Published in LondonArt
I am on the train from Wroclaw to Warsaw. Earlier, a desperate looking man fled down the passageway of my car in an attempt to dodge the ticket enforcers. He was carrying a small bindle, much like the one Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character carried in City Lights. At the end of the movie, Charlie’s character jumps off the train and rolls down a muddy slope. The man’s attempt was a rather exciting, and also depressing, start to an eastward journey. Being in Poland is like also being in a Jerzy Skolimowski movie, where the loss of innocence, the uncertainty of any moral compass, and the need to make sense of the wreckage of a suffocating Communist order still defines the Polish social landscape.
In Warsaw, I took in my friend Pawel Polit’s Polish conceptual art show, Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art—Experiences of Discourse: 1965–1975, at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle. Pawel’s show reveals the lie in the supposed unidirectional nature of American artistic ideas that is fed to art students in the West. The idea that American conceptualism spread its tentacles outward to the recesses of the world, to places such as 1960s and ’70s Poland, is patently false and more than a little paternalistic given what one discovers in this fine exhibition. If anything, Polish conceptualism points out the limitations of American conceptualism with its resolutely political regard. This could not have been any other way, given the harsh and often absurd conditions that Polish artists had to work in.
What is interesting is how much ado was given to the fact that Americans showed in the Polish gallery Foksal, when in reality the engagement of Americans by Polish artists was a political move to disguise Polish conceptualism’s bile behind a screen of American universalism and nothingness. This required a great degree of deftness on the part of the Poles. For the Americans, all too happy to oblige, their reward was the inverse, a rubbing-off of political content that in their own work was at best ambiguously regarded. In the end, the American association with Eastern Bloc conceptualism tended to politicize the regard of American art, whether American art was inherently interested in this question or not. For Polish artists, the association with American artists permitted its political content to be allegorized as apolitical. After all, imagine how troubling it must have been for a Polish cultural bureaucrat to attack conceptualism for its political specificity.
After a tour of this exhibition, I walked about Warsaw, a city I last visited nearly a decade ago. Most people are for capitalism, a Polish taxi driver told me. It is difficult to argue with the excitement of development that is occurring everywhere in Warsaw. Still, outside my hotel, in the two days I stayed in Warsaw, I witnessed two rather loud and boisterous protests: one from farmers and another by doctors, one protesting unemployment and the other protesting underemployment. I know what Businessweek would say about this—the usual refrain about feeling pain before gain—but to see the protests is to understand a little bit that change in Poland is an especially difficult process.
I now find myself in Paris, a city that is full of street life but oddly enough one that also seems ossified. Large billboards with pictures of Jean Moulin and (le maréchal) Leclerc that scream out “Ceux qui ont dit non!” remind this visitor that the particularly French obsession with nationhood remains a hot topic at the turn of the millennium. Tradition. Tradition. Tradition. I suppose it is one of the main reasons why so many people visit France. In a constantly and rapidly changing world, France’s exhortation of tradition, however inauthentic or transformed its face may be, continues to resonate in the hearts of people used to perpetual displacement. For that matter, it is probably the same reason people visit Disneyland. After all, even the world of the future is an orderly and naturally evolved place, with lots of fun rides for the family.
I used to live in Paris and I missed it terribly when I moved back to Canada. I was nervous about returning here for the first time since I departed a year ago. As it turns out, what I missed must have been certain ephemeral thoughts I had about my life at the time—dreams, if you will. It had little to do with Paris itself. Walking through Paris is like walking through New York or many other cities I have lived in: it is entirely familiar to me. I never left it but I don’t miss it, just as I don’t miss New York either. I think this is healthy.
6 July 1999
Still in Paris under tempestuous skies and the usual tempestuous French character. I was in an elevator and an elderly woman looked at me as she put her finger on a button. I mistakenly thought she was tacitly asking me what floor I wanted, so I replied with a request. She then turned to me and said: “Monsieur, vous êtes obliger d’engager le bouton après moi!” Alas.
On another matter, after a week here of seeing friends and meeting people, I can count at least four occasions when the subject of my apparent ethnicity has been raised, as though I was not aware of the fact I possess slanty eyes and yellow skin. I am not saying these people I meet intended to insult me. It is just that the idea of hybridized identities is still a strange concept here for many people.
Yesterday, I visited Glass Box, a gallery in the very hip Oberkampf area of Paris, recently opened by a group of young artists, several of them ex-students of mine from the École des Beaux-Arts. Glass Box is being beckoned by larger forces such as the Fondation Cartier and Département de l’ARC (Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). It is such a modest little space but something unprecedented in Paris. Already, I feel its uniqueness being subsumed within the syndicated logic of the French cultural order. I really have little hope for contemporary art in France. Perhaps it is something France simply does not need.
One thing France does need is an accounting of where all the money slated for education goes. Certainly it is not going to ensuring that its university students work in well-equipped offices and teaching environments. My friend from Uganda is desperately trying to finish his doctoral thesis (which in France requires about five hundred pages of type, about twice what is required in America and Canada) but without the benefit of a computer. At the Sorbonne, there is a room of about six computers dedicated to its many graduate students. Always, there is a large queue in front of this room. No wonder there are student protests here. No wonder something like six education ministers have been sacked in the last ten years. According to Le Monde, the number of foreign students in France has dropped over the last ten years from thirteen percent to just over eight percent. Does such news sound alarming to the French government? I don’t know, but it does stress to me the increasing irrelevance of French presence in the world. Of course, that is why people like to visit here as tourists, precisely because it is irrelevant, a big ruin of modernity, but they are without the melancholia Benjamin felt about Paris. Well, the melancholia is there, if one chooses to feel such feelings, but why would one want to do that?
Vancouver artists walk among the many audiences of the international art world. Dan Graham, who is always good for a sharp and intelligent aphorism, said that Canadian comics do well in Hollywood because they out-American the Americans. He also said that Vancouver artists in particular were already postmodern before the idea of the postmodern even came into vogue. He believed this because Vancouver is remote from the art centres and ideas about art, architecture, and indeed anything about the world, are received as a pastiche of information delivered by art magazines rather than through firsthand experience. Vancouver artists are already internally international. By reaching out into the world, they hope to discover something of the local in themselves.
This is my final entry from Paris, at least for some time; I leave for Canada tomorrow.
I have a lot of thoughts about the situation of art in France today, cultivated over many years of visits to this magnificent country. “La crise de l’art contemporain” has an aggravated meaning in France and no one seems to understand why, except to provide the familiar and useless refrain that nothing happens in art in France or that France cannot get over its École de Paris days. While this is to a degree not incorrect, it is not very useful for understanding the state of paralysis that characterizes the French art scene today.
Of course, the criticisms of the problems of hyper-syndication from the top downward is a major problem. As someone who taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, I understand this well. A change in government necessarily means a change in the director of the École. Where else among the leading Western nations but France does this happen, could this happen? And of course, Paris is sorely in need of a few more art schools, especially “à la marge de” Paris, in the suburbs, in the quartiers less privileged than the 6th Arrondissement. For a city of over seven million, it is incredible to think that there is but one art school. If one is picky, one would say two, because there is another at the end of the westernmost point of the RER suburban train line, in Cergy-Pontoise, but the point is that no one cares about anything except the École in Paris. By the way, I have visited the school in Cergy. It is located in what is known as a ville nouvelle. The entire town was developed with an axis to Paris. Bereft of parks as it is, the planners of the town built a huge walkway—one is tempted to say runway—comparable in scale to the gardens of Versailles. It leads to a grand staircase that goes nowhere except to provide a belvedere to Paris, which on a clear day is visible in the distance. The situation of art in France is a reflection of all of these problems, not to mention the corruption of the ruling class and the relative passivity of a nation beholden to culture with a capital “C.” While corruption is pandemic in other countries as well, there is a degree of tolerance here that is truly breathtaking, in part because there are so many laws that make it a violation to openly challenge positions of power, under the threat of what punishment I am not exactly sure. Everyone knows it and everyone whispers plaintively under their breath, but nothing changes much.
So the problems facing the state of France also express themselves on the level of contemporary art. But there is also a theoretical problem as well, which is seldom discussed. The French love of, shall we say, “the lightness of being” is a concern that is disfavoured by a central definition of art that elevates and overestimates the importance of heavy topics and nihilism. But the problems of everyday life, which are becoming a non-theme theme of many an art exhibition, has always been an area that has long concerned the French—not in the direction of meaningless MTV-ism as is frequently the case with non-French art, but in terms of the questions regarding private anxieties, especially when in the midst of public encounters. Is this not an important dialectic? And in the age of the Internet, is this not a central dialectic? This imbalance in the art world’s and art history’s historical regard for what is and what is not meaningful has very much been a problem in France, particularly in the face of continuing preoccupations with, say, German Sturm und Drang, or in the case of Düsseldorf photography, Sanderesque clinical melancholia. Thus Christian Boltanski’s early works, his visits to the zoo, his clowning around, are generally less appreciated than his Holocaust-referencing works. I don’t mean to say that his early works are as good, but the disregard of these works is symptomatic of the point I am trying to make.
This lightness of being works well in French cinema, from Truffaut to Éric Rohmer. But in art, a much smaller world, French artists are often left to try to mimic American and other art. Of course, they fail because it looks pathetically inauthentic. French society can be cruel but it also prides itself on its refinement compared to other societies.
So now I leave Paris with one last thought. What must it have been like to actually walk the streets of Paris in the last part of the previous century? It must have been a good mess with construction and destruction everywhere. All the terms by which we understand modern art issue from Paris. However, according to how contemporary art is unfolding, the French capacity to express themselves only in terms of the idea of humanity is, sadly, an outmoded path.
17 July 1999
Back in Vancouver, a city that—due to poor planning and mediocre architecture—is visually discordant and especially so against the magnificence of the natural surroundings. Nothing seems anchored here, not even a tall building. First of all, much of the city rests on a flood plain, a river delta. Secondly, there is always the warning of earthquakes. Thirdly, and most pernicious of all, it is no holds barred when it comes to property rights. As a result, there is very little harmony in the look of the city, except perhaps for the visuality provided by cheap-looking surfaces. Oddly, I think this has a lot to do with why there is such a vibrant artistic community here. Not just in the visual arts, but literature as well—basically any solitary practice has tended to do well here. After all, this is the last of the Wild West, the end of the road. No one can say that about California anymore. Nor can that be said of Seattle, where Microsoft, Starbucks coffee, and Amazon represent Seattle’s utter and complete acculturation into the Wall Street mainstream.
By contrast, the Vancouver economy is a pittance and still very dependent on the capital of raw materials such as lumber, mining, gas exploration, and fishing. The local papers regularly cite the emergence of a Silicon Valley north, but that has yet to express itself in terms of the city’s self-image. Artists tend to work in isolation here and far away from the important centres of art. Nobody seems all that satisfied about being here but the fact is that Vancouver is such a great laboratory for making art. This may be because Vancouver is the great non-city city, or the great every-city city. It is why Hollywood spends nearly a billion dollars a year here in motion picture and television productions. Vancouver can stand in for anywhere and everywhere. It is also able to represent the impending Asian century, so it stands for the future too. Whenever I am in Europe, or anywhere other than Vancouver for that matter, I can always switch on the local television and see images of my home city, usually in disguise as some big American city.
Similarly, the art from this city can stand in for big American art or big European art with a North American look. It is why photography and video have done so well here; it is a natural form for the generic city. With the Internet, cellular telephones, and satellite technology, Joseph Kosuth’s pronouncement some thirty years ago of developing an art of “international locals”— a concept-based network of artists making art rooted in their respective localities but in dialogue with other artists all over the world. Vancouver is a city that has always looked like an idea of an “international local.”
Dan Graham saw in Vancouver a city where history was collapsed synchronically to arbitrary historical references. He said that Vancouver looked like a city spliced from architectural magazine photographs. From this perspective, Vancouver’s entry into the international art scene seemed like a natural development. Graham’s point was that Vancouver was like a middle-sized branch plant or subsidiary city, where decisions are made at head offices elsewhere, and thus looked very much the product of international influences and circumstances. The city was already internationalized, despite its relative unsophistication. Sophistication then arrived in the form of artists who reflected for the first time on their own city, and so the move to the international stage became self-evident. The language of Vancouver art was to a large degree already international merely from its internal development.
This is the reason why the large influx of relatively wealthy Hong Kong Chinese these past few years has been met with only the most modest of problems. The city is a generic city and whoever moves in can acclimatize rather quickly. I read in the Canadian edition of Time magazine that Vancouver-reared artist Jessica Stockholder was recently appointed Head of Sculpture at Yale University. Phaidon Press has books out on Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas. Rodney Graham’s recent show at the Kunsthalle Wien was a resounding success. Any number of younger Vancouver artists are also doing well. Nathalie Melikian will have a solo exhibition of her hilarious and very smart videos at the Gothenburg Museum of Art. Bully for all of them. A few years ago, I read a spoof story about Canadian success stories in America. The article was titled “The Canadian Among Us,” and it spoke of the insidious takeover of the United States by nefarious Canadians who could pass undetected as Americans.
21 July 1999
Starting about fifteen years ago, spurred by the impending repatriation of Hong Kong to China, large numbers of mostly wealthy and highly educated Hong Kong Chinese began a wave of immigration into Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, and Sydney and Brisbane in Australia. The tide of immigration crested shortly after Hong Kong officially re-entered China’s fold. Vancouver, especially, was transformed, from a sleepy hollow on the Pacific to what some have termed the first Asian city in North America.
While at first, and still to a large extent, immigration into Canada was a matter of passport convenience, permitting newly deputized Canadian citizens to continue to reside and operate their businesses in Hong Kong, many recent immigrants are now making a significant imprint on the Vancouver cultural landscape.
The latest such news involves the one-million-dollar construction of a Chinese pagoda from an as-yet-unnamed donor to be built on the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown. The pagoda, an exact replica of a pagoda from the donor’s home village in China, will stand over thirty metres in height; already, I can see the Vancouver tourist board salivating. The wealthy Chan family has also donated a new recital hall to the city, and Victor Shaw, the nephew of the late Hong Kong movie mogul Run Run Shaw, is in discussions with a local university to donate his collection of Chinese ceramics and paintings. This would certainly involve a new museum to be built to house the collection.
The most interesting benefactor of them all is Annie Wong. Her eponymous Art Foundation is dedicated to the furtherance of contemporary Chinese art throughout the world. The recent consolidation of interest in contemporary Chinese artists from Xu Bing to Chen Zhen is a testament to the support for these artists by the Annie Wong Art Foundation. An artist in her own right, who studied traditional techniques in Chinese painting with one of China’s master watercolourists, Wong has also started, in addition to the foundation, the Art Beatus Gallery. As a result, most of the best known contemporary Chinese artists now exhibit and pass through Vancouver in a regular procession. While the essentialism of defining Chinese art remains problematic in my view, the Foundation does recognize the contradictions of its purpose. Such contradictions include such basic questions as what exactly is Chinese about Chinese art, especially in the contemporary context? Among Chinese artists, who is more and who is less Chinese? Many of the best-known Chinese contemporary artists reside in Paris. The painter Yan Pei-Ming now shows at Durand-Dessert in Paris and Jean Bernier in Athens, and was also recently exhibited under the rubric of Les Peintures Françaises in Paris’s hallowed Panthéon. In Yan Pei-Ming’s case, he is as French—having lived over twenty years in France—if not more so, as Chinese.
Having visited China a number of times now, I have seen firsthand the important role the Annie Wong Art Foundation plays in China. The Foundation was an important sponsor of the last Shanghai Biennale and will sponsor the next edition as well. It also gave support to many of the Chinese artists exhibited in Harald Szeemann’s grand show at the Arsenale in the current Venice Biennale. It seems every Chinese artist in China knows about Madame Wong’s Foundation. As impressive as that may sound, the reality is the contemporary art scene in China is miniscule—but it is expanding quickly. As CEOs from the West scramble on top of each other to beat a path to the beckoning promises of China’s markets, the Annie Wong Art Foundation finds itself at the beginning of a newly and vastly developing world of contemporary art in China.
4 August 1999
I have been a week in Italy, in the tiny village of Serre di Rapolano, an hour’s drive east of Siena. Improbably, in this sleepy hollow of a provincial village, there can be found one of Italy’s most dynamic art institutions, the Civic Center for Contemporary Art, La Grancia. As directed by Mario and Dora Pieroni, the Civic Center La Grancia is not really a museum but a kind of laboratory for the critical discussion and production of art. What is interesting is how so much seems possible for contemporary art here. In a way, perhaps unlike the French situation, there is no anxiety here about living in the past. There is not much interest in contemporary art here in Serre, but the mayor and many other people I have met here love the idea that they have their own little modern museum.
For several days now, a group of artists from diverse backgrounds, from as far away as Havana and Jerusalem, have gathered here to discuss “classic” questions about art. These questions include: “What is the role of art?” “Is spirituality important for art?” “How does art relate to quality of life?” As one participant said, it is extremely refreshing to hear these questions again. Indeed, in this village so near to the Renaissance perfection of Pienza, it has thus far been a wonderful experience to spend time discussing these important questions, questions that for many may seem too rooted in the past, or simply nostalgic.
Mario Merz, the senior artist at this conference, talked at length about humankind’s fear of nature; that it is the individual’s “crash” with the social environment that art must deal with. Mario Pieroni keeps telling me about the importance of artists, that artists need to go out there and recognize anew the need to change society, even to revolutionize it. Besides the intensive learning, it has been so much fun to hear artists speak so passionately about the importance of art being socially engaged. It makes me wonder why there are not more such conferences.
While all of this is made more pleasurable by the late afternoon possibilities of driving to Arezzo or Assisi or any number of wonderful places that dot the Tuscan and Umbrian landscapes, it also underlines a time in the past when artists were not afraid to speak about spirituality in the same breath as art. Neither were artists afraid to speak about utopia. In a world of increasingly popular consumerism, it is important for artists to sit back and ask again many of the basic questions about what art is and why be an artist.
Further south in Tuscany, in the village of San Casciano dei Bagni, Cornelia Lauf, a former curator at the Guggenheim in New York, is directing the Camera Oscura, a modest one-room gallery and project space located just off the village piazza. Camera Oscura shows cater to both art and a non-art audiences and under Lauf’s direction, it does so with the utmost in intelligence. For example, there have been exhibitions of Duchampian photographs and ecological presentations of varieties of grasses. The programming is not predictable but always fascinating. It is so affecting to walk through this most beautiful of tiny villages and encounter an art show of such intellectual sharpness.
Both Lauf in San Casciano and the Pieronis in Serre are skeptical of the art world and both have long histories in it. In Mario Pieroni’s case, he ran Rome’s most influential private gallery of the 1960s and ’70s, representing most of the Arte Povera artists. Both have created spaces that are laboratories as much as refuges. Both do their work in these isolated villages not to seek shelter from the world but to have the conditions necessary for developing new ways of thinking about the discourses of display and organization in art. Both also recognize the importance of reaching out from their villages to the rest of the world.
12 August 1999
I write from Parma, Italy. Parma, as in the cheese. Parma ham and Acqua di Parma. Parma, as in a very large presence of African-Italians. This came as a pleasant surprise to me as Italian-African relations, especially the attitudes of some of the former toward the latter, are not always the most amicable. In the streets, in the cafes, one invariably encountered Africans. It made me so curious as to how so many ended up in Parma. I suppose the answer would not be dissimilar from why Galveston, Texas, has such a large Vietnamese population or why the northern French city of Valenciennes has a large Arab population. There’s nothing unexpected about finding large numbers of Arab North Africans in Marseille or Toulouse, but why Valenciennes? And why Parma? Increasingly, one finds the most unlikely communities settled in equally unexpected parts of the world. But history teaches us that this is nothing new. When Marco Polo visited southern China, he noted the presence of large numbers of Africans, Persians, and Jews. And one can also cite the many Spaniards who had set up encampments on the west coast of Canada as early as the seventeenth century. That the Spanish were on the Pacific side of Canada nearly three hundred years ago should be no more surprising than the fact of an African community in today’s Parma.
From my hotel in Parma, I look up news from my home city of Vancouver. A cargo ship has been captured near the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northern coast of British Columbia.1 The ship dropped off over a hundred illegal Chinese immigrants from Fujian province. There is a photo of many of them perched on the beautiful rocks of a tiny, desolate island, soaking wet from having swam ashore. Apparently, it is the third such ship caught in as many weeks. I keep thinking what it must have been like to leave port from the hot climes of Fuji and to now be sitting on rocks among seals and bald eagles on a Canadian island. Perhaps they will be deported back. In a way, they are similar to the Africans of Parma. They were and are ready to adapt to any situation, any set of conditions. How many of us so-called moderns in the art world can say that?
2 September 1999
Some thoughts on photojournalism:
I have been in Vancouver since returning from Italy three weeks ago. In two weeks time, the World Press Photography convention will be staged in this city. Representatives from Magnum, Agence France Presse, UPI, and other agencies will be in attendance.
But what is “World Press Photography” except these institutions through which a certain type of photographic practice expresses its effects? What is “World Press Photography” beyond this syndicated, conglomerated, triple-worded title? While photojournalism undoubtedly has its own protocol connected to larger discourses about photography and media in general, is there a theory to the institution of photojournalism beyond basic ideas about “the power of the image” or “making sense of the confusing world”?
Art has followed the Hegelian view that the direct cognition of truth and deeper understandings of the world need not be discernible only in images. Photography is cursed by its ubiquity and ease of use. As such, photography’s advantages alter the purpose of art to an inherently conceptual process, not limited to what can be gleaned from looking in a mirror or out a window. I use the word “curse” here because the disentanglement of art from the mirror has also meant the loss of possibilities for the production of a subject through representation. My point is not that there is anything inherently superior about representative modes—only that they have become the proprietary purview, to use a prime example, of photojournalists. The problem with this is that as aesthetically determined as, say, the whole genre of photojournalism is, the practitioners and institutions that are more responsible for producing the stuff have always been doggedly anti-theoretical about what they do.
And while there are now lots of artists showing photographs in the world of art, even straight looking photographs, much of this is founded on cultural pessimism to the point of political disengagement and social withdrawal—even when the photographic work is potentially riven with political charge. What is the difference between the work of a non-artworld photographer whose work appears in Aperture magazine and a photograph by say, Thomas Struth? Undoubtedly, Struth’s pictures must satisfy, in order for them to be read as art, a larger project of conceptualization premised on a replay of straight photography’s generic vocabulary from portraiture to flowers. Oddly, the work is also about the impossibility of reclaiming lost territory in photographic practice for art. In this sense, Struth’s pictures look to me rather nostalgic and conservative, albeit gussied up as historical loss (which it is). Ironically, this is what makes Struth’s “conservatism” so interesting, as the conservatism is part of the content that the viewer must attend to.
This loss can be felt in terms of art’s ceding of significant ground in subject production to the world of straight photographers and photojournalists, as well as in terms of a dissipation of the power of the image in a world of visual overload. It is a loss felt in a highly technologized world where photojournalists operate at the heart of its image system. At the very least, photography in art distinguishes itself from photojournalism by its willingness to submit to theoretical analysis, as tepid as such analysis may often be. It does so because contemporary art practice does not depend primarily on an identification of the viewer with a humanist image as a universal subject, in contradistinction to photojournalism. If anything, contemporary art has become a kind of resisting ground to universalizing vocabularies. But in resisting too much, there have been enormous costs for art.
Hegel wrote: “The basic principle of all slavery is that man is not yet conscious of his freedom, and consequently sinks to the level of a mere object or worthless article.”2 This is the problem I feel with photojournalism: its lack of self-consciousness—especially theorized self-consciousness. Art suffers from another problem altogether: the development of consciousness in art was meant to guarantee a real and genuine kind of universality but has guaranteed very little other than an increasing detachment from actual political and economic events—in other words, the very ground of photojournalism.
4 October 1999
I write from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Saskatoon is the largest city (not quite 200,000 inhabitants) in the incredibly flat, wheat belt province of Saskatchewan, Canada. As I write, wheat harvest season is in full swing and there is a report every hour on the progress of the harvest.
It is my first occasion in Saskatchewan, a province that is the progenitor of many of Canada’s sacrosanct political institutions, such as universal healthcare and the welfare system. It is a land steeped in great Canadian figures, from novelist W.O. Mitchell to former ice hockey great Gordie Howe.
Given its attachment to agriculture and relative paucity of inhabitants, it is easy to misunderstand Saskatchewan as relatively unsophisticated, especially in terms of art and so-called high culture. While it is true that the Bolshoi is unlikely to make a regular stop here and the art museum is small, it is false to replay the old equation of big cities equalling big culture and small cities picking up the cues of the big cities at a later date. I think that was true in the 1960s and ’70s, when colour field painting was finished in New York but would continue to have an extended life in the vast hinterlands. Painters like Larry Zox, Dan Christianson, and Larry Poons did very well in a city like Vancouver well after their careers started to ebb in New York. I don’t think it works that way anymore and that is all for the better in my view. Nowadays, finding out about art is easy no matter where one lives. Interest in contemporary art is extremely high everywhere, and places like Saskatoon no longer care to the same degree as they once might have about what the bigger places think about them. In fact, there is a campaign in many smaller cities in North America that extols the virtues of smallness. Ironically, for small places such as Saskatoon, they now experience unprecedented population growth as people move there from everywhere, including big cities.
So here I have challenging discussions about contemporary developments in art, the point of art, what the future holds in store for art—all with people who know a lot about art, but who live in Saskatoon. The people here are not deferential to big-city culture. They know it and would love to see it, but they are not disengaged from it as they develop a regional nomenclature of art.
When I was in Dakar, Senegal, in Africa, artists there surprised me by how much they knew about New York and London, even though most of them had never visited either city. They too were engaged with developments in contemporary art issuing out from the big centres. They too understood the issues at a profound level. They too could give a fig if the big centres ignored them. I think this is a new development as the world of art becomes increasingly disseminated.
Harvest season means people in Saskatoon can talk about art in the same breath as gauging the progress of the wheat fields. In bigger cities, we in the art world are often at a loss to talk about anything other than art.
2 November 1999
For a Canadian not from Toronto, writing about Toronto can be a precarious endeavour. By far Canada’s largest city, long ago surpassing Montreal’s population and national significance, Toronto is a great paradox. Though well-planned, blessed with superb public transit and road networks, with remarkably low rates of crime for a city of such scale, and endowed with splendid neighbourhoods and the most diverse of ethnic makeup, Toronto remains a deeply insecure place, especially where culture is concerned.
Perhaps the obligation of not only hoisting but defining the flag of Canadian culture and identity is a bit wearying. Like the perennially cursed debate in France about what constitutes French identity and why there are no good contemporary French artists (which is not true, by the way), Toronto is a city that proclaims cultural leadership in Canada but all the while asking, “We are a world-class city, aren’t we?” (It is a world-class city, by the way.)
A few years ago, when radio broadcasting licenses opened up for review in the Toronto area, a submission for a dance music station was rejected in favour of a second classical music station. Never mind that Toronto has a very large Caribbean and African population, one that has saved the city from its longstanding tedium and cultural inertia. Of course there were charges about the racism of the government mandarins in charge of granting radio licenses and of course race must have a part to do with it. It is yet another example of that dull historical reflex that certain ruling Canadians have to prove to themselves that theirs is a sophisticated nation, knowledgeable about opera and classical music. And, of course, this is all very patronizing, not to mention stupid and provincial.
Given this attitude, which seems pandemic in this city, is it any surprise to see interesting young artists constantly failing to develop onto the national and/or international stage? There is irony here too. The streets of Toronto are undoubtedly the most dynamic in the country. Dig a little deeper and one finds the most diverse and splendid writers, filmmakers, dancers, and software geeks, but in visual art, the heavy yoke of “Canadian art” seems to collapse many a local neck.
Yesterday, two French public art curators spoke to a select audience of twenty artists and curators at a downtown meeting room. I found out about this by chance and declined to attend. I won’t comment on the seeming elitism of such an event. Certainly, there is money here to bring in speakers and there is a deep hunger to want to know and be connected with international contemporary art. So why is it that a Contemporary Art Society is only being founded now, and with the modest aim of an inaugural membership of thirty?
I like being in this city but I feel like an estranged being from another art world, which is even odder, given my Canadian status. Tonight an important local curator gives a talk on the work of Douglas Gordon. This is no reflection whatsoever of my views on the work of Gordon, but I am not giving up the season tipoff of the National Basketball Association at the city’s downtown arena. The Boston Celtics play the Toronto Raptors.
7 December 1999
I write from Hong Kong, a city traditionally committed only to the power of money. There is much serious discussion about the need to facilitate local visual artists with places to exhibit, including a museum or institute of contemporary art. This change of heart is spurred, ironically, by the recent approval by the administrative government for a new Hong Kong Disneyland. I suppose the high/low dialectic must be in operation because everyone I spoke to here cited the need for a new contemporary art centre as a kind of counterbalance to the Disney news. Perhaps the economic slump that has hit this city so hard has also played a part.
The bohemian art precinct of Oil Street is Hong Kong’s first true visual art district, replete with galleries and artists’ studios. But everything in Hong Kong follows the law of development (as in real estate development) and Oil Street will soon be razed and redeveloped now that it has become so chic. In the past, that would have been that. But now there is serious momentum for the conversion of the old Kai Tak Airport, located in the centre of Kowloon, into a contemporary art museum.
Being here has also permitted me to practice my Cantonese, so badly has it deteriorated over the years from lack of use. I do feel very Cantonese when I am here, but is it possible for me to admit this without sounding like an essentialist? There are lots of moments here when I remember and re-experience things that I was once familiar with. Such moments are quintessentially poststructuralist; they are non-recoverable and spark only a strange kind of desire. They are perfect feelings for the end of the millennium.
14 December 1999
I recently received an invitation to write for a certain art magazine. In the letter that I received, I was noted as being in a group of “artists who write.” More accurately, I assume that the magazine meant to say “artists who can write.” Or am I wrong to make such an assumption? What exactly does this mean, “artists who write”? Are such artists considered less of an artist because they write; writing being something that falls outside of a normal artist’s range and interest? Are artists who write something more? Artists with either the supplement of intelligence (good), or of scholarship (good and/or bad), or of academicism (bad)? What does it mean to categorize artists into those who write and those who do not write? Are those who write usually the theorizers for truer artists who theorize through their work only? Is one more tempted to criticize an artist’s work because he or she writes, especially if the perception exists that there is a chasm between what the artist makes as art and what the artist writes?
Okay, I’m an artist who writes, but at least I am not an artist who paints! Happy Y2K everybody!
17 December 1999
One week I am in Hong Kong in the midst of balmy weather, the next week I am in Winnipeg freezing my toes off as the temperature hits 24 degrees below zero (and, by the way, that is the high for the day).
At the last turn of the century, Winnipeg was known as Canada’s second city, the Canadian Chicago. The city’s largely intact district of late nineteenth-century warehouses and office buildings are testament to its former economic prowess. There is not a more beautiful aggregate of Chicago School and Beaux-Arts buildings west of Montreal; it is simply stunning. And, it must be added, a little sad. The downtown is largely depopulated at night, due in part to suburban sprawl and super-cheap detached housing prices, but in larger part due to a lack of collective vision about what to do with downtown. For the two days I have been here, the editorial pages have printed articles about the pernicious bickering over how best to revitalize the downtown core. I say, why not give it to the artists? Let them take over the empty buildings and see what happens after a year. Better that than to leave them indefinitely fallow.
I must say that it is very nice to be here after Hong Kong. There is a quaint little Chinatown here and trips to Hong Kong are advertised all over the front walls of the two Chinese travel agencies that I passed. I bet there are a few ex-Winnipeggers in Hong Kong also hoping to return home for Christmas. The world is a small place and I am thankful that being an artist affords one the vantage of point of seeing all the disparate dots that can be connected. Hong Kong/Winnipeg. Why not? Makes as much sense as London/Paris or New York/Berlin.
16 January 2000
Some very well-known American artists passed through town to give presentations in front of the local art school audiences. The talks followed the conventional course except for one comment by one of the artists. When someone posed the question about the artist’s use of objects and signifiers from popular culture, particularly underclass culture, the reply was simply: “I hate the idea that there is an underclass.” It is true that in today’s First World, especially with all the slumming going on, it may be difficult sometimes to tell whether there even exists a ruling class or underclass. Moreover, there is a certain fluidity between the two classes that defies the hypostatic conditions that characterized, say, French society under Louis XIV. Nowadays, taste and the places where one hangs out are certainly suspect markers of class. So it is understandably tempting for a famous artist to proclaim the uselessness of even thinking in terms of a class structure (never mind the socialist connotations that this would involve). The tabula rasa that is the basis of the logic behind the exhibition space also extends to artists’ backgrounds. Save biography for the art historian (and even among them, there is a big debate about such an approach). In the art world, all artists are supposed to be equal. You know, like the Christian song: “Red and yellow, black and white / They’re all precious in His sight.” Never mind that such a mythic and blanket egalitarianism goes against both the grain of historical and present-day facts.
I always thought a book on the sociology of the art world was long overdue, one that would deal with it in a comprehensive sense, the way that Bourdieu, Appadurai, or Mattelart might approach it. But then, what is the point? Everybody knows that there are rules in the art world, including rules about what not to believe in, even when what we are not supposed to believe in overflows with truth and facticity.
3 February 2000
I’m doing a bit of early spring cleaning; very early, as it is not even spring yet. One of the benefits of tidying up is rediscovering things such as Siegfried Kracauer’s great collection of essays, published in English as The Mass Ornament. Sitting down and rereading this important compilation of his texts, I am struck by the freshness of Kracauer’s thoughts, which were mostly written in the 1930s and ’40s. His thoughts on the notion of community as an idea rooted in Protestantism’s “concrete myths” of the experience of community, rather than on any physical sense of collectivity, is extremely prescient in this age where the word “community” is tossed about liberally as a counter-argument to the idea of the pure experiences of an individual. In Canada, I hear this caveat all the time—“but what about the community?” Or, “I think we have to think about the community.” Kracauer calls this use of community somewhat related to a new type of messianism. I won’t go further here but do permit me to meander.
I received an art catalogue registry by e-mail and noticed an exhibition catalogue called Tallinn-Moscow. It is a document of the art that developed between the Baltic capital and Russia within the compression of the Soviet Union. Obviously, it could not have been an easy relationship, especially for the Estonians, and especially during the post–Second World War period before liberation from the yoke of Russia. But it is exactly in such cases that I think the richest lessons are to be offered to artists and art historians. I have written about it before: connections that go beyond the standard New York/Paris or Berlin/Moscow foldings, to places such as Vancouver/Hong Kong, Shanghai/Beijing, Nairobi/London, etc. One can even go further, but I think there is a certain limit placed by the exigencies of historical weight as well; some tiny hamlet to some middle-sized city may not be so interesting in the broader sense.
The point is that there is so much work that can be done to research the art and culture of our age without regurgitating the same old airline or passenger ship connections. Only then can we further the process of what Kracauer would call desubstantiation. Only then would culture and art be more fully realized. But, of course, that would risk genuine transformation in the way that we think about and know art.
11 March 2000
One of the great pleasures about teaching art is the many students that pass under a teacher’s tutelage. After ten years, I suppose I have reached a milestone of sorts, not only in terms of teaching but the number of ex-students that I have managed to keep in communication with. Today, I received an email from Alexander, a German student in my class at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who subsequently lived in Shanghai a number of years before returning to the City of Lights. He just became a father. The mother is a Chinese woman he met while in China. Yesterday, I received an email from another student residing in Martinique. I had better stop here for fear of becoming too sentimental about having taught so many students.
Next week, I head off to Japan, to the CCA Kitakyushu. The last time I was in Japan was 1984 and that first experience there is still very vivid in my mind. It was the first time I had gone to another part of the world not circumscribed by European or American terms. As such, I remember my trip as an immersion into expanded perspectives about the world. Since then, it has continued to expand, to South America, Mexico, Africa, and mostly China. One would think that being an artist means always having one’s mental horizons continually broadened but that is not necessarily the case. One can function quite well within the brackets of the American-European art world, never suspecting how bracketed such a functioning actually is. Worse, one can easily, without being aware, glide into a universalizing of the perspectives of American-European art understanding, simply assuming that “one size fits all” for art.
I think that being an artist is rather like the life of the protagonist in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. It is a constant search for meaning. Being an artist does not simply mean constantly trying to produce meaning. Without the two halves—the search and the production—all that remains are art objects without feelings. That is how I would characterize a lot of the art being produced today. So many young people want to be artists (read: my own students). They are all privileged to have this choice of becoming an artist. Most art schools today are very well equipped, replete with technicians and all manner of production help. The result is often incredibly well produced art, lots of finish, even many implied ideas. What is often missing is not so much technical finish as intellectual and emotional finish. Next entry from Japan.
13 March 2000
Still here in Vancouver and tonight I had the pleasure of dinner with Boris Groys, Rodney Graham, and Robert Linsley. Is there a more informed (or hip) art writer out there? The evening went like a breeze and the conversations were equally breezy. According to Boris, this is the way it should be when it comes to art. We talked about music, a bit about the life of Picasso, the films of Ernst Lubitsch, the significance of the expression “gone fishing.” In other words, everything to do with art and nothing about art itself. Robert Linsley mentioned how teaching should become more like “edutainment” and Boris mentioned how entertainment value was something Lacan understood extremely well in his videotaped lectures.
Later, Boris mentioned an odd fact he recently read about: “restaurant critic” is the number-four sought-after glamour job in the world, after “movie star,” but before “rock star.” Rodney Graham suggested that I should try a sly tact and begin to introduce culinary commentary into my London Art entries. He said that if I was patient enough, I could end up strictly with a restaurant review column within the parameters of an Internet art magazine site. Boris thought this a good idea because what is important is being coolly above art, and just writing about art simply does not pass muster in terms of coolness. He surmised that dining in the best restaurants is a collective dream and that is what is important about being a restaurant critic—stoking the flames of a dream.
Afterward, I fell into the usual stock conversation themes I have with Rodney: the greatness of Rock Hudson, especially in Man’s Favorite Sport?; my defense of Maude, a Norman Lear television series from the 1970s; rock-and-roll band names; and bizarre dreams.
I’m somewhat inebriated as I write this so excuse my lack of a point here. … Oh yes, I mentioned to Boris how one of my students said how he would be pleased with “three good years” (in the art world). Boris replied that, “yes, art is becoming like sport, something young artists today understand well.”
We then talked a bit about China, and particularly the differences with Russia as far as art systems go. Boris mentioned how all the best Russian artists emerge apart from the art schools. In China, it is very much from art school that any artist of consequence on the international stage emerges. There are many reasons for this and we discussed the reasons why, interspersed with wisecracks, and a commentary about the Charlie Chaplin eating-a-boot scene in The Gold Rush.
Afterward we talked about branding and the so-called new dot-com economy. Robert and I both recently read the same book, No Logo, by Naomi Klein—a book about the brand economy. Robert mentioned how she wrote about Nike and Microsoft and other obvious branding machines but missed out on the bizarre Japanese brand of Hello Kitty.
All of this yakety-yak took place over a nice dinner in one of Vancouver’s nicer restaurants, Tangerine. For food I would give it four stars (out of five); for ambience, also four stars. Service also merited four stars. A very good restaurant indeed. On this night, I would give the conversation an unqualified five stars.
18 March 2000
My jaw never ceases to drop, looking out from an airplane window as it approaches a large Asian city. There is no relief from urban development as building after building is passed from a great distance while heading toward the final arrival site. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil only touches the terrible beauty of this incredibly crowded part of the world.
After landing in Tokyo, I fly off to Fukuoka in the south of Japan. Exiting the airport, one could easily confuse the immediately surroundings for a typical downtown elsewhere. There are huge flashing signs everywhere. They form an impression equal to Piccadilly in London—and again, I was only at the airport.
From Fukuoka, it is a cab ride of another hour to the seaside city of Kitakyushu. I have been invited here by the Center for Contemporary Art, one of Japan’s most dynamic institutions of contemporary art. The CCA, run by the tireless twosome of Nobuo Nakamura and Akiko Miyake, is difficult to explain—it is part school, part culture centre, part art gallery, and part publication house. To my mind, the Banff Centre high up in the Canadian Rockies performs a similar set of functions. The CCA is a kind of laboratory for art in the very best sense; it remains more laboratory than museum.
Today there was a talk by Hou Hanru, the noted Chinese/French curator, and the next curator of the Shanghai Biennale. He spoke at length about the complexities of donning and doffing national identities—particularly Chinese identities in many Chinese artists’ strategies for negotiating prickly art world paths.
Also here is Hans-Ulrich Obrist, another curator who is radically reinventing and, in my view, resuscitating, the increasingly predictable and moribund practice of curatorship. Say what you will about him, but Obrist is one dynamic and sharp-witted character.
The CCA started about three years ago in this unlikely place as a means of developing a local presence for contemporary art. Today, it is one of the best-known art centres in the world, certainly in Asia. Its catalogues are distributed throughout the world and the artists it has invited for one-month projects are at the leading edge of contemporary art. Take the present artist-in-residence Simryn Gill, a Malaysian artist of Indian descent now residing in Australia. She has produced a very beautiful and absurdly funny installation from bits and pieces of industrial material and litter (found along roadways) placed on tiny toy wheels—a meta-highway in the CCA gallery. It is an acerbic commentary on the problem and necessity of development in Asia. There are very few courageous art centres in the world. The CCA Kitakyushu is one of the few. Next stop: Tokyo.
20 March 2000
Please excuse the mixing of metaphors but my ears are ringing from the din of visual overstimulation. Tokyo is an immense and magnificently modern city that anyone who is interested in the future of the world should visit. Impossibly clean, safe, and orderly, it is a city with the surface scale of London but with an infrastructure that must surely be one of the most impressive in the world.
Last night, I went to Electronic City, purportedly the world’s biggest quartier of electronic goods. All I can say is it is crazy there. Huge Day-Glo banners festoon all the buildings. Pretty young women in bizarre coloured coats bark out sales pitches. Besides the usual panoply of electronic goods such as CD players, stereos, etc., there is also a large section dedicated to electronic toilets, a product very much in demand with the hygiene-obsessed Japanese. Along the curbside there are dozens of samples of so-called warm seat toilets, some of which talk to you in Japanese. I have no idea what a toilet could possibly need to say.
By coincidence, I met the French cultural attaché and was led to an exhibition of in-situ video presentations sponsored by an art collective called Akihabara TV. Akihabara refers to the official precinct name of Electronic City. Dotted throughout Electronic City are video screens that show video art. I basically reasoned that this is what one should expect in Japan—amazing images. Knowing these installations as art only add to their impressiveness.
Akihabara TV illustrates the importance of Japanese art collectives. Without them, there would be very few, if any, opportunities for young Japanese artists to develop and exhibit their work. The city is prohibitively expensive and studio space is next to impossible. There are very few art galleries interested in advanced contemporary art so it is not at all easy to be an artist here. Art is a foreign concept still to most Japanese. Besides that, art has to compete with an environment full of creative innovations in design, architecture, advertising, and simply strange-looking, non-art installations and objects.
Afterward, I went to Shibuya, an amazing quartier that looks like a more spiffy version of a scene from Blade Runner. In Shibuya, where the streets teem with hip-looking Japanese youth, gigantic video screens compete with one another wherever there is an opening to look up. What is incredible is that the resolution is sharp and instead of a cacophony, one is able to hear the respective sound system of each giant video screen clearly.
I am lucky in that I have experienced places like Shibuya before, notably in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and other Asian cities. One can be very easily distracted into forgetting that all of the visual stimuli are essentially advertising, and advertising is a precarious entity, not something that has the weight of permanence. As I walked through Shibuya, I thought how São Paulo in the late 1950s must have felt like Japan today. Nowadays, São Paulo looks largely like a city that went boom and bust (which is basically what happened). I could easily imagine much of Tokyo turning into what São Paulo became. The consumption boom of the postwar period in Japan is at a critical juncture today. Everything could easily go poof and the gigantic video screens would then appear as huge black forms that darken rather than brighten the sides of buildings.
This morning I had breakfast in one of the countless numbers of French-style cafes that dot this country. The croissants I had were the equal to the best in Paris. I went there with Huang Yong Ping, a Parisian of Chinese descent. As I do not speak Mandarin and Huang knows neither Cantonese nor English, we spoke French to one another. At the table next to us, a Japanese woman was in Spanish conversation with a Spanish businessman. At another table nearby, an elderly Japanese man in traditional Japanese garb reading a Japanese newspaper looked at me and smiled. He seemed to be saying to me: this is as it should be. This is very normal. This will be the normality that we will all come to know. I certainly hope so.
24 March 2000
When I was a university student in New York way back in the early 1980s, I lived in a roach-infested one-bedroom flat in a nasty part of Brooklyn. Before sleep, I often listened to troubled voices on the radio. Back then, unlike today, talk radio premised on the call-ins of hapless souls was only in its beginning stage.
I would lie there in the dark, the noise of the street wafting through my bedroom window, as I listened to people pleading, people crying, and people in peril. The point I am trying to make here is that sounds can inflect one’s deep experiences of a place. New York is a city full of visual activity, so much so that it can often seem a collision of blurred visions. As is the case for most people, my own particular experiences of New York were based first and foremost on what my eyes had registered, but the darkness of night, saturated with the sounds of radio voices, modulated, bracketed, and further defined my visual memories of New York. So is the case for me with Japan. Now that I am back in the relatively banal environment of Canada, the sounds of the trip recurring in my head are triggering memories of my experiences there.
The closing of stores in Japan is accompanied by sad-sounding electronic music, and I do not think I know of any sadder music than sad music from Japan. The music made me feel so sad as to make me want to leave the store—instead of compelling me to stay until the last possible minute of shopping time, as the way such announcements of impending store closings work in the West. It also made me feel a strange alienation, as the music was invariably artificial rather than orchestral-sounding.
At any given time, there always seemed to be a voice or voices projected on some public address system. These, too, would be mostly pre-recorded and projected in a clipped cadence, as though someone had spoken a thousand words into an audio recorder and some computer merely rearranged any set of suitable word combinations for whatever message needed to be aired.
I think most people can recall the sounds that R2-D2, the squat robot, made in the movie Star Wars. In Japan, one hears all kinds of similar-sounding electronically produced blips, whirls, buzzes, clacks, pings, and bops. Collectively, they engender a profound sense of a world wrapped in electrical achievements. Even in Kitakyushu, a small and more traditional-looking city in southern Japan, one hears an endless stream of odd and strangely pleasing sounds. They registered in my mind Japan’s powerful embrace of an electronic modernity. Within such a modernity, nature becomes very circumscribed by culture.
On the day of departure, in the waiting lounges of Tokyo’s Narita Airport, seating in front of the giant television screens was limited. On view were “soothing” images of marigolds swaying in a gentle wind. One then saw the marigolds in a field with a mountain as the backdrop. After a few seconds, the camera would zoom in again and there would be more footage of another marigold swaying gently in the breeze. Of course, there would be lute-like music to accompany the floral images. The music was electronically produced, naturally enough.
1 April 2000
I write this in response to a catalogue piece I read today in which several well-known artists “celebrated” the mutability of developed and developing world cities.
The refrain that Paris can now be found in Singapore and Calcutta in Kansas City has reached a crescendo, to the point at which the view of the forest has been lost to the trees. Parallel to this en masse singing is the ascendancy of a new world economy based on a public electronically defined as a composite of privates—the innumerable email addresses, Internet sites, and satellite television channels that have, for the first time in history, created a truly global communications-based modernity.
Developments in the art world have corresponded with developments in the new globalized economy. As interest in contemporary art becomes increasingly disseminated to all corners of the world, exhibitions and art projects pop up in an endless possibility of locales, from the Himalayas to the desert lands of Mali. Through it all, the artist’s valise is never fully unpacked, as the exigency of one travel destination after another beckons. Travelling has become a matter of course to the contemporary artist in much the same way as a medieval minstrel travelled, in vagabond fashion, and always with the purpose to foment the imagination, economic and otherwise, of the various locals.
But what, invariably, is being discovered in all this travelling? Is it to learn that the world is all the same and yet locally different? Or is it to find out that even local differences in one part of the world have the ring of sameness to local differences in another? Perhaps it is to learn that one can plug into the same Internet from an Inuit village high up in the Canadian Arctic as from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific? Or perhaps it is to discover something mundane yet somehow meaningful, like that it is possible to order a beer from a McDonald’s counter in Munich whereas American outlets are dry. Or perhaps it is to find that the Sri Lankan community clustered about Paris’s Gare de l’Est serves as authentic Sri Lankan cuisine as in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. Or perhaps it is that that even if Sri Lankan cuisine in Paris is not as authentic, it is nonetheless interesting to muse about the inflection of French tastes in a newly hybridized French-Sri Lankan cuisine. Or perhaps it is to know firsthand that the world travels to you as much as you travel in the world. Or perhaps it is that diversity in the world is tied to the resolute oneness of the world.
All of these discoveries about the world, considered in their constituent parts, are true. But they are also qualities aggressively promoted by a world increasingly dominated by the corporate ethos. It would be wrong to suggest that this is automatically a bad thing. To know that the fate of others is linked to our own is a good thing. The proliferation of McDonald’s throughout the world can be a comforting fact to the weary traveller suffering from culture shock, especially to those with small children. While it is true that there is little respite nowadays from the incursions of Coca-Cola or Mickey Mouse into our travel experiences, such incursions also offer the promise of oneness, whether or not we happen to like Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, or, for that matter, the whole of capitalism. The important point is that such developments exploit the same underlying truth about the world as when the Apollo space missions first relayed back images of a round, blue orb called Earth.
So now it has become a consensus that, deep down, we are one and the same. I may like crime films and you may not but, essentially, we are one and the same—especially in an age when English is the de facto Esperanto. Again, this is a good thing—the promise of oneness—even if the price to be paid is sameness. It is in part the search for new and different worlds from which to draw meaning that have induced artists to travel so widely. In this great age of worldwide tourism, many a person can play the role of Heinrich Schliemann and uncover the magnificence of Paris and Rome all by themselves. So the artist travels farther, a mere half-step ahead of the crowds in coaches. However, even in travelling farther, the world as one and the same envelops the artist’s mission, and the search for the lyrical in a faraway place gains ironic distance. After a day of in situ art production with the aid of a Sherpa in Nepal, the uniqueness of the day’s experience is gathered and collected within the familiar environment of a Hilton Hotel, complete with BBC or CNN. Of course, the new Shanghai Art Museum looks much like any other contemporary art museum with its clean white walls and rectangular spaces. Expectations in art have also become one and the same. There are good art schools all over the world and excellent young artists can be found everywhere. There are now so many artists in the world, so many of them technically good, historically savvy, art-world-wise, and most of them know all this from art school. This is also a good thing. After all, artists are relatively benign creatures, despite their propensity toward petulance and the over-inflation of their value in the world. With apologies to Mao Zedong, why not let a hundred artists bloom? Who can argue that it is not a good thing?
From thinking about the environment to corporate profits, from the immediate address of a refugee crisis to that of artistic concerns, globalization is a phenomenon that embraces the entire world, and why should it behoove anyone not to embrace it in return? Does it matter that much of the logic of globalization is spurred by a predominantly occidental world’s brand of corporatism? For example, Boeing is betting the future of its aviation company on midsize airplanes, ceding the development of a super-jumbo plane capable of seating one thousand passengers to its archrival Airbus. Boeing reasons that as so-called “open skies” deregulation continues apace, people will opt to travel more and more in direct paths from point A to point B, rather than via a hub such as Heathrow or Narita before transferring and continuing onwards, as they frequently do now. So far as air travel goes, open skies promises direct and speedy passage, rendering the world more accessible than ever before.
All of these developments, from the miracles of email, the Internet, good Sri Lankan food no matter where, the standardization of art museums, and direct passage from one point to any other in the world, have contributed to an overwhelming sense and belief that St. Petersburg, Russia, can indeed be found in St. Petersburg, Florida. Or, for that matter, that St. Petersburg, Florida, can equally be discovered in St. Petersburg, Russia. There is just too much evidence to dispute that this is so. Moreover, it has become in the economic self-interest of nearly everyone, including the art world, to regularly underwrite this byline of globalization. So why not heed the modernist directive of Baudelaire and simply immerse oneself in globalization’s promises, many of which are indeed being delivered, albeit usually with a price sticker?
But there is a problem, a very serious problem, with not examining the whole for the parts. This problem is one of selection, a condition from which the art world greatly suffers. Huge swathes of the world live in impoverished misery, just as huge swathes of that same world are dotted with McDonald’s restaurants. Can anyone claim that hunger in the world is declining despite the paradox that more people are being fed? To say that Calcutta can be found in Berlin is to make a selection of certain attributes of Calcutta from a far broader, often much sadder, and more complex set of attributes that comprises the experience of actually being a resident of Calcutta, especially an impecunious resident. Furthermore, there are large parts of the world where even McDonald’s does not bother to proselytize its offerings, places like much of the Sahara-dominated and economically bereft West Africa. Given how the word “globalization” now slips so easily off most curators’ tongues, is it merely an oversight that less than a handful of the Western world’s leading museum curators actually paid a visit to see the last Dak’Art, West Africa’s most important biennale of contemporary art?
It is time for the art world to stop following the path laid by McDonald’s. Eat their burgers if one must—I certainly do on occasion. But stop following in its path. The art world should be laying its own path and West Africa is as good a place to start as any. That Islamabad, Pakistan, is in Santa Barbara, California, is only a partial truth, one that is regularly exploited and re-conveyed by Benetton and Disney as an absolute truth. To borrow from Hegel, even the absolute is relative. Does globalization have such a potent allure that it obscures the role of the artist as critical practitioner? Is the promise of oneness with the world so great as to suggest that the problem of non-identity with the world is no longer a problem? The pace of globalization has rendered us all giddy and no one is saying ours is not an exciting, and even revolutionary, age. But the giddiness has created what archaeologists call “relative archaeology,” the gap between what one envisions and the excavated evidence. Parts of Paris may indeed be found in Bamako but the sum of Paris is far greater than any part of Paris, just as the sum of Bamako is far greater than any part of Bamako. Despite the rhetorical equation of sameness—the only equation that interests a company like Benetton—these two sums are in fact profoundly unequal. Life in Bamako is much harsher than life in Paris, to state an obvious yet readily overlooked fact.
In the end, what does it mean, exactly, to say that Calcutta is in London and London is in Calcutta, that the two places are different but equivalent? Does it mean that one knows a good Indian restaurant in the Indian neighbourhood of London’s East End? More importantly, does it suggest any understanding beyond a cursory one of what it means to be from Calcutta and live in London? In the end, does it mean anything at all?
3 April 2000
Dateline: Hangzhou, China
The red carpet was practically rolled out for me as I began my stint as a guest professor here at the China National Art Academy. I am more than a little nervous, considering the task at hand, but it is very exciting at the same time.
So much has been written about the changes that are apace in China. Hangzhou, one of China’s most important cultural cities, was spared much of the wrath of the Cultural Revolution. The city is situated on a beautiful lake called the West Lake, from where one can see in the distance several prominent temples and pagodas.
Yesterday I took a walk in this city of two million. That is easier said than done, as traffic seems hell-bent in every direction. To try to develop some semblance of civic regard for traffic rules, there are trucks with loudspeakers exhorting people to wait at intersections until the light turns green. The same exhortation applies to cars as, from what I can tell, there is little concern for driving with courtesy. Grannies with little children walk casually across the most busy and relentless intersections yet somehow make it across unscathed. People tell me that they resent the trucks with loudspeakers because they remind them too much of what passed during the Cultural Revolution, nevermind that now the trucks have sensible rather than ideological reasons.
The art academy in Hangzhou is China’s most important. There used to be two equally important schools, the other being the Central Art Academy in Beijing. But for all kinds of obvious reasons there was a clampdown of the Beijing academy, while Hangzhou has the advantage of distance from the capital city. All of the best-known Chinese artists in the West graduated from Hangzhou: Yan Pei-Ming, Huang Yong Ping, Chen Zhen, etc. The reasons for this are complex, but the relatively liberal environment of the Shanghai area (Hangzhou is ninety minutes away by train) has much to do with it.
My first class begins this afternoon. As I mentioned earlier, I’m more than a little nervous.
Aside from the usual and often irrational worries and self-doubts that must annoy every mid-career artist’s life, I have finally stepped back into the studio after several months of deliberate absence. This entry will deal with what I did away from the studio—that is, away from making new work. I have been reading a lot more. Perhaps I should be more precise—I have been reading a lot more about things not directly about art—mostly about Africa, modern Africa, the apogee of the independence movement during the late 1950s through to the mid-’60s. I have been reading about Négritude and the problem of identity without a subject. I finished a brilliant book called King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It is about the terrible reign of Belgium’s Leopold over the then Belgian Congo at the turn of the last century. Reading about historical horrors is always worthwhile but Hochschild’s book is really about the founding moments of two very twentieth-century institutions—those of public relations and human rights campaigns—and their equally modern techniques. My interest in Africa comes out of my travels over the last few years, travels that have taken me afar from the usual stops in Europe or America. My interest in art for some time started to drift afar as well, but now art seems more relevant than ever to me. As a result, I’ve stepped back into the studio after about nine months of studio fasting and it feels wonderful.
I was reading something last week about Julius Nyerere, the founding president of independent Tanzania. Apparently, he translated Shakespeare into Swahili, the first translation of Shakespeare into an African language. He did this in 1966, the same year as the first international festival of Black African art that took place in Dakar, Senegal. This was also the highpoint of the Négritude movement as it was defined by Léopold Senghor. Négritude is an interesting context for Shakespeare, but what is also interesting is that Nyerere chose to translate Julius Caesar, not Hamlet or Macbeth. I think Nyerere was interested in the allegorical lessons Julius Caesar offered to Africans. Caesar was a charismatic dictator—like many African leaders. He was betrayed by a group of Republican senators, each with their own personality—i.e., the countries of the West. These Republicans were really a bunch of aristocrats out to protect their own interests. Brutus’s regret at killing his friend Caesar is ambiguous—just like the West’s attitude toward Africa. Mark Antony says “let slip the dogs of war” after Caesar is killed—of course, “dogs of war” is a euphemism for mercenaries. Civil war breaks out after Caesar is slain. From what I can tell, no one has written about this yet; thus I am doing so now by writing an essay for the Journal of African Studies.
What else can I say without sounding self-indulgent? I wrote a long essay on McLuhan, Expo 67, and what is going awry in Canada’s culture. I’m actually getting a bit tired of writing because it is starting to suck up my artistic juices. But in many other ways, it has rejuvenated my desires to be an artist, to remain an artist. And what is really amazing is that, more and more, I see being an artist as something that can exist apart from all that goes on in the world of art—that being an artist does not even mean having to always make art. I am sure many people know this already but perhaps I am a slow learner.
1 June 2000
My jaw dropped when I read the following press notice in the New York Times business section. But a few hours later, I wonder why it should be so surprising at all. Better to post the entire notice for those who missed it.
SBA ISSUE IMPENDING, ARTISTS SIGNED
SBA Sterling Ltd., a private Cayman Islands registered company which late last year created a $3-billion incubator fund for contemporary art related start-ups will announce before the end of the year it has received signed confidentiality agreements from “dozens” of “significant and well-known” artists and collectors. It is believed that the European Commission, Europe’s competition watchdog, will give a favourable review to SBA’s proposal of an integrated art market company now that Arnaud Desprès, long time Chair of the Commission has resigned to assume a position as technical advisor with SBA. Lauren Wei-Cheng, spokeswoman for SBA said: “Market consolidation is necessary to clarify the rules for market expansion.”
Unprecedented interest in contemporary art continues to be the overwhelming reason financial experts are betting on the success of companies such as SBA. One insider who preferred to remain anonymous argued that “Issues and content do not count for very much today as perhaps they once did.” Instead, he promoted the idea that the increasing “spectacularity” of contemporary art means a new era for art, one that will submit the art world to the disciplining affects of internationally defined financial ground rules. Moreover, he argued that the art world needs to become democratized and that will happen once companies such as SBA become publicly listed. “Let’s be honest about it, for too long the art market has been a shill game masquerading as a scientific system of a moral dimension.”
Competitive plans for other art related companies are already afoot. One such start-up is NewArtStar, Inc., of Miami, Florida, which will concentrate on unknown artists and build a branding plan around their contract artists. Interested and potential collectors are reportedly signed through tie-in clauses. Company president Anthony Tonel, the ideas architect behind pop singer Mariah Carey and the Tommy Hilfiger fashion label, is apparently negotiating with several museums in Asia about “advanced placements.” Mr. Tonel said art companies should play a more active role in shaping the future of the art industry.
“I think we have to do everything we can to give countries such as Burma and The Philippines as much leverage as possible to compete globally and contemporary art is still a cheap way of building up leverage. We just want to add fairness to the way art history is made.”
1 The traditional home of the Haida First Nation, the Queen Charlotte Islands were officially re-named Haida Gwaii in 2010. The name had been in local use since the 1970s.
2 G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 183.