Unpacking: Concepts and Artworks Speaking Together | Mieke Bal

Unpacking: Concepts and Artworks Speaking Together
In honor of Ruth B. Phillips, in “intellectual friendship”
Mieke Bal

With the verb “unpacking” I refer to the attempt to disentangle the complexities of what I had long ago termed “travelling concepts”, in a book that is currently being translated and published in French. In that book I tried to account for the transformations and varied applications of the concepts we are so used to that we pronounce them without thinking about their in-stability, in time, disciplines, geographies, and cultural diversity.

It is the context in which I met the work of our brilliant colleague and her delightful person Ruth Phillips: our efforts to communicating better, in our “intellectual friendship”, in favor of the advancement of the best scholarship. The dialogic nature of the communications around, on, and with art is important, lest we fall back into the traps of dogmatic disciplinary approaches. These lean on the idea that the image is an “illustration” of the ideas the historian proposes about it; the idea of a fixed intention and a stable and unified cultural identity; the linearity of chronology in a simplistic view of time; and of a permanent, fixed meaning of our concepts. In that book from 2002, now twenty years old, my attempts to shake up those rigid conceptions, frequently touched upon the issues that were and are so close to Ruth’s heart, and that I tend to indicate with the preposition “inter-”, as the way of referring to forms of togetherness.

As it happens, Ruth devoted her PhD to “African art”, but within a perspective that we would now term “intercultural”. That these faces all address “us”, with eyes, mocking expressions, and shouting voices, inter-actively, establishes a contact that, polemical as it may be, remains contact-centered, hence, inter-cultural.

          Last October, in my inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, where for this year I was elected to occupy the European Chair, I argued, along with some others, against the attempt to define a “European identity”. The “European union” is as heterogenous as the world at large, and its plurality defines and facilitates – and this is my primary point – identification, rather than identity. One of the crucial aspects is indeed to drop the idea of a certain specific “identity”, which is fanatically pursued especially by populist parties, in favour of the idea and commitment, interactive and active, of encounters leading to identification, with people, ideas, phenomena of one’s own choice. For, identification does not presuppose an inherent feature that you carry with you wherever you go, as the idea of identity suggests, but the result of an active identification in the present, in view of the future. The ultimate challenge for every member of any group is, then, to choose with which projects and ideas you can identify. In that sense, identity is not something we can have but something we must actively realize, through identification.

          I think that the idea of an identity prevents rather than encouraging the sense of belonging to any group, because it fixates and defines, and thus excludes its others. I find myself on the side of the French Sinologist François Jullien, the Franco-Lebanese / Lebanese French author of essays nourished by autofiction, Amin Maalouf, and the American historiographer Hayden White – all three authorities in their respective fields.
          Julien rejects the search for an identity because of the obsession with alterity it entails. He proposes a vis-à-vis between cultures. This is necessary because, he writes, “the common is not similarity”. He rejects both “facile universalism and lazy relativism.” It is worth taking up the two keywords from the title of his article: “écart” (difference, gap, or distance) and “entre”, inter- in the sense in which I am so partial to that preposition. Because “inter-” means relationality, which excludes both indifference and appropriation.

          Jullien concludes that “the point of difference is to identify” and his key point is that “there is no cultural difference possible.” This is so because, he asks, “is all that labelling of cultural differences able to avoid ethnocentrism?” He prefers distancing (écart), which facilitates a productive tension. A tension without hostility as well as without indifference.

          Maalouf, a successful French author of Lebanese origin, has given his book on identity as a problem, the bold and even harsh title, Murderous Identities. He rejects on a tone of strong conviction the search of and adherence to a nationalistic or religious identity, which for him are almost identical, both burdened with constraining effects. After citing some persons situated between cultures, religions or ethnicities, he assigns to such multicultural people already early on in the book the task to become intercultural, to “forge bonds, disperse misunderstandings, to reason with some and calm down others, to flatten, to mend… They have as their mission to be hyphens, pass ways, mediators among diverse communities, diverse cultures”. (11) For him, what matters before anything else, is a “requirement of reciprocity – that is simultaneously a care for equality and for efficacy. » (51)
          Maalouf advocates a fundamental, worldwide trilinguism. Between the maternal langue, habitual, comfortable but also, therefore, used unreflexively, as the first language, and English as the third, a useful tool, another language freely chosen must happen. “For everyone this will be, from schooldays on, the most important foreign language, but it will also be much more than that, the language of the heart, the adoptive language, the espoused (wed) language, the loved language… » (162). The choice of affectionate words is significant. The advantage would be that, beyond that « minimal baggage, [they would have] their privileged language of communication, freely chosen according to their own affinities, and through which their personal and professional fulfilment will be achieved. » (163)

          Hayden White, whose 1973 book Metahistory had decisively transformed the general conception of historicity, has spent over twenty pages to argue against the notion of identity. He indicts even more severely than Julien and Maalouf the search for an identity. Among other objections, in the context of Europe he sees it as a complicity with antisemitism and an attempt to deny that this complicity has been part and parcel of the efforts to mark a European civilization. The word “identity” is overdetermined; a signifier with too many – and not a few contradictory – signifieds.
          I affiliate my proposal to advocate identification with these critiques of the idea of identity to suggest that what we need is the construction of a relationality not based on features but on process; on an active identification. What matters is not the traits but the hyphen; the French word “trait-d’union” seems more effective than “hyphen” in this context: not traits but traits d’union. In the framework of “speaking together”, I want to foreground that concepts and artworks speak together in the encounters facilitated by acts of curating – that co-making alias caring that offers the artworks to visitors. These acts must be inter-cultural.

          When I think of the endeavor called “intercultural curating”, I cannot help thinking of Ruth Phillips and her ways of reasoning around and against all the clichés and givens that term evokes. In addition to her passionate plea for an integrative understanding of, in the case of her primary interest, African art, she immediately put me in touch with artist and scholar Gerald McMaster, who wrote his PhD in interaction with me. This was a great privilege and pleasure. Since his doctorate in 1999 Gerald has become one of the great stars in studying, curating, and making indigenous art.

          One of my first encounters with the idea, concept, of “intercultural curating” was a bit polemical. It happened when, in 2010, the Brooklyn Museum proudly announced an exhibition The Arts of Africa in these words: “Over 250 works spanning more than 2,500 years represent art from the African continent in the Museum’s first-floor galleries.” (from the museum’s website)

          This is not inter-cultural. “Inter-cultural” curating is not the importation of art from other continents, “in the third person,” as a wholesale ensemble of works solely defined by, in this case, their Africanness. It is, instead, a curatorial activity that does justice to an aspect of art (in general), in my view best expressed with the phrase “art moves.” This phrase sums up why and how intercultural curating is necessary and possible. When I say that art moves, I am trying to conceptualize, “unpack”, the many meanings of that phrase as a complex whole. It is through the idea of movement that, I will argue, the relevance of art for society can be articulated in an intercultural perspective; I call this the “migratory” nature of art.
          With this term I allude to a curatorial endeavor on what I have termed “migratory aesthetics.” I use “aesthetics” here not as a philosophical domain, but to refer to an experience of sensate binding, a connectivity based on the senses, and the “-s” at the end of the word is meant to indicate the plural form. This sensate or sensorial binding takes place, according to the early theorization of the aesthetic by German philosopher Alexander G. Baumgarten, in public space. (1750) “Migratory”, as a neologistically coined qualifier, refers to the traces, equally sensate, of the movements of migration that characterize contemporary cultures. Both terms are programmatic: different aesthetic experiences are offered through the encounters with such traces. This installation where mothers of migrants talk to the visitors is a good example.

          The acknowledgement that art moves is the paradigm of art in general, not an exception; as a consequence, what is called “intercultural curating” is the kind of curating that is ethically as well as artistically responsive to this “migratoriness” of art. You can stick labels on it of the order of “global” or “geo-political”, but until the moving quality of art is foregrounded and put into interaction with visitors, spaces and objects, from work to work, such labels only indicate good will, not good practice. And after Gayatri Spivak’s 2000 critique of the concept of postcolonialism and its uses and abuses, I refrain from using that term.
          Distinct from “multi-” and “trans-”, the prefix “inter-” denotes mutuality, dynamic process, and principled (if not always in practice) equality. Intercultural curating is not done justice in the current trend of making exhibitions that are anchored in a “different” – bluntly put, “exotic” culture. Not only does the qualifier “different” presuppose a “self” from which the different or other is cast out. Also, the difference in question – including its questionability – is the central property, not of the art but of its collecting and presenting. We have seen many exhibitions of “African Art,” for example, and lots of shows of Chinese, Latin American, Indian art. Rather than substantiating a new, truly post-colonial view of the world, these tend to be closer to being the inheritance of early twentieth-century world fairs, and are not fundamentally different from those deeply colonial exhibitions.
          We have seen many exhibitions of “African Art,” for example, and lots of shows of Chinese, Latin American, Indian art. Rather than substantiating a new, truly post-colonial view of the world, these tend to be closer to being the inheritance of early twentieth-century world fairs, and are not fundamentally different from those deeply colonial exhibitions.

          There is a simple reason for this, which dooms such projects even before any particular attempt is made to make a difference. It seems incredibly presumptuous to present “African Art” as a whole – as if “European Art,” or even “French Art” would ever be subjected to such arbitrariness as it is generated by generalization.

          Instead, and to avoid the hierarchical implications of thinking in “difference,” this reflection is concerned with the question of inter-culturality in curating, beyond post- or rather, neo-colonial practices. Once we get used to seeing and relating to art from different parts of the world, we can shape and stage encounters between artworks from different cultures in encounters. “Inter-”, or between, presupposes equality at least as a possibility; movement, relationship, interaction – all indispensable for something that can become geo-political in a sense that is not predicated upon do-good self-promotion and sentimentality. The result of what I call inter-ship is the transformation of all parties in the exchange.
          Once the provenance of the art as “naturally national” is bracketed, an exhibition of Indian Art such as was displayed in 2012 at the Arken Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen becomes possible; an exhibition that was every bit as aesthetically based on selection of meaningful works of art as a Western exhibition would be.  The kind of intercultural exhibition I have in mind is best understood through such concepts as “migratory aesthetics” and the fundamental movement of art, and avoid the traps of an exoticizing, condescending view of it. Only then can we avoid “cultural schizophrenia” – an unsettling sense of losing one’s moorings through bending over backwards – or “cultural autism” – a refusal to consider anything foreign to one’s own rigid standards. This is what Ruth Phillips had in mind in her book Museum Pieces, where the detailed look at objects wins over generalizations.
          There is a lot to learn before intercultural curating can become a standard practice: about what “art” means and how to deal with it. In the Western world, “art” has become a concept, in a development usually seen as beginning in the 14th century, theorized and historicized by Vasari in the 16th, and, according to art historians such as Arthur Danto (1998) and Hans Belting (1987), declared to have ended in the 1960s or 70s of the 20th century. The alleged development was, according to Ernst Gombrich (1987), an ongoing attempt to perfect realistic depiction, so that realism became the standard by which one judged art. With modernism, Clement Greenberg (1961), instead, promoted purity, defined as medium-specificity. Plurality was the new (non-)norm, and so the clear criterion to judge art vanished. And with it, the gentleman know-it-all: the connoisseur.

          Suspiciously, this “end of art” coincided with the official end of colonialism; purity had definitively been compromised, and so the plurality transformed into a renewed, equally imperialistic search for art elsewhere. Parts of the world where image cultures that had not bothered with Western restrictive concepts of art, now became hunting grounds for art workers. Equally suspiciously, when new nations emerged, the idea of “nation” became obsolete. Meanwhile, postcolonial theorists asked new questions and offered new concepts – the “new terms” Wayne Modest called for (I believe in 2017) – that helped us understand the new, but somehow also old cultural scene that came to be called “global”.

          But curating as an activity, a co-making of art, requires care (“cure”). The curatorial question can no longer be addressed through the local/global tension. How, then, to make exhibitions that are truly inter-cultural? In an intercultural exhibition, artworks harbor a cultural dialogue inside them; works coming, say, from India, may be exhibited in the way Western audiences value: not the loud touristic market that the Centre Pompidou created (Paris, Bombay, Delhi, 2011), but simply an activating art exhibition, resulting from intercultural curating, committed to “migratory aesthetics”. That phrase promotes mobility as the standard beyond realism and against purity. Through migratory aesthetics, exhibitions and their narratives can breed intercultural relations.

          Narrative is a social rhetoric; and so is the display of visual art. In any narrative, what matters is the distribution of narrative agency: who does what for whom – who tells a story, who perceives and interprets the events, who listens or “sees” them; and, who has no access to these functions? The key concept is that of focalization – the orientation of perception. There resides the most manipulative, or rhetorical, potential of narrating functions. An exhibition is a narrative, and so is each artwork in it. They both steer perception. Instead of transmission, interaction is at the heart of story-telling, and instead of an account, the story is a performance of that interaction. And so is visual display, made narrative by the visitor’s mobility. Intercultural curating works with focalization to foreground this performative quality of art-on-display. This entails an acknowledgment of the visitors’ activity and hence, hampers curatorial bossiness.

          My thinking of art as by definition moving began with the curation of the travelling exhibition 2MOVE in 2007-8, already mentioned. This title was short for “migratory aesthetics”; a productive crossing-over between the notion of the moving image as an artistic medium particularly widespread today, and the currently highly visible fact that people move. We explored the various ways video and migration could be brought to bear on each other.

          That this exhibition was focused on video as a “moving” art form was to draw attention to the potential of a conceptualization of “migratory aesthetics” in terms, primarily, of movement as the common element between the two parts of the phrase. This focus enabled us to move freely between the literal sense of movement – as in the moving image, and in the movement of people – and all its connotations, allusions, and underlying metaphorical meanings. This includes emotional movement; the movement of the heart, of the senses, and of the intelligence, as a consequence of an encounter (inter-). This moving quality is activated in space and mediates effects that are not bound to the traditional ways of meaning making or seeing art. To throw in one of those “new terms” Wayne Modest called for, the beating heart of such exhibitions can be named, after Foucault, “HeterochronotopiaThat neologism stipulates that both the temporality, the allegedly necessary linear chronology, and the local backgrounds from where the artworks had come, are “hetero”: varied, different, un-fixed.

          Art is an intervention, an act of focalized story-telling in space. Space is something we share, where we meet, must get along, or else! Thinking beyond ordinary boundaries and going into other, new, unheard-of spaces, is of vital importance to sustain the conditions of a functioning political domain. These conditions are the formation of judgments, the performance of democratic acts, and the availability of what American philosopher Wendy Brown calls “democratic spaces” (1995). These are spaces where people can be together, learn new things that break with everyday routine, recognize and acknowledge the unreflective habits of others, and then talk on an equal footing, which includes the possibility to disagree; to differ, in both senses of that verb. Diversity and encounter are preconditions for this activity.

          Art, with its imaginative and often fictional images, its experiments in the not-yet-existing but thinkable variations on what is considered normal or even possible, and its slower or even extra-temporal mode of functioning in comparison to the frantic pace of everyday life, is a privileged area where such spaces can be constructed. The aesthetic situation intensifies this potential. This situation is migratory; mono-cultural purity is neither possible nor desirable. And curating must be responsive to such shared spaces as suitable for democratic acts. There, intercultural dialogue is possible and encouraged, without one-sidedness, erasure of singularity, or hypostasizing of difference and refusal of understanding.
          All these considerations raise the question if, and if so, how, exiting ethnocentrism is possible. Not really, not entirely, but still. Let me allege an example from Paris. The presentation of the permanent modernist collection at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Multiple Modernities, 1905-1970 from 2013 emphasized modern art from different continents, albeit with Africa, as usual, under-represented, except as a source of inspiration for primitivism – they should have heeded Ruth’s pluralization of that concept. In spite of such limitations, this self-proclaimed “refreshed and broadened view of modern art” opened in October 2013, the same month as an exhibition at the Maison Rouge, also in Paris, where a private collection and museum holdings, both from Tasmania, Australia, had been curated into a Théâtre du monde (Theatre of the World) by Jean-Hubert Martin, known from the ground-breaking international exhibition, Magiciens de la terre (1989).

           But the Maison Rouge did not pursue internationalisation through simple and belated gestures of inclusion, which can easily be read as condescending gestures of tokenism. The most explicitly programmatic statement in this regard was a new series of exhibitions, begun in 2011. These exhibitions were devoted to a peripheral centre, to allude to a contradiction. Artistic centres in cities or regions that seem peripheral from a narrow Western mainstream perspective can be very central and centralizing in their own region. The first of these was My Winnipeg (2011), followed by My Joburg in 2013, and My Buenos Aires in 2015.
          The programmatic paradox was in the combination of the far-away place name with “my”: who is the “I” for whom the city is his or her own, intimately known, whereas for most of the Parisian visitors these cities are, precisely, so foreign that they can become the centre of a presentation of its art? Is it the visitor, or is it the artists from that other centre, who present to the foreigners in Paris something intimately familiar to them? You wouldn’t dream up a show called “My Paris,” after all. Or should we consider these exhibitions portraits of cities, in the same way that collections are, as the then-collector behind the Maison Rouge Antoine De Galbert had it, self-portraits of their collectors?

          Jean-Hubert Martin acted as curator for one of the annual private collection exhibitions the Maison Rouge put on. Martin did not invent global art exhibitions, nor was his 1989 exhibition the first to include art from “elsewhere.” But for various reasons fifty years ago Magiciens de la terre set the tone of new exhibition policies that no longer defined art as limited to Paris and New York.

          His later exhibition (2013-2014) was titled Théâtre du Monde, theatre of the world, a somewhat less controversial title than Magiciens, albeit also putting forward geographical comprehensiveness or better, non-exclusiveness, together with a fictional environment. Many different sections indicated aspects of what the theatre of the world shows, some derived from the stages of life, others from attitudes or events, such as “crossing,” “aura,” and “beyond.” The museum spaces had a very different look, due to the sections that created scenes, or phases of an unnarratable story of “life.”
          No chronology, no coherent story, but still, each space made for a kind of intimacy, the familiarisation with foreign art centres. Throughout, there were no distinctions based on provenance, nor on art-artefact systems of knowledge and value hierarchies; and thankfully, no chronology. Antoine de Galbert and Jean-Hubert Martin called it décloisonnement – removing the walls between categories; a negative epistemology.
          Martin’s opening article in the catalogue is subtitled “The Museum of Enchantments versus the Docile Museum.” Martin offered associations for the exhibition’s title that make the Western viewer deceptively comfortable. He also mentions the association with cabinets of curiosity. All these possible contexts for the concept enhance the limits of human knowledge and the need to call in fiction to help imagine what we cannot know. Opposing enchantment to docility is implying that by ordering works in chronology, for example, encourages the visitor to be docile, following under the guise of objective knowledge a development that implies fixed values, from youth (not yet good enough but promising) to maturity (the best) and decline (alas, the work gets less good).
          Enchantment, instead, is like the “willing suspension of disbelieve” that defines fiction. This is not a manipulative seduction, because the suspension is willing. It allows letting go, if only provisionally – “suspension” is not “abolition” – of the restrictions that rule our practical lives, and opening up to new experiences. Then, when leaving the fictional space and time, we feel enriched, and are therefore better able to negotiate those restrictions creatively. This makes art an important player in the (utopian) impulse to change the world. It is thanks to a décloisonné presentation – freed of the constraints that art history has put in place – says De Galbert, that cultural development is able to be a vecteur d’amélioration sociale. This interpretation brings enchantment and magicians closer together, and takes away some of the controversial connotations that had been attached critically to Martin’s 1989 exhibition’s title.

          I will give only two examples that demonstrate what made this exhibition so effective; two of my favourites of the art of curating, for very different reasons. In one gallery, late in the show’s itinerary, a bit isolated from the others and lined with fabrics that muted sound, there was a placement that I found significant for the entire exhibition. The placement of a Giacometti sculpture, one foot forward to indicate walking towards, all alone facing a larger figure from a more ancient culture, a standing ancient Egyptian sarcophagus towards which the Giacometti seemed to be on his way, as if for a chat. He seemed fearless, bold, yet modest, because the figure seemed so small in comparison to the sarcophagus.

          Both sculptural objects were surrounded by bark cloths from different cultures. These are mostly abstract pieces of fabric often used in their culture of provenance for ceremonial purposes. The section of this gallery is titled “Majesté.” The lone sculpture from Western modernism is placed so as to represent the opposite of the traditional arrogance. Here, there is not a single foreign inclusion in an otherwise Western display, but the opposite. And this brings the entire gallery into movement, letting visitors imagine what it means to be alone immersed in difference.
          My other favourite was a small, transitory, very dark gallery earlier on, where some fifteen masks were hung on a rather wide wall. The image betrays the brilliance of the display, for you never got to see it in this way. The masks were hung on a dark wall in front of which a bench invited seating. This set-up, it turned out, was highly performative, and not only for me, as conversations with other visitors taught me.

I learned in that moment something I knew but didn’t realise: seating means time. And time, its heterogeneous duration and subjective nature is key to the experience of art. It allows art to move (us). I experimented more with this aspect of seating = time in the exhibition I curated in 2017 in the Munch Museum in Oslo – of which you see here a photograph.

          By making time easy, seating increases the willingness to stay; it encourages a durative immersion that gives the artworks the chance to have an impact. And indeed, time is needed, and in that show, time was the tool to make that need felt. For, the masks were illuminated one by one, in random order and for an unpredictable duration. As a result, for the viewer sitting did not mean relaxing but, on the contrary, a condition to exercise active agency. One was sitting, but on (the) edge. The active agency was indispensable to be able to see, and experience seeing as an activity requiring mobility, alertness, and trust.
          The section of masks in Théâtre of the World was called Apparition. Martin had transformed inert objects, often put away as “artefacts,” into a moving image – and do give that qualifier as many meanings as you like. Cinematic to begin with, but more. Each object became singular, and the durational experience was both activating and making viewers modest, since the possibility to see was out of their hands, yet also dependent on them. Different from sitting in a movie theatre, there was no sitting back and relax. And different from being in a gallery, there was no way to hasten, walk through, and decide yourself how much time you spend there. This was a stroke of genius; a practical theorization of how not to make this display ethnographic, not an outside view displayed for consumption.

It was at that moment that I realised that seating in galleries activates the experience. I felt lucky to acquire that insight at precisely that time, because very shortly afterwards I was involved in installing my own video work – moving images already – in the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland. And under the impact of Martin’s masks, I decided on the spot to have the screens hung lower than planned, and seating to be provided for all screens – a bit of a hassle for the museum staff and the technicians who had expected to hang the screens higher.
          The result was, as I expected on the basis of Theatre of the World, that people spent much more time than they anticipated. The seating made an immersive situation, a willingness on the part of the public to go for it, give up control, and play along with the fiction – all conditions for “inter-ship.” But, at the same time, an active engagement was necessary to even see the multiple screens, changing the position of your head or entire body, to choose what you wanted to see, with whom to side. In Theatre of the World, this impacted on the attitude with which people approached the other galleries and the works displayed there, the themes of each, and the acceptance of their own relative ignorance. It encouraged people to identify with that Giacometti sculpture, willingly and eagerly alone in inter-action with what that problematic term “otherness” denotes. Part of that impact is the productive criticism that helped furthering our thinking about the issues the exhibition raised. We can learn a lot from Ruth’s book Museum Pieces, with, again, it’s instructive pluralization, resistance to chronology, and micro-perspectives.

Now, where does, specifically, movement come in? For this I call on French philosopher Henri Bergson. His 1896 book Matter and Memory is vital to intercultural curating. It argues that perception is not a construction but a selection the subject makes in view of her own interests. Such acts are by definition performed in the present. Occurring in the present, however, perception is bound to memory. While perception is an interested response to the movement of matter, memory “imports the past into the present.” The resulting coexistence of different moments (or memories) has a spatial aspect to it, and this timespace is given shape in exhibitions in the simultaneous presence of – and, hence, the simultaneous movement among – multiple art works. In this sense, an exhibition is a Bergsonian event.

          This requires that visitors move inside exhibitions in a different relationship to space as well as time. For Bergson, space is not geometrical; it is neither measurable nor identical for everyone. Instead, our sense of space is a “natural feeling,” heterogeneous and different for everyone, depending on where and with who we are. In art installations, space is precisely that: heterogeneous, multiple, both fictional and real, both subjective and “extensive,” or deictic. This is why, for example, a display where each artist’s work has its own space so that visitors immerse themselves in one space after another, can be very effective, without diminishing the intercultural encounter. For, such a display embodies the relational aspect of the experience in it; why it compels encounters in heterogeneity.
          Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo adds another element to the visual in this heterogeneous encounter, namely audio. Salcedo’s works are silent, always. An art work, and especially such art works as Salcedo’s intensely affective ones, not only needs to be placed in a position where it has enough “breathing space” to acquire the best visibility. Space brings in other senses than seeing; it is synaesthetic. While the surfaces have a haptic quality that involves the touch, themost prominent other sense Salcedo’s sculptures call upon is hearing. The works need to be able to “speak” their silence. Moreover, the work intimates that hearing itself is synaesthetic; that it cannot function without collaboration with seeing. Hence, it also needs the visual quiet that allows it to be “heard.” The spatial arrangement itself, including the space around the work, is not monologic but dialogic; it is “inter-” in that it stages, and thus facilitates, the social buzz within and through which art comes to matter in the larger society.

          In the case of this artist, there is a clear and foregrounded connection to violence committed in Colombia. The work both needs specific context and, precisely through that context, needs to exceed it, so as to establish interrelationships between local and global violence. The acoustic quality of Salcedo’s work stems from the ambition to witness, so as to compel the viewer, in turn, to witness as the work’s second person takes her turn to speak. Witnessing is a crucial element in the political of Salcedo’s art. This involves the position of the viewer in the dialogue that space must mediate, and help conduct, if the work is to be effective in its exhibitionary politic.
          The art of Salcedo insists on the material presence of memories, or objects, sites, and other forms in or through which memories remain alive. Her art has been devoted from the beginning in the 1980s to counter the oblivion of violence and the violence of oblivion. Salcedo is among the most incisive political artists, with a sharp sense of time, memory, and the materiality this involves. Her most recent work, Uprooted (2023) that you see here, demonstrates this commitment anew. The key issue is the integration of empathy and matter, in other words, materiality and movement in relation to (emotional) moving.
          The word “uprooted” indicates a disastrous event. It has literal and metaphoric meanings. In this new work, both are combined, entwined. A row of eight hundred dead trees constitutes two “things”, ideas, places, or figures at once: both the house of which the inhabitants have been deprived, since it is no longer inhabitable, and the trees themselves, dead things not even suggesting anything concrete beyond the obvious shape of trees. Whereas they are not representations – Salcedo’s work never really represents anything – the dead trees of which a section recalls a house of the simple shape a child’s drawing would give it, do evoke the dead forests killed by the warming of the planet, and the subsequent hurricanes that swept them away. I imagine the artist and her staff gathering the dead trees as they were dispersed through the section of the depleted land, and carry the heavy burden to the studio. But beyond the little house, further along the row, dead as they are, the trees evoke the rows of people chased out of their environment and forced to migrate, walking in a procession towards an uncertain future. The qualifier “dead” is both literally appropriate, since the trees do look dead indeed, and metaphorically suggestive, with the discoloration without a trace of green overruling any attempt to detect something “live”. The fabricated house, small as it is, dominates the scene; the procession of imagined people seems to be walking away from it, as if fleeing.
          Which is, precisely, what they are “doing”. The densely assembled branches that, pressed together, shape the house, become more spatialized. This happens when the house collapses, dissolves into trees, each standing metaphorically for a fleeing individual. The slightly increasing distance between the trees figures their travel, but also hints at the aspect of loneliness, which is the fate of the fleeing refugee. But then, another element comes in. The increasing distance also hints at the speed of the flight, the indispensable movement that is a key element of what we have called in a recent short film, “refugeedom”. Lonely but never alone, always in a rush, never relaxed, never socially engaged: the refugee, be it someone fleeing the disasters produced by climate change or by war, discrimination or other forms of violence, or someone starving or whose life is otherwise threatened, must fight, run, and never look back, in order to stay alive. It matters, I suggest, that the loneliness of refugeedom as a mode of life be visible, so that those who don’t need to flee have visual access to the empathy that could, eventually, soften the sharp solitude. If we take the time and effort to look at these dead trees with sufficient care, noticing their small differences and the unequal distances between them, we can bring them to life again, through personified figuration, and see how they are each different from one another.
          The silence is also polemical, in two ways. First, as a spatial quality, it takes the political space of the work outside the busy urban political spaces. To bring the sound of silence into the installation is an emphatic gesture of isolating the space. Secondly and more specifically, the silence combats another silence, in an implicit duel within the political against politics. This appropriation of silence and the transformation from a political tool of oppression to a tool for democratic acts is a helpful example to our understanding of the inextricable bond between the artistic and the political in what I call political art: art that is not “about” politics, not, like propaganda, clamoring for a political position, but instead acts in the political domain of society. It also demonstrates that even still sculpture is in movement if it is to work at all. And clearly, the viewer is an agent in this process.
          This implies an attitude of mind and body together that is focused and open, ready, willing and able to hear things unheard of, so that we can imagine and relate to the unimaginable. For this difficult but enriching task, the space is enlisted to assist us. It must provide the quiet and the mood necessary for that activity of intense listening. And the work, responsive to its viewers, will also have to listen. Listening, like looking, speaking and acting, is a two-way act of “inter-ship.”
          Why, then, would art objects be suitable to solicit and engage such dialogic acts? This brings me back to Bergson. Perception involves both the materiality of objects and of the human body. Bergson considers the body to be a material entity, hence, perception as a material practice. The image is material because the bodily action of mobilizing the image is material. Hence, “still” images also move. We can call it performative. Exhibitions, where, different from cinema and painting, the visitor is compelled to both focalize and move, are exemplary spaces where this fundamental movement is embodied and performed.
One more movement is key to the political force that is a precondition of intercultural curating. Bergson coined the term “creative evolution” for it. (1883) It occurs when understanding and action are imbricated. Without such an understanding we would be powerless to effect change, and art would be politically impotent. This Bergsonian movement, the readiness to act, must define intercultural exhibitions.
The art exhibition as a concrete instance of the multiply-moving image can create the literal embodiment of this potential in a fictional space that, with the help of the viewer, can become a democratic space. It is in the intersection between movement and space that the political potential of art exhibitions resides. An exhibition is, thus, a social space where people, their creations, and their cultures meet, clash and negotiate. This I like to call inter-ship.
          Intercultural curating works with contact spaces, where everything moves. We have physical responses to an image, anchored in our bodily memory. Such responding techniques are part of our bodies and have established themselves through experience. Think of dreaming. A dream is both physical and psychological, theatrical and cinematic, done but not mastered, artistic in its fictions and political in the mechanisms of censorship that rule the dream as a staged, audiovisual mise-en-scène. And, perhaps most crucially, in a dream the subject is not master. Meet the exhibition visitor!
          Samuel Weber translates Sigmund Freud’s third concept of censorship in dream-work, in German Rücksicht auf Darstellbarkeit (usually translated as “considerations of representability”) as “considerations of staging” (2004, 265). “Staging” is closer to the German term, as darstellen points to theatricality. The German word dar means ”there,” an example of spatial deixis (Doane 2007). Only a specific space and time, a subject saying it, and a listener following the pointing finger can “fill” a deictic word with meaning; it requires spacetime-specificity. Hence, we find ourselves inside the theater, encouraged to “think inside” it. This happens inside an exhibition, experienced as theatrical, as a dream, not bound to realism. Also, as it is impossible to see everything at the same time, the visitor is aware of her own limitations in relation to the works. She must walk through the space, choose pace, focus, direction; that is, if the curating has created a space that is not “bossy.” This is why the best display of art from other regions than where the exhibition takes place, would be quiet, not loud, soliciting reflection and surrender; dreaming, not tourism. The dream’s relevance derives from the relative powerlessness and the simultaneous inextricable involvement of the dreamer-visitor. In dreams, the dreamer is strongly affected, yet she is not visible to herself. This absent–present subject undergoing the affect is like the spectator whose subjectivity is staged in an interface between fiction and reality.

          This matches psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas’s concept of the “unthought known”, denoting something we know but do not reflect on: “I often find that although I am working on an idea without knowing exactly what it is I think, I am engaged in thinking an idea struggling to have me think it” (1987: 10). This “unthought known” is not-yet-thought; thinking is in process but not yet achieved, in the unique, performative moment, and is propelled toward a future. That process occurs not inside the subject but between the subject and the potential ideas that are present in the exhibition, ready to be thought. This is how an intercultural exhibition works; neither an arrogant presumption to know one’s interlocutor, nor a refusal to try. Each partner is the other’s unthought known; neither familiar nor strange, but emerging in the attempt to know, in the enjoyment of the attempt.

          Kaja Silverman offers a theory of the image close to Bollas’s unthought known. But whereas Bollas is writing about people, Silverman’s theory concerns visions. Hers is also a theory of photography, of dreams, of memory, and of subjectivity, and is thus ideally suited for an art exhibition based on the idea that images move, and that they move visitors. Silverman writes:

“If, in trying to make sense of this strange account of unconscious memories, I am unable to avoid attributing to them the status of a subject, that is because subjectivity itself is in its most profound sense nothing other than a constellation of visual memories which is struggling to achieve a perceptual form.” (1996: 89)

Within a synesthetic conception of vision, memories of smell, taste, and touch are integral to visual memories. They play their part in any connection to sensorial, specifically visual “takes” that occur in the present. This explains how such acts of perception can happen on the edge between voluntary acts and unconscious motivation; and how they can make the familiar and the strange change affective places. Through such inter-ships, such performances of contact, it is possible to change our habits in our inter-cultural encounters.
          This encourages a democratic process on art’s own terms: curated spaces in which a democratic attitude is enabled and encouraged, made pleasurable and affectively impacting, in collaboration with the imagination and its capacity to make their temporal occupants “have the memories of others” (Silverman 1996, 89), within, or on the stage of, an intercultural encounter. This requires what Silverman calls a “productive look” (1996, 164): a vision of looking temporally undefined, yet tightly bound up with time:

“To look is to embed an image within a constantly shifting matrix of unconscious memories, which can render a culturally insignificant object libidinally resonant, or a culturally significant object worthless. When a new perception is brought into the vicinity of those memories which matter most to us at an unconscious level, it too is “lit up” or irradiated, regardless of its status within normative representation.” (1996, 3-4)

Within a synesthetic conception of vision, memories of smell, taste, and touch are integral to visual memories. They play their part in any connection to sensorial, specifically visual “takes” that occur in the present. This explains how such acts of perception can happen on the edge between voluntary acts and unconscious motivation; and how they can make the familiar and the strange change affective places. Through such inter-ships, such performances of contact, it is possible to change our habits in our inter-cultural encounters.

          This match between the dream and theater is foregrounded in exhibition as a concentrated form of democratic space. The artistic organization of the space in which the play is set arranges a limited and delimited section of real time and space. This puts on the intercultural curator the burden of making the space itself aesthetically effective. Radicalizing this form of staging encounters can be achieved by yielding part of the curatorial agency to the interlocutor. Yielding the narrative subject positions to the people usually left to the “third-personhood” of the touristic approach is an effective way of staging intercultural encounters.
          Facilitating this is the ethical imperative that underpins curating as a practice in the political, where interculturality is standard. This can be achieved by integrative exhibitions, juxtaposing, confronting, making to speak to each other, works that are culturally different enough to strike, and not so different that the exhibition loses coherence and sense. It is the difference between comparability and incommensurability. In ethical terms, the attitude to solicit of visitors would be one of infinite responsiveness to the affective incentive of the encounter. Because art moves (us). As these mothers of migrants demonstrate.



Cite this blog post
Birgit Hopfener (2023, April 4). Unpacking: Concepts and Artworks Speaking Together | Mieke Bal. Celebrating Ruth B. Phillips. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vxbj

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