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ARTVIEWS in HEYOKA Magazine 2003
I currently live in a place that's about five paces by seven paces, and it's called the King Hotel. Which is actually bad English - it should be the King's Hotel, except maybe it means it's the king of hotels. The walls are about three millimetres thick, so that I hear everything on every side of me, and last night, just maybe two centimetres away, a couple was making love. And on the other side of me, about five paces away, another couple was making love. I was trying to sleep but I was kind of interested, and after a few minutes I said to myself, "The woman two centimetres away is faking".
By the sounds, I thought she was faking. Then after a moment of listening I said, "And the man is also faking". And then I thought: why would that be true? How would he do that? Then I started listening to the other couple five paces away and I decided that they were both also faking it. And then I thought, "Roberto Pinto has rigged this. This is a performance just for me". But it wasn't.
Then I thought, "Well, it's not easy for a man to fake an orgasm", so I thought he must have been faking something else. And then it hit me what they were all faking: they weren't faking orgasms, they were faking passion. They were faking... they were just faking in general. They were having sex and maybe they were having orgasms but because they were doing that and didn't really believe it, for what reason I don't know, they were faking the passion of it, they were faking the reality of what they were doing. And as the night went on I proved to myself that this was the correct hypothesis. The couple closest to me kept it up all night till about six in the morning at different intervals. And it continued with the same strange language, the same drama, the same bad theatre. And my proof, my science - and the reason I'm telling the story is I bring it to you as a scientific report - is that if had been real passion, they could have gone to sleep and said, "Tomorrow we have all day to make love, if we like". But instead they made love because they thought they might, and because they're laying in the same bed next to each other in the dark, just like any two people might make love: it's proximation. You're laying in the bed in the dark next to this warm body and you think, "Oh, I could have sex with this warm body". It's only natural, it's biology.
I'm calling my thesis "Against Architecture," and I also mean "Against Narration," "Against Structure."
I don't think this works for a large, large building, but I like a small building like a house, for instance, that stays over time, and... Why is this box here?. After a while, when there is just a nice pure house, a tree starts growing next to it, and then the people in the house build a little garage or an outbuilding. And then the city makes a pile of stones on the street next to the house, and then someone else builds a little house kind of close to our pure house. More and more things happen. And then some more things happen: some garbage happens here, a pile of this happens, something else happens. So this little house that I'm thinking of had not even a week, not even seven days to be a pure house with its own integrity, and when it was a pure house we would not have been interested in it. But as we approach this house once it's cluttered up with all these things around it, we almost always say, or I almost always say, "What a pleasant place this looks". We don't say, "What a pleasant house this looks". The house becomes a part of something, it doesn't become invisible but it loses visibility at the same time.
It's kind of in line with that, if I had a line, that I'm not using this machine to show diapositives. A friend of mine said, "You cannot use diapositives to explain your work. It would be like if you had a building and wanted to explain it through a brick. You'd say, 'Well, my building is like this brick but expanded in several directions".
I want to think of interruption like, not a definition of identity, but the good part of identity. I want to think of my own identity and identity in general as something completely contingent on relationships. When I try to make art I don't want to be in a studio and think about a piece of art I want to make, I want to be with a group of people not knowing what I might make. I want a discourse, not an invention.
I want to talk about an American television actress that you might not know called Vanessa Williams, and some other people you also might not have heard of. Vanessa Williams was the first black person to win the Miss America beauty contest. As you can imagine, she's a very, very light-skinned black. She was the most acceptable black woman they could find at the time. Then after she was voted in, even though she was very light-skinned, she was still a little guilty. And it turns out that some years earlier she had posed naked in Playboy magazine with another naked woman, which is really horrible in the US, to do such a thing. They took her title away from her and she was no longer Miss America.
But between that time the people who make Cornflakes breakfast cereal had put her picture on the side of the box of cereal as the new Miss America, and they had millions of these boxes of Cornflakes that they could no longer distribute, because she was a horrible person after all. So at that time a religious cultist, who was a South Korean called Sun Yun Moon, ran a cult called the Moonies. Reverend Moon wanted to make a big push on Indian reservations in the US. So Reverend Moon bought up all these boxes of Vanessa Williams Cornflakes and distributed them free on Indian reservations.
In the very early 70s a US organization called the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a deal with the government of South Africa and on every Indian reservation, or quite a few, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began taking members of the South African government on tours. At that moment the South African government was trying to make Bantustans, reservations for the blacks of South Africa. Just because the US was the country in the world with the most expertise at controlling people and putting people in compounds and making them seem to like it. So then South Africa actually made, as you know, its Bantustans, and started putting casinos on some of them, such as this monstrosity at Sun City, as a way of making the natives feel that this was a good place, a place where you could get rich. And then in the US, the American Indian Movement started making more and more trouble and it kind of looked like we might get something. The South African government kind of folded up, and they moved their casinos to the Indian reservations in the US. So practically every reservation in the US has a monstrous casino and monstrous Mafia, and a monstrous piece of... crap to deal with.
I just saw it this afternoon in an English language newspaper called Today in Milan or something like that. I should just announce what I read: There's a new English-speaking night-club, restaurant and disco in Milan, and it's run by two friendly Australians, and in the basement there's a disco with Aboriginal art on all the walls.
In my family I'm quite famous for discovering Simon & Garfunkel. They think I have secret powers in my family. Back in the early 60s the first song by Simon & Garfunkel was released on a few stations as a test, and I happened to hear it driving along in my car, but it didn't come out commercially for another year. But I told everyone in my family I had heard this nice song by a couple with a funny name, Simon & Garfunkel, so they remembered it. The next year the song was released and it became a big hit, and they thought, "He knows a lot of stuff".
But I still like Paul Simon and I liked the album "Graceland", and so does sub comandante Marcos of the state of Chiapas in Mexico. He's always listening to it and everyone knows when he's coming along in his jeep. So I was really very pleased a month ago when I saw an advertisement in a magazine for a new Broadway musical play that's going to open in January, and it's by a strange group, Paul Simon and Derek Walcott, who's a great poet, a political poet. And the guy who is the head actor in this play is an old friend of all of us, Ruben Blades. There was a time in the early 80s when we really thought that Ruben Blades would be the president of Panama. He could have been. Besides being a great musician and a nice poet we thought how neat it would be if one of our people, our crazy gang, got to be president. Wouldn't that be nice! So when I saw this advert I was actually extremely pleased because I thought these three guys were trying their best to do something new, to be in the late 90s and still participate.
But then I kept thinking day after day, because the name of this musical is "Capeman", I said to myself, "It cannot be about Salvatore Agron, who was called 'Capeman'". Salvatore Agron was a New York Puerto Rican guy who, in the 50s, became famous for throwing children off the roofs of buildings, wearing a cape as he did it. And much later I got to know him. He was put in prison for life but then he got out, and he got out in the 70s. At that time we were trying to do something - this was '77, '78, the late 70s. We were trying to make an alliance of Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Blacks, American Indians and anyone on the Left who was reasonable. We were trying to do something with the electoral system, we were trying to make a real coalition, and we called ourselves the People's Alliance. So the US government wanted to stop us and they did all sorts of dirty tricks and infiltrations. One of the things they did was to make a parallel organization which was called the New Alliance Party, as opposed to the People's Alliance. So every time we had a national meeting, these crazies, these government people would show up and cause trouble. When Salvatore Agron got out of prison the New Alliance Party took him on as though he were an oppressed Puerto Rican political activist. So suddenly this poor, demented man became a spokesperson for the Puerto Rican struggle and the group we worked with, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, had to continually tell the public, "Salvatore Agron is just a crazy guy, he doesn't represent anyone. Just because he's Puerto Rican doesn't mean anything". And "everyone" would say, "Oh, Puerto Ricans are always divisive like that".
So I said to myself, "It must be just Paul Simon just using this word 'Capeman', it can't be about Salvatore Agron". But it was, of course.
I think a lot about this great epic called "The Epic of Gilgamesh". It's from the first city in the world, so I guess it's now Iraq. Somewhere in that part of the world, anyway. I like the story because it's the story of the first city and the first writing. The first city and the first writing appeared at the same time, and the first writing was "The Epic of Gilgamesh" in this first city which is told about in this first writing. It's a very complex story and can't be easily paraphrased, but a part of it I'll paraphrase. Gilgamesh was the prince of the city. He was the son of God. God was his mother - that's nice, isn't it? The city happened because there was a forest. Gilgamesh the prince cut down the forest, built a wall, and what was inside was the city. And then he started telling this story in writing and that's how he proved it was a city: he built a wall, he told a story in writing. He made truth, he invented a city and he invented truth at the same time. So his city is the state, not a city, it's not a cosmopolitan place, it's a state enclosure.
But like every great hero, Gilgamesh had to go on a quest, and this is the part of the story I like very much. On his quest he was instructed to always take a certain stone with him, a great big stone he had to carry with him. And then he got to a giant ocean and he said, "Well, I'm not going to take this stone". Because he had to walk along the bottom of the ocean - it was one of those kinds of quests. He almost died because he forgot to take his stone with him.
There are always, I think, two systems of writing, and in this same city, called Ur, as it was trying to become a city, a guy named Abraham said that another god told him that his people were not city people because this city was going to become bad and his people should leave the city and become nomads, they should always be traveling around. So at the same moment Gilgamesh was using writing and inventing truth, Abraham's people from the very same place were saying, "We will also invent writing and we will invent it against the state. We will use it as something subversive, we won't use it for the state but to fight the state".
I like the story of Moses so much I think it should be a separate book all on its own. But the story of Moses is really not paraphrasable because it's so complex. Do you remember why Moses wasn't allowed into the promised land? I even like the idea that he wasn't allowed in because the whole story is about him leading his people to the promised land and in the end he doesn't get to go. But one of the complexities of this Moses story as he's leading his people - sometimes leading, sometimes fighting - through the wilderness into wherever, a stone is following them. The reason Moses couldn't go into the promised land is because he struck that stone. At different times when the Hebrews were in trouble, Moses could go to this stone and say, "Stone, give us some water, we're thirsty". And the stone would give them some water. And God had told him to do that, he said, "You know, whenever you're thirsty, just go to this stone, say 'we need some water'"... So then, over years and years, Moses had had a lot of trouble, and having trouble he had to show to himself as well as to everyone else that God's spirit was with him. So right up at the moment when they were all about to go in they needed some water and Moses said, "Look, I can get water out of this stone". And he went up to the stone and hit it with his stick. I think he got some water anyway, I don't remember, but then when it came time to go into the promised land, God said, "Not you, Moses. Everyone else can go in but you stay here, because I told you, 'Don't hit it with the stick' and you hit it with the stick".
I'm sorry I reached this point because I'm about to talk about my own work in a certain way and it's going to sound like these stories are connected, but I promise you they're not connected in any way, it's just a coincidence.
I have the idea that there's something about visual art - that is, the intellectual part of visual art - that is away from language, and that its value is that it's away from language. It's a knowledge that is not connected to language. When I have some great experience with a work of art, something that I love, something like Monet's paintings or some really good stuff, the importance of it, what's moving to me, what changes me is the part that's knowledge away from language, that can't be explained in language, and it makes me feel suddenly free. Because, I think because, at least partly, I am suddenly free of this prison of words, the prison of language.
I try to make art that's not connected to metaphor, that hasn't this descriptive, metaphorical, architectural weight to it. But I think my tendency, and most artists' tendency - most artists that I know, especially, in the last 20 years - is to make instructive art, art that instructs us about something, or to make sublime art - art that says, "I'm the sensitive person, I'm your guide and you could never have seen this without me, the sensitive artist showing it to you". I think those are the two sins we now have in art, I feel that for myself.
The reason I said all that, it was a kind of filler. Because I was about to talk about my own work, as I told you, but I wanted to separate it from the Moses story. Now I'll talk about this work I'm trying to do, cuz it's about stone. It's not about what I just said. What I just said was a stop between Moses and the stones, okay? So these things don't connect.
I want to talk only about one of my works and it's the only work I want to talk about. There's a stone quarry in Sweden that has a group of stones that were made during the Second World War. It's a stone quarry in an area that's still quite poor, and they were really quite poor before the war started because they were going down. Then they got this job, this commission from Adolf Hitler, and they all took it because it was work. Maybe they didn't have a choice, but also they said, "Yeah, we will carve some stones". They didn't know whether or not - workers - "Yeah, we will carve some stones, we will do this work and we'll get paid". And sure enough, they got paid for it. Then, 60 years later I came and the stones are still there. They're beautifully hand-carved and they're immense. They're giant beyond belief. They were designed by Albert Speer, and they were intended to be a great, giant arch in Berlin. So they're beautiful stones, the work is beautiful, the history is beautiful in an ugly sort of way, and it seems a shame to just have them sitting there, doing nothing.
I already have an ongoing project of working with stone. I want to do different things with stone to make stone light, to make it free of its metaphorical weight, its architectural weight, to make it light. So I've been thinking of different ways to make stone work and to make stone move instead of making stone into an architectural element.
So my project with these stones is in two parts. One is to make - I call it a cellulose copy because I'm a little old-fashioned and I don't know what film's made of anymore. I don't think it's still made out of celluloid, is it? Is it? Yeah? I want to make a cellulose copy of the stones as I'm moving them and making them non-architectural. So it will be a moving picture about moving stones. I will take the stones from the quarry by truck to the city of Mälmo in Sweden and put them on a great barge and take them towards Berlin through the Baltic Sea. And when our barge gets to a suitable place in the Baltic, it sinks - stones and barge and all - it sinks in the Baltic, and it will make a nice movie. The stones become as eternal as our film is good, and they never have to attempt to be a monument. They're free of monumentality.
And that's my entire explanation.
Q: How then do you combine discourse and the act of showing people things (which tends toward instruction or the sublime)?
Jimmie Durham: I don't know. I'd just like to recognise it as a problem. If I had something clear to say, in every case it would be so architectural that you would just forget about it immediately. Unless I was the state, and I made it a law. I'd make it a crime and put you in prison for forgetting about it.
Q: Normally, when people move on a political level they have ideas of results in mind, so they try to move towards them. Art, on the other hand, is about ambiguity. How do you reconcile this?
JD: I'm not so sure that art is so ambiguous. I just think it's not linguistic. It's more full and complex than language - we can experience it but not explain it. If art has an aim it's usually silly. But art without politics is even sillier. Part of the problem is the normal silliness with which we think about politics and political aims. We believe in them too much. I think I'm lucky to come from a people who have lost all of our battles, even in the 60s and 70s. I imagine: suppose we had won this and that that we had asked for, what would the world be like? How would it have changed? Not much. Because what we wanted was too small, our aims had to be more intellectual. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't fight for political rights, but our demands have to be put into a larger field, larger than that of political pragmatism.
Q: But many of your works involve language as well. Aren't you exaggerating your division of art and language?
JD: I think that the greatest evil of our time is belief. So I try to interrupt every piece. So that you never would believe it. I don't think that makes it worthless. I think it gives it an importance... because I don't like belief! So I try to make the work interrupt itself and as it interrupts itself it can perfectly well begin a lot of stories and if I put some text on a apiece the piece can begin to tell a story with that text, without ever making a conclusion or following a line.
Q: So how important is irony in your work?
JD: I think it's practically essential, in a certain way. Because - it sounds strange - I don't want to make cynical or pessimistic work, because that's naive. So if I want to be against instruction and belief but want to still contribute to liberation, I have to use whatever means seem human at the context. So the irony I try to use is never cynical or mocking, it's another kind of interruption.
Q: Will you have text in your film?
JD: Yes, a long text explaining the whole story.
Q: What did the Moonies do with the Cornflakes?
JD: They gave them out on Indian reservations. They also said they would give the Indians free food, etc. But they made a strategic mistake, they didn't understand the nature of colonisation. Because colonialism tends to make people quite crazy, and we, being very much colonialised, are very crazy. So we didn't feel like we needed the Moonies. But everyone ate the Cornflakes.
A Friend of Mine Said That Art is a European Invention
by Jimmie Durham
(first published in: in: Global Visions, Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, Kala Press, London, 1994, pp. 113-119)
Originally this paper had three titles, by which device l'd intended to show my own hesitancy to attempt a clean statement. My reluctance to clarity is not simply a way to enlist your sympathy to my muddle-headedness; in these days we are making contradictory demands on ourselves and each other and, while one might wish the demands to give up vociferocity in favour of articulateness, one wants to respect the bases of the contradictions.
Because our subject is what we hope might be some new internationalism, let us begin with some old questions about nationalism, for how might we imagine internationalism without it being among nations? Or do we instead imagine us all to be free cosmopolitan spirits? Even if we do, the authority in charge of permits and permission imagines nothing, so the question remains. We have a proper distrust of nationalism. Yet we often seem to feel a need to assert something of our nationality or ethnic background.
I will propose that history in this century has made a confusion between nations and states, so that when we examine any particular nation-state we find turmoil and falsehood. Here is England, made a nation-state by the invasion of the Normans (by which event it should perhaps be more properly called 'New Normandy', like 'New York', except that Normandy itself is the product of an earlier invasion of territory that was in no way part of 'France' at the time). In most cases the state has taken over nationality, as others have said, by terrorism, and it maintains its power over us by terrorism. Something is thereby put into place, into a vacuum caused by the state's activity, that we call 'culture', or 'national culture' simply because we have a survival interest in not calling it the daily effects of daily terrorism.
Nationalism, then, as a rationale for internationalism, becomes an anti-cultural starting point. And, of course, we might better name internationalism 'interstatalism' in these instances.
What seems often forgotten, though, or at least elided, is that the nationalism of states is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, having been forced out by its own suppression of the histories of ethnic groups. It is not difficult to make the case that the various fundamentalisms and ethnic aggressions which plague us now are actually reactions against nationalism: against the nationalism imposed by modern states. The future looked at that way seems closer to the cosmopolitan side of our desires than does the present, but also more mean and dangerous. A postmodern medievalism.
Anyway, I don't see how we can continue to think of internationalism as though there will always be an England; at least not an England, France, Germany, US and Ukraine under and against whose auspices internationalism can be appreciated.
But I do not really mean to commit prophecy here, because meanwhile we are at the tall-end of a project, the state, which is still a living beast. We haven't much choice but to try to grasp the tail.
When we think of nation-states we think first of those which make up the mythical concept 'Europe'. It is those which make the essential internationalism that we have known. Thus nationalism comes as defensive strategy of one against the others, like Mafia families.
This internationalism is in the first instance competitive, like the Venice Biennale, and in the second, fearful and hermetic. Now Europe-the-myth attempts to recreate itself as a concrete 'community' wherein competition is more ordered. The current debate about who might
be allowed into this community, and who might be forced out, exposes the roots of internationalism. If internationalism is a requirement for civilisation, what nation is civilised enough to participate? Or, who can England talk to? (And how, these days, can the nation-state called Great Britain find a voice in which it may talk back?)
Our seminar is at the Tate Gallery; in the spirit of internationalism will the Tate convince itself to acquire some newer, funkier 'Elgin Marbles'? By asking the question I do not mean
to condemn the acquisition of any older 'Elgin Marbles' by anyone. But simply, as a national museum, can theTate decide that these days it need only diversify its holdings to speak to a more diverse 'Men of England'? It's not so easy at all for the Tate to cease being an English museum - what else can it be; an 'international' museum, a 'European' museum, or, worst possible case, a museum that reflects 'the changing realities of postcolonial Great Britain'? And, how could it not commit those reasonable crimes? The crises we are in are big and small; there is no proper voice for anyone, whether one is an artist, a museum, or a nation. History, and our refusal to face it, forces us all into positions of reaction, so that the reactions themselves become less and less intelligible.
If there are nations what can be the project of each? Simply to be, to exist? As Jan Hoet recently said about Indians of the Americas, that's not much of a project. What if we imagine
a group of people who speak the same language getting together for general, open-ended discourse about themselves. Let's call that a simplified nation, without state terrorism to enforce it. What sort of ideas will our little nation say to itself? I bet that pretty soon quite
a few members will get bored and become passive. Some others will, deliberately or inadvertently, say things one is not supposed to say (according to Italo Calvino's model wherein no-one knew one was not supposed to say that until one did).
Like the scientific theories about the first three minutes after the 'Big Bang' that began our universe, our theory must be that both terrorism and censorship, orthodoxy and 'nationality' itself, begin at the moment, at the next moment the thoughtful member must escape, if not physically then at least intellectually, to hold on to the little nation's original idea.
This exile then is the 'only true patriot'. What will she say to the other nationality when she tries to function in their city, their conversation? There's been no imbalances of power between these two neighbouring nations because we just now invented them, so the people there are sympathetic to our exile, and welcome her. At an official reception the mayor asks, 'What happened?' 'Oh, I said that glass is a fourth category of matter, and people become angry and afraid. 'Mais, c'est ridicule!', replies the mayor, 'Everyone here says that!' She is given a medal. But I forgot to say that her sister was also exiled; I can't remember why. However, during the ceremonies the sister noticed that the poetry of the host nation had to make rhymes of the last words in each line. She said that that was an invention of primitive militarism, having to do with primitive mental drum beats to call people into war. It was actually against the law to say that, but being an honoured guest she was not put in prison. Her punishment was more severe; no-one would talk to her. She became a double exile and committed suicide. Meanwhile, our original exile went around happily saying that she had said glass was a fourth category back home, and people began to get bored and would ignore her, so she also committed suicide and was given another medal posthumously.
Actually, we know that in the first three minutes after the 'Big Bang' there was an imbalance of power; so that the first nations meddled in the affairs of the other nations even to the point of inventing them, and inventing them in the image of their invention. But suppose my absurd model were true, what would be a possible excuse for my little nations? It could only be, it seems to me, their destruction. Destruction in the sense of continual change. One nation would exist only as a way of speaking to others, not amongst itself. Doesn't communication have the idea of change within it? Change is a kind of destruction (and, of course, recreation). If one communicates only with one's self there's little possibility of change. (One may then become 'a very strong self', but what's that good for?)
All of these old little nations have bad histories and bad excuses. Any sort of communication with the outside, any internationalism, is perceived by them as death.
Do you see what I mean about the Tate? Some day when I have time I want to do a comparative study of Josephine Baker and Anish Kapoor.
Michael Taussig, in his book, Mimesis and Alterity, presents the idea that we set up roles for the 'other' to fill so that we can recognize the otherness (the alterity) that we want to be there. The other then fills the role by mimicking our mimicking of the role and by mimicking us, by which we recognize ourselves. That is the third minute in the internationalism of nations. 'The border', Taussig writes, 'has dissolved and expanded to cover the lands it once separated such that all the land is borderland, wherein the imagesphere of alterities - disrupt the speaking body of the northern scribe into words hanging in grotesque automutilation over a postmodern landscape where Self and Other paw at the ghostly imaginings of each other's powers.‘
We can say that this takes us to one of the multiple hearts of the new internationalism.
Not that we will by-pass nations, but that we will treat them as curiosities that lack compelling powers. By that phenomenon perhaps there is opportunity for discourses closer to our hearts. The states will continue to terrorise us but we can see them as outside forces.
A new internationalism could be inside; that is, an intellectual project for a change.
What we have seen in the past few years in the arts is a kind of slavish little echo of the reactions against state projects by the general populaces, which in themselves are so belligerently anti-intellectual that it has been easy for the states to direct them. More artists from differing backgrounds are visible now, and the art produced seems usually completely predictable. I do not care if this seems an old and even curmodgeonly complaint; recently I spoke to a group of art students in Holland, and said that we as artists are in a severe crisis about what might be art at this time. The regular teacher thought I was scaring the poor young people, and said, 'People have always claimed that there's a crisis in art'. Well. There always has been, so why not complain? The current crisis seems more severe because there really is nothing to be made effectively, in the traditions of what art can do, and we are left with small gestures about the past.
I want to return to my friend's statement about art as a European invention. In the main I do not disagree with him. It is only that I am not sure about three of the words in the statement: 'Art', 'European', and 'Invention'. 'Invention' is especially problematic in our present crisis. Maybe there has been an underlying idea that art was invented at some point, and certainly the art schools and art books give that impression simply because their existence gives a kind of history, so that all that needs doing is a fixing up, fine-tuning, or improving to suit the times. Such an idea might be helpful in giving a general outline or description, but I doubt it.
I'll consider the idea of 'European' again a little further on, but 'art' as a given is directly connected to 'invention'. One hears of people who love art. I can't make sense of it; it seems as asinine as loving children. The category is too broad, and it also hints at some complicity in entertainment, if not actual badness. Maybe it's a category for experts, in that experts make the category so that they may then get jobs as experts.
We all must have lists of art and of artists that we detest because they betray what is important to us about art. Yet that importance is explainable only through specific examples. We really have only individual works, for specific reasons to each work. If there had been an invention wouldn't we have had to have scrapped it? (Or perhaps now we must?) It would not, whatever it was, have been like the invented wheel, applicable to a thousand vehicles.
Gabriel Orozco, a Mexican artist who probably would not approve of being described that way, says that we cannot make thrilling art anymore, that Disneyland, the movies, or just Benetton advertisements can do it so much better than we can, even if it were a good project. By 'thrilling art' he means both the gigantism of Henry Moore and Richard Serra
and the mechantisme of Jeff Koons and Charles Ray.
Not that l ever wanted to make thrilling art, but Orozco has thrown me into a pit. I ask what sort of art can one make, and strike from the list art that is instructional, confrontational (people would only pretend to be confronted), 'puzzle' art, in which one has only to find the answer and then one need not look at it anymore, intellectual art that cancels sensuality, sensual art that cancels intellectuality, art that attempts only the smallest ambition or complexity, art that tries too hard, 'properly balanced' art, and most certainly 'delightful' art and as l've said earlier, art that is simply gesture within the art world.
Certainly we cannot be making only that art which is necessary, as l've tried to do most of my life, because we are not capable of measuring necessity, and the world will not admit even the possibility. Another certainty closely connected to that is the almost impossibility of making public art or art with 'community involvement'.
Yet don't we sense that the times are demanding something from us? Something beyond what we can easily imagine?
So then! Is this a crisis or not? A crisis! In the eighties, more so in the nineties, we have seen really too much bad art in a style that we began to call 'international' just because the work was so predictably, so sophisticatedly bland; the blandness of smart cocktail party chatter. Didn't we always think it was about to lead somewhere? And aren't quite a few of us now trying to figure out how to do it a bit smarter than the next guy just because there's now a possibility to get into a show at the Serpentine Gallery?
Suppose we were not doing `international‘ art, and were doing what must amount to 'ethnic' art instead? Entirely ridiculous and beside the point as well. Does that leave us doing art that has an accent?
That is what many of the 'Europeans' seem to think worthwhile. They seem to think that, as art is their invention, effective art is within a developed vocabulary and accent. They might wait expectantly for change but they're sure it can only come from them; we don't have European accents.
I'm back to my friend's statement about art, and there is an incomprehensible history embedded in the word 'European' which is now blooming in wondrous absurdity. We might say, as some do say, that 'European' means 'western Europe', with Italy, Austria and Germany as the Eastern border but not truly including Spain and Portugal because they are too medieval, and hardly including Italy itself because of Mediterranean anarchic culture. Not either including Germany much since Goethe and Hegel; it's been bent on backsliding into barbarity. Basically this Europe is France, Benelux and Great Britain (Scandinavia is too isolated up north). But l am always struck by the charming stupidity of Britons in calling themselves Great Britain and everyone else 'Europe'. England is not properly part of Europe; everyone knows it's in the ocean, with no other significant islands around. (But now, for reasons hard to follow, international soccer is an economic necessity, and the European teams and villages feel severely put upon by the peculiar type of civilised behaviour from the British side.)
Diana Trilling once said that only the English truly developed the novel. She made such a good case that, after considering the weaknesses of French, German, Spanish and Italian novels, I completely took her point. Except I substituted 'Russian' for 'English'.
I do agree wirth my friend. But if 'Europe' is actually no more than the expectation of a project (which in itself is a phenomenon of great importance, don't mis-understand me), it doesn't seem to follow sensibly that we should do more with the fact than to say thank you with sincere admiration (which in itself would be of great importance).
Can Europe, or even Europe with its 'white' colonies such as Canada and the US, use its invention of art exclusively, and exclusively for an internal discourse? I hope l've shown within common sense that the question is silly in every part.
Next, will they allow themselves or will we allow them to collect our invented authenticity? Will we allow them to collect our anger? Well, they cannot even manage that, because their existence is too ghostly.
Multiculturalism might be considered a viable strategy if anyone out there, including a soon-to-be-realized Europe, had any culture. But I expect not even then. Instead we would end up with something like an international 'sale of work', a 'garage sale' of trading units.
People have said to me, better to just do your work and forget all the theoretical angst. I think, more likely to forget work for a while and develop more angst.
Everyone knows so much these days. Isn't it odd how sure we all are? The New York city taxi driver who wrings a miserable life of unfulfilled dreams from his student days in Iran is sure that Salman Rushdie's death will fix things up. John Major is sure that if we return to English family values we'll work it all out.
As artists I think we should see our ideal audience as people smarter than ourselves. It is the very attitude we seem least willing to accept. And how rare that art ought to be coupled with intelligence anyway. We traditionally tie art to 'talent' (the most rusty old part of the European invention), to vision, and to some not-quite-defined instinctual characteristic (as though any of these were opposite to intellect).
I know there is a desire for learning, and that it is a desire for changing, because that is how we begin to see this new internationalism, but like England and Germany we tend to want to learn that which we already know. We want to expand art to be a part of the narrative in declaration. When Europe invented art it realised that it had invented a monster. To keep the monster pacified Europe asked it to tell stories; to uninvent itself and become text. To say that one picture is worth a thousand words is to say that one picture is like a thousand words. (And in England people still go to theTate to look at the 'pictures'.) I am sure art should not be visual metaphor for text, and I feel that we give text more importance than it actually carries in daily life. It is not the only way of meaning, nor the only intellectual way of meaning.
I'm not saying that there is some art out there among us Third Worlders that should be included in the established art world for its positive destruction. I mean something more like why isn't there, and how might we make it so? There is an art discourse that is always on the verge of being interesting. Almost a discourse. We cannot just interrupt it with a new discourse, we have to enter it; Europe has to enter it; and each as ourselves with our own proper voices. Us who have neither selves nor proper voices.
As usual, we are looking toward the future as though it will be the past
press release: The American West, Barbara Wien Gallery
The American West
Curated by Jimmie Durham and Richard William Hill
The identity of the American West is bound up with a number of different myths arising from European expansion across North America. This exhibition challenges these notions of identity, freedom and politics to represent a contemporary view of this complex subject. The American West presents rarely seen historical and contemporary work loaned from the United States and is programmed to be shown in all the exhibition galleries, in addition to the grounds at Compton Verney.
Jimmie Durham, the Curator of the exhibition, is an artist, writer and activist of Cherokee descent. He previously worked for the American Indian Movement as Head of the International Indian Treaty Committee at the United Nations. The exhibition has been jointly curated by Richard William Hill, of Cree heritage and formerly a Curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His background is in collecting and exhibiting historical and contemporary Native North American art.
The American West offers the first opportunity for audiences in Britain to view an extensive selection of work from an era that continues to hold such global fascination. The exhibition has been conceived as a series of visual stories. Themes include invasion and genocide; frontiersmen; the concept of Manifest Destiny; captivity narratives; the first official Indian wars; Native American encounter with white settlers and the U.S. army; natural resources and environmental destruction, and Hollywood and the cowboy. The exhibition also brings the mythology of the West up to date, exploring popular cowboy culture that has emerged from the election of George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq.
Included in the exhibition are historical depictions of the subject by Charles M. Russell, Arthur Tait, Charles Schreyvogel and Alfred Jacob Miller; nineteenth-century Plains Indian Ledger drawings; work by Indian prisoners, and a large selection of works by contemporary Native North American artists including Minerva Cuevas, Kent Monkman, Edward Poitras, James Luna and Cisco Jimenez. Interpretations on the theme by Ed Ruscha, Elaine Reichek, Luigi Ontani and Ed Kienholz are also included.
The exhibition contains a diverse selection of historic ephemera from popular culture, including documentation of Buffalo Bill’s roadshow, photographs, dime novels, billboards, film posters and JFK’s presentation colt gun. Exhibits have been loaned from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma; Museum of the American West, Los Angeles; Milwaukee Art Museum; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Buffalo Bill Historical Centre, Cody, Wyoming.
A fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Jimmie Durham, Jean Fisher and Richard William Hill accompanies the exhibition