Perhaps for the first time in modern history, Euro-America finds itself in a situation where it may potentially lose to other states its authority to determine who is included in economic, political, and military alliances. As this centrality, entangled with modernity and postmodernity, is ceded in favor of the discussions that revolve around ideas of contemporaneity and the local and the global, the dominant world history has been critiqued for its linearity and essentialism. The Western canon in art history, with its categories and narratives, has itself been broken up, opening up to a new kind of art history still in the making. A contemporary art of diverse origins that is produced, viewed and discussed concurrently around the world has now taken its place.
In this geo-historical moment of global flux, there is an increasing interest in the subjectivities that lie outside the once accepted histories that are often constructed within the old Cold War frameworks or the neoliberal dreams that succeeded them. These increasingly fluid borders and social structures have weakened previously stable links to the historicized past, which provided coherence and legitimacy to communities and states. These links are being renegotiated into new “official” stories of culture, identity, and history. The unmooring of such particular or localized identities, starting in large part after 1989 has brought people from many different places, economies, and political regimes closer. Oddly, a unifying force for this contemporaneity is the expulsion of memories of communism and the Cold War and subsequent retelling of these stories. Another link is the transfer of wealth to new centers of cultural ambition in Asia and the Middle East, with Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and Istanbul that now serve as artistic hubs in the new global cultural context taking shape—a shift that follows the changes in political and economic authority and highly market-driven flows. In the post ‘89 period, neoliberalism instigated an amnesia of specific histories and subjective worlds that left individuals depoliticized and without fixed imagery or vocabulary. The challenge for artists and institutions is to develop a vocabulary to speak about a past and a present that are not yet historicized. Excitingly, this challenge has also introduced new modes of critical knowledge production and critiques of the hegemonic structures of the museums and collections that operate transversally.
In New Forms in Cultural Production Zdenka Badovinac introduces a deep analysis of our shifting understanding of history in post-socialist Europe and how the roles of the museums and their collections can be revisited and reconfigured in line with changing social perspectives. Starting with Moderna galerija in Ljubljana as an example, Badovinac’s essay is a manifesto for a critical museum that is escaping from traditional Western norms, as well as an enticing documentation of the ways in which the institutional practice is shaped by societal turns affected by historical political changes. On the other hand, Özge Ersoy poses a set of questions on the formation of private cultural institutions and museums in new hubs of the contemporary art world, specifically Abu Dhabi and Istanbul. Contemporary Art Museums, Presumed Ruptures, and Urgent Demands is a provocative essay that investigates whether these new private institutions have the potential to create new support structures for the arts especially in the absence of public institutions or whether they are merely symbolic capital.
Meanwhile, Charles Esche offers an insider’s look at the Picasso in Palestine project, which was initiated by artist Khaled Hourani and recently viewed at dOCUMENTA 13 as video documentation. A Picasso in Search of a Context tells the project’s two-fold story—a simple loan request from the Van Abbemuseum and its attendant legal and cultural impingements, as well as the implications of mobilizing a canonical art historical work from “the West” to one of the “bystanders” of modern times.
The challenge in talking about the contested or alternative histories that have not yet acquired the status of an accepted collective narrative requires particular expressions from the once excluded or overlooked past of the “non-modern” lands. While cultural institutions seek new strategies to formulate the past and the present, artists have responded to this call in unprecedented ways that can only be articulated within this contemporary condition. Memory operates as an active process that synthesizes this new writing of history where the facts and personal stories often become entangled. Building on the memorial, fictional, or documentary formats of their predecessors, these narratives and questions expand beyond national borders and identities and unite similar groups artistically, socially, and politically. In this issue, we’ll take a closer look into artists’ childhood obsessions of Western popular culture turning casting a magnified lens onto the recent past in the Middle East.
Haig Aivazian’s Six-Shooter Lessons: The 12 Clint Eastwoods Project, was originally a lecture performance and has been adapted as a publication. It tells the parallel and often uncannily overlapping histories of American Olympic basketball teams and American military interventions in Iraq in a fashion that cannot be processed without Aivazian’s childhood obsession with Michael Jordan coupled with his exposure to America’s narrative of the Gulf War. Similarly, Michael Rakowitz speaks about a recent work, The Breakup, which is a culmination of his Beatles collection which he started at age eleven, and culminated in a radio program series with a Beatles cover concert in Jerusalem by Sabreen that was compiled in an LP. What brings Jerusalem and the Beatles together is the elaborate story brought Rakowitz stitches together, and draws parallels between the band’s break up and the concurrent failed negotiations in the Middle East. In his essay “Gulf Studies”, Murtaza Vali introduces a critical look at the national identity and belonging/unbelonging in the UAE through works of expatriate artists Lantian Xie and Haig Aivazian, who both enact their own displacement by drawing on local image economies and voiding those so-called icons, including such symbols as Burj Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s constitutional monarch.
Retelling histories indicates the necessity of, and the search for, new kinds of relations in art and democratic politics. Moving forward beyond the unstable post-Cold War condition to the recent uprisings associated with the Arab Spring, shifting to Europe and later the United States, this mode of retelling unhinges the status quo and poses fresh models of civil organizations that politicize people and public spaces bounded by unfulfilled promises. In these situations, individual narratives acquire a new importance, as if they might anticipate new artistic and political languages constructed to respond to an immediate or actual moment. The question of subjectivity is raised within the uncertainties of this global turn. Taking as his departure point the events surrounding Printemps des Arts in Tunisia this year, Anthony Downey probes the place of art and culture in the realm of the civic. He argues that art is inextricably linked to politics, that it is always already charged, even while it may not overtly contend with politics as its medium or subject matter. Common Grounds: Artistic Practices, Civil Society, and Secular Determination in Tunisia Today explores the role of art to foster civil society, and hails cultural practitioners to reclaim the rhetoric surrounding their artistic output in the public sphere.
This issue attempts to pose a set of questions and to uncover who we are in this global condition, how and why we can be connected and rebel at the same time. In an era when almost all metastructures, categories, and narratives are demolished or in flux, what new kinds of strategies and questions will take their place?
Ceren Erdem is a curator and writer based in New York. She is the co-curator of Court Square, a Long Island City based project space devoted to supporting the production and exhibition of new work by emerging artists, writers, and curators and co-funder and editor-at-large of Interventions, a web-based journal and curatorial platform of Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University where she received her MA degree. She previously worked in the Istanbul Biennial and the British Council where she initiated international programs in Turkey and wider South East Europe across different art forms and creative sectors. Erdem also holds an MFA degree in Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design from Sabanci University in Istanbul.