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Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932 as a frightening vision of a consumerist future; thirty years later he concluded that the world was approximating Brave New World much faster than he anticipated. In his satirical and sinister novel, warfare and poverty have been eliminated, but also family, culture, art, literature, science, religion, and philosophy. In their place, Soma, a powerful drug provided by the “World State,” is taken to escape reality through hallucinatory fantasies.
Decades later, in the context of a new century, Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond, two assistant curators at the Walker Art Center, titled their group exhibition after Huxley’s novel. As they mention in their “editor’s note” to the accompanying catalogue, the title’s plural version of “worlds” is meant “as an antidote to that terrifying vision of singularity” (25). During various trips taken over the course of eighteen months, they gathered some seventy works by twenty-four artists from seventeen countries, including Chile, China, Brazil, Argentina, Romania, and France.
With over two hundred minutes of sound and imagery, video and film appear to be the visual language of choice. A close second is large-format photographs, as well as mixed media installations consisting of audio equipment, consumer goods, and storage parts. Hanging from the ceiling, posted or written on the wall, and scattered on floor platforms, discrete bits of information are everywhere. New York Times reporter Randy Kennedy could have been speaking of this show when he described the Venice Biennale as seeming “as if you ran a computer cable directly into your brain, went to Google and typed in ‘contemporary art’” (“Venice Biennale: Turkey and Mexico Have Their Day,” New York Times ArtsBeat blog, June 9, 2007.
On one level, the curators insist, chaotic variety is the point. During the press tour, Raymond commented that it is part of the Walker’s mission to bring the most intriguing new art from around the world to Minnesota. “Not everybody has the luxury of traveling to biennials or art fairs.” And yet, seemingly contradicting their resistance to categorize, the curators attempt to tangle with themes. Unfortunately, their themes have a vague, sometimes irrelevant, relation to the artworks themselves, ultimately doing them a disservice.
How artists make art politically is one theme the curators pose in their editors’ note to the exhibition’s catalogue: “Some artists focus on the diversity of possible gestures to gain such an understanding, while others explore the many avenues of materially experiencing that same world. Then, there are those who doggedly dream of alternative worlds” (25). The galleries are organized by these worlds, but a visitor appreciates this only by reading the explanatory material that offers a context for the artist’s work.
Berlin-based Fernando Bryce, born in Peru, replicates in a black-ink series of drawings the front covers, text, and images assembled from annual reports and strategic plans published by organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations World Food Programme. The effect is clearly disquieting as a hand-rendered George W. Bush smiles like a patronizing corporate executive to his stakeholders. “Millions are facing affliction,” he declares, “but with our help, they will not face it alone.”
Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi has made spontaneous, humorous, and sardonic drawings on the walls of museums and other art spaces for a decade. He likens himself to a medieval troubadour, traveling the world, singing the news, and criticizing the king. With a black sharpie and his assembly of cartoon politicians, army tanks, and feuding couples, he repeats the performance at the Walker, though outside the galleries proper, utilizing the stairwell walls and ceiling.
More emotionally evocative is the ongoing photographic series A Life Full of Holes—The Strait Project by Yto Barrada, who focuses on her mother’s hometown of Tangier, Morocco. On a clear day, the coast of Spain is visible from Tangier across the Strait of Gibraltar, and this proximity has made the city a jumping-off point for immigrants from all over Africa. Barrada creates pictures of people floating through the present, perhaps still hungry for a different future, sleeping in public places, staring off in the distance, disconnected, and in stasis.
Zwelethu Mthethwa’s generous and poetic photographs capture workers in a sugarcane field near Cape Town, South Africa. The subjects stand straight-on, classically posed and composed, in deliberate images that the artist uses to counteract negative portrayals of his country. Printed large with bright colors and an incredible amount of detail, the photographs dignify everyday labor in a land that is synonymous with crises such as racism, AIDS, crime, and poverty.
Alternative worlds are the province of Lia Perjovschi, who, with her husband, Dan, have become renowned Romanian artists since the overthrow of communism and the death of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Lia challenged herself after the fall of communism to bring information to Romania that the citizens had no access to under their tightly controlled state apparatus. In response, she has created archives, diagrams, “mind maps,” and information rooms that tell various modern histories from her point of view. The installation Knowledge Museum is a platform of loosely grouped globes, artifacts, notes, and collages intended to parallel a free-floating journey through the recesses of one’s brain.
Tomás Saraceno contributes thirty-two PVC pillows with black webbing as a Flying Garden/Air-Port-City/32SW. It is part of a long-term project he envisions as a mile-long geodesic balloon that could allow navigation in international air space and provide a living environment free from the demarcations of nationhood and borderlines.
Over and above their character as works of art, the projects in Brave New Worlds also feature what the curators call the artists’ “models of creation.” Each model implies a different notion of art making or art processes, such as repeating images and forms, performing conceptual journeys, and gathering documents and images. In her catalogue essay, Raymond makes the parallel to Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay “The Author as Producer.” There, Benjamin advocated for what Raymond describes as “an artistic activity calibrated by its own logic of creation and organization, its ability to serve as a model of thinking” (“A Rose for Brave New Worlds,” in Brave New Worlds, 158).
Yet this theme of models is frequently attenuated. Artur Żmijewski and Cao Fei both work in video, providing narratives about conditions of labor. In Danuta, Dorota, and Halina, Polish-born Żmijewski follows for twenty-four hours three middle-aged working-class women—a factory worker, a laundress, and a supermarket cashier—whose lives are utterly mundane, if honest and ordinary. Despite a context that includes Lech Walesa’s Solidarity trade union, the invocation of the icon of the worker is intentionally matter-of-fact and affectless.
In contrast with that form of “production principle,” Cao, a video artist from Beijing, is represented by Whose Utopia, based on half-a-year’s filming at OSRAM China Lighting Ltd., a factory located in the Pearl River Delta (PRD). The PRD is now one of China’s—and the world’s—most thriving economic zones, as well as a massive manufacturing center, attracting people from all over the country. Cao selected a number of workers and organized performances with them. A hybrid documentary and fantasy feature, Whose Utopia flip-flops between images of rote assembly-line labor and dream-like sequences of dance and music.
Are the worlds created by these artists really so brave or even very new? One may recall Documenta 11 in 2002, which, depending upon your perspective, was either a radical departure for curatorial practice or a predictable product combining the influence of international collectors and the networking of administrators and curators worldwide. The goal of that exhibition—as stated by its chief curator, Okwui Enwezor, in his preface to the exhibition catalogue—was “to make sense of the rapid changes and transformations that elicit new, inventive modes of transdisciplinary action within the contemporary global public sphere” (Documenta 11_Platform 5: The Exhibition, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002, 40).
For example, Zarina Bhimji’s film Out of Blue (2002) was a searing portrait of the Ugandan landscape left behind by the artist when her family was among those expelled by Idi Amin in the early 1970s. In Western Deep (2002), Steve McQueen took a camera and microphone into a South African gold mine; a grinding soundscape added emotional depth to the images that flickered out of the dark. Cultural critic Kobena Mercer wrote at the time that the exhibition made a convincing case for a view of contemporary art as one that explores a genuinely diverse range of social and material conditions. And yet, fundamentally, there is a “persistent fault line that cuts between the huge questions of global politics and the small pleasures offered by art” (“Documenta 11,” Frieze Magazine 69 [September 2002]: http://www.frieze.com/issue/print_article/documenta_113).
A year later, in 2003, the Walker opened its own global survey entitled How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, a selection of twenty-eight emerging artists from Brazil, South Africa, China, Japan, Turkey, India, and the United States. The predecessor to Brave New Worlds, Latitudes asked: How does globalization, or the “new internationalism in art,” affect visual culture? How are artists redefining activism? The importance the show’s curators, Philippe Vergne and colleagues Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi, attached to these questions was reflected in the way they referred to the title of Harald Szeemann’s seminal 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, which not only declared conceptual and process-oriented art practices as the new reality but also embodied a new transnational situation in art making and exhibitions. Similarly, as stated by Vergne, the artists in Latitudes were stretching the definitions of their media: “The world is increasingly entering the artworks as subject and material . . . and more and more artists are trying to address issues in our world in a responsible way” (online interview, Walker Art Center, latitudes.walkerart.org, 2003).
As with Documenta, the responses to Latitudes were mixed. On the one hand, the curators rigorously explored globalization as a matrix of forces informing ways in which art is produced and exhibited. But for some, the art was reduced to mere ciphers that illustrated the extensive program of lectures, conferences, conversations, readings, and workshops (Erin M. Sickler, “Liminal Latitudes: Ritualizing the Global and the Local in Contemporary Art,” Anamesa [Fall 2006]: 47–48).
Has much has changed since then? Could it be that a single art exhibition is incapable of confronting the complexities of globalization as opposed to mimicking them? This may explain why the ambitions of a global survey like Brave New Worlds seem almost modest, even thin: “We didn’t want to make a political exhibition,” Raymond said in the press tour. “Making art today is an act of bravery itself.” In her catalogue essay, she adds: “Art exists on a simple principle of courage, of having the nerve to be different, unpopular, or even disliked” (158). She is answered by Chilean curator Cecilia Brunson, one of six “correspondents” invited to contribute essays on their countries: “I dare say we are living at a time of little risk, because the historical avant-garde—which risked it all in order to bring about utopian change—is a thing of the past” (“Notes from Chile: Utopia and Melancholia,” in Brave New Worlds, 165).
What has changed globally in recent years, some say, is the rise of militant ethnicity and the proliferation of fundamentalist ideologies all over the world. In his catalogue essay, Chong grapples with this recent history in a series of numbers: dates of wars and bombings, miles of demilitarized zones and boundary changes, numbers of countries going through revolutions or historical reversals, and, finally, casualties lost in natural disasters.
Violence, undoubtedly, is one face of contemporary global culture. Yet an overt imagery of violence is missing from Brave New Worlds—obvious markers of fragmentation and conflict such as images of armed men and women, dislocated populations, and sites of devastation. All of this is gone—except for Walid Raad’s ink-jet prints of bombed-out buildings in Beirut, in which he suggests that he has collected and recorded spent bullets, color-coding them to the manufacturers who provided ammunition to the armies and militias fighting in Lebanon.
On opening night of the exhibition, four of the artists joined the curators for a panel discussion called “Artists and Political Consciousness.” Noticeably exhausted and shyly humble, they nonetheless responded to questions from the audience with poetry and finesse.
The last question was an expected one. “Do you want to change the world,” a young man asked. “Is it even possible to change the world from art?” Argentinean artist Jorge Macchi, who described his paper collages of cut-up world maps as “something like nightmares, as if a drunken God were playing with the world,” answered with barely a pause. “Maybe artists can’t change the world, but I have to believe that art can. Change is beyond intention . . . beyond will.”
coeditor of VACUM Attachment, the visual arts supplement to the literary review, Rain Taxi
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