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Reflections on What it Means to Be International

Art and culture have a role in describing the unevenness of the world: where do we go from here?

In June this year, Okwui Enwezor stepped down as artistic director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, citing a battle with cancer. The museum, and its ambitiously cosmopolitan programme, has been disrupted by a series of high-profile scandals over the past two years: a long-standing budget deficit; a controversy related to the renovation of its Nazi-era building’s swastika-laden facade; and a strange case relating to Scientology membership among staff. In March, a CEO was hired to fix its financial woes. On 1 August, it was announced that the museum would scrap a Joan Jonas exhibition. The museum has told frieze that it will no longer host Adrian Piper’s retrospective, scheduled for 2019.

Two years ago, Enwezor and Haus der Kunst staged ‘Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–65’ (co-curated with Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes). It was a massive, symphonic survey, which gave a passionately internationalist reading of contemporary art’s development in the aftermath of World War II and included works by 218 artists from 65 countries. While he has not been alone in expanding contemporary art beyond the narrow purview of the West, Enwezor has done more than perhaps any other curator to demonstrate that there are other sides to the stories that are told within the established centres of legitimation and power. ‘Postwar’ will remain one of the most convincing arguments to date for a global artistic history; however, its planned sequel, ‘Postcolonialism’, will never open.

In September, a press wire from the German Press Agency (DPA), based on information provided by Haus der Kunst, was syndicated nationally. After briefly announcing a forthcoming exhibition of the German painter Jörg Immendorff (titled ‘For All Beloved in the World’), the statement attributed the ‘financial misery’ of the museum to its ‘English-speaking director’ – a reference to the Nigerian-American Enwezor – and his policy of ‘translating all memos from German to English’, as well as to the expense of ‘Postwar’. Never mind the misleading impressions of the article (budget problems well preceded Enwezor, as did the museum’s translation policy): these words read as knives thrown against the symbolic and real achievements of the former director who was hired, and admired, for his global commitment. In an interview with Der Spiegel in August, following his departure, Enwezor questioned whether his programme ‘did not fit into the current political climate’. He gave a picture of latent attacks on the internationalism he espoused, up to demands that the next director speak German – an especially uncomfortable nativism in the context of an institution inaugurated by Adolf Hitler.

What befell the Munich institution is unusual in one sense – yet it also exemplifies many of the forces shifting the artistic field today. As philosopher Achille Mbembe has written, complex forms of cultural apartheid are taking root around the world. Confounding past decades’ liberal internationalism, groups on all political fronts are falling back on isolationism. This can be linked to a generalized scepticism of the capitalist post-1990 world order and its failure to deliver on its promise to even the playing field between groups of people. For some, globalization has reinforced historic inequalities; others fear that dismantling the status quo has gone uncomfortably far.

Culture, too, is experiencing increased atomization. Some artistic groups seek to distance themselves from the commercialism and homogeneity of a global art world’s ‘International Style’, to borrow a term from German-born Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer. In the 1960s, Camnitzer critiqued colonial power imbalances whereby art from the margins must be legitimated in Western metropolises. Others, equally woeful of ‘internationalese’, are rekindling separatism and non-alignment, sometimes with nationalist sentiment. By definition, such movements occurring at the ‘margins’ are often hard to see, though no less powerful for it.

Yet, many cultural institutions in Western centres are seeking to become more international. In a moment of soul-searching, organizations of all scales are asking questions about how to ‘decolonize’ collections, exhibitions and reading lists. In 2016, Tate Modern ushered in its new extension with a rehang that includes work by artists from 57 countries; in November 2017, President Emmanuel Macron pledged to repatriate African artefacts with origins in imperial plunder from French institutions to Africa; in June, Baltimore Museum of Art made the decision to de-accession works in its collection in order to purchase pieces by (vastly underrepresented) artists of colour. At times – as in the case of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, housing Germany’s ethnological collections, which is set to open next year – the discussion has reached a fever pitch.

So where do we go from here? Art and culture have a role in describing the unevenness of the world. But they are also a means of perpetuating it. We began work on this issue with a nagging, unresolved – and perhaps unresolvable – sense that the form of internationalism espoused by the current artistic community, as we know it from frieze’s offices in Berlin, London and New York, is both in need of change and changing faster than we can keep track of. We have long tried to be global, working with a large – and growing – network of contributors based on every continent. But what presumptions do we make as we address readers across the world with the same language and the same content? As theorist Rey Chow argues in this issue, a ‘global visual economy’ can too easily operate under Western models of representation and reinforce the oppositions it believes itself to transcend.

This issue of  frieze examines the relationship between culture and colonialism, and explores the ways in which historic forms of domination have given rise to others, for instance within the spheres of technology, the body and carcerality. It displays our commitment to the forms of internationalism enacted by Enwezor throughout his career – a cosmopolitanism, deeply informed by postcolonial thought, which is under threat from the polarizing impulses of retrenched cultural conservatisms and newly militant identity politics. It is also an acknowledgement of the partialness and partiality of our worldview.

On one level, ‘Where do we go from here?’ should be read literally: in recognition of the fact that the art world no longer has one centre but many. The flipside of globalization –  apart from bringing into focus what the West does not know and what it seeks to ignore – has been the emergence of dialogues between metropolises, from São Paulo to Sharjah, that circumvent the West entirely. Yet, ‘the West’ is continually defined by its confidence in its own centrality – to culture, to history. Far harder than ‘expanding the canon’ is imagining its irrelevance. The decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo once summarized Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961): ‘Listen, pay attention, Fanon is no longer talking to us.’ Our attempt with this issue is to listen more, listen better – in the hope and commitment that, as Mbembe has written: ‘From now on, the world will be conjugated in the plural.

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December, 2018, with the title ‘Worlds Apart’.

Main image: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, A view from the artists’ studio, Gemmayzeh, Ashrafieh, Beirut, 2018

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London, UK.

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018
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