Tue 3/27/2012 11:19 AM
Elaine Ng, Editor and Publisher of ArtAsiaPacific
What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?
The institution is, via its curators, the tastemaker and window dresser of contemporary art, and as such serves the art-going public a menu over which they have little choice. In making choices, it is impossible to perceive the curator, the institution’s board, or the funding sources of the institution as anything but subjective and subject to whims, fears, fashions, personal connections, corporate images, political correctness, considerations of class, education and status, hidden agendas, etc. If the artist’s production and creativity can operate outside of this nexus of influences, we would not have art as it is today. Art would seem to thrive outside the institution, or in its pre-institutional state, when there is maximum animosity and distrust between the institution and the artist, when the obstacles raised by institutions blocking and inhibiting entry are insurmountable.
Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Is the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?
The disciplines of visual culture and theory are undeveloped in the Asia region. The absence of a sophisticated superstructure encourages impulse collecting, without the inhibiting layer of art criticism. Art, status, money, fame are the elements that make for a more visceral and less vapid art market, but pave the way for mindless art. One wants to sense the blood and sweat and avoid the condescending glances.
Are we trapped in the trope of "the contemporary"?
Fortunately, we are, for the present served up is the daily crisis of the artist. Everyone else—all those consumers and their appendages—has countless choices, from past to future.
Is temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?
Well, hardly. Certainly not since the invention of the book, not to mention the Internet. But these buoys and landmarks are clung to by the less imaginative and lend themselves all too easily to nationalism and mock-nationalism.
How do folk and traditional practices inform or burden contemporary practices?
Depends on the nationalistic codes being conveyed in the work, the exhibition, the interpretation, the audience’s own experience of, identification with, misunderstanding of, folk tradition. To cite one example, most of the Chinese art that deals with “Things Chinese” has a tendency to be bland, obvious, obsequious, and trivial. In this case, the Chinese are merely assuming the masks, costumes and odors of “traditional China.” This self-conscious, make-work production merely operates as a sideshow to Chinese reality, a menagerie of familiar freaks and obvious magic tricks, protecting the behind and serving the interests of the circus’s true ringmaster. In great art, particular folk trends and traditions become part of the universal vocabulary of art, and need no translation.
Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?
Authoritarian regimes with loose borders—physical, electronic, etc.—provide a cushy context for the making of political art, and gift artists with endless, or perhaps endlessly repetitive sources of subject matter. But what’s the sense of that? The arrest of an artist by a repressive state is unquestionably an attempt on the part of the state to create a work of art; from the state’s point of view, each arrest is a great, if not the greatest, most representative Happening, Installation, Intervention. Because it is state funded, it does not require any commercial value. All of these “works” share the most influence. In other words, to repress art is to take over the role of the artist. The question is, who is the best, or worst, criminal, the repressive state, or the repressed artist?
Wed 4/4/2012 6:51 PM
Salima Hashmi, Dean of the School of Visual Arts, Beaconhouse National University
What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art?
The "institution" has played a defining role in contemporary art in Pakistan. In our case, the "institution" is the "academy." This is because other institutions such as such as art councils were either absent or inefficient. Although a few individuals, who were the pioneers of the modern movement, e.g., Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Pervaiz, Shemza were self-taught, others benefited from art educational programs. These artists—"the moderns"—were the precursors of the "contemporary." They were by and large Cubists who may or may not have absorbed influences directly from the West, but were aware of a change in ways of seeing in the post-World War I years.
The evolution of individual practice in relation to "institutions," has been linked both to an interest in traditional ways of working, as well as to experimentation in both process and content, which was a direct result of political events in the Nation state.
How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?
In Pakistan many contemporary practitioners have looked to the paradigm of popular culture and its manifestation in peoples’ lives. Because art history and criticism is one of the most neglected areas in academia, there is only a nascent connection between contemporary practice and theory.
Are we trapped in a trope of "the contemporary"?
It is teaching within the academy which has been most influential in contemporary art in Pakistan. This still dwells largely on development of academic skills and investigation of process in the education of each student. The investigations that subsequently lead to contemporary practice are therefore well grounded and may or may not lead to "entrapment."
Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality?
For societies that are still grappling with issues of "identity" and indeed have to defend art practices on this basis, an evocation of history remains an attractive option, however shallow or opportunistic it may be.
How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?
In the Pakistani context, both folk and traditional practices have fed artists’ work. The development of the "neo-miniature" is an example of the reclamation of a historical genre, to mould it into a vehicle for expressing socio-political content alongside more personal narrative. The processes and materials found in folk forms have been explored by women artists in particular to bring "domestic" arts into the realm of the contemporary. Urban crafts and crafts persons have on occasion been co-opted by artists to work collaboratively. This has included artists such as Iftikhar Dadi, Duriya Kazi, David Alesworth, Huma Mulji, and Saba Khan.
Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?
Since what is known as the "institution" is missing as an active player in Pakistan, the "academy" takes its place. In the last 50 years, the "academy" has instigated politically engaged art and continues to do so from the relative safety it enjoys as a space of sanctity. But this phenomenon is not deeply "institutionalised," i.e., it is the effort of groups of individuals who have played critical roles in the academy. The academy, like any other institution is susceptible to both commerce and politics.
Wed 4/11/2012 4:52 PM
Nikita Yingqian Cai, Curator of Times Museum, Guangzhou
The Contemporary Art I’ve Never Done
Calvino once published in a magazine an essay called "The Short Stories I Have Never Written," regarding his own short story collection. In this essay, he states not without humor that he was tired of hearing people say how "easy" the things he wrote were, and so he decided in this collection of short stories to intersperse the word "difficult" throughout. From this witty little joke, I could not help but think whether a few years from now someone among us might write an essay called, "The Contemporary Art I've Never Done," and whether he or she would state in the same casual and nonchalant tone: "I'm so tired of hearing people say our works are 'incomprehensible,' so I've decided to intersperse the term 'contemporary' throughout."
In China where I live, aside from being added as an adjective in front of the word art, the word "contemporary" rarely appears in other areas. In the arts, "contemporary" is still in a state that is equated with the absurdity of "postmodernism" and is difficult to describe. Within academia, art history education treats Western post-war art history in one broad stroke and writings about so-called Chinese contemporary art history are defined variously by contending schools of thought. Outside the art world, real life contemporary youths, without realising it, are using their intuition and the “modernist legacy” accumulated by their parents' generation to fumblingly and ineptly imagine and shape "contemporary”; for most of the older generation who still have some memory of the “pre-contemporary,”1 in comparison to the modernist passion for speed and dream of progress, “contemporary” is obviously too complicated and ambiguous. Most deadly of all, it leads you nowhere. "Contemporary" is at best a performance riddled with risks; incapable of self-interpretation, it turns to the arts and becomes dependent on it. Therefore, art institutions face the following dilemma: should art be used to illustrate the contemporary, or should the contemporary be used to infuse art? If neither is feasible, where do the questions lie for this quandary called "the contemporary"?
I’m writing this article in 2012, which is 79 years after Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, espoused his theory of “time submarine” in 1933. At that time, the tail of the "submarine" traced back to Goya, Ingres, and Constable of the nineteenth century, while its head ended in the period of 1875–1925. In 1941, Barr again updated the scope of MoMA’s collection, with its tail being pushed back to Cezanne, Van Gogh and Seurat and its head extending to the works of contemporary artists in the United States and Mexico from 1900–1950. From today's point of view, not only is Barr's "contemporary"2 already "modern," but his proposal can completely be viewed as conservative considering that nowadays the buzz about contemporary art "speculation" is nothing more than looking back over a nine years span of time! No wonder we are nostalgic for modernism; many important modernist concepts fearlessly delineated the landscape for the span of a century, whereas the "contemporary" now is so volatile, so unpredictable, to the point that I now need to begin imagining “the contemporary art I have never done.”
According to its most fundamental definition, contemporary history is the history of the living; from this perspective, contemporaneity should seemingly be a universal state. However, I have heard more than once from my Chinese colleagues who state that "contemporary" is a Western concept and so we should renounce altogether using contemporary art as a term. It’s unclear to me as to when "contemporary" became "Western"—maybe because this love-hate relationship people have had for modernism had been written about to death, at which point someone took a stand for starting another chapter (the problem being that we once again had missed the opportunity to be the first to initiate this discourse) but with a new set of rules: "From now on, everyone can say whatever he or she wants; there are no winners or losers."
The outcome of this no-winners/no-losers rule is even more depressing than dying on a battlefield. Thus we must rewrite a new beginning, rewrite a new history volume, and using our own language . . .
Once again this reminds us just how limited the imagination of the so-called "art world" is.
In 2009, in the magazine October, in response to questions posed about the "contemporary" by Hal Foster, Julia Bryan-Wilson mentioned: the US Department of Energy initiated a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in 2004 designed to bury radioactive waste in a New Mexico landfill. They commissioned the construction of a warning sign alerting people for the next ten thousand years that they should not dig at this site. The sentence on the sign was given in seven languages, while leaving room for interpretation and translations in anticipation of the evolution of written languages in the next ten centuries. I believe that most of the people who wish to start another chapter all hope that one day the entire world can read and understand “our” language; these people, however, suffer from a form of amnesia and short-sightedness: not only is the nationalistic "we" a fairly recent concept in history, but it also will not necessarily be the only form of social organisation in the future. In the face of the information age and online culture, whether a written language can endure the test of time for thousands of years is out of our hands. The reason why “contemporary” makes people despondent is because even if a new beginning and a new history volume are rewritten, such a history volume is still but one among countless histories. We cannot even guarantee that future generations who read history will use the same language as we do; the only thing we can do is to leave room for future interpretation and translation. If Alfred Barr’s “time submarine” theory still retains any referential meaning today, it resides in his vivid imagining of “art” as a submarine. This “submarine” is sensitive to its neighboring water territory, constantly on the move, and using its length to measure the distance of time. In addition, with the help of its torpedoes, it clearly understand that it is unlikely to be the only player in this vast ocean; in order to avoid colliding into others and meet the same fatal end, it also requires the use of a mutually intelligible language.
As Calvino continues in his short piece, "localism will always be one step behind history. I am interested in things that keep pace with history, yet at the same time they also emerge from their own roots, have a foothold on a piece land, and possess a certain kind of experience. . . . In order to avoid becoming a stage backdrop made of paper, the imagination must be full of memories, of necessity, in short, full of reality.”3 Some people uphold China but reject the contemporary; some people embrace the contemporary but rewrite China; some people still believe “Chinese Contemporary Art” exists, while some people repeatedly use "Contemporary Art of China” begrudgingly. More than anything, I hope that what I am now involved in is only “Contemporary Art in China." With the unbearable urgency experienced from many different fronts, the last thing art institutions should do is to demarcate or surrender a piece of land and a certain kind of experience by hastily building one “stage made of paper” after another. “Time submarine," this seemingly broad definition, also has its obvious shortcomings; it conceals an underlying logic of using art museum collections as cultural power and capital. In the base environment monopolised by commercial capitalism and state ideology, it becomes a sharp knife that instantly removes diversity. In the Chinese context, those institutional concepts that construe what it means to be "contemporary” even more aggressively, such as the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) or the Kunsthalle, are almost completely unknown. "Collections" become the only hard currency legitimising art institutions; any other constructs all seem to be short of authenticity and ambition. To art practitioners and institutions, "contemporary" constantly reminds us that the ephemeral and the historical are all but two forms of recollection and that this kind of recollection is destined to be innumerable and in perpetual renewal. Art (institution) does not just reenact or reaffirm what is already there, more importantly it should perform or speculate what has yet to be seen. Having done "contemporary art" or not, "contemporary" is always in a state of persistently being written about and it will never be possible that we are the only ones writing about it.
1. “Modernism” and “pre-contemporary” used here are just metaphors for the current state and ideals of society; according to a strict definition of “contemporary,” recollections of anyone who is still living can only be categorised as a kind of “contemporary recollection.”
2. MoMA and Alfred Barr still used the term “modern,” while the concept of his “time submarine” is in fact closer to our understanding of “the contemporary” now. This kind of “American” influence can still be seen in the work of some Chinese translators today. “当代艺术” is often translated as “modern art” rather than “contemporary art.”
3. From “The Short Stories I Have Never Written,” by Italo Calvino, Short Story Collection, Part I (Yilin Press).
Fri 4/13/2012 9:49 PM
Parul Dave Mukherji, Professor at the Department of Visual Studies, School of the Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi
What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?
State art institutions have largely shown apathy towards contemporary art in India. It is only very recently when they have come under the scanner from various quarters that the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, has risen up to the challenge of updating its image and institutional role. This is attested by the current exhibition at the NGMA of Rebecca Horn’s works and an Anish Kapoor retrospective show last year in Delhi and Mumbai. In the absence of major support from state art institutions, the onus has fallen on private art collectors to make their collections accessible to the public. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Devi Art Foundation have been playing a critical role in collecting, displaying, and disseminating interest in contemporary art through curated shows, symposiums, and public lectures.
Recently, the Bhau Dhaji Lad museum in Mumbai, which has an impressive art and craft collection dating to colonial times, has opened its doors to contemporary art and some contemporary artists have interacted with this space, located their practice with the museum context (L.N. Tallur), and produced interactive works in form of installations and performance art (Sudarshan Shetty, Nikhil Chopra). Individual art practice today has also given way to art collectives in which artists take on macro issues of globalisation, ecology, and their impact on day to day life and understand the local issues as intersecting with the global ones.
How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region?
Increasingly artists in India are occupying the space of visual culture by embracing the self description of an ethnographer. It is part of their postcolonial condition that they engage with the world through a double consciousness and inhabit their practices as cultural outsiders and insiders. At times, they run the risk of "NGO-isation" of their work as they express their desires to work alongside a community and bridge the gap between themselves as metropolitan artists and rural craftsmen in villages. The other risk that they tend to lapse into is self-exoticisation and narcissism. In the case of the former risk, "aesthetics" becomes a fraught issue and gets severely compromised. In the current climate, many artists concentrate on the region in which they are located as a means to critiquing the framework of the national modern which is severely under contestation. Periphery, as an example, is a media collective based in the Northeast of India that squarely engages with the marginalisation of this region under the national modern and interacts with the local community and its concerns.
Are we trapped in a trope of "the contemporary"?
The contemporary is too heterogeneous to be captured by a trope. In fact, its multi-faceted extensiveness and network of dissemination, which is media-based, is better suited to capture space than time. If temporality matters, its terms have radically changed and some contemporary artists have arrived at radical redefinition of the problem of time. It is they who can offer lessons to art historians and art critics about how to get out of the double bind of tradition and modernity, centre, and marginality that the latter are caught in.
How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity?
Historicity is being deeply contested today with the withering away of the framework of the national modern and territoriality entering into its liquid stage. The media and the Internet have blurred boundaries of nation states as has the internationalisation of labour and ecology. The best way to understand the shift is by attending to the primacy attached to the question of the archive that seems to have replaced the question of history.
How are folk and traditional practices to be understood in relation to contemporary practices?
While contemporary metropolitan artists are waking up to the issue of the vernacular and some have tried to form collaborations with rural artists, they are not on the same page with folk and traditional artists. Collaborations across these groups are brave attempts but they are steeped in paternalism. Unlike Australia, where aboriginal artists may share the same space in a contemporary gallery as a result of long struggle (for inclusion) by aboriginal artists, in India, the situation has been different on the account of colonialism. Cultural nationalists from elite classes long romanticised folk and traditional art practices and appropriated their forms, and yet the folk and traditional artists do not have the same access to the art world.
Can the rise of institutions and the growth of the art industry within Asia endanger, rather than benefit, politically engaged art, an expression of individual agency that has emerged in the region out of necessity?
To some extent, the burgeoning art market has shrunk the space for politically engaged art. Or rather identity politics yields to commoditisation and acquiesces to the art market in such a way that social marginality is flaunted by artists to gain attention. A more vibrant political art emanates not so much as an expression of individual agency but as part of artists’ collectivity in which artist’s subjectivity gets shaped by wider political concerns. But these see themselves as alternative practices and distance them from art industry or rather negotiate with the latter without compromising their political content.
Sun 4/15/2012 4:01 PM
Heejin Kim, Director of Art Space Pool, Seoul
What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?
Who can “define” contemporary art and what is meant by “defining” it? No definition is definite and is just in the process of constitution. The process of the constitution of meaning itself is in constant flux, which is differently conceived and interpreted by who sees it from what angle.
This question in fact entails a series of philosophical questions on what one sees and how one sees the production process of meaning. I tend to see various aspects and processes of production, signification, distribution, and interpretation of meaning as crucial constituents of a definition. I cannot automatically accept a sole definition as absolute and pre-determined.
In this regard, I see the institution’s role in constituting contemporary art as obviously partial, and it should be partial. An indexical, referential role would be a realistic answer.
This doesn’t mean that an institution is away from the process of meaning production. It should be an active player/constituent of the definition making. It should specify what kind of meaning it aims to produce and remain open for the evolution of that meaning. A very dedicated but generous role, I should say. So it’s almost pathetic to see a big public museum pretend to govern and dictate a certain definition of contemporary art to the general public. Public art institutions should draw its audiences in to be engaged in the process of the production of meaning. To engage audiences in the process, public art institutions should devise super smart strategies that pose questions on what contemporary art could be, rather than what it is.
If an institution succeeds in specifying what kind of meaning it wants to propose, individuals, whether artists or curators, have the right to choose their positions in relation to the institution’s practice. An interesting index/frame of reference triggers much more dedicated responses for sure. But whether an individual practitioner chooses to visually manifest or formally articulate the reference is his/her decision. I don’t think it’s possible for an individual practitioner to work without the awareness of institutional practices.
How does the discourse on contemporary art reside within the greater paradign of visual culture, in the context of the region?
Recently the big paradigm of visual culture in my local context is heavily determined by the music entertainment business branded as Korean Wave, which is arguably an urban sleek commercial sexist product. There are many other alternative paradigms ongoing like the sustenance of the everyday vernacular, restoration of folk traditions, excavation of ancient mythology, and even amateurish self-farming, etc. But these minor paradigms cannot compete with the Korean Wave industry sponsored by the state as a major exportation and tourist item. What scares me about the Korean Wave paradigm is that it is a fictitious, false imagery, rooted in nowhere and nobody, and no wonder; it is sheer emptiness. The contemporary local art scene has been wise enough to distance itself from the Korean Wave mechanism, but the press & media seem to be questioning whether contemporary art can sustain itself outside of its influence. Simply put, contemporary art in the local context, whether be it fine art or applied art, may look isolated (even delayed by some) from the overriding paradigm of visual culture, but it still depends on who sees it from what perspective. Architecture, design, film, and image productions are coming up as counter-powers of visual culture, I think.
The status of art history and contemporary art criticism in this local context is almost hopeless, I should say. Nothing can be more detrimental than internal problems within each discipline. Internal problems are half structural, half man-made. Structural problems in part reflect the macro-structural problems of politics and economy.
I think contemporary art institutions and individual practices in the field have already quite given up about the mortified discipline of art history and art criticism for a long time. But, I think their absence is still our loss in the end. That’s why some art institutions have designated intentional efforts to archive and commission criticism. Still it’s pathetic that schools don’t even pick up what’s been triggered in the field.
Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?
In my local context, contemporary culture itself isn’t a big enough deal to produce a heavy “trope” in general. In a way, we are fortunately not entrapped by any heavy trope of the contemporary. As was manifested in this recent election (4.11) for a national assembly, this nation has a considerable power presence of the premodern and modern generation. Contemporaries are minor!
Purely as a repulsive gesture to the premodern and modern, there are some pretentious gestures of self-conscious “contemporary,” if that is what you mean by the “trope” of contemporary. Some “contemporary” modes are decorated, elaborated, sampled, and reproduced by popular lifestyle magazines. It is true that such tropes of the contemporary are adopted and appropriated quickly in appearance, and reproduced quickly as conventionalised modes of the contemporary. Some critics deplore such mindless importation of “exotic” contemporariness that have been repeated from the modernisation process in Korea. I think any contemporary trope in my local context cannot be the object of such harsh criticism yet, because it is half from a collective desire to escape from premodern social absurdities, and half from social naiveté that has lost its grip on reality, which itself takes time. The trope is still at an innocent level, I should say.
Are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? How do folk and traditional practices inform or translate into contemporary practices?
I think Korea is one of the regions that has territoriality as a strong and valid denominator in inscribing and, therefore, operating temporality and historicity. Major governing principles of the society are still ethno-centric nationalism, anti-communism, national security, and Confucianism, most of which are defined by its relation to land and territory. In defining principles of subjects, sovereignty, social norms, labor, relationships, and memory, simply put, in framing the structure of any discourse, there is a strong factor of territory. I think this is never a question of right or wrong, whether you like it or not, because North Korea is there as a question of not-easy-to-solve. The question is how do you translate this reality in your mind-set? If you set North Korea in a defensive frame, you become stuck in the self-enclosed half. Whenever there comes a threat of North Korea, there rises the same intense nationalism in South Korea. The funny thing is that it is not each individual who is benefitted or protected by this nationalism. It is only the virtual Nation-State. It isn’t nationalism if it gets empowered by kicking out social minorities.
As a way to excavate diverse beliefs and interpretations of territoriality, some artists have explored folk traditions and local mythologies. Broaden a horizon. No wonder folk traditions are enriched with alien cultural encounters. Restoring diversity, instead of securing authenticity, is what artists are observing from folk traditional practices. Some artists are drawn to folk traditions by their archetypal fusion of secular holiness.
To begin with, institutions in Asia don’t seem to “rise” enough to endanger any art practices. More accurately put, it is not institutions, but the bureaucratic system that matters. Institutions in Asia should first have a professional curatorship to be qualified as “institutions.”
There’s nothing like neutral bureaucratic administrators in Asia yet. Bureaucracy is not just an administrative system, but a politicised system because administrators are structurally susceptible to political doctrine and fordist industrial evaluation of art like everywhere in fact. The current political doctrine of any regime is the neoliberalist economy. Ideological censoring lingers there yet, but most clearly, neoliberalist institutions simply burn out practitioners and artists. Neoliberalist market economies, especially one that has no other social welfare nor complementary measures, chokes any kind of art practice.
Mon 4/16/2012 8:33 AM
Yeung Yang, Director of Soundpocket in Hong Kong
What could put contemporary art under threat? Not institutions per se, but institutions that forget how they come into being and why they are needed in the first place. Let me explain via a detour.
I currently work full-time in an institution of higher education. Among co-workers in the programme that I teach, there has been a lot of talk about the mandate of the university as an institution. We discuss a lot the role the university plays or has stopped playing in the education of virtues and values. These issues are the crux of our teaching and learning, not an add-on. The university, like any other, has a mission statement laying out its mandate. When the university relates to other institutions as a single unit, the mission statement becomes a quick reference. It is a matter of administration. But when the university relates to its body of members—staff, teachers, students, the mandate is a matter of teaching, learning, debating, and examining values and virtues as something we all contribute to and are a part of. It is to do with morals, or the right thing to do. My point is that the institution as an administration that exercises a set of procedures in a systematic way must be distinguished from the individuals within who make the institution possible in the first place. The institution needs to exist because there is primarily a tacit agreement that coming together and being associated with each other make us better; it helps us do the right thing. Institutions receive a mandate from their members—be they citizens of an entire society, stakeholders sharing common values etc.—to exercise their wills, not the other way round. How they have become reversed and mixed up, I do not know.
Another institution I relate to, though in a different capacity, is the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), which has been managing the grant that supports Soundpocket1 since 2009. We have had to put its logo and the phrase “supported by” in projects we do. For us, this phrase isn’t just an empty label. It is an acknowledgement of our public nature, which is as important and pertinent as what we do. As we work, we also ask the question of the public and its concerns that we address. This is a matter of accountability that rests with any institution with a public mandate. When and how this may get lost in the speed of production and the imperative to stop thinking, I do not know.
In “A Case of Being ‘Contemporary,’” Wu Hung says that the term “contemporary art” in the domestic sphere of China “conveys a strong sense of avant-gardism and signifies a range of experiments that aspire to challenge established art institutions, systems, and forms.”2 I think Hong Kong is in a similar situation. My question is, if avant-gardism comes under too much pressure to justify or defend its value—that is, when the contemporary comes before the art, would it be exaggerated and become an attitude and gesture to lose sight of what could be the common interest that it always already addresses—that of doing justice to even the most singular operation, practice, idiosyncrasy, etc.?
If the power of contemporary art is in the flexible and open engagement with and intervention in all sorts of situations, it can only co-arise with them in contexts. Sometimes, a project wanting to be contemporary as avant-gardist may end up not being so. Sometimes, a project that does not claim the contemporary becomes so by accident. If avant-gardism needs structural support—which is valued for being stable, consistent, and sustainable, it takes primarily not a category in grant policies that sets aside cash for it, but a commitment from all of us to safeguard freedom and equality. By extension, an institution as a way we have chosen to come together can contribute to the definition of contemporary art by first defining it in relation to the society in which it stands and the public with which it stands. This sense of “defining” is more like clearing the way for a house before building it.
At this point, I would like to bring M+ into the picture. Lars Nittve’s presentation on April 11, 2012, emphasised the “public ethos” of the new museum. It is a fresh and important start. Not that it is new, but that it contextualises what the claim “for Hong Kong people” means. The mentioning was brief, but it was enough to put legitimacy of its power into the picture. If the pledge on education were also to be pursued as Nittve suggested, as a core and not derivative value of the art and the programming, the education would include how the people of Hong Kong are to learn that they, too, are masters of the museum. I see this as Nittve’s call for public attention and engagement. I also see this as Nittve’s commitment to accountability, which is welcoming in the current political climate.
What interested me about his presentation was also what he did not address much—“contemporary art.” M+ was profiled as a “new museum of visual culture” that specialised in visual art. While Nittve offered refreshing ideas on display, he spoke little about how the value of the collection of M+ would be determined—not just its monetary value, but also cultural value, to align its mission with collecting visual culture, which is by no means innocent. Culture collected institutionally was the norm during colonial times. “Savage” bodies in the colonies were photographed and studied in the name of science. Cultural artifacts were interpreted to fit the colonists’ preconception of the culture while claimed to be “authentic” representations. From anthropological perspectives, which have contributed much to the theorising of culture, visual culture as a field of study makes such technologies of visualization as photography, film, and even writing a central part of the study. These technologies are theorised as apparatuses of power embedded in institutional practices. For instance, Jay Ruby argues that the study of anthropological cinema is the study of particular ways of looking at culture and its communication, and the historical and theoretical contexts of the issues involved.3 From the perspectives of Cultural Studies, from which the field of Visual Culture Studies emerged and which is today taught in several higher education institutions in Hong Kong,4 visual culture also embodies critiques of the ways of seeing. In the light, two issues emerge for M+: firstly, how can the idea of “collecting” and its power-laden history be opened up for critical examination, too? And secondly, how can the “contemporary” that is dependent on contexts and sites of production be collected when the act of collecting is opened up? When the kind of critique that has made visual culture studies is subjected to standardised institutional policies of collecting that are not put into question, any museum claiming to be new and contemporary could only become reactionary.
There is one further point about value I would like to make. Nittve talked about good artists from Hong Kong as being “international” rather than “local.” The term “international” was used to suggest a certain kind of value that was not clearly articulated in the presentation. The term “local” was also used to suggest another kind of value that, again, was not clearly articulated. To be fair, Nittve did add that the value of Hong Kong art would be understood in its local specificity, but there was also the suggestion that the “local” was irrelevant to defining good artists. I think Nittve’s idea was that if we are serious about being globally responsible for each other, we ought to do better than relying on the opposition between “local” and “international.” This is an important message. But with all the damage that capital without national borders has done to ways of life that value reciprocity (above ego-centric interests), mutual assistance (above self-help), and deep time (above speed) on a person-to-person level, it is understandable that some may react to Nittve’s affirmation of the international as an imperative to elevate the artists of Hong Kong to a language and other ways of circulating art from Hong Kong that may flatten their meanings. I am not saying Nittve’s is doing any of this. I am saying that there is still a need to theorise what it is about the value of artists from Hong Kong that M+ proposes to articulate and communicate on the institutional level.
For those of use who move in and out of institutions, we must not rely solely on artists to be contemporary. Organisations and practices need to be contemporary, too: be flexible and responsive to change, be critical and ingenious. How can these be achieved? Don't submit to pressure for production. Take time to think, even in an emergency.5 We must be self-conscious, but not self-consciously contemporary. Are we trapped by the trope of the contemporary? This is one of the questions that initiated this discussion. Perhaps, but this is when we can start planning an escape. To evaluate escapism negatively, according to Italo Calvino, is absurd, for in the ordinary language that traps us, writing for him is always a form of escapism. This escape would best be documented, as stipulated by the spirit of an archives law that is yet to be in place in Hong Kong, so that the public ethos of the museum will be substantiated and remain active. The day may even come that the question of contemporary art is relieved of the burden to mean for being such a well taken way of life.
This discussion is originally initiated by a need to put the “contemporary” as a question of the contemporary first, that is, a question of priority. Sometimes, questions of priority lead to things being broken up or excessively inflated. However, when they involve morals, they could become extremely important: What is the principle of our action? What is the right thing to do? It is in this light that I think the idea of contemporary as contemporary with, which has been coined by many before, is worth citing again. “With” is a word that suggests a combination, a union, even a shifting of a centredness (perhaps from the self) to embrace something new or different. “Contemporary with” is really a “being-with,” which is in listening to each other and participating in the give and take of discussion. “Being-with” is also to be at peace with oneself, to be without internal conflicts, without which being at peace with others would make no sense.
1. Soundpocket was founded in 2008. See soundpocket.org.hk.
2. Hung Wu, Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art (Beijing: Time Zone 8 Limited, 2008).
3. Jay Ruby, Picturing Culture, Explorations of Film and Anthropology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000).
4. The Chinese University of Hong Kong offers this as an MA program with the required courses listed as Contemporary Arts & Cultural Interactivity, Visual Culture Theory, Visual Research Methods, Cultural Studies in Film and Video. http://www.crs.cuhk.edu.hk/en/programme HKU Department of Comparative Literature offers courses in five streams. One of them is Film, Visual, and New Media Studies. http://www0.hku.hk/complit/courses/courses.htm Lingnan University has its Visual Studies within the Philosophy Department. http://www.ln.edu.hk/visual/about.php It would surely contribute to further research to consider the exact reading lists offered in the courses.
5. This is an idea inspired deeply by Elaine Scarry’s book Thinking in an Emergency, in which she argues that modern government’s “claim of emergency” undermines democracy. She shows how, instead, habits of thinking play a crucial role in preparing for such emergencies as a nuclear war. In the case of the Swiss Shelter System, for instance, Swiss law requires that nuclear shelters be built by all, a duty that arises from the right to the equality of survival. See Thinking in an Emergency (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).
Wed 4/18/2012 11:57 AM
Tapati Guha Thakurta, Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
I will structure my comment taking up three key themes raises in the questionnaire:
(1) the importance of institutional sites in defining contemporary art practice
(2) the paradigm of contemporary "visual culture" vis-à-vis that of contemporary "art"
(3) the critical tropes of the regional and the vernacular
(1) On the first theme, let me begin with a historical reflection on the way the emergence of modern art activity in India was grounded in the formation of a professional sphere of training, interpretation, and the public reception of art. The maturing of the new identities of the "modern" and the "national" in Indian art, from the late nineteenth into the early and mid-twentieth century, runs parallel to the history of private and formal art education in the art schools of British India, the spread of salons and art societies, the rise of art criticism and illustrated art journals, and the coming together of artists, critics, connoisseurs, collectors, and an initiated art public. The move away from the colonial institutions to indigenous non-state initiatives and nationalist and political platforms (like, for instance, the Indian Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta in 1907, or the Anti-Fascist Artists and Writers’ Association in 1942) shaped the main grounds for nurturing the periods’ changing configurations of "modern," "modernist," "avant-garde," and "progressive" art activity. We can trace in parallel the spread of a series of new professional careers in art, that will take us from the livelihoods of Academic portrait, landscape or mythological painters, to the growing trans-regional schools of Indian-style painters who during the 1920s and 1930s moved from Bengal to art schools all over the subcontinent, to a diverse range of careers in commercial art, design, and publicities, linking the circuits of art school training with the booming print industry and the emergent worlds of theatre, film, and advertising. It is out of these spreading professional livelihoods that the vocation of the full-time independent creative artist would be continually distilled, reified, and reinvented. As I have argued in my earlier writing, these institutional formations become central in defining the social sites of "modern" art practices. They also serve, in an important way, to separate out their practitioners and publics from those of both earlier and contemporary circuits of aristocratic and royal patronage in India, and from the circuits of popular, commercial, and mass picture productions.
This kind of historical background notates what the questionnaire calls the markings of "temporality" and "historicity" that define the entity called "modern India" and help situate it within an Asian and global framework of the contemporary. It gives us a vantage point from which to survey the changed institutional thrusts and dimensions of modern art practices in post-Independence and contemporary India. One major shift that connotes the move from the modern to the contemporary in the Indian art scene is the dissipation of state patronage and the boom in private art galleries, corporate investments in art, and the spectacular careers of twentieth-century Indian art in international art auctions and the art market. Geeta Kapur’s setting apart of the contemporary from the earlier trajectories of high modernisms and her aligning of the new category with a set of individual and collective artistic articulations of the 1980s can be rethought here. Perhaps one important way to periodise the contemporary in Indian art history and mark its ruptures with the past is to foreground the powers of new commercial and corporate interventions in art on a national and global level, during the late 1990s and 2000s—and to see how various orders of alternative/critical art practice are either willingly negotiating or are getting caught in the vortex of this all-powerful privatised ‘institutional’ domain. One would have to investigate in what ways the "age" of the "contemporary" in Indian art has become synonymous with the era of economic liberalisation and the workings of global capital.
The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw the central role of state institutions (like the NGMA and the Lalit Kala Akademi) in promoting the nation’s and the region’s modern art through collecting, exhibiting, workshops, publications, public commissions, competitions, and awards, By contrast, the past three decades has seen that role almost entirely taken over by private entrepreneurs, gallery owners, and art collectors. I do not have the expertise to analyse all that is entailed in the new range of privatised and globalised art initiatives that dominates today’s worlds of contemporary practice. Nor would I dismiss the renewed and reactivated agency of the state in promoting the nation’s modern art on a global forum. The signal role played by an institution like the NGMA, New Delhi, in recent years in profiling the modernist artistic legacy of Santiniketan (through its mega-exhibitions of Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee, Rabindranath Tagore, and Ramkinkar Baij) or of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, in facilitating such exhibitions, and in sponsoring the international travels and the comprehensive publication of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth) are important cases in instance. My suggestion would be to closely research these different institutional sites of promotion of contemporary Indian art—to see how the "national" gets freshly framed through the lens of the global and corporate, how this institutional sphere continually inflects individual practice, and how it becomes constitutive of the contemporary.
(2) On the second theme, I would like to stress the imperatives of opening up the nomenclature of the "contemporary" from these defined circuits of art practice to a broader field of popular, everyday visual production. What is at stake here is not only a recasting of the disciplinary concerns of art history and the positioning of the privileged object of "art" within a broader domain of "visual culture." What this also pushes us to consider is a series of historical and contemporary contexts where these popular productions have entered the same institutional circles of collecting, exhibiting, archiving, and scholarly research. Like the objects of modern and contemporary Indian art, various genres of "popular" imagery—ranging from nineteenth century Kalighat painting and mythological picture-prints to latter day calendar art, film posters, commercial advertisements, or studio photographs—are today engaging the discerning attentions of collectors and connoisseurs, scholars and curators, and emerging as the subjects of exhibition catalogues and the academic book industry. Furthermore, it is also crucial to underline the extent to each which these popular genres—whether they be the works of folk and tribal artists or of calendar and poster painters or those who design advertisements, pavilions, and street publicities—can lay claims to the identity of the contemporary in terms of their new themes, styles, and imaging technologies. So, for instance, if the forms of commercial advertising are today partaking of high-end digital media and graphic design and transforming the visual topographies of cities, the folk artists of Medinipur (Bengal), Madhubani (Bihar), or Bastar (Chattisgarh) are among the many who have evolved a resonantly contemporary identity over different time periods and have emerged into new frames of national and global visibility in art galleries and international art collections. I have been researching a contemporary festival phenomenon in the city of Calcutta, where the pavilions, tableaux, and images created for the Durga Puja celebrations every autumn have taken on the dimensions and pride of public art productions, inviting corporate sponsorship and new kinds of creative personnel and spectators. There is a strong case to be made for expanding and inflecting the field of contemporary art to include these kinds of ephemeral public art endeavours—in order to test how such inclusions and extensions unsettle the given notions not just of the contemporary but of art itself. To open out the field of the contemporary into this diverse arena of productions that fall under the rubric of visual culture is not to dissolve the exclusivities and hierarchies that constitute the more elect circuit of art practices. Rather, the purpose is to show how the practices, that carry the prestige of the name of contemporary art, have needed to continually shore their own grounds vis-à-vis these many other competing and complementary worlds of public and popular visual production.
(3) This brings me to my third theme. One of the most urgent thrusts of the contemporary in Indian art history lies in disaggregating the canon of the "national modern" and turning the focus on different historical configurations of the regional and vernacular art practices. It could well be argued, here, that the kinds of histories that have constituted the narrative of the national in modern Indian art from the late nineteenth through the twentieth century have always stemmed from the locations of the region and have carried in them the distinct markers of the provincial. In different phases of Indian art history—the art movement spearheaded by Abanindranath Tagore in Calcutta during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the art of Santiniketan Kala Bhavan during the 1930s and 1940s, the art of the Bombay Progressives in the post Independence years, or the art community of MS University of Baroda during the 1970s and 1980s, offer prime instances of the way certain regions and schools came to effectively stand in for the nation. It is the claims of these artists and art centres to represent/embody the national which came to relegate a series of other modern art histories emerging out of other Indian courts, cities and non-metropolitan locations, to the status of the regional and provincial. These other histories of twentieth century modernities and modernisms in Indian art are now gradually emerging out of their provincial circuits into newer sites of scholarship. I think, along with the trope of the regional, the other productive category to bring in our discussions on the contemporary would be that of the vernacular. The invitation would be to consider the complex ways in which this category is always tied to the matrix of region and territory but also transcends these to generate its own global aspirations and produces trends that scholars are calling "vernacular cosmopolitanisms." The vernacular in India’s modern and contemporary visual cultures would have its basis in a variety of traditional ritual arts, folk and tribal art styles, historical schools of painting, sculpture, and architecture, also in late nineteenth and early twentieth century lineages of book illustration, cover designs, commercial art, and a gamut of local print and literary references (as, for instance, in Bengal). But it is not reducible or easily assimilated to any single cluster of these many idioms on which it thrives. It will be instructive to look into how notions of the vernacular have been transformed over time and how vernacular identities have consciously pitched themselves into the arena of contemporary art in different urban settings, even as they remain separated from the more elect circles of national and global.
Mon 4/23/2012 11:03 PM
Karen Smith, curator and critic specialising in contemporary art in China
In the 1990s, institutions in China were still very formal organisations; the academies, their exhibition halls; artists’ associations and municipal museums, which were rather austere and restrictive—especially in light of events surrounding the China/Avant Garde exhibition (the first national survey of ’85 New Wave art) in Beijing in February 1989, when a gun was fired into an artwork. But although these very public spaces became closed to contemporary art for a while, forging the impression that what was contemporary in art occurred in specifically non-sanctioned spaces, be that public (university halls, shopping plazas, schools, parks) or private (apartments and, on occasion, diplomatic, or foreign residential quarters). For this reason, in the early 1990s, one can say that almost no institutions in China had a practicable role in defining contemporary art.
That began to change when Shanghai launched a biennial in 1996. Although not progressive in the way it was in 2000, say, or as the Guangzhou Triennial would be from its beginnings in 2002, the Shanghai Biennial encouraged a reconsideration of the potential relationship between new art and a specific handful of public institutions—this included Shanghai Art Museum, the new Guangdong Museum of Art, and He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen. In terms of public reach and profile the cultural force of an institution was significantly embellished with work done at Guangdong Art Museum under Wang Huangshang, and now with his work at CAFA’s art museum, as with that of Huang Zhuan at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal launched under He Xiangning Art Museum in 2003. The work referred to here is that of planning and maintaining a strategy; a possibility that has been seen more recently in the sector of (semi-)private museums—Today Art Museum, Shanghai’s Zenda Art Museum / Himalaya Centre, and the Rockbund Museum.
The development of independent institution-type spaces has been both positive and, to the outside world, occasionally misleading. The agendas of these new institutions in China are largely built on good intentions—good intentions being at once indefinable and fallible, and dominated by emotions rather than rationale. Like most aspects of “the system” in China, these institutions lack the kind of transparency (a Westerner assumes) necessary for building long-term trust in the eye of the public as well as the international art world. In terms of organisation, they are often run (instituted) by a single individual who has no need of heeding the advice of a board of trustees or governors. Without a strong vision and a rationale to back it up, institutions face challenges in corralling the expectations of corporate sponsors within appropriate parameters. Having said that, and given the funding challenges that many public Western institutions are facing in these economically-challenged times, one might consider that, as these “institutions” evolve in China, and in the absence of a modern system to build upon, China’s “third” spaces, as these surely are, may well endure and succeed. Almost all artists wish to be exhibited in these spaces. They represent not only the best the system has to offer in China, to greater and lesser degrees of integrity and quality, but are also able to be extremely flexible in the use of interior space—reconfiguring, reconstructing, or redecorating to a degree impossible in most Western institutions.
How any of these museums function in China today is also related to how we define the art that is presented in them: in terms of the word “contemporary.” In China, “contemporary” has become a catch-all reference for art that ought to be progressive, as in the manner of the ’85 New Wave pioneers, and the vanguard that was, in the early 1990s, defined as the avant-garde. As time moved forward, and as succeeding generations of young artists introduced new ideas and practice into the field, the term “avant-garde” was recognised as being in appropriate and the term “contemporary” preferred in its stead. Today, it is the most convenient term for art being produced in this present age—postmodernism was never a precise fit for obvious reasons of the lack of Modernism as a contextual backdrop to a post-modern evolution—but as it is used in by critics and art writers in China, “contemporary” is not always invoked in association with a specific attitude of mind or philosophy vis-à-vis a Euro-American concept. Its use is habit; a readymade convenience, if you will, that removes the need for a writer to quantify what it is that an artist actually does. “Contemporary” does, however, refer to the ambitions and impulses that drive art at the cutting-edge end of what is being created now in China.
I have always instinctually felt that temporality and historicity are directly related to, if not entirely based on, territoriality; at least in the case of China. It was never about China being backward, just that the “avant-garde,” the new artists, came to the international world of art somewhat late and had some catching up to do in terms of practice: Europe and America had had an almost unbroken century under their belt by this (Chinese) moment in the early 1980s when the reform era began, releasing China’s economy and culture from the singular ideological practice that both were under Mao, and which made it possible for artistic expression to begin anew. Richard Mann has put this variance in temporal awareness well in his book The Return of History: The End of Dreams; after all, when America became “the new world” in the twentieth century, Europe was suddenly termed “the old,” which was discussed, debated, in language that located that difference in “time.”
There have been a number of exhibitions through the past dozen or so years that have tried to explore this time lag/lapse. These include Living in Time (Berlin 1999) and the Parallel Time project produced at the academy in Hangzhou under the guidance of Xu Jiang, together with Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun. A good example of how time can be a factor in visual development—and how art history struggles with and fails to accommodate different time zones as it were—is explored in the Getty’s recent exhibition Pacific Time. This demonstrates the obvious fact that, within specific locales, artistic and cultural development may follow divergent courses in temporal development from the mainstream pulse of “art history.” The problem is that, in today’s world, art history is far too linear to be comprehensive. Art history does remind us, however, that the world is cyclical in the rhythms of expansion and growth in civilizations and cultures; and, equally, in its retractions and renewals. For the last twenty years, China has been living this kind of flux between end of retraction and renewal. Only time can show if it has the potential to be wise or innovative or enduring.
In terms of China’s “contemporary” art, elements of folk or traditional practices tend to appear in the works of artists who are most confident in and comfortable with their practice. Why? Because for so long neither was considered cool in China—certainly not “contemporary.” Where certain folk traditions were invoked in the 1990s, the result tended towards kitsch: in the example of the Luo Brothers, which combines folk imagery (popular forms from nian hua) with that of “modern” culture, the result is utter kitsch with little to redeem it. Does that count? One has to ask because there is a terrible double standard or condescension on the part of many observers at work in regard of how folk/tradition is invoked in art, and received and discussed/praised: obviously more directly related to “folk,” as “low” culture, than “tradition” which is viewed as belonging to “high art.” There is a lack of standards applied to appraising works where folk or traditional practices appear. But foremost, is the issue of how we define either “folk” or “tradition,” period. The latter in particular, being an ever evolving form: to which tradition do we refer? Ink, as one such “tradition,” is an entirely separate issue: its practice seems to be self-defeating and self-abnegating on so many levels where those involved struggle to resolve issues of modernity within ink expression and are swift to dismiss the practice of “contemporary” artists for experimental work with the medium. This is one area in which the debate about “tradition,” “practice,” and “technique” has yet to break free of conservative or established parameters: what exists outside of those parameters has no name. This seems so ironic when throughout history it is the brush painters who have been so demonstrably innovative and “avant-garde” in the exploration and refining of methodologies.
Since the focus of Ai Weiwei’s art shifted wholly towards activities that exemplify politically-engaged art, we have all been forced to rethink the meaning of art today vis-à-vis the goals any artist sets for the mode of expression they chose. The force of the market has exerted a guiding influence on the styles of many young and impressionable artists. We need to redefine what is meant by politically-engaged art when speaking of China’s “contemporary” art. The term “political” has been profusely applied to a wide range of content in art in China, based largely on surface readings of immediately obvious visual motifs, as with the proliferation of art featuring “Mao” or the symbol of the young pioneer—the red neckerchief, which occurred in the 1990s. It has long been too easy to play with such symbols but, as we know, many of those symbols were already pretty much sanctioned ahead of use in China’s “new” art. With hindsight, how much of what was promoted as political stands up to scrutiny today? How much was really politically-engaged? After all, one might argue that, in terms of the prevailing Chinese culture in the late 1970s–early 1980s, where figuration was de rigueur to the point that to depart from the “red, shining, bright” standards of all visual expression was an act of contravention of state ideology, those artists—and there were many, Zhang Wei, Zhu Jinshi, Yu Youhan, Gu Dexin, to name but a few—who engaged in abstract art were making a clear political statement; a complete refutation of all that was prescribed for them. That discussion has only just begun in China: in the 1990s, to the foreign visitor, this distinction was invisible, and abstract art thus appeared lacking in local “Chinese” characteristics. This is just one example of art in China that really was politically charged because the context was such an inalienable part of the work.
Where all that is unfolding in China today is still so relatively new, it is all part of an inevitable and necessary process. Everything has its place and its moment. Whilst we should all work to contribute, we should not be too quick to judge or damning in that judgment. Given the economic shifts in the so-called first world, we just might find that the loose and fluid approach to running cultural institutions in China is the fact of the future. Who can really say if that is good or bad: the only certainty in life, it seems, is that everything changes in time.
Mon 4/23/2012 1:20 PM
Sohyun Anh, Curator at the Nam June Paik Art Center, Gyeonggi-do
The difficulty of defining "contemporary art" or summarising it into a few characteristics forms the premise of this argument and therefore it seems rather counterproductive to try to reconfirm the commonly accepted phenomenon here. It might, nevertheless, be interesting to consider why the term has been readily absorbed and used in the institutions of art without meeting much resistance, while, as Hal Foster pointed out in 2009, “such paradigms as ‘the neo-avant-garde’ and ‘postmodernism,’ which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand.”1
The concept of contemporary art has a large gap between its denotative and connotative meanings. It not only refers to "the art of today" or "art by living artists" in terms of general and value-free periodisation, but also implies the difference from the art of past generations in an actual context. Thus, it is highly evaluative. (Here you may raise an objection that "art" is in itself a value-laden term. But the adjective contemporary includes much more complex values.) This explains why so many works of art by living artists are often regarded as "non contemporary." If, at a later day, a new form of art appears and moves away from the characteristics that define contemporary art now, it might be called “historical contemporary art” that sounds as paradoxical as the expression “historical avant-garde.”
It is in this very disparity that the concept of contemporary, as most other periodisations, became a myth in the sense of Roland Barthes. Today, all works of art can de jure be, but cannot de facto be contemporary. This brought about the necessity to explain the de facto criteria for being called as such, which again led to a mobilisation of all canons against the art of previous periods. As a result, contemporary works came to signify an open-ended structure that is totally disinvested of historicity, not judged by its formal features, and invites the audience’s free choice and participation in favor, not of political ideology, but of diversity.2 However, here arises a problem. As contemporary art begins to be considered to be value-free, it is also allowed to subsume all the more values uncritically. Now that the category under that name undoubtedly exits, though ambiguous in manner, all kinds of values thrust themselves forward and claim to fall into the category. According to Barthes, a myth is transformed from a mere object of semiotic interpretation into an ideology at the very point where you neither follow nor demystify it, but just accept it as "being there," as ambiguously as it is.3 Likewise, the term contemporary that is now used to excess to praise a new art emerging out of the old era has become an ideology, because it has never been demystified but employed only as the neutral designation of a certain period.
Then, what ideologies does "being contemporary" represent? First of all, the term contemporary art is used to describe "art produced in the present," but, in a more practical sense, means "art consumed in the present." The criteria are whether a work of art is "taken to be contemporary" by the institutions of art, that is, whether it is being distributed in biennales, museums, and art fairs, and by extension, whether it is thereby judged to be "global." Regardless of age, the way of consuming art influences the way of producing it. However, the problem frequently occurring in contemporary art is that this art constantly appeals to the art institutions and art market by speaking highly of its newness that is in no way new. One of the typical contradictions regarding this would be the self-orientalism in the Asian art scenes that adheres to the traditional in order to be contemporary. It sometimes creates some novel hybrids but in most cases, ends in a mixture of the most well-known icons, rather than overcomes the problems of the previous years.
Such being the case, can production, not consumption, be an alternative criterion on which to define the contemporary? Being based on production does not mean to follow in the footsteps of the rigid formalism of Greenberg and Fried. Art that is newly produced is one that tries to solve the problems raised in the time and region when and where it is produced. In other words, it contains the issues regarding the context it is created in. And this does not bring us to the conclusion that artists should work only on the issues of their own country or region. Some of the obvious examples of this could be found in Korean art.
The Korean art scene in the 1980s was divided by the two axes: the one is monochrome painting and the other is the so-called Minjung Art (people’s art) that protested against Korea’s military dictatorship regime. In the 1990s, artists began to look for a "new" art that would be able to go beyond the indifference to reality of monochrome painting and the direct and raw political message of Minjung Art. It is around this time that Korean artists who had lived and worked abroad brought new and unprecedented tendencies into the art world of this country. For example, Yiso Bahc was an artist who was preoccupied with the chasm between two countries and between two languages. His work in which Korean transliterations of such English words as “minority” or “exotic” were coupled with photographs reminiscent of those words was not global in the least, but instead cast questions about the global. The work did not convey a political message, but in itself was highly political, for it faced up to the fact that the context it was placed in was a crack. It was a newly produced art that transcended the binary division between political and non-political art, and between the Korean and the global. Of course, Bahc’s works are also consumed in biennales and the art market. However, what makes his work contemporary (in spite of his untimely death) lies not in the fact that it is introduced in international exhibitions and events, but in the fact that it is "asking" about the international.4
Contemporary art, not as a period designation but as an evaluative term, should not be art consumed contemporaneously, but art that is produced by artists who pose contemporary issues in the regional context they are situated in. Although it is impossible to identify common formal features of contemporary art, this art should not be an ambiguous name to call all forms of art currently consumed in the international art scene. Like the linguistic concept of the "shifter,"5 the term contemporary can mean entirely different things in different contexts, but should be used as something that indicates a certain determined direction. In this sense, contemporary art is inevitably and essentially political. It is so not in the sense that it supports a particular political ideology, but in the sense that it raises questions about the conditions of our life. Contemporary art should make us go back not to political art, but to Walter Benjamin’s famous proposition—“the politicisation of art.”
1. Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October 130 (Fall 2009): 3.
2. The values listed here are those that Nicolas Bourriaud described as the characteristics of the new tendencies in the artistic practice of the 1990s in his Esthétique relationnelle. However, Claire Bishop argued that the “relations” produced by relational art works are not new, as well as politically uncritical (Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, Fall 2004, 51–79).
3. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Seuil, 1957: 201.
4. Some argue that contemporary art can be defined as art produced since the postmodern movement. According to this point of view, Bahc is not a contemporary artist, but a representative postmodern artist. This periodisation is, however, based only on the frequency in use of the terminologies, not on theoretical analysis. Thus, in this text, we do not support the theory that the contemporary period was after postmodernism.
5. Jakobson’s term “shifter” refers to the elements in language that can be understood only by reference to the context in which they are uttered, but undoubtedly indicate a movement of the discourse, like the pronouns “I” and “you.”
Mon 4/23/2012 4:08 PM
Vidya Shivadas, curator, researcher, and writer based in Delhi
On the Contemporary
In 1949 the Government of India organised the Art Conference at Calcutta where it invited a consortium of artists and critics and asked their suggestions on art institutions and on the educative role of art for the general public. The gathering unanimously voted for the immediate setting up of a National Art Gallery even if it remained divided on whether this institution would be run by the government’s representative body or handed over to the artist community. In the following years, until the institution finally came into being in 1954, heated debates arose on which of the nomenclatures "modern" or "contemporary" would more appropriately define the institution.
While making a case for a National Gallery of "Contemporary" Art, an editorial in Art News (a monthly newsletter published by the artist organisation AIFACS) expressed the view of a section of artists and scholars like Barada Ukil and Sir James Cousins, among others: “There is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which buys up as much representative collection of avant-garde art as possible. This is on the premise that what may not be intelligible today, will be highly significant to posterity. It is a gamble but America is rich enough to afford it. In India we are still trying to be contemporary, not ultra-modern . . .”
Having demarcated the separate agenda for an Indian art museum as opposed to an institution like MoMA, the editorial goes on to say, “At present because of absence of allocation of funds for a separate gallery, the museum has to provide an uneasy home for a heterogeneous collection of 20th century art—Bengal school, Tagore’s ink drawings, Amrita Sher-Gil. There are also a number of artists who at present defy classification. . . . As soon as possible NGMA should have a specialist gallery of modern art, another gallery for more conservative schools like Bengal school, earlier Rajput and Moghul schools and Rajasthani art. Even Ravi Varma can have a place in such a gallery.”1
The National Gallery of "Modern" Art was eventually set up in 1954 as a subordinate institution to the Department of Culture, Ministry of Education. The 1949 conference had made it clear that there were competing opinions on the mandate of cultural institutions, the spaces artists occupied and the role for cultural practice in general within the newly independent nation state. When Education Minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad called for these conferences (as the first step in setting up a National Culture Trust), it was to gather expert opinions and allow for diverse members of the artist community to imagine the contours of the national art museum. But realising the difficulty of navigating through this consensus building exercise, the State overtook the project.
In the coming years, the NGMA became an insulated institution, aligning itself with a classical notion of the museum that worked retrospectively. It privileged a historicising mode, marking the moments of origin of modern art in India through a selective list of artists (Amrita Sher Gil, Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, and Jamini Roy in particular as the key figures). This happened as much by design as by default because of the kind of collections that fell into the hands of the state compounded by budgetary constraints and lack of effective leadership. But in the end it led to the making of the National Gallery of Modern Art that, especially in the initial decades, aligned itself with an exclusive modernist discourse. It did not enter into an active relationship with its primary constituency—the artists, and also did not end up reflecting the diversity and energy of art practice in the country.
In the early eighties the term "contemporary" was again evoked to dislodge the modern’s solitary claim over the modern art museum and to counter what was seen as its exclusionary politics. The Roopankar Museum of Art at Bharat Bhavan was set up in Bhopal in 1982 by artist, critic, and ideologue J Swaminathan. Here Swaminathan placed folk, tribal, and modern art within the same exhibitory constellation to realise his idea of "contemporaniety," thus claiming the institution for multiple simultaneous visual worlds that co-existed in India. Roopankar had short-lived success in envisioning a space that could grapple productively with the different registers of art practice and the kind of aesthetic, political, and ethical issues this comingling generated. But by 1990 Swaminathan left Bharat Bhavan owing to the change of government in the state to Madhya Pradesh and subsequent reduction in funding and the museum has since lapsed into a state of inactivity.
I touch upon these institutional references to suggest the kind of anxiety the public art institutions generated among invested parties in their ability to be truly representative of varied artistic communities and by association its diverse populace. And to also look at how the terminologies of contemporary and modern are very much implicated within these discussions.
Since the nineties we appear to have moved away from the meta-discourse of the state institutions and now seem to be part of a much more variegated scene fuelled to a large extent by the art market and private sector. We have also been inducted into a global art scene and seem well sync with its current fetishisation of the "contemporary."
Much recent debate has been centered on whether the contemporary presents a critical category that is allowing a vibrant heterogentity to come to fore or does it simply serve as a generalised term for what is current, fashionable etc. Can we rely on its radical potentials to denote the end of the reception of art along the center-periphery imagination, to what Cuauhtémoc Medina refers to when he says it is “no longer possible to rely upon the belatedness of the South in presuming that artistic culture goes from the center to the periphery."2 Does it allow for the visibilisation of diverse practices and communities? Does it pay careful attention to and learn from the complex artistic strategies that come into play in different political environments. And can it stake its independence from the operations of global capitalism and counter its homogenising effects on culture and economies.
Away from the monolithic discourse of the national, the contemporary has made possible different kinds of alignments between individuals and institutions, between seemingly disparate temporalities and locations. While celebrating the flexibility and the layered identity formation this suggests, I would also like to make a plea for a deeply grounded local discourse. In the context of India this is doubly important because the last two decades of globalisation have unleashed unprecedented social and economic changes and we are dealing with vastly changing ground realities.
Katherine Boo refers to these altered conditions in her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a close study of the Mumbai slum Annawadi. She speaks of the shortage of deeply reported accounts on how the poor are coping in the age of globalisation and the need to grapple with particular individual stories so as to be able to formulate better arguments and policies.3
Even as the contemporary allows us to traverse geographies and makes possible broad horizontal alignments, it should equally make space for this kind of entrenched position that digs deep into the ground. It should be able to re-examine the past as well as account for the fast changing present so that particularities can emerge. The contemporary, as Agamben writes poignantly, “is he who holds his gaze firmly on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.”4
It is also important to note that this kind of rooted contemporary practice generates a radical, always uncertain and sometimes fraught process—and art institutions need to realise the implications of committing to it. They need to be involved in a radical process of self critique—that is not simply exhibit work but rethink the way the organisation is structured, the way it frames art practice or relates to audiences. Unlike the State museum that withdrew from public claims by building an insulated institution focused on a selective historical modernism, contemporary art institutions will have to handle contentions within the art world and also outside it. As the boundaries between the art world and the world outside become more porous, the institutions will have to time and again develop productive strategies to engage with the discord.
That this is not an easy task became evident, yet again, recently. A couple of months ago a Delhi based artist was first invited by an organisation to exhibit what was widely reported as his "homoerotic" photographs and then had to deal with its premature closure on the opening night following a complaint made to the police on its "explicit content." The organisers made signs of reopening the exhibition under pressure from the artistic community and other activist groups only to not follow through finally. They took close to a month to release a public statement on the issue with the artist having to field questions from the press and make hesitant statements on the matter.
What is the organisation’s commitment to an artist and his autonomous practice? How does it understand the political climate in which it is organising its programme? How does it relate to the audience that visits these exhibitions? How does it build linkages between civil society and the artistic discourse? How does it forge meaningful conversations within an increasingly polarised society that is targeting artistic expression and creative freedom more than ever? Art institutions must really think through some of these questions before making their "progressive" gestures of showing contemporary art practice.
1. Editorial, Art News, a monthly bulletin of arts and crafts, Vol. XII No. 7 & 8, July–August 1959.
2. Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Contemp(t)orary: Eleven Theses,” e-flux, 2010, http://www.eflux.com/journal/contemptorary-eleven-theses/
3. Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers (New Delhi: Penguin Group, 2012).
4. Agamben, Giorgio, “What is Contemporary” in What is an Apparatus and Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford, 2009), 44.
Mon 4/23/2012 4:36 AM
Atreyee Gupta, Assistant Professor of Global Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth
On Territoriality, Temporality, and the Politics of Place
I teach in a university in the United States. The position that I hold, the position of an Assistant Professor of global contemporary art, is a very recent invention, less than half a decade old. This position, however, is not exceptional. Conceived at a time when the American academy is striving to reinvent itself as inclusive, diverse, and global, a number of Art and Art History departments across the country have created similar positions. These new faculty lines come in the wake of two discrete but interrelated phenomena—the debates surrounding the idea of a World Art History and the increasing visibility of “non-Western” contemporary art in the new international exhibitionary circuits. “The legitimate pressures in American universities for a multicultural curriculum will create a demand for a world art history,” David Carrier pointed out in 2008.1 “Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Korean Americans, and Muslims in America are likely to join African Americans in demanding that their visual traditions be taught in survey classes.”2
If the ongoing debates regarding World Art History arose from a need to imagine a more inclusive Art History that could contend with diverse histories and visual traditions, the post-1990s proliferation of art museums, bienniales, and global exhibitions in cities such as Seoul, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and Beijing generated an equally compelling contrapuntal pressure that obdurately demanded a self-reflexive framework for comprehending the trajectories of contemporary art as they unfold across space and time. Hence the invention of a new faculty line for global contemporary art. In most cases, such positions are held by scholars focusing on contemporary art beyond Europe and North America. My own research, for instance, focuses on modern and contemporary South Asia in specific and Asia more generally. This new position then provides us with an ideal platform to provincialise the story of the global contemporary even as this story is in the process of being narrated. So far so good.
But how are we to imagine global contemporary art and how are we to narrate it? What narrative strategies will we deploy to tell this story? Temporally and chronologically situated after the passing of the modern, the very category of the contemporary continues to frustrate. “The word contemporary,” as Terry Smith points out, “has always meant more than just the plain and passing present. Its etymology, we can now see, is as rich as that of modern. The term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.”3 Indeed, the question of time has always been central to an imagination of the contemporary, as Giorgio Agamben too has noted. As Agamben writes, “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.”4 It is precisely because of this anachronism, this disjointedness, a kind of “dys-chrony,” that one who is contemporary can clearly perceive his/her own time while keeping a distance from it. Concurrently, the word contemporary has within it an aspect of simultaneity—one that suggests an unfolding, existing, and living in the same time. The contemporary, then, is our shared time.
But, can we be contemporary together? As Smith rightly notes, in spite of a connectedness, contemporaries “subsist in a complex awareness that, given human diﬀerence, their contemporaries may not stand in relation to time as they do.”5 The experience of the shared space of the contemporary is then paradigmatically specific and conceptually fractured, indeed multiple and plural. Its contours vary depending on the geo-political terrain, both real and metaphoric, on which we stand. If, on the one hand, our experience of the contemporary is shared and thus universal, it is, on the other hand, simultaneously specific and particular. Smith then proposes we navigate the terrain of the contemporary by pressing “radical particularism to work with and against radical generalisation, to treat all the elements in the mix as antinomies.”6 Contemporaneity lies in this very disjuncture, in Agamben’s dys-chrony or Smith’s antinomies. If we follow Agamben and Smith into this dyschronous contemporary-scape of volatile antinomies, we would indeed pass beyond the strict chronotope of the modern into the promise of a plural present. Why then does the category called contemporary art continue to frustrate?
As an Art Historian, part of my frustration lies in the temporal bracketing of contemporary art. Contemporary art is often seen as art created after the Second World War. David Hopkins, for instance, begins After Modern Art 1945-2000 with the following statement: “On 9 August an atom bomb fell on Nagasaki in Japan, bringing the Second World War to a close. During the six years of conflict an incalculable number of people lost their lives. Soon the West would become aware of the horrors of the Holocaust visited on Germany’s Jewish population. Stalin’s atrocities in Russia would also become apparent. Before long a new ideological "Cold War" between Eastern Europe and America would structure international relations in the West.”7 The bipolar politics of the Cold War then provides Hopkins with the historical and temporal frame to narrate the story of contemporary art.
The now seminal volume Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism uses an identical chronological frame.8 Art Since 1900 is divided into two volumes, the first of which focuses on the modern, covering the period between 1900 and 1944, and the second, covering the period between 1945 and the present, focuses on the post-modern (or the antimodern) which is then followed by the contemporary. Although the authors do not unpack the implications of this division, it will be well within reason to surmise that their decision is based on a logic similar to Hopkins. That this text, yet again, reduces the “non-Western” modern to a derivative discourse, merely a reflection of a master narrative produced elsewhere, is a critique that a number of scholars have already made.9 I remain equally troubled by the fact that the genealogy of the contemporary must begin in 1945, specifically against the backdrop of the ideological Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, privileging the West, once again, as the harbinger of the contemporary.
What does 1945 mean for Asia? Take, for instance, India. In 1945, India was still a British territory. India gained Independence only in 1947. Modernism as such—Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, and the larger discourses of Primitivism, albeit in a re-articulated and indigenised form—made its presence felt in the visual worlds of the subcontinent through the work of artists such as Rabindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-gil, Jamini Roy, and Ramkinkar Baij only in the 1930s. That the lure of modernism would remain strongly entrenched in India through the 1960s and the 1970s is hardly difficult to understand, especially given the Nehruvian nation-state’s larger vision of a modern progressive India. A similar trajectory can be mapped in a number of Asian contexts, for instance in Indonesia. Or even in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. In China, on the other hand, the 1980s saw the revitalisation of modernism as an artistic strategy to reinsert the idea of progress into the nation’s political consciousness. Situating the genealogies of the contemporary in 1945 through the bi-polar politics of the Cold War, then, does not offer Asia a meaningful entry into the contemporary. Similarly, the year 1960, another convenient entry point into the contemporary “due to the emergence around this time of new generations of artists interested in overturning dominant modes of modernist practice” in Europe and America does not hold any special valence in Asian contexts either.10 Modernism remained strongly entrenched in artistic and intellectual discourses in 1960s India.
Of course, this temporal bracketing, 1945 or 1960, is merely symptomatic of a larger tendency to frame the contemporary through signs that are fully legible only within a European and American context. While a substantive examination of art history texts on contemporary art is perhaps beyond the immediate purview of this response, it must be mentioned, at least in passing, that recent texts have taken as their point of departure multivalent temporal frames.11 Yet, even within the shifting temporal frames of texts published in the last ten years, the signposts that mark the itinerary of the contemporary continue to remain largely Euro-American.12 By this temporal bracketing, the arena of contemporary art or the time after the passing of the post-modern becomes that liminal frame where the varied trajectories of art making across the globe must be concurrently confronted as a deeply fractured and dyschronous, yet uninterrupted, intellectual field. Nonetheless, this dyschronous but uninterrupted field remains embedded within Western economic and cultural shifts.
To turn, then, to a few questions posed in the Asia Art Archive’s questionnaire: How are temporality and historicity prescribed based on territoriality? Or how is territoriality proscribed by temporality and historicity? Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’? If the contemporary is indeed a shared time and we are contemporaries together, perhaps the question that we now need to insert into the debate on the contemporary and contemporaneity is this: When is the contemporary of contemporary art? This question, I believe, demands that we critically and self-reflexively mediate on the historical prepositions that are inherent to today’s conceptualisations of the contemporary. Given Art History’s commitment to History as such, only such a critical maneuver will allow us to overcome the theoretical impasse that the discipline currently faces when thinking, speaking, and writing about the new category called global contemporary art.
Let me turn to some recent critical and curatorial interjections that have radically reworked the conceptualisation of contemporary art, offering a number of strategies to circumvent the theoretical and conceptual impasse that Art History is confronted with as it faces the radically dyschronous arena of global contemporary art. Take, for instance, the 2009 Tate Triennial curator Nicholas Bourriaud’s notion of the altermodern. For Bourriaud, the contemporary is an altered modern, a new modern that is constituted by alterity. Unlike older configurations of the modern, today’s altermodern is neither centered on the West nor overcompensated by regional nationalist concerns. “There are no cultural roots to sustain forms, no exact cultural base to serve as a benchmark for variations, no nucleus, no boundaries for artistic language,” Bourriaud writes.13
Migration, mobility, travel, and nomadism are the dots that make up the geography of Bourriaud’s altermodern. As Bourriaud states, “today’s artist, in order to arrive at precise points, takes as their starting-point global culture and no longer the reverse.”14 By this formulation, we may argue that the centers of contemporary art are everywhere, its peripheries nowhere. Bourriaud’s altermodern is then different and distinct from the logic of de-centering Western modernism, as Okwui Enwezor has noted in an essay published in the text that accompanied the 2009 Tate Triennial, an argument that was partially restated in his response to Hal Foster’s 2009 Questionnaire on "The Contemporary."15 We can envisage through Enwezor’s critical reworking of Bourriaud a contemporary art system characterised by the “breakdown of cultural or locational hierarchies.”16 Seen through Enwezor, Bourriaud’s altermodern, we must admit, may offer Asia a different entry point into the contemporary, especially given that Asian modernisms have been precariously poised at the margins of the meta-narrative of the modern.
Yet, quite paradoxically, in our desire to frame an equitable cartography for contemporary art, imagined or otherwise, we may stand to lose our claim to the local as a site of resistance to a hegemonic global. In charting the trajectory of the contemporary through migration, mobility, travel, and nomadism, we may lose sight of the everyday locational hierarchies that are strapped between the pages of our passport, those clean, crisp pages neatly bound between the folds of a cover that still bears the mark of national identity. We may forget that some passports allow for greater mobility, some do not. We may also forget that transnational mobility and nomadism is a privilege. This forgetting would be disingenuous. While the transnationalist politics of global exhibitions such as the Tate Triennial may indeed hold the promise of what Geeta Kapur calls the “no-history, no-nation, no-place phenomenon,” we lose by this very move “the politics of place—community, country, region, nation, even margin or exile.”17
Over the last two decades, the increase in public art funding with the emergence a number of non-government agencies in India has further strengthened this politics of place, enabling a range of contemporary practices that resist being catapulted into that liminal global of the “no-history, no-nation, no-place” variety. The 2012 community art project Ghar Pe (literally At Home) organised under the aegis of the non-profit Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action in Mumbai’s Dharavi is a case in point.18 Ghar Pe was the result of a yearlong collaboration between the artist Nandita Kumar and a group of twenty women from Dharavi, the slum in Mumbai that is home to a million people who inhabit its single acre stretch and subsist at the peripheries of public civic services. The collaboration, which began with story-telling sessions, revolved around personal experiences of the domestic. The sessions, facilitated by Kumar and imagined as an informal intimate space where women gathered to exchange stories, gradually metamorphosed into alternative networks of kinship and solidarity beyond the family, a network that then generated local civic activism around questions of health, sanitation, and empowerment.
The yearlong story-telling session culminated in the exhibition Ghar Pe. The exhibition hall, a run down class room rented from the local high school and renovated by the Ghar Pe team, was painted turquoise—a color associated with the interiors of the many makeshift houses that jostle against each other in Dharavi’s narrow alleys. Ghar Pe, At Home, was thus markedly public even as it seemingly unfolded within the “private” space of the home. Abandoning the prevailing strategies of public art that posits the figure of the artist as the privileged interlocutor between disenfranchised subjects and the urban art sphere, Ghar Pe’s “artist-curator” Nandita Kumar recast Dharavi’s participants as the primary authors, thus privileging the local in the collaborative artistic partnership forged through the project. Installed by Kumar, each work on display was conceived and created by the participating women.
A sculptural ensemble consisting of a set of steel kitchen containers is exemplary of the larger concerns that cut across the exhibition. Familiar household objects, such containers are often part of the women’s trousseau. The participating women had created a collage consisting of photographs evocative of wedding rituals. When printed on transparent stickers and pasted on steel kitchen containers commonly used to store grain, this collage allowed the women to address intersections between gender, consumption, and everyday violence in Dharavi. During the exhibition, the women from Dharavi introduced their works to the audience, directly engaging the audience in dialog. Standing within the space of Dharavi, the women’s address to their audience would have been immediate and sensory, transforming the home, the ghar, into a site for public civic intervention. The reciprocal relationship that was here set up among the body of the work, the body of the women, and Dharavi itself demands that we take seriously the politics of place.
How then might we locate this community art project within the larger debates on contemporary art? Following Marsha Meskimmon’s arguments on transnational feminism, cosmopolitanism, and the explorations of the domestic in contemporary art practices, we may squarely locate Ghar Pe, as an artist led community art project, within the larger transnational trajectory of feminist artistic interventions that take the domestic as a discursive site of art making.19 The artist-curator Nandita Kumar lives and works in India and New Zealand, it might be easy to situate Ghar Pe within a global history of community art projects. Yet, to read the project solely through the cosmopolitan figure of Kumar would mean usurping the agency of Ghar Pes participants from Dharavi, negating the community of the community art project. Equally importantly, resolutely local, Ghar Pe becomes legible in and through Dharavi. If dislocated from the space of Dharavi and relocated elsewhere—in an art gallery or an international bienniale—Ghar Pe risks being recoded in quasi-anthropological and ethnographic terms, readily lending itself to a kind of armchair poverty tourism for the new global flâneur. Although, in theory the exhibition is perfectly mobile and can be reinstalled anywhere, in praxis Ghar Pe resists mobility. Deliberately entrenched within the local of Dharavi, Ghar Pethen becomes symptomatic of art practices in South Asia in specific and Asia more generally that posit a serious challenge to the liminal global of the “no-history, no-nation, no-place” variety. If we are to imagine an equitable cartography for contemporary art, it is imperative that we respond to and contend with this challenge as we realign questions of territoriality and historicity from within and beyond Asia.
Along with asking when is the contemporary of contemporary art, I propose we also reintroduce the politics of place into conceptualisations of both contemporary art and contemporaneity. It is only through such an approach that the entangled landscape of the global contemporary will become discernable, one in which multiple spatialities, temporalities, and power relations combine. I suggest we connect history to place—not to recover an imagined rootedness, the fabled local, but to think of a new ethics for transformational art practices that has emerged through the politics of locality. To use Henri Lefebvre’s words, “space as a locus of production, as itself product and production, is both the weapon and the sign of [. . .] struggle.”20
1. David Carrier, A World Art History and Its Objects (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), xxiv.
3. Terry Smith, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” Critical Inquiry 32 (Summer 2006), 681–707, 702.
4. Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary,” in “What is an Apparatus” and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 39–54, 40.
5. Smith, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” 703.
6. Ibid., 704.
7. David Hopkins, After Modern Art, 1945–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.
8. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloch, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004).
9. For example, see Partha Mitter “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery,” The Art Bulletin 90:4 (2008), 531–548, 531.
10. Amelia Jones, “Introduction: Writing Contemporary Art into History, a Paradox?” in Amelia Jones, ed. A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 3–16, 3.
11. For instance, recent texts such as Themes of Contemporary Art, Theory in Contemporary Art, and Defining Contemporary Art take the mid-1980s globalisation as their point of departure. Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel, ed. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, eds. Theory in Contemporary Art: Since 1985 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005); Daniel Birnbaum et. al. Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks (London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2011). Other texts begin in the 1970s, for instance Brandon Taylor, Contemporary Art: Art Since 1970 (London: Laurence King Publishers, 2012).
12. For a historiographical study of this phenomenon, see Dan Karlholm, “Surveying Contemporary Art: Post‐War, Postmodern, and then What?” Art History 32, 4, 712–733.
13. Nicholas Bourriaud, “Altermodern” in Altermodern: Tate Triennial (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), unpaginated.
15. Okwui Enwezor in Hal Foster el. al. eds. “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’,” October 130 (2009), 33–40; Enwezor, “Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence,” in Altermodern, unpaginated.
16. Enwezor, “Modernity and Postcolonial Ambivalence,” unpaginated.
17. Geeta Kapur, “Sub Terrain: Artists Dig the Contemporary,” in Indira Chandrasekhar and Peter C. Seel, eds. Body.city: Siting Contemporary Culture in India (New Delhi and Berlin: Tulika Books and The House of World Cultures, 2003), 47–83, 47.
18. Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, Ghar Pe was organised under the aegis of the Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action project Dekha Undekha: Conversations on Art and Health. Dekha Undekha was the first in a series of workshops that the Society has initiated in order to generate dialog between civic services administration and marginal communities in India. Conducted over a period of one year, Dekha Undekha evolved through a series of workshops with twenty women from Dharavi. Textile artist Susie Vickery, photographer Sudharak Olwe, and ceramists Anjani Khanna, Rashi Jain, and Neha Kudchadkar led the workshops. Building on these workshops and working closely with the twenty women participants from Dharavi, the artist Nandita Kumar conceptualised and curated Ghar Pe. Although the workshops that ultimately led to Ghar Pe were held over a period of one year, the two-week exhibition opened in Dharavi in February, 2012. The display consisted of art works created by the twenty women participants.
19. See Marsha Meskimmon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (New York: Routledge, 2011).
20. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 109.