The Primitivism in 20th Century Art exhibition at MoMA in 1984 that became a break through moment in how art from Sub-Sahara Africa was perceived by the New York art world powers. It was attacked by Thomas McEvilley in Art Forum magazine over a series of combative letters written by MoMA’s William Rubin in response to McEvilley’s charge that MoMA was perpetuating a mythology of superiority of Western Art that drew upon Dark African Art. McEvilley’s “Heads Its Form, Tails Its Not Content” attacked the underlying ideological position imbedded in Clement Greenberg’s formalist theories.

Over time this post will delve into the arguments made and positions defended in essay form. For not this is a placeholder for the research on this 1984 MoMA exhibition and its remarkable responses.


Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles



  • 3/3/2013 at 10:41 AM

Saltz on Critic Thomas McEvilley, 1939–2013

In some ways, art historian, critic, teacher, translator, and studier of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical philosophy Thomas McEvilley started multiculturalism as we know it in the art world. In 1984, MoMA organized “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.  In a series of brilliantly reasoned scathing letters to the editor of Artforum, McEvilley blasted MoMA, all museums of modern art, and the entire art-historical infrastructure as it then existed. His claim, which was then correct, was that European and American art history was using third world art and artists as footnotes to Western art history without recognizing the primacy of these formal cultures. Asian and African works were rarely not seen in lower hierarchical position to western art — which played the role of masterpiece and genius to tribal art’s perpetual role as influence or antecedent. McEvilley’s role as spokesperson was elevated to general in the war on cultural imperialism when, to everyone’s surprise, the show’s curators answered back in Artforum. For a few issues the art world watched and read a war of words take place.

The establishment was being intellectually challenged by an upstart rebel leader. In those letters in Artforum, it was like the walls were crumbling. In a way, the crucial thing was really just watching this battle play itself out in public and to feel like “our side” was winning. It was like McEvilley was Bob Marley. I have a memory of yelping in glee at McEvilley writing about the curators as “bears coming out of the woods.” Within a few years, there ensued numerous investigations of indigenous cultures and of contemporary African, Indian, Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Native American art and other excluded traditions. Along with the various liberation movements, multiculturalism was one of the biggest blasts of fresh thinking of the last half of the twentieth century.

That wasn’t all. McEvilley was also a major player in post-modernist art history and a great voice in the old “painting is dead” debate. He loved painting but also saw why it could be said to be dead. If you want to read about monochrome painting, he’s your man (“Seeking the Primal Through Paint”). One of my favorite of his essays is “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” in his book Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium. Here, McEvilley radiantly deconstructs layers and layers of deep content in the all-white paintings of Robert Ryman. I never met McEvilley. Until 2006. Sheepish about having no degrees and wanting to learn more, I wrote to ask him if I could sit in on his lectures at the School of Visual Arts, where I also taught. He agreed. I went for two years. About twelve students sat enrapt around a large boardroom table and he’d hold forth. In my three notebooks full of class notes, which I have since kept at the ready on the shelf in front of my desk, I now see that he covered how God’s commandment not to make any “graven images” relates to modern art; monotheism and iconoclasm; the burning of the Library at Alexandria; Plato echoing God in saying that representation misleads; lots about Kant that I never understood; Hegel which I somehow did; Marx; perspective on Greek pots; the cruelty of conquistadors; and Paleolithic art. I never spoke once in any of those classes. All I did was take notes madly, always feeling like a freshman getting the education of a lifetime from a very sage old soul.

The New York Times
October 28, 1984


”’ Primitivism ‘ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” is an immensely important show. The relationship between modern and tribal art is so loaded that trying to sort it out means asking the most charged questions about 20th-century art and life. Whatever its weaknesses – which include a perspective on contemporary art that can not account for the glut of totemic imagery in recent painting and a renewed interest in direct carving – this is a show that leads into the heart of modernism and beyond, toward impulses and aspirations that may be shared by art in general.

The exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 15, was organized by William Rubin, the museum’s director of painting and sculpture, with the collaboration of art historian Kirk Varnedoe. Like other great exhibitions masterminded by Mr. Rubin, the installation can be characterized as inspired didacticism. ”Primitivism,” he states in the catalogue, is an ”aspect of the history of modern art, not of tribal art.” Determined to ”understand the Primitive sculptures in terms of the Western context in which modern artists ‘discovered’ them,” the exhibition juxtaposes tribal and modern objects that are both similar and inalterably different. The juxtapositions, some of them explosive, may indicate an ”influence,” meaning that the connection can be documented with reasonable certainty, or an ”affinity,” which means that the similarity between the tribal and modern objects, however startling, is fortuitous.

The exhibition argues against the widely held view that Primitive art changed the course of modern art. ”The changes in modern art at issue were already under way when vanguard artists first became aware of tribal art,” Mr. Rubin says. In fact, disgust with the trappings of society and longing for an art that is more direct and essential than inherited artistic and cultural values has been part of Western art, in one form or another, at least since the Industrial Revolution. The Neo-Classicism of Jacques-Louis David, Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, all shared the ”primitivist” determination to strip the fat off reality and arrive at a more basic and pure artistic expression. The ”discovery” of tribal art gave this drive a raw, physical potential that was appropriate to the violence and upheaval of this century. By now, the resistance to conventions and preference for the raw over the cooked that led Gauguin to Tahiti and directed Picasso, the Fauves and the German Expressionists to tribal art have been so thoroughly ritualized into the posture of revolt that is automatically assumed by just about every Western adolescent, that it may be necessary to remind ourselves just how jarring early 20th-century ”primitivism” was.

One reason why the exhibition and its huge catalogue, which includes remarkable essays by Mr. Rubin and Mr. Varnedoe, are seemingly inexhaustible is that they raise as many questions indirectly as they do directly. Because the ”affinities” in the exhibition can be at least as provocative as the ”influences,” for example, the show also draws attention to its own art historical orientation. If we do not have the means to explain the profound but coincidental ”affinity” between Max Ernst’s ”Bird-Head” and the mask from the Upper Volta, then to what degree can a science of art history enter the deepest levels of human influence and communication? The exhibition evokes the mystery of what Mr. Rubin calls ”artistic transmission” and, in the process, becomes itself an indication why the artistic search for intuitive, non-systematic modes of responses goes on.

The show would not have such impact if many tribal objects were not spectacular. The Goddess Kawe from the Caroline Islands presides over the entrance to the exhibition like a combination of protective spirit and bouncer. The God A’a, from the Austral Islands, with all the creepy-crawly progeny figures doubling as facial features and clinging to the god’s body like leeches, seems to turn the heart of the installation into the pocket of a swamp. After experiencing sculptures like these, as well as the spiky dog fetishes from Vili, the skulls of the Epke Society emblem from the Cameroon and the Mumuye from Nigeria, the tribal version of Darth Vader, it is possible to leave the show repeating after Picasso: ”Primitive sculpture has never been surpassed.”

There are reasons, however, why we should be wary of this kind of hyperbole. The Primitive objects in this show are, in many instances, the cream of the crop. With few exceptions, the Western objects are not. Furthermore, when objects are presented in such a way that they are seen in the context of other objects, as the modern works are here, only the very best will not appear second- rate and derivative.

There is also a more important reason. We, in American culture especially remain intensely ambivalent about the self-consciousness and doubt that are among our greatest strengths. The immediate, expressive, frontal presences of tribal art underline the groping and questioning in the modern works, at times making them seem fragile – just as someone who rejects systems can seem weak alongside someone who has one. Would Primitive Art, and indeed Oriental art as well, look as good without our ambivalence about ourselves?

To say that ”primitive sculpture has never been surpassed” is ultimately absurd. Recognizing that tribal art, which Mr. Rubin clarifies as ”iconic,” not ”narrative,” has genius, and that it combines the rational and the magical in the most provocative way, is one thing. To say that any object or group of tribal objects in the show can be on the same level as works that are both iconic and narrative, such as the pediment at Olympia, or Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, not to mention certain monuments of Asian sculpture, is to overcompensate for previous neglect and guilt and to lose sight of the richness of our own complexity.

With these reservations in mind, it is important to understand why Primitive Art can have such power. The Goddess Kawe is a force. The figure has a tremendous sense of sculptural volume; it seems as if it is in the process of expanding, even rising off the ground. The sculptural life depends upon a tension between the upward pull of the torso, shoulders and head and the downward thrust created by the correspondences between the triangular chin, breasts and genital area. This stretching enables the figure to occupy space, to be sculpture in the fullest sense.

Primitive Art meant so much to artists like Picasso and Giacometti in part because of this kind of spatial impact. The Kawe figure is far more relevant to Giacometti’s standing woman, which is pulled taut between the huge swollen foot and the tiny arrow-shaped head, than the more literal elongation of the Tanzanian wood figure that stands beside it. For these two artists, among the few Western painters and sculptors who hold their own in the show, tribal art provided a key to a dramatic sculptural volume that had been characteristic of someone they both admired – Michelangelo. In the painting styles Picasso reacted against in the first decade of the century, and in the sculptural alternatives Giacometti rejected in the 1920′s, this kind of intense sculptural energy was all but absent. For artists like Picasso and Giacometti, the journey through Primitive Art led them back to something essential in their own artistic tradition.

Another reason for the impact of Primitive Art is the way in which violence and obsession are accommodated within a rational framework. In the sculpture of the God A’a, for example, which had such an effect on Victor Brauner and Picasso, the head, torso and squatting legs are composed of full, rounded geometric forms. Almost every part of the body, however, is covered with tiny figures, upside down, right side up and on their sides. What makes the work so disturbing is not only that these figures are the God’s eyes, ears and mouth, but that inside an austere, geometrical structure, a miniature army or tribe seems to be running amok. Within the authoritative frontal structure of many tribal figures, there is a sense of something beyond reason and control.

This leads into what may be the most essential reason for the Western fascination with tribal art. In his impressive discussion of the ”Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which Picasso later described as his ”first exorcism picture,” Mr. Rubin cites the artist’s statement to Andre Malraux that tribal masks were ”intercessors. . . against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits.” ”If we give a form to these spirits,” Picasso said, ”we become free.” The moment Picasso had the revelation that Primitive art was apotropaic (”designed to avert or turn aside evil”), he had a liberating insight into himself.

The question of the apotropaic intention of Primitive art is as knotty as it is with Western art. Certainly a good deal of tribal art was not intended for this purpose. If it is true, however, that almost every human word and gesture has some apotropaic function – is, in some way, an attempt to relieve anxiety, to court, coax, cordon off, confront or pummel the powers of darkness – then, whether or not an object is intended to be apotropaic may not be the main issue. What may matter more is the effectiveness with which an object responds to one of the most compelling of human needs.

Certainly the frontality and distortions of Primitive art have been experienced by Western artists and members of the art public as ways of naming the unnameable and therefore, at least for a moment, keeping it at bay. Western artists throughout this century have been in search of pictorial and sculptural mortar solid enough so that the artistic mirrors they hold up to the Medusa will not shatter. It is a rare exhibition indeed that leads into these kinds of human and artistic questions.

Photos of sculptures



State of the Art

If we want the global artworld to be inclusive, is it reasonable to expect it to promote difference?, from the December 2013 issue

By Niru Ratnam

2014 is the 25th anniversary of the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, an ambitious attempt to articulate a vision of contemporary art that was truly global in scope. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the exhibition was, in part, a reaction to a much-talked-about exhibition organised by William Rubin, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which had taken place five years previously at New York’s MoMA.

Rubin’s exhibition focused on the visual similarities between tribal art and the modernist works of the likes of Picasso and Matisse, and was accompanied by the explicit acknowledgement by Rubin that he was not interested in the tribal works in themselves, but only in the way they acted as inspiration for the Western avant-garde. Rubin’s approach was heavily criticised, most prominently by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum, who argued that the exhibition glossed over the appropriation of tribal art by Western modern artists by sheltering under the wishful idea of ‘affinity’.


McEvilley concluded, ‘“Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflected to co-opt such cultures.’ Magiciens de la Terre wanted to avoid this quasi-imperialist attitude by utilising an approach that would place non-Western artworks, a number of which occupied a midground between cultural artefact and work of art, on the same footing as Western artworks. This led to juxtapositions such as a Richard Long mud painting sited next to a floor-based traditional Indigenous Australian ceremonial ground painting.

Martin’s approach also ran into a barrage of criticism, from Benjamin Buchloh, for example, who accused Martin of an ethnocentric approach to selecting the non-Western objects in the show. Buchloh argued that Martin selected non-Western objects because they looked as if they would fit in with Western contemporary art – so the Aboriginal floor piece was there becausethere were visual continuations with the neighbouring Richard Long. Disarmingly, but perhaps naively, Martin agreed with Buchloh’s criticism, admitting in an interview with the German art historian that he avoided non-Western works that ‘do not communicate sufficiently well in a visual-sensuous manner to a Western spectator’.

The two exhibitions mark the beginning of a period in which the artworld started to deal with globalisation. In retrospect, the controversy that both exhibitions generated was down to the simple matter of how the exhibits looked, and more specifically the extent to which the non-Western exhibits in each exhibition looked too similar to the Western artworks. Rubin’s method offered a seamless path from African masks to Picasso, conveniently ignoring social and political history around colonial exploitation. Martin’s method seemed to revel in the happy coincidence of visual similarities. To critics such as Buchloh and a number informed by postcolonial theory, cultural difference was suppressed where it should have been flagged up.


Fast-forward 25 years, through a period when globalisation has taken hold both economically and culturally, and one might have expected the debate about art and globalisation to have moved on. However, this is not the case. The anxiety about things looking too similar pervades contemporary art’s thinking about the global. So, American curator (and 2007 Venice Biennale director) Robert Storr’s verdict on the state of today’s globalised artworld, given in the October issue of The Art Newspaper, is blunt: ‘The ecosystem of the “global” artworld is like that of the planet itself – overheated and dire.

Rather than expecting a cleansing cataclysm, we can look forward to a relentless melting of aesthetic distinctions, dissolving of institutional barriers and fusion of cultures, resulting in a sludgy, sulphurous magma laced with gold.’ Storr is not alone in the view that increased globalisation in the artworld has resulted in the levelling out of culturally specific forms. In the last issue of this magazine, ArtReview’s J.J. Charlesworth argued that globalisation has resulted in the production of a form of contemporary art that is visually homogeneous, created that way in order to be consumed easily around the world in biennials and fairs.

He characterises this as ‘an artworld Esperanto’ that is ‘legible, understandable and, ultimately, commercially exchangeable’. For Storr and Charlesworth, cultural specificity would have a significant element of the illegible, unconsumable and incongruous: a viewer in Rio should not be able to understand significant elements of an artwork made in Jakarta. For both critics, art should speak principally to the locality in which it was made.

By the 1960s modern art was synonymous with the New York School. Subsequent rejections of Modernism by the neo-avant-garde to begin with, and then a number of competing and sometimes overlapping movements such as Minimalism and Conceptualism, were to greater or lesser extents articulated in opposition to a high Modernism which had reached its apex in New York.

Paris became the undisputed centre of modern art at the start of the twentieth century, and while there were competing senses of what modern art might be during the 1930s (particularly in 1920s Berlin and Moscow), abstract art emerged as the dominant form of modern art as the Second World War took hold. As Paris fell to the Nazis, modern art emigrated to New York through the movement of artists and through the frameworks constructed by figures such as the curator Alfred Barr at MoMA and the city’s dominant critic, Clement Greenberg.

Storr’s and Charlesworth’s view rests implicitly on art scenes springing up organically in different localities around the world and, as a consequence, each developing with their own specific traits. However, this ignores the way that modern art spread around the world. Put simply, modern art was articulated by European artists after the First World War as a response to the conditions of modernity and in reaction to the perceived straitjacket of academic art. It was a culturally specific set of forms that was rooted in the legacy of the Great War in Europe, industrialisation and modern life.

Storr’s and Charlesworth’s arguments are not significantly different to the critical hostility that met ‘Primitivism’… and Magiciens…: that everything looks too similar. There are not enough markers of cultural specificity and the untranslatable. This then is the complaint that has been present right through the emergence of a globalised artworld: work from elsewhere ought to look more different. To this, a counter-question might be posed: when it comes to contemporary art, why expect difference, locality, the untranslatable and the culturally specific at all?

Critical reevaluations of this account have produced more multivalent accounts of the story of modern art, and of course post­colonial academics have attempted to rewrite it entirely. But while the accounts of those academics, such as that contained within Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj’s Modernity and Difference (2001), might be theoretically neat, they fall apart entirely when it comes to discussing (on the rare occasion they try) actual artworks. Where non-Western forms of modern art have appeared, it is clear that artists were looking closely at the dominant form of modern art as articulated in Paris and then New York.

So when the Progressive Artists’ Group announced itself in India in the 1940s, they did so via that most European of forms, the manifesto. Modern form was adapted to local circumstance in Latin America (think of Wifredo Lam reworking Cubism). These regional Modernisms were, and continue to be, framed in relation to a dominant orthodox Modernism, a canonical Modernism, if you like.

So Indian modernists are still seen as vaguely provincial because of their inability to become fully abstract, while Latin American modernists are seen as more accomplished thanks to the emergence of Geometric Abstraction – a set of views that relies on the Greenbergian idea that abstraction is the highest form of modern art. In short, a dominant paradigm was absorbed, aspired to and reacted against by artists from around the world, many of whom upped sticks and moved to New York, Paris or London.

The narrative for what came after modern art is not much different. Movements such as the neo-avant-garde, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Neo-Expressionism were articulated by artists who were reacting against high Modernism, but by doing so were still part of Modernism’s endgame. There was still a coherent narrative to react against. As Francesco Bonami put it in an article on the ‘problem’ of criticism published in Frieze in 2011, ‘Once upon a time – say 20 years ago – everything was crystal clear in the art world.’

Bonami (seemingly arbitrarily) pinpoints the appearance of Jeff Koons’s series Made in Heaven (1989) as the moment at which the grip of the modern is loosened ‘[marking] the end of by-laws and the beginning of critical chaos’. But Bonami’s choice of date might be telling in another way: 1989 was the year of the Berlin Wall coming down, and in the artworld it was the year of Magiciens de la Terre. Modernism might have been over, but it was not necessarily postmodern relativism that replaced it, but globalised neoliberalism. Indeed Bonami describes the emergent language of art that replaced modernism as ‘so-called global aesthetics, which is, ironically, a Western construction’.


For Bonami, like Storr, this move towards global aesthetics has negative connotations. Bonami paints a picture of critical chaos caused by the breakdown of what he terms the ‘unwritten by-laws conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century’. In turn, Storr suggests ‘aesthetic distinctions’ are collapsing. While it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that either Bonami or Storr is a fully-paid up Greenbergian modernist, both their positions imply that there was a consensus for understanding twentieth­-century art, most commonly articulated through a series of movements, or ‘-isms’, from Cubism onwards, a more nuanced version of Alfred Barr’s now infamous diagram.

Nonetheless, critical or canonical consensus here is cast as a shared set of beliefs about which works fit into the narrative of modern and the avant-garde artwork of the 1960s and 70s. As Bonami puts it: ‘Everybody knew the difference between, for example, an Alberto Giacometti and a Fernando Botero… the Manichaean difference between good and bad art.’

Non-Western practices tended to be positioned as external to this narrative of Modernism, acting as precursors (in Rubin’s vision) or nonart practices (in Martin’s articulation of the idea of ‘magician’ rather than artist). The key shift happens with the rise of what Bonami terms ‘contemporary global aesthetics’, an all-encompassing idea of contemporary art that includes non-Western practices on a much larger scale than Modernism allowed. Contemporary art might be a category that operates on a geographically wider scale than Modernism, but according to Storr and Charlesworth, it tends to result in more homogeneous work.

The reaction to this unexpected homogeneity is a desire for work from outside the West to go back to productively occupying a space outside the category of contemporary art, and ideally for it to become untranslatable again. As Charlesworth asks: ‘What would it mean to assert a local that is opaque to the global, that was resistant to its forms of translation?’

The accepted answer from a globalised, postcolonial perspective is to dismiss this desire as not only nostalgic but also impossible. Once any practice has been identified by the contemporary art world, that act of identification in itself begins the process of translation of that identified object into the uneasy catchall category of ‘contemporary art’. From this viewpoint it is more logical to accept the all-pervasiveness of ‘contemporary art’ as a category and celebrate its global inclusivity with the added rejoinder that there is nothing wrong with having a dominant language of what contemporary art is and can be.

After all, non-Western artists who aspired to be seen as modern artists had no desire to knock down the central tenets of Modernism. Instead, artists like F.N. Souza, Aubrey Williams or Wifredo Lam wished to be seen as having fully entered and become participants of canonical modern art. By logical extension, artists today from around the world who wish to be seen as making ‘contemporary art’ should be allowed to do the same, to become participants of a shared language that is far more welcoming than Modernism.

Of course this openness is very important for artists from outside the traditional centres of art production. However, the robust, if politically correct rejoinder to the likes of Storr, Bonami and Charlesworth does not quite fully add up. Contemporary art is increasingly propagated around the world by the market, rather than by curators or writers. It is auction houses, art fairs, collectors and art magazines on the hunt for new advertising opportunities that open up ‘emerging’ art territories, and these uncritical mechanisms are not necessarily the best for discovering radical practice that looks very different from contemporary art being made in London, Berlin and New York.

There are two possible solutions: firstly to disengage the yoking together of looking for the different with looking at the non-Western. In other words, perhaps the start for the search of the radically different should begin with looking within the traditional centres of art production. This avoids the accusation that it is always the non-West that gets hit with the demand to be different. Secondly, look beyond mechanisms associated with the market (auction houses, collectors, fairs, magazines and even biennials) when looking for radically different practices outside the West. Contemporary art might look the same wherever it is made, and there might be no way round that (indeed, depending on your perspective, this might be a cause for celebration).

The radically untranslatable could be out there, both within and outside the West, but it’s going to take some experimental models of curation and critical thinking, and the ability to take the inevitable potshots that follow, to unearth it. Twenty-five years on, a successor to Magiciens de la Terre, with all its barmy optimism, is sorely needed to balance out an articulation of global contemporary art that is in danger of being flattened by market forces.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.


William Rubin, 78, Curator Who Transformed MoMA, Dies

Published: January 24, 2006

William Rubin, an art historian and curator who, as director of the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious department of painting and sculpture, played a crucial role in defining the museum’s character, collections and exhibitions in the 1970′s and 80′s, died on Sunday at his weekend home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., the museum said. He was 78 and lived in Manhattan.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

William Rubin at a 1996 Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

He had been in declining health for several years, said his wife, Phyllis Hattis.

An imposing man with a barrel chest, roughly chiseled features and a booming voice, Mr. Rubin was tenacious as both a scholar and a personality, and at the height of his power more or less spoke for the Modern. Above all, he played a central role in championing the historical narrative of modernism that MoMA came to be identified with and is now seeking to move beyond.

He brought to his mission an art historian’s training and experience as a private collector of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art, which he installed and reinstalled in a loft he lived in decades ago on lower Broadway.

John Elderfield, the current chief curator of the department of painting and sculpture, said that Mr. Rubin built on the legacy of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s first director, who famously diagrammed the evolution of modern art starting with Neo-Impressionism.

But Mr. Rubin “was the one who really brought to it the historical positivistic sense of order, and the notion of the great unrolling of the modern movement,” Mr. Elderfield said.

His legacy is a complex one. Mr. Rubin might have contributed almost as much as Barr to building the Modern’s unparalleled collection of early modernist works. He was known for his indefatigable energy in wooing collectors and negotiating with dealers once he had zeroed in on art that he felt the Modern should own. His acquisitions for the museum include emblematic works like Picasso’s “Charnel House” (1944-45), Miró’s Surrealist “Birth of the World” (1925) and two 1950′s cutouts by Matisse, “Memory of Oceania” and “The Swimming Pool.”

He gave the museum “Australia,” a seminal 1951 sculpture by David Smith from his own collection. But he was probably proudest of landing Picasso’s “Guitar,” a groundbreaking metal-construction sculpture from 1912-13 that the artist handed over to him on a sunny winter day in the south of France. (Mr. Rubin had offered to trade a small Cézanne painting in MoMA’s collection for it, but Picasso donated the sculpture instead.)

He also greatly expanded the museum’s holdings in Abstract Expressionism, an area that Barr was sometimes thought to have neglected, with major works like Pollock’s “One: Number 31, 1950″ and Barnett Newman’s 1950-51 “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” and opened it up to Color Field painting and the work of contemporary artists like Anthony Caro and Frank Stella.

Mr. Rubin continued the museum’s practice of pruning weak or redundant works from its collection – by dead artists only – to help finance new acquisitions. In a move that raised some eyebrows in the art world, he instituted the practice of taking sealed bids from dealers when selling a work, which worked to the museum’s advantage.

And he organized many influential exhibitions, starting with “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” in 1968, and including shows of late Cézanne, two surveys of Mr. Stella’s work and a parade of Picasso shows.

Among these were an enormous 1980 Picasso retrospective that filled the entire museum; “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” of 1989, with its vivid sense of two competitive innovators working side by side; and, eight years after Mr. Rubin’s retirement in 1988, an exhibition of Picasso’s portraits that was criticized by some art historians for being organized by the artist’s successive relationships with women.

Some critics faulted Mr. Rubin’s exhibitions and research for only rarely venturing beyond the parameters established by Barr, suggesting that this had a chilling effect on his department’s involvement with new art and often made the museum seem obsessed with its own history. His painting and sculpture installations were generally formalist and chronological, with an emphasis on masterpieces, great artists and the French.

Yet Mr. Rubin’s painstakingly worked-out presentations, especially those prepared after the Modern’s 1984 expansion, told its version of modernism with a clarity and level of detail that many curators still consider unmatched.

He emerged in an age when the heads of the museum’s departments ruled their individual fiefs like titans, but his fief was the biggest, and so, perhaps, was his ego. According to a 1985 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins, he once complained to John Hightower, then the museum’s director: “I’m sick of the prima donnas in this place. I’m a prima donna, but I deserve to be one.” He sounded much like the orchestra conductor he had once hoped to be.

William Stanley Rubin was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 11, 1927, the eldest of three sons of Mack and Beatrice Rubin. His father, the son of immigrants, was a textile merchant who began with a pushcart and ended up owning several factories, and eventually moved his family to Riverdale in the Bronx. Mr. Rubin and his brothers attended the Fieldston School, each of them serving as captain of the football team in his senior year.

While at Fieldston, Mr. Rubin became close with one of his teachers, Victor D’Amico, who was the director of education at the Museum of Modern Art. He began spending much of his free time at the museum working on special projects with Mr. D’Amico.

He entered Columbia University and, after interrupting his studies to serve in the American occupation forces in Europe, earned a bachelor’s degree in Italian language and literature. He studied musicology at the University of Paris for a year with the thought of becoming a conductor. At its end, he set aside that ambition and returned to Columbia for graduate work in history. A course in medieval art taught by Meyer Schapiro, a popular teacher whose other big area of expertise was the New York School, inspired him to shift to art history.

During the 1950′s and 60′s, Mr. Rubin taught art history at Sarah Lawrence and City University of New York, worked as an editor for Art International and became a busy collector of postwar art. He bought works by many of the Abstract Expressionist painters and by younger artists like Jasper Johns and Mr. Stella, but he later said that once he began working on MoMA’s collection he lost interest in collecting for himself. At the time of his death, he was completing a book on the works he acquired for the museum.

Mr. Rubin, whose first three marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his wife and their daughter Beata; and his brothers, Richard of Purchase, N.Y., and Lawrence of Milan.

Mr. Rubin became friendly with Alfred Barr in the late 1950′s and 60′s, frequently inviting the curator to lecture his classes at Sarah Lawrence, and taking his students on field trips to the Modern. In 1957, Barr invited Mr. Rubin to organize a small exhibition of the work of André Masson at the Modern; in the mid-1960′s, he asked him to oversee the Modern’s big Dada and Surrealism survey in 1968.

Mr. Rubin joined the museum’s painting and sculpture staff as curator in 1967 and immediately made an impact by persuading the art dealer Sidney Janis and his wife, Harriet, to donate their collection, with its five Mondrians, to the Modern. He was named chief curator of painting and sculpture in 1969, and director of the department in 1973.

In the 1980′s, the aura of infallibility that had surrounded Mr. Rubin began to dissipate. He came to feel that the museum’s inattention to new art was a “failing,” as he told The New York Times in 1985, and began a search for a younger curator more in touch with the times.

Still, some of the most vociferous criticism was drawn by a 1984 exhibition – “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” organized with J. Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian whom he selected as his successor. (Mr. Varnedoe died in 2003.) Some art critics complained that this show, pairing works by modern masters with examples of the African and Oceanic art that had influenced them, took a purely formalist approach that stripped the non-Western works of their original contexts, meanings and purposes. A sharply critical review in Artforum set off an exchange between Mr. Rubin and its author, Thomas McEvilley, that stretched into two issues.

As Mr. Rubin explained later to Mr. Tomkins: “The notion that you can look at a work of art as pure form strikes me as idiocy. If the work comes at you, it comes with everything it’s got, all at once.”


In a Magical Manhattan Exhibit, MOMA Curator William Rubin Brings Primitivism Right Up to Date

Pablo Picasso was a restless young artist of 25 when he first saw examples of African and Pacific Island sculptures in a Paris museum. The “shock” and “revelation” radically altered his approach to art and in 1907 gave rise to the fusion of his precubist work with tribal art. “What really interested him about all primitive art was the notion of art-making as a magical process,” explains William Rubin, director of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Picasso felt that art had to get back to being the kind of thing that did not mirror the world but changed the world, changing the man who made the art as well as the people who looked at it.”Rubin’s thesis is no mere speculation. His second home is located near Plan-de-la-Tour in the south of France, a 50-minute drive from the town of Mougins, where Picasso lived. “I got to know him quite well,” Rubin says of Picasso (who died in 1973). “He didn’t like to talk about his art so you would have to slip in questions slyly.”

How well Rubin succeeds in finding answers is reflected in a stunning MOMA exhibit titled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. To make his point, Rubin’s show dramatically juxtaposes 147 works by such modern masters as Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Brancusi against 218 examples of African, Eskimo, Oceanic and American Indian art (see following pages). Assembled on a budget exceeding $1 million, the exhibit will be at MOMA until Jan. 15, moving then to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Feb. 27-May 19) and the Dallas Museum of Art (June 23-Sept. 1).

Accompanying the show is a two-volume, 700-page MOMA publication of the same title (cloth, $80; paperback, $30 until Jan. 30, $40 thereafter), edited by Rubin, 57, a onetime clarinetist who describes himself as a “disappointed orchestral conductor turned art historian.” After earning a Ph.D. from Columbia, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College for 16 years (“Jill Clayburgh was a student of mine”) before joining MOMA in 1967. Among his major exhibits was the acclaimed Picasso retrospective four years ago.

For the current Primitivism exhibition Rubin assembled pieces lent by museums and private collectors from around the world. “This is probably the first time a large number of tribal objects has been collected by someone whose interest is purely aesthetic rather than anthropological,” Rubin says.

A dozen of the tribal works are from Picasso’s own collection, much of which was of marginal quality in Rubin’s view. “Picasso was not a big spender even when he became incredibly wealthy,” Rubin says. “He rather liked the idea of getting something on the cheap. Of course, an object could be important to Picasso and not be a particularly good example of its type. As he said to me, ‘You don’t have to have a masterpiece to get the idea.’ “



Art Criticism That Made A Difference

There is one striking counter-example to the recent skeptical claims about the reach of art writing. Soon after 1979, when Ingrid Sischy became editor of Artforum, she asked Thomas McEvilley to write for her. That was surprising, for he, trained as a classicist, didn’t have a background in art history. Shortly thereafter, in September of 1984, the MoMA presented an ambitious survey exhibition titled “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, which included 150 modern art works and some 200 tribal artifacts. The then New York Times critic, Michael Brenson, admired the show. McEvilley, however, took issue with the exhibition publishing his now infamous review, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief.” At that moment, as Holland Cotter noted recently in his Times obituary for McEvilley (who passed away in early March), everything changed. Once the implications of this account were understood, it was impossible to think of “primitivism” in the same way. Although the MoMA curators protested in long letters to Artforum, the more they said, the less convincing their case was.

The argument of “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” was simple and convincing. The curation of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art displayed tribal art, without labels or explanatory wall text, alongside modernist pieces in order to show its influence upon modernism as a movement. In doing so, the museum refused to take this “primitive” art seriously, refusing to consider how these artifacts were understood by their creators. The exhibition merely affirmed the superiority of Western culture. Indeed, even in calling tribal artifacts “art,’ so McEvilley observed, already begged crucial questions, for much of this “primitive” art originally dealt with religion or magic and not the sphere of art history. The exhibition, he wrote:

shows Western egotism still as unbridled as in the centuries of colonialism and souvenirism. The Museum pretends to confront the Third World while really co-opting it and using it to consolidate Western notions of quality and feelings of superiority.

Within the academic world the most influential art critics of the 1980s were associated with October: Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss. But nothing they wrote had the larger resonance of McEvilley’s treatise. When, for example, Krauss defended Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” (1981–89), she didn’t take seriously the concerns of people outside of the art world. As a publication, October developed a style of theorizing which even academics find difficult to understand. McEvilley’s argument didn’t invoke any abstruse philosophical claims. And it wasn’t just a critique of one exhibition—what he offered was a convincing indictment of our most important museum devoted to modernism.

I would love to say that “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” immediately changed how I wrote art criticism. In fact, however, only much later, after I traveled to China, did I respond. The aesthetic theorizing of my teachers, Arthur Danto and Richard Wollheim, claimed to be universal, although it relied exclusively on examples from American and European art. It took me a long time to realize that their way of thinking was problematic—philosophers only very belatedly have responded to multiculturalism. But by 2006, when McEvilley was Chair of the program devoted to art writing at the School of Visual Arts, I was prepared. When invited to give a lecture on world art history, I plunked down his masterpiece, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies on the podium. And thanks to his support, I published A World Art History and its Objects (2008). “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” has had a long shelf life—it truly changed the intellectual art discourse. Before McEvilley wrote for Artforum, that journal focused on art made and displayed in Western Europe and the United States. After the publication of “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” (although he parted from that journal in the 1990s because it would no longer support his agenda), the situation changed dramatically. Now survey exhibitions like the Carnegie Internationals, worldwide Biennials, and shows at New York galleries and museums (including MoMA) often feature art from outside the West, as do many journals and books devoted to contemporary art. And we hesitate to use the word “primitive”—even with scare quotes. That nowadays we devote serious sustained attention to visual art from Africa, China, and India—from everywhere outside of the West—is due in large part to McEvilley’s influence.


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April 15, 2013

Respecting Non-Western Sacred Objects: An A:shiwi Ahayu:da (Zuni war god), the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art

By Cécile R. Ganteaume, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

For the last few weeks, American Indians, the international art world, U.S. State Department officials, indigenous rights activists, and intellectual and cultural property rights lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic have been discussing the proposed sale of Hopi Katsina “friends” (often mistakenly called masks) at a Paris auction house. The Hopi, who live in northern Arizona, and their supporters tried to delay, if not halt, the sale. Hopi Katsina friends are among the most sacred Hopi ritual objects. Katsinam (the plural of Katsina) are spiritual beings that live in the peaks of the San Francisco Mountains and bring blessings to the Hopi. When worn during Kastina ceremonies, the friend—the spirit of Katsina—is united with the spirit of man. On April 12, 2013, a French judge ruled that “the claim that Hopi cultural patrimony is exclusively their property has no legal basis according to French law” and that the auction house could proceed with the sale..

The Hopi effort is the latest prominently reported instance of an American Indian tribe trying to regain its sacred objects from the international art world and market. American Indians have been seeking the return of their sacred objects since well before the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), the federal law that helps enable the return to tribes of certain categories of objects including sacred objects, held by U.S. museums.

Almost thirty years ago, on September 27, 1984, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City opened a highly anticipated and soon to be celebrated exhibition. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern was curated by William Rubin (1927–2006), then MoMA’s esteemed director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, in collaboration with Kirk Varnadoe (1946–2003), a professor within the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. On display in the exhibition was to be an A:shiwi (Zuni) Ahayu:da (war god) borrowed from the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, (now the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin). The MoMA exhibition, and its multi-authored, two-volume catalogue, explored the influence of tribal art and culture in modern art’s development “from Gauguin at the turn of the century to the Abstract Expressionists around 1950.” When the exhibition opened, the New York Times heralded it as “an immensely important show.”


Zuni war god-Paul Klee color
“People are talking about: The man from MoMA” by Barbara Rose in Vogue (August, 1984. Vol. 174(8), pages 357–361 & 416) with illustrations of the A:shiwi (Zuni) Ahayu:da (war god) in the collections of the Museum für Völkerkunde and the Paul Klee painting, Mask of Fear. Page 357 @ Condé Nast. Used with permission.

In one of their exhibition galleries, the curators planned to juxtapose the painted wood Ahayu:da “sculpture” with a Paul Klee oil painting, Mask of Fear (1932), to discuss what they found to be the striking affinity between the “primitive” and “modern” “works of art.” The Museum für Völkerkunde acquired the Ahayu:da in 1880, and Klee, the Swiss-born artist closely associated with the Bauhaus movement, was known to have visited the museum several times while the Ahayu:da was on display. Like many avant-garde artists of his time, Klee was keenly interested in the formal vocabulary of the visual arts of non-Western peoples; he wrote on the subject more than once. William Rubin was convinced that Klee was familiar with the Museum für Völkerkunde Ahayu:da and that it “consciously or unconsciously” influenced his Mask of Fear. In the catalogue essay, “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction,” Rubin wrote of the works’ “striking similarities,” comparing the oval-shaped heads; the single arrow projecting from the top of each head; the long, narrow noses and absence of mouths; and the horizontal line crossing each forehead. He suggested that “the curious multiple legs” protruding from Klee’s head were a transformation of the feathers projecting from the Ahayu:da’s chin. Klee’s painting was “a modernist transformation,” Rubin wrote, of the A:shiwi Ahayu:da “sculpture.” And this was how the curators intended to display the A:shiwi Ahayu:da from the Museum für Völkerkunde in “Primitivism” in the 20th Century: as a “primitive sculpture” with “conceptual complexity and aesthetic subtlety” whose exhibition and publication in the West, along with the appearance of other “primitive” works of art, had a great impact on Modernist aesthetic sensibilities. (See William Rubin, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, vol. 1. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984, pages 29–32.)

But as it happened, by 1984 the A:shiwi were already actively pursuing the return of their Ahayu:da—all wrongfully removed from shrines on their reservation. Cared for by A:shiwi religious leaders, Ahayu:da are powerful guardian beings who protect the A:shiwi and their land from harm. Their acquisition by European and European–America individuals and institutions broke all A:shiwi religious and cultural protocols. Their dispersion was the result of large-scale historical events that brought non-Western peoples, ideas, and practices to the Americas and led, in a myriad of ways and places, to the wrongful alienation of Native peoples’ religious patrimony.

The A:shiwi began their efforts to recover their Ahayu:da in 1978, twelve years before Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to provide a process for museums and federal agencies to return to Native Americans and Native Hawaiian organizations certain cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony. The A:shiwi were in the vanguard of Native peoples seeking the return of sacred objects from museums, galleries, auction houses, and private collections. Buttressed by the newly legislated American Indian Freedom of Religion Act (1978), intended to protect American Indian religious liberties that had long been infringed upon and even prohibited, the A:shiwi campaign helped make it possible for other tribes to recover their own sacred objects. As T. J. Ferguson, an anthropologist who aided the A:shiwi in their efforts, has written, A:shiwi religious leaders were not only resolute in their pursuit, but most importantly were “morally persuasive” in their conversations with museum curators, administrators, and others in the art world elucidating the importance of returning Ahayu:da to A:shiwi shrines. (See T. J. Ferguson, “Repatriation of Ahayu:da: 20 Years Later.” Museum Anthropology, vol. 33, 2012, pages 194–95.)

During the summer of 1984, I was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, the forerunner institution to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. As such, I was very much aware of the increasingly vocal opposition of Native peoples, including the A:shiwi, to having their sacred objects displayed as “art” in museum exhibitions—in fact, to having them housed in museum collections at all.

It is important to bear in mind that in Western art history, the term “sacred art” is used to refer to (what might be called in this specific context) ancillary objects used in religious ceremonies and buildings, such as Byzantine chalices and other Christian liturgical vessels; or medieval or renaissance paintings bearing religious iconography, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s extraordinary altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi; or, much more recently, certain abstract works with fields of luminous color, such as Henri Matisse’s stained glass windows in the Dominican Chapelle du Rosaire in France. In other words, in Western art history the term is used to refer to artistic creations depicting, expressing, or evoking religious subjects and a realm of reality beyond that ordinarily encountered in daily life. It is used to refer to artistic works intended to speak to the hearts, minds, and spirits of those contemplating the divine.

Importantly, it is not used to refer to, for example, a host consecrated by an ordained priest during the Eucharistic service of a Catholic Mass. A consecrated host has never been considered “art” by museums. Yet objects held by American Indians to be spiritually sentient were. And they were displayed in museums throughout the U.S. and Europe for reasons that had nothing to do with (read: without any understanding of) their deeply held spiritual reality, and without any awareness of, and consequently regard for, the religious practices and tenets of contemporary Native peoples.

Zuni war god-Paul Klee BW

Museum of Modern Art members’ newsletter (no. 32, Jul–Aug, 1984) announcing the upcoming exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.

I learned that the Museum of Modern Art planned to include an A:shiwi Ahayu:da in“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art through a preview in MoMA’s members’ newsletter. I shared this newsletter with the MAI–HF curators, and in particular with Brenda Shears (then Holland), who in turn shared it with our assistant director, George Eager. (Roland Force, director of the MAI–HF, was out of town.) After staff worked their networks to gather salient information, Eager wrote a letter to Richard Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art and a long-time colleague, advising him that A:shiwi Ahayu:da were “the most sensitive of Native American religious objects” and should not be put on display. He informed Oldenburg that museums throughout the country were in fact removing Ahayu:da from exhibition for this very reason. Eager went on to explain that any Ahayu:da out of A:shiwi  possession were considered stolen objects, illegally removed from shrines on the A:shiwi reservation. In no small measure because of this letter, MoMA removed the Ahayu:da borrowed from the Museum für Völkerkunde from “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. (See James Clifford, “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern.” In Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art: A Documentary History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pages 351–68.)I have never forgotten the pivotal role that the MAI–HF played in this incident, nor the experience of being a direct witness to a sea change in museum practice. MoMA’s decision represents one of the first times that an eminent institution at the center of one of the cultural capitals of the world removed a sacred American Indian object from display, let alone from such an important (and highly publicized) exhibition. It was, in fact, an historic act that helped focus worldwide attention on the inappropriate display of sacred American Indian objects and on the responsibility of museums to respect Native religious traditions.

CRG mediumCécile R. Ganteaume is the curator most recently of
Circle of Dance, an exhibition on view at NMAI–New York. She is also the curator of the exhibition An Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian also on view at NMAI–New York, and the editor of the accompanying book. She is a recipient of a 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Excellence in Research Award. She joined the staff of the museum when it was established as part of the Smithsonian. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI.


December 1984

The “Primitivism” conundrum

by Hilton Kramer/The New Criterion

On “Primitivism in 20th-Century Art” at MOMA.

Yet, though the question is posed in the title of the exhibition, it remains resolutely unanswered, if not indeed unanswerable, in the exhibition itself. To understand the decision, obviously a carefully considered one, to enclose the world “Primitivism” in those unexpected quotation marks, one must therefore turn to the weighty, two-volume publication that does not so much accompany the exhibition as supply it with its all-encompassing raison d’être.[2] In fact, one must study this two-volume work, with its nineteen essays written by a formidable team of scholars, in order to understand the exhibition itself and not just those pesky quotation marks. (The latter, by the way, pretty much disappear in the body of the book—a subject to which I shall return.) And this alerts us to another odd and interesting thing about this exhibition. It appears to have been conceived as a contribution to thought, and not as just another exhibition tracing the course of a familiar artistic development. What it attempts is nothing less than a full-scale study of the multiform role—aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual—played by the art of primitive peoples in the artistic achievements of the modern era. Thus, whatever the exhibition may offer us in the way of visual delectation—and parts of it certainly offer a great deal in this respect—its principal goal lies elsewhere. For this is an exhibition designed, above all, to illuminate the place occupied by certain ideas in shaping a large area of the cultural terrain in which our artistic aspirations and accomplishments have had their genesis.

This, it seems to me, is a commendable ambition. Modernist art is, by and large, an art of ideas. It remains an art of ideas even (or especially) when it turns against the inherited modalities of Western thought in favor of those that are understood to be of a more primitive origin, and the trouble with a great many exhibitions devoted to modernist art is not that they tell us too much about these ideas but that they tell us too little. As a result, the objects on view tend to be denuded of the intellectual impulses that are very often central to their conception. On the other hand, the kind of ambition which this particular exhibition has set for itself is extremely difficult to implement. The museum exhibition format does not easily lend itself to the exposition or exploration of ideas. The temptation to simplify complex issues is all but irresistible, for there is a limit as to how much thought the visitor to an exhibition can be expected to absorb in his encounters with the objects on display. In the end, ideas must be “packaged” for quick consumption, and this inevitably leads to a superficiality, if not an outright distortion, that is likely to subvert the seriousness of the entire enterprise. Given the conditions of contemporary museology—most especially, the need to attract large box-office revenues in order to amortize and/or justify the large expense involved in producing such exhibitions—the problem would appear to be an insoluble one.

The solution that has been attempted in the case of the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition is not, I think, a success. The contribution to thought which the exhibition was clearly intended to embody is largely confined to those two hefty volumes which the museum has published in lieu of a catalogue. And it is not a question, in this installation, of allowing the objects to speak for themselves. Almost nowhere in this exhibition are they permitted to do so. Much of the show is presented to us in a rigidly didactic format. The atmosphere of instruction is often heavy and unremitting, with a great many objects juxtaposed and illuminated in display cases very much as if they were pairs of slides projected on a screen in a classroom. Even the lights in the galleries have been dimmed to underscore the slide-lecture atmosphere, yet the “lesson” to be derived from the spectacle proves to be elusive. Those two big volumes run to hundreds of pages of text, augmented by hundreds of notes (some of them miniature essays in themselves) and hundreds of glossy illustrations (many of them devoted to objects not included in the exhibition); yet only a kind of caricature of this impressive compendium of history, analysis, and reflection survives in the lengthy explanatory labels which importune the visitor to the exhibition at every turn, telling him exactly what to make of what he is looking at. Despite the fact that we are almost everywhere treated as beginning students for whom the visual attributes of every object and the “affinities” linking one with another must be pointed out and their every “meaning” explicated and summarized, we are allowed to leave this dazzling survey with only the dimmest notion of what its true significance may be.

The truth is, this exhibition is often a mere shadow of the book that has occasioned its organization, and much that is important in the book—and important to the subject—is either scanted or omitted in the exhibition itself. For example, the essay on “German Expressionism,” written by the late Donald E. Gordon and included in Volume II of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, is not only a brilliant analysis of the crucial role played by primitive art and primitivist ideology in the development of the Expressionist movement; it is probably the single best small-scale account of Expressionism as a European cultural phenomenon any writer has yet given us. It also has the virtue of illuminating a good deal more than the subject of German Expressionism. Professor Gordon had pondered this subject for many years, and he had a deeper grasp of it than any other American art historian. What he had come to understand was “that primitivism affected Expressionism in two ways: both as life idea and as art idea,” and he set himself the task of illuminating this double allegiance, which stands in such marked contrast to the more purely aesthetic manner in which the discovery of tribal art afFected the artists of the School of Paris.

In Germany [writes Professor Gordon in this essay].. . Expressionists discovered in themselves a kinship with agrarian peoples. It was easy to idealize such peoples around 1910-11, during Germany’s rapid urbanization, or again around 1919-20 after a dehumanizing, mechanized war. In city studios artists re-created the imagined environment of tribal life. And in the countryside the life style of peasants was appreciated for its own sake. Some artists even “went native” during summer vacations, living in the nude with their models and practicing a sexual camaraderie that paraphrased—so they thought—the supposed instinctual freedom of tribal life.

As with life style, so with art style: German artists emulated Primitive example. The prototypes ranged from the flat and silhouettelike painted reliefs of Palau to the powerful, three-dimensional forms of Cameroon sculpture. There is a hardy “look” to much Expressionist art—angular in shape, geometric in detail, stubby in proportion—that is unthinkable without the Primitive precedent. Vitalism was also important: Eyes, mouths, breasts, genitalia were all given expressive prominence. Even in repose the Expressionist face and figure seem packed with energy. These are all German derivations from tribal art.

Yet, despite their profound debt to primitive art and a primitivist ideology, the Expressionists remained firmly attached to one of the most deeply entrenched traditions of Western thought—the romantic tradition that invoked the purity and vitality of nature as an alternative to the moribund forms of inherited culture. It was part of the paradox of their situation that it was, however, by way of culture—specifically, the writings of Nietzsche and Walt Whitman— that they came to their appreciation of the primitivist ideal. “Thus the Expressionist [writes Professor Gordon] was engaged in a very particular kind of enterprise. He was conducting a dialogue between Urnatur and modern art, a dialectic between primordial nature and advanced culture …. What Expressionists added to this romantic tradition, however, was an understanding of consciousness as the link between nature and art. For them the issue was how the mind translated instinct—the mainspring of nature—into art as the high achievement of culture. Expressionists faced the issue as Nietzsche had, by demonstrating a tie between the primitive and the modem mind, between the ‘savage’ storyteller and the modern artist-dreamer.”

This, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the matter that is ostensibly explored in the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition, and there is no way for the subject to be fully grasped without according to the Expressionist movement a major role in the exhibition itself. It was the German Expressionists, after all, who adopted certain views (most especially the view of primitivism “both as life idea and as art idea”) first broached in the life and work of Gauguin, with whom this exhibition begins chronologically, and made them central to their entire artistic and spiritual mission. And it is in the ethos, if not the aesthetic, of the Expressionist movement that we find the most vivid foreshadowing of that concern for primitivism “as life idea” which looms so large in the “Contemporary Explorations” section of this exhibition, the section dealing with art since 1970. Between the ideas of the Expressionists and those of the artists represented in the “Contemporary Explorations” section there are indeed many important resemblances, for in its ideological outlook—though seldom in the art which resulted from it—the Expressionist movement anticipated a great many of the beliefs that dominated the radical counterculture of the late Sixties and thereby came to play a transfiguring role in the neo-primitivist art of the Seventies. There is thus, in spiritual terms, a direct line of descent that can be traced from Gauguin to Expressionism to the neo-primitivist outlook of the Seventies. It differs greatly from the more purely aesthetic line that leads from Gauguin to the Fauves and to Picasso. It constitutes, in fact, one of the major revolté traditions of cultural life in this century, and one naturally expected it to receive appropriate attention in an exhibition called “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art.”

Yet what do we find in the exhibition itself? Not for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art, the whole Expressionist movement is relegated to a more or less marginal position—almost, indeed, a position of inconsequence.[3] In the so-called “History” section of the show, we are offered a miserly selection of objects shunted into a mean, corridorlike space that has the effect of belittling, if not actually obliterating, the entire subject. There is simply no way for the uninformed visitor to the exhibition to acquire, from either the works on view or the labels serving as a guide to them, any real sense of the Expressionists’ contribution to the history being recounted here. And the Expressionists suffer an even worse fate in the introductory section of the exhibition, called “Concepts,” from which they have been totally excluded. In this section of the exhibition, space has somehow been found for the work of Max Weber, an American painter whose oeuvre had only a passing relation to the subject, whereas a major Expressionist like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose work is central to it, has been omitted. And in the little throwaway booklet which the Museum provides for those visitors—the majority, of course—who cannot be expected to read those two big volumes, there is likewise no trace of the Expressionists’ contribution. There is instead a silly little warning about a possible “misreading” of an Ibibio mask in relation to an Edvard Munch print. Exactly what Munch’s The Shriek is doing in this exhibition remains something of a mystery, in any case, for it is only in the generation following Munch’s that the Expressionists begin to interest themselves in primitive art.

One can only conclude that the prejudice against Expressionism is now so deep-seated at the Museum that the actualities of art history are no longer allowed to make themselves feit. This being the case, I suppose we should be grateful for the merciful exception that was made in the case of Professor Gordon’s essay. What this means, however, is that the art historians and other specialists who read through Volume II of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art will know the truth and the larger public seeing the exhibition will not—a curious state of affairs, to say the least. The whole issue remains a disturbing and perplexing one, and the exhibition has been seriously damaged by the way it has been handled.

One could scarcely make a complaint of this sort about the treatment accorded to Picasso in this exhibition. The attention lavished on Picasso is so comprehensive, in fact, that much of this show consists of a protracted hommage to the master, making it in some respects yet another pendant to the mammoth retrospective which MOMA devoted to the artist in 1980. There is ample reason for this, of course. In his essay on Picasso for Volume I of “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art—an essay, incidentally, that runs to over one hundred pages and constitutes a major monograph in itself— William Rubin writes that “In no other artist’s career has primitivism played so pivotal and historically consequential a role as in Picasso’s.” In accordance with this view, Picasso emerges as the dominant figure in the exhibition, and the principal revelations of the exhibition are, in fact, revelations about Picasso and the use he made of primitive art at crucial moments in his own artistic development.

The case that Mr. Rubin is concerned to make on this score is greatly strengthened by the abundance of material he has been able to marshal for this exhibition. A great many tribal objects from Picasso’s own collection have been brought to the museum, and others that the artist would have seen on the occasion of his historic visit to the Trocadero in Paris in 1907—the year that he completed the final version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—have also been brought over. Many drawings from this period have also been gathered for the exhibition, including a good many not previously exhibited. We are thus in a position to see exactly what it was in these tribal objects that made so fateful an impression on Picasso’s sensibility at a critical juncture in his development. The conjunction of these tribal objects and the drawings related to them, all seen now in the presence of Les Demoiselles, leave one in little doubt about the depth of Picasso’s response to what was then a new and profoundly shocking artistic experience.

It is Mr. Rubin’s belief that this encounter with tribal art had the effect of altering not only the forms and even the color Picasso then employed in the completion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon but something much more fundamental in his artistic outlook—his sense of what the very function of art might be for him. Picasso later spoke of Les Demoiselles as his “first exorcism picture.” To André Malraux, he referred to the tribal art he saw at the Trocadero as “magical objects .. . intercessors . .. against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits … . They were weapons—to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves.” For Mr. Rubin, then, the really crucial change that occurred as a result of Picasso’s initial encounter with these tribal objects is to be found in the artist’s effort to appropriate for his own purposes something akin to the “magical” powers he felt he had glimpsed in the art of these primitive cultures.

To support this view, Mr. Rubin is more or less obliged to speculate about exactly what it was that Picasso was so determined, at that crucial juncture in his life, to be free of. The answer that he proffers to this question—that Picasso was deeply involved in a private ritual designed to free himself of his fear of women and his fear of death—is not altogether unpersuasive. We have long known that Picasso’s art was profoundly autobiographic from the outset, and there is no reason why Les Demoiselles should be exempted from occupying an important place in the long “diary” of private emotions that his oeuvre is now often taken to be. Yet I wonder if I am alone in believing that this facile Freudianizing of Picasso’s art—earlier on, Mr. Rubin speaks of Picasso’s “precocious oedipal triumph” over his father in the Nineties—has the effect of trivializing the work in question? It certainly has the effect of overlooking, or at least diminishing, what it was that Picasso had in common with so many other modern artists when he looked to primitive art for inspiration. Surely we are not being asked to believe that the entire primitivist phenomenon in twentieth-century art derives from a fear of women ? There are, to be sure, certain feminist art historians who have been attempting to promulgate precisely this view, but I doubt if Mr. Rubin counts himself among them. In any event, if it was Picasso’s aim in painting the completed version of Les Demoiselles to overcome his fear of women and his fear of death, he must finally be judged to have failed in that endeavor. Sexual rage remained one of the enduring leitmotifs of his art during a very long career, and death too continued to occupy a significant place among his themes. The “magical” properties Picasso so much admired in the art of primitive peoples were not, after all, something that an avant-garde artist working in Paris in the twentieth century could hope to appropriate. Their magic was not to be his. The real question is: what did his consist of?

We shall be a good deal closer to an answer to this question, I believe, if we abandon the attempt to provide Les Demoiselles d’Avignon with a Freudian interpretation and shift the discussion back to where it belongs—to the life of forms in art and to the role played by radical changes in form in giving expression to an altered consciousness of civilization itself. Can anyone still doubt that the whole primitivist phenomenon in twentieth-century art was, at least in one of its important aspects, an outright attack on the conventions and assumptions of Western cultural life as they had come to be seen in the established values of advanced industrial societies? In this respect, certainly, Picasso—at least in the period of Les Demoiselles—was indeed attempting to effect a revolution in cultural consciousness.

That the culture he set out to attack and transform proved to be more resilient in its response to this assault than anyone at the time had reason to expect; that it showed itself capable of absorbing such assaults and profiting from the lessons to be learned from them—this, I should have thought, would now, in the next to last decade of the twentieth century, have become an acknowledged datum of critical intelligence. In his opening essay for “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, called “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction,” Mr. Rubin observes that “The Cubist artist’s notion that there was something important to be learned from the sculpture of tribal peoples—an art whose appearance and assumptions were diametrically opposed to prevailing aesthetic canons—could only be taken by bourgeois culture as an attack upon its values.” Yet it remains unclear whether or not Mr. Rubin believes this was an attack on bourgeois culture. I believe it was. I also believe it was an attack that profoundly altered the values of bourgeois culture, making it more receptive to alien modes of consciousness than it would otherwise have been. In the legendary conflicts between the avant-garde and bourgeois culture, we have tended to assume that it was the avant-garde alone which provided the dynamic element and that bourgeois culture remained fixed and adamantly resistant to change. But this was not the case, and it is bad history to think so.

What I find sadly and conspicuously lacking in the hundreds of pages of text offered up to us in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art—which, for very good reasons, is bound to remain the classic scholarly work on this subject for many years to come—is any serious account of the way bourgeois culture responded to this primitivist assault on its values. That is a story yet to be told. It was to be expected that it would be omitted from the exhibition, but it is a special disappointment that it has also been omitted from a publication so evidently designed to provide a comprehensive account of its subject. By and large, the contributors to “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art tend to steer clear of the social and political implications of their material. The outstanding exception, however, is Kirk Varnedoe’s essay on the “Contemporary Explorations” section of the exhibition. There at last, in the con eluding pages of Volume II, we are finally brought face to face with what Professor Varnedoe characterizes as the “dark side” of the primitivist phenomenon:

But there is a dark side to this issue as well [he writes], and it has to do with more than just bad art or even overtly pessimistic art. It has to do with primitivism per se, and it involves politics. All the questions [about] . . . collectivity versus individual experience, of controlling order versus instinctual liberty, translate eventually into larger political implications. Inasmuch as it has been by definition a critique of modern Western society, all primitivism has always had such implications, and they reverberate through good and sensitive art as certainly as through the broad range of neo-tribal agitprop that the last two decades have witnessed. The latter work, in which political concerns have been aggressively self-conscious and specific, most quickly forces to the fore uncomfortable questions about the ultimate content of all ideals that propose escape from the Western tradition into a Primitive state.

This entire “Primitivism” project—both the exhibition and the book—would have been a very different event, and a far more interesting one, too, I think, if it had addressed itself to this issue from the outset and not left it to the end. But one is grateful, all the same, for Professor Varnedoe’s eloquent analysis of it.

As it happens, there is to be found in one aspect of this event a telltale sign of what the current response of bourgeois culture is to the primitivism phenomenon—I refer, of course, to those curious quotation marks which enclose the word “Primitivism” in the title of the exhibition and to which I alluded at the start of this essay. These quotation marks, it turns out, have nothing to contribute to our understanding of the subject under study. Contrary to the expectation they arouse when we first encounter them, they neither cast doubt on the concept of primitivism nor attempt to give it an ironic interpretation. As I mentioned earlier, they pretty much disappear from the body of the book once their use has been explained. Their purpose, to be blunt about it, is political. They have been introduced into the title of this exhibition in the hope of forestalling criticism from those in the Third World and elsewhere who look upon the term “primitive” as a pejorative characterization of their cultural heritage. Mr. Rubin devotes a great many words to explaining why the term is necessary, and why it—and the term “tribal”—should not be regarded as in any way invidious. He does not want it to be thought that he is one of those terrible people who regard Western civilization as somehow “superior” to the cultures of primitive peoples. Yet when all of his ingeniosities on behalf of this dubious proposition have been concluded, he allows the word primitivism to slip right back into its standard usage. He is right to do so. But in this public display of nervousness and defensiveness, now made permanent in the title of this exhibition and its book, he has told us something important—and not something good —about the relation in which our culture now stands to the primitivist ideal.

  1. “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” directed by William Rubin in collaboration with Kirk Varnedoe, opened at the Museum of Modern Art on September 27 and remains on view through January 15. It will then travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts (February 27-May 19) and the Dallas Museum of Art (June 23-September 1). The exhibition includes approximately one hundred and fifty modern European and American works and more than two hundred tribal objects from Africa, Oceania, and North America. Go back to the text.
  2. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art edited by William Rubin. The Museum of Modern Art (distributed by New York Graphic Society Books). Two volumes, 689 pages. Hardcover, $80; softcover, $30 until January 30 and $40 thereafter. Go back to the text.
  3. For a discussion of the way Expressionism has been slighted in the new installation of the Museum’s permanent collection of painting and sculpture, see my essay, “MOMA Reopened” (The New Criterion, Special Issue: Summer 1984, page 29). Go back to the text.

FIAC Paris 2014 Articles and Reviews




Fairs Market France

Paris fair sheds its Frenchness

Pinault and Arnault invitation to view Fiac ahead of VIPs pays dividends

The 41st edition of Fiac (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) at the Grand Palais in Paris

“For me, Fiac is like the Frieze Masters of contemporary art; you can, in the main, be assured of the quality of the works,” said an anonymous US dealer attending the 41st edition of Fiac (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) at the Grand Palais in Paris. The French billionaire Francois Pinault, whose collection is housed at two galleries in Venice, also put his faith in the French fair; he bought 30 works at Fiac and its new satellite event, (Off)icielle, at the Docks-Cité de la mode et du design.

The roll-call of curators, artists and collectors reflected the fair’s prestige, with the British artist Tracey Emin, the French artist Bernar Venet, the president of the Centre Pompidou, Alain Seban, and Beatrix Ruf, the newly appointed director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in attendance. Sources on the floor said that Pinault and Bernard Arnault, who is due to open his Fondation Louis Vuitton museum in west Paris later this week, entered the fair at a special pre-arranged time; a fair spokeswoman said that “out of discretion, both men came through a separate entrance a little earlier”.

The Paris-based art advisor Laurence Dreyfus said, however, that “there are not many spectacular works at Fiac this year, except perhaps for the Olafur Eliasson pieces on the stand of Neugerriemschneider gallery” (the German dealer’s solo presentation of works by the ubiquitous Danish-Icelandic artist proved popular, especially Dew Viewer, 2014, a cluster of 212 glass spheres; prices for the works were undisclosed). But a UK collector was overheard on the fair floor saying: “Fiac always plays it safe”.

Other art world professionals were evangelical about the elevated profile of the Paris fair. The dealer Michel Rein, who runs galleries in Paris and Brussels, said that Fiac has shed its reputation for being “too French”. There are 46 French galleries out of 191 galleries in total. “Of course Fiac is truly international,” said Rein who has participated in 23 editions of Fiac. “Why would you fill the fair with French dealers anyway?” he added. A 24-carat gold ATM by the Bulgarian artist Stefan Nikolaev on Rein’s stand, entitled Cry Me a River, 2009, was a hit, with two editions of the piece selling for €15,000 each. Nikolaev said that the work is “a comment on our relationship with money”.

A selection of works by Roni Horn at Hauser & Wirth gallery, especially a series of photographs of the French actress Isabelle Huppert, was also a draw (Portrait of an Image with Isabelle Huppert, 2005, $425,000). A gallery spokesman said that museums have expressed interest in the other Horn works, including one of the artist’s famous glass drums (I deeply perceive that the infinity of matter is no dream, 2014, $3.5m).

The VIP preview also proved profitable for the London- and New York-based gallery Skarstedt. It sold at least four works including a large-scale wall piece incorporating everyday detritus, such as buttons and beads, by the late US artist Mike Kelley (Memory Ware Flat no, 10, 2001) for “more than $1m”, said Bona Montagu, the director of Skarstedt London. “We’re seeing a lot more Americans here,” she said.

The younger galleries housed upstairs in the Salon d’Honneur section seem keen to graduate to the main floor of the fair where the established galleries showcase their works, but the mid-career dealers on the first floor still reported strong sales. The London-based gallery Campoli Presti sold two works by the US photographer Eileen Quinlan priced at $15,000 each.

But the final appearance of the veteran Paris dealer Yvon Lambert at Fiac struck a poignant note. Lambert will close his Paris gallery in December and plans to launch a new business next year devoted to art books and exhibition catalogues. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, toured Lambert’s stand with the newly appointed culture minister Fleur Pellerin, giving Lambert the state’s stamp of approval before he bids adieu to the Parisian art scene.

Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flat no, 10, 2001) sold for “more than $1m” with Skarstedt



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The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 Paris

©Sylvia Davis

FIAC Paris 2014


October 23, 2014

FIAC 2014 opened at the Grand Palais in a shimmering flurry of celebrities, dignitaries, and VIPs.

One of the leading international art fairs, FIAC was founded 40 years ago to bring a curated exposé of contemporary art to the public. It was born as an event “by gallerists for gallerists” and gradually expanded to a mainstream audience, welcoming around 80,000 visitors at the capacious Grand Palais main venue. It has also sprouted numerous extramural sites and events, including installations in public spaces such as the infamous sculpture by Paul McCarthy. Set up in the swish Place Vendome, the giant green shape –some saw it as a Christmas tree, most identified it with a sex toy – was vandalized, causing it to deflate (there’s an irony somewhere in there) and had to be taken down.

Agrandissez l’image
The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 ParisPrime Minister Manuel Valls, Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin (right)

Agrandissez l’image
The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 ParisGilbert and George, as if they had just jumped out of their picture

Agrandissez l’image
The Mother of all French Markets: The Incandescent FIAC 2014 ParisArtist Tracey Emin catching up with friends Georgie Hopton and Hikari Yokoyama

FIAC is not a museum exhibition, it is a bustling market. The main distinction is that the art on display is bought and sold right then and there. The whole art world stands to notice when a piece or a particular artist is attracting interest at FIAC, and eager collectors elbow their way through the doors on preview day to scoop up their next treasure. The continuing success story of FIAC will start a new chapter in March 2015 with the debut of FIAC Los Angeles.

For emerging young artists, being noticed here can be the fortune cookie that presages an auspicious future. To underline this incubator effect and promote the next generation, a new addition this year is the (OFF)icielle art fair held at the Docks, presenting 68 newcomer galleries from 14 countries.

The sense of occasion on the vernissage came from the tour of the exhibits by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin, as well as the presence of celebrated artists likeGilbert and George and Tracey Emin, who stood out for being eminently gracious, meeting and greeting, chatting to old friends and generally having a grand time.

For all the fond handshakes and champagne clinking, there’s serious business swiftly moving on in the background, which makes the energy of the FIAC particularly seductive. Sales appeared to be ticking along nicely as we witnessed, just during our brief visit, the red dot going up on Jean Dubuffet’s L’Heure de Pointe, priced well over 530,ooo euros, by Waddington Custot gallery, and brisk interest in a striking 2.9-million-euro Basquiat at the Van de Weghe booth.

FIAC, however, is not an exclusive playground for the elite collector. While the main statement pieces are intended to attract attention, and priced accordingly, galleries offer a wide selection of new art, prints, or limited series – items that are within reach of every art enthusiast. FIAC is a great place to start a collection. With 191 galleries from 26 countries there’s bound to be something that catches your eye, and gallery representatives are approachable and passionate about the art they bring to the show. If you find a piece you love, you could be taking back home the ultimate souvenir from Paris, one that will ignite memories and inspiration for years to come.

FIAC Paris is held every year in October.

FIAC 2014
Grand Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 8th
October 23-26
Noon to 8pm – Until 9pm Friday
Métro: Champs-Elysées / Clemenceau
Admission including catalogue €60 – Children under 12 free





“À votre avis,” by Amadou Sanogo, is being shown at the FIAC in Paris as part of the art fair’s (Off)icielle satellite event. CreditAmadou Sanogo/Galerie Magnin-A, Paris
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PARIS — As the art world continues to boom and expand, there can be little doubt that, in order to survive in it, size helps.

In recent years, major galleries have compulsively opened outposts worldwide: Gagosian alone has 14 galleries, with another set to open in London next year; Emmanuel Perrotin has four; David Zwirner, three. Around 200 art fairs are crammed into the calendar, with the major ones like Art Basel and Frieze London also holding international sister events (Miami Beach and Hong Kong for Basel; New York for Frieze).

As the International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris prepares to open its 41st edition on Oct. 23, it appears clear that this event is happy to play with the big boys.

Under the guidance of Jennifer Flay, the fair’s general director since 2010, the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, is extending its reach in multiple directions. Its first international event, FIAC Los Angeles, will be held next year at the Convention Center from March 27-29. This year the Paris fair is effectively doubling, with the opening of a new satellite event, (Off)icielle, that focuses on emerging galleries.

“Since 2006 there have been up to six or seven different ‘offs’ around the FIAC, but, with respect, none of them really made the standard,” the New Zealand-born Ms. Flay said during an interview this summer in her office here. “So yes, we decided to do it ourselves.”

Before Ms. Flay was named artistic director of the FIAC in 2003, the fair was considered a fusty relic on the art fair circuit: “too boring and too poor,” as Ms. Flay put it. Today, it has standing as a major international event that has injected new life into the French art scene.

As usual, the fair, which this year runs through Oct. 26, is being held in locations across Paris. Its main gallery base is in the Grand Palais, with events in the Tuileries, the Jardin des Plantes, the Place Vendôme and on the banks of the Seine. The spread of the FIAC is so extensive that this year it has organized shuttle boats along the Seine that can serenely transport ticket holders from the Grand Palais to the Cité de la Mode, where (Off)icielle is being held, avoiding the frenzy of the Paris Métro.

Such is the draw of the FIAC that many Paris art institutions synchronize their calendars with its opening. This year, happily timed events include the reopening of the Picasso Museum on Oct. 25, the inauguration of the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton on Oct. 20 (opening to the public on Oct. 27), and the reopening of La Monnaie de Paris on Oct. 25, with a major exhibition dedicated to the American artist Paul McCarthy. Celebrations are also being held by the Fondation Cartier for its 30th anniversary.


“Joel,” 2011, by Omar Victor Diop, part of the (Off)icielle event at FiAC.CreditOmar Victor Diop/Galerie Magnin-A, Paris

The Grand Palais will hold stands from 191 galleries from 26 countries, including Turkey, Mexico, Norway, India and South Korea. Most galleries, as in previous years, hail from France, the United States and Germany. Major dealers include Hauser & Wirth from Switzerland; White Cube from Britain; Paula Cooper and Gagosian from the United States; Sprüth Magers from Germany; and from France, the cream of the Paris galleries, including Perrotin and Marian Goodman.

It will also be a last FIAC for the legendary French dealer Yvon Lambert, who confirmed this summer that, at 68, he will be closing his Paris gallery in order to focus on books and literature.

The Grand Palais will be divided into sections, with established galleries in one area and newer galleries in another. There will also be a space dedicated to the works of the nominees for the Marcel Duchamp prize, one of France’s most prestigious contemporary art awards. On the shortlist this year are Théo Mercier, Julien Prévieux, Florian and Michaël Quistrebert, and Evariste Richer. The winner will be announced on Oct. 25.

The work of 3,430 contemporary and Modern artists will be on sale, including established names like Marina Abramovic (Krinzinger Gallery); Zeng Fanzhi (Gagosian); Nan Goldin (Matthew Marks); Ai Weiwei (Lisson Gallery and Continua); and Dan Flavin (Pace). They will be alongside rising stars like the 35-year-old British painter and sculptor Lydia Gifford (Laura Bartlett); the multidisciplinary Indian artist Asim Waqif (Nature Morte); and Cyprien Gaillard, the 34-year-old French multimedia wunderkind, whose work will be on show at Bugada & Cargnel, Sprüth Magers and Gladstone Gallery.


“Installation View, Drawn,” by Lydia Gifford.CreditLydia Gifford/Laura Bartlett Gallery

(Off)icielle, the new satellite fair, runs from Oct. 22-26 at Paris’s new City of Fashion and Design, known as Les Docks, which opened in 2012 in the 13th Arrondissement in the city’s southeast quadrant. Sixty-eight galleries from 13 countries will be showcasing works there in a vast, 3,700-square-meter space.

Fringe events are not new to art fairs, a recent example being Frieze Masters, focused on historical art, which opened in London in 2012. But rather than scanning the past, Ms. Flay wanted (Off)icielle to highlight up-and-coming dealers, or galleries that might have been overlooked.

“It’s not some little thing we’re doing on the side, it’s absolutely a part of FIAC,” said Ms. Flay, who, having run her own gallery in Paris from 1990 to 2003, understands the importance of art fairs for dealers.

Galleries showing at (Off)icielle include the London-based Limoncello, with works by the young Israeli artist Yonatan Vinitsky. From Paris, galleries include Magnin-A, which focuses on contemporary African art and is showing works by Omar Victor Diop and Amadou Sanogo among others, and Semiose, which includes the multimedia artist Sébastien Gouju. From the United States, LTD Los Angeles is showcasing the 25-year-old Argentine-born artist Amalia Ulman, while Zink Gallery from Berlin brings the 23-year-old Russian video artist Aslan Gaisumov.


“Untitled (video still),” 2011-2014, by Alsan Gaisumov.CreditCourtesy of Aslan Gaisumov and Galerie Zink, Berlin

Ms. Flay said that in holding the satellite event, she also hoped to provide an accessible entry point to the art world for aspiring collectors. “There is something about being surrounded by these younger galleries that is so much less intimidating than the context of the Grand Palais,” she said. “We’ll be creating a different atmosphere.”

While the FIAC offers private gallery tours and exclusive events for its V.I.P. guests, (Off)icielle is channeling an edgier vibe. Les Docks has impeccable hipster credentials: The former industrial warehouse holds the ultratrendy bar-cafe-nightclubs Nüba (run by the Baron nightclub crowd) and Wanderlust (part of the Silencio bandwagon), where (Off)icielle will hold screenings and events. In keeping with the urban vibe, street food will be available.

Another new event at this year’s FIAC is a collaboration with the Austrian crystal maker Swarovski. As part of the Hors Les Murs section— the showcasing of art outside of the Grand Palais — the house is sponsoring a new work by the French sculptor Didier Marcel, which will be in the Jardin des Plantes in the Fifth Arrondissement. Mr. Marcel, who won a competition to create a work “inspired by Swarovski,” is creating “Rosée” (Dew), described as a scattering of drops of crystal throughout the Jardin’s Rose Garden.

Meanwhile, a Hors Les Murs feature, “Tree” by Paul McCarthy in the Place Vendôme, will not be visible during the fair: The 80-meter-high inflatable sculpture was deflated by vandals the night of Oct. 17, and Mr. McCarthy and local authorities said he would not seek to re-inflate it. The lime green sculpture was described by the artist as a Christmas tree, but critics said looked like something much more prosaic: a sex toy. “After the violent reactions, the artist was disturbed by the potential impact of the work,” according to FIAC officials.

Doreen Carvajal contributed reporting



Paris makes a comeback

 PARIS  |  23 October 2014  |  AMA  |    |  

The one domain that seems to have been saved from the culture of “French bashing” is art. The sudden yet spectacular revival of the Parisian art scene and the multiple events and inaugurations of international recognition taking place day by day across the capital have not gone unnoticed by the Anglo-Saxons, who this week pay testimony to this resurgence in the media with an unusual enthusiasm that deserves to be recognised.

It is in this resolutely optimistic context that the 41st edition of FIAC opens this year, a time when Paris offers art amateurs a myriad of spaces and events, some public — the reopening of the Musée Picasso and Monnaie de Paris — and others private, such as the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

Paris: art capital? 
The pick of Paris museums remains, without a doubt, one of the richest in the world, with tens of millions of visitors arriving every year; however, France’s place on the global art market has been in constant recession over recent years. It is in London (where the majority of important collectors live), New York or Hong Kong where most high-value transactions take place.

The French art scene is obviously not the most profitable in the world, yet France and Paris can nevertheless count on their different qualities. As Anny Shaw underlines in The ArtNewspaper: “London might appeal to the business head, but it seems that Paris appeals to the heart, and never more so than this year.”

Conversely to many perceptions, and despite Paris’ ‘sleeping beauty’ image, we have recently seen the giants of contemporary art (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and the equally famous Gagosian gallery) invest in the Parisian suburbs with the opening of vast spaces in the towns of Pantin and Le Bourget respectively. The inauguration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne and the proliferation of new projects elsewhere in Paris, for the most part private, are also consistent with the notion that the decided attractiveness of the capital is only waiting to be exploited.

This autumn, the rich public programming and the good health of FIAC have created an almost euphoric feeling. So what to make of it all? “Paris is suddenly in a very good mood for art,” said Jean-Philippe Billarant, an industrialist and longtime collector who plans to give tours of his collection, housed in a converted silo, during FIAC week. Le Silo sits 30 miles northwest of Paris. “The atmosphere of Paris reminds me of Chelsea 30 years ago, and that’s interesting.”

This enthusiasm is shared by Sunny Rahbar, co-director of the Third Line Gallery and exhibitor at FIAC where he is showing work by Ala Ebtekar, Amir H. Fallah, Farhad Moshiri, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Rana Begum and Slavs & Tatars. The gallerist explains, “I can say that the fair has gone from strength to strength. We have participated for the last 3 years now, and every year we meet more and more collectors. And yes, it does feel that the market is getting stronger for sure. I feel the future for the market is only going to get better and stronger as there seems to be a renewed interest and a good energy around the fair here and contemporary art in general.”

Focus on FIAC
Since Jennifer Flay took over FIAC, media and art professionals alike have said that the fair has taken on a new life. The efforts made to drag the event from the drowsy atmosphere in which it found itself in the early 2000s seem to have paid off. With an obstinate desire to internationalise, the New Zealander has, over the years, drawn some of the biggest galleries in the world and their precious collectors to Paris. Whilst many fairs have taken off across the world and the competition is intense between the leading events, today FIAC is hot on the heels of competitors such as Frieze and Art Basel.

The 41st edition sees its doors open on 23 October into a more or less serene atmosphere, the rejection of subjecting works of art to wealth tax having arrived just in time to reassure French collectors.

Internationalism is the key word for Jennifer Flay. This year 191 galleries originating from 26 countries come together at the Grand Palais; amongst these, only 65% are European (compared to 73% in 2013). Featured are 48 French galleries, 26 German, with galleries from Norway and Portugal making their debut appearance, whilst 45 North American galleries are to exhibit (four from Brasil and four from Mexico). Furthermore, for the first time, we see the participation of Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Amongst new participants, and also those returning, include: Helly Nahmad Gallery (New York), Hannah Hoffman (Los Angeles), Antoine Levy (Paris), Vera Cortês Art Agency (Lisbon), Cory Nielsen (Berlin) and Wallspace (New York).

Artists at the Grand Palais 
In light of this 41st edition, Artprice has released precise information on the key players at this event. This year we will see no less that 1,451 artists. Whilst big names such as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter will be on display, one will be surprised to find that contemporary Chinese artists, on the other hand, are rather underrepresented: Luo Zhongli, Chen Yifei and Zhang Xiadong — amongst the ten most popular artists in the world — will not be exhibited at FIAC.

From international galleries to international names; amongst the 84 nationalities represented, American artists take the lion’s share with 25%, followed by Germany (12%), France (11%), the United Kingdom (9%), Italy (3.3%), Switzerland (2.9%), Belgium (2.8%) and China (2.7%).

Recent figures on exhibiting artists show that more than 80% of exhibited artists are still alive, the average age being 50 years old. The doyenne of this selection is Cuban Carmen Herrera, aged 99 years old, exhibited by Lisson Gallery London. As for the youngest, they are just 25 years old: Lucien Smith at Skarstedt and Phillip Timischl at Neue Atle Brucke.

The next step: go international 
If the scale of the event has undoubtedly risen over recent years, the ambition of becoming a rival to Art Basel is still a target to reach for.

Whilst it is certainly globalised, the art market is not totally closed off to locals. Yet we must wonder if the small number of high-level collectors residing in France (the consequence, as we saw above, results in the lack of luxury sales on French soil) does not represent significant obstacles for FIAC.

Despite a visible effort to strengthen their image as an international fair, a process which inevitably comes with a reduced number of French galleries, FIAC is still a long way from the renown of Art Basel, which remains unrivalled, except perhaps by the presence of Frieze, which is of course a younger fair; both of these events have successfully expanded to the United States (Art Basel Miami and Frieze New York) as well as Hong Kong (for Art Basel). So FIAC will take up residence in Los Angeles from 27 until 29 March 2015. The outcome of this Californian adventure is yet to be seen…

Around FIAC, and (OFF), and other offsite events
Amateurs and collectors, often weary of well known names who are mostly inaccessible for the majority of buyers, will this week have a wide range of coinciding events. With seven in total, the big newcomer this year is the launch of l’(OFF)icielle de la FIAC, taking place at the Cité de la mode et du design, in the Jakob + MacFarlane building. Jennifer Flay has highlighted that she wanted “a new event entirely, not just another satellite of the FIAC,” much in the same spirit as Liste, the much-valued event that takes place every year alongside Art Basel.

In the media space that FIAC and its surrounding events must share with the inauguration of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the appearance of l’(OFF)icille raises many questions. For the 60 participating galleries, the success of a newly-created event is in no way assured, even if the opening on 21 October seemed promising.

Does the appearance of this parallel fair — equally as reliant on the powerful Reed Exhibition’s organisation — not risk suffocating a still-hesitant market, rather than leaving the competition in the same segment, leaving them in pieces? Furthermore the stand tariffs at l’(OFF)icille and its mother festival barely seem to differ (€445 against a Grand Palais’ €494 to €545), despite the huge difference in reputation. However, it is worth mentioning that these tariffs are often subject to negotiations. One may wonder if the aim of Reed Exhibitions, in the creation of this new event, is to partially open up FIAC to galleries who have for many years dreamed of participating and to let them in through a side entrance.

As for these external events, despite the cancellation of Cutlog (the director of which accused Reed of monopolising all available locations across the market and thus saturating it), the choice remains varied.

The event considered to be the most important of fairs “off-not-officielle”, is YIA — Young International Art Fair — taking place at the Carreau du Temple in the heart of the Marais quarter, from 23 until 26 October.

Claiming the need to mix up young galleries and more well-established players, YIA’s founder Romain Tichit refuses to deliberately be considered as an “off” event. Betting on the originality and creativity which, it is said, are at the heart of its success, the objective taken up by YIA is to set themselves apart, establishing their own identity in an environment which is, at best, more conservative. This proves a considerable challenge when the YIA has often been accused of unequal selection.

Not far from the Grand Palais, in Hotel le A, rue d’Artois, the first French edition of the Outsider Art Fair will take place. The fair, which was founded in New York 20 years ago, demonstrates the important position of Art Brut today, and more widely that of what Anglo-Saxons refer to as ‘Outsider Art’. Coincidence or not, the event takes place for the first time this year whilst Bruno Decharme’s key abcd collection is on display at Maison Rouge.

Other noteworthy events include Art Elysées (Champs Elysées, from 23 until 27 October) and Design Elysée which, having focused on the particular segment of ‘classic’ Modern and contemporary art and historic design from the post-war period, are also looking to make their mark.

Another fair working in the less competitive, but perhaps more difficult, sector of the avant-garde is Variation, formerly Show off, which takes place at the Espace des Blancs Manteaux from 21 until 26 October. This fair centres around contemporary digital creation, via the work of 40 artists who present photography, videos, 3D printing, sculptures and prototypes.

A sign of the desire for renewal and dynamism which can be noted in today’s atmosphere, the Slick Art Fair has also opted for a name change, rebranding itself this year as Slick Attitude. For its 9th edition, the event will take place underneath Paris’ Pont Alexandre III, bringing together 30 galleries with one common objective: to promote the young international art scene in France and to emphasise the work of new galleries which aim to research and uncover emerging talent.

Finally, new arrival Fair In Off, which is also to take place at the Espace Commines between 23 and 26 October, will try to grab the attention of amateur art-lovers in a landscape which already leaves very little room for competition. According to organisers, it is to be a “complimentary initiative”, bringing together 14 emerging artists standing staunchly at the fringes of traditional fairs. Fair In Off proposes to “bring the public closer to the process of artistic reflection.”

Frieze Fair London 2014: Articles, Reviews and Interviews

  • The Best of Frieze London 2014 - Nick Mauss at Frieze.
  • The Best of Frieze London 2014 - Carsten Holl
  • The Best of Frieze London 2014 - Smile Room
  • The Best of Frieze London 2014 - Ed Fornieles
  • The Best of Frieze London 2014 - Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Hermitos Children 2
  • 100 Hamilton Terrace

    Nick Mauss at Frieze. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

The Best of Frieze London 2014

Everything to know about the most talked about art, people, and parties from the annual art fair.

Frieze Special Projects and beyond: You Can Dance
Fleet-footed, catch-it-if-you-can kind of work isn’t what you expect from an art fair. At this year’s Frieze Art Fair in London however, dance was dominant. The fair’s Special Projects fully embraced their not-for-profit status with a slate of live commissions that won’t be hugging the walls of collectors’ homes.

Nick Maus for instance, had the Northern Ballet’s unitard-clad performers strutting in loose formations to a moody, improv soundtrack composed by Kim Gordon and Juliana Huxtable, from an unembellished rehearsal space to the fair’s crowded corridors.

The show-stopper though came from Adam Linder, exhibiting with Berlin’s Silberkuppe, as part of Frieze Live, six galleries focusing on performance art. A former member of Michael Clark’s company and the Royal Ballet, Linder glide danced around the confines of the gallery booth. For anyone not familiar with hip-hop choreography, it’s like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, but more ethereal and graceful, as if he were literally dancing on air. Linder was working more than mesmerizing moves however. His choreographies were an embodiment of art writer, Jonathan P Watts’s observations of the crowds and art at the fair.

At the Fair: Smile Please
Solo presentations are the obvious way for galleries to stand out within an art fair’s visual clamor. While you can always trust the Megatron of blue chip operations, Gagosian, to stay ahead of the pack, this year Carsten Holler’s Gartenkinder provided an unexpected moment of reprieve from the seemingly endless rounds of air kisses and deal brokering. The delights of his play area included a giant dice that concealed a climbing frame accessible only to the very small, a vast mushroom that emitted tinkly music when rocked and a scarlet rubber octopus. It was as big a hit with grown-ups as the kids, whose pure enjoyment of this wonderland was a neat reminder of the pleasures of imaginative play.

Salon 94 went for a similarly feel-good vibe with its Smile Face Museum. Acid yellow dominated curator Mark Sachs’s ever-expanding collection of smiley face ephemera, from furry slippers to key rings, which offset work by a wide array of artists playing with the superficial cartoon cuteness of the universally recognized symbol for happiness. Works that mined its double-edge veered from faces created with cigarette burns to bright, flat paintings of squiggly lines and dots that reveled in surface.

Beyond the fair: The Kids Are Alright
A Frieze week, “one to watch,” Ed Fornieles’s first big show, “Modern Family,” in a UK public gallery, left you in no doubt that the young British artist’s heart now belongs to L.A. Two of the presiding gods of the West Coast art scene, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, had evidently left their mark on a deliriously messy installation that invoked the city of dreams with film set lighting, jiggling pornstars on flat screens and a bubbling Jacuzzi, as well as gross food and an obscene mash-up of cuddly toys.

This was very much an orgy of pop culture for the Internet age however. Loosely themed around a family picnic and home, works unfolded with the surreal logic and speed of an internet search from giant headstones embossed with flowers, fruit, and apple pie coated in a gelatinous resin goo, to sturdy translucent legs filled with Cheerios and a fountain where the statue of a mother and child playing are rudely punctured by grey pipes. Throughout a day of special performances, a family of young actors struck tableaux vivants, bringing the collision between online unreality and lived experience home.

Best Bash
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s biggest film project yet, Hermitos Children 2, at the not-for-profit stalwart Studio Voltaire in South London, was one of the week’s highpoints. Renowned for her carnival-esque performances that rethink high art and pop culture with a troupe of delightfully disheveled performers and homemade props, Chetwynd’s work is always about doing things your own way. In a gallery decked with loose, giant paper prints that featured clowns, leopards and bikers, her sex crime detective show unfolded on a stack of boxy old TVs, with plenty of cross dressing, crazy dancing and a sinister dildo seesaw.

Guests at the gallery’s celebratory dinner at patron Valeria Napoleone’s regal home on Kensington’s Palace Green were treated to a night of Italian home cooking surrounded by her collection of all-woman art, including Helen Marten’s voracious assemblage sculpture, Ida Ekblad’s urban expressionism and Julia Wachtel’s cartoon characters. In the crowd were designer and artist Julie Verhoeven, who created a number of Chetwynd’s costumes, Chloé director Clare Wright Keller and the artist and her face-painted collaborators.

The New Art Hangout: The Rosewood London’s Mirror Room
Since it opened last fall, in a 1914 Belle Epoque building boasting a grand, seven-story marble staircase, Rosewood London fast gained a reputation for timeless glam. Owned by the brand behind New York’s Carlyle, its décor, from the colored glass and polished red leather that dominates the dining room to the wood paneled bar full of Gerard Scarfe cartoons, is aimed at discerning tastes of all ages. It has also become the theatre crowd hang-out thanks to the likes of Kevin Spacey and The Old Vic hosting the 10th anniversary party for its 24 Hour Plays Celebrity Gala there.

The close of Frieze week bucked this trend, with Art Review magazine’s party in the Mirror Room, cohosted by the young Hong Kong billionaire collector Adrien Cheng. The throng, including artist Michael Elmgreen, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler and artist-filmmaker duo Forsyth and Pollard, fresh from the success of their recently released Nick Cave film, 20,000 Days On Earth, knocked back Absolute vodka cocktails while sizing up their post-fair state in the mirrored ceiling and walls.


Bloomberg News:

Collectors Get Big Playground at $2.2 Billion Frieze Week

Source: Gagosian Gallery via Bloomberg

Gagosian Gallery at the Frieze Art Fair will show “Gartenkinder,” a children’s playground by Carsten Holler. The… Read More

Source: Frieze, Linda Nylind via Bloomberg

Attendees view works of art during Frieze London on Oct. 19, 2013.

Source: Christie’s via Bloomberg

Peter Doig’s vibrant green basketball court titled “The Heart of Old San Juan” is estimated at 4 million pounds to 6… Read More

Source: Otto Naumann via Bloomberg

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo” has an asking price of $48.5 million at Otto Naumann’s booth at Frieze Masters.

Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park opens tomorrow to select wealthy collectors seeking to snap up artworks by contemporary stars and Old Masters from a Cy Twombly canvas for $24 million to a Rembrandt portrait for $48.5 million.

Coinciding with the fair, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s will auction 972 works at their day and evening sales estimated at as much as 264 million pounds ($426 million), or more than double the 118 million pounds of art that was sold at the equivalent auctions last year. New buyers “from all pockets of the world” are purchasing art and pushing up prices, said Suzanne Gyorgy, head of art advisory and finance at New York-based Citigroup Inc.’s Citi Private Bank.

“In 2008, when certain parts of the art market were hit hard, the high end still did very well,” Gyorgy said. “Private sales carried on. A lot of wealth is still being created and more wealthy people are becoming collectors.”

The artworks offered at Frieze, auctions, galleries and a half-dozen satellite fairs in 2013 had been estimated at as much as $2 billion last year. Values probably will be about $2.2 billion, or 10 percent higher, this year, according to insurers.

Robust Market

“The contemporary art market is very robust, and the active buyers of art are heavily engaged,” in spending money on these works, said Andrew Gristina, national fine art practice leader at Travelers Cos., which is insuring a number of galleries at Frieze. “The fair remains a popular event and you would expect an equivalent amount of pieces of high quality to be brought there.”

Contemporary-art sales at public auctions globally totaled 1.5 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in the 12 months to July 3, up 33 percent from the previous year, according to a report by Paris-based arts data researcher Artprice. The figures don’t include commissions. Similar sales in 2000 were less than $90 million, Artprice said.

“Contemporary art, which used to be the weak link in the art market, is now almost as important as the modern art segment,” Thierry Ehrmann, chief executive officer of Artprice, said in an e-mail.

Frieze, which started in 2003 and expanded to New York in 2012, was the seventh-most attended art fair in the world from the fall of 2013 through June 30, with 70,000 visitors at the London event, according to a report by Skate’s, a New York-based art market researcher.

Giant Mushroom

Frieze said it expects attendance this year to remain at 70,000, with 162 galleries at the main fair. Frieze Masters, a sister event also at Regent’s Park that shows modern and historic works, will have 127 galleries. Last year 152 galleries exhibited at Frieze and 130 at Frieze Masters.

At the main fair, Gagosian Gallery will offer “Gartenkinder,” a children’s playground by Belgian artistCarsten Holler. The installation includes a large-scale die that children can play inside and a giant mushroom that rocks like a toy. Gagosian declined to give a price.

Tanya Bonakdar gallery, based in New York, has a large-scale painting by Danish-Icelandic artistOlafur Eliasson priced from 150,000 euros to 200,000 euros.

Some galleries are likely to get a business boost from artists who have simultaneous museum shows.

Rembrandt Portrait

Eliasson, who created public waterfalls at four sites in New York in 2008, is showing other works at Tate Britain that are inspired by the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. David Zwirner’s booth at Frieze has an $800,000 cloth work by American sculptor Richard Tuttle, whose new piece featuring vast sways of fabrics will be shown at Tate Modern’s massive Turbine Hall starting tomorrow.

One of the most expensive works at Frieze Masters is a Rembrandt 17th century portrait of a man with arms akimbo, being offered at New York’s Otto Naumann gallery for $48.5 million. A Twombly paint, crayon and graphite canvas from 1959 is at Van de Weghe Fine Art for $24 million. A 7,000-year-old figurine of an Aegean neolithic idol is at Rupert Wace gallery for 450,000 pounds.

The major auction houses will offer works by postwar and contemporary masters.

Christie’s kicks the auctions off this evening with the sale of 44 works from the Essl Collection of contemporary art in Austria, expected to fetch as much as 56.8 million pounds.

Richter’s Abstract

The works come from Karlheinz Essl, the founder of hardware store chain BauMax AG, and include coveted German postwar artists. Gerhard Richter’s 1985 red, yellow and green abstract is valued at 7 million to 10 million pounds. Sigmar Polke’s 1975 fiery red portrait “Indian With Eagle,” is estimated at 1.5 million pounds to 2 million pounds. Martin Kippenberger’s 1992 self-portrait is valued at 2.5 million pounds to 3.5 million pounds.

In a separate evening sale on Oct. 16, Christie’s will offer 46 lots with a high estimate of 47 million pounds. Peter Doig’s oil on canvas of a vibrant green basketball court titled “The Heart of Old San Juan” is estimated at 4 million to 6 million pounds.

Phillips’s evening sale on Oct. 15 will be the first in its new London home at 30 Berkeley Squarein the wealthy Mayfair neighborhood. Phillips, owned by Moscow-based Mercury Group, said the sale of 47 lots, featuring works by Christopher Wool, Richter, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince, is estimated to fetch as much as 23 million pounds. Wool’s untitled alkyd and acrylic on aluminum image of black birds is estimated at 1.8 million to 2.2 million pounds.

Sotheby’s evening sale on Oct. 17 has a high estimate of 35.1 million pounds for 59 lots. AFrancis Bacon portrait of a man in a suit is valued at 1.5 million to 2 million pounds.



Eight Photo Discoveries to See at Frieze London and Frieze Masters

Keiji Uematsu, courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates
Stone/Rope/Man II, 1974 – Fortuitously, the Japanese sculptor, who is known for his installations that appear to distort gravity or depict magnetic forces, was at the gallery booth as I approached it. Keiji Uematsu said of his photographic work: “I’m interested in changing the relationship of an installation using my body. I want to create work where a lack of a single element will cause the entire structure, the invisible existence of things and their relationships to collapse like a cosmos.” I do hope, that when the relationship between stone, string and motion collapsed, the stone didn’t fall on his head.
Just like every year at Frieze London, the majority of fairgoers were dressed in the obligatory art-fair black. And just like every year, the bigwigs of contemporary photography Wolfgang Tillmans, Ellad Lassry, Ryan McGinley, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, and Thomas Struth were strutting their stuff on the gallery walls. But, among the best-selling greats, were also some unexpected gems – some well-known, others less so. Frieze Masters, showcasing art from ancient to modern and only in its third year, was perhaps the biggest tour de force, with four dedicated photography galleries enticing audiences with works by Lionel Wendt, Keiji Uematsu and Charles Sheeler among others.

“With Frieze Masters we decided from the outset that we would give photography the same platform as painting, drawing and sculpture,” says Victoria Siddall, director of both London-based Frieze fairs. “We felt it was very important not to put the photography dealers into some kind of ghetto as they sometimes are at fairs.”

In this slideshow, I present my favorite picks from across both fairs.

Anne-Celine Jaeger is a contributor to TIME LightBox and the author of Image Makers, Image Takers, published by Thames & Hudson. She previously wrote for LightBox about Jean-François Leroy.

Read more: Eight Photo Discoveries to See at Frieze London and Frieze Masters – LightBox





Barber & Osgerby Reimagines the Frieze Art Fair

London-based designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby are directing their creative talents to a new interior scheme for this month’s Frieze Art Fair in London and a variety of other projects

Oct. 7, 2014 11:13 a.m. ET

DESIGNING MEN | Edward Barber (left) and Jay Osgerby, seated on the Tip Ton chair they designed for Vitra, in their newly expanded Shoreditch offices. Photography by Thomas Giddings for WSJ. Magazine

EDWARD BARBER AND JAY OSGERBY met in 1992 as first-year architecture students at London’s Royal College of Art and became friends almost immediately. A little bored and more than a little underfunded, they jumped when an acquaintance put them up for some freelance work designing a bar. Soon they were skipping classes and running on adrenaline and cigarettes and the occasional round of drinks with the bar owner. (“He was sketchy,” says Barber. “The whole thing was sketchy, actually.”)

Their routine eventually caught up with them.

“I remember one course where we had a morning crit on a project, and we’d been up all night doing the bar,” Osgerby says. “Both of us were standing there, and it was like the firing squad—literally bang, bang, bang. It was awful. Not only did our teachers want to get rid of us, so did everyone in our class. We had jobs, you see.”

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They’re still getting the jobs. Since co-founding Barber & Osgerby in 1996, two years after graduating from RCA, the duo, both 45, have maintained one of the more active design offices in London. Fueled by curiosity about how objects are made and used, they’ve produced a range of work—like the bent-plywood Loop table for Cappellini, the perforated torch for London’s 2012 Olympics and the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, with its convivial, rabbit-hutch lobby—that, while stylistically diverse, always manages to look original and somehow inevitable. Their enthusiasm for research and craft has endeared them to industrial design giants such as Knoll, Vitra and B&B Italia, and the furniture they create for these companies possesses a lucid, streamlined beauty.

FINE LINES | From left: B&O’s projects include a current installation at the V&A Museum’s Raphael Gallery and a limited-edition Iris table for Established & Sons. Courtesy of Barber & Osgerby

Clockwise from top left: Frieze Art Fair; Loop table for Cappellini; coins commemorating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground Courtesy of Barber & Osgerby (loop table, coins); Courtesy of Universal Design Studio

From left: Interior at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch and solar-powered lamp for Louis Vuitton Courtesy of Barber & Osgerby (lamp); Photograph by Mads Perch, Courtesy of Universal Design Studio

This is a busy moment for Barber and Osgerby, with a full spectrum of their work on view across London. First is a new interior scheme for the Frieze Art Fair, held each October in a tent among the ancient oaks of Regent’s Park. Over on Exhibition Road, London’s Science Museum launches Information Age, a 27,000-square-foot permanent gallery, four years in the making, that traces the history of communication over two centuries, from the earliest telegraph receivers to the Soviet BESM-6 supercomputer. Next door at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the designers have temporarily turned the barrel-vaulted Raphael Gallery into an engine room for art, where a pair of massive whirring blades mounted above visitors’ heads reflects Renaissance paintings to the crowd below.

The first two projects are the work of Universal Design Studio, a division Barber & Osgerby launched in 2001 to handle their architecture and interiors practice. In 2011 they complemented Universal with MAP, an industrial design consultancy focused on strategy and innovation. From the beginning, the two have pursued jobs that overstep the neat boundaries of industrial design work, and the firm’s tripartite structure lets them take on projects up and down the supply chain, from conception and planning (the Google Chrome Web Lab in 2012) to the end user (solar-powered lanterns for Louis Vuitton the same year). “In a nutshell,” says Osgerby, “MAP is about thinking, Universal is about building and Barber & Osgerby is about making.”

All three divisions, employing some 60 people, occupy a newly expanded Shoreditch office that meanders through a former warehouse building on Charlotte Road. The principals share a desk in each of the three studios, though they can often be found in one of the basement rooms devoted to model making, a passion for both of them since boyhood. At RCA they developed the habit of drawing opposite each other at the same desk and sequentially folding heavy card paper into experimental shapes. “It was really fraternal,” Osgerby says. “It still is. We both come from families with three boys—I was the oldest and Ed was in the middle—and I think that’s how we’ve managed to get on the way we have.”

Outside the office their lives are notably different. Barber is unmarried, a voracious traveler and a photographer. Osgerby has a wife and three young children and regularly bikes the six miles between the office and his home in Greenwich. And yet they are on a plane together almost every week, sporting identical brown beards and dressed as though from the same closet: jeans, sneakers and loose cotton blazers. (When a new acquaintance mixes them up, Osgerby, the more diminutive, volunteers the mnemonic that “Jay” is shorter than “Edward.”) They juggle factory visits, exploratory meetings and promotional trips, using the travel time to evaluate new jobs and chart the studio’s professional course. As their opportunities have grown, notes Barber, their goals have become more far-reaching. This is especially true in product design: “If you can reinvent an archetype for its function, and not just in a styling way, that’s really something,” he says. “Like the soda bottle to the can—same function, new take. That was reinventing the archetype. That’s big.”

This past summer the studio won a competition for its most ambitious project to date, one that will expose several archetypes to re-examination—the Crossrail train, part of a new high-speed transport line that will hurtle east–west through London and its suburbs in under an hour. It’s a quintessential Barber & Osgerby job: The studio will conceive of not just the train and its contents, but the travel experience as a whole, including acoustics, signage and how people enter and exit the cars.

The Frieze tent, temporary and sprawling at 215,000 square feet, offers an intriguing set of opposites: It’s about creating engagement, not about passing through, and the commission has a budget that is “hilariously small,” notes Frieze co-director Matthew Slotover. It also targets the chauffeur-driven cultural elite—a group the designers have never sought to cultivate—rather than commuters.

“We haven’t wined and dined the art world,” Osgerby says. “We’ve never hung out and been part of the clique—in fact, we’ve never done that with any clique. We’ve just set out to do our own thing.” Perhaps because of that, and despite accolades within the design community (not to mention OBEs bestowed on them by the Crown in 2013), Barber and Osgerby haven’t attained the level of fame that some of their RCA classmates—architect David Adjaye and fashion designer Christopher Bailey, for instance—have.

This doesn’t concern them. They’re less interested in courting status than in the opportunities that tend to float by in its wake. Deyan Sudjic, head of the London Design Museum, believes the pair will make a lasting contribution to the design landscape in a decisively modern way. “They demonstrate a certain pragmatism that was perhaps shaped by their early experiences as students,” he writes in his foreword to the duo’s 2011 monograph.

The designers might put it differently. “We’re over there, beavering away,” Osgerby says. “And people are finally curious.”


The Frieze Effect

As the art world congregates in London for the Frieze art fair, fashion businesses stand to profit.

Frieze art fair | Source: Courtesy

LONDON, United Kingdom — In 2003, the Frieze art fair launched as a modest event in a large tent in London’s Regent’s Park. But twelve years on, the fair and its sibling event, Frieze Masters, attracts 70,000 visitors from around the world and has become the centrepiece of a week-long, city-wide programme of art events. Any cultural organisation that aspires to international status will hold a launch of some kind this week, from the unveiling of Richard Tuttle’s monumental installation at Tate Modern to fly-by-night events in derelict office blocks. As gallerists, collectors, curators, critics, artists and curious civilians converge on London for private views, talks and parties, it can be easy to forget that the increasingly buzzy atmosphere surrounds a marketplace. Frieze exists for the buying and selling of art — and, as it grows, the acquisitive urge of those it attracts has been flowing out of the fair and into the city’s fashion retailers.

“Our customers always love our events during Frieze. It’s our busiest time of the year,” says Adrian Joffe, chief executive of Dover Street Market, whose original store is positioned on Dover Street, in London’s Mayfair, a stone’s throw from a number of blue-chip art galleries. Unlike London Fashion Week, which brings with it an entourage of press and store buyers, Frieze attracts an aesthetically sophisticated, wealthy clientele that makes for an excellent fit with the store, which is run by a subsidiary of Comme des Garçons. “Our customers during Frieze are like the ones that come to us all the time — fashion-forward, independent, creative, curious, cool, strong, interested in art and design, daring, lovely and wonderful — there are just more of them about during Frieze,” added Joffe.

Dover Street Market actively tempts Frieze-goers with a richer-than-usual programme of exhibits and events, which this year includes installations by French artist Nicolas Buffe and designer Ann Demeulemeester, as well as the unveiling of Louis Vuitton’s Icons and Iconoclasts collection, featuring a collaboration with the artist Cindy Sherman.

Dover Street Market's 2013 Frieze window by Rei Kawakubo, featuring the work of Katsuhiro Otomo | Source: Courtesy

The Frieze private view on the Tuesday night of the fair often more closely resembles a long snaking catwalk — or perhaps the red carpet of a film premiere — than an art gallery, peppered as it is with the gorgeous, the extravagant and the brilliantly peculiar. Under the flooding white lights of the big tent in Regent’s Park everyone is on display. But it’s not all about billionaires’ wives wearing 12cm heels and 10cm skirts as they eye up the Oscar Murillos and ponder which will best match their carefully curated scatter cushions. The Frieze effect is also important to fashion brands that court those working in the creative industries.

“Our heads of design Karin Gustafsson and Martin Andersson are always at the fair,” says Atul Pathak, head of communications for COS. “We find that we are fortunate enough see a lot of our collection represented in the outfits of the people in the fair itself. It makes us feel that we are talking to the right audience.” In previous years, COS has supported Frame, a section of Frieze dedicated to young galleries. “We think our customers have a strong interest across the design world and in contemporary art — it feels like it’s integral to the brand.”

For the last few years, the family-run, Italian luxury goods company Etro has launched artist collaboration projects to coincide with Frieze week. This year, they are unveiling an accessory collection created with the Japanese artist Mika Ninagawa, accompanied by celebratory events aimed at those in town for the fair. “We are keen collectors of contemporary and ancient art,” explains creative director Jacopo Etro, adding that, as a house known for its prints and patterns, his family’s interest in art provides it with an important source of inspiration. For Etro, Frieze carries “a particular atmosphere, a moment of sharing and joyfulness, spreading energy and positivity all around the city…. You can feel excitement in the air.” Whilst the house’s artist collaborations are meant to represent a celebration of creativity, Etro is happy to say “that these kinds of projects have a good impact on sales as well.”

The relationship is, of course, a reciprocal one, benefiting not just retailers, but also the participating artists. “The art scene in Britain has changed a lot in recent years,” notes Linda Hewson, creative director of Selfridges. “The fact is that the arts need public and commercial support now more than ever to ultimately reach as wide an audience as possible.” This year, Selfridges’ Old Hotel will act as an off-site project space for Frieze and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, with live events staged by performers including Korakrit Arunanondchai and Boychild. “We go to Frieze every year and have done since its launch,” says Hewson. “It’s part of our cultural research into the global art scene, market and trends. The fair is an important moment on the cultural calendar in London because it creates a buzz of peripheral art happenings and openings.”

Selfridges first hosted an ICA off-site project last year and it drew thousands of new visitors – a much larger audience than would generally visit the cerebral, iconoclastic ICA’s comparatively diminutive galleries on the Mall. Positioning itself somewhere between the glitz of Frieze and the grit of the ICA suits Selfridges well, explains Hewson: “If you consider Frieze as aspirational in terms of the cultural elite who attend and spend, then there is an overlap with our international clientele. If you consider the ICA as being on the knife’s edge of contemporary creativity then perhaps the more pertinent overlap is with our savvy London clientele who relate to such art forms more. But good, even great, exciting art draws audiences from all walks of life.”

Korakrit Arunanondchai and boychild, part of Selfridges' Frieze week live programme | Source: Courtesy, Photo: Charles Roussel

Such off-site projects, performances and events are of increasing importance because the consumer who attends Frieze is, as Hewson notes, looking for something that is one-of-a-kind, unique, experiential.Alexander McQueen, which first became an official sponsor of the fair in 2013, is, this year, putting its name behind Live, Frieze’s inaugural performance art programme. And, for the first time, this year, Gucci is one of the sponsors of the Frieze Masters fair, which is held on a separate site and focuses on historical art.

For both brands, the choice of association is telling. Gucci has allied itself with the talks programme of Frieze Masters, which features names that may be familiar to the brand’s customer base, including South African artist William Kentridge and best-selling author and ceramicist Edmund de Waal. Meanwhile, Alexander McQueen is stepping up to support challenging live art, including an explicit critique of lifestyle branding by the New York-based collective Shanzhai Biennial, which tallies well with the house’s history of spectacular and often provocative shows. “Performance art has had its highs and lows in terms of acceptance and popularity, but it’s certainly the most experimental art practice and there’s a new and rejuvenated energy,” notes Jonathan Akeroyd, chief executive of Alexander McQueen. “As a brand, Alexander McQueen has always been at the forefront of pushing boundaries.”

In describing the fair, Akeroyd makes an important distinction between the convivial, welcoming atmosphere of Frieze and the comparatively quiet formality that many associate with galleries and museums. Part of his intention in supporting Frieze is to help broaden the audience for contemporary art, as well as profit from the crossover potential with the fashion industry. In addition to showing works from the Sadie Coles gallery in a glass vitrine in their Savile Row store, Alexander McQueen will host events that bring together key players from the art and fashion industries.

“Lee McQueen was a big collector and Frieze was always a highlight of his year; he would also ensure that he was always one of the first to visit the fair on the opening day,” explains Akeroyd. “Obviously being a creative company pretty much all of our staff have a high level of interest in the art world and it is great that we all now feel more connected to the fair through our involvement.”




Beyoncé and Jay Z Match During Date Night in London: See the Cute Coordinating Couple!

Beyonce, Jay ZSplash News

Beyoncé and Jay Z are taking London!

The 33-year-old “Flawless” singer and her 44-year-old hubby stepped out in London Wednesday night dressed in coordinating black and white outfits.

For their date night, Bey looked super fashionable in a black and white polka dot skirt and a black and white patterned blouse under a black motorcycle jacket. Beyoncé completed her monochromatic ensemble with black sunglasses, black and white striped heels and hernew blunt bangs. And for her man, he sported black pants and a white hoodie under a black jacket.

Talks about one cute coordinating couple!


Beyonce Knowles, Jay ZNeil P. Mockford/GC Images

As for their outing, Bey and Jay attended the annual Frieze Art Fair together in London’s Regents Park.

Earlier today, Beyoncé and Jay were spotted leaving an art gallery together looking cute and colorful. Bey looked chic in a white skirt that featured a black, orange and blue pattern paired with a black and white top, sunglasses and black heels. Her hubby followed behind her wearing black pants and a gray designer hoodie.

Beyoncé has been out and about a lot since debuting her new bangs the other day. Bey stepped out in Paris Tuesday morning with the surprising new ‘do.



Bloomberg News

Hirst Tops Sales as Buyers Pick $2.2 Billion Frieze Art

October 15, 2014

“Forgings” by American Sculptor David Smith

Mnuchin Gallery sold one of four sculptures from the 1955 “Forgings” series by American sculptor David Smith for $2.5 million at Frieze in London. Source: Mnuchin Gallery via Bloomberg

Damien Hirst, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol works sold for more than $3 million each as wealthy collectors got first dibs at the opening of the Frieze Art Fair in London.

Select guests including billionaire Indonesian collector Budi Tek, who opened a private museum in Shanghai in May, actress Sienna Miller and architect Zaha Hadid packed 162 galleries this week at the main contemporary art fair in Regent’s Park and 127 booths at Frieze Masters, a sister event showing modern and historic works.

Frieze Week is Europe’s biggest concentration of commercial fairs, public sales and gallery shows, offering as much as $2.2 billion of art. Frieze, whose organizers expect 70,000 people to attend the two fairs, runs through Oct. 18; Frieze Masters closes Oct. 19.

Contemporary-art sales at public auctions globally totaled 1.5 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in the 12 months to July 3, up 33 percent from the previous year, according to Paris-based arts data researcher Artprice.

Dealers reported brisk sales in the first two days of the fair. Within the first hour of the Frieze Masters preview, Mnuchin Gallery sold one of four elongated varnished steel sculptures from the 1955 “Forgings” series by U.S. sculptor David Smith for $2.5 million to a private collector.

“Americans know David Smith, but we need to broaden his audience,” Robert Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive whose New York gallery specializes in postwar art, said of the artist who died in 1965. “I’ve already had a lot of interest from non-U.S. collectors.”

Many of the bigger sales were at Frieze Masters, which had booths showing works by Francis Bacon, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens.

Warhol’s “The Scream (After Munch),” a 1984 work inspired by the Norwegian artist, was sold by Skarstedt Gallery for about $5.5 million to a private collector.

Formaldehyde Fish

At the main fair, Hirst’s “Because I Can’t Have You I Want You,” a 1993 diptych of glass-enclosed fish in formaldehyde, fetched 4 million pounds at White Cube within minutes of the opening preview. The gallery, with branches in London, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo, also sold a 2001 piece composed of an electric microphone, metal stands and electrical cords by David Hammons for $4 million.

“I can’t keep up with the sales,” said David Maupin of Lehmann Maupin, which sold British artist Tracey Emin’s embroidered calico of a reclining woman in a price range of 120,000 to 175,000 pounds. The New York and Hong Kong gallery also sold Mickalene Thomas’s 2008 work composed of rhinestone-encrusted portraits in the 60,000-to-100,000-pound range.

Kaws’s Creature

“Final Days,” an almost 7-foot-tall black sculpture of a creature with big feet, hands and ears by Brooklyn, New York-based artist Kaws sold for about $300,000 at Galerie Perrotin, which has galleries in New York, Paris and Hong Kong. An almost 10-foot-fall 2014 bronze sculpture of a standing sausage by Erwin Wurm sold for 250,000 euros at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, which is in Paris and Salzburg, Austria.

Sigmar Polke’s untitled 2003 gouache on paper abstract, sold for $800,000 at Michael Werner Gallery of New York and London. New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery sold drawings and a sculpture by Diana Al-Hadid, who was born in Syria and lives in Brooklyn, made of stainless steel treated with plaster and fiberglass at prices from $20,000 to $120,000.

Texts by Artists and Theorist Hito Steyerl


01 2010


Aesthetics of Resistance?

Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict

Hito Steyerl

What is artistic research today? At present no one seems to know an answer to this question. Artistic research is treated as one of the multiple practices which are defined by indefinition, constantly in flux, lacking coherence and identity. But what if this view were indeed misleading? What if we actually knew more about it than we thought? In order to discuss this proposition, let’s first have a look at current debates around artistic research. It seems as if one of their most important concerns is the transformation of artistic research into an academic discipline. There are discussions about curriculum, degrees, method, practical application, pedagogy. On the other hand, there is also substantial criticism of this approach. It addresses the institutionalization of artistic research as being complicit with new modes of production within cognitive capitalism: commodified education, creative and affective industries, administrative aesthetics, and so on. Both perspectives agree on one point: artistic research is at present being constituted as a more or less normative, academic discipline.

A discipline is of course disciplinarian; it normalizes, generalizes and regulates; it rehearses a set of responses, and in this case, trains people to function in an environment of symbolic labor, permanent design and streamlined creativity. But then again, what is a discipline apart from all of this? A discipline may be oppressive, but this is also precisely why it points to the issue it keeps under control. It indexes a suppressed, an avoided or potential conflict. A discipline hints at a conflict immobilized. It is a practice to channel and exploit its energies and to incorporate them into the powers that be. Why would one need a discipline if it wasn’t to discipline somebody or something? Any discipline can thus also be seen from the point of view of conflict.

Let me give an example: a project I recently realized, called The Building. It deals with the construction history of a Nazi building on the main square in Linz, Austria; it investigates its background, the stories of the people who actually built it, and also looks at the materials used in the building. The construction was performed by partly foreign forced laborers and some of the former inhabitants of the site were persecuted, dispossessed and murdered. During the research it also actually turned out that some of the building stones were produced in the notorious quarry of concentration camp Mauthausen, where thousands of people were killed.

There are at least two different ways of describing this building. One and the same stone used for the building can be said to have gained its shape according to the paradigm of neoclassicist architecture, which would be the official description given on the building itself. Or it can be described as having probably been shaped by a stone mason in concentration camp Mauthausen, who was likely a former Spanish Republican fighter. The conclusion is obvious: the same stone can be described from the point of view of a discipline, which classifies and names. But it can also be read as a trace of a suppressed conflict.

But why would this very local project be relevant for a reflection about artistic research as such? Because parts of this building also coincidentally house the Linz Art Academy. This building is a location, where artistic research is currently being integrated into academic structures: there is a department for artistic research inside this building. Thus, any investigation of the building might turn out as a sort of institutional metareflection on the contemporary conditions of artistic research as such.

In this sense: where is the conflict, or rather what are the extensive sets of conflicts underlying this new academic discipline? Who is currently building its walls, using which materials, produced by whom? Who are the builders of the discipline and where are their traces?

Discipline and Conflict

So, what are the conflicts, and where are the boundaries then? Seen from the point of view of many current contributions, artistic research seems more or less confined to the contemporary metropolitan art academy. Actual artistic research looks like a set of art practices by predominantly metropolitan artists acting as ethnographers, sociologists, product or social designers. It gives the impression of being an asset of technologically and conceptually advanced First World capitalism, trying to upgrade its population to efficiently function in a knowledge economy, and as a by-product, casually surveying the rest of the world as well. But if we look at artistic research from the perspective of conflict or more precisely of social struggles, a map of practices emerges that spans most of the 20th century and also most of the globe. It becomes obvious that the current debates do not fully acknowledge the legacy of the long, varied and truly international history of artistic research which has been understood in terms of an aesthetics of resistance.

Aesthetics of Resistance is the title of Peter Weiss’ seminal novel, released in the early 1980s, which presents an alternative reading of art history as well as an account of the history of anti-fascist resistance from 1933 to 1945. Throughout the novel Weiss explicitly uses the term “artistic research (künstlerische Forschung)” to refer to practices such as Brecht’s writing factory in exile. He also points to the factographic and partly also productivist practices in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, mentioning the documentary work of Sergei Tretjakov, among many others. Thus he establishes a genealogy of aesthetic research, which is related to the history of emancipatory struggles throughout the 20th century.

Since the 1920s, extremely sophisticated debates about artistic epistemologies were waged on terms like fact, reality, objectivity, inquiry within the circles of Soviet factographers, cinematographers and artists. For factographers, a fact is an outcome of a process of production. Fact comes from facere, to make or to do. So in this sense the fact is made or even made up. This should not come as a surprise to us in the age of poststructuralist, metaphysical skepticism. But the range of aesthetic approaches which were developed as research tools almost 100 years ago is stupefying.

Authors like Vertov, Stepanova, Tretjakov, Popova and Rodchenko invent complex procedures of investigation, such as the cine-eye, the cine-truth, the biography of the object or photomontage. They work on human perception and practice and actively try to integrate scientific attitudes into their work. And scientific creation is flowing as a result of many of these developments. In his autobiography, Roman Jakobson describes in detail how avantgarde art practices inspired him to develop his specific ideas on linguistics.

Of course throughout history many different approaches of this type of research have existed. We could also mention the efforts of the artists employed by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) of creating essayistic photojournalistic inquiries during the Great Depression in the US. In all these cases, the artistic research is ambivalently co-opted into state policies – although to a different extent and with completely different consequences. Around the same time Tretyakov got shot during the Stalinist terror, Walker Evans had a solo show at the MoMa.

Another method of artistic inquiry, which is based on several related sets of conflict and crisis is the essayistic approach. In 1940, Hans Richter coins the term film essay or essay film as capable of visualizing theoretical ideas. He refers to one of his own works already made in 1927 called Inflation, an extremely interesting experimental film about capitalism running amok. Richter argues that a new filmic language has to be developed in order to deal with abstract processes such as the capitalist economy. How does one show these abstractions, how does one visualize the immaterial? These questions are reactualized in contemporary art practices, but they have a long history.

The essay as filmic approach also embraces the perspective of anticolonial resistance. One of the first so-called essay films is the anticolonial film-essay Les statues meurent aussi, by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, about racism in dealing with African art. The film is commissioned by a magazine calledPresence africaine which counts as its editors people like Aimé Césaire or Leopold Senghor, main theoreticians of the so-called negritude movement in the 1930s. Only a few years later Theodor Adorno’s text, The Essay as Form, appears in which he ponders on the resistant characteristics of the essay as subversive method of thought. To Adorno the essay means the reshuffling of the realms of the aesthetic and epistemological, which undermines the dominant division of labor.

And then we enter the whole period of the 1960s with their international struggles, tricontinentalism and so on. Frantz Fanon’s slogan: “…we must discuss, we must invent…” is the motto of the manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, written by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969, in a context of dictatorship in Argentina. The relation of art and science is again explicitly mentioned in Julio Garcia Espinosa’s manifesto For an Imperfect Cinema (1969). Other methods of artistic research include situationist derive and workers inquiries, constructivist montage, cut ups, biomechanics, oral history, deconstructive or surrealist anthropology, the diffusion of counterinformation as well as aesthetic journalism. Some of these methods are more easily absorbed into the art mainstream than others. Especially strongly dematerialized practices with pronounced modernist features are quickly absorbed into information capitalism because they are compressed, quick to absorb and easily transmitted.

It is no coincidence that many of the practices mentioned here have been dealing with classical problems of documentary representation from very different perspectives: its function as power/knowledge, its epistemological problems, its relation to reality and the challenge of creating a new one. Documentary styles and forms have forever grappled with the uneven mix of rationality and creativity, between subjectivity and objectivity, between the power of creation and the power of conservation.

It is no coincidence either that many of the historical methods of artistic research are tied to social or revolutionary movements, or to moments of crisis and reform. In this perspective, the outline of a global network of struggles is revealed, which spans almost the whole 20th century, which is transversal, relational, and (in many, though far from all cases) emancipatory.

It is a coincidence, however, that Peter Weiss´ Aesthetics of Resistance also mentions the main square of Linz: the site of The Building. He describes a scene in which members of the International Brigades in Spain listen to a broadcast of the enthusiastic reception for Hitler and the German troops on Linz’s main square in March 1938. But Weiss’ protagonist notices a very small (and entirely hypothetical) moment in resistance pointed out by the radio journalist: some of the windows on the square remain unlit, and the journalist is quick to point out that the flats of the Jews are located there. Actually during the research it turned out that one of the Jewish families living there had dispersed to three different continents and two members of the family had been murdered. One of the latter was a person called Ernst Samuely who was supposedly a communist. After many ordeals, he joined a Jewish partisan group on the Polish border before disappearing. So, if we look at the Linz building from this point of view, we see that it dissolves into a network of international routes and relations, which relate to oppression but also to resistance: it relates to what Walter Benjamin once called “the tradition of the oppressed.”

The Perspective of Conflict

If we keep applying the global and transversal perspective to the debate around artistic research, the temporal and spatial limitations of contemporary metropolitan debates are revealed. It simply does not make any sense to continue the discussion as if practices of artistic research do not have a long and extensive history well beyond conceptual art practices – which is one of the very few historical examples to be mentioned, although very rarely. From the point of view of social struggles, the discontinuous genealogy of artistic research becomes an almost global one, with a long and frequently interrupted history. The geographical distribution of artistic research practices also dramatically changes in this perspective. Since some locations were particularly affected by the conjunction of power and knowledge, which arose with the formation of capitalism and colonialism, strategies of epistemic disobedience had to be invented.

A power/knowledge/art, which reduced whole populations to objects of knowledge, domination and representation, had to be countered not only by social struggle and revolt, but also by epistemological and aesthetic innovation. Thus reversing the perspective and focusing on discipline as an index of conflict also reverses the direction in which art history has been written as an account of peripheral artists copying and catching up with Western art trends. We could just as well say that many contemporary metropolitan artists are only now catching up with the complexity of debates around reality and representation that Soviet factographers had already developed in the 1920s.

Specific and Singular

In all these methods, two elements collide: a claim to specificity clashes with a claim to singularity. What does this mean? One aspect of the work claims to participate in a general paradigm, within a discourse that can be shared and which is manufactured according to certain criteria. More often than not, scientific, legalistic or journalistic truth procedures underly this method of research. These methodologies are pervaded by power relations as many theorists have demonstrated.

On the other hand, artistic research projects in many cases also lay claim to singularity. They create a certain artistic set up, which claims to be relatively unique and produces its own field of reference and logic. This provides it with a certain autonomy, in some cases an edge of resistance against dominant modes of knowledge production. In other cases, this assumed singularity just sexes up a quantitative survey, or to use a famous expression by Benjamin Buchloh, creates an aesthetic of administration.[1]

While specific methods generate a shared terrain of knowledge – which is consequently pervaded by power structures – singular methods follow their own logic. While this may avoid the replication of existing structures of power/knowledge, it also creates the problem of the proliferation of parallel universes, which each speak their own, untranslatable language. Practices of artistic research usually partake in both registers, the singular as well as the specific; they speak several languages at once.

Thus, one could imagine a semiotic square*, which would roughly map the tensions which become apparent during the transformation of artistic research into an academic and/or economic discipline. Of course, this scheme is misleading, since one would have to draw a new one for every singular point of view which is investigated. But it shows the tensions which both frame and undermine the institutionalization of artistic research.

Artistic Research as Translation

The multilinguality of artistic research implies that artistic research is an act of translation. It takes part in at least two languages and can in some cases create new ones. It speaks the language of quality as well as of quantity, the language of the singular as well as the language of the specific, use value as well as exchange value or spectacle value, discipline as well as conflict; and it translates between all of these. This does not mean that it translates correctly – but it translates, nevertheless.

At this point, one should emphasize that this is also the case with so-called autonomous artworks, which have no pretense whatsoever to partake in any kind of research. This does not mean they cannot be quantified or become part of disciplinary practices, because they are routinely quantified on the art market in the form of pricing and integrated into art histories and other systems of value. Thus, most art practices exist in one or another type of translation, but this type of translation does not jeopardize the division of labor established between art historians and gallerists, between artists and researchers, between the mind and senses. In fact, a lot of the conservative animosity towards artistic research stems from a feeling of threat, because of the dissolution of these boundaries, and this is why artistic research is often dismissed in everyday practice as neither art nor research.

But the quantification processes involved in the evaluation or valorization of artistic research are slightly different than the traditional procedures of quantification. Artistic research as a discipline not only sets and enforces certain standards but also presents an attempt to extract or produce a different type of value in art. Apart from the art market, a secondary market develops for those practices which lack in fetish value. This secondary value is established by quantification and integration into (increasingly) commodified education systems. Additionally, a sort of social surplus embedded into a pedagogical understanding of art comes into play. Both combined create a pull towards the production of applied or applicable knowledge/art, which can be used for entrepreneurial innovation, social cohesion, city marketing, and thousands of other aspects of cultural capitalism. From this perspective, artistic research indeed looks like a new version of the applied arts, a new and largely immaterial craft, which is being instituted as a discipline in many different places.


At the end, let me come back to the beginning: we know more about artistic research than we think. And this concerns the most disquieting findings of the project around The Building in Linz. It is more than likely, that after the war, radiators were taken from the now abandoned concentration camp Mauthausen and reinstalled into the building. If this plan documented in the historical files was executed, then the radiators are still there and have quietly been heating the building ever since. A visit with an expert confirmed that the radiators have never been exchanged in the Eastern part of the building and that, moreover, some of the radiators had already been used, when they had been installed around 1948. The make of those radiators corresponds to the few radiators seen in contemporary photos of concentration camp Mauthausen. Now, of course, radiators were not in use in the prisoners barracks. They were in use in some work rooms, like the laundry room. They were in use in the prisoners office and the prisoners brothel, where female inmates from another concentration camp had to work.

But what do we make of the fact that the Department for Artistic Research (its coordination office is located in The Building, according to the website) could soon find itself being heated by the same radiators, which were mute witnesses of the plight of female inmates in the concentration camp brothel? To quote the website of the Linz art academy, “artistic-scientific research belongs to the core tasks of the Art University Linz, and artistic practice and scientific research are combined under one roof. The confrontation and/or combination of science and art require intense research and artistic development in a methodological perspective, in the areas of knowledge transfers and questions of mediation. Cultural Studies, art history, media theory, several strategies of mediation as well as art and Gender Studies in the context of concrete art production are essential elements of the profile of the university.” What are the conditions of this research? What is the biography of its historical infrastructure and how can reflecting on it help us to break through the infatuation with discipline and institutionalization and to sharpen a historical focus in thinking about artistic research? Obviously not every building will turn out to house such a surprising infrastructure. But the general question remains: what do we do with an ambivalent discipline, which is institutionalized and disciplined under this type of conditions? How can we emphasize the historical and global dimension of artistic research and underline the perspective of conflict? And when is it time to turn off the lights?





SCIENCE /                                              PUBLIC DEBATE /
ART HISTORY                                       COUNTERINFORMATION


DISCIPLINE                                                                                                                    RESISTANCE


ART MARKET /                                      AESTHETIC AUTONOMY






This text appeared first in mahkuzine 8, winter 2010,



[1] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, in: October, Vol. 55. (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143.



Hito Steyerl | Politics of Post-Representation

From the militarization of social media to the corporatization of the art world, Hito Steyerl’s writings represent some of the most influential bodies of work in contemporary cultural criticism today. As a documentary filmmaker, she has created multiple works addressing the widespread proliferation of images in contemporary media, deepening her engagement with the technological conditions of globalization. Steyerl’s work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions including documenta 12, Taipei Biennial 2010, and 7th Shanghai Biennial. She currently teaches New Media Art at Berlin University of the Arts.

Hito Steyerl, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)

Marvin Jordan I’d like to open our dialogue by acknowledging the central theme for which your work is well known — broadly speaking, the socio-technological conditions of visual culture — and move toward specific concepts that underlie your research (representation, identification, the relationship between art and capital, etc). In your essay titled “Is a Museum a Factory?” you describe a kind of ‘political economy’ of seeing that is structured in contemporary art spaces, and you emphasize that a social imbalance — an exploitation of affective labor — takes place between the projection of cinematic art and its audience. This analysis leads you to coin the term “post-representational” in service of experimenting with new modes of politics and aesthetics. What are the shortcomings of thinking in “representational” terms today, and what can we hope to gain from transitioning to a “post-representational” paradigm of art practices, if we haven’t arrived there already?

Hito Steyerl Let me give you one example. A while ago I met an extremely interesting developer in Holland. He was working on smart phone camera technology. A representational mode of thinking photography is: there is something out there and it will be represented by means of optical technology ideally via indexical link. But the technology for the phone camera is quite different. As the lenses are tiny and basically crap, about half of the data captured by the sensor are noise. The trick is to create the algorithm to clean the picture from the noise, or rather to define the picture from within noise. But how does the camera know this? Very simple. It scans all other pictures stored on the phone or on your social media networks and sifts through your contacts. It looks through the pictures you already made, or those that are networked to you and tries to match faces and shapes. In short: it creates the picture based on earlier pictures, on your/its memory. It does not only know what you saw but also what you might like to see based on your previous choices. In other words, it speculates on your preferences and offers an interpretation of data based on affinities to other data. The link to the thing in front of the lens is still there, but there are also links to past pictures that help create the picture. You don’t really photograph the present, as the past is woven into it.


The result might be a picture that never existed in reality, but that the phone thinks you might like to see. It is a bet, a gamble, some combination between repeating those things you have already seen and coming up with new versions of these, a mixture of conservatism and fabulation. The paradigm of representation stands to the present condition as traditional lens-based photography does to an algorithmic, networked photography that works with probabilities and bets on inertia. Consequently, it makes seeing unforeseen things more difficult. The noise will increase and random interpretation too. We might think that the phone sees what we want, but actually we will see what the phone thinks it knows about us. A complicated relationship — like a very neurotic marriage. I haven’t even mentioned external interference into what your phone is recording. All sorts of applications are able to remotely shut your camera on or off: companies, governments, the military. It could be disabled for whole regions. One could, for example, disable recording functions close to military installations, or conversely, live broadcast whatever you are up to. Similarly, the phone might be programmed to auto-pixellate secret or sexual content. It might be fitted with a so-called dick algorithm to screen out NSFW content or auto-modify pubic hair, stretch or omit bodies, exchange or collage context or insert AR advertisement and pop up windows or live feeds. Now lets apply this shift to the question of representative politics or democracy. The representational paradigm assumes that you vote for someone who will represent you. Thus the interests of the population will be proportionally represented. But current democracies work rather like smartphone photography by algorithmically clearing the noise and boosting some data over other. It is a system in which the unforeseen has a hard time happening because it is not yet in the database. It is about what to define as noise — something Jacques Ranciere has defined as the crucial act in separating political subjects from domestic slaves, women and workers. Now this act is hardwired into technology, but instead of the traditional division of people and rabble, the results are post-representative militias, brands, customer loyalty schemes, open source insurgents and tumblrs.

Additionally, Ranciere’s democratic solution: there is no noise, it is all speech. Everyone has to be seen and heard, and has to be realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight: you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear. There are a lot of brightly lit glossy surfaces, yet they don’t reveal anything but themselves as surface. Whatever there is — it’s all there to see but in the form of an incomprehensible, Kafkaesque glossiness, written in extraterrestrial code, perhaps subject to secret legislation. It certainly expresses something: a format, a protocol or executive order, but effectively obfuscates its meaning. This is a far cry from a situation in which something—an image, a person, a notion — stood in for another and presumably acted in its interest. Today it stands in, but its relation to whatever it stands in for is cryptic, shiny, unstable; the link flickers on and off. Art could relish in this shiny instability — it does already. It could also be less baffled and mesmerised and see it as what the gloss mostly is about – the not-so-discreet consumer friendly veneer of new and old oligarchies, and plutotechnocracies.

MJ In your insightful essay, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, you extend your critique of representation by focusing on an irreducible excess at the core of image spam, a residue of unattainability, or the “dark matter” of which it’s composed. It seems as though an unintelligible horizon circumscribes image spam by image spam itself, a force of un-identifiability, which you detect by saying that it is “an accurate portrayal of what humanity is actually not… a negative image.” Do you think this vacuous core of image spam — a distinctly negative property — serves as an adequate ground for a general theory of representation today? How do you see today’s visual culture affecting people’s behavior toward identification with images?

HS Think of Twitter bots for example. Bots are entities supposed to be mistaken for humans on social media web sites. But they have become formidable political armies too — in brilliant examples of how representative politics have mutated nowadays. Bot armies distort discussion on twitter hashtags by spamming them with advertisement, tourist pictures or whatever. Bot armies have been active in Mexico, Syria, Russia and Turkey, where most political parties, above all the ruling AKP are said to control 18,000 fake twitter accounts using photos of Robbie Williams, Megan Fox and gay porn stars. A recent article revealed that, “in order to appear authentic, the accounts don’t just tweet out AKP hashtags; they also quote philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and movies like PS: I Love You.” It is ever more difficult to identify bots – partly because humans are being paid to enter CAPTCHAs on their behalf (1,000 CAPTCHAs equals 50 USD cents). So what is a bot army? And how and whom does it represent if anyone? Who is an AKP bot that wears the face of a gay porn star and quotes Hobbes’ Leviathan — extolling the need of transforming the rule of militias into statehood in order to escape the war of everyone against everyone else? Bot armies are a contemporary vox pop, the voice of the people, the voice of what the people are today. It can be a Facebook militia, your low cost personalized mob, your digital mercenaries. Imagine your photo is being used for one of these bots. It is the moment when your picture becomes quite autonomous, active, even militant. Bot armies are celebrity militias, wildly jump cutting between glamour, sectarianism, porn, corruption and Post-Baath Party ideology. Think of the meaning of the word “affirmative action” after twitter bots and like farms! What does it represent?

MJ You have provided a compelling account of the depersonalization of the status of the image: a new process of de-identification that favors materialist participation in the circulation of images today.  Within the contemporary technological landscape, you write that “if identification is to go anywhere, it has to be with this material aspect of the image, with the image as thing, not as representation. And then it perhaps ceases to be identification, and instead becomes participation.” How does this shift from personal identification to material circulation — that is, to cybernetic participation — affect your notion of representation? If an image is merely “a thing like you and me,” does this amount to saying that identity is no more, no less than a .jpeg file?

HS Social media makes the shift from representation to participation very clear: people participate in the launch and life span of images, and indeed their life span, spread and potential is defined by participation. Think of the image not as surface but as all the tiny light impulses running through fiber at any one point in time. Some images will look like deep sea swarms, some like cities from space, some are utter darkness. We could see the energy imparted to images by capital or quantified participation very literally, we could probably measure its popular energy in lumen. By partaking in circulation, people participate in this energy and create it.
What this means is a different question though — by now this type of circulation seems a little like the petting zoo of plutotechnocracies. It’s where kids are allowed to make a mess — but just a little one — and if anyone organizes serious dissent, the seemingly anarchic sphere of circulation quickly reveals itself as a pedantic police apparatus aggregating relational metadata. It turns out to be an almost Althusserian ISA (Internet State Apparatus), hardwired behind a surface of ‘kawaii’ apps and online malls. As to identity, Heartbleed and more deliberate governmental hacking exploits certainly showed that identity goes far beyond a relationship with images: it entails a set of private keys, passwords, etc., that can be expropriated and detourned. More generally, identity is the name of the battlefield over your code — be it genetic, informational, pictorial. It is also an option that might provide protection if you fall beyond any sort of modernist infrastructure. It might offer sustenance, food banks, medical service, where common services either fail or don’t exist. If the Hezbollah paradigm is so successful it is because it provides an infrastructure to go with the Twitter handle, and as long as there is no alternative many people need this kind of container for material survival. Huge religious and quasi-religious structures have sprung up in recent decades to take up the tasks abandoned by states, providing protection and survival in a reversal of the move described in Leviathan. Identity happens when the Leviathan falls apart and nothing is left of the commons but a set of policed relational metadata, Emoji and hijacked hashtags. This is the reason why the gay AKP pornstar bots are desperately quoting Hobbes’ book: they are already sick of the war of Robbie Williams (Israel Defense Forces) against Robbie Williams (Electronic Syrian Army) against Robbie Williams (PRI/AAP) and are hoping for just any entity to organize day care and affordable dentistry.


But beyond all the portentous vocabulary relating to identity, I believe that a widespread standard of the contemporary condition is exhaustion. The interesting thing about Heartbleed — to come back to one of the current threats to identity (as privacy) — is that it is produced by exhaustion and not effort. It is a bug introduced by open source developers not being paid for something that is used by software giants worldwide. Nor were there apparently enough resources to audit the code in the big corporations that just copy-pasted it into their applications and passed on the bug, fully relying on free volunteer labour to produce their proprietary products. Heartbleed records exhaustion by trying to stay true to an ethics of commonality and exchange that has long since been exploited and privatized. So, that exhaustion found its way back into systems. For many people and for many reasons — and on many levels — identity is just that: shared exhaustion.

MJ This is an opportune moment to address the labor conditions of social media practice in the context of the art space. You write that “an art space is a factory, which is simultaneously a supermarket — a casino and a place of worship whose reproductive work is performed by cleaning ladies and cellphone-video bloggers alike.” Incidentally, DIS launched a website calledArtSelfie just over a year ago, which encourages social media users to participate quite literally in “cellphone-video blogging” by aggregating their Instagram #artselfies in a separately integrated web archive. Given our uncanny coincidence, how can we grasp the relationship between social media blogging and the possibility of participatory co-curating on equal terms? Is there an irreconcilable antagonism between exploited affective labor and a genuinely networked art practice? Or can we move beyond — to use a phrase of yours — a museum crowd “struggling between passivity and overstimulation?”

HS I wrote this in relation to something my friend Carles Guerra noticed already around early 2009; big museums like the Tate were actively expanding their online marketing tools, encouraging people to basically build the museum experience for them by sharing, etc. It was clear to us that audience participation on this level was a tool of extraction and outsourcing, following a logic that has turned online consumers into involuntary data providers overall. Like in the previous example – Heartbleed – the paradigm of participation and generous contribution towards a commons tilts quickly into an asymmetrical relation, where only a minority of participants benefits from everyone’s input, the digital 1 percent reaping the attention value generated by the 99 percent rest.

Brian Kuan Wood put it very beautifully recently: Love is debt, an economy of love and sharing is what you end up with when left to your own devices. However, an economy based on love ends up being an economy of exhaustion – after all, love is utterly exhausting — of deregulation, extraction and lawlessness. And I don’t even want to mention likes, notes and shares, which are the child-friendly, sanitized versions of affect as currency.
All is fair in love and war. It doesn’t mean that love isn’t true or passionate, but just that love is usually uneven, utterly unfair and asymmetric, just as capital tends to be distributed nowadays. It would be great to have a little bit less love, a little more infrastructure.

MJ Long before Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations reshaped our discussions of mass surveillance, you wrote that “social media and cell-phone cameras have created a zone of mutual mass-surveillance, which adds to the ubiquitous urban networks of control,” underscoring the voluntary, localized, and bottom-up mutuality intrinsic to contemporary systems of control. You go on to say that “hegemony is increasingly internalized, along with the pressure to conform and perform, as is the pressure to represent and be represented.” But now mass government surveillance is common knowledge on a global scale — ‘externalized’, if you will — while social media representation practices remain as revealing as they were before. Do these recent developments, as well as the lack of change in social media behavior, contradict or reinforce your previous statements? In other words, how do you react to the irony that, in the same year as the unprecedented NSA revelations, “selfie” was deemed word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries?

HS Haha — good question!

Essentially I think it makes sense to compare our moment with the end of the twenties in the Soviet Union, when euphoria about electrification, NEP (New Economic Policy), and montage gives way to bureaucracy, secret directives and paranoia. Today this corresponds to the sheer exhilaration of having a World Wide Web being replaced by the drudgery of corporate apps, waterboarding, and “normcore”. I am not trying to say that Stalinism might happen again – this would be plain silly – but trying to acknowledge emerging authoritarian paradigms, some forms of algorithmic consensual governance techniques developed within neoliberal authoritarianism, heavily relying on conformism, “family” values and positive feedback, and backed up by all-out torture and secret legislation if necessary. On the other hand things are also falling apart into uncontrollable love. One also has to remember that people did really love Stalin. People love algorithmic governance too, if it comes with watching unlimited amounts of Game of Thrones. But anyone slightly interested in digital politics and technology is by now acquiring at least basic skills in disappearance and subterfuge.


Hito Steyerl, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)


MJ In “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy,” you point out that the contemporary art industry “sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function,” while maintaining that “we have to face up to the fact that there is no automatically available road to resistance and organization for artistic labor.” Bourdieu theorized qualitatively different dynamics in the composition of cultural capital vs. that of economic capital, arguing that the former is constituted by the struggle for distinction, whose value is irreducible to financial compensation. This basically translates to: everyone wants a piece of the art-historical pie, and is willing to go through economic self-humiliation in the process. If striving for distinction is antithetical to solidarity, do you see a possibility of reconciling it with collective political empowerment on behalf of those economically exploited by the contemporary art industry?

HS In Art and Money, William Goetzmann, Luc Renneboog, and Christophe Spaenjers conclude that income inequality correlates to art prices. The bigger the difference between top income and no income, the higher prices are paid for some art works. This means that the art market will benefit not only if less people have more money but also if more people have no money. This also means that increasing the amount of zero incomes is likely, especially under current circumstances, to raise the price of some art works. The poorer many people are (and the richer a few), the better the art market does; the more unpaid interns, the more expensive the art. But the art market itself may be following a similar pattern of inequality, basically creating a divide between the 0,01 percent if not less of artworks that are able to concentrate the bulk of sales and the 99,99 percent rest. There is no short term solution for this feedback loop, except of course not to accept this situation, individually or preferably collectively on all levels of the industry. This also means from the point of view of employers. There is a long term benefit to this, not only to interns and artists but to everyone. Cultural industries, which are too exclusively profit oriented lose their appeal. If you want exciting things to happen you need a bunch of young and inspiring people creating a dynamics by doing risky, messy and confusing things. If they cannot afford to do this, they will do it somewhere else eventually. There needs to be space and resources for experimentation, even failure, otherwise things go stale. If these people move on to more accommodating sectors the art sector will mentally shut down even more and become somewhat North-Korean in its outlook — just like contemporary blockbuster CGI industries. Let me explain: there is a managerial sleekness and awe inspiring military perfection to every pixel in these productions, like in North Korean pixel parades, where thousands of soldiers wave color posters to form ever new pixel patterns. The result is quite something but this something is definitely not inspiring nor exciting. If the art world keeps going down the way of raising art prices via starvation of it’s workers – and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to do this – it will become the Disney version of Kim Jong Un’s pixel parades. 12K starving interns waving pixels for giant CGI renderings of Marina Abramovic! Imagine the price it will fetch!

kim jon hitokim hito jon

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Politics of Truth

Documentarism in the Art Field

Hito Steyerl


Documentary strategies are among the most important features of contemporary art. Since the early nineties there as been a succession of various waves of an adaptation of documentary techniques in art, which have also been integrated in the mainstream with documenta X and 11. Especially in the context of institution-critical practices, a revival of forms arose in the nineties, which were developed primarily in the seventies and based on practices such as research and journalistic techniques. At the same time, although there has so far been little theoretical treatment of it, a zone emerged of an overlapping of video art, cinema, reportage, photo essay and other forms, in which various existing genres and formats intersect and constantly change their stylistic devices in the form of audiovisual, film, video and installation works. Didactic and realistic works alternate with reflexive documentary productions, with visual machines, which reflect on the organization of documents and organize the subjectivities thus produced. An interest in the formal specific characteristics of the documentary form in the art field has only recently begun, for instance with exhibitions such as “True Stories” [1] at Witte de With in Rotterdam or “It is Hard to Touch the Real” [2] at the Kunstverein Munich – but has hardly taken place yet at the theoretical level.

Truth of Politics or Politics of Truth

Documentary forms in the art field are currently assuming primarily two contrary functions. First, they represent a strategy of authenticity, which is intended to ensure the claim of artistic works to contact with an auratized field of the social or the political. The formal devices employed here are often social-realistic and attempt to remain as transparent as possible. Examples are art documentations, in which performances or interventions are depicted and which illustrate certain effects in the social field. Here the documentary moment is used as proof of social relevance and evidence of an »organic« relationship to the field. In this perspective some forms of art documentation represent one of the currently most widespread strategies of authentication in the art field by cultivating the Rousseauan myth that there is an art actively embedded in local practices and communities, which is absolutely uncorrupted by any art market that first produces it through its demand. In their function of structuring and intervening in the social field, these documentary forms assume biopolitical tasks.

Authenticity becomes a vitalistic ideology here, which is chosen as the desired raw material of difference, particularly also in the context of globalization. It is nourished from the myth of the genuine and different local, which is currently reproduced in post-ethnographic and neo-culturalist exhibitions. [3] The documentary is intended to depict a certain truth of the political here, an authentic and “genuine” core of the social, which is reproduced, according to Marina Grzinic, in “flat documentaries”. [4] Grzinic claims that the “flat documentary style” forms a model (which works according to the logic of cloning), with which given local situations can be fed into the global art field: through an ambivalent procedure that makes authenticity ripe for global serial production. This can be reproduced through reportage-like forms of recording, which transport quasi-sociological knowledge, or conversely through very personal, “intimist” forms. A striking example of the biopolitical aspect of the “flat documentary style” are the works by Santiago Serra, whose hyperrealistic and naturalistic displays of so-called concerned persons [5] represents a drastic form of misery-voyeuristic exhibitionism. The “flat documentary style” arises most of all from the decontextualization and draining of the authenticity-objects to be transferred, as a quasi biotechnical product. Here the myth of the authentic that forms the vistalistic fetish of documentary discourse proves to be a sophisticated, hybrid and artificial product of palatable difference and repetition.

In contrast to this, there is another, more reflected current of the documentary, which perceives its own devices as socially constructed epistemological tools. In these works there is no intention at all of depicting the authentic truth of the political, but rather of changing the “politics of truth” on which its representation is based. The visual and epistemological formations of the documentary themselves are thus defined as functions of the political. The term “politics of truth” [6] is originally from Michel Foucault and designates a social order of truth, which generates the acknowledged techniques and procedures for producing and determining this truth, and which is always linked to specific power relations. Power and knowledge interlock in the organization and production of facts and their interpretations. It is in this indissoluble tension between power and knowledge that the concept of the document also moves. This concept is derived from legal discourse and represents a technology of truth [7], in other words a recognized procedure for the production of truth. Other codified procedures of truth production include witness testimonials, the integration of historical documents, the talking head format, etc.

Thus the question posed to documentary works in the art field can in no way be limited to the appropriateness or accuracy of the respective representation, but must instead be directed to their internal politics of truth. Which politics of truth are articulated in documentary images and sounds? Which strategies of authenticity are applied to support their assertions? Which rhetorics of truth, sincerity, objectiveness or genuineness are articulated politically? How do documentary works refer to reality or truth? Which role do social agreements on the status and production of truth play in this? How is their interconnection with power relations and the production of subjectivities to be understood? Which technologies, practices and rhetorics of truth are developed in the process? What is their connection with institutions, political discourses, and social or biopolitical technologies? What impact do they therefore have on the intersections between power and subjectivity that Foucault called “Gouvernementalité” [8]? The concept of governmentality that Foucault developed defines a specific form of exercising power, which operates through the production of truth. [9] Documentary forms can also assume this function of governmentality through truth. [10] For documentary images are historically connected with technologies of control, surveillance, normalization and other police techniques. [11] Colonial or fascist regimes produced their own “documentalities”, which were closely linked with ethnographic gaze regimes, the production of racist knowledge and military technologies. Photographs of colonial peoples circulating around the world contributed to the spread of colonial “knowledge”, just as fascist “documentalities” endeavored to make Soviet prisoners of war, among others, appear “subhuman”. [12]

This intersection between governmentality and documentary truth production can be termed “documentality”. Documentality describes the permeation of a documentary politics of truth with superordinated political, social and epistemological formations. Documentality is the pivotal point where forms of documentary truth production turn into government – or vice versa. It describes complicity with dominant forms of a politics of truth, just as it can also describe a critical stance towards these forms.

A more recent work that problematizes this multiple political function of (in this case historical) documents is the installation “Searching for my mother’s numbers” by Sanja Ivekovic, which was also shown at Documenta11. Three video projections flank an installation arranged like an archive, which is intended to be used for research on the prisoner’s number of Ivekovic’s mother in the concentration camp Auschwitz. In the video tapes the various functions of documents are investigated along with their different forms of writing and recording. Official documents like endlessly bureaucratic forms, on which a pension for the mother is denied by the responsible Yugoslavian agencies, are contrasted with another document, namely the mother’s handwritten diary laconically recounting her arrest and liberation. The interview with contemporary witnesses that is otherwise conventional in this context is dispensed with entirely in this work. Instead the focus is on the documents in their material reality, which are (partially) read in a voice-over. On the one hand they function as instruments of repression and the non-acknowledgment of historical facts, as in the official correspondence. On the other hand, though, a document such as the mother’s diary can also bear witness to a writing of history that not only “rescues” marginalized facts, but also forms a laconic counterpoint to the depiction of helpless and intimidated concentration camp victims. In this case, the document is not the basis of a historiography permeated by power, but instead becomes a monument to the “tradition of the oppressed”, of which Walter Benjamin speaks in his theses on the concept of history.[13]

Another example of the problematization of the status of historical documents is the short video “Schwarz auf Weiß” (Black on White) by the artist group Klub Zwei. “Schwarz auf Weiß” concentrates on the question of the photographic document – specifically by means of a radical withdrawal of the images of the Shoah that are spoken of in the voice-over. While the supervisor of a photo archive raises questions on memory, image and history, all we see are written plaques on black and white. Despite their principle technical reproducibility, images change, according to the thesis. Grey tones disappear with every generation of the photographic print; what remains in the end are the hard contrasts of black and white. It is particularly by withdrawing the pictures that are spoken of, however, that a reflection is set off about what distinguishes their status as historical documents. It is not exclusively the face of the pictures of obliteration, which are often used purely symbolically, but rather the inconspicuous back with its stamps and remarks, which first gives the pictures their historical context and thus also their significance, as Klub Zwei argues. The use of pictures as icons, on the other hand, frequently leads to their use as mere illustrations of authenticity. In contrast, “Schwarz auf Weiß” insists on perceiving photographs as something we have given up “reading” (Walter Benjamin) [14]. The video is positioned within a debate that attempts to carry out a critical reading of pictures – yet without rejecting every representation altogether as a purely social or media construction containing no truth. Unlike many media-critical approaches of recent years, this reflection therefore does not lead to an endless, circular and narcissist self-reflexivity, but rather to an ethical-political stance.

For the reflexive documentary forms there is also always the danger of generating a kind of idling reflexivity, which cringes before the ethical dimension of the themes treated in favor of the comfort of unresolvable ambivalence and the task of claiming any kind of truth. This tendency is articulated for instance in a meanwhile almost ornamental form of apparatus criticism, as it is evident in the reflexive integration of satellite images, surveillance pictures, flow charts and network surfaces in documentary works. Amateur material that is often realistic and sensationalist is garnished with elements of self-reflexivity here, which have themselves congealed into cliched and affirmative phrases of global mediality. These forms additionally develop interesting affinities with more recent television formats such as “Big Brother” and other Reality-TV shows, in which it is specifically the aspect of the constantly concurrent self-reflexivity of the media that conversely achieves the greatest authenticity effect. [15] The result is an exponential realism that only differs from classic strategies of realistic authenticity by degrees. This form of idling reflexivity is anticipated by the documentary film theorist Bill Nichols: Although it may contain a political position at the content level – it has none for the viewers themselves, who are held in a zone of inescapable ambivalence. [16]

With the import of documentary forms into the art field, new versions of the classical problems of the documentary appeared there too – the linking of documentary forms with political and social power relations and with the major power/knowledge complexes of law, science and journalism. Yet the gaze regimes of the documentary, their connection with forms of control, objectivization and categorization are also imported into the space of art. One of the new aspects of documentary approaches in art space is its spatialization in installation form, which also generates new forms of the “attention economy”, according to Tom Holert, as well as new diagrams of visibility. This goes hand in hand with a change in the arrangements of the gaze from central-perspective perception situations to spatially heterogeneous arrangements working with various media and forms of presentation. This in turn affects the relationship of the duration and space of the documentary ensemble. What is articulated in the classical documentary film as duration and thus as intensity in its perception, is now articulated conceptually in many documentary installations and thus formulated as an idea, for which the documentary picture material in part only supplies the illustration or the proof. Many documentary installations thus function less through the articulation, organization and intensification of duration, but rather through a synecdochic compression of a situation in space, which can be captured to a certain extent in a memorable image (of a plot). In the new documentary conceptualism the documentary image thus functions as a technology of truth and as proof for a proposed hypothesis as well.

In between biopolitical realism and idling reflexivity, between documentary conceptualism and a precise reading of gazes and images and the ethical-political negotiation of their claims to truth, there are the most diverse documentary approaches, which are not only articulated through various documentalities, but also represent various forms of a politics of truth. Thus it is particularly the questions of truth, ethics and reality that have been increasingly banned from theory in the last twenty years, but which are now raised in a new form due to the emergence of documentary works in art space.


Translation: Aileen Derieg


1 True Stories; Jean-Pierre Rehm, True Stories, 24 January to 30 March 2003. Flyer, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2003
2 Soren Grammel: Es ist schwer das Reale zu berühren. Printed material, Kunstverein München, Spring 2002, p. 44-45
3 See for instance: Boris Buden: Da bumst der Wahnsinnige den Verwirrten, in: springerin 2/2003
4 Marina Grzinic: Global Culture, Biotechnology, Imperialism. Unpublished manuscript 2003
5 For example in “Hiring and Arrangement of 30 Workers in Relation to their Skin Color”: “He positions 30 people of different ethnic origin according to the color of their skin along the front of the completely closed exhibition space. [&] Sierra often employs radical means: by making workers execute certain things in museums and galleries, he turns them into exhibits. Transferring them into the system of art and explicitly presenting them, he utilizes the methods employed in the sphere of economy. This is why he often provokes protests with his projects, as for example when he paid people for agreeing to being tattooed a black line on their backs. He has also highlighted the ambivalent situation of political refugees in Europe who are forbidden to earn any money by paying them to crawl under cardboard boxes and hide there for several hours. Part of the provocation is certainly based on the obvious absurdity of the assignments and their unproductive character.” (Announcement text Kunsthalle Wien, September 2002)
6 Pasquale Pasquino, Allessandro Fontana: Wahrheit und Macht«. Gespräch mit Michel Foucault vom Juni 1976, in: Michel Foucault: Dispositive der Macht. Berlin 1978, p. 51
7 Michel Foucault: Technologien der Wahrheit, in: Jan Engelmann (Ed.): Foucault Botschaften der Macht. Reader Diskurs und Medien. Stuttgart 1999, p. 133-144
8 Media forms as forms of gouvernementalité are also described by Toby Miller: Technologies of Truth. Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media. Minneapolis 1998, p. 14-18
9 Thomas Lemke: Eine Kritik der politischen Vernunft. Hamburg1997, p. 32.
10 On these terms, see also Lemke 1997, p. 31
11 Martha Rosler: Drinnen, Drumherum und nachträgliche Gedanken (zur Dokumentarfotographie), in: Martha Rosler: Positionen in der Lebenswelt. Wien, Generali Foundation 1999, p. 105. Cf. also James R. Ryan: Picturing Empire. London 1997
12 See for example the exhibition “Beutestücke Kriegsgefangene in der deutschen und sowjetischen Fotografie 1941-1945″ at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, 14 June to 14 September 2003
13 Walter Benjamin: Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen. Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Frankfurt 1978, p. 84
14 Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt/Main 1966, p. 64
15 Cf. also “Das Authentische ist Produkt einer Laborsituation”. Judith Keilbach in Conversation with Wolfgang Beilenhoff and Rainer Vowe, in: nach dem Film, 12/00,
16 Bill Nichols: Representing Reality. Bloomington/Indianapolis 1997


Interview // Hito Steyerl: Zero Probability and the Age of Mass Art Production


Interview by Göksu Kunak in Berlin; Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013

HKW Berlin Former WestHito Steyerl – “I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production” Lecture‐Performance (2013); copyright Marcus Lieberenz / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

In the lecture performance I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production (2013), writer and artist Hito Steyerl introduces us to the new Misérables of our era, while asking the pertinent question: Why are there so many art projects today? The absurdity of funding applications, the condition of the wretched who wait to be chosen or the link between museums and firearms industries – as in Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013) − are some of the contemporary issues that Steyerl excavates. As always, she criticizes the burdens of our world with vigorous humour. In the following interview, Hito Steyerl shared her opinions about her interest in the missing (leading to her many depictions of disappearance), the latest protests, heroes of our time and the plight of interns…

GöKSU KUNAK: In your essays, works, and lecture performances it seems like you are somehow searching for the missing: the hope of visibility, the invisibility of knowledge, finding those missing points and also connecting them from unexpected points of view, the lack of the real, the probability of nonexistence. Seeing traces, but somehow on the verge of being erased. In your works like How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File(2013), Zero Probability (2012) with Rabih Mroué, Lovely Andrea (2007), and November (2004), there is always a search for the missing. Why? What is it that attracts you to the vanished, or missing?

HITO STEYERL: In all these works I am drawing implicitly or explicitly on the same example: my friend Andrea Wolf who disappeared in 1998 as a member of PKK [Parti Karkerani Kurdistan] in the region of Van. The fact that she has not been found and that there are no official efforts to clarify what happened to her or the several thousand others missing proves that the state of zero probability is widespread and a hardly acknowledged condition of our time. In the state of zero probability, whatever is impossible – like people being swallowed from the face of the earth – happens all the time and nobody thinks twice about it. The state of zero probability potentially exists everywhere, on a battlefield, in a museum online store, as point cloud or data crop cycle. It opens up whenever anyone asks: is this really happening?

This condition opens up within and by means of an avalanche of digital images, which multiply and proliferate while real people disappear or are fixed, scanned and over-represented by an overbearing architecture of surveillance. How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility? Which huge institutional and legal effort has to be made to keep things unspoken and unspeakable even if they are pretty obviously sitting right in front of everyone’s eyes? Are people hidden by too many images? Do they go hide amongst other images? Do they become images?

Hito Steyerl - How Not to Be SeenHito Steyerl – “How Not To Be Seen A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File” (2013) 14 mins; copyright Hito Steyerl, image courtesy of Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

GK: Do you believe the latest worldwide movements and protests are changing how we live and, as a result, our encounters or the way we perceive images? In this sense, what would be the new way of using the transformed image? Or is it merely another image spam?

HS: The new movements are a consequence of very radical changes by liberals and neo-conservatives, which have taken place over the last 40 years. These changes have transformed the way many people see the world – technologically, ideologically, visually and on many other levels. The proliferation of images is one of these aspects. It has both devastating and paradoxical consequences. An image is more than ever defined by its momentum, drive, or quantity: less by its “content,” scarceness or singularity. It becomes meaningful rather by being shared and participated in than by being contemplated at a distance.

On the other hand, I also recently thought that probably a number of protesters during recent protests were digital images that walked across the screen to join in 3D protest. Images are being filtered, blocked, censored online all the time. There are those which are shared and enhanced, but also those who remain completely unseen. Probably quite a number of them have had enough and walk off the screen to protest.

But much more generally, I think that a vast number of contemporary protesters are not living the old online vs. offline divide anymore. They are fully digital creatures, but also navigate 3D offline space. Or, as protesters in Brazil recently put it: “We are the social network”.

GK: In your essay Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life you mention that life is occupied by art and that leads to gentrification or other problems. The reality is that we are, in your words, in the era of mass art production, in which almost everyone has an art project. What are the consequences of this in the long term? How will this transform?

HS: I have no idea. But it is an interesting development. Franco Berardi (Bifo) claimed that 25% of German youth want to be artists. A real challenge: how to base a viable economy on art production? Does it imply the existence of a 1% regime of super rich oligarchs? Or is it simply a short term effect of a bubble economy, which is so unstable that art paradoxically appears to be a rather safe investment? It could be quite short term. It could also be the emergence of a new paradigm of labour: just as specialists or engineers were an important paradigm of the 20th century, artists might become contemporary specialists for event-based attention economies. But it´s more realistic that prospective artists are being lured through years of debt: their ambitions are commodified and their liabilities packaged as garbled financial product. And once they are completely dispossessed, once they have become the “Wretched of the Canvas”, they might have to reassess their situation.

GK: At one Mauerpark karaoke session, a young guy who was about to sing was asked what he does for a living. The answer was that he is an intern. The person who was in charge of the session advised him to be honest, and to feel ok about doing unpaid labour, by stressing that it is what most people in Berlin do: internships, working for free. How do you foresee the future of interns? Will super interns, heroic interns pop-up? Do you believe that the “heroes” of our times are the interns?

HS: I don’t believe in heroes. In heroines, perhaps. After all interns in form of wives, moms and other unpaid (domestic) labourers have existed for a long time. I think that Hannah Arendt‘s distinction between the public and the private sphere still holds many interesting contradictions. The private – or sphere of the oikos – means internment in the house, or the back of the house as Japanese wives call it. It is the sphere of slaves, foreigners, interns and domestic workers of all kind that do not get paid.

GK: An artist friend of mine recently mentioned that she doesn’t want to apply to anything anymore: the burden of applications makes her sad. You also stressed this problem in your lecture performance I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production by describing the contemporary Misérables. Casted, auditioned; the reality that the artist must apply, show, present her/himself to the juries, make the others choose her/him by being the object and the subject at the same time and the burden of submissions… How will the group of, in your words, “educated poor” evolve?

HS: I see this group growing. It is an actor within contemporary protest movements. And it might become a strong social actor because at the end of the day people need sustainable livelihoods. A part of the population is working for free. Perhaps I am optimistic but I don’t think this works in the long term. Or perhaps we are moving full speed into an age of institutionalised serfdom and voluntary slavery in which it will be safer for people to belong to someone who guarantees their most basic needs than to keep fighting it out on the market.

Recently it became clear to me that one of the most successful moves of neoliberalism was to turn debt bondage into a business opportunity. It means people not only have to get into debt to get an education/housing or just to live, but that debt is a profitable market in its own right. The economy moves from providing livelihoods through work to making destitution profitable. Ask Deutsche Bank, who were named by US Congress as one of the main debt pushers to bring about the massive global redistribution from the public to the private sector commonly known as the financial crisis.

Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin recently staged a public call for artworks to be exhibited for one day within their premises and hundreds of people lined up for hours on end, carrying canvasses, creating a wonderful PR opportunity. This is what I mean: debt and unemployment create great business opportunities. All these artists queuing up for hours in order to work for free on the faint and improbable hope of being “discovered” within a bizarre Deutsche Bank salon hanging. It´s like singing in an idol contest!

The long lines of artists queuing up reminded me of similar lines of unemployed in the 1930s, lining up around Berlin’s job centres. They were traditional workers though, or employees. Today, they are artists clutching canvasses. And thinking back to what became of those people queuing up back then is kind of sobering. Most probably most became fascists a few years later. We see this kind of development happening in many European countries already, in Hungary where it´s become quite mainstream, but also in Greece. I hope this doesn’t happen, but it is a realistic possibility, if social divides keep increasing.

GK: What do you think about the fact that people, especially in the art scene, are more interested in the videos in white cubes and biennials about human rights violations, suppression or wars than the real thing? For example, they might be interested in an art work about sectarianism in Beirut but not the issue itself.

HS: There are several aspects to this question. First, if this is the case, there is probably a reason. One reason – among many others, including artworld jadedness and cynicism – might also be that generic information about “real” events is usually already ideological, commercial, and framed in a way that perpetuates the framework of the conflict by its conceptual categories.

In contrast, some artworks – especially those of the Beirut school – frame events in an unexpected way, that most importantly include the possibility of not only telling these stories differently, but also that things could be different in the first place. They do so by conjecturing, speculating, fictionalising, over-bureaucratising, and so on. There is a very valid reason for artworks about “real” events to be more interesting than generic news reports. People are interested because they can’t stand vapid and meaningless news jargon any longer.

But another aspect is even more interesting to me: what is the relation of art spaces and battlefields apart from showing works about conflict zones? How are they not only connected by way of potentially showing works about military violence, but by being based on military violence much more structurally? One work of mine called Guards interviewed U.S. army veterans and former police officers who now work as museum officers. Their experiences of combat and law enforcement are now a part of art infrastructure, an underpaid, strongly racialised and mostly disavowed part, which nevertheless is a vital component of museums being included into homeland security infrastructure.

But the military-industrial complex is also involved in financing and sponsoring art spaces to the point at which museums are becoming parts of battlefields in much more direct ways. Is the revenue from the battlefield sponsoring the museum? Or maybe the other way around? If you start looking at this connection, it turns out that this kind of sponsoring exists more or less everywhere.

Is there a statistical coincidence between military invasions, civil war and the explosion of art markets a few years later? How can we think about post-civil war art market booms as indirectly fuelled by the cheap labor of displaced populations? Is the museum a battlefield?


Göksu Kunak is a writer based in Berlin. Besides working in the editorial team of quarterly interview magazine mono.kultur, she is one of the team members of Apartment Project Berlin. Göksu has contributed to several magazines and blogs such as frieze d/e, Ibraaz, Freunde von Freunden, crap=good, e-skop, The Carton, Don’t Panic Berlin and wecelebrate. Concurrently, she is working on her book project abandonedxmastrees


06 2006


The language of things

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl





under translation

Who does the lamp communicate with? The mountain? The fox?
Walter Benjamin

What if things could speak? What would they tell us? Or are they speaking already and
we just don’t hear them? And who is going to translate them?

Ask Walter Benjamin. In fact he started asking those quite bizarre questions already in 1916 in a text called: “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”. Of all weird texts by Benjamin, this is definitely the weirdest. In this text he develops the concept of a language of things. According to Benjamin this language of things is mute, it is magical and its medium is material community. Thus, we have to assume that there is a language of stones, pans and cardboard boxes. Lamps speak as if inhabited by spirits. Mountains and foxes are involved in discourse. High-rise buildings chat with each other. Paintings gossip. There exists even, if you will, besides the language communicated by telephone a language of the telephone itself. And, according to Benjamin’s triumphant conclusion, nobody is responsible for this silent cacophony but G-D himself.

But, you may ask: what is the point of this eccentric plot? Lets pretend that the point is translation. Because obviously, the language of things has to be translated in order to become intelligible for those of us who are dumb for its silent splendour. But the idea of translation, which Benjamin has in mind, is a completely different concept of translation than the one we are used to. Because, from the most ordinary to the most sophisticated translation theories, one thing is usually taken for granted: that translation takes place between different human languages or the cultures, which are supposed to nurture them. Thus, languages are assumed to be an expression of different cultures and nations. This combination is hastily identified as the political aspect of translation and even language as such. And on this level standard translation theory is always already implicated in political practice and governmental strategies.

But Benjamin’s idea of translation – at least in this text – boldly ignores this obvious and perhaps banal feature of translation. And thus, an entirely different concept of a politics of translation emerges. Instead of national languages, which are only mentioned passingly in this text, he focuses on what I would call languages of practice: the language of law, technology, art, the language of music and sculpture. And more importantly: translation doesn’t take place between them, but within them. That is: between the language of things and the language of men, at the base of language itself. Thus, a few very important modifications are introduced with regard to traditional translation theory: firstly language is defined not by common origin, belonging or nation, but by common practice. Secondly, translation primarily takes place within language not between languages. And thirdly, translation addresses the relationship of human language and thing language.

Since Benjamin was perfectly aware of the romantic translation theories, which focussed on concepts like the national spirit, his feigned ignorance has to be seen as more then a bold political statement. It is a blatant declaration of irrelevance of culturalist approaches. Instead of nations and cultures, his perspective on translation takes matter and God as first reference points. And this theologico-material concept of translation radically shifts the definition of a politics of translation. It does not hover around organicist notions of community and culture. But it bluntly locates translation at the core of a much more general practical question: how do humans relate to the world?

Instead of a politics of the original content – like the nation state, the culture, the Volksgeist or national language – Benjamin argues for a politics of form. And the form will decide about the politics of language as such.
Potestas and Potentia

But what exactly are the political processes involved in this type of translation? Lets look at it more closely. Two languages are mediated within this process. The language of things is an inherently productive language – according to Benjamin because it contains the residue of the word of God, which created the world by talking. On the other hand there is the human language, which can either try to receive, amplify and vocalise this language by naming things, or else classify, categorise, fix, and identify its components in what Benjamin calls the language of judgement.

If we were to map this juxtaposition on more recent debates, we could also say that translation can take place within the two different spheres known as power and force – or more pompously potestas and potentia. While the language of things is full with potential, the language of humans can either try to engage in this potential or become a tool of force. And thus translation takes place in the mode of creation as well as of force, and usually both modes are mixed with each other.

And thus, politics are played out in the forms in which the translation between the language of things and the language of men takes place. In the worst case, this relationship can take on the form of an epistemological dictatorship. That humans decided to rule over things and to disregard their message led to the disaster at Babylon. To start listening to them again would be the first step towards a coming common language, which is not rooted in the hypocrite presumption of a unity of humankind, but in a much more general material community. In this case, translation does not silence the language of things but amplifies it potential of change.

It is now clear, that in this perspective translation is highly political, because it directly addresses issues of power within language formation. It concerns the relationship of humans to the world as a whole. It addresses the emergence of practice and the languages, which correspond to it. Thus, Benjamin relates translation directly to power – by looking at the form of the translation, not its content. The respective form of translation will decide, if and how the language of things with its inherent forces and energies and its productive powers is subjected to the power/knowledge schemes of human forms of government or not. It decides, whether human language creates ruling subjects and subordinate objects or whether it engages with the energies of the material world.

While this may still sound completely unpractical for anybody, the contrary is the case. One might even say, that most human practice is constantly engaged in this process of translation. Let me give you now one very obvious example of such a translation from the language of things into the one of humans. And that is the example of the documentary form.
The documentary form as translation

A documentary image obviously translates the language of things into the language of humans. On the one hand it is closely anchored within the realm of material reality. But it also participates in the language of humans, and especially the language of judgement, which objectifies the thing in question, fixes its meaning and constructs stable categories of knowledge to understand it. It is half visual, half vocal, it is at once receptive and productive, inquisitive and explanatory, it participates in the exchange of things but also freezes the relations between them within visual and conceptual still images. Things articulate themselves within the documentary forms, but documentary forms also articulate things.

And it is also obvious, how Benjamin’s politics of translation functions with regard to the documentary image. In documentary articulations, things can either be treated as objects, as evidence for human plots, or they can be subjected to the language of judgement and thus overruled. I have once referred to this condition as documentality, that is the way in which documents govern and are implicated in creating power/knowledge. Or else, the forces, which organise the relationships between them, can be channelled in view of their transformation. The documentary form can also let itself be seduced and even overwhelmed by the magic of the language of things – although we will see, that this is not necessarily a good idea. But basically, this is how the relation between potestas and potentia is articulated within the documentary form. It is the relationship of productivity vs. verification, of the asignifying vs. the signified, of material reality vs. their idealist interpretation.

But let me make one thing very clear: to engage in the language of things in the realm of the documentary form is not equivalent to using realist forms in representing them. It is not about representation at all, but about actualising whatever the things have to say in the present. And to do so is not a matter of realism, but rather of relationalism – it is a matter of presencing and thus transforming the social, historical and also material relations, which determine things. And if we focus on this aspect of presencing instead of representation, we also leave behind the endless debate about representation, which has left documentary theory stuck in a dead end.
The power of things

But why, you may ask, is Benjamin so in love with the language of things in the first place? Why should anything that things have to say be so special? Lets simply disregard the reason, which Benjamin himself gives in his text: that the word of God shines forth through the mute magic of things. While this may sound poetical, it is rather an expression of Benjamin’s pompous perplexity, then a convincing case.

Lets instead remember the role that material objects took on in Benjamin’s thought later on, when he started deciphering modernity mainly by sifting through the wake of trash it left behind. Modest and even abject objects became hieroglyphs in whose dark prism the social relations lay congealed and in fragments. They were understood as nodes, in which the tensions of a historical moment materialised in a flash of awareness or grotesquely twisted into the commodity fetish. In this perspective, a thing is never just something, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces is petrified. According to Benjamin, things are never just inert objects, passive items or lifeless shucks at the disposal of the documentary gaze. But they consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, which keep being exchanged. While this opinion borders on magical thought, according to which things are invested with supernatural powers, it is also a classical materialist one. Because the commodity, too, is not understood as a simple object, but a condensation of social forces. Thus things can be interpreted as conglomerates of desires, wishes, intensities and power relations. And a thing language, which is thus charged with the energy of matter can also exceed description and become productive. It can move beyond representation and become creative in the sense of a transformation of the relations, which define it. While Benjamin seems to hope for this kind of event, he also foresees a darker possibility of its realisation, which he calls conjuration.1 If there is so to speak a white magic of things, bristling with creativity and power, there is also a black one, charged with the dark powers of the taboo, illusion and the fetish. The power of conjuration tries to tap into the forces of things without proper reflection, or as Benjamin calls it: without interruption by the inexpressive.2 And it is on these unmediated and uninterrupted chaotic powers, that capitalist commodification and general resentment thrives. And to come back to the documentary mode in which those forces of conjuration can be unleashed by as well: propaganda, revisionism and relativism are all examples, of how conjuration – that is creativity without reflexive interruption – functions within the documentary form. They engage with the forces of resentment, hysteria, individual interest and fear, which are all powerful, unmediated urges. But they do so to speak without proper translation, and thus contaminate all modes of communication with their malignant drive.
The non-public public sphere

We have seen several modes of how an internal politics of the translation affects the documentary form. How do humans relate to things? What does creativity mean in this regard? And why is it not necessarily a good idea, when it comes to documentarism? But there is also an external aspect, which is relevant for the discussion of the documentary form as translation. And this aspect addresses the documentary form as an example of a transnational language of practice. Because, although the documentary form is based on translation, in a sense it also seems to have moved beyond translation. Its standard narratives are recognised all over the world and its forms are almost independent of national of cultural difference. Precisely because they operate so closely on material reality, they are intelligible wherever this reality is relevant.

This aspect was recognised as early as the 20es, when Dziga Vertov euphorically praised the qualities of the documentary form. In the preface of his film „The man with the movie camera“ he proclaimed, that documentary forms were able to organise visible facts in a truly international absolute language, which could establish an optical connection between the workers of the world. He imagines a sort of communist visual adamic language, which should not only inform or entertain, but also organise its viewers. It would not only transmit messages, but connect ist audience to an universal circulation of energies which literally shot through their nervous systems. By articulating visible facts, Vertov wanted to shortcircuit his audience with the language of things itself, with a pulsating symphony of matter.

In a sense, his dream has become true, if only under the rule of global information capitalism. A transnational documentary jargon is now connecting people within global media networks. The standardised language of newsreels with its economy of attention based on fear, the racing time of flexible production, and hysteria is as fluid and affective, as immediate and biopolitical as Vertov could have imagined. It creates global public spheres whose participants are linked almost in a physical sense by mutual excitement and anxiety. Thus the documentary form is now more potent then ever, and in a sense precisely because it conjures up the most spectacular aspects of the language of things and amplifies their power. At this point I would like to come back to the cautious remark made earlier: to tap into the language of things is not always a good idea and its potential is not necessarily a potential for emancipation. The asignificant flows of compressed information translate without interruption and reflection. Their forms completely ignore the different languages of things. If they are not culturally specific, they are not specific to different material realities and practices either. They only translate the requirements of corporate and national media machines.

But does this form of documentary translation have any other political potential then the one for propaganda and product placement? Yes, and here we are back to the point of the beginning. The documentary form is no national language and not culturally specific either. Thus it is able to sustain non-national public spheres and therefore also the seeds for a political arena beyond national and cultural formations. But at the moment this sphere is entirely controlled by the dynamics of a general privatisation. It is as Paolo Virno has recently argued: a non-public public sphere.

But this does not necessarily have to be the case. And we see in experimental documentary production, that different relations to things and the social conditions in which we relate to them are possible. The reason is very simple. The rise of importance of global documentary jargons rests on the material base of information capitalism, which is defined by digitalisation and flexibility. And any documentary form, which really articulates the language of those things, also articulates precisely these conditions, that is the conditions of precarious symbolic production. The new documentary forms of production with home computers and unconventional forms of distribution thus can be understood as articulations, which reveal the outline of new forms of social composition. This form of image production is largely based on digital technology and thus tends to merge more and more with other fields of mass symbolic production. They represent so to speak a negative of a coming public sphere, which has to be developed, in order to become functionable. This form of the public has left behind its entanglement with local and national mythologies and is characterised by similar precarious and often transnational forms of work and production. And the political articulation or social composition of these mostly still dispersed and wildly heterogenous points of view and groups is anticipated in the complex montages and constellations of contemporary documentary experimental forms.

But again: their politics are not determined by content but by form. If they just try to mimick the corporate standards of the large capitalist and national affective machines, they will also to a certain extent take over their politics. As Benjamin would put it: their modes of translation are at once to immediate and not immediate enough. Only if documentary forms translate the incongruities, the inegalities, the rapid change of speed, the disarticulation and dizzying rhythms, the dislocation and the arythmic pulsations of time, if they mortify the vital drives of matter and deaden them by inexpressiveness, will they engage with the contemporary community of matter. Only if this form of translation is being achieved, will the documentary articulation reflect and thus amplify the language of those things, which are dragged across the globe on road to commodification at neck breaking speed or again tossed away and discarded as useless junk. And by reflecting on the conditions of production in which this documentary translation is being achieved, new forms of a-national public spheres and postcapitalist production circuits might emerge.

Obviously, whatever I said does not apply only to the documentary form but also to other languages of practice. One might make a similar argument about the practice of curating, which could translate the language of things into aesthetic relationalities. And we have also seen these past decades, how the fetish of the art object has been deconstructed and traced back to social and other relations. But in this field, a cautionary remark applies as well: to simply represent those relations in the art field is not enough. Translating the language of things is not about eliminating objects, nor about inventing collectivities, which are fetishised instead. It is rather about creating unexpected articulations, which do not represent precarious modes of living or the social as such, but rather about presencing precarious, risky, at once bold and preposterous articulations of objects and their relations, which still could become models for future types of connection.

If Benjamin’s concept of translation could tell us one thing, it is that translation is still deeply political, if we literally put it to practice. Only that we need to shift our attention from its content to its form. We need to shift the focus from the languages of belonging to the language of practice. We should stop to expect that it should tell us about essence but instead about transformation. And we need to remember, that the practice of translation only makes sense, if it leeds to much needed alternative forms of connection, communication, and relations – and not of new ways of innovating culture and nation.

1 Walter Benjamin, ” Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” trans. Stanley Corngold, Selected Writings 1913 – 1926, ed. Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press (Bellknap), 1996, pp. 297 – 360.

2 P., 297


01 2006


The Institution of Critique

Hito Steyerl

In speaking about the critique of institution, the problem we ought to consider is the opposite one: the institution of critique. Is there anything like an institution of critique and what does it mean? Isn’t it pretty absurd to argue that something like this exists, at a moment, when critical cultural institutions are undoubtedly being dismantled, underfunded, subjected to the demands of a neoliberal event economy and so on? However, I would like to pose the question on a much more fundamental level. The question is: what is the internal relationship between critique and institution? What sort of relation exists between the institution and its critique or on the other hand – the institutionalisation of critique? And what is the historical and political background for this relationship?

To get a clearer picture of this relationship we must first consider the function of criticism in general. On a very general level, certain political, social or individual subjects are formed through the critique of institution. The bourgeois subjectivity as such was formed through such a process of critique, and encouraged to exit the self-inflicted immaturity, to quote Kants famous aphorism. This critical subjectivity was of course ambivalent, since it entailed the use of reason only in those situations we would consider as apolitical today, namely in the deliberation of abstract problems, but not the criticism of authority. Critique produces a subject which should make use of his reason in public circumstances, but not in private ones. While this sounds emancipatory, the opposite is the case. The criticism of authority is according to Kant futile and private. Freedom consists in accepting that authority should not be questioned. Thus, this form of criticism produces a very ambivalent and governable subject, it is in fact a tool of governance just as much as it is the tool of resistance as which it is often understood. But the bourgeois subjectivity which was thus created was very efficient. And in a certain sense, institutional criticism is integrated into that subjectivity, something which Marx and Engels explicitly refer to in their Communist manifesto, namely as the capacity of the bourgeoisie to abolish and to melt down outdated institutions, everything useless and petrified, as long as the general form of authority itself isn’t threatened. The bourgeois class had formed through a limited, so to speak institutionalised critique and also maintained and reproduced itself through this form of institutional critique. And thus, critique had become an institution in itself, a governmental tool which produces streamlined subjects.

But there is also another form of subjectivity which is produced by criticism and also institutional criticism. For example, most obviously the political subject of French citizens was formed through an institutional critique of the French monarchy. This institution was eventually abolished and even beheaded. In this process, an appeal was already realised that Karl Marx was to launch much later: the weapons of critique should be replaced by the critique of weapons. In this vein one could say that the proletariat as a political subject was produced through the criticism of the bourgeoisie as an institution. This second form produces probably just as ambivalent subjectivites, but there is a crucial difference: it abolishes the institution which it criticises instead of reforming or improving it.

So in this sense institutional critique serves as a tool of subjectivation of certain social groups or political subjects. And which sort of different subjects does it produce? Let’s take a look at different modes of institutional critique within the artfield of the last decades.


To simplify a complex development: the first wave of institutional criticism in the art sphere in the seventies questioned the authoritarian role of the cultural institution. It challenged the authority which had accumulated in cultural institutions within the framework of the nation state. Cultural institutions such as museums had taken on a complex governmental function. This role has been brillantly described by Benedict Anderson in his seminal work Imagined Communities, when he analyzes the role of the museum in the formation of colonial nation states. In his view, the museum, in creating a national past, retroactively also created the origin and foundation of the nation and that was its main function. But this colonial situation, as in many other cases, points at the structure of the cultural institution within the nation state in general. And this situation, the authoritarian legitimation of the nation state by the cultural institution through the construction of a history, a patrimony, a heritage, a canon and so on, was the one that the first waves of institutional critique set out to criticize in the 1970ies.

Their legitimation in doing so was an ultimately political one. Most nation states considered themselves as democracies which were founded on the political mandate of the people or the citizens. In that sense, it was easy to argue that any national cultural institution should reflect this self-definition and that any national cultural institution should thus be founded on similar mechanisms. If the political national sphere was – at least in theory – based on democratic participation, why should the cultural national sphere and it´s construction of histories and canons be any different? Why shouldn’t the cultural institution be at least as representative as parliamentary democracy? Why shouldn’t it include for example women in its canon, if women were at least in theory accepted in parliament? In that sense the claims that the first wave of institutional critique voiced were of course founded in contemporary theories of the public sphere, and based on an interpretation of the cultural institution as a potential public sphere. But implicitly they relied on two fundamental assumptions: First, this public sphere was implicitly a national one because it was modeled after the model of representative parliamentarism. The legitimation of institutional critique was based precisely on this point. Since the political system of the nation state is at least in theory representative of its citizens, why shoudn’t a national cultural institution be? Their legitimation rested on this analogy which was also more often than not rooted in material circumstances, since most cultural institutions were funded by the state. Thus, this form of instutional critique relied on a model based on the structure of political participation within the nation state and a fordist economy, in which taxes could be collected for such purposes.

Institutional critique of this period related to these phenomena in different ways. Either by radically negating institutions alltogether, by trying to build alternative institutions or by trying to be included into mainstream ones. Just as in the political arena, the most effective strategy was a combination of the second and third model, which claimed for example the inclusion into the cultural institution of minorities or disadvantaged majorities such as women. In that sense institutional critique functioned like the related paradigms of multiculturalism, reformist feminism, ecological movements and so on. It was a new social movement within the arts scene.

But during the next wave of institutional criticism which happened in the Nineties, the situation was a bit different. It wasn’t so much different from the point of view of the artists or those who tried to challenge and criticize the institutions which, in their view, were still authoritarian. Rather, the main problem was that they had been overtaken by a right-wing form of bourgeois institutional criticism, precisely the one which Marx and Engels described and which melts down everything which is solid. Thus, the claim that the cultural institution ought to be a public sphere was no longer unchallenged. The bourgoisie had sort of decided that in their view a cultural institution was primarily an economic one and as such had to be subjected to the laws of the market. The belief that cultural institutions ought to provide a representative public sphere broke down with Fordism, and it is not by chance that, in a sense, institutions which still adhere to the ideal to create a public sphere have been in place for a much longer time in places where Fordism is still hanging on. Thus, the second wave of institutional critique was in a sense unilateral since claims were made which at that time had at least partially lost their legitimative power.


The next factor was the relative transformation of the national cultural sphere which mirrored the transformation of the political cultural sphere. First of all, the nation state is no longer the only framework of cultural representation – there are also supranational bodies like the EU. And secondly, their mode of political representation is very complicated and only partly representative. It represents is constituencies rather symbolically than materially. To use a German differentiation of the word representation: Sie stellen sie eher dar, als sie sie vertreten. Thus, why should a cultural institution materially represent its constituency? Isn’t it somehow sufficient to symbolically represent it? And although the production of a national cultural identity and heritage is still important, it is not only important for the interior or social cohesion of the nation, but also very much to provide it with international selling points in an increasingly globalised cultural economy. Thus, in a sense, a process was initiated which is still going on today. That is the process of the cultural or symbolic integration of critique into the institution or rather on the surface of the institution without any material consequences within the institution itself or its organisation. This mirrors a similar process on the political level: the symbolic integration, for example of minorities, while keeping up political and social inequality, the symbolic representation of constituencies into supranational political bodies and so on. In this sense the bond of material representation was broken and replaced with a more symbolic one.

This shift in representational techniques by the cultural institution also mirrored a trend in criticism itself, namely the shift from a critique of institution towards a critique of representation. This trend, which was informed by Cultural Studies, feminist and postcolonial epistemologies, somehow continued in the vein of the previous institutional critique by comprehending the whole sphere of representation as a public sphere, where material representation ought to be implemented, for example in form of the unbiased and proportional display of images of black persons or women. This claim somehow mirrors the confusion about representation on the political plane, since the realm of visual representation is even less representative in the material sense than a supranational political body. It doesn’t represent constituencies or subjectivities but creates them, it articulates bodies, affects and desires. But this is not exactly how it was comprehended, since it was rather taken for a sphere where one has to achieve a hegemony, a so to speak majority on the level of symbolic representation, in order to achieve an improvement of a diffuse area, which hovers between politics and economy, between the state and the market, between the subject as citizen and the subject as consumer, and between representation and representation. Since criticism could no longer establish clear antagonisms in this sphere, it started to fragment and to atomize it and to support a politics of identity which led to the fragmentation of public spheres, markets, to the culturalisation of identity and so on.

This representational critique pointed at another aspect, namely the unmooring of the seemingly stable relation between the cultural institution and the nation state. Unfortunately for institutional critics of that period, a model of purely symbolic representation gained legitimacy in this field as well. Institutions no longer claimed to materially represent the nation state and its constituency, but only claimed to represent it symbolically. And thus, while one could say that the former institutional critics were either integrated into the institution or not, the second wave of institutional criticism was integrated not into the institution but into representation as such. Thus, again, a janusfaced subject was formed. This subject was interested in more diversity in representation, less homogeneous than its predecessor. But in trying to create this diversity, it also created niche markets, specialised consumer profiles, and an overall spectacle of „difference“ – without effectuating much structural change.


But which conditions are prevailing today, during what might tentatively be called an extension of the second wave of institutional critique? Artistic strategies of institutional critique have become increasingly complex. They have fortunately developed far beyond the the ethnographic urge to indiscriminately drag underprivileged or unusual constituencies into museums, even against their will – just for the sake of „representation“. They include detailed investigations, such as for example Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, which connects a phenomenology of new cultural industries, like the Bilbao Guggenheim, with documents of other institutional constraints, such as those imposed by the WTO or other global economic organisations. They have learned to walk the tightrope between the local and the global without becoming either indigenist and ethnographic, or else unspecific and snobbish. Unfortunately this cannot be said of most cultural institutions which would have to react to the same challenge of having to perform both within a national cultural sphere and an increasingly globalising market.

If you look at them from one side, then you will see that they are under pressure from indigenist, nationalist and nativist claims. If you look from the other side, then you will see that they are under pressure from neoliberal institutional critique, that is under the pressure of the market. Now the problem is – and this is indeed a very widespread attitude – that when a cultural institution comes under pressure from the market, it tries to retreat into a position which claims that it is the duty of the nation state to fund it and to keep it alive. The problem with that position is that it is an ultimately protectionist one, that it ultimately reinforces the construction of national public spheres and that under this perspective the cultural institution can only be defended in the framework of a new leftist attitude which tries to retreat into the ruins of a demolished national welfare state and its cultural shells and to defend them against all intruders. That is – it tends to defend itself ultimately from the perspective of its other enemies, namely the nativist and indigenist critics of institution, who want to transform it into a sort of sacralised ethnopark. But there is no going back to the old fordist nation state protectionism with its cultural nationalism, at least not in any emancipatory perspective.

On the other hand, when the cultural institution is attacked from this nativist, indigenist perspective, it also tries to defend itself by appealing to universal values like freedom of speech or the cosmopolitanism of the arts, which are so utterly commodified as either shock effects or the display of enjoyable cultural difference that they hardly exist beyond this form of commodification. Or it might even earnestly try to reconstruct a public sphere within market conditions, for example with the massive temporary spectacles of criticism funded let’s say by the German Bundeskulturstiftung. But under the ruling economic circumstances, the main effect achieved is to integrate the critics into precarity, into flexibilised working structures within temporary project structures and freelancer work within cultural industries. And in the worst cases, those spectacles of criticism are the decoration of large enterprises of economic colonialism such as in the colonisation of Eastern Europe by the same institutions which are producing the conceptual art in these regions.

If the first wave of institutional critique, criticism produced integration into the institution, the second one only achieved integration into representation. But in the third phase the only integration which seems to be easily achieved is the one into precarity. And in this sense we can nowadays answer the question concerning the function of the institution of critique as follows: while critical institutions are being dismantled by neoliberal institutional criticism, this produces an ambivalent subject which develops multiple strategies for dealing with its dislocation. It is on the one side being adapted to the needs of ever more precarious living conditions. On the other, there seems to have hardly ever been more need for institutions which could cater to the new needs and desires that this constituency will create.



Texts by Curator Anselm Franke


Anselm Franke

Across the Rationalist Veil

Many recent works of art hold undoubtedly close ties to anthropology, resembling reverse ethnography or neo-ethnography, taking the form of research that embraces anthropology’s sociological methods, adopting documentary techniques or borrowing from such genres as the travelogue. Anthropology, on the other hand, is currently engaged in renewed debates over the discipline’s roots as reflected in its contemporary “politics.” These controversies, involving politics, ethics (both disciplinary and individual), and image strategies, were sparked by the death of “human terrain” researchers in Afghanistan—anthropologists embedded with the U.S. military to help tacticians in the field navigate local customs and codes.1 Claiming not to militarize anthropology but to anthropologize forms of violence, these practitioners have eroded a border that, given the colonial roots of the discipline, was before only notionally in place.

This is the first in a series of articles concerned with a specific site of convergence between contemporary anthropology and contemporary artistic practice, namely, their concern for boundaries, whether territorial, epistemological or conceptual; and of which the question of collaboration and entanglement of forms of knowledge production (and operation) is only one aspect. Certainly, many works of art that appropriate elements of anthropology are doing so in awareness of the history of the discipline, but many also assume its problems. Anthropologists, on the other hand, as Hal Foster observed some time ago, often look with a certain envy at artists, and the capacity of aesthetic strategies to relate to, and particularly to transgress, boundaries.2 But Foster’s critique remains within the representational logic of the self/other dichotomy, and consequently he is concerned with the problematic of identification and the question of either “too much” or “too little” distance. Much of the discussion since has remained within these parameters, leaving aside the historical nature of aesthetic transgression, that is, the way modern boundaries are established as well as crossed through the use of images and their placement within artistic strategies.

Which borders, however? And how does transgression affect them? These questions are of some urgency, particularly with regard to art that we perceive to be “politically engaged.” The transgression of political boundaries has largely been perceived as a form of negation, one that could effectively be used to build up an oppositional position. This approach to transgression could be termed “dialectic,” since it mobilizes that which is excluded in a regime of inclusion and exclusion. But this mobilization must have as its prime target those representations that are employed to legitimize such exclusions.

There are two familiar problems with the “dialectic” approach. One is that, when taken to be an exception, the critique often retains, or even confirms, the paradigms on which the original law or boundary is modeled. The other problem is that the strategy applies only to borders modeled on dichotomies (such as linguistic binaries) that are at least theoretically symmetrical, constituted by a de jure symmetry that can therefore be politically claimed where a de facto asymmetry rules. This applies to the borders of the modern disciplinary regime, such as the nation state and its institutions, or to gender division, to name but a few. The “modulated” boundaries in the “society of control,” however, pose a different challenge, for not only do they incorporate plurality effectively, they are scattered, evasive, and themselves transgressive, mobilizing the power of images by shifting the static logic of representation to the dynamic and the performative.3

Sol LeWitt, Incomplete Open Cube, 1974, baked enamel on aluminum.

A Sleight of Hand

An understanding of the operational modes of both types of borders—borders modeled on theoretically symmetrical dichotomies, and “modulated” boundaries—depends on a grasp of their historical genealogy. Across several fields, an overwhelming amount of the critical engagement with modernity and modernism in the past decades has questioned the conceptual separations on which modernity is modeled, separations which constitute modernity’s sources of authority. If we are, as Bruno Latour claims, no longer able to be modern and yet not able to be anything else (which also characterizes much of the situation in the arts), this is certainly connected to the erosion of the power of the first type of borders, those modeled on more or less static conceptual dichotomies.4 With regard to the technologies of power they have enabled, however, the “rationality” of these dichotomies so crucial for the self-understanding of modernity has always had a mythical side to it, in which the first type of border division is always already connected to the second. This concerns the original separation on which any rational dichotomy must be built, based on a paradoxical inclusion of that which it excludes, thus performing a dialectical twist or proper reversal, which the work of rationalization must later mask in a magical sleight of hand.

This is the prevailing question in the context of the political debates on the “exception as rule.”5 However, it is less the question of sovereignty than the “sleight of hand” that interests me here, as this is what potentially has the furthest-reaching consequences for the role aesthetics holds in both transgressing and constituting the modern border-space. This sleight of hand is what I wish to discuss here under the guise of the “rationalist veil.” Any sleight of hand, as is well known, relies on the complicity of its audience; the “rationalist veil,” as the belief in the “rationality” of modern power as modern myth, is what constitutes this complicity. It places rationality always already on the side of the moderns, rendering its power a self-fulfilling prophecy—a necessity exempt from any qualification beyond just what is rational and what is not. If we are no longer modern, but still unable to be anything else, it is perhaps because the residual “rationalist veil” constitutes a form of continuity that binds the present to the modern past.

In what follows, I turn to the work of anthropologists Michael Taussig, Johannes Fabian, and later, Bruno Latour, to sound out this proposition. These authors prove especially helpful because of the particular ways they relate to modernity against the backdrop of struggles within their own field(s), of imperialism and colonial heritage, and of their concern for how conceptual dichotomies have become actual boundaries. Their work touches upon aesthetic questions in different ways, directly and indirectly, but even where the place of aesthetics is left almost entirely unacknowledged, as in the work of Bruno Latour, there is much ground offered for a historically grounded discussion of aesthetic strategies in the modern border topography, particularly with regard to its paradoxical reversals.

What I wish to suggest with the term “rationalist veil,” however, is not merely another gesture in the great machine of critique, an unmasking of the rational as really irrational, for example, or an embrace of the irrational that positions it against modern rationality. The point is to sound out historical layers within the modern rationale—the emancipatory promise entailed in the triumph of reason over superstition and the “irrationality” of religious violence—in an examination of both its rationalizing of what it rendered irrational in the first place, and its production of that which is exempt from rational scrutiny withoutbeing a danger to the rational order, on which the order in fact relies. The point is to locate the smooth shifts and displacements between such seemingly distinct, even irreconcilable categories. The “rationalist veil” is a privileged site of a particular modern practice aimed at creating continuity, blending systemic knowledge, belief, and the power of imagery.

Insofar as art has developed a political consciousness vis-à-vis these problematics, it has struggled with its place and participation in the logic of boundaries. Modern art, for instance, variously problematizes the line of distinction between the rational and irrational; through negation, affirmation, and dialectic exposures, it participates in the common conceptions of what constitutes the rational and the irrational. Alongside the apparent advocacy of the rational in art (e.g., the iconoclasm of modern architecture), there was equally a mobilization of irrationality in movements as diverse as Romanticism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Primitivism, and Art Brut. Appearances notwithstanding, those strands of modern art that embraced rationality for their own distinct purposes also, upon closer investigation, reveal an essentially “irrational” core. Rosalind Krauss’ book The Optical Unconscious, to give just one example, makes such a case for High Modernism.6 In recent exhibition-making and critique, one often encounters Sol LeWitt’s statement that “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.” Suggesting a possible reconciliation between the rational and irrational, the notion seems to appeal to contemporary artists, in particular to those contributing to a renewed interest in the obscure and the occult, for whom this reconciliation is a formal loophole through which one can remain formally agreeable without resorting to subjective mythology.

Jimmie Durham, Xitle and Spirit , 2007. Volcanic stone on automobile, 200 x 350 x 160 cm.


A paradigmatic case is the “Primitivism” debate that had such a profound impact on the course of recent art history following the critique of the “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition at MoMA in 1984. It is worth recalling how influential that exhibition became through the criticism it sparked. It informed the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 1989, where the criticism was renewed and sharpened, and without which neither documenta X nor documenta 11 would have been possible in their scope. The debate evolving around the MoMA exhibition exposed the very category of the “primitive” as a Western fantasy and master narrative projected onto its colonial others firmly situated in a spatial and temporal outside. The exhibition took place at a time when this category could no longer pass uncontested. In the preceding decade, art had increasingly taken its cue from theoretical attacks on modernity’s system of imaginary oppositions. The notorious dualisms had already been under attack. Feminism, queer studies, and postcolonial theory, among others, drew attention to just how these (often linguistically rooted) dualisms resulted in confining border regimes. Whether it be children, the insane, “primitives,” the colonial other, women or gays, the differences monitored by the border regime and its respective institutions in each case fundamentally relied on inscribing and subsequently rationalizing the “irrational.” In a similar pattern of “inclusive exclusion,” the “primitive” was exposed as subjected to a dialectics that simultaneously split and locked the subject rendered “other” within a confined place.

In her book on cinema as modern magic, Rachel Moore makes the distinction between three kinds of primitivisms, with each corresponding to a different level in the modern border topography.7 The first sees primitivism as a neutral term denoting a lack of sophistication, an “artlessness” which, in the hands of modern artists, also becomes an effect. The second refers to primitivism as the use of artifacts or the appropriation of forms from non-Western “native” people. In the third sense primitivism refers to the “repressed” of modernity. This is where irrationality develops a rationality of its own; nonetheless, it must stay symptomatic, as it is always a compensatory expression, a “displacement.” The third primitivism, however, exceeds the aesthetic by far and instead refers to a persistent modern boundary in which the question of binary rationales is always already turned on its head. This is the Western mythology of savagery as a self-fulfilling prophecy, a “savage imagination” of repressed contents projected onto the “other” that not only legitimizes, but necessitates terror in building order on disorder. This primitivism played itself out on the colonial frontier. The colonial frontier is a site where the original separation of building order on disorder takes place. On the frontier, rationality thus acts through irrationality, in a paradoxical intertwinement of systematic arbitrariness, where power is the power to induce separation, physically and socially. The frontier exchanges means for ends, things for people, terror for law, but these exchanges happen in the name of people and the law.

While the three primitivisms listed above have been the subject of much work and debate, it has historically been difficult to get beyond the problem of “projection” in the case of the third. This is the limit established by the “dialectic” approach, except that here a simple dialectics gazes only into mirror images, into self-fulfilling mythologies, or into the “irrational.” Thus much work has dealt with the problem of “otherness.” However, it is precisely the frontier as the original separation and, thus, as boundary paradigm of modernity, that needs to be grasped aesthetically, if it is no longer the rationalist boundaries that are at stake, but their irrational underside. Not unlike the evasive boundaries of global capitalism today, the colonial frontier cannot be represented by taking one’s distance from it. It seems to draw any representation, any image, into its logic, thus reproducing itself. But if images hold such a privileged place in the “original separation,” what accounts for this history? Is there any history of the frontier in the arsenal of modern imagery? It is to be found in the modern understanding and positioning of images themselves, I suggest—but in order to dwell on this point, the frontier needs further attention.

King Leopold’s Rationalist Veil

The first mass human-rights movement in the first years of the twentieth century makes for an interesting case. It was what today can be considered global in scale, and it involved not merely reports, but photographic evidence of crimes reproduced in widely circulating newspapers in both the industrialized world and in the colonies; thus was initiated a form of activism in which both the evidence and the effects of empathy produced by pictures of atrocities for the first time occupied a central place, thus mobilizing public opinion in novel ways, instituting the mediascape of modern democracies. I am referring to the protest movement against King Leopold’s regime in his private colonial possession, the Congo Free State, where he had set up a forced-labor system for the extraction of the natural resources of the Congo, in particular rubber, necessary for, among other things, automobile and bicycle tires. The death toll associated with the rule of the Belgian King, “enthroned” at the infamous 1884 Berlin conference, is today estimated to have been between five and thirty million people.

The protest movement had its origin in the port of Antwerp, where a British then-clerk named Edward Morel confirmed the practice of slavery in the Congo based on trade records. The campaign against slavery led by Morel proved successful largely thanks to the eyewitness accounts of British diplomat Roger Casement, who had been sent to the Congo to assess the human rights situation, not least because the British government objected to Leopold’s de facto trade monopoly. The Casement Report was delivered in 1904 and sparked a public outcry as well as petitions to Parliament that became instrumental in turning the Congo into a “normal” colony four years later, which was then the limit of the imaginable.

In clarifying the wicked dialectics established by the “rationalist veil,” Leopold and the activism of the Congo Reform Association are of particular interest for three reasons. The first concerns the veil of deception set up by Leopold himself, which, until Casement’s report, had systematically spoiled attempts to reveal the truth of his corporate terror regime. Under the guise of the International African Association, ostensibly a scientific and philanthropic association, Leopold represented his Congo activity as a civilizing mission all the way up to the end. He was a gifted public relations manager. In the book that in 1998 ended the “Great Forgetting” concerning the Congo atrocities since it had become a “normal” colony, Adam Hochschild reports that there is no evidence of a single journalist, diplomat or even outright opponent ever leaving a personal audience with the King without becoming complicit in his veil of deceptions and lies.8 That veil, however, was operative only because its rationale conformed with the practice and beliefs of the day; its real scandal was that it was private terror and profit, not the state, which then as today was the impersonal guarantor of reason and rationality.

The second lesson to be drawn from Leopold’s case concerns aesthetic consequences and responses to “the veil,” and their historical resonance. In his groundbreaking 1987 studyShamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, anthropologist Michael Taussig examines the economy of terror and the colonial “space of death” in the Putumayo region in Colombia, where Casement was sent in 1906 after his engagement with the Congo, once again to report on atrocities connected to the rubber economy.9 The civilizing order brought about by the original settlement of British rubber barons in the Putuyamo is described by Taussig as

a society shrouded in an order so orderly that its chaos was far more intense than anything that had preceded it—a death space in the land of the living where torture’s certain uncertainty fed the great machinery of the arbitrariness of power, power on the rampage—that great steaming morass of chaos that lies on the underside of order and without which order could not exist.10

Taussig calls on us to understand the quickly achieved hegemony of a small number of white Christians over the “irracionales” by thinking-through-terror, that is, through the “space of death where the Indian, African and white gave birth to a New World.”11 Taussig invokes a different aspect of what James Clifford famously has termed “ethnographic surrealism,” namely, the long history and rich culture of the social imagination of the “space of death,” in its Western genealogy the space of negativity, branded as underworld and evil, and the space of transformation and metamorphosis, too, the latter becoming the starting point for Taussig’s examination of healing as that which mobilizes the dialectical imagery in the space of death.12

Sol LeWitt, Corner Piece No. 2 (from Cube structures based on nine modules), 1976. Painted wood, 43.3 x 43.3 x 43.3 in.

The Business of Mimesis

Previously in the Congo, Casement had met Joseph Conrad, who had embarked on that infamous steamboat journey on the Congo river, on which Heart of Darkness was modeled. This “trip” into the reality of the “colonial unconscious”—“The horror! The horror!”—is used by Taussig to confront the problem of aesthetics, of perspective, of complicity in the rationale representing the brutality and irrationality of colonial reality that evades explanation. Casement, according to Taussig, in writing his reports, was torn between his own Anti-Imperialist views (based on his Irish Nationalism, for which he would later be hanged), and the obligation to comply with the common sense of political economy that ruled in British Parliament, the rationality of business, which was the way to make sense of reality there, if there was any sense to be made of it at all. Just as in the famous case recalled by Jacques Rancière, also in this instance the politics of aesthetics found the patricians simply unable to understand what the plebeians in their uprising were exclaiming, until the latter had begun to imitate the former, in a mimetic appropriation that is also telling with regard to the limited resources in positions from which one can speak at all.13

To claim the rationality of business for this is unwittingly to claim and sustain an illusory rationality, obscuring our understanding of the way business can transform terror from a means into an end in itself. This sort of rationality is hallucinatory like the veil that Conrad and Casement faced earlier in the Congo, where . . . Conrad abandoned the realism practiced by Casement for a technique that worked through the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality.14

In order to be understood at all, Casement clothes his report in the rationale of business, for the reality of what he was reporting would otherwise not have been comprehensible. Through the language of business, a political stage is created, and the colonial subjects acquire a “voice” and enter the “picture”—at the price, however, of affirming the rationality that rendered them mute in the first place. The veil produces necessity in forging an impossible choice: the other option, for Casement, would have been merely to speak the language of that which was already rendered irrational, and British Parliament surely would have declared him mad.

Conrad, instead, embraces the veil, and exposes it from within. Taussig sees here “a twofold movement of interpretation in a combined action of reduction and revelation—the hermeneutics of suspicion and of revelation in an act of mythic subversion inspired by the mythology of imperialism itself.”15 Heart of Darkness, a cornerstone of modernist literature, to be sure, does not rationalize the border away, but leaves it in place. It accounts for the economy of projection and mimicry by which the colonists enact the very savagery that they impute to the natives. But is such a “twofold strategy,” which brackets the twisted dialectics of framing and becoming what has first been established as “other” and properly “negative,” capable of moving beyond the closed circuit of “projection,” the modernist self-reflection of modernity? Is it capable of conceiving of a different political stage? Taussig, while endorsing Conrad’s aesthetics and its ambiguities, maintains that it was Casement’s reports, not Conrad’s semi-documentary fiction, which had forced political responses.

Caspar David Friedrich, Mann und Frau den Mond betrachtend, c. 1830-1835. Oil on canvas, 34 × 44 cm.

Rational Imperialism

Another influential anthropologist who wrote about the problem of writing across the veil, also attempting to cope with its mythological dialectics of rationality, was Johannes Fabian. In Out of Our Minds Fabian examines the travelogues of Western explorers, as well as the anthropological practice of fieldwork premised on them, engaged in a re-reading of how the question of rationality, of rational detachment as opposed to sensual experience in particular, is posed therein.16 The mythical image of the explorer is of a heroic figure “guided by self-denying missionary zeal and philanthropic compassion, as well as a taste for travel and adventure, often combined with scientific curiosity.”17 This was the image, too, that most explorers, often equipped with remarkable skills in self-marketing, were careful to present of themselves. Faith and reason, as well as political and economic imperatives, supposedly determined their encounters. However, as long as this determination is accepted, writes Fabian, the conclusions drawn from their accounts remain entirely predictable and inescapable.

In seeking a writing mode that contests the myth—capable of speaking of the conditions of anarchic irrationality, of ecstasy and outright delirium for which he finds much evidence beneath that mythological veil—without falling into Western rationality’s self-fulfilling prophecy, he writes:

One strategy adopted in recent years to counteract that self-fulfilling prophecy is to accumulate evidence for resistance to conquest and to write about that. This is a necessary task, and much more needs to be done to carry it out. But what will such efforts show? That imperialism was weaker than the image it liked to project, or less organized, or less rational? . . . Even if we can point to deception, misrepresentation, and perhaps blindness in these encounters of exploration, conquest and exploitation, that is not likely to shake in any fundamental way the belief in the basic rationality, and hence necessity, of Western expansion.18

In the context I wish to invoke here, I take this to be not merely a historical question on the retroactive legitimization or deconstruction of imperialism. It is indisputable that historical interpretations—the articulation of a rationale—have far-reaching consequences for the present, depending on the context in which they are made intelligible. The invocation here is primarily targeted at the border technologies that we have inherited from modernity and imperialism, and which, by way of their simultaneously evasive and imperative nature, constitute a continuity in hegemony, and concern the establishing of indisputable background conditions and thus of the “political stage.” It concerns particularly the mechanisms by which the “original separation” that marks this stage embraces what it formerly established as its “outside.” The “accumulation of evidence” was surely a successful strategy in contesting the separations that have structured the stage set up by Western modernity internally; however, if the background conditions, the border of the political as such, is at stake, different strategies are necessary, strategies in correspondence with the twisted economy of the frontier. And it is because of its dialectically twisted structure that “critique,” itself a modern practice, has entered into the often lamented crisis we currently face, foregrounding its complicities in upholding the power of the critiqued, corresponding to the specific ways in which transgression confirms, rather than undoes, the law of boundaries. However, rather than conclude, from the realization that the “outside” of modern critique was nothing but a pretense and phantasm, that there is “no more outside”—and thus only “insider” positions, varying by degrees of consent—it is theproduction of an outside through the economy of the frontier (ranging in scope from conceptual divisions via political separations to the act of killing) that provides the historical backdrop to the contemporary challenge. This requires a different optics than those of modern critique. It requires that one think-through-terror—as Taussig demands in his study—the world that is already-upside-down.


In a following text, I will attempt to trace some conjunctions between the economy of the frontier and the logic of the imaginary.

© 2009 e-flux and the author


Taussig calls on us to understand the quickly achieved hegemony of a small number of white Christians over the “irracionales” by thinking-through-terror, that is, through the “space of death where the Indian, African and white gave birth to a New World.”11 Taussig invokes a different aspect of what James Clifford famously has termed “ethnographic surrealism,” namely, the long history and rich culture of the social imagination of the “space of death,” in its Western genealogy the space of negativity, branded as underworld and evil, and the space of transformation and metamorphosis, too, the latter becoming the starting point for Taussig’s examination of healing as that which mobilizes the dialectical imagery in the space of death.12

Sol LeWitt, Corner Piece No. 2 (from Cube structures based on nine modules), 1976. Painted wood, 43.3 x 43.3 x 43.3 in.

The Business of Mimesis

Previously in the Congo, Casement had met Joseph Conrad, who had embarked on that infamous steamboat journey on the Congo river, on which Heart of Darkness was modeled. This “trip” into the reality of the “colonial unconscious”—“The horror! The horror!”—is used by Taussig to confront the problem of aesthetics, of perspective, of complicity in the rationale representing the brutality and irrationality of colonial reality that evades explanation. Casement, according to Taussig, in writing his reports, was torn between his own Anti-Imperialist views (based on his Irish Nationalism, for which he would later be hanged), and the obligation to comply with the common sense of political economy that ruled in British Parliament, the rationality of business, which was the way to make sense of reality there, if there was any sense to be made of it at all. Just as in the famous case recalled by Jacques Rancière, also in this instance the politics of aesthetics found the patricians simply unable to understand what the plebeians in their uprising were exclaiming, until the latter had begun to imitate the former, in a mimetic appropriation that is also telling with regard to the limited resources in positions from which one can speak at all.13

To claim the rationality of business for this is unwittingly to claim and sustain an illusory rationality, obscuring our understanding of the way business can transform terror from a means into an end in itself. This sort of rationality is hallucinatory like the veil that Conrad and Casement faced earlier in the Congo, where . . . Conrad abandoned the realism practiced by Casement for a technique that worked through the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality.14

In order to be understood at all, Casement clothes his report in the rationale of business, for the reality of what he was reporting would otherwise not have been comprehensible. Through the language of business, a political stage is created, and the colonial subjects acquire a “voice” and enter the “picture”—at the price, however, of affirming the rationality that rendered them mute in the first place. The veil produces necessity in forging an impossible choice: the other option, for Casement, would have been merely to speak the language of that which was already rendered irrational, and British Parliament surely would have declared him mad.

Conrad, instead, embraces the veil, and exposes it from within. Taussig sees here “a twofold movement of interpretation in a combined action of reduction and revelation—the hermeneutics of suspicion and of revelation in an act of mythic subversion inspired by the mythology of imperialism itself.”15 Heart of Darkness, a cornerstone of modernist literature, to be sure, does not rationalize the border away, but leaves it in place. It accounts for the economy of projection and mimicry by which the colonists enact the very savagery that they impute to the natives. But is such a “twofold strategy,” which brackets the twisted dialectics of framing and becoming what has first been established as “other” and properly “negative,” capable of moving beyond the closed circuit of “projection,” the modernist self-reflection of modernity? Is it capable of conceiving of a different political stage? Taussig, while endorsing Conrad’s aesthetics and its ambiguities, maintains that it was Casement’s reports, not Conrad’s semi-documentary fiction, which had forced political responses.



Anselm Franke


For the Summer 2012 issue of e-flux journal we are very pleased to present a special “Animism” issue guest-edited by Anselm Franke, curator of the exhibition by the same name. Even if you missed Animism on tour in Europe since it began at Extra City and MUHKA in Antwerp in 2010, you have probably learned of its encompassing mobilization of the systems of inclusion and exclusion defining “science” and “culture.” The various stages of the exhibition have shown the discourse of animism to be a crucial skeleton key for releasing the deadlocks formed by the repressed religious, teleological, and colonial foundations of modernity—the hysteria within its narrative that continues to shape the exhibition formats and sensibilities we are tethered to. The fifth iteration of Animism is now on view at e-flux in New York until July 28.

—Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle

A ghost is haunting modernity—the ghost of animism. It awaits us everywhere when we step outside modern reason’s cone of light, outside its firmly mapped order, when approaching its frontier zones and “outside.” We find it in the imagined darkness of modernity’s outside, where everything changes shape and the world is reassembled from the fragments that reason expels from its chains of coherences.

The task is to bring those constitutive others at the “dark” side of modern reason—like “animism,” but also the “imaginary,” the “negative,” “otherness,” or even “evil”—back into the relational diagram of modernity. To take those universalized sites of otherness that receive names such as “a universal tendency of humankind” or even its “origin,” and bring them back into history, would be perhaps the only way to account for the relational constitution of the present, to face the sorcery of its double binds. To embark upon this task is thus to understand these are never given “universals” of the modern, but its very relational products. They are the sites that modern history is silent about, to the extent that the very narrative of the “the modern” is built upon this silence as its fundament. The narrative-imaginary vacuum of the present is the direct outcome of this silence. This silence tells us that it is actually not animism, but modernity that is the ghost—halfway between presence and absence, life and death. And the future grand narratives of modernity may well speak of this ghost from the perspective of its other, from its “animist” side.

We see signs of this happening already, for it is now clear that the modern arrow of time has changed directions. The future is no longer a white sheet of paper awaiting our projective prescriptive schemes and designs, and the past is no longer the archaic animist “stage” of multiple contagions and mediations which must be surmounted as “entry” condition into the hygienic order of modernity. The future is now behind us, and the past approaches us from the front. The specter of animism is no longer one that returns from the past, for the reversal of modern temporality has announced itself for some time in the ability to challenge monolithic modernist narratives with a multitude of other modernities that ultimately expose and highlight those contagions, hybridities, and mobilities that oppose the foundational modern acts of separation, inscription, and fixation. Here, animism shifts to become the experience of the event and experience that sets in when a naturalized, fixed order of signs is de-stabilized and opened up towards possible transformation, like a map covering the territory that is lifted to unveil multiple movements below what had appeared to be stable ground. Animism is thus no longer historical but is rather the ground upon which history is placed.

Today it is no longer the reified script modernity that we are enacting, but that of the “self.” No longer unrestrictedly exporting its discontents into an imaginary primitive outside and other dumping grounds, the new site of export and displacement of social conflicts is interiority at the frontier of subjectivity. It is at this frontier where the double bind of imposed choice and the deadlock on the imaginary currently hits, as a conflation of difference between system and subject whence the subject must keep this difference up.

And we find the opposition to this experience in anarchic dialogism, one that resists all imposed or supposed possible closures of the field of dialogic subjectification. It is through animism that this possibility today becomes thinkable, while at the same time making a concrete history available to it. The history of animism is above all one of closure and division, but also a history of ontological anarchy—where exclusions become increasingly intelligible through their symptomatic displacements in the economy of desires, in the genres of fiction, in psychopathologies, and so forth. It is important to mention here that anarchy in this sense does not find its horizon of agency in a historical void or a tabula rasa known as the future. It does not seek an absence of power, but rather the insistence on the right and possibility not to be subjected to power. It finds its field in the immediate actuality of that which offers itself to dialogic contestation and engagement, in the permanent modulated exchange between the implicit and the explicit—or, in aesthetic terms, between what constitutes “figure” and what constitutes “ground” in any mapping that implicates us.

It is through this figure of ontological anarchy that we find ourselves in a time at which it is ultimately urgent to “understand”—in order to step beyond and unmake—the magic circle of double binds. But this time it is not the sorcery of the animist other, but the modern and “capitalist sorcery” (Isabelle Stengers) that keeps us spellbound, trapped within a set of false choices, within a systemic closure that suggests no alternatives, and does not cease to assimilate into clinical management its other and its outsides. Understanding the “modern” sorcery that crystalized in the concept of animism is the present issue of e-flux journal’s common denominator.

A significant share of the contributions to this issue of e-flux journal are based on the contributions to a conference co-organized with Irene Albers and the Freie Universität Berlin. It accompanied the opening of the exhibition Animism in Berlin at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in March 2012, which preceded its current installment at e-flux in New York. Previous chapters of the Animism exhibition where presented in 2010 at Extra City Kunsthal and MUHKA in Antwerp and the Kunsthalle Bern, and at the Generali Foundation, Vienna in 2011. My sincere thanks goes to all collaborators who have made this long-term project possible and who have contributed to it to date.

© 2012 e-flux and the author


Anselm Franke

Animism: Notes on an Exhibition

The exhibition Animism sets out to provide a different context for reflecting on an old topic in the theory of art, one that has considerable reverberations in the present: the question of animation. Rather than investigating the effect of animation merely within the registers of aesthetics—for instance, by presenting a collection of artworks exemplifying different ways of achieving the effect of life or the lifelike within a field demarcated by the dialectics of movement and stasis—this exhibition tackles the unquestioned backdrop against which the aesthetic discussion of such effects normally takes place. This backdrop is usually taken for granted or carefully kept at a distance, but the works in this exhibition seek to bring it into the light. While the evocation of life is a well-known effect in animated cartoons and digital animations, and in more delicate ways, in painting and sculpture, outside the territory of art and mass media animation has been a disputed problem—one that leads to core issues in current debates about modernity. When animation is taken outside the field of art, it turns into an ontological battleground. Far from being a matter of abstract considerations, this is a battleground at the frontier of colonial modernity, and in the context of contemporary politics and aesthetics, it concerns the urgent question of the transformability and negotiability of ontologies, where claims to reality and the ordering of the social world are at stake. On this battleground, the problem of animation was given the name “animism” by nineteenth century anthropologists aspiring to see their work incorporated into the ranks of science.

Ken Jacobs, Capitalism: Slavery, 2006. Film still from video projection, color, silent, 3 min,
transferred to DVD.


I should begin by mentioning the degree to which animism has continued to pose, despite all attempts at scientific explanation, a serious riddle to Western epistemologies, and also a provocation to our embodied everyday perception and rationality. That inanimate objects and things act, that they have designs on us, and that we are interpellated by them, is a quotidian reality that we all implicitly accept—just as we accept, and indeed are animated by, the very milieus and contexts in which we operate. But to acknowledge, articulate, and conceptualize this fact is apparently a wholly different issue, which is problematic on all levels. The provocation embedded in the notion of animism is that it demands us to confront just that. Imagining animism therefore takes on the shape of the extreme, such that animism assumes the form of a caricature-version of the reality we normally take for granted: If things become active, alive, or even person-like, where does this leave actual humans? Animism in this sense is greeted by the Western mindset as the threat that we must exchange positions, for now we can only imagine ourselves as annulled, in the role of the inert, passive stuff that was previously the thing-like “matter” out there. And the provocation reaches further. Its echoes can be heard in the question, “So, do you reallybelieve?” For what is at stake here seems to be of a confessional nature, such that if one would dare to answer “yes,” one would no longer be an accepted member of the modern community.

This project does not intend to answer this question with either “no” or “yes.” Instead, it seeks to bypass the choice altogether and treat animism not as a matter of belief, but rather as a boundary-making practice. It seeks to shift the terms away from a contaminated terrain and uncover in this terrain a series of a priori choices embedded in the modern imaginary.

Indeed, the very mention of animism provokes immediate reactions of border-defense. A famous example of such a defense-reaction, on the level of affect and aesthetics, is the Freudian sensation of the “uncanny,” in which something is either more alive than it should be, or exposed as “merely” mechanical. In both cases, we reassert the “proper” boundary between self and world. The question of animation—what is endowed with life, the soul, and agency—seems inevitably and immediately to call for distinctions and boundaries: between animate and inanimate matter, primitive and civilized, subjective perception and objective qualities, the colloquial perception of the real and the merely fictive or imaginary, and last but not least, between interior self and exterior world. And it would indeed be presumptuous to demand that contemporary viewers abandon such distinctions altogether, and, for instance, take the aesthetic effect of a cartoon to be real life. In our everyday perception, there is nothing that we identify more readily as fictional and as make-believe. And the project does not issue such a demand, nor does it devote itself, in a fashionable way, to the hidden life of images and things. However, it is in the readiness with which such distinctions are made that it identifies a colonial mechanism deeply ingrained in our everyday perception and our capacity to make sense of the world. Hence, the project refrains from postulating a life of things or images, not because this would go too far, but because it would not go far enough. The Animism project was built upon the conviction that what must be mobilized are the very grounds on which such distinctions are made.

Vincent Monnikendam, Mother Dao, the Turtlelike (Moeder Dao, de schildpadgelijkende), 1995. Film, 35 mm, color, sound, 88 min, transferred to DVD.

What is at stake in putting those grounds at our disposal? At stake is the question of whether we are able to step outside the matrix of modern dichotomies—not by abandoning them, but by regaining our capacity to act on them, and to transform what presents itself to us as “given” reality. This ability is also the measure of all attempts to decolonize the modern colonial imaginary. This project argues that in the question of animism lies a kernel of colonialism. Across the registers of common sense and everyday perception, from aesthetic reflection to the most abstract conceptual distinctions, this kernel stands for a mechanism that has served to legitimize colonial subjugation, often in ways not immediately perceptible, precisely because it has become naturalized as part of how we perceive, experience, and relate to things. Animism apparently cannot be defined within modern terminology without applying to it a set of unquestioned assumptions that are the fundaments of modernity, and in whose matrix we necessarily operate as long as we assume that the question is one of determining the “correct” distinction between life and non-life, self and world. These assumptions are already manifest when it is described, in a seemingly neutral terms, as the belief of some cultures that nature is populated by spirits or souls. The very meaning these terms carry within modernity imply that such belief is at worst mistaken—that is, failing to account for how things really are—or at best symbolic representations of social relations projected onto a natural environment that is indifferent to them. When we use the term animism, we have thus already entered into the narrative structure and self-mythologies of modernity. And these narratives cannot but deny reality to what they construct as modernity’s other. Mobilizing the grounds would require that we question the very meaning of terms such as “belief,” “spirits,” ”souls,” “projection,” “fiction,” and even “life,” as well as the historical role they have played in Western modernity as part of a disciplinary system of divisions that organize a modern “reality principle,” ghettoizing modernity’s discontents as “fiction,” “aesthetics,” or “primitive animism.”

The measure for un-disciplining the imagination is the ability to stop “playing the dividing game” in order to look at the very practices that organize and police the divisions. This exhibition is not about animism, as if it were an object. Instead, it is about the making of boundaries—those boundaries that decide, in the last instance, the status of things within a social order, decide actual in- and exclusions. Boundaries are never given to us in the form of a priori categorical separations. As so many critical theoretical efforts of the recent past have shown, borders are never “natural,” they never precede their making—they are always the products of practices that organize them, depending on the order of knowledge, technologies, and politics. Representations, aesthetic processes, and media images consolidate, reflect, and reach beyond these boundaries. They are the very expression of the liminality of all things, including the liminality of all subjectivities. All social practice is, in these terms, boundary-practice, although every boundary is organized and conceived differently. The precondition for bringing these differences into view is the imaginary and conceptual ability to un-map the borders in question. This exhibition was conceived in those terms, moving between the inscription and the un-mapping of those boundaries through their transgression and negotiation at the limits.


In order to meet the demands of un-mapping and un-disciplining, it is necessary to create an alternative narration, an alternative frame—which is at the same time an anti-frame—which can account for the phenomena of animation in terms beyond the taken-for-granted division. At the same time, this alternative frame must not fall into a terrain of indifference, as if all borders and hierarchies were already ultimately abolished. The first premise of the Animism project is that the fact of animation and the event of communication are one and the same. There is no being-in-communication that is not also a form of animation, even if this is a negative animation, the absence of a certain sovereignty and agency, as in the case of “objectification” or “reification.” Animism then becomes the point of departure, the most common thing in the world—a world in which there is nothing outside of the relations that constitute it. Where there is communication, there is animation. Animation is always a form of entanglement with an environment and with otherness. This otherness is incommensurable and can never be fully objectified; it always escapes positivist knowledge to some degree, implicating such knowledge instead within situated practice. This point of departure hence also suggests that there aren’t—there cannot possibly be—non-animist societies. Animism is a different name for the primacy of relationality, for social immanence. To conceive of this immanence not as closed and fundamentally undifferentiated is a current political task, the reason for the necessity of bringing boundary-making practices in the widest possible sense into view. Yet, however canalized by distinct border-practices, animism as such may well be irreducible. It stands for the demand that relations must be, and always are, expressed. The discontent of a relational diagram (its foreclosed, excluded, muted part that is rendered negatively) will always be recoverable in a displaced, symptomatic elsewhere from where it will issue its claims—the site of desires, fictions, divinities, symptoms, or ghosts. Dealing with these phenomena requires that one does not address them by these names; it requires that images in the widest sense of the word be read against the grain, against their classification, such as when fiction becomes documentary.

The dramaturgy of the Animism project furthermore followed the speculative hypothesis that in the modern Western worldview, the always-already-animist “meridian line” of communication and mimetic engagement has turned into a “negative horizon.” A negative horizon is a horizon that one leaves behind: hence to become modern, we have to cease being animists. We must leave behind a projected animist past, always in danger of returning. Furthermore, “animism” was the name given to the vanishing point situated on this meridian line at the horizon. Within a pictorial plane organized according to the central perspective, the vanishing point is the central spot on which the entire projective construction depends, but it ultimately is also the spot where all the lines that open up the space in the first place, and hence all its differences, conflate and fall into one. Hence animism was always imagined in terms of the absence of those distinctions on which modernity rests—for instance, as a “state of nature” in which there is no difference between the interior and the exterior world, between culture and nature, or between natural things and social signs. The vanishing point is also a tilting image, a negative, upside-down mirror that shows the non-self as a projection of self—as in the image of animism as a “natural condition” in opposition to “modern civilization.” The upside-down mirror-screen is an instrument of an imaginary appropriation of otherness conceived in one’s own image. It is the site of an export—hence the common accusation that so-called animists “project” their sense of self into the environment, while it is really those who label them animist that project themselves and their own normative distinctions onto others and the world.

Animism is a “multistable picture” (a figure in which figure/ground relations are reversible, with two mutually exclusive motives making equally strong claims on the perception), always unexpectedly switching between a positive and a negative, between figure and ground. Hence in the modern mindset animism is always conceived as either negative—that is, as a barbaric absence of civilization—or positive—as a quasi-paradisic condition in which the painful separations that characterize modernity do not exist. It is in the moment of the reversal that this exhibition attempts to grasp the “making-of-boundaries,” in suspending the either/or structure that characterizes the “multistable figure” just as the logic of boundaries, aspiring to substitute the enforced choice (a double-bind really) for a stereoscopic gaze that arrives from the meridian line, from the vanishing point. A generalized asymmetry took hold of the modern worldview, resulting in an inability to recognize a multistable figure as such. This is perhaps a perfect description of dualism, in which the imposed choice of the multistable figure is not traversed to interrogate the moment of encounter and untranslatability at the meridian of mediation, but instead is lifted to become a schizophrenic either/or principle. This leads to serious trouble with media and especially states of mediality. In the dualist multistable picture, everything at the end comes down to the question of agency and determinism, of just what and who is actually acting and what is acted upon—such as in the quarrel of matter versus spirit, body versus mind. The modernist subject preferred to conceive of itself as the active figure facing apassive world of matter that it acted upon. What constitutes a problem in this structure is the inverse, the fact that we do not only make, but are also fundamentally made—not in the material determinist sense, but in the sense of our relational environments and milieus and the vectors of subjectivation they contain. This passive increasingly escapes the modern framework, and it is actively excluded and stigmatized. To be made, to be animated, to be moved—those phenomena have no claim to reality other than in the ghetto of subjective emotion or aesthetic experience. Consequently, the most abject figure of savagery to the modern subject—the symptom of the exclusion and asymmetry—was “possession,” the condition of passive experience where the subject fully became a medium, and was fundamentally made, animated, and moved. To break open the double bind surrounding the modern relation to mediality requires that the active/passive nexus is conceived as a two-way street, a multistable picture whose figure/ground relations must at all times be available for inversion and the stereoscopic gaze. This exchange of perspectives is a historiographic challenge, for it demands that our historical narrative be measured against the meridian where such reversal becomes possible, where the ability to imagine the reversal ultimately translates into actual possibilities to act on history. In the light of a contemporary situation that sees the displacement of boundaries from disciplinary institutions into the subject, this ability to account for and act on the active/passive nexus is perhaps a political demand par excellence.

Jimmie Durham, The Museum of Stones, 2011/2012. Installation consisting of various stones and other materials, measurements variable. Photo: Arwed Messmer.


The Animism exhibition begins with a constellation of works that bring to light the paradoxical position of the medium of the exhibition and the institution of the museum. What is a museum if not a grand de-animating machine? Life—animation—is subject to permanent transformation in time, and it is precisely this transformation that the very institution of the museum is directed against. Whatever enters the museum is subjected to de-animation in this very basic sense, as it becomes an object of the very conservation that is the purpose of museum’s existence. Whatever enters a museum must also be positioned within a classificatory order of knowledge through which the object is fixed and identified. A handy example is the butterfly, a symbol of psyche and of metamorphosis since the ancient Greeks. The acts of conservation, fixation, and identification are all present in the single gesture that pins down the butterfly with a needle in its rightful place within a taxonomy. Museums have also frequently been compared to mausoleums. But do they not yield their own paradoxical forms of animation? Museums make objects to be looked at by subjects—and this is already a “relational diagram” in which one side talks about the other. But how do they “speak back,” and how does the very relation produced here become articulated? Is it not that the de-animated objects are now what animates the very order of knowledge at whose service they have been installed? And does not the museum as mausoleum, moreover, produce a particular—perhaps compensatory—phantasy of re-animation, as the very expression of said relation? Why would hundreds of thousands people go to stare at mummies or dinosaurs if it wasn’t for the uncanny phantasy of them coming to life again? Do museums, particularly in their popular and populist forms, not produce a specific kind of spectral animist imaginary through which “history comes alive”?

With regard to animism as a subject matter, this productive paradox needs further examination. For a basic assumption of this project is that animism is not an object, but the very set of practices that resist objectification. An exhibition about animism is hence impossible—simply because these relations cannot be exhibited. They resist the particularform of objectification that is the precondition for something to be exhibited. And putting artifacts in the place of the practice would give rise to a different problem: whatever way an object may have been animated in its original context, it ceases to be so in the confines of a museum and exhibition framework, where they are perhaps no less animated, but certainly in very different ways and to different ends.

This part of the exhibition has thus been devoted to reflection on the institution of the museum and the medium of the exhibition in relation to animism. Here the film Les statues meurent aussi (1953) by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais is on view. This is a film that follows the fate of “tribal” African sculptures. It is a narrative mapping of, on the one hand, the different forms of animation and de-animation that these sculptures undergo as they become specimens of the “primitive arts” in Europe’s ethnographic museums, and on the other hand, of the uncanny animation they are endowed with as they become commodities in a new marketplace. This section of the exhibition also displays a series of photographs by Candida Höfer from her ongoing series on ethnographic museums around the Western hemisphere. These are portraits of the architecture of those spaces—including the world’s most renowned ones—that seek to dissociate themselves from both time and space. The photographs chart the various axes of distance that are inscribed into the architecture of those institutions, and foreground their representational gesture, as well as the enormous machinery in their “backstage” that is needed to fight the inevitable disintegration of their objects. One photograph acts as a multistable figure par excellence. It shows two conservators at work wearing full-body white suits in front of vitrines packed with ethnographic artifacts. Faced with this curious picture, we wonder: What it is about these objects that draws so much attention? Or is there perhaps a danger of some viral contamination, from which these suits ought to protect those that have been assigned to interrogate the objects scientifically? Who protects themselves from whom? And what is the relation that we, as visitors, are allowed or prescribed to enter into with whatever objects are on display?

Next to these photographs are a series of vitrines that contain a collection of stones. The installation The Dangers of Petrification (2007) looks much like a classical display from a museum of natural history, except that the labels next to the stones are handwritten, and many of the stones look rather ordinary. The writings on the labels identify these stones aspetrifications of things such as a piece of bread, an apple slice, a salami, or even a cloud—the latter’s petrification, it is stated, was the product of extremely rare weather conditions that would sometimes occur just above the ocean’s surface. And in the moment that one begins to smile at these descriptions, the whole dispositif of the museum looks back at us. The way the Western tradition uses stone to symbolize its desire for eternity and, in the form of carvings, to document its understanding of mimetic representation is here turned on it’s head. Against the understanding of mimetic representation that immortalizes the transience of life, here we have the mimicry of such mimesis presented as a natural, rather than a cultural, process, short-circuiting the entire scenery of the opposition. At stake here is also the metapsychology of the gaze and its mystification from religious art to minimalism, the very meaning of what it means for a work of art to “look back at us.” And last but not least, it is possible to read into this work and its mockery-staging of natural mimesis and “primitive animation” a model for an alternative understanding of the subject-object dichotomy; what is staged here is not objects subjectified or subjects objectified, but nothing other than a short-circuiting of different temporalities—the short life and unstable condition of matter such as “bread” and the extremely long process of things-turning-to-stone. What remains, however, are not oppositions but rather a mimetic continuum in which “subject” and “object,” “life,” and “non-life” have become relative extremes—every “accident,” as other works by Jimmie Durham frequently foreground, brings the precarious balance of subjects and objects, mobiles and immobiles, out of joint. The next work continues this line of thought, as it looks at one of the registers through which the boundary between persons and things is brought about and negotiated.

The archival installation Assembly: Animism (2011) by Agency displays a selection of its vast collection of court cases in which legal disputes around copyright, authorship, creativity, and agency turn into forums that negotiate the very boundary between humans and objects: a snapshot of just how the border between “nature” and “culture” is drawn by one of the clusters of disciplinary institutions, the judiciary, as inherently fragile claims on “authorship” and “creativity” are granted or denied.

Installation view of “Animism”, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo: Arwed Messmer.


There are usually two additional things I mention when presenting the next part of the exhibition. One concerns the Western history of the concept of the “soul.” It was only in medieval scholastic theology that the soul was imagined as something firmly situated in the interior of a subject, and hence something that could be owned. Descartes later declared the soul to be substance—although a substance without extension, whose precarious status needed to be compensated for by a relative increase in transcendent stability. Aided by what Foucault described as “technologies of the self,” a new home—the inner self—was given to what had previously been exiled from exteriority. Following Christian theology, the soul-as-substance is given to individuals. The body is the container that receives a transcendental soul at the beginning of life. The soul is then the stage of a lifelong drama shaped by the forces of good and evil.

The Western tradition of theological and philosophical “soul-design” conceived of the soul as something that is owned by a subject, as its essence, and is enclosed within its interior. No wonder that when anatomists opened the body to look for the soul, they did not find it. What if the soul is not a substance, not a “thing,” but a function (not unlike the “zero” in mathematics)? What if “soul” (anima in Latin) is another name for the very medium that makes reciprocal exchange possible, for what happens in the very in-between, the event of communication? Would that not also change the very meaning of what it means to animate?

When people ask me at this stage to explain once more what this exhibition is about, I answer that it is about two things: firstly, the fact that all of us are perfectly capable of distinguishing an animated conversation from a non-animated one, and yet few of us are able to explain this difference in any precise or meaningful way. As crucial as this difference is to our everyday lives, it constitutes a blind spot in our conscious knowledge, and hence of what we are able to openly negotiate. Secondly, I also answer that this exhibition is not about answering the question of whether some “thing” possesses an anima, subjectivity, or life as a property or quality, but about the silence of our classification systems regarding the event of cross-animations and reciprocal, dialogical relations, and above all, about what it means for us to be animated, to be acted upon, or to be mediums of our environments and milieus. In my own work on the subject, I have always been more interested in this dimension of mediality and passivity—how to articulate the designs that the world has on us—than in the question of, for instance, the agency or subjectivity of “things.”

Installation view of Roee Rosen’s “Vladimir’s Night” by Maxim Komar-Myshkin, 2011/2012. Gouaches and text on paper.


The next part of the exhibition introduces the concept of animism historically. It begins with a vitrine-display of a number of key texts from 1871 to the 1990s. Animism as a term was coined by the anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his seminal work Primitive Culture (1871), which gained him an academic chair in anthropology, the first position of its kind. Tylor aimed to articulate a theory of the origins of religion, and he found this origin in what was to him the primordial mistake of primitive people: the attribution of life and person-like qualities to objects in their environment.1 Tylor’s theory was built on the widespread assumption of the time that primitive people were incapable of assessing the real value and properties of material objects. Animism was explained by a primitive incapacity to distinguish between object and subject, reality and fiction, the inside and outside, which allegedly led primitive people to project human qualities onto objects. The concept was inscribed into an evolutionary scheme from the primitive to the civilized, in which a few civilizations had evolved, while the rest of the world’s people, described by Tylor as “tribes very low in the scale of humanity,” had remained animist, thus effectively constituting “relics” of an archaic past.

This evolutionary, anti-animistic scheme that placed the rational subject and the scientist at the top of the evolutionary ladder would soon be taken up by psychology on its own terms; psychology would go on to assert that every human passes through an animist stage in childhood, which is characterized by the projection of its own interior world onto the outside. Thus, next to Tylor’s Primitive Culture are displayed two key texts by Sigmund Freud: Totem and Taboo (1913) and The Uncanny (1924). It is in Totem and Taboo that Freud makes an extraordinary calculation—one that helps us a great deal in mapping the landscape of institutions and disciplines of knowledge that are the result of the modern dichotomies. Freud, building directly on Tylor’s theory of animism, explains this “stage” as a form of narcissism by means of which consciousness is projected onto the external world, and ideal connections (as established in one’s thinking) are mistaken for real ones—that is, a connection established in one’s thought is assumed to exist in the outer world.

In his attempt to dissociate inner projections and outer reality, Freud, like Tylor, is an inheritor of the basic program of the Enlightenment, which in turn has been the secular-intellectual successor of the Christian war waged on “superstitions” and idolatry. In this process, outer reality comes to be defined in terms of an objectified nature—that is, as a nature uncontaminated by social representations, symbolizations, and projections. But if the holy task of modern knowledge was to calculate away from the outer world that which humans had previously projected onto it (thus initiating the Cartesian legacy), then where did the contents of such projections go?

The nineteenth century positivist mechanical world picture made no room for these projections—and hence they led a delirious, symptomatic, and anarchic life in the realm of the fictional, in the works of the Romantics, in the phenomena of the mediumistic and in the pathological. In Totem and Taboo, Freud explains that whatever had to be extracted from the proper exterior world (from nature and its laws) must now be given a home—the field of psychology. For what is the terrain and subject matter of psychology? It is everything that “primitive men” had projected outwards into the world, and that subsequently had to be “translated back into psychology.” The “psyche” thus constitutes itself as the byproduct of the very categorical distinction made by rationalist science. It is the very field that administers whatever is left on the dubious subject-side when the proper calculations have been made. Freud’s genuine contribution was that he actually assigned to those phenomena a territory where they could once again be recognized as an irreducible part of reality.

In the essay The Uncanny—his most distinct contribution to aesthetics—Freud comes close to suggesting that it is in the experience of the uncanny that the unconscious reveals its animistic and social, collective roots. Uncanny experiences are those that fracture the very border between self and world, between past and present, and between life and non-life. Freud finds two explanations for uncanny experiences, two ways of explaining away the collective, immanent dimension of an animism that has become the modern unconscious: they are either a matter of “reality-testing,” insofar as they are vestiges of animistic beliefs from our ancient past that we have already successfully surmounted; or they are the return of something repressed—and since Freud’s conception of the unconscious is not social, not collective, not historical, but confined to the private individual’s family history, it must be something repressed from childhood experience, rather than the discontents of any given or historical “relational diagram” in which the possibility to speak back, and negotiate the situation as such, has been foreclosed.2

It is through the Freudian conception of the aesthetics of the uncanny, nevertheless, that we can grasp the degree to which this very border—on which our identity as “modern” depends—is a question of aesthetics, that is, of sensuous perception, and that it is in aesthetics that this border is frequently negotiated and transgressed. But is there not a similar “agreement” around the designation of something as “aesthetic”? Is the aesthetic not a kind of “safety valve,” as Fredric Jameson suggested, “a kind of sandbox to which one consigns all those vague things … under the heading of the irrational … [where] they can be monitored and, in case of need, controlled”?3 And is “art” in this landscape of modern territorial and disciplinary demarcations and border-regimes not yet another safe enclosure, such that Freud can claim in Totem and Taboo that it is in art—and in art alone—that modern civilization has reserved a place where animism is allowed to survive? And what is the price paid for this right to remain animist, if not that art has no claims to make on reality?

The autonomy of modern art was achieved at the price of becoming fictional, which meant it had to become politically inconsequential, a merely subjective expression. Of course, this very contract that lies at the foundation of what we call “art” today, this magic circle that unhinged art from the collectivity of life and rendered it fictional, was like the red rag in the eyes of the bull called the avant-garde. Wave after wave of avant-garde artists attacked this shameful line that was drawn around art. They wanted to bring art back into life, back into politics, back into practice, often drawing up their own obscure horizons of animistic utopias. Or they had arranged themselves within the magic circle drawn around art as a preserve for animistic relations, and fashioned that preserve not as a realm of autonomy, but of superior sovereignty, a realm in which the very contradictions and alienations of modernity could be overcome.

But what happens with animistic relations when they cannot be contained by the subject through repression or through reality-testing, and when they cannot be successfully relegated to the field of aesthetics or art? In this case, the division of labor among the designated territories always proved to be a merciless regime, for the only categories left were those of “the primitive” and of psychopathology. And it is indeed possible to read all the mental disorders known to Freud as disorganizations of the very boundary between inside and outside, to which psychology owes its very existence, the very boundary whose assumed absence earned itself the name “animism.”

Tylor and his contemporaries had successfully exported this animism—and the neglected social dimension of relationality for which it stands—to the spatio-temporal outside of an imaginary archaic past whose remnants could be found among contemporary primitives, the common name for non-modern irrational societies that found themselves under the rationale of colonial subjugation. Freud’s invention of the unconscious, too, is an export operation of this kind, but it is the paradoxical export into an inside.

But we may wonder today how successful those export-operations actually were. Would it be going too far to speculate that they instead announced the coming impossibility of an export that was once far more operational? For one cannot but wonder at the importance of the vague term “projection” in both anthropological and psychological theories. “Projection” indeed is a term that ultimately leads into a cabinet of mirror effects. Recent anthropological critics have noted that it was in fact those very theoreticians who accused primitives, children, and the insane of projection who were guilty of the very process they attempted to debunk. The theory of animism with respect to non-modern societies is the product of those theoreticians projecting their notion of objective reality and their sense of self onto the people they accused of reading their own selves into others and the environment.4 But was not the period of European colonial expansion guilty of precisely such narcissism and ignorance? Did it not consist of the successful export of violence to the colonial frontier, where Western scientists imputed to others the very savagery they themselves enacted?

Victor Grippo, Tiempo, 2da. versión, 1991. Potatoes, zinc and copper electrodes, electric wire, digital clock, painted wooden base, glass vitrine and text.


Next to the vitrine with the excerpts from Tylor and Freud’s texts there is a series of collages by Leon Ferrari called L’Osservatore Romano (2001–2007). The collages are made of articles—mostly their cover pages—from the Vatican’s newspaper of the same name that address issues of Christian morality in today’s world. On top of these articles, Ferrari brings together images of the torment of the damned from the canon of Christian iconography with scenes of the ecclesiastical torture of heretics. These images from the Western imagination of evil and damnation, of violence, transformation, and metamorphosis, become depictions of what was systematically destroyed by the reality of terror lurking beneath the surface of Western reason; images of an economy of terror and of a world that comes into being through the destruction of bodies and cultures—from the Inquisition and colonial South America to recent military dictatorships and Abu Ghraib. These collages are meditations on what anthropologist Michael Taussig has called “one of the great unwritten histories of imperialism”—the “blending” of the “great signifiers of death and the underworld” (in the case of South America, of Spanish-Christian, African, and indigenous New World origin) in the formation of the “culture of conquest.”5 But prior to such “blending,” do these collages not point to the one-to-one export of an imaginary of negativity, a translation of the iconography of evil from Europe into a colonial reality?

Compared to the anthropological theory of animism—which certainly also served to legitimize what Leon Ferrari calls “European barbarity”—was the prior export of images of evil by means of which indigenous people around the world could be assimilated to the picture of the idolater and the Anti-Christ not a far more mobilizing, far more numbing, operation? For the anthropological theory of animism put forward by Tylor already contained a grain of that very recognition whose denial was indispensable for the colonial project in its genocidal continuity, where it was not a question of where to draw boundaries around the soul, but a question of who possessed a soul and could thus be regarded as human. Tylor’s book, in this respect, was perhaps more a failed attempt to retrospectively rationalize and legitimize capitalism and the use of religious warfare—an attempt, as I will argue later, that set in motion an unstoppable and ongoing process concerning modernity’s ontological fundaments. Rather than exporting animism, Tylor opened the door to uncovering the modern export mechanism, and all attempts to contain that opening later could only do so by covering up the issue of animism.

In his psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious, Freud came close to opening this door entirely, by conceiving of the unconscious not as a private, individual affair, but as an “extension of animism.” When he states that “the psychoanalytic assumption of the unconscious … appears to us a further development of that primitive animism which caused our own consciousness to be reflected in all around us,” one could wonder whether he is not suggesting that psychoanalysis—perhaps the very process of therapy, including those mediumistic phenomena like transference—could be seen as re-instituting animistic relations between the subject, the foundational encounter with otherness, and the world. However, this was not the path that Freudian psychoanalysis would pursue. It was the Freudo-Marxist tradition in critical theory that attempted to open up the unconscious to the dimension of the social, conflating it with the entire realm of production, and it was in this context that aesthetics was interrogated as the very bridge between psyche and society.

In the vitrine next to Tylor and Freud there lies a page from the Dialectics of Enlightenmentby Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer—a book in which animism figures most prominently as a decisive and ultimately ambiguous hinge. Adorno and Horkheimer, however, in arguing that the Enlightenment must come to terms with its own “regressive element,” stay firmly within the modern matrix, where that which is repressed is not sensuous mimesis—and hence animism—for the sake of bringing to light the sovereignty of modern thought, but the constitutive role of terror in colonial modernity. And like Adorno and Horkheimer, their successors in the Freudo-Marxist tradition have failed to theorize animism in relation to the modern colonial narrative. This is all the more surprising given the key role it plays in their critique of “alienation,” “reification,” and the “uncanny animation” of the commodity in the capitalist world—which are all terms that in the last instance derive their meaning from a hidden horizon and referent.

Installation view of Vincent Monnikendam’s video Mother Dao, the Turtlelike (Moeder Dao, de schildpadgelijkende)and Al Clah’s film Intrepid Shadows, 1966/69, from the series “Navajo Film Themselves.” Photo: Arwed Messmer.


The next work in the exhibition is a film that documents the colonization of what is today Indonesia. Vincent Monnikendam’s Mother Dao, the Turtlelike (1995) is the outcome of six years of work with more than 200 hours of found footage shot from 1912 to 1933 in what was then the Dutch Indies. That practices upholding inherently social relations with the natural environment were always a crucial feature of the cultures of the Indonesian archipelago is not the main reason for the inclusion of this film, which is otherwise the only “ethnographic footage” in the exhibition. (It is worth noting that the Indonesian government’s attempt in 2006 to recognize “animism” as an official religion alongside Islam failed due to the resistance of Muslim clerics.) Mother Dao is rather a story—a myth-of-origin—about de-animation by the coming-into-being of the colonial world.

The film, which takes viewers through Indonesia under the colonial regime, shows images that were originally shot to promote colonialism to Dutch audiences. However, Monnikendam’s montage is an attempted reversal of the relations of power thus inscribed into and by the camera gaze. It is not merely the montage that tells a story different from what public opinion in Europe then predominantly thought about the colonial enterprise; it is equally the omission of the usual commentary, and a different narrative framing, through which these images begin to speak a different language. For Monnikendam uses a creation myth from one of the islands of West Sumatra to frame his counter-epic. The myth tells of the coming-into-being of the world through Mother Dao, who is called “the Turtlelike” because the shell of a turtle resembles the curved horizon. And the soundtrack adds to this reinscription of the images; it is interlaced with poems and songs from Bahasa Indonesia, which tell of the suffering of workers and peasants, of famines and deaths by smallpox, of betrayal, deceit, and profit-making, of the destruction of language, of the falling silent of the world under the burden of the terror of “primitive accumulation,” of capitalist exploitation, and of colonial administration, adding up to a rather different version of the modern epic of the “disenchantment” of the world.

The exhibition continues with another vitrine in classical museum-design. This work too, like the one by Jimmie Durham that it mirrors, is a mediation on matter and time—and energy. Victor Grippo’s Tiempo (1991) consists of a digital clock that gets its energy from a battery consisting of four potatoes and a combination of copper and zinc. During the exhibition, as the time on the clock continues to run, the potatoes gradually decompose and regerminate. But not only are these potatoes in conversation with Durham’s stone regarding different aggregate conditions of matter and energy. They also mark the passage, within the logic of this exhibition, from the concept of an anonymous animating force as found in the once enormously popular and vague anthropological concept of mana, to its modern equivalent: electricity.

For what animated the modern age, aside from the free flow of capital was the electrical current. And electricity has an undeniable relationship to the phantasmagoric image-culture of the modern age and the rise of technological media. Here are vitrines that display illustrations of “galvanized corpses” coming back to life, posters from Frankenstein movies, an advertisement for the 1891 Chicago World Fair and its “Hall of Electricity,” a stereoscope and several short movies by the infamous inventor Thomas A. Edison, including Execution of Czolgosz, with panorama of Auburn Prison (1901) showing the reenacted execution of Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who attempted to assassinate US president William McKinley in 1901. Made by the camera that was invented by Edison’s company, this reenacted execution was meant to promote yet another of its inventions, the electric chair. Within the logic of the exhibition, the electrocution in the prison is an instant of “objectification” But as Avery Gordon suggests in her text written for the exhibition catalogue, it was above all an example of electricity in the service of the restoration of a social order momentarily disrupted by the killing of the President of Progress, Industry, and Empire by a self-proclaimed anarchist … By the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, grievously troubled over his usurpation of the divine powers of creation, has been replaced by Edison’s Tower of Light, blinding in its scientific harnessing of what Henry Adams called electricity’s “occult mechanism” to capitalist expansion and social order. Electricity was a key technological and symbolic medium to modernity’s presumptive progress. Cinema played an important role in justifying and normalizing this way of life.6

There is another Edison film on display, with potential reverberations that exceed all that can be said here: the Sioux Ghost Dance. Shot in 1894, the year that the Kinetoscope first made a massive profit for Thomas Edison’s company, the movie shows a group of American Indians performing the “Ghost Dance” in “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s infamous Wild West Show. The show was a theatrical, carnivalesque dramatization of the American frontier, mystifying as heroic struggle the war of white settlers against the inhabitants of the continent.

The Ghost Dance originated in the 1860s as a revitalization movement of Native American resistance. In 1889, the Paiute prophet Wovoka had a messianic vision of the restoration of Indian culture, the return of the murdered ancestors, and a future world without the whites. This peaceful transformation was to be brought about by spiritual renewal, by abstaining from fighting hopeless battles, and by practicing the Ghost Dance. The movement spread quickly across North America, and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs banned the dance. Edison’s movie was shot only four years after the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 1890, in which the 7th Cavalry of the US Army murdered some three hundred Lakota Sioux men, women, and children, which ended the Indian Wars and buried Wovoka’s vision of an Indian renaissance. The massacre happened after Chief Sitting Bull, an eminent leader of the resistance supporting the Ghost Dance, was shot dead during an attempt to take him captive. Sioux leader Big Foot surrendered shortly thereafter. His followers were brutally massacred during the subsequent disarming, after a medicine man began practicing the Ghost Dance.

The “dancer” on the celluloid of this motion picture is the ghost of genocide, the ghost lurking behind the triumph of white European conquest that turned the continent into a permanent colony. In the decades preceding 1890, largely in the shadow of the Civil War, this history culminated in the Indian Wars and the creation of the reservation system that still exists today. But the “Ghost Dance” here has yet another meaning that exceeds its particular context. It does not only stand for the genocidal continuity of colonial modernity, but also for the continuity of repressing the mimetic faculty, and hence of animism-as-social-practice. For it is these kinds of “ecstatic rituals”—circular dances being emblematic of them—which stand for a tradition of collective mimesis that had been exiled from Europe in early modernity7—and which only shortly afterwards, European colonists, missionaries, and travellers alike would encounter around the globe.

Mirroring this “Ghost Dance” are examples of chronophotography and the “graphic method” by infamous physiologist Etienne Jules-Marey. These “inscriptions of life” were not only a defining source of modernist iconography, since many artists saw in them an expression of the dissolution of the unity of time and space. As inscriptions of the essence of life—motion—they also turned into notations and scripts through which new choreographies of movement could be planned and controlled. Chronophotography was not merely a decisive step towards the animation of images. It was equally the basis for the animation of the Taylorist factory regime.

Ken Jacobs’s video Capitalism: Slavery (2006) overlays the technique of animating pictures with the monotonous, standardized movements of plantation and factory work. Ken Jacobs is a filmmaker whose work systematically explores the intersections between the human sensorium and technologies. He is perhaps best characterized as an archaeologist of media, and not only because he works extensively with found footage and archival materials. His works are, in their very form, meditations on and revisitations of those “revolutions” of which we have no explicit memory, since they have become embedded in the ways we now sensuously perceive the world: the encounter with modern technologies, with machinery and media, and the profound impact they have on the coordinates of time and space and on human experience.

Capitalism: Slavery (2006) is based on a stereographic image of labor on a cotton plantation. The stereographic image is animated digitally by alternating between two images, as if to reproduce the standardized monotonous gesture of the slave laborers, while the stroboscopic flickering of the video draws us into its image space. In the backdrop of the image, we see the white overseer on horseback looking in our direction, his controlling gaze uncannily communicating with the disembodied camera lens, both producing and controlling space. Animation here is flipped on its head and becomes a form of evocation, turning the spectral presence of a foundational scene of capitalist modernity into an innervating experience, a ritual of actualized remembrance, an unearthing of the original encounter, an archaeology of how the link between sensorium and technology brings into being new worlds and rewrites both “nature” and “humanity.” Jacobs thus adds to our understanding of media the other, frequently forgotten half: the innervation where body and mind act as a medium, the way we are “hypnotized,” mesmerized, affected, and moved, the way technologies channel desires and keep us under their spell. His forays into the history of media explore the link between the libidinal and production, between desire and capitalist modernity, between the factory and image technologies, between rationalization and standardization, mobility and immobility.

Installation view of Len Lye’s film, Tusalava, 1929, and Walt Disney, The Skeleton Dance, 1929, from the series “Silly Symphonies.” Photo: Arwed Messmer.


Next in the exhibition there is a larger section devoted to animation and what Marina Warner has termed the “logic of the imaginary” (a “logic” that must by all means be taken out of the ghetto of the “merely imaginary” to become a dialectic picture of actual history). A key figure in this section is Sergei Eisenstein, although nothing of his own work is on display here save an excerpt from his textual analysis of the works of Walt Disney. Eisenstein, within the script of this exhibition, holds the place of the paradigmatic “modernist” artist for whom animism appeared to become an issue at the horizon of his aesthetic practice and political project. Eisenstein appears in this exhibition rather than Picasso, Braque, Gauguin, or Kandinsky because in his eyes the medium of cinema was the “synthesis of all art of the time,” and because he was a paradigmatic “researcher-artist” with an extensive output of theoretical work, much of which takes up the question of animism.

In Eisenstein’s work the question of animism appears in the form of the Grundproblem, the basic problem of the relation between rational thought and sensuous thought that he believed structures all works of art. Eisenstein characterized Disney’s animations as an embodiment of animism through “formal ecstasy,” as a revolt against “metaphysical inertness”—but a revolt that is merely “a sweet drop of relief,” a revolution that “lacks consequence.”8 Is this—as Theodor Adorno would claim in a somewhat charged debate with Walter Benjamin—because Disney’s aesthetics of all-encompassing metamorphosis fuels alienation by reconciling it with the order that it aesthetically negates? And is not the very critique of “regression” itself bound, as Isabelle Stengers notes in her text accompanying the exhibition, to the primitivist notion of “stages” within a “triumphalist and thoroughly anti-Darwinian evolutionary story of progress?

On view next to this vitrine is The Skeleton Dance (1929), the first episode of the Silly Symphonies series produced by the Walt Disney studio. This animated short represents the essence of the art of cinematic animation perhaps more than any other work. It can be regarded as an exemplary articulation of the very laws of the genre. In Skeleton Dance, Disney reworked the ancient motifs of the danse macabre and the Ghost hour, thus making the crossing of the border between life and death his point of departure. Skeleton Dancecelebrates the victory of life over death, in a carnivalesque spectacle that may be likened to the infamous Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. But here, what is being celebrated is the literal victory of the animated drawing over the static picture that fixes life and movement in a standstill—the victory of metamorphosis over stable form.

The trope of the Ghost hour furthermore suggests that Disney alludes to the animistic quality of animation as the return of the repressed, as embodied in gothic imagery and the aesthetics of the uncanny. Skeleton Dance unfolds in the contrast between the plasmatic, metamorphic line and the rigidity of the skeleton—and this very contrast is not merely the content of the work but crucially also the very principle of its composition: Skeleton Dance is choreographed to the music (composed by Carl Stalling, presumably based on Edvard Grieg’s March of the Trolls and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre), and its basic principle is that each bone is equated with a musical note—a principle perhaps best expressed in the scene where one of the skeletons is turned into a xylophone by another. Along with the principles of surprise (everything is always more alive than one thinks) and of the exaggeration of cause and effect, Skeleton Dance articulates a fundamental “law” of the fictive animated universe: its many voices must be integrated into one single “song” or tune along a musical “carcass,” the source of the “enchantment” on which the effect of animation relies. But the effect is only one side of the coin of the actual animation that takes place here, in the process of our becoming-immersed, “attracted” and affected by the animation, a process that is a mental and corporeal event of mediality on the cerebral and cellular level.

Disney’s film is juxtaposed with another work from the same year. Len Lye’s film Tusalava, an animation made of five thousand single drawings, is, like Skeleton Dance, a study in morphology. It demonstrates that animated film always contains a contagious exchange of sensorial becomings on the “pre-logical” level, as Lye himself would characterize it. (In this regard Lye was a typical primitivist.) The mutating cellular shapes in the film slowly give rise to an enigmatic protoplasmatic scenario from which more distinct shapes emerge, resembling the penetration of a body by a virus, with this body being reminiscent of “totemic” imagery. Influenced by aboriginal art, Tusalava is indeed a primitivist work of sorts, while expressing the fundamental animistic qualities of its medium through its imagery.

The works that follow this constellation further elaborate on the question of figuration, morphology, and sensuous-mimetic exchange. The first series of works deal with the destabilization of social morphologies. There is Hans Richter’s film Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927), a lesson, so to speak, about the symmetrical constitution of the social order and the order of things, as the anarchic revolt of things disrupts, in the same stroke, all social hierarchies. There is a series of paintings, conceived as an album, made by Roee Rosen under a pseudonym, which depict—in the visual language of Russian Constructivism, political caricature, and Soviet children books—a revolt of things against Vladimir Putin in his house outside of Moscow—a work in which the derangement of the “order of things” is folded onto the psychopathological conditions of individual psychosis just as much as on the uncanny histories of power. These works are juxtaposed with Marcel Broodthaers’s slide show Caricatures – Grandville (1968). In the slide show, Marcel Broodthaers uses images from J. J. Grandville’s book Un Autre Monde (1844), along with nineteenth-century caricatures and illustrations by artists such as Honoré Daumier, including scenes—proclaiming “Liberté”—from the French Revolution.

Broodthaers juxtaposes these images with newspaper photographs of the student revolts of May 1968. Un Autre Monde is among the most powerful and bizarre of Grandville’s works: the collective phantasmagoria here becomes the objective property of things. This phantasmagoria is exhibited formally, by continually blurring the boundaries and upsetting the orderly hierarchies between people, animals, and things. Broodthaers described Grandville’s book as a “satiric phantasmagoria that one of these days will come into being.” “The romanticism of the nineteenth century already contains this fantasy that we now confuse with scientific reality,” wrote Broodthaers in an article about the Atomium, the landmark building from the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and the symbol of perhaps the last of the world expositions that worshipped the nineteenth-century dream of techno-scientific progress—fashioning itself in the romantic image of universalism enveloped in a mythological cloud of imperial grandeur.9 In this slide show, Broodthaers takes Grandville’s images literally, by using Grandville’s “types,” “characters,” and “figures” like “text.” He thus reveals the fundamental ambivalence in the phantasmagoric objectification achieved by the caricatures as they “exhibit” a collective dream-image of an epoch through, for example, masking humans as animals and thus unmasking human society as “natural.” At the same time, this phantasmagoria is also a symptomatic, uncanny depiction of the objectification of both nature and human society in the world of modern science and capitalism. The relation between text and image is a key theme in Broodthaers’s work—the dissolving of text into image, and the becoming-text of images. Metaphoric figuration occupies the unstable space between image and text, the literal and the visual. One need only think of Broodthaers’s extensive use of the abbreviation “fig.” for “figure,” and the way it is used in his fictional museums to systematically subvert taxonomic orders of knowledge. Given the centrality of figuration, one could speculate about whether Broodthaers’s interest in Grandville lay in the latter’s use of the “animal metaphor.”

The animal-as-metaphor is a figuration of anima—understood as states of consciousness and modes of being turned into images. And such metaphoric figuration, it has been suggested, is at the root of language. As John Berger claims, language is made of “fossilized” images, tropes, and metaphors: “The first subject matter for painting was animal … It is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal.”10 Berger suggests that Grandville’s work is a prophetic, uncanny depiction of a grand transformation in our relation to animals, leading to their imprisonment by society and, ultimately, to their disappearance. The modern phantasmagoric dream space invoked by Broodthaers quaGrandville may thus well be an image of disappearance and catastrophe, announcing a new subjugation of both “nature” and “humanity.” For Walter Benjamin, the “secret theme” of Grandville’s art was the “enthronement of the commodity.” Benjamin holds that the cynical and utopian element of Grandville corresponds with the commodity fetish, which demands to be worshipped by fashion: “Grandville extended the sway of fashion over the objects of daily use as much as over the cosmos. In pursuing it to its extremes, he revealed its nature. It stands in opposition to the organic. It prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world.”11 It’s worth nothing that Grandville’s work was a major inspiration for Walt Disney. However, Broodthaers inserts into the slide show some images of May 1968 in Paris, thus making us wonder who (or what) is in fact the subject of the dream or phantasmagoria enacted here.

The film The Love Life of the Octopus (1965) by pioneering filmmaker Jean Painlevé is both a document of ethology and a surrealist film. It portrays the titular octopus as a personification, and in so doing, it destabilizes presumptions about “nature,” including those essentialist tendencies found in some of the previous works, which like to transform the mimetic exchange of self and world into a scientific method. In Painlevé’s film, the dreadful allegation of anthropomorphism is systematically pushed to its tipping point, enabling the recognition of the otherness (and striking personality) of the octopus, and therefore also breaking open the narrow confines of anthropomorphism. The work of subjectification, Painlevé demonstrates, does not consist of “projection” but rather of knowing-through-engagement, of making contact with difference. As a movie, furthermore, this work is a formidable introduction to the very morphology of becoming that characterizes animated film, and the more-than-aesthetic power derived from conflating appearances with essences. Didier Demorcy’s slide show Vital Phantasy (2010) subsequently takes us on a journey through evolutionary morphology and the “adventure” of life on earth, traversing the boundaries of species and ultimately pointing to play as a form of communicative exchange.

Installation view of Animism, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Photo: Arwed Messmer.


The following works delve deeper into the realm of mimetic and morphological figuration, as well as the interconnected dissolution of boundaries, difference, and form. The film Self-Obliteration (1968) documents a happening created by Yayoi Kusama wherein bodies commune ecstatically with nature and one another. The happening acts out the very dissemination of the self that is characteristic of Kusama’s work—a theatrical mimicry, a folding out of interiority to become exterior, devouring the environment by total immersion in it and vice versa. There is a distinctively ecstatic quality to her work, a systematic transgression of the boundary between body and environment, between mind and physical space. Her destabilization of the seemingly fixed border between psychological “inside” and social, physical “outside” is a way of assuming autonomy precisely by abandoning it—the subject reacts to invasion by way of a countergesture of abandoning its own border, by folding the inside out, collectivizing and spatializing individuality, culminating in installations where self and environment interpenetrate.

Kusama has suffered from hallucinations since early childhood, and likens these hallucinations to a sort of “cannibalizing” of the self by the outside. Her “theatrical dissemination” can thus be regarded as a “countercannibalism” acting against, by way of countermimicry, the pathologization of mental disorder—the latter consisting precisely of an assumed “disturbance” of the “given” (conformist) boundary between self and world. Then there is a slideshow by Ana Mendieta entitled Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas) (1975) in which we see the artist’s silhouette impressed into the ground, inscribing herself as a negative into nature. Mendieta frames her explorations of body and self and its relation to earth explicitly as a search for the “bonds that unite her with the universe,” while alluding to ritual practices of West African, Caribbean, and Cuban provenance. In their time—the 1970s—these works subverted and redefined the accepted frame of how art was conceived. Together with several other artists, Kusama and Mendieta worked against the commodification of art and began to establish an understanding in which the work is conceived less as a product of an artist-subject than as a process that creates the subject, or oscillates between making and unmaking subjects and objects alike. Luis Jacob’s workTowards a Theory of Impressionist and Expressionist Spectatorship (2002) shows the interaction of children in whole-body suits with several Henry Moore sculptures—a strange sort of theater of mimetic cross-animation, the creation and conflation of difference. In most of these works, animation happens in the shadows and while the outright transgression of taxonomic boundaries happens in the revolt against positivist objectification and fixation in the rationalist order of knowledge, or in the queer subversion of the power of musealization.

In Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s installation Empire of the Senseless II (2006), we enter into such a classification machine ourselves. This double projection, in which two images are projected onto each other so that they overlap completely, is installed in such a way that the visitor must step into the projection and cast his or her own shadow onto the image. One of the overlapping images is a blue background, such as that projected by default if no signal is available to a projector. In the middle of this is projected the second overlapping image, a computer-generated succession of text. The blue background against which we cast our black shadow thus acts as a “blue screen”—a technology for dissociating figure from ground, scene from context, since the blue can later be replaced with any “background” in the editing room.

The projected text in Haghighian’s installation is taken from the novel Empire of the Senseless by American experimental and feminist writer Kathy Acker. Acker’s novel, like her other work, takes the conventionalized modes of representing gender, class, sexuality, and individual psychology in the “empire” of the bourgeois white male and pushes them to the point of linguistic implosion. The novel is a Franz Fanon- and Wilhelm Reich-inspired cyberfiction situated in revolution-shaken Paris. It is a monstrously luminous vision of the turbulent return of the repressed—the id, the female, the black, the “Third World,” and the outcast. Haghighian’s installation takes all the words used to address and interpellate people in the novel and makes out of them what can be called a “border machine” of the representational field. Only as we enter into the projection do the names—previously indecipherable due to the overlap—become readable: one on our back, and the other in front of us. It is our presence, physically, as an empty shadow profile and as what is named, that mounts and upholds the field of knowledge and representation—the very order and border of society. But this installation creates not only the experience of being “installed,” immobilized, subjected, and framed within this order. It also evokes—by means of both the changing names and the playful uncanniness of the shadow—the aesthetic, figurative possibility of all kinds of “crossing.”


“Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance,” said Herbert Marcuse, who was a major inspiration for the countercultural movements of the 1960s.12 It is not only in works like Ana Mendieta’s slide show that we can sense the presence of animism not as a negative but as a positive horizon—the beyond of an immobilized order and an outside where something lost can allegedly be retrieved. JoachimKoester’s film My Frontier is an Endless Wall of Points (2007), an animated short created from drawings made by Henri Michaux under the influence of mescaline, equally addresses this horizon. However, it conflates this imaginary with structural film, thus pointing, simultaneously, at a growing divide between the representable and non-representable, symbolic structure and imagination. In so doing, Koester displaces some of Michaux’s key concerns.

The exhibition also presents a film made by Michaux with Eric Duvivier called Images du monde visionnaire (1963). Commissioned by the pharmaceutical corporation Sandoz, where Albert Hoffmann synthesized LSD in 1938, the film was meant to portray the effects of acid. In this aim it must ultimately be regarded as a curious failure. Walon Green’s filmThe Secret Life of Plants (1979) was far more successful in a somewhat related attempt. This film is a document par excellence of a then-popular form of “rediscovering” animism as the alterity of a faulty modernity, drawing on the romantic and primitivist traditions, bridging New Age spirituality and science. What is striking about the film is not only its use of the language of both scientific and spiritualist universalism, but also the contrast between the supposed immediacy of an animated cosmos and the scientific instruments and laboratory technology that are used to gain access, to “translate” and recognize what then appears as the genuine utterances of plants.

Indeed, the film’s narration and commentary ignore the role of this technology entirely, even though it acts as the bridge through which we enter the supposedly newly discovered animate universe. This somewhat schizophrenic stance toward technology is symptomatic of the romantic imaginary and its mystification of “nature” as an unmediated and technology-free “authentic” realm, to which humans could “return” to overcome their alienation caused by modern civilization. So much for antimodern romanticism and the primitivist stance: it is precisely because the mediating technologies of both non-modern cultures and modernity remain deeply un-understood that “animism” can become the horizon of an imagined immediate, authentic oneness with “nature.” This “economy” or “logic” of the imaginary employs animism as an alterity of modernity in ways that must therefore remain under the spell of the modern boundary regime—a negation that falls prey to affirming, in the last instance, what it negates, reproducing its mythology on a higher plane rather then shifting the grounds.

Daria Martin’s film Soft Materials (2004) intervenes in and displaces this schizophrenic stance toward technology, as she upends the technophobic imaginary that serves as an inexhaustible resource for so many products of popular culture. Soft Materials is the document of an encounter between human bodies and decisively non-anthropomorphic machines, showing a curious, sensuous interaction between people and robots shot in a well-known artificial-intelligence laboratory.

What is un-made here, among other things, is the categorical division between the mechanic and the organic—we are indeed looking at a rather different “frontier” of the human/non-human assemblage. Assemblages (2010) is a multiscreen installation and research project by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato. It follows the intellectual trajectory of Félix Guattari, philosopher, activist, collaborator of Gilles Deleuze, and institutional psychotherapist. It brings together the two strands that structure this exhibition: the relations between self and world and between humans and nature. InAssemblages, what is still a “border” that needs to be bridged and transgressed in documents such as Walon Green’s film is transformed into a psychogeography of polysemic, transindividual “enunciations” of partial subjectivities, described by the notion of the “machinic assemblage.” Toward the end of his life, Guattari investigated animist societies in his attempts to overcome the Western paradigm of subjectivity and further articulate this notion of the assemblage. The work, drawing on archival material and discussions as well as newly produced material, follows Guattari to the Clinique de La Borde in France, which sought to practice “institutional psychotherapy,” a different form of psychiatry in which the patient/agent vector of the institution is reversed. The work follows Guattari’s interest in animism, which was mainly sparked by his engagement with colleagues in Japan and Brazil. The materials produced in those countries inscribed the anti-institutional psychiatric practice and the search for a different articulation of the concept of subjectivity into the historical geography of colonial modernity.


The Animism exhibition is conceived as a topography of the “middle ground” that opens up if we suspend the division between the “Great Divides” of modernity. The works of art in the exhibition are like “crossings,” as they pass from one side of the abyss to the other, from object to subject, from one “subject position” to the next, or from one ontological register to another. They “map” what happens if the iron cages of subject and object are broken open. From there, the exhibition suggests, we can begin to understand what happened to this middle ground throughout modernity. Only if we cease to take the splits for granted can we grasp that it is in the logic of the divide that modern power manifests itself. Through the generalization of the logic of the divide, this middle ground becomes something like the “included-excluded,” an “outside” that is already enclosed and policed. It is where all the substantial political choices are made, even while their making is also what is obscured.

Through this kind of inquiry we can begin to imagine how the middle ground became what Michael Taussig has called the “epistemic murk,” the “negative,” “irrational” other of the positive enlightenment, and how it “fell,” like Eve and Adam from their infamous paradise, into the abyss and there turned into the imaginary stage for the “archaic illusion,” where moderns began to nourish their fantasies about the primitive other, mysterious communications, mimetic contagions, spirits, enchanted nature, and so forth. We can begin to imagine the very forms that deviations from the norm assumed—for instance, the creation of an autonomous zone of art, in which all those “crossings” between ontological registers could take place at the price of being neutralized in the ghetto of exceptionalism ever since called “art.” And how the very same deviations, in the “real” world, would ultimately be rendered as pathologies. We can begin to imagine that what Freud called the “unconscious” really is that very murky, old middle ground that is now newly “discovered”—the product, not least, of the bracketing off from reality of all non-linguistic communication (for the empire of signification was for the moderns the only legitimate way to “cross” the abyss), and thus the displacement of affect, emotion, imagination, mimesis, and so forth into the transformative darkness of the “unconscious.”

Candida Hõfer, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin III, 2003. Copyright of the artist Candida Hõfer, Kõln, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2012.


Today, “animism” is no longer what is repressed in order to install in its place a Cartesian regime of disciplinary identification and boundary policing. Rather than providing the justification for colonial subjugation, today it provides the justification for the biopolitical mobilization of the individual psyche. In his BBC series The Century of the Self (2002), Adam Curtis partially traces this development by investigating what Western politicians throughout the twentieth century have made of Freudian ideas. In the marriage of digital communications technology and 1960s counterculture (in whose hippiesque imaginary “animism” played the role of a redemptive alterity and outside), the modern frontier has folded in on itself and has become intensive rather then extensive. The unconscious no longer needs to be repressed, as long as it can be successfully contained by the self-management of individuals and prevented from becoming a collective affair. Ever since this epochal shift, we—as self-realizing, self-animating subjects—have lent capitalism our human face.

Complementary to the big, depressive cybernetic machine, the “self” has become the very frame (or profile) in which the old oppositions and divides are masked and seemingly reconciled. Century of the Self could be read as suggesting that the only substance that is left of the old order, and on which its continuity now largely rests, is paradoxically the autonomous individual that must be realized. If for Freud psychology was founded on “calculating” out of reality and into the psyche what we had “projected” onto the world, popular psychology now implies that it is on us to reverse the calculation once again. We must subjectify, and thus animate, our world and milieus, and in the process “positivize” and naturalize the regime. It is now on us to undo the very “alienation” that capitalist modernity induces. The structural discontents and exclusions thus become increasingly unspeakable, as the losses are effectively privatized. And for those who fail to comply with the task of self-management in this paradigm, the old disciplinary regime always awaits.

It is impossible to get past this impasse of contemporary politics without reclaiming autonomy on a different plane, where autonomy resides in the ability to articulate relationships and collectivity. And this requires us to “pass through” animism, in order to reclaim the imaginary—without the qualifier “merely”—as the space of the political, where we can break open the logic of division, not in order to realize the utopian image of a “borderless world,” but to bring into politics the very border-matrix which was categorically hidden, as the unquestioned background condition against which modern politics unfolded. This results in a particular plea for a continued modernization—if one irreversible aspect of modernity is the explication of previously implicit background conditions, the turning of ground into figure. The background that now must become a “figure” is the history of boundary-making practices, not as “past,” but as the dialectic picture through which the actual “relational diagrams” of the present can be grasped and un-mapped.


© 2012 e-flux and the author


In contemporary art, photographical elements are often integrated into installation works or being used as a means of archiving. VOP interviewed Anselm Franke, curator of the Taipei Biennial 2012  to talk about the topic of the biennial, ‘Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction’ and specific photographic works that will be shown in the exhibition.  (中文版訪談請見VOP第六期 : 反叛〈怪獸的歷史想像辯證 : 專訪2012台北雙年展策展人安森法蘭克〉)

Interview by Sylvie Lin / Photograph by Wei-I Lee  (訪談 / 林心如 . 攝影 / 李威儀)

VOP / Please talk about your past curatorial experiences.

Anselm Franke /  Originally, I used to work in the fields of theatre, film and television with artist/filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief ; he passed away in 2010 and represented Germany in the Venice Biennale in 2011. From 2003 to 2005, I collaborated with architects in making exhibitions. We didn’t look at the architecture as design but more as planning processes and political geographies. What was important for me in my collaboration with architects is that it is a way to think political questions and the organization of the space. Since 2003, most of the projects I was involved with were collaborations. We shared a common interest in ‘borders’, not only physical borders (of the buildings or the states) but rather social and political borders and borders of the imagination, the way images take part in creating limits. The way we are now trying to use the figure of the monster for the 2012 Taipei Biennial also has to with this interest: the monster is always a limit figure or a liminal figure. There are various forms of monsters, beyond the borders of the human, of the normal, of the laws of reality, etc. Most of these borders and limits appear to us more or less “given” or even natural. The curatorial task is to open up and de-stabilize this understanding, to show how limits are constructed, what is the role of culture, technologies and non-human factors in their making.

Another important experience is that I’ve worked with film for a long time. In 2005, with Stephanie Schulte Strathaus, we founded the Forum Expanded, a section for art and film within the Berlin International Film Festival/Berlinale. Since then, every year, we organized sections on artists’ films, and filmmakers who do installations in the context of the Berlinale.

VOP / Please talk about your ‘Animism’ project. Is it connected to the Taipei Biennial 2012 in certain ways ?

AF / ‘Animism’ was conceived as a project to question the story we tell about modernity. What is modernity? What are normally the sort of images and stories that we connect with this idea? ‘Animism’ used to be a concept used by European anthropologists to describe what was at the opposite of modernity. If you are not modern then you are animist. We used the concept as mirror not to look at the so-called ‘animist’, neither did we intend to make an exhibition ‘about’ animism. Rather, we used the history of the concept to look back at the ideas of those who called others ‘animist’. Again, it’s very much about borders. Because the way European scholars described the animism of peoples in South America, Africa, Siberia, Japan…was always as the absence of the same distinctions that modern people do, such as between a pure subjective inside and an objective nature that follows all the natural laws.

In animism, you have a different relationship to things, to nature; you don’t treat them as just “dead matter” that is indifferent to humans. Therefore, it is also about borders: it’s about drawing certain distinctions differently, and this concerns literally everything: everyday experience just as much as the definition of what is a ‘subject’, a ‘self’, or a ‘legal person’. Then, when other people make those distinctions in a different way, you call them ‘pre-modern’. So modernity is always about borders, and what we were trying to do is develop a curatorial ‘frame’ that de-colonizes the imagination, and shows how these borders are implemented and policed, but also how they can be conceived differently.

Based on this question of modernity, we try to elaborate in the Taipei Biennial what many people around the globe now perceive as the urgent need to break free from the ‘frame’ of colonial modernity and its narratives, its way of describing the world, and the need to tell different histories of modernity, to break open this modernity question and its notorious self-reproducing mythologies, to re-describe our immediate histories under terms that do not automatically reproduce those ‘borders’. This is part of what we are trying to do with the monster ‘Taowu’ proposed by David (Der-Wei) Wang as a means to write modern Chinese history. (Editor’s note : See Wang Der-Wei, The Monster That Is History. History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China)

VOP / How did you get to know the work of David Wang ?

AF /  I read a lot of books about the relation between historical experience – especially history about violence – and fiction. Violence is something that is difficult to remember. It destroys memory and cultural continuity itself to a certain degree. These memories come up in fiction. For example, you could say there are many great American novels for the past thirty years. They are not so much the bestsellers but those that take a certain tradition of novel-writing. They deal with American histories of slavery, of racism, etc., things that are very important in the collective memory but very difficult to address, other than through fiction : it’s not about the facts, the dates and so on but the way they form and haunt people in the present that needs to be described through fiction.

This sort of interest in the relation between history and fiction was something that I shared with couple of writers and artists. The task is to read fiction against the grain, not as make-believe, but as a form of documentary of that which escapes positivist historical accounts. In 2006, we have also made an exhibition around the question, it bore the title ‘No Matter How Bright the Light, the Crossings Occur at Night’. David Wang’s book was something I came across in this continuous research and interest. Also, I found there is a big need here to analyze and narrate Chinese modernity in its own terms. That is what is so valuable about David Wang’s attempt. He writes a kind of a history that has a certain proximity to Benjamin, Derrida or even Bataille. But he doesn’t use this as a theoretical framework. It’s something that is familiar but it doesn’t imply reading Chinese histories of violence, external and internal colonialism and modernization. Instead, he uses the frame of this ancient mythology. That creates a certain image of the contemporary situation in relation to the past, which is very strong. It’s more about an image created in the imagination. We are not making a biennial about literature but about the imaginary in a wider sense. The idea is to make an exhibition that shifts between fiction and historical analysis, just as the identity, or face of the “monster” in this exhibition constantly changes.

Chang Chao-Tang, New York, USA, 2011. Copyright and Courtesy the artist

VOP / Among the artists who will present photographical works in this biennial, we find the Taiwanese photographer Chang Chao-Tang (張照堂). How do you understand his work ? What works will be shown and how will you present them in the context of this biennial ?

AF /  He is one of the several chroniclers of post-war Taiwan. The amazing thing is that his work covers a period from the late fifties till today. So it’s basically more than half a century. It was important for us to have somebody whose photographic work can mirror a lot of different periods in Taiwan’s history. In his work, there is something that people are familiar with yet you can always find some moments of strangeness particularly in his photographs.Also, there are periods where he is more experimental. I first knew him through the catalogues of his works. Until I met him personally, I learned that he was a journalist and a reporter. Photography was always a side activity for him. This characteristic of being in-between, not being the sort of artistic photographer per se is interesting. You can sometimes read the images as almost journalistic images and then as totally aesthetic images. What I like in his work is that you can move between these poles of extreme. Then you have this sort of images that are very well-known, like the image of the self-portrait without a head, with just a shadow on the wall. It is an image that allows many possible readings. When he was experimenting photography he was also reading Sartre, so there is all this existentialist influence in it, which is interesting in terms of the global importance Sartre had at the moment. These are the moments when the images of Chang Chao-Tang open themselves to different readings and place Taiwan in such a context. It becomes local again because his images sometimes have this sort of universal look of the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition. I like this movement in his work.For the Taipei Biennial, we will make a selection of all the five decades. We’re still working on the presentation but basically we will show them in a sort of condensed overview. There would be a lot of images together. What we are thinking about would be more like Peter Brook’s style. Images will be grouped based on their motifs and in blocks. There is no strict chronology but more jumping among motifs, like this movement I just described : making something very specific localized, and this attempt of universalization, this movement between ‘reportage’(Editor’s note : The French term means ‘report’ in English) and aesthetics. We try to make movements between these categories rather than going from 1959 to 2006. But of course, there will be dates connected to all the images.

VOP / What are other photographic works in the biennial ?

AF / A part of the photographic works in this biennial is based on archive photos, like the project of Maryam Jafri and that of the Otolith Group. Each of the two projects consists of around fifty images. Maryam Jafri’s project is called ‘Independence Day’. It’s a collection of photographs from the moments of the founding of new states during the period of de-colonization, mainly in the 1960s. When we look at the images today, there is a historical distance of what has happened since. A project like this certainly takes on a very particular reading in Taiwan. We found it interesting to see how meaning changes when the images are being shown today – when we have a slightly different view on the expectations that ‘independence’ carried back then, before the historical experience of neo-colonialism and ‘globalization’. What is also present in these images when presented today is what happened after them – in terms of the histories that ‘power’ has written, but these are stories we normally don’t really know how to tell well. You can’t help but asking yourself in front of these images: What story do I have? Do I have a narrative for the past 50 years, for its aspirations, disappointments and novel monstrosities? And it is interesting to show those images here in Taiwan, with its undecided status.

The Otolith Group’s project in the biennial is called ‘Daughter Products. It’s basically from the family archive of one of the group members. It shows a delegation of Indian women who are communists. You see them in different settings, visiting other countries. It also belongs to this internationalist moment aspiring a different kind of universality that is now largely dead: you see them in China, Russia and also in areas that were not socialist. It is very much complementing the ‘Independence Day’ project of Jafri. It shows another moment of aspiration when a certain scheme of modernity was still working, like the idea of progress, division between the socialist and the capitalist worlds : these are ghosts from the Cold War era that are not quite silent ghosts which are being spoken about in this project.

Daughter Products, (ca.1952-1962), 2011, by The Otolith Group. Copyright and Courtesy the artists

The biennial will also show Joachim Koester’s work. His work is not so much about what you see, but what you don’t see in this reading. In all his work, he sets up a certain research, like a historical research. Then the research or the story and the image become two components ; there is a tension between what you know, the story you tell and the image you see. For the Taipei Biennial, his research is about opium. One part of the story is trying to find the traces of opium trade in Calcutta which was the main base for the British-East India Company for the opium trade. He found almost nothing except a building called ‘Nanking Restaurant’. You see a photo of this restaurant. Another photo is the poppy flower with which we make opium. Along with the series of images, there goes a text describing the sort of relation between the terror in modernity : the colonial terror or the terror of opium that were part of the history, and its relation to the delirium of smoking opium. What he is interested in is the technology of photography on the one hand and the inscriptions into the mind on the other hand. What are the dreams that you dream under the influence of opium and what is the kind of the shape of dream that has to do with what you see and don’t see in a photograph? The work consists of very few photographs and a text.As for Luis Jakob, he makes collections of images, like series of collages made with found images, It is called ‘Album’. He has created about ten such ‘Albums’ ; each one consists of about fifty pages. They have certain focuses such as the expressive body. The pages will be shown in a long series on the wall. It’s this kind of catalogue of gestures, but the gestures bring every attempt at classification to its limits – they are ecstatic in a certain sense, and can help us understand the body as a social body, as a collective body. But there is never any specific story. You are left to your own associations and finding different connections between motifs.

Joachim Koester, Calcutta, Copyright the artist, Courtesy Taipei Fine Arts Museum

VOP / Today, many artists don’t work solely with one medium. Regarding photography, it is often integrated into installation works or as a means of archiving. For you, what is the role or place of photography in contemporary art ?

AF /  For me, where photograph becomes always interesting in relation to artistic practice is this ambivalence that you can read it as an indexical trace of something, as a sort of document, but also as the exact opposite. The tradition of the latter would be the surrealist magazine called ‘Documents’(Editor’s note : The original French title means ‘Documents’ in English)founded by Bataille and his friends. Rather than confirming an evidence, the way they used photography reveals to the viewer something in all photography that disturbs the very idea of reality and its ‘order’. It’s always about putting everything into question. Today, many conceptual photographic practices can also be traced back to certain photographic traditions. For example, some people claim that Chang Chao-Tang is conceptual artist. His pictures in the 1970s represent a certain conceptual photography. I still think that there is a lot to explore in terms of this conceptual photography : creating a context for an image and perceiving how the image changes in it. We can think of photography’s role as similar to that of the imagination: it is not to settle and fix the fleeting moment or the imaginary, but to make the settled and fixed strange, and imaginative again. This is where the politics of art is to be found: in the conditions of fixation and change.

Anselm Franke is an independent curator and freelance writer based in Berlin. He worked in the fields of theater, television and film and has collaborated with Christoph Schlingensief who represented Germany in the Venice Biennale in 2011. As a curator, he owrked for KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (2001-2006) and was director of Extra City Kunsthal Antwerp (2006-2010) and co-curated Manifesta 7 and the 1st Brussels Biennial. He is the editor of several publications and artist books, and a contributor to e-flux journal. Since 2005, he has been co-curator (along with Stephanie Schulte Strathaus) of the Forum Expanded of the International Film Festival Berlin.

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