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Zones of Indistinction: Giorgio Agamben’s ‘Bare Life’ and the Politics of Aesthetics

March 2009

Artur Zmijewski, 80064, 2004, single channel video, 11 min, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

Lives lived on the margins of social, political, cultural, economic and geographical borders are lives half lived. Denied access to legal, economic and political redress, these lives exist in a limbo-like state that is largely preoccupied with acquiring and sustaining the essentials of life. The refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the dispossessed – all have been excluded, to different degrees, from the fraternity of the social sphere, appeal to the safety net of the nation-state and recourse to international law. They have been outlawed, so to speak, placed beyond recourse to law and yet still in a precarious relationship to law itself. Although there is a significant degree of familiarity to be found in these sentiments, there is an increasingly notable move both in the political sciences and in cultural studies to view such subject positions not as the exception to modernity but its exemplification. Which brings us to a far more radical proposal: what if the fact of discrimination, in all its injustice and strategic forms of exclusion, is the point at which we find not so much an imperfect modern subject – a subject existing in a ‘sub-modern’ phase that has yet to realise its potential – as we do the exemplary modern subject? What if the refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the dispossessed are not only constitutive of modernity but its emblematic subjects?

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Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Prestel, 2008 | CO-AUTHOR

Yinka Shonibare MBEShonibare employs a wide range of media – sculpture, painting, photography, video and installation pieces – to explore matters of race, class, cultural identity, and history. The artist is best-known for his use of a colourful batik fabric, which, though labeled as ‘African’, actually originates in Indonesia and was introduced to Africa by British manufacturers via Dutch colonisers in the nineteenth century. Incorporating the fabric into Victorian dresses, covering sculptures of alien figures with it or stretching it onto canvases, Shonibare uses the fabric as a metaphor to address issues of origin and authenticity.Published as a companion to Shonibare’s first retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, this survey explores all aspects of Shonibare’s work, offering a fully comprehensive portrait of his projects. Whether he is lampooning Victorian propriety or commenting on the latent ambiguities of the term ‘alien’, Shonibare makes art that challenges straightforward interpretations. Essays by Rachel Kent and Robert Hobbs, together with a generous selection of colour illustrations explore this talented young artist’s work.

Chapter authored: Setting the Stage: Anthony Downey in Conversation with Yinka Shonibare.

To purchase a copy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE please follow this link.


Reference

Downey, Anthony. “Setting the Stage: Anthony Downey in Conversation with Yinka Shonibare.” Yinka Shonibare MBE. Munich: Prestel, 2008. 38-45.

What Was Lost: Manifesta 7 and the Soul of Modernity

November 2008

Stefano Graziani, The Museum for Franco Basaglia, 2008. Photos © Wolfgang Träger.

Following on from the faddishness surrounding the critical uses and abuses of the term ‘postmodern’ in the 1980s and 1990s, a singular and somewhat disconcerting question came to light, one less involved with the apparent ‘post’ of modernity as it was with finding out whether we were indeed modern or, perhaps more gnomically, whether we were even premodern. A significant part of this project found purchase by enquiring into that which modernity had elided along the way, namely, the disavowed alter-modernities that consistently threatened to usurp any univocal global claim to postmodernity. It was with these and other issues in mind that Manifesta 7, with a firm eye on the so-called ‘residues’ of modernity, set out its latest curatorial stall. Taking place over four different locations, all in the shadow of the South Tyrol Dolomites in Northern Italy, and employing three curatorial teams (made up, in turn, of six curators), Manifesta 7 included over 200 artists and collaborators, not to mention 100 off-site projects. It was, in fine, ambitious. Travelling north to south, the first venue on the itinerary was Fortezza, an impressive fort which is also known locally as Franzensfeste, the latter being its original Austrian name. Since its completion in 1838, the only forces to have breached its defences are a road, two railway lines and a motorway. There is certainly a moral to be had in this tale and the curators, all three groups in this instance, set out to exploit it: a fort that had never been overrun subsequently becoming a white elephant of sorts and eventually a venue for an international exhibition of contemporary art – that had to be worth a curatorial gambit or two. However, and despite the size and the uniqueness of the location and its legacy, this section of Manifesta, entitled ‘Scenarios’, was the least interesting, and not only because there was so little to actually see. (more…)

Towards a Politics of (Relational) Aesthetics

May 2007

The aesthetic criteria used to interpret art as a practice have changed radically since the 1960s. To note as much is to observe a truism: the idea (or should that be the ideal) of a universalist aesthetic point of reference, or even the notion of aesthetics as a nominal interpretive baseline, has been discursively displaced by identitarian, theoretical, political, economic, ethical and social interventions. And yet aesthetics as a topic, far from fading into a minor role, has become something of a notional cornerstone in recent discussions about contemporary art.[1] Putting to one side the pre-eminence of performance and installation art in debates about aesthetic form, one of the more prominent statements on the matter has come from Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential volume Relational Aesthetics (2002), a book that has attracted much by way of both criticism and support.[2] Stemming from essays published from 1995 onwards in Documents sur l’art – a journal jointly edited by Bourriaud and Eric Troncy – and in part from the 1996 show ‘Traffic’, curated by Bourriaud for CAPC Bordeaux, Relational Aesthetics was first published in France in 1998 before being published in English in 2002.[3] For a relatively short series of essays the book has attracted a considerable amount of interest; a consequence, no doubt, of Bourriaud’s rather grand claim that he has not only isolated a new aesthetic ‘movement’ in contemporary art (albeit one that is formally diverse and based on loose rather than close associations), but also a critical language within which to discuss this development. (more…)

Yto Barrada A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project

September 2006

On first viewing, the image appears to be an eccentric map of an uncharted world. The filigree-like coastlines of these unfamiliar islands are realistically defined and clearly delineated, whilst the land mass – albeit in a reversal of traditional maps – is a clear-blue aquamarine. Study the picture further, however, and this inverted map resolves into something other than it first appeared to be. As to what that something else is, there is still some doubt until we read the accompanying title: Container 1 – Rust holes in the top of a shipping container – Tangiers (2003). The blue of these ‘regions’ is in fact the colour of a sky seen from the inside of a rusting shipping container; a corralled sky not so much boundless as claustrophobic. The photograph, now less visually ambiguous, becomes an illustration of confinement and restriction rather than exploration or travel. And it is between these two often reciprocal poles – stasis and movement – that Yto Barrada’s photographs address the state of conditional ennui that pervades Tangiers, a city both the nodal point for the illegal passage of Africans entering Europe and stagnation for those who remain there. (more…)

Miniatures

Steve McQueen, ‘Once Upon a Time’, South London Gallery, 17 September–7 November 2004

April 2006

Steve McQueen, Once Upon a Time, 77 of 116, 2002. Supermarket. Photo: Herman Eckermann, NAIC Staff Photographer. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York & Paris and Thomas Dane, London.

In 1977, NASA sent 115 images – the so-called ‘Golden Record’ – into space on board the Voyager space probe. They also included greetings in 55 different languages and a number of audio clips, including (amongst others) Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night. Projected onto a double-sided, cinema-sized screen, these images – but not the audio clips – are the basis of Steve McQueen’s solo show ‘Once Upon a Time’. The images range from photographs of children being born to family portraits, the monumental (Jupiter) to the miniature (a leaf), and the poetic (a sunset with birds) to the mechanical (a calibration circle). There are ordnance photographs of the Sinai Peninsula and an intimate portrait of a nursing mother. Ethnographic portraits, perhaps inevitably, feature too and, despite the generally auspicious and upbeat tone of the Golden Record, there are also premonitions of more immediate concerns: a picture of rush- hour traffic in India, for example, and a so-called (and curiously empty) ‘modern highway’. Each of these images in ‘Once Upon a Time’ slowly dissolves into the other, giving an effect that is both nostalgic and reminiscent of a time when such images were indeed seen by some as ‘representative’ of life on earth – not to mention a time when images dissolving into one another seemed the height of technology. (more…)

Critical Imperatives: Notes on Contemporary Art Criticism and African Cultural Production

Spring 2006

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Germany/Congo), La ville de Sete en 3009, 2000, paper, cardboard, paint, sequins, glue; covered by polyester in wooden frame, 210 x 300 x 89 cm. Collection Musee International des Arts Modestes, Sete, France.

A social and historical critique which does not consider the conflictual structure of its own discursive operations will only produce the constraints it is seeking to displace. (Weber 111)

‘Africa Remix’, the recent showcase of African art at the Hayward Gallery in London, prompted a number of mixed but largely positive critical responses. In the Observer, Emma Lindsey extolled the ‘ground-breaking and electrifying work’ (26) on show and encouraged everyone to see it. Elsewhere, and in a more mixed response in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones was impressed by the art in the show but equivocal about his own reaction to it. Towards the end of his article, Jones wrote ‘but that’s enough criticism. In the end, this is a subject I probably shouldn’t even be writing about. What do I know? Racism is limitless’ (22). The sense of bemusement in Jones’s article is worth dwelling on here, not least for the fact that its disposition reappears in more ‘critical’ reviews of ‘Africa Remix’.[1] In Art Monthly, Sally O’Reilly’s review of the same show started with the above quote from Jones’s article and went on to engage in its own series of caveats. ‘It was not my idea of fun to review ‘‘Africa Remix’’ either,’ O’Reilly wrote, ‘and the idea would be horrifying, I imagine, to most European art critics especially those from European nations’ (27). For O’Reilly, this ostensible conundrum is made manifest in a number of ‘double binds’ including, but not limited to, the manner in which postcolonial liberalism can often translate into ‘colonialism itself when applied to interpretations of ‘‘the other’’’ (27). In the subsequent issue of Art Monthly, O’Reilly was taken to task on the letters pages for both an ‘unreflexive’ response to the show and the reiteration of a view of African art as somehow culturally (and hence critically) other (Jelinek 14). To Art Monthly’s credit – being one of the few journals in this country, alongside Third Text, to consider the question of art criticism and its purpose to be worthy of any enquiry at all – it allowed this discussion to continue into the following issue where Jones’s take on the show was criticised for being ‘intellectually cowardly’ – a response, in sum, that merely re-codified a number of obstacles to formulating an effective critical response (LaFuente 17).

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Yinka Shonibare in conversation with Anthony Downey

Fall 2005

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), 2004, color digital video, 32-minute loop. Images courtesy of the artist, James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Yinka Shonibare first came to widespread attention through his use of Dutch wax fabric, which he has used both as the ground of his paintings and to clothe his sculptures. This bright and distinctive fabric was originally produced in Dutch Indonesia, where no market was found for it, and subsequently copied and produced by the English, who eventually sold it to West Africans, for whom it became a popular everyday item of clothing. It also, crucially, became a sign of identitarian “authenticity” both in Africa and, later, for Africans in England. A colonial invention, Dutch wax fabric offers itself as both a fake and yet “authentic” sign of Africanness, and Shonibare’s use of it in his paintings and sculptures accentuates a politics of (in)authenticity by simultaneously presenting both the ideal of an “authentic” identity and identity as a “fabrication.” Although he has been producing mostly installation-based work of late, Shonibare is also an accomplished painter, and that is where his practice began in the ’80s. It is also easy to overlook, in all the theorizing about postcoloniality and the politics of identity, the amount of amusement and frivolity he can pack into his work.

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