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May we suggest

Reviews / August 13, 2018

Dream of a Common Language

"The assumption that the international art world has a centre is being fast eroded," wrote Sarah Milroy in our summer 2000 issue. In an era of increasing isolationism, Milroy's piece and the issues it raises remain relevant—and unresolved
Shirin Neshat, <em>Soliloquy</em>, 1999.

Film Still

Copyright Shirin Neshat

Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy, 1999. Film Still Copyright Shirin Neshat Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Back in 1970, in a small hotel room overlooking Halifax harbor, the late great Canadian artist Greg Curnoe turned his thoughts to the question of internationalism in the visual arts. He had been brought to Halifax to attend a conference run by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, then under the intellectual leadership of two American expatriates, conceptual artists Garry Neill Kennedy and Gerald Ferguson. It was an institution that Curnoe had always regarded warily, objecting as he did to the placement of Americans in leading jobs in Canadian cultural institutions.

During his stay in Halifax, Curnoe created a diaristic work Homage to Sam Langford (Langford was a former Nova Scotian prizefighter and one of Curnoe’s heroes), which recorded his thoughts and actions. Through his eyes, we see ships come and go from the harbor and we register shifts in the weather. Conference proceedings are mulled over, pretty women are duly noted, and in the midst of it all, the odd gem crops up fresh as a daisy, like this:

“The idea that art transcends borders keeps coming up, & everyone here seems to believe it… I know that water transcends borders & so does fucking & so does being cold & being warm. Clearly, people from the most powerful nation in the world can afford to say that art is international because it is their art & culture which is international e.g. Vietnam.”

What has happened in the thirty years since Curnoe made these observations is that the ideal of internationalism in the arts has truly taken hold, generating a whole subset of the global travel industry. While the German über-exhibition Documenta is continuing to build momentum at 45 years old, and the Venice Biennale is clocking in at 105 years old, newer upstart biennials are flourishing in Sydney, Istanbul, Havana, Kwangju. And international contemporary group shows like “Mirror’s Edge,” on show throughout the summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery, are now de rigeur in every museum of any significant scale.

I came across Curnoe’s quote just days after having visited one of the most venerable of these repeating exhibitions: the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. His remarks resonated for me because the exhibition had raised similar questions in my mind.

In this year’s Carnegie International, there were no blind alleys, no moments of “I guess you have to be Chilean to get it” hermeticism. Each artist spoke clearly and confidently from the vantage point of his or her own culture.

The Carnegie International, which wound to a close in the end of March, was an impressive demonstration of curatorial acumen. It had an extraordinary evenness, with virtually every work making a forceful contribution to the exhibition’s theme: the shifting nature of reality and fiction in a global culture. The exhibition was scrupulously assembled over a two-year period by Carnegie curator Madelein Grynsztein (the product of both a North and South American upbringing) in concert with Nigerian-born American curator Okwei Enwezor (who is organizing the upcoming documenta in Kassel, Germany, for 2002), Suzanne Ghez of the Renaissance Society in Chicago, and Lars Nittve, the Swedish-born director of Tate Modern in London.

In this year’s Carnegie International, there were no blind alleys, no moments of “I guess you have to be Chilean to get it” hermeticism. Each artist spoke clearly and confidently from the vantage point of his or her own culture. We discovered Zairean artist Boys Isek Kingelez’s dazzling scale-model metropolis, Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s uterine fantasy environment made of stretchy net and aromatic spices, and Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s steam-vent apparition, evoking the volcanic prehistory of Scandinavia and Iceland—a culturally eclectic roster that was notably wide-ranging. Yet the cultural specificity of these works didn’t produce any opacities for the audience. Throughout the show, an atmosphere prevailed of clarity, thoroughness and control. While there were no major surprises, there were also few disappointments.

It seems that in the making of international exhibitions, we’ve come a long way, very fast. It’s hard to imagine that the landmark French exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre”—whose title alone belies its exoticizing attitude to the “outposts” of the art world—was staged in 1989, a scant eleven years ago. Even as recently as 1997, we had a Documenta, led by the ostensibly high-minded French scholar Catherine David, in which Asian culture was almost entirely unrepresented (unless you count Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s gigantic photo-text analysis of the real estate market in the new China—which I don’t—or Austrian artist Edgar Honetschläger’s embarrassing series of photographs of Japanese people without their clothes on). The assumption that the international art world has a centre is being fast eroded by air travel, the art press and Internet communication.

But as I moved from room to room of epically scaled installations, large-format photographic works and monumental video projections, I sometimes felt that the spectacular scale and ambition of international exhibitions have changed the way art is being made. To pursue Curnoe’s line of thinking, is art transcending boarders or are the stylistic formats of North American postmodern art—photo-based, digitally elaborated, cinematic—merely morphing replicant cultural production around the globe? To borrow and reshuffle Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, when the medium changes, does the message change with it?

There were places in the exhibition where I felt that increasing scale and technological sophistication had actually robbed the work of some of its intensity. Willie Doherty, an artist from Northern Ireland, exhibited a room-sized, multi-angled video-sculpture that defied reading at one glance; one had to walk around the piece and spend time with it to absorb its structure and meaning. However, I found myself missing the humility of his earlier works, which have about them more of a sense of the hand-held camera than the million-dollar editing suite. Given that Doherty’s theme is the anxiety of the contingency of life in a war zone, the cruder technology of the earlier works made one feel the vulnerability and humanity of the maker, and empathize with his cultural point of view. In his new work, visually lush and formally sophisticated though it was, I couldn’t find that feeling anywhere.

If the spectacular mode of address has come from any one artist in particular, Vancouver artist Jeff Wall would certainly be a contender. Wall was one of the first to grasp the possibilities of the international exhibition, working through the ‘80s and ‘90s at a scale and within a range of reference—from Hokusai to Manet—that was truly symphonic. In more recent years, his level of digital craft has raised the bar even higher. In international exhibition after international exhibition, and in various solo shows, he has stunned the art world with work that presents itself as a grand event, in this regard akin to the massive displays of Joseph Beuys. His presence a the Carnegie International prompted me to wonder whether or not he could be considered a progenitor of a new kind of international style of cinematic scale and digital mastery.

Wall’s elegant contribution to the Carnegie International was a meticulously staged backlit photograph of a janitor cleaning the glass walls of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, an icon of international modernism. Wall’s quiet and restrained work set in motion a sophisticated play of horizontals and verticals, of surface and depth, of classicism and modernity, ensnaring our gaze in a web of uncertainties.

Interestingly, his piece was uncharacteristically small, as if the artist had come to question his penchant for the operatic. Nonetheless, his colleagues continue to make the jump in scale and production values. The question is, why?

Shirin Neshat, <em>Soliloquy Series</em>, 1999. Film still. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy Series, 1999. Film still. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

The story of Iranian-born American artist Shirin Neshat offers us some answers. Her journey through the art world exemplifies a deeply felt exploration of the losses and gains inherent in cultural displacement. Speaking of ancient culture, Soliloquy is produced with state-of-the-art technology, a lovely paradox.

In two large colour video images projected onto the walls of a darkened room, Neshat contrasts two worlds—the cloistered desert kingdom of the Middle East and the windswept barrens of the North American city. Playing the role of protagonist, Neshat—draped in the traditional black robes of Islamic womanhood—moves between worlds, never resting in either. We see her confined in the tight sisterhood of her traditional culture, swarmed almost by the group’s will to conformity as it grapples collectively with an ambiguously defined tragedy—the death of a child. In her North American existence, this same woman appears free, yet at the same time lost, alone and vulnerable.

No one speaks. Instead, hypnotic Iranian and Turkish music serves as the backdrop to the poetic unfolding of events. The structure of the work is open-ended, non-prescriptive. In fact, if anything, the work surprises the North American feminist viewer by seeming to lament the loss of traditional community. There is real ambivalence here about the price of cross-cultural nomadism. In this ambivalence lies this work’s integrity and richness.

Neshat’s own story is also one of displacement and exile. She came to the United States at the age of 17 and later studied art at the University of California at Berkeley, but when the revolution occurred in Iran in 1979 with the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, Neshat felt that the door had slammed and locked behind her.

Fumbling to achieve a sense of purpose in her art (she describes her early work as a dismal attempt to revitalize the tradition of Persian miniature painting), she set off for New York where she worked for a decade at Storefront for Art and Architecture, an exhibition space. Her first break came when she was offered a solo show at Franklin Furnace in 1993. Here, she exhibited explicitly political work in which photographs of herself in traditional Islamic garb were overlaid with poems of political resistance by contemporary Iranian women, written in Arabic longhand. She also showed film and video work in that exhibition, but her focus was clearly on the small-scale work, a format she employed most dramatically in her series Women of Allah—a sequence of images of gun-toting Islamic terroristas.

The art world took notice. After all, this was the early ‘90s: the Gulf War had aroused the anxiety of North America and Europe about the Middle East. Yet looking back on it, I think Neshat’s early photographic work was limited by its polemical flavour. Neshat agrees. “These works began to be almost propagandistic,” she recalls. Also, the use of text in Farsi functioned as a kind of psychological red flag for many viewers, particularly in the United States. “I began to have a very strong feeling about moving on,” Neshat recalls. “The work was becoming more philosophical, more poetic. With film, I could make poems as opposed to statements.”

Perhaps we are at the point where we must re-examine what constitutes a cultural identity. We seem to be entering an era where the international art world can be considered a nation in its own right…

In the large-screen projections which have followed, Neshat has instinctively found a visual language—the cinematic—which has enabled her to leap across cultural boundaries. Her first such work, Turbulent, now at the Ydessa Hendeles Foundation in Toronto, was the toast of the 1999 Venice Biennale. Turbulent explores the territory of male conformity and female transgression in traditional Islamic society in an intense two-screen work that is nothing short of hair-raising.

While the man beseeches his woman with a display of passionate courtly love, singing an ancient Sufi verse by the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, before an attentive audience of men, the woman performs a sort of emotional self-disembowelment—crooning, crying and shrieking out her soul alone. Turbulent’s theme has obvious universal relevance—the gulf war between genders, perhaps the most significant and far-reaching global issue of our time. It speaks to every woman who has raged and wept in frustration at the constraints and contradictions of her social role, and to every man who has wrung his hands in longing and confusion.

In the Carnegie International, Neshat was not alone in making work of this cultural transparency and electrifying impact. William Kentridge’s large-scale cartoon video projections, rough-hewn parables of South African apartheid rendered in charcoal and pastel drawings, speak an international language of resistance and humanism. At the other stylistic extreme, Takashi Murakami’s menacing wasp-waisted superheroines, suspended in flight above us, recalled the look of computer-generated Japanese animation—evoking humanism by imagining its absence.

For all the questions it raised, I found the Carnegie International an encouraging show. It persuaded me that international exhibitions can create an authentic meeting place, a place of cultural tolerance and diplomacy, even if the money driving the system is still largely Western. I was reminded of this some weeks later when I went to Vancouver to see the opening of “Mirror’s Edge” and discovered the work of British artist Yinka Shonibare, whose photo-tableaux of a black Victorian dandy at work and play in the stately homes of England borrow heavily from the precedent of Jeff Wall—in their use of large-scale photography, deliberately exaggerated theatricality, their rich visual texture. It was interesting to see Shonibare’s works on show in Wall’s home town, to see the style he sent out in to the world coming back to roost on his doorstep.

But Shonibare’s work is by no means a clone of Wall’s. His political perspective and idiosyncratic wit come crackling off the works, ironic parodies of British colonialism and its relation to African culture. He has used Wall’s language to make a statement that is entirely his own.

Perhaps we are at the point where we must re-examine what constitutes a cultural identity. We seem to be entering an era where the international art world can be considered a nation in its own right—free-floating, open and porous to the world that pours into it, but with its own citizenry, its own nomadic patterns, intellectual currency tribalism and languages. But, unlike the capital of world money markets, the currency that flows through this global economy is one of freedom of thought, civil liberty, imagination, intelligence, dissidence.

It’s an inspiring idea, and I wonder what Curnoe would have made of it. Like Wall, he had a vision that was deeply rooted in a sense of place. Unlike Wall, he never figured out how to take this vision and project it beyond the borders of his own country. Would such a leap even have been possible in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s? Almost certainly not. At the very least, we now know that it can happen.

Sarah Milroy

Sarah Milroy is chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.