Conferência 1: O sistema da arte/Textos na íntegra/Susan May

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Conferencistas: Susan May, Ousseynou Wade, Paulo Herkenhoff; Moderadora: Daniela Bousso.Auditório 1.
Relatores: Paula Alzugaray (resumo), Fernando Oliva (relato), Paula Braga (coordenação de relatos).

Textos na íntegra

Susan May
Ousseynou Wade
Paulo Herkenhoff

Making Sense, by Susan May

How should art proceed in an age of global political, environment and societal upheaval? As a question posed by this conference, it is one that seems particular apposite for those of us living in the UK. Just a month ago today, London witnessed the first suicide bombing in Western Europe. The initial response to the atrocity was that the perpetrators were assumed to be ‘foreigners’, radical fanatics entering the country, intent on harming its citizens. What soon emerged was far more shocking – the terrorists were from within, home-grown British-born Muslims who through anger, disaffection and fundamentalism, chose to stamp ‘a burning cross’ on the capital. Following initial disbelief and alarm came the almost inevitable backlash from the right, calling for limitations on immigration, asylum and human rights, accompanied by fatal police errors. So to return to the question, in a climate as turbulent and uncertain as this, does (and should) art have something meaningful to communicate? Can art be an agency for change?

While commentators continue to analyse the makeup of multicultural Britain, a parallel examination of the cultural diversity of British art is also taking place. In a few weeks time, the latest incarnation of an ambitious series of exhibitions surveying contemporary British art will commence. The British Art Show, which is organised by the Hayward Gallery every five years, has a history spanning over a quarter century, and is widely regarded as a barometer of the most significant art made in Britain. Like any biennale, each British Art Show is shaped by the culture of the moment and by the ideological perspective of its curators. For the forthcoming show, the curators Alex Farquharson and Andrea Schlieker commenced the selection process by distinguishing key influences on current British practice, and in doing so immediately observed the increasingly diverse cultural constitution of what is considered as ‘British’ art. In recent years growing numbers of artists from across the globe have chosen to live and work in the UK, usually after having first gone there to study and deciding to stay thanks to London’s thriving art infrastructure. This has accordingly enriched the attitude of contemporary art in the UK, fostering a determinedly catholic (and international) outlook. As the curators’ have noted: ‘In a cosmopolitan art world, in which artists travel to make work and take part in exhibitions, the fact that an artist is British, Brazilian or Chinese is of diminishing significance. To compare artists from the perspective of their geographical origins is often to emphasise the most superficial aspects of their practices.’ The curators’ selection consequently reflects a multiplicity of ideas and intentions, framed principally by a range of artistic strategies that have been adopted by artists over the past five years, ranging from references to art and archetypes of the Modernist era to critical engagement with broader political contexts and communities.

There are a number of formal and conceptual tendencies that have emerged in British practice over the past few years, which are specifically explored within the exhibition: ‘Revisitations’ features art that looks to avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries, yet recast in a contemporary form – from fin de siecle and early Modernist movements to geometric abstraction and formalism; ‘Relational Practice’ which looks to art that is inherently collaborative and participatory, involving audiences and organisations in the development, production and meaning of the work; and the final area is ‘Geo-politics’, featuring film-makers who engage with global affairs from personal perspectives, which is an area of particular relevance here today. As the curators have noted: ‘The notion of the nation state has been progressively eroded with the globalisation of markets, by political and economic migration, cheap jet travel, the internet, the dismantlement of old empires and the emergence of new ones. The fates of peoples are now increasingly interconnected in dense and mutable webs of economic, political, technological and cultural power … everything is on the move and the UK epitomises this situation; the cultural diversity of Britain’s population of artists can no longer be attributed to the post-colonial diaspora alone; globalisation is at least as great an influence’.

Art that has a dynamic engagement with the wider political arena is of course nothing new; however, there does appear to be a proliferation in current practice of art that sees urgency in making sense of the world and looks at how personal and political struggles are inextricably linked. One only has to look at the past Documenta in 2002 to see the re-politicisation of recent art and discourse. This of course is shaped by the shifting political terrain on a global scale: 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the troubles in the Balkans and the collapse of one set of ideologies replaced by another. Journalism and reportage play a major part in the dissemination of information (and mis-information) of these events. The following artists, who are all based in the UK, reveal a mutual ambivalence toward the press and media, and in particular how it continues to determine our understanding of global politics.

Phil Collins’ films bear witness to quotidian experience in zones of conflict and unrest. While he lives among the communities he is drawn to capture on film, his work raises moral questions relating to the objectification of his subjects’ lives for aesthetic consumption. The artist is clearly aware of the problematics of the documentary, which are somehow assuaged by Collins’ evident social conscience and empathy with the people he is filming. In How To Make a Refugee, using a hidden camera, Collins travelled to the Serbian border with a British journalist who was planning to interview a young boy. The resulting film illustrated how the interviewer manipulated the representation of the refugee. Collins’ more recent work They Shoot Horses is a seven-hour video installation of a disco-dance marathon – the title comes from Horace McCoy’s novel of 1935, which focused on the subject of mass entertainment and human exploitation in Depression-era America. In Collins’ version, two separate groups of young people from Ramallah danced through the course of a working day, without any breaks, save for calls to prayer and the occasional power cut. The work not only portrays the universality of dance music and its ability to transcend geographical and cultural borders, but also notes that while the dancers are removed from their immediate political context, their incarceration within the dance studio echoes the confinement they experience in their everyday lives.

Zarina Bhimji was born in Uganda in 1963. Of Asian descent, she and her family fled the brutal regime of Idi Amin after he issued the Asian community with 90 days to leave Uganda. The family eventually settled in Britain, and Bhimji’s early experiences of displacement and isolation emerged later in her work as a photographer and film-maker. In her acclaimed work of 2002, Out of the Blue, the opening scenes show the lush, splendid landscape of Uganda. This panorama is abruptly disrupted by the sound of low voices and crackling flames. The film goes on to show places that may have been the scene of violence and eradication. Whilst the work can be regarded within the tradition of English landscape painting, from J M W Turner to John Constable, in describing as it does the atmosphere and meaning of a place through the representation of the countryside, the film also attempts to link the conflict that took place in Uganda with those occurring in places such as Kosovo and Rwanda. The artist has noted: ‘the work is not a personal indulgence; it is about making sense through the medium of aesthetics. I want to register these issues, to mark what has happened: elimination, extermination and erasure.’

Breda Beban was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, but left the country in 1991 after the war broke out. Like a number of the artists mentioned here, her work deals with feelings of dislocation and loss. Her film Walk of Three Chairs shows the artist aboard a raft floating down the Danube, accompanied by a male band of gipsy minstrels. One of the men sings a Balkan love song, issuing the words like an incantation requiring a response: ‘He Who Does Not Know How to Suffer, Does Not Know How to Love’. As the artist tries to repeat the lyrics, she hesitates and simply speaks them in return. After several attempts she manages to sing the song, after which a ritualised dance begins, with the artist walking across three empty chairs placed on the raft, which continues its journey down the river. The landscape surrounding this spectacle is significant – on one side, verdant scenery is evocative of ‘old Europe’, untouched for centuries, and on the other side, ‘new Europe’ is represented by a scarred, industrial landscape.

Zineb Sedira was born in France of Algerian parents, and after studying at the Royal College of Art in London has continued to live and work in the city. Her work looks at the roles of women in North African cultures and in particular their centrality in the preservation of cultural identity by passing on stories of social and family history from one generation to the next. Her video Mother Tongue portrays three generations of the artist’s family – her mother, the artist herself and the artist’s daughter. In the first account, the artist and her mother chat in French, the language of the artist's childhood; in the second, the artist is shown conversing with her young daughter in French and English, the languages they use at home; and in the final chapter, the artist's mother is shown attempting to communicate in her native Arabic with the artist's daughter, who is unable to comprehend what is being said.

French-born artist Marine Hugonnier uses the tools of film and photography to explore the relationship between landscape and history. For her work Ariana in 2002 she took a film crew to Afghanistan to capture a panoramic view of the Pandjshêr Valley, a region that has in the past held back invasions of Soviet and Taliban dogma. The film chronicles the thwarted attempts of the crew to record the panorama, to which they are initially denied access due to the strategic value of the area and the crew consequently returns to Kabul to observe the desolation and chaos of the city. Eventually the crew are granted permission and as they film the territory across the Hindu Kush Mountains, they experience a sense of exhilaration and fulfilment and accepting they have achieved their goal, then choose to stop filming. In Hugonnier’s recent works, Death of an Icon and Territory I, II and III, the artist travelled to the West Bank in Palestine; the first film was shot in Ramallah in the few days prior to the official announcement of Yasser Arafat’s death; the other films feature explorations of the architecture of the settlements and how it can be commandeered for political ends. As the artist has stated: ‘it places architecture and design as vehicles for ideologies. More precisely it looks at how architecture and its original ideological implication can be shifted, used and transformed to meet completely different political ends. The film reveals how utopian ideas of Modernism become a politicised promotional tool (the so-called Bauhaus style of Tel Aviv). From villages, which appear like an oasis of green in the desert (settlements in the West Bank), all the way to a traditional Arabic house whose architecture is mimicked by Israeli settlers in search of a sense of locality and authenticity’.

Back in London, it remains to be seen how artists will respond to, or even simply make sense of recent events. Looking back to 9/11, it appears that the effect on artists in New York was probably felt most acutely at the time. This was particularly the case for the handful of artists exhibiting in the city during the destruction of the Twin Towers whose work immediately assumed a different significance or that was somehow perceived as presaging the tragedy. Nancy Davenport, who had been selected for the Sao Paulo Bienal in 2001 prior to 9/11 and who was also exhibiting at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Manhattan at the time of the event, worked with images that depicted photo-shopped terrorist assaults on New York dwellings. One image revealed a dense cloud of black smoke behind a series of buildings as another missile approached the block. The artist’s intention for the work was to highlight the conflict of political idealism between individuals and institutions. However, following the attack, her images were seized upon by the press, and the artist subsequently noted that she would struggle to find a way to talk about the formal issues in her photography for some time to come. Another artist infamously caught up in the proceedings was Wolfgang Staehle. His work To the People of New York was a live-feed video projection of the Lower Manhattan skyline installed at Postmasters on September 6 (a week later the work was renamed Untitled). The film, which was accompanied by simultaneous web-cam views of a communications tower in Berlin and a hilltop monastery in southern Germany, was fundamentally about communication and how the viewer might consider how their experience of time. As events unfolded on September 11, the media also looked to use the work to make sense of what had happened and again the artist was left feeling ambivalent about the original intention of the work: ‘My landscape painting suddenly became a history painting. Everything’s changed’.

It is now almost four years since those events and as Staehle noted, everything has changed. The stability of world order has been rocked to such a degree that in the aftermath, fear has given way to mistrust, paranoia and censorship. While artists continue to tackle sensitive issues and challenge existing orthodoxies, publicly funded institutions have to find the right balance between gauging the communal mood and defending freedom of expression. Recently the Drawing Center in New York was subjected to criticism in the right-wing press for its plans to move to a site adjacent to Ground Zero. The New York Daily News commenced the offensive by attacking the Center for showing ‘anti-American’ political art; this was followed by the New York governor George Pataki stating ‘we will not tolerate anything on the site that denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on September 11’. The criticisms are based on a drawing exhibited at the Center by Amy Wilson, A Glimpse of What Life Could Be Like in a Free Country. It depicts an adaptation of the notorious image of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner with electrical wires attached to his hands – in the drawing the wires extend to spell the word ‘Liberty’. The artist has noted that the controversy is clearly about ‘silencing political speech’ and that the image in question is merely part of a complex 14-foot long drawing that depicts dozens of other figures and text. While the debate continues as to the conceptual and aesthetic qualities of the work in question, the issue of political censorship is one over which we must stand guard.

Looking at many of the artists who have notably engaged with broad political contexts and communities, what is striking in much of their work is the significance placed on the correlation between landscape and history, which in turn is predisposed to echo the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Their work largely remains objective, and in being so, it’s power and persuasion comes by simply asking the audience to establish their own moral judgements and response.