This text was written for a presentation on modern art intersecting cultural boundaries.
Contemporary art world needs its monuments (as does any other art world). And these monuments have been decided long before discourse in the field reached a climax. And all of them are from a Western world – a world dubbed as civilized, non-oriental, non-exotic, aesthetic /slash/ functional. The exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” [MdlT] sought to correct the problem described as “100% of exhibition ignoring 80% of the earth”.
To start with some history: An exhibition from 1984, set the backstage of “MdlT”. Entitled “Primitivism”, it had been condemned by many critics as providing purely the aesthetization of the works of native culture. This sharp critic was an opportunity for Jean-Hubert Martin, the curator of “MdlT”, to remedy the contemporary artistic scene by selecting a hundred artists from around the world – 50 from the so-called “centre” of the world (USA, Western Europe) and 50 from the “margins” of the world (Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia). Martin claims: “I want to play the role of someone who uses artistic intuition alone to select objects which come from totally different cultures, … but obviously, I also want to incorporate into that process the critical thinking which contemporary anthropology provides on the problem of ethnocentrism, the relativity of culture, and intercultural relations” (Buchloh, 122-133). The inherent problem with the selection process, as also acknowledge by Martin, is that artists from non-Western countries had been shown only in ethnographic exhibitions – they were considered craftsmen and their production folklore. Treating the artists as equal in “MdlT”, was Martin’s way of handling “the arrogance of our culture”. The name of the exhibition, however, still recalls rituals and enthological labels – “magicians”. Another inherent problem that Martin encountered was associated with the selection and the critical evaluation of the selected non-“central” works. As Martin puts it, “we did not know any expert in the Third World who did share our knowledge and our taste in contemporary Western art”. So, he continues “we decided to elaborate ourselves our criteria and methods”. This shows how unknown the “marginal” was (and perhaps still is).
The attempt for global and post-colonial realization was widely criticised as unsuccessful. Juxtaposing in one curatorial space works by Western artists such as Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren with works by contemporary artists from Africa and Asia is not equivalent to equity. Designed in the framework of postmodernism, the notion of cultural purity can be argued against. Enwezor and Oguibe (1999) would describe the success of “MdlT” in “its ability to make a strong case for a dialogue between artists of various cultures”.
But is this indeed the logical way of organizing it? Artists were selected for their “authenticity”. What about artists as the ones we have seen presented in the course? Artists who work and create in the Western world but have clear connection to their cultural roots? Shouldn’t this concern also apply to Western artists and shouldn’t they connect to their Western roots as well? Martin is not explicit about this and does not define the connection to the roots. His criterion of selection were: an artist lives and works in an indigineously detatched place, the art relates to the fundamental traditions and exceptional uniqueness of the culture, and it fulfils its aesthetical position. The artists were selected not as artists representative of their countries but rather as artists “born of a culture”. Thus the collected pieces of art are simply a reflection of the aesthetic state of creativity as judged by the curators. Guideri (1989) and Michaud (1989) however, express their reservation towards this approach. They feels that a “’globalization’ of art masks the cultural roots of art by emphasizing, as it does, only the aesthetic and ignoring the political and social context; the result is a sort of ‘unchecked heterogeneity’ which gets us nowhere”. Essays in the beginning of the catalogue discuss concepts of the Other and the changing European perception and response to the other.
The suggestion by Guideri, however, is not to incorporate the political but rather to organize the exhibition around the “theme of the meeting of cultures”. This suggestion is further supported but also brings further complications by Eleanor Heartney (1989) who critically asks if the “fascination with ‘the other’ is not just another twentieth-century Western myth”. Heartney fears that the logical way of interpretation used by the viewer would be to apply one’s own aesthetic standards which would not be appropriate. Moreover, the curators and artistic directors themselves have specific criteria and standards of their own which are Western and as pointed out before, they did not have the expertise to consult in the selection of non-Western works. Here, it could be pointed out that apparently, the most successful works in the exhibition were those that relied on the interplay between traditional and Western cultures.
Let’s look at one piece that at first sight appears very … native. A piece by Nera Jambruk from the native region of Maprik East Sepik Province, Palouasie-Nouvelle-Guinee, Papou neo-guineen. In the local village, the houses are arranged in a strict order. The front of the house which is what is portrayed in the piece of art here, is a map of the history of the group, it is the logo, the representation, the cross of arms. The entire production (as well as many of the decorations and sculptures inside) are created by people whose professional capacity is exactly that (this alludes already to craftsmanship rather than artistry).
It appears that, if we follow the logic of Heartney, we, as westerners, would apply our standards and could call this art. But in other contexts it does not necessarily need to be labelled as art. Is this a problem for contemporary art? Perhaps, the best answer comes from Barbara Kruger who also explains laconically what is meant my “Magicians of the Earth”. Her pieces are a product of media messages and this one is no exception. She asks, who the magicians of the earth are suggesting a long list ranging from doctors, politicians and plumbers, through writers, artists and soldiers, to computer programmers, drug dealers and mothers. The question seems redundant when the title was given by a Westerner.