Published in Canadian Art
23, no. 4 (winter 2006)
Several years ago, in Dakar, Senegal, on the occasion of Dak’Art, the largest art biennial in West Africa, I was on Gorée Island, a short ferry ride from Dakar, a place developed during the seventeenth century as an administrative post for the embarkation of slaves destined for the Americas. For more than three centuries, European nations fought for control of Gorée’s lucrative trade in human beings. At the former fort, now a museum known as Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a “door of no return” signals the threshold over which slaves would pass to begin their harrowing, often deadly transatlantic voyage, shackled to the low-ceilinged holds of wooden slave ships. The slaves were forced to lie on their backs, pressed up against one another in head-to-toe and toe-to-head formation. On display in the House of Slaves were various historical documents produced by colonial officials, including drawings that depict the organization of human cargo on the ships in stick-figure form. These drawings were, in essence, what businesses today would call efficiency-analysis charts, as they aided slave-trade officials in working out a ratio of the maximum possible human freight to the lowest acceptable number of deaths. While in the House of Slaves, I saw many people who had come to Gorée Island in an act of remembrance of their roots. It was quite a moving sight: grown men and women sobbing uncontrollably at the magnitude of the historical trauma.
Leaving the House of Slaves, I encountered a man selling what appeared to be scarves. They were made out of cloth and laid out like drying laundry in the sun. Painted on the cloth were stick-figure patterns that echoed the drawings I had just seen. The man had used the stick-figure motif to create a pattern that could also seem abstract. The effect of his works hovered between historical and aesthetic engagement.
I stopped to talk and I asked him about his work. He told me that they were paintings, works of art. I learned that he spoke several languages and had worked for some time as a Russian translator when Senegal was briefly a client state of the Soviet Union. He then asked me if I would be interested in buying one of his paintings for a thousand dollars. As I was about to leave—not committing to a purchase—he said that if I wanted a painting as a scarf, he would be willing to sell it for ten dollars.
This story from Senegal is a poignant reminder of the relationship between political economy and art. By political economy, I am referring to the social determinants of production that shape and place limitations on art. The man outside the House of Slaves saw himself as an artist and profoundly understood the ways in which he had been shaped by political economy. As I spoke to him, his poverty evoked in me the responsibilities so well formulated by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Author as Producer,” in which he expressed his belief that it is incumbent upon the artist to identify with the poor. He wrote that upon seeing a poor man, an artist must recognize “how poor he is and how poor he has to be in order to begin again from the beginning.”1
Political economy is a constant yet largely unspoken referent in many of the contemporary art biennials that take place around the world. In Dakar, I heard complaints from several visiting European and American critics and curators about how shoddy Dak’Art looked. Exhibition walls were not always properly painted and the technical equipment was older and more modestly scaled than in the richer biennials of the West. Leading critics and curators failed to recognize the degree of lack in a place such as Senegal. Even immersed in the hard realities of West Africa, the myth that all artists start from the same place continued to be perpetuated.
We like to believe that art operates in a space separate from political economy. We even like to believe that this separation is necessary in order to maintain a critical distance from the social order. There is some validity to this separation, in that critical distance from one’s own presuppositions can allow for different epistemic perspectives. But I am also wary of the ways in which this separation can be used in the service of a neo-colonialist logic in the context of places like Senegal, where, historically, cultural production has often been measured in imposed-from-afar formalist or anthropological terms, but seldom regarded in terms that recognize indigenously derived criteria.
There have been several occasions in my life when I contemplated withdrawing from art in order to find out what I did not know about art. But my withdrawal was in the manner of a Heideggerian withdrawal of the withdrawal. The trip I made to Dakar in 1998 was undertaken on my own initiative as a means of breaking out from the art system as I then knew it, an effort to deepen my understanding of how art could be defined differently. This was a time when I felt great disillusionment about art and great disappointment in myself, a crisis of being that I believe afflicts all artists from time to time. I had a choice: I could either stop being an artist or I could enlarge my frame of understanding of art by looking away from what I was accustomed to.
I began to embrace an increasingly philosophical view of artistic purpose, one inscribed more in terms of the artist’s life and less in terms of the art world’s idea of the artist. I saw the necessity of letting go of the art world as I knew it in order to be more free, to rediscover the true purpose of art, and to become re-enchanted with it by giving myself over to the world.
I became increasingly interested in initiating projects that could contribute to a wider understanding of contemporary art. In the mid-1990s, I wrote an online column for a leading English art magazine. In 1998, I was appointed project manager for the exhibition The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994. In 2001, I organized a symposium in Italy involving Palestinian and Israeli artists that centred on the question of how one makes art in an environment of great social and political distress. Last year, I co-curated two exhibitions. The first was a historical project about China’s troubled relationship to modernism during the pre-Communist period of Republican rule. The second was the seventh Sharjah Biennial, the most serious and ambitious art biennial in the Middle East. I saw all of these projects as extensions of my artistic practice, as I no longer saw artistic practice defined solely in terms of the production and exhibition of my art.
I am constantly asking myself: Is this all there is to art? To ask such a question is to remain forever dissatisfied, a necessary condition for an artist. To be an artist means to be in a constant search for meaning. This calls up Bertolt Brecht’s memorable two words from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny: “Something’s missing.” In Brecht’s opera, Mahagonny is a city built on illusions. It is “a hollow place” where the promise of human happiness is always tied to money and never met. I had started to think of the art world as such a hollow place, where something was missing beneath the plenitude of display and consumption.
Visiting Poland in 1999, I saw an exhibition of Polish conceptual art in Warsaw entitled Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art: Experiences of Discourse: 1965–1975. At the time, I was a contributor to ARTMargins, a Web-based publication of the University of California, Santa Barbara, concerned with issues of contemporary Central and Eastern European visual culture. The exhibition had as its objective a realignment of the field of conceptual art. From the perspective of the West, the primacy of American and Western European conceptual art was de rigueur in any formulation of art-historical narrative and usually went as follows: Eastern European artists, yearning to be free from tyranny, looked to Western artists and institutions for guidance. With its emphasis on dematerialized forms and metaphysical critique, a Western-formulated conceptual art imparted an inherently democratic ethos that made possible an allegorized critique of Poland’s authoritarian social environment. The lessons offered by the West in terms of artistic strategy would inspire Polish artists to formulate their own conceptually based responses to their own subjugation.
But this asymmetrical narrative of conceptual art is just one example of the many problems and contradictions inherent in Western art-historical accounting. Important to consider is the specific political context from which Polish conceptual art emerged. Such a consideration offers a more complex understanding of conceptual art as a category. Western conceptualism used its connections to Polish conceptualism to dispel an agnostic ambivalence toward a positioning of art in relation to realpolitik. And Polish conceptualism needed Western conceptualism to push its allegory of politics under the guise of an apolitical universalism.
Polish conceptualism can only be understood by acknowledging the cruel absurdity of Poland’s political and social environment. In a performance entitled Memorizing, by the Polish art collective Druga Grupa, a mnemonic exercise of a fortuitously chosen piece of text underlined the many rules Poles were required to abide by in their daily lives under authoritarian rule.
A salient feature of Polish conceptualism was the insistence on audience interaction. In this way, it avoided the trap of metaphysical formalism so endemic to Western conceptual art. In Polish conceptual art, metaphysics was but the first step of a philosophical proposition, the second being its application and grounding in materialism. What is remarkable is how this second step did not render the works didactic, nor did it diminish any utopian allusions. On the contrary, by underpinning their art with an analysis of the political economy within which it was produced, Polish conceptual artists expressed a utopianism that was all the more painful and fragile to experience.
This is but one example of the insight I gained after my refusal to be confined by the parameters set by the art world. Another came from teaching in Martinique in 1997. The Caribbean island is not far from South America, or, for that matter, Florida, yet Martinique television aired only French stations and its kiosks sold only French publications. The entire media focus was directed to and from France. The art education of the students at the Institut régional d’art visuel reflected Martinique’s outre-mer status as a department of France. I was struck by their incertitude regarding the problem of incorporating their own situation into their art; the students doubted that their lives could be valid content for art.
They knew very little about contemporary art outside of France. They were familiar with Andy Warhol, of course, but a discussion of Warhol would inevitably lead to Pierre Restany, Martial Raysse, and the nouveaux réalistes, not to Pop manifestations in South America or Britain, and certainly not the United States. The collation of the school’s pedagogical program with Paris was reflected in the faculty. Almost all of the instructors were given bonus isolation pay. And despite the paradisiacal setting of Martinique, there was a palpable sense of humiliation among the instructors for having to be there.
My students were not very familiar with the work of Frantz Fanon, who wrote about the psychological effects of colonialism and the internalization of racism, and is—along with Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant—one of Martinique’s most celebrated thinkers. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon wrote:
I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek therefore the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.
I felt that the students of the Institut régional d’art visuel did not question enough the world that produced them. The problem was not complacency, as is often the case with art students from places of surfeit and privilege. Rather, they had not been given the tools to critique their own situation. As a result, they were unable to define themselves in relation to historical trauma in the context of the Caribbean. I sensed their sense of isolation, their sense of “something’s missing.”
When I asked where they had travelled to, they said they had not been anywhere except Guadeloupe, an island north of Martinique that is also an outre-mer department of France. Asked where they would like to travel, they unanimously responded: “Paris.” While most people would like to travel to Paris, their response reminded me of a scene from Touki Bouki (1973), a key film of the West African new-wave cinema of the 1970s, in which the two protagonists incessantly sing the Josephine Baker song “Paris, Paris, Paris.” Touki Bouki is about the psychic persistence of colonialism among the colonized; it persisted among my students in terms of where they desired to go. The film presents the dream of going to Paris as a self-searching journey and makes ironic the unfulfilled promises of the postcolonial condition. In my view, my students saw the world in similarly bracketed terms. The art school in Martinique ran counter to my understanding of what art should do, which is to raise one’s consciousness of one’s place in the world, and to produce expression at the borders of what can and cannot be said in any given social and historical context.
These experiences in Martinique are never far from me, regardless of where I am. I believe that the role of the artist is to give expression to his or her experiences in a continuous act of self-definition. In a famous passage from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the fictional narrator describes the experience of eating a petite madeleine over lime-blossom tea:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palette than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. I put down the cup and examined my own mind.
The passage articulates the centrality of sensory experience to artistic consciousness. Being an artist entails the assumption that everything in life is relevant. I have learned that the expression of experience need not be determined by the dictates of the art system. This does not mean that I have completely extricated myself from this system, only that I have re-evaluated what it means to be an artist.
In Delhi last year, I was part of a conference entitled “The Making of International Exhibitions: Siting Biennials,” organized by Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram. The theme of the conference had to do with what Kapur has described as a re-imagining of community that considers the specificities of the developing world’s relationship to modernism.
During an afternoon break, I took a bicycle-cab ride through Delhi’s busy streets to the Chawri Bazar in Chandni Chowk, a seventeenth-century market considered by Delhiites to be the soul of their city. Chandni Chowk is an utterly phantasmagoric experience. As I was navigated through its crowded passageways, I wondered what Walter Benjamin would have had to say about such a place. In his discussion of nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, he describes the passageways within the arcades as spatialized pasts:
The bazaar is the last hangout of the flâneur. If in the beginning the street had become an intérieur for him, now this intérieur turned into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once roamed through the labyrinth of the city…. The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity.
But the Chawri Bazar in Chandni Chowk is far more hallucinatory in the breadth and depth of its sensory offerings. In contrast to Benjamin’s emphasis on the singularity of the flâneur’s experience in the Parisian arcades, spectatorial embodiment is completely broken down in the Chawri Bazar. To enter this space is to enter a maze of narrow lanes teeming with people—from shoppers and urchin children to beggars and mendicants. Tiny shops saturated with colour and flashing lights compete for the attention of the throngs of people filling the narrow passageways. The market is divided into different quarters, each specializing in particular commodities and services, from foodstuffs and fabrics to chemicals and industrial appliances. Interspersed throughout are countless eateries engulfed in steam and filling the air with a plethora of smells. Barking voices from megaphones clash with music from loudspeakers. There are mosques, Hindu and Sikh temples, and Catholic and Protestant churches all in close proximity to one other. Little children barely the height of my waist weaved themselves around the adults, heading for where I had no idea. Teams of long-limbed, yellow-brown monkeys darted from the shoulders of one person to the next, their sudden appearance surprising no one but me.
Tangled webs of electrical cables could be seen overhead in thick and unruly masses. I noticed a large knot of badly burned cables that had melted into a ball. Underneath this ball I could see the charred surfaces of a former shop, barely visible under a skin of brightly coloured posters. A man from the shop opposite noticed me and shouted, “It was a terrible event, the fire.” I looked at the man and then up at the burned-out cables. I asked myself: How can art compete with what I have just experienced? How can art even come close to all that I have seen, smelled, touched, and heard here? I realized that the question is not a fair one, for art cannot compete. Life is infinitely more complex.
And yet art should be about life, and draw from it sustenance and relevance. The purpose of art should be to offer a space for pause and reflection. Nothing can take the place of what I experienced at Chandni Chowk, not even art. But what art can and should do is evoke Chandni Chowk.
1 Walter Benjamin, “The Artist as Producer,” in Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London and New York: Verso, 1988), 97.