Global Art at the Margins of Empire

by Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay

For an alternative artistic approach between an ephemeral global village and a reactionary appeal to tradition.

The emergence of art as a global institution (backed by a global art market) as one of the consequences of the process of financialisation, is an epochal event of our times that has rarely been commented upon. Commentators on New Capitalism have waxed eloquently about ‘informatization’ and ‘dematerialisation’ and, about the ability of capital to valorise processes and objects which were outside the erstwhile value circuit (affect and art are two prime examples) and to invent new, intangible, objects (e.g., financial derivatives), but what remain unsaid in that account is the fantastic concordance of artistic flows with financial flows leading to a certain Saatchification of contemporary art. In the mid-90s, Thierry de Duve wrote about an epochal transition – from Modernism to Postmodernism – premised upon art’s becoming a wholly self-referential category defined entirely by circulation rather than by some extrinsic criterion (beauty or truth). While the tendency towards dematerialisation has been exacerbated in the subsequent innovation of ‘Conceptual Art’ followed by more ‘ephemeral’ forms of non-representational art, a parallel process in geopolitics culminated in art’s globalisation or biennialisation which would remove the last vestige of art’s anchorage in specific places and times. Despite Clement Greenberg’s expansive claim about art as such (art did not go global until the late twentieth century) around the middle of the last century, think how localised was the context of his pronouncements – determined largely by his own location within the US ‘culture industry’ and the Cold War ideology which shaped it. And when you contrast him with comparable figures of today who can make claims on behalf art as such (rather than this or that – American or Japanese – art) – say, someone like Nicolas Bourriaud or any other curator/theorist of stature who shuttles across the globe with the ease of a business traveller and negotiates with non-western or even ‘tribal’ artists with a flourish, it becomes quite clear that the law of general equivalence (which is not the same thing as homogenisation) has permeated what can be called The Global ArtWorld Inc. Art’s de- and reterritorialisation in recent decades calls for a radical departure from theories (Bloch or Adorno) which valorized artwork’s transcendent qualities.

In our radically delocalized world, upholding the claims of a tradition is bound to sound hypocritical and reactionary. In the context of the ongoing Tate Triennial, Bourriaud (the curator) has rightly asserted that Postmodernism, which was obsessed with the idea of an indentifiable origin and tradition, is no longer relevant for the world we inhabit. The state of the artistic world today is such that one has to, of necessity, start from “a globalized state of culture – [the artists] not anymore working as logotypes of their own culture, or their own tradition. The question is not anymore where you are coming from but where you are going to?”

Yet, no one, except a miniscule and privileged minority of jet-set globetrotters, actually lives in the famed global village – it is counterintuitive. While lived places are pulverised and undercut by centripetal global forces, there can be no denial that groups to benefit from this mobility are usually the privileged ones – it is the powerless underdogs whose fate is to remain localized. In fact, the same forces that engender mobility and movement also create enclaves, ghettoes and camps where the ‘dangerous’ populations are confined, trapped and un-homed. Glocal art does not espouse a certain fetishism of place, instead it destabilizes the very fixity of place by asking: who makes places out of spaces? What are the stakes in this? What is the politics of place today? And it is precisely in these ‘zones of exception’ – refugee camps, borders, ghettoes of illegal immigrants, depraved slums, zones crisscrossed by petty smugglers who cross borders regularly for making a living and other ‘dangerous’ subaltern population groups who are being deprived of their mobility and livelihood and are being steadily localized by the operation of the global surveillance machinery – that the politics of place manifests itself. These places have nothing to do with the sense of sheltering autochthony associated with the erstwhile idea of place.

EmFacing the Defaced: The Art of Portrait in the Era of Displacement

Paradoxically, some of the most prosperous zones of the globe have enclaves teeming with the disenfranchised. Squeaky clean Singapore happens to be one of the wealthiest states of Asia (in terms of per capita income) but its red-light district, Gaylang, has a large population of immigrant, illegal sex-workers from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia. Many of them are not even professional sex-workers: they are housewives, daughters, young factory workers and college students from the large Asian hinterland where the operations of a globalised, ‘disorganised’ capitalism in recent times have brutalised, ravaged and disoriented traditional life-style and patterns of expectations. They all worship the mighty Singapore Dollar and cross borders to make some fast buck. The heat of poverty and the dust of dispossession have driven them to such extreme alienation that traditional notions of honour, shame, wellbeing – have all been forgotten. Theorists of ‘affective labour’ do not adequately recognise the degree of dispossession and degradation entailed in sex-work in the squalor and brutality of the Asian sex-industry. Joan Marie Kelly, an American painter who teaches drawing and painting at the Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), was shocked to find out that painting these sex-workers was not easy. The resistance came from the sex-workers themselves who felt inadequate and were reluctant to be represented: they felt that they are merely part of some anonymous and commoditized ‘flesh’!

In this era of ‘conceptual art’ and ‘performance art’ when painting has almost been relegated to limbo, experimenting with portrait painting would appear to be anachronistic. The end of art-as-we-knew-it is a logical outcome of the exhaustion of the classical (post-Renaissance) problematic of representation whose aim was verisimilitude. The advent of photography and cinema in early twentieth century not only made painting, (qua representation) somewhat superfluous but also gave rise to a certain reflexivity which, instead of thinking of painting as a window to the world, began experimenting with the materiality of the surface of the canvas, with the nature of colour and lines — without any reference to the ‘world’. Around mid-twentieth century, this tendency exhausted itself, culminating in high abstraction, ‘ready-mades’ and minimalism.

The wheel has come in full circle and today artists are asking, once again, with Nicholas Bourriaud, whether, through art, “it [is] still possible to generate relationships with the world” in a way that would circumvent the problematic of ‘representation’. Joan Kelly is a self-conscious practitioner of ‘relational aesthetics’ (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space). She looks at portraiture more as an ethnographic encounter rather than a mimetic activity: the purpose is not simply to paint a face but to generate an encounter between the artist and the social milieu of the subject to be painted. The idea is to use portraiture as a form of ‘conceptual art’ in order to engage with marginal communities in different parts of the world – illegal sex-workers in South and South East Asia, the unemployed and the homeless in the US, the refugees and the immigrants in Europe, factory workers in China who lost their limbs in accidents and were thrown out of their jobs — living on the margins of society. As is well known, the purpose of traditional portrait is to re-present a person’s inner persona. Kelly’s portraits, far from wanting to capture a subject’s expression, seek to valorise the process of interaction itself (between the artist, the model and his/her milieu) and the resultant portraits are the material remains, or witnesses – to this inter-subjective exchange and the resultant establishment/reinforcement of sociality.

The face is what represents the person. To be human is to have a face. To be a person, to be acknowledged as a person, means to be acknowledged through one’s face. It is not possible to contemplate a relationship of love, hatred or friendship with a faceless person. Human beings without faces are not quite humans. And yet, social marginality – professional sex-work and the kind of affective labour it entails – is precisely a way of rendering the sex-worker faceless. To concentrate on the face of a sex-worker is thus to redeem his/her humanity on the face of a ‘reality’ which seeks to reduce him/her to mere flesh. Kelly’s invocation of Levinas’ ideas on ‘the face of the other’ (he wrote about the ‘defenseless nudity’ of the face of the other – the ‘widow, orphan or stranger’) — is significant. According to Levinas, in the human face is found the original ethical code. From a look into the face of the Other we become aware of basic human responsibility and meaning. To emface the faceless through artistic encounter (Kelly attracts crowds of onlookers whenever she paints the sex-workers in public) is thus to restore the human in the dispossessed other.

Lipstick Zihad and the Sex of Things

By now it is widely acknowledged that the commodity is ontologically heterogeneous: it does not mean the same thing everywhere. Mia Jafari is a British-Iranian artiste who has been drawn to Iranian public commodity culture and her artistic work (textiles and photomontages made from staged photographs taken in Iran) on Iranian women’s engagement with mundane, mass-produced western consumer goods deserves critical interrogation as glocal art. Iran is one of those few places in the world where a self-conscious anti-globalization, anti-consumerist agenda permeates the state ideology and public culture. Predictably, most Iranian art (diasporic art included) today is undergirded by a certain artistic angst about the illiberalism of the Islamic regime.

As is well-known, the Islamic regime of Iran is critical of consumerism and for some strange reason consumerism is viewed as ‘western’ (while the crassest of the consumerist dystopias are located in the Middle East and South East Asia). While it would be difficult to brand Jafari’s work either as pro- or anti-consumption, what is clear is that a certain irony about the semiotic status of mass-consumer goods in Iranian feminine imaginary is pervasive in the textiles she makes. The subtle perversity of the façade of a washing-machine made from shiny, shocking-pink rough fabric (with a golden door and instructions written in Persian) arises out of a shrewd play with the politics of gender in contemporary Iran. The transposition from cold, smooth white metal to warm but rough pink not just feminizes this mundane gadget but also seeks to characterise the defiance of young Iranian women whose affiliation with visible markers of westernisation (loud make-up, flashy clothes, shiny trinkets, high heels etc.) shocks the conservative public. It is chic, wry and simultaneously disturbing and attractive.

Jafari’s photomontages depict staged scenarios of semi-veiled young Iranian women in colourful clothes playing with replicas of various mundane gadgets. What gives these scenes a certain dream-like quality is the background: a derelict but rugged and picturesque landscape (rural, sparsely inhabited areas outside of Tehran) reminiscent of absence, emptiness and aporia. It is in this utopic non-place that the romance of young Iranian women with western gadgets unfolds.

Jafari’s Iranian works compels us to rethink not just Islam but also the ontology of commodity. The received binary of use- vs. exchange value is of little use in making sense of Islamic feminine engagement with consumption. The thrust of feminine consumption is on mass-produced mundane gadgets of quotidian use (the regime disapproves of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – western cosmetics, for example) whose semioticity is nearly zero because these are use-values – utilities. Yet, as modest and non-spectacular metonyms of the western commodity imaginary, these do not remain mere passive things. It would not occur to anybody here in England, for example, to ask: what does a washing-machine mean? Our quotidian familiarity with household gadgets has rendered them banal: a washing-machine or a refrigerator does things for us (washing and cooling, respectively) – these have no meaning beyond their functionality. The ontological precariousness of the branded washing-machine in Iranian feminine imaginary arises out of the fact that its semioticity surpasses its functionality. Their artistic re-presentation in Jafari’s art-works becomes doubly enigmatic when she characterises her own work as ‘kitsch’! In sum, her work on commodities in other places makes us rethink not just the problem of alterity but of our engagement with things as such.

Glocal art at the margins of empire is not about the ethnographer or the activist taking over the artist. These artists claim no ‘authenticity’, nor do they have any hang-ups about ‘tradition’. They are plain outsiders in the terrains where they work. But in important ways their engagement with life-worlds embedded in specific places – passages of coming and going, territories deterritorialised by the violence of states and wars – marks a clear departure from a line of thinking that would attribute an unthinking homogeneity to art practices. The global/local binary, conceived under the Enlightenment episteme which opposes universality to autochthony, is no longer adequate for articulating the planetary experience of unhomliness: our world is no longer double, it is many.

This article originally appeared in European Alternatives.

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