Event highlights,
Artefacts 4 June 2013

A museum of uncertainty. Debate on global art considers if the art market mirrors the world of commerce, whether the display of art fetishizes archaic notions of other cultures and asks: is localisation in conflict with globalisation?

In a compelling introduction to the 3rd event of Zamyn’s Cultural Forum 2013, Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, asserted the importance of discussing globalisation within an art institution, stating that a museum should be a reflection, not a refuge, from the outside world. Opening the panel discussion, the Chair, Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, recognised the shifting global epicentre, as a result of economic and creative force from the South and East, challenging Western dominance. Calling for a new type of engagement and a rethinking of cultural institutions, he highlighted Zamyn’s Cultural Forum at Tate as a necessary cross disciplinary conversation. Acting as provocateur, Mr Dercon asked if the art market mirrors the world of commerce, whether the display of art fetishes archaic notions of other cultures and if art gives voice to a globalised culture. This was put to the consideration of the high-calibre panel of Elvira Dyangani Ose, Curator of International Art at Tate Modern, Wu Hung, distinguished Professor in Chinese Art History at the University of Chicago and Olav Velthuis, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.

Wu Hung explored the difference between an artefact and a work of art: ‘by calling an artefact a work of art we give it a special status…an aesthetic and commercial value’, considering  that art is defined by history and culture.  He remarked that in China, after embracing the European art market, artefacts were historically reinvented and as a result became wealth commodities not only in museums but in the market place. Wu Hung argued that as soon as artefacts enter the art market they become museum objects and asked if we should ‘cast this modern art historical system away and then re-embrace the pre-modern concept of arts and artefacts?’ The dilemma he put forward was thus: ‘how to integrate indigenous aesthetic standards’ in to a homogenous modern system? He captured the integration challenge through juxtaposing a statue of Buddhavista in an art museum with the installation by Ai WeiWei ‘Buddha Feet’, a critique of the antique market, and raised the consideration that the work nevertheless transforms ancient artefacts ‘into art by means of what we call the ‘readymade.’

Elvira Dyangani Ose considered how we should rid the African artist of a specific context and go ‘beyond the subject of the male or the female, black men and women’. She showed a still from ‘Statues Also Die’ (Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, 1953) triggered by the inequality of display in French museums, in Musée d’Orsay – African and in the Louvre - Egyptian and Greek. She commented on how our relationship with the artwork changes when taken out of its environmental context, and used a provocative quotation from the film to elucidate ‘when men die they enter into history, when status die they enter into art and the botany of death is what we call culture.’

Elvira Dyangani Ose showed an image of Angola’s participation in the Venice biennale, ‘Luanda Encyclopaedic City’, reflecting on the important of the display space of art and the challenge to public space that the tent presents. She described ‘the location within the displays as a dislocation of those works’, highlighting how some objects were photographed where found and others removed to be photographed at a different location.

Cultural globalisation is overstated and 'strong regionalisation' is the future for the art world, argues Dr Olav Velthuis. 

Olav Velthuis responded to the provocation of the art market reflecting commerce, commenting: ‘it is…overstated how profound, how deep, cultural globalisation is.’ His research findings demonstrated that collecting and exhibiting is still very local rather than ‘a linear process’ being ‘propelled by economic globalisation’ and resulting in an integrated global art market. To highlight this point Velthuis described the fear in the 70s of a global ‘Americanisation’ of creative industries and yet strong, regional culture was maintained, as seen in Bollywood and Nollywood. He concluded that ‘strong regionalisation’ is the future for the art world and put this down to ‘taste’. He described how local, cultural repertories could be incompatible to one form of production, unless you have organisational power to reflect global art, which only a select few, like Tate possess.

The panel challenged Velthuis’ with the example of Hong Kong and the growing bond between local and global. Chris Dercon asked if taste could be a ‘regional product’ or ‘regional expression’, conceding that we don’t yet have a way to assess, in art works, if expressions are ‘local’.

Curator of International Art at Tate Modern asks us to avoid qualifying artists by their cultural background and ‘looking at geography as an aesthetic value’

Elvira Dyangani Ose considered if there was a future for ‘global art’ and using Africa as example, described how colonisation was a form of globalisation which brought a particular understanding of the world before local communities cemented their own culture. As a result of this, she argued the local has a need to write its own history, ‘producing knowledge culturally, locally’.

The debate considered a historical perspective on globalisation and the circular pattern of connection and separation. Wu Hung spoke of the 20s/30s global city in Shanghai being divided by the Cold War and Ancient Rome connecting with the Sui/Tang dynasty in China and subsequent disintegration. He concluded that with separation comes changing ideology and politics which disallows a natural re-convergence.

Chris Dercon asked the panel to consider ‘local memory’ instead of ‘local taste’ as he expressed irritation at ‘taste’ being an elitist bourgeois construct and a changeable concept.

The panel spoke about local art markets; Wu Hung admitted his cynicism in relation to the prices at Chinese auction houses. Olav Velthuis expressed a preference for the ‘directness’ of these auction houses compared to those in the West, where commerce is central but you ‘don’t mention it’.

Elvira Dyangani Ose reflected on how local artists define their countries. Art institutions should look to local expertise, as Tate does, to address the challenge of telling a local story in an international context. As a curator, she felt that she was very engaged with ‘embracing the uncertainty’ and hoped to tell the stories that were often neglected in the cannon of art history. Chris Dercon added that there is a need for new institutions which do not curate, yet correct and improve, thus ‘remediating’ art. Olav Velthuis responded that institutions and biennales constantly reinvent themselves due to ‘the dynamism of the present art world’.

Wu Hung addressed the challenge of reflecting global art in a modern museum, as historically, institutions resulted from colonialist imperialism. He explained that China and India face must establish an ‘encyclopaedia museum’ which cannot be achieved by collection. He argued that ‘collection means possession’ and removing artefacts from their home is ‘an unhealthy acquisition'.

Debate considers creating a new type of art institution, a 'museum of uncertainty' - ephemeral, mobile, flexible and organic.

 The audience, which included ambassadors, figures from the art world, NGO representatives, psychoanalysts, students and journalists, joined the debate on local representation in a global context, commerce driving globalisation, power in the art industry, repatriation of artefacts, the role of the art school and how a museum can cohesively reflect a fragmented continent, such as Africa.

Dyangani Ose, in response to a question on fragmentation, stressed the importance of cultural festivals, using Festac (1977), as an example of a regional movement that was global in perspective ‘asking the question about the black and the African world together’. She noted that global economics ‘killed those ideas and people started to be worried only about what was happening in their own communities’. She considered why non-Western artists were vying for representation in Western institutions and questioned what defines success in the art world: providing different ideas locally or being presented beyond the framework of the local? Olav Velthuis lamented that artists seem to perceive success as exhibitions in Europe or the US.

In response to a question about how globalisation will change art history, Wu Hung remarked upon the recent trend of writing a ‘global art history’ and added that ‘it’s not chronology but find the interactions, like colonialism…travel. Use those as a kind of narrative strand’.

To conclude, Chris Dercon asserted the power of art in globalisation, equal to the power of economics, religion and politics. 

Watch the video here