observation that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language,” and his historical explication of “culture” as evolving from a range of meanings, with culture rooted in the idea of cultivation or tending of something — basically crops, animals, husbandry, and the tending and managing of resources, which was metaphorical extended to processes of “human development.”
Over time, these loosely allied concepts took on definite class overtones with “cultivation” being conflated with “culture,” implying a personal improvement, a connection instrumental in cultivation becoming ideologically synonymous with civilization.
Civilization became the “common sense” term for a linear secular process of human self-development, which since the Enlightenment functioned as a rationale for Eurocentric subjugation and domination of the globe.
This figures significantly in a discussion of Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit, because it situates and recognizes that what became a “naturalized” assumption regarding culture — that it is a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development — is historically specific to particular ways of life and lived experiences of people, whether in a period or group, and that discussions of humanity, in general, are often projected, historically contingent ideological constructs that confer to material practices and art works a proxy status that has stood for, represented, and sustained certain hierarchic notions of “Culture.”
The title also brought to mind Victor Burgin’s essay the End of Art Theory, and its reflection on the significance of the word Art, which similarly underwent transmutations and shifts in meaning since antiquity.
Originally, art was a name given to any activity governed by rules that could be taught in contradistinction to activities governed by instinct or intuition (music and poetry were not counted among the arts as they were considered products of divine inspiration). Over time, with the elaboration of math, of pitch and harmony, and poetics, music and poetry were re-positioned among the “arts” alongside pursuits like logic and shoemaking.
According to Burgin, the only generally held principle of differentiation among the “arts” was whether an activity, or the art practice in question, was primarily the result of manual or intellectual labor; classificatory distinctions that lasted into the Middle Ages as delineations between “mechanical arts” and “liberal arts.”
Until the Renaissance, the teaching of painting and sculpture was undertaken in guilds, with sculpture considered integral to the tasks of masonry, and painting associated with, among other things, the decoration of furniture and the application of cosmetics.
The elevation of painting during the Renaissance was achieved through the command of geometry, which was used to construct illusionary three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional surface as a means of representing nature and historical allegory. This led to the relative autonomy of various art forms through a societal division of labor that, in combination with a conception of history as a progressive linear narrative of civilization, helped to contribute to a now familiar history of art as a sequence of succeeding styles.
The equation of art with culture, and culture with civilization, made it possible for art not only to represent and sustain hierarchic notions of culture, it foregrounded the ideological entrenchment of theorists like Matthew Arnold, who viewed the civilizing values of art as representing the “best that has been thought and said.” This served as the basis for a colonial attitude that aimed at establishing, preserving, and disseminating universally the hegemony of a European cultural social order.
These recollections are presented to remind us of the historicity and contingency of discourses related to art and culture, and as a vehicle for situating the point of departure of Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit: the shifting nature of trans-historical ideas, cultural objects, and the movement of people in and between various contexts.
To me, the exhibition is a direct reflection of a crisis of representation that museums and art institutions have faced since the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted from a proliferation of ideas that challenged the nature of art and culture in contemporary society, and hegemonic authority of euro-americentric cultural institutions.
The presence of the art and issues raised in the exhibition can be viewed as the reverberating effects of a widespread counter-cultural revisionist project that impacted academia and the world at large — cultural studies, women's studies, and ethnic studies—all of which spoke to the issue of identity, and demanded greater recognition and legitimacy.
These counter-hegemonic discourses sprang from dissident voices created by anti-colonial struggles, the protest and influence of ethnic groups from the margins in cities, and increased information and improved facilities in travel and communication, all of which provided greater opportunities for cultural interventions by people who were previously marginalized from centers of power.
This process of confronting euro-americentric ideals and definitions contributed to the emergence of the contestational ideological and formal vocabularies evidenced in Wherever We Go, which are based in a questioning of intellectual and artistic canons, and which continue to contribute to a decentering of residual eurocentric/western assumptions — such as totalizing narratives, that reason is universal or foundational, and the notion that individuals are self-contained unitary subjects.
This recognition is central in ascertaining the exhibitions emphasis on a politics of inclusion, social transformation, anti-authoritative cultural deconstruction, and complex articulation of the artist’s identities.
To a certain extent, Wherever We Go talks back to what is often considered a postmodern interest in “ethnic” alterity, which in some cases is ironically and unfortunately informed by a lingering modernist hegemonic world view that often replicates and contributes to vulgar notions of the cultural production of “ethnic” artists/producers as "exotic" and "othered."
Indeed, to a large extent, the exhibition confronts a certain postmodernist focus on "plurality" and "multiculturalism" centered in a paradigm of "diversity" that privileges "difference," as if this abstract notion necessarily constitutes a critical category.
This is crucial, since the emphasis on "difference," while important, can be problematic, because the focus on "plurality" often functions as a means of neutralizing art that questions and confronts the political and economic realities that condition socio-cultural formations. In fact, the emphasis on "diversity" often fails to accurately account for specific artistic and cultural practices that defy simplistic categorization into "mainstream" or "culturally specific" — such as the works on view here.
Equally significant, Wherever We Go flies in the face of a propensity of what cultural theorist Gerardo Mosquera has called the needs and desires of ‘curating cultures’ to “select, legitimate, promote and purchase” objects of ‘curated cultures,’ a practice that tends more often than not to privilege and substantiate euro-americentric ideologies that privilege modernist hierarchies and standards of "quality" while denigrating cultural production from non-western people and cultures as derivative, aesthetically "othered," separate and unequal.
The significance Wherever We Go is that it presents artistic practices that defy categorization and designations like "mainstream" or "culturally specific," and in so doing it subverts a myopic approach to diverse cultural productions that limits critical discourses to a simplistic notion of "cultural identity."
In Wherever We Go, the artists’ works are presented as manifestations of personal histories in all their complexity and specificity, recognizing that the artists themselves are the most powerful agents in articulating their identity.
In so doing, the exhibition refuses to replicate the us/them binaries, whereby the achievements of artists historically touched by colonization are reduced to derivative manifestations of hegemonically imposed art historical currents. Instead, the exhibition confounds the conflation/association of racial and cultural difference with contextual/geographic localities. Rather, the exhibition correctly establishes that the various objects on view are not wholly bound or conditioned by the artists’ ethnicity or places of origin.
Here I’m reminded, of Gerardo Mosquera’s observation that “Eurocentrism is the only ethnocentrism universalized through actual world-wide domination by a metaculture, based on the traumatic transformation of the world through economic, social, and political processes centered in a very small part of it…, and that eurocentrism affects not only non-Western cultures but the West itself, given the widespread impoverishment of perspective inherent to any monism.”
Wherever We Go undermines what can be viewed as a contrived schism, rooted in what once might have be considered "ethnographic artifacts" and "art objects," by questioning the notion of artistic authenticity, or more correctly, by treating art objects as equally ethnographic in order to reformulate exhibition spaces as sites of artistic opportunity, experimentation, and dialogue.
Thus the artists in Wherever We Go communicate across cultures as a means of stating that in any number of environments people are engaged in socially informed artistic practices based in transforming materials through a confluence of ideas and labor processes.
Thus, it is in the particularity of the condition of their production and circulation that the presence of the objects may be viewed as complex microcosms of sources, influences, and human experiences communicated in diverse social formations.
This understanding is useful in identifying analytical points of contestation within a range of social-historical forces and relations, and thus is capable of leading to more sophisticated analysis aimed at cultural transformation.
Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).
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