© 2018 by Overwhelming Imagination 

New Directions in Art History

Panel Discussion

July 5, 2016 | 14:00-16:30 

If the past is never over, or never completed, “remains” might be understood not solely as object or document material, but also as the immaterial labor of bodies engaged in and with that incomplete past: bodies striking poses, making gestures, voicing calls, reading words, singing songs, or standing witness. Such acts of labor over and with the past might include a body sitting at a table in an archive, bent over an “original” manuscript or peering at a screen, interacting with history as material traces positioned as evidence. 

–Rebecca Schneider, 2011

This group of essays was developed from a series of presentations and a follow-up dialogue from the final panel in our conference, titled New Directions in Art History. One commonality among all the included presentations is that they posed challenges to the teleological, progressive, textual, and positivistic ways of understanding history that, in the Western world, are the legacies of Enlightenment thinking. They also emphasized open-ended and performative practices which tend to be interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature. Katherine Grube’s presentation (not included) explored the concept of materiality, aiming to expand its definition beyond the traditional art-historical focus on object-hood. This expansion, inspired by her research in contemporary Chinese time-based art and theory, could include not just the surface of the object, but also the entire environment and audience necessary for its activation, as well as the materiality of the extant photographic, film, and digital documentation.  Grube suggests this way of thinking about materiality could provide us with new tools for the interpretation of non-traditional media that move beyond those that are inherently teleological or culturally deterministic. Naomi Vogt’s paper similarly touches on performativity and ritual action in contemporary art. As a counterpoint to the art-historical preoccupation with what ethnographic knowledge of ritual can teach us about art objects, Vogt explores the possibilities of contemporary art as a mode of investigation and discourse on human beliefs and behavior. This inquiry responds to contemporary art practices which create new knowledge through bodily, ritualistic action rather than representing or studying human behavior as a static entity. By seemingly “inventing traditions,” these works challenge the conception of linear time, origins, and authenticity of human behavior. In his paper, Wang Zhiliang asserts that the dominant mode of avant-garde art in China today is what he refers to as a “mutualism” (묾) between art creation and societal location. He differentiates this from the historical avant-garde practice in which artists bring objects taken from every-day society, like Duchamp’s ready-mades, and exhibit them in a museum setting, thus transforming them into art. The works Zhiliang points out as the dominant mode of avant-garde, conversely, are multi-faceted and encompass both the actions of the artist in the chosen location, the location itself, and the relationship between the two. The complex relationship between China’s contemporary art and its revolutionary past, which is characterized by a preoccupation with the rural hinterlands, has still not fully been examined and Zhiliang’s research might help us gain a better understanding of the concept of “avant-garde” in this particular cultural and historical context.  Fabiane Borges, in the last essay in this grouping, presents the practice of Technoshamanism as a unique blend of do-it-yourself technology and ancestral knowledge for the purpose of answering questions that the Anthropocene is raising. The characteristics of Technoshamanism as laid out by Borges include body empowerment through ritual, community living, production of do-it-yourself technology, and reactivation of futuristic-ancestral knowledge. These practices make up a way of life which draws from various belief systems and ritual engagement to imagine and create new ways of living in this world which aim at sustainability and communality in opposition to the dominant values of global capitalism.  Each of these essays blur the boundaries between researcher, historian, artist, scientist, and social activist in new and radical ways.

- Madeline Eschenburg 

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Madeline Eschenburg: All of you emphasize the creation of new knowledge through action, re-enacting, and replication over the creation of new knowledge through text or original objects or sometimes (in the case of Zhiliang), tensions between these two forms of knowledge. Can you talk about the nuances of this kind of approach and the challenges or benefits you have observed for art creation, dissemination, and theorization?

Katherine Grube: If we are looking at an idea of materiality or a claim about the interpretational model of art history that is built around materiality and suggests that objects assert agency over us or on us through their materiality, installation art or performance itself ask us to reconsider materiality in new ways by inserting context and people as a possible material itself, by re-centering materiality in that capacity. The way I see it is that the two major types of art that emerge out of this are formalist and performative. They pose the biggest challenge to the traditional art object or the way in which this type of understanding about materiality has been constructed in the past. So what I was trying to get at is this idea that after these works are de-installed, all that they leave, really, are traces of their existence in documentation. And so if we return to the idea of a fictive representation or a virtual representation of these works, we can look at the photograph or other visual representations as a preservation or as an extension…they sort of act upon us in a similar way in that we see these works and we still are working with them. So, can they act in lieu of the artwork itself, if we know and are aware of the fact that they can never replace the materiality of the artwork itself? But yet [the documentation] can somehow communicate to us the function of these works or what they look like. I don’t really buy that but it’s a way to try to craft this notion of materiality and apply it to practices of contemporary art that work through alternative approaches to art making. I don’t actually think I am producing any new knowledge. I think I am trying to adapt a very old way of looking at, analyzing, and interpreting art to a new context. And I don’t know if it works, which is sort of my struggle. What I’m trying to do is pair my training with a different approach, and I don’t know if it works. I’m not actually convinced that it does.  

Naomi Vogt: I agree, I also feel uncomfortable with saying that it’s a new knowledge, or that the idea is to privilege visual, physical knowledge over text. It’s more a question of how we constantly associate meaning with words and that kind of is the guideline for the rest. So for example, I went to the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival a year ago and it was really interesting to see how uncomfortable people were with these different categories of what an ethnographic film is and in the end there were two words. One of them was this kind of properly ethnographic film that has this guiding voice over that really explained to you the belief system of a society and one of those films won an award. And then you had the second category which was the more artistic, creative types of film that was somehow feeding into ethnographic knowledge. It was interesting for me to see how there was still these very uncomfortable, slightly artificial separations between how knowledge can be produced. And this is kind of an ongoing debate in anthropology and art history and art practice where the three disciplines flirt a lot but they are not quite sure how to deal with their relationship. One anthropologist called Jay Ruby has been writing about how it’s necessary to develop a kind of cinema or film making that would be inherently anthropological. So not just that the content is what we might associate with anthropology, but it would be inherently anthropological. But then he has a footnote to the first page of his book which says “by the way, for it to qualify as that, the person who makes this film has to have a PhD in anthropology.” So, it’s more a matter of working out these boundaries. But I’m also not saying that these type of more corporeal, physical installation practices can actually recreate the feeling of participating in a ritual. And in that sense everything that anthropology has been through by being very self-critical about all the fantasies with participant observation, I think art history also needs to learn from that. 

Zhiliang Wang: As I talk about this practice, I think they used some methods, but not new. Some are old. But sometimes these old methods reflect some new questions, maybe important questions in rural villages. But I think for the artists who do this practice, the most important thing for them is to change the ideas and concepts of local residents about the things in their everyday life that they touch and see. I think this is the most important thing for the artist. Their first viewer is the residents, not the people who are going to the museum. So they organize some events to make some opportunities for relationships between the residents themselves, not the artists. I think that's important. 

Audience Question: This question is about relationality. You were talking about how materiality constitutes the viewer and audience and objects, and ecologies of the work. So how could the framework of materiality help us to understand a little bit more about relationality between objects, between the things you have mentioned. The kind of dynamic relationship between entities. 

Katherine Grube:  What I find really interesting or compelling about installation practices in particular, and these can include screens, they can include technologies, is that they need to be activated by viewers and bodies in space. Viola gets to that with his quote that says that paintings exist without any activation by the viewer or any activation by an external source. Like electricity in the case of video or digital arts. And so what I think is really interesting is that it poses a challenge to and significantly undermines a really traditional approach to art history and the study of it. So that’s where the body becomes introduced as a sort of materiality in itself, it introduces a potential for relationality. I always resist the ideas of relational aesthetics, because it constructs a binary way of thinking and I’m trying to get by that by surfacing the material itself and allowing for different temporalities to be laid in within that. So you are looking at the material surface as a collection of qualities that can be very specific stylistic references, or you are looking at it from an art historical perspective in the way the art historian relates to the object, and looking at other ways in which objects themselves have been interpreted over time. 

Kelly Doley: This is a question for Fabiane. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about sleep and your use of sleep and dreams as a way to access the past and the future. What the rationale is there?

Fabiane Borges: I have this very paranoid idea, a conspiracy. I think the bio-politics, all these psychiatric movements, pharmacy, and all systems of psychiatry, capitalism, they want your dreams when you sleep. They want to go there. They already go there. Because white people don’t know how to dream anymore. Because it is already co-opted. But we still have this door open. But for loads of these traditional communities, these traditional communities are talking more about this. They are still not civilized. They used to use their dreams as a very powerful knowledge, a field to go deeper to understand the modes of being for the natural. So we have this almost every day, but we don’t give much attention to this place where our consciousness leaves. 

Elena Korowin: I would like to thank Fabi for the insight of your work. And just to get it right. So you are using the shamanist rituals… you are finding a new way to express it... But I’m wondering if there is a strategy as well to preserve these old shamanistic rituals, to keep them alive in the way they exist. Because as you said, they are all vanishing and this is a very important heritage which is just vanishing.

Fabiane Borges: The last time I was [in Pataxó, Brazil], I saw a ritual, they had this trauma, they lost their language, they were there when the colonization came. 500 years ago when the Portuguese came to Brazil, the Portuguese came to their beach where they live. So they were some of the first. And it’s incredible how they could resist for 500 years. And in these past times, like ’91, they started to try to rescue their language again and they started to visit other indigenous people who speak more or less the same. So they are inventing their own rituals because they are a bit lost. And there is this…moment inside of the rituals where this memory comes in a very strong way and these people started to speak their old language. It’s fascinating. And the young people go with their mobiles to record it. They take them from the school and the teachers help them to make the dictionary. So it’s very interesting because they have their own way to preserve... And our part as technoshamans, is that we just make it …we make festivals for them in the community, we help with bio-construction. Because we are a lot of people. It’s not a collective, it’s a network.  

Lisa Bensel: I’m really interested for Naomi to tell me more about your definition of ritual. In order to do your research, did you choose a particular word or are you going to deploy it in different ways in the context of these other kinds of rituals? And I would like to ask Zhiliang, you mentioned at the beginning of your talk that there is this meta-art world that is interested in biennials and big art fairs and they move to the villages. So I have to ask you, do you think it would be better if they just gathered together every two years and make one little village & no other artistic production?

Naomi Vogt: That is a good question. It’s a tough one because I guess the first thing that I would say is that I’m not an anthropologist, so in my research I’m not trying to settle on one definition of ritual because I don’t think I’m in a position to do that. But I did go through a lot of anthropological theory and I did see how contentious that term is but also how central it is in so many fields like sociology and psychology. And one of the things that was striking to me and what was the starting point of my research interest was that the sociology of art has a lot of interest in the rituals of the art world. So you have Carol Duncan’s book about the rituals of the contemporary art space. And in return, anthropology has an interest in how art represents content that is potentially anthropological. But there is very little looking at how art can inform us on ritual. First of all, I’m interested in the fact that certain artists are declaring that their artistic practice is ritual. I think that is problematic but also very interesting. So specifically Mike Kelley and Pierre Huyghe have said that about their projects, that they envision them as becoming these grand, cathartic ritual moments, either at some ideal point that would never happen or by designing this ritual for this community. The definition that I’m the most comfortable with is one that doesn’t separate between religious ritual and sacred ritual and kind of encompasses things like a hand shake or recapping your toothpaste and these very very detailed religious rituals. And it needs to imply a certain type of repetition. It could be every century but it has to be something that comes back, it’s not a one-time celebration. But more importantly, it’s an activity that does something, that creates something. And so it’s not just a symbolic language removed from everything, but you are actually reshaping part of your social world in that practice. And then I finally found authors that were writing in that tradition. It was really interesting because that is actually where it intersects with a lot of contemporary art practices that I’m interested in. 

Zhiliang Wang: For now, I don’t know what is the best method to make a relationship with the rural districts. But the artists, they all have a house in the village. They want to become a part of the village as their neighborhood and as their friends. Maybe they have a big studio in the city, but they frequently go back to the village. Maybe once a month for one to three weeks. They have a very tight connection with their village. So I want to differentiate them with another kind of practice. This other kind of practice refers to some artists who do one work in a village. After that they leave and they never come back. They still work in their city studio, they sell their work, they forget the village. I want to differentiate the practices I’m concerned with from them. 

Audience Question: Zhiliang, just to follow up on your answer. First of all, I hesitate to call all of these people artists. Like Ou Ning (킹퀼) is an intellectual, writer. And Qu Yan (혠喫), who works on Xu Cun (冀닷), he does not consider himself an artist anymore. These people take on more of the role of enlightener, somebody with a mission of enlightenment to bring art to the village or bring cultural projects, etc. And every case is so different. I think it is very hard to talk about all of these projects together. And every project has very particular circumstances and very different motivations. It is a very complex issue. And I just wanted to point out one particular thing that might be productive is to think about their position in the village in connection with their global travels. 

Katherine Grube: I was thinking about this while you were speaking. I wonder if these projects in the countryside aren’t actually about the countryside at all. And that they are about urbanites’ imagination of the countryside. So I wonder if we flipped it and actually that’s what gives it its interesting historical valence is looking at the ways in which, from the early 20th century, the countryside has been imagined by early Chinese intellectuals, as a place of liberation, as a place of withdrawal, the ways in which biological or agricultural temporalities structure a space outside of the time of the city. So I wonder if by looking at this as the question of dissatisfied urban elites, or the urban elite in general, if this actually opens up a different way of assessing your project.

Zandie Brockett: Continuing a little bit on the future of the countryside, I think it’s a really interesting dialogue. Because with this mass urbanization that is taking place in China currently, there are a lot of issues that are attached to life in the urban context. I think that imagining the future of the countryside is very pertinent. I think what is highly problematic about thinking about the countryside in this way, the way that Ou Ning is, and others, is that it is attached to a particular nostalgia for the past, rather than trying to find new modes and mechanisms that allow the countryside to sustain themselves. AMO, which is the think-tank attached to OMA, Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm, is starting a research project in Beijing right now. They are going to be focusing on China for the coming few years, and kind of looking at how do you go about developing particular sustainable financial models that allow small villages, such as the ones like where Ou Ning is, to be able to sustain themselves despite the fact that the vast majority of the working age population is going to the cities to work. And how do you allure the working age population to come back into the villages and sustain the traditions and habits and rituals that exist there….In the case of Ou Ning’s, you go to Bishan and a cup of coffee is like 40 kuai, which is like 6 or 7 dollars, which is beyond the price of a cup of coffee even in the U.S. So you realize that it is very much geared toward a particular tourist market. So how do you go about thinking about constructing infrastructures that allow the local population to be integrated into some sort of sustainable system. 

Zhiliang Wang: Thank you very much for your comment. Some artists, I will focus on Xu Cun, they want to rebuild the village. Their method is to turn the village into a tourism point. Many people want to go visit their village. So the residents can sell their fruit or vegetables to the tourists, or they can have the hotel in the village, the tourists can live in their house. I think that is their method. But I think this method is not good because the tourism in the village can damage its environment. So this is not what I want to talk about. 

Kiki Liu: This is just a comment, since we are talking about museums and we [Si Shang Museum] are in such a special surroundings with the village. First of all, I think that we are sharing the same piece of land with the people around us. It’s never about educating them, turning them into something, or giving them an idea about what art is or telling them that art is something higher that their culture hasn’t reached yet. First of all, as we are sharing the same piece of land, putting ourselves as equal to everyone else is something very crucial to us as an institution. I think it’s a great idea for the people to understand that it is an equal ground, there is no hierarchy. For us, especially, we are bringing all of these white people foreigners to the village. It’s not because I want to say, ‘oh here, they will tell you what art is.’ It’s more like a cultural encounter. When the young kids talk to our resident artists, they are like ‘oh this is the first time we have encountered something different culturally.’

Panelists

Fabiane Borges