Printer Friendly

The world is not enough: art and globalization.

THERE ALREADY EXISTS much discussion of global mega-shows like Documenta, Sculpture Projects Munster, and the Venice Biennale, which attempt to gather all the world's art together in one place and time. Such exhibitions are increasingly seen as the barometer of international art, the lens through which its overarching concerns become clear.

The result is that the decisive figures in art today are the directors of such shows and the shows themselves, rather than, as was mainly the case from the 1960s through 1980s, individual artists and museum retrospectives. Thus we have, for example, the "rise of politics" in Okwui Enwenzor's 2002 Documenta XI, the "dictatorship of the viewer" in Francesco Bonami's 2003 Venice Biennale, and the "return of painting" in Robert Storr's 2007 version of same. And not only are these big international shows becoming more influential, but new biennales keep springing up all the time too. As well as the usual Kassel, Munster, and Venice events, over the past 15 years we have seen international exhibitions taking place for the first time in Gwangju, Istanbul, and Johannesburg. The "international" is no longer what only the traditional art centers can aspire to, but equally available to every culture in the world. (1)


But if we read the reports of these biennales, two questions emerge with almost obsessive regularity. The first concerns whether these global shows represent something new or are merely a continuation of what was already in place. Does a break occur in exhibition practice some time around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or can a lineage for these shows be traced all the way back to the expositions and trade fairs of the nineteenth century? The second question that is inevitably asked concerns whether these new-style biennales represent a form of cultural difference or sameness. Do they break with Euro-American centrality, or is the ambition to gather all of the world's cultures together itself Euro-American? Does not the very ambition to gather all of the world's cultures together attest to a certain economic, political, and cultural power, and is this not in fact the true subject of these biennales, irrespective of their purported theme? Aren't such exhibitions only possible insofar as there exists a Euro-American center or its equivalent? Or, to put it another way, is not cultural difference or relativity itself a Euro-American idea? Does it not imply a certain non-relativistic point of view, that of the northern hemisphere, from whence the comparison between cultures can be made?

All of this is rather to say that these new global biennales are profoundly confused and self-contradictory. At an immediate level, it cannot be decided whether they represent something new or old. It cannot be decided whether they represent a principle of cultural difference or sameness. It cannot be decided whether they represent a critique of Eurocentrism or a renewal of it. But we would argue that it is not a matter of resolving this dilemma, of deciding in favor of one side or the other. On the contrary, it is a question of admitting this alternative as such, why it is that all our thinking on biennales tends to contradict itself. But it is not this contradiction that comes between us and the phenomenon we are trying to grasp. In a slight change of perspective, it is this contradiction that now dominates our thinking. We would even propose that this contradiction defines what might be seen as the next art style or movement after postmodernism. It is not an orthodox movement (although there are historical precedents like futurism), since here curators and exhibitions, not the artists and artworks, call the shots. It is what we call globalism, which is defined precisely by its self-contradiction, by our inability to decide which of its various alternatives it settles on or takes. Globalist art's inherent self-contradiction is indeed what we are attempting to put under the lens here, both by noting some historical precedents and perhaps drawing some surprising consequences for the very notion of globalization.


In order to make this analysis clearer, let us examine three works embodying the new globalist style. The first is Spanish artist Santiago Sierra's 250 Centimeter Line Tattooed on Six Paid People (1999), in which a group of six unemployed young Cuban men agreed to have a collective line tattooed across their backs for $30 each. (In similar Sierra works, four Brazilian prostitutes agreed to get tattooed for a hit of heroin, while in another Chechen refugees consented to remain sealed up inside cardboard boxes for the duration of an exhibition.) The second is Fred Wilson's Speak of Me as I Am at the American pavilion in Venice 2003, in which as part of an installation drawing attention to the historical presence of blacks in Venice he arranged for recently arrived African immigrants to sell counterfeit luxury goods, as they often can be seen doing in European tourist traps. The third is Chinese artist Song Dong's Together with the Farm Workers (2005), which is a video performance in which twenty Chinese peasants, newly arrived in Beijing in search of work, agreed to be tied to one another and led around the art fair there for a modest fee. (In a variant of this for Documenta XII, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei simply flew in a number of spectators from China and allowed them to wander through the exhibits.)Certainly, what the work of all these artists tries to draw attention to--through a kind of restaging or dry run--are manifest racial and economic inequities. But the work itself does not take a stand on the various forms of racial and economic exploitation it exposes, it just acknowledges that they are necessary for such work to be possible at all.


What is at stake here is perhaps more complicated than it might first appear. To begin with, the work's presumed criticality and its excuse for doing what it does lies in the way that it does not see itself as outside of the problems it depicts but as part of them. This self-criticism or self-contradiction is what we propose as the very essence of globalist art. Yet the final twist of this critical turn is to be found in the fact that the exploitation they point to does not occur innocently, simply awaiting its unveiling through art, but occurs in the first place only because of something like art. Namely, that racial and economic exploitation no longer take place directly today, but only as the excuse for alleviating or doing away with them. It is in fact anti-racism, under cover of political correctness, that is the new face of racism. It is the West's very charity and foreign aid that perpetuate--indeed, endow--the poverty they are meant to put an end to. Not only is art not an excuse for repeating social problems, these problems would not exist without their "artistic" repetitions. Not only is this art not truly self-critical in reflecting upon its own implication in inequality, such an "artistic" self-implication or self-consciousness is the prevailing ideology of the system itself, the internal ironic distance that authorizes these actions. It is not some a priori material system of globalization that art then comes along to view through its critical lens. Globalization is nothing but these critical perspectives about it, exists only in retrospect, in those retroactive attempts to criticize it.


Something akin to this problematic is addressed by Fredric Jameson in his well-known essay "Globalization as a Philosophical Issue." What he begins by observing there is how seemingly opposed or mutually exclusive attitudes both seem to be true with regard to globalization. A term that at first appears to have a globalizing implication can be taken up by anti-globalizing forces, and vice versa. (Jameson's example is the concept of nationhood, which although it might be seen as a holdover from the period of European colonization has today been taken up by peripheral cultures as a way of resisting their incorporation into the new world order.) And more generally, this raises for Jameson the problem of how to characterize globalization. Is it a homogenizing force, as is usually thought, or does it impose difference? Should anti-globalization advocates be arguing for difference or for sameness? The difficulty, for Jameson, is that both qualities seem to characterize globalization, that one cannot be separated from the other. As he writes toward the end of his essay:
 You begin with Identity (...) only to find that it is always
 defined in terms of its Difference with something else; you turn
 to Difference and find out that any thought about that involves
 thoughts about the "identity" of this particular Category. As
 you begin to catch Identity turn into Difference and Difference
 turn back into Identity, you grasp both as an inseparable
 opposition, you learn that they must always be thought together. (2)

Jameson's dazzling, synthesizing treatment of globalization, unlike so many others, does not seek to resolve the antinomies it raises. But at the same time it is still possible not to agree entirely with some of Jameson's conclusions, and mostly perhaps his suggestion that both of the alternatives he discusses apply to globalization (that it is both a matter of Identity and Difference). In fact, we would

say that the real problem with Jameson's analysis begins when he writes: "Let's start from the principle that we already somehow know what globalization is". (3) For is it not also true that, when understood literally, those antinomies that Jameson proposes should rather lead to the entirely opposite conclusion, that we cannot know what globalization is. And that if neither of those two alternatives can be right themselves, then they must be equally wrong. So we cannot say if globalization is positive or negative, good or bad. Nor can we say that it leads to difference or sameness, either. We cannot say that it is either limited or infinite. In the end, despite his rigorous thinking, Jameson fails to complete the fatal logic of the various antinomies he puts forward. For all the attention he pays to them, they still end up being understood as necessary holdovers or staging grounds on the path to a globalization we already "know." They merely exist in a state of temporary confusion, to be fixed by thinking about them correctly.

Indeed, it is surprising that, for all of Jameson's avowedly "philosophical" take on the topic, he does not mention the greatest philosophical endeavor to take up the antinomies produced by thinking about the world: Immanuel Kant's First Cosmological Antinomy in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In his analysis Kant considers the antinomies that are produced in the attempt to think the world, and in the way we argue applies to Jameson, admits not that we begin on the basis that we already know what the world is, but that what they demonstrate is that we cannot know what the world is. In his First Cosmological Antinomy, Kant examines two understandings of how the world is to be conceived, which we find repeated in all discussions of globalization. The first is that the world has a beginning in time and a limit in space. The second is that the world does not have a beginning in time or a limit in space. Although these two alternatives would appear to account for all logical possibilities, Kant argues that this is not the case, that both are wrong as a way of thinking about the world. On the one hand, that is, the world does not have a beginning in time or limit in space because this would require some non-phenomenal place from which this limit could be observed, and is in fact impossible, because we cannot by definition know what is outside of the world, as everything we know must take phenomenal form. On the other hand, none of this proves that the world is infinite, for any such infinity could not be grasped successively but only simultaneously--since the things of this world, insofar as they must take phenomenal form, can only be known one by one, we could never get to the end of an infinite series and confirm that it was all there. As Kant concludes regarding this situation where, although the world has no outside, we also cannot know what exists inside of it: "No synthetic proposition [about the world], whether positive or negative, can possibly be asserted." (4)


In a similar context, the Lacanian cultural theorist Joan Copjec draws upon Kant's conclusion to explain the feminine side of Lacan's "formulae of sexuation" and his notorious assertion that, "Woman does not exist." (5) Copjec's point is that, as opposed to the masculine side of the formulae, in which a totality of men is able to be seen from somewhere outside of itself, a universality based on exception, on the feminine side there is at once nothing of woman left outside the symbolic order and so for this reason she can only subsist as "not-all" there--because with woman there is no limit to the symbolic order, she is unable to be constructed from anywhere else. There is no "negative" judgment we can make about her, and therefore we cannot really say whether she exists or not. And we might say the same about the art that supposedly takes globalization as its subject, or that is supposedly a product of globalization. The difficulty of thinking about globalization is that everything comes under its sway, can be seen as one of its effects. Even criticism of it functions only "positively," is only able to make its point by playing out and drawing on the same arguments and resources. In fact, anti-globalization is merely the other side of globalization, the only possible way of representing it. But it is for just this reason, as Copjec says of woman, that we can never say what globalization is, or even, more radically, whether it exists (outside of the symbolic) at all.

Again, by way of helping to explain this undoubtedly difficult logic, we might turn to Pamela M. Lee's "Boundary Issues," published in Artforum's special issue on globalism a few years ago. What is interesting about Lee's essay is the way that, like all discussions about globalization, it inadvertently gets caught up in a series of antinomies it cannot resolve, so that the two halves of her argument end up turning into each other. Lee begins her essay by speaking against what she sees as the art world's understanding of its relationship to the world, from which it seeks to maintain a transcendent critical distance. She cites as typical of this attitude an essay by Arthur Danto from 1964, "The Artworld," where in response to the perceived threat of Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes collapsing the distance between the art world and the outside world, he proposes the following relationship between them: "The art world stands in relation to the real world in something like the relation in which the City of God has to the earthly city." (6) In opposition to this, Lee argues for a radical indistinguishability of worlds, whether art or actual, for art giving up all its pretensions to superior critical insight or moral standing. She cites as part of her argument Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's unconscious reversal of Danto in their then-recent anti-globalization manifesto, Empire (2000): "This [approaching counter-Empire] is the founding moment of an earthly city that is strong and distinct from any divine city." (7) And this accords with Lee's general desire for art to do away with its "troubling distance" from the world and enter directly into a networked and integrated reality that is presumed to be self-evident. As she concludes in the final words of her essay: "This 'atmosphere composed of artistic theories' must be ready for the day when the art world's traditional borders are indivisible from those of the global order we are inclined merely to portray." (8)

As part of Lee's contestation of the art world's "troubling distance" from the real world, which allows mere "images" of globalization to be so easily consumed, she proposes a more "critical" reading of work that would pass itself off as globalist. More precisely, she advocates moving away from an iconography of "conflict" and "contradiction," which for her is as much as anything the very "conflict" and "contradiction" between the world of art and the global world. And to help her make this point, Lee draws a distinction between two images of shipping, Allan Sekula's Panorama, Mid-Atlantic (1993) and Italian artist collective Multiplicity's What We Want, Naples (1998), and two images of airports, Andreas Gursky's Schiphol (1994) and Martha Rosler's Untitled (JFK) (1990). To confuse either half of these similar looking pairs of images with the other, she argues, would be to commit the mistake that art historians call "pseudomorphism"--the act of one term structurally replacing another. But for her part Lee is unable to put forward a reading that would reveal any difference between both these sets. Indeed, we would argue that, insofar as she simply calls for the "indivisibility" of the art world and the real world in opposition to what she calls the "boundary" between them, she would be logically incapable of doing so (her "immanence" would be possible only because of the exclusion of the transcendent). However, in order to demonstrate this ourselves, we might begin here by making a distinction between Sekula's Panorama and, instead of Multiplicity's What We Want, Gursky's similar looking Salerno (1990).

We might start with the peripheral observation that the containers on the ship deck in Sekula's Panorama are densely packed and freighted, forming an opaque barrier that prevents our eye from moving uninterruptedly to the horizon (its title, we realize, is ironic). This might be opposed to the widely spaced apart containers and other goods unloaded onto the docking area in Gursky's work, obviously awaiting visual identification and transportation. In Sekula, namely, what is being configured is a blankness or invisibility, and in Gursky a transparency or visibility. What is at stake in this distinction? Sekula understands documentary practice as a kind of appearance or "making visible." The camera operates analytically or diagnostically in serving to reveal a truth that would otherwise not be seen. More generally, in line with Sekula's Marxist calling, the aim of documentary photography is to make apparent the underlying forces of society, the invisible base that underpins its visible superstructure. In his long-running series on international marine transport, of which this image is part, Sekula's aim is to show all the labor and industrial organization that goes into making our goods appear miraculously before us just when we want them. (Sekula does the same with a series featuring the transport of art: the blank surfaces of the rears of paintings and packing cases function metaphorically here to reveal the "backside" of the art world, what cannot be seen to produce its spectacle and seduction.) Indeed, by a postmodern twist or reflection on the historical fate of documentary photography, even if Sekula does not actually reveal the secret order of things, he is at least able to point to it, delineate it as what cannot be seen in the opaque surfaces that often mark his compositions. It is this that cannot be seen, we are almost tempted to say, that allows all else to be seen, constructs the visual field as something to be empirically tested and looked at from behind.


By contrast, in Gursky's Salerno nothing is hidden or invisible. The photographer is not depicting anything that would otherwise not be seen. He is not bringing to bear a gaze from somewhere outside of the photograph to expose what is hidden there. In fact, this gaze is already in that which is seen, the photograph is as it were already in the things themselves. And we can see this incorporation of the gaze in any number of Gursky's other photographs. In Sha Tin (1994), for instance, we observe a vast, panoramic representation of a Hong Kong racetrack, including the huge video screen on which the races are being broadcast live to the spectators, thus making them part of the very spectacle they have come to see. In Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank (1994), nothing of the bank's undoubtedly arcane and globe-spanning operations is concealed behind the photograph's brilliantly transparent glass curtain wall. Indeed, this Norman Foster building, in which typically there is no outside (we can see from the front right to the back of the building) or where the inside is externalized (the elevators are placed on the outside of the building), seems almost custom-built to have this photograph taken of it. Gursky's image appears merely to realize a potential already within its object, to be part of an already existing visual relay, which will continue on long after the photographer's own presence on the scene, the work's gallery exhibition, reproduction in a book, internet uploadings, and so on.

The true enigma of Gursky's photographs, however, as anyone who has looked into their absolute, computer-generated clarity can attest, is that it is precisely because nothing is hidden in them that not everything can be seen. But again, what cannot be seen is not some underlying or invisible principle that explains everything else, as in Sekula (with the added paradox that, if he cannot actually represent it, he can nevertheless represent it as what cannot be represented in those blank surfaces we see on-screen in his photographs). Gursky photographs like Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank or Chicago Board of Trade I (1997) precisely make the point that even the most immaterial financial speculations can be rendered visible, indeed even incorporate a certain principle of visibility. There is an absolute equivalence made throughout Gursky's work between his images depicting political and economic processes and those representing social and cultural spectacle. One is no "deeper" than any other, nor is it its explanatory or motivating force. But equally, what cannot be seen in Gursky is not some off-screen space--as a number of his critics have suggested, as though he could capture only part of a certain vast interlocking network of processes--in a new technological version of the sublime. (9) So again, what would be implied here is that there must be some limit to the world, even though it always lies beyond us. It implies that our failure to know the world is merely because of contingency, that the world really out there merely awaits its discovery. (10)


In fact, Gursky--like Kant--is saying something different. It is certainly true that we can only ever know "particular phenomena" in his work, encounter them "one by one," (11) but this does not imply some greater whole of which they are part, only the impossibility of such a totality. There is in fact no limit to these phenomena--again, as anyone looking at a Gursky photograph can attest--but this does not necessarily mean that the world of which they speak is infinite. To come back to that biennale-style globalism we referred to earlier, there is nothing outside of the world in Gursky: everything can be attributed to it, everything can be seen as one of its effects. Globalization is its one and only subject. But it is for just this reason that we cannot say what globalization is, whether it actually exists or not. There is in that other style of globalist art the idea of some prior, actually extant globalization whose various effects can simply be replayed in and through art. And for all of said artists' claims to a kind of self-implication in their work, the responsibility for it is ultimately taken out of their hands: in the end, it is just some external symbolic order on which all the evils of the world can be blamed. There is none of this in Gursky. Globalization is only this series of looks or perspectives about it. Not some a priori subject of photographic inquiry, globalization "as such" only comes about in his work. But it is exactly because these diverse looks are what globalization is that all of them get folded back into the phenomenon itself, become part of what is to be analyzed. It is because globalization does not exist prior to our looking at it--that is, other than through its effects--that it is always missed or overlooked, that there is always more to be seen. Each attempt to capture an outside perspective--and globalization is nothing but the combined sum of all such perspectives--turns out to be only one facet of what is to be analyzed. There is no symbolic other to which our actions can be attributed, insofar as we cannot be sure whether it exists outside of us at all.

We might indeed compare Gursky's rendering of Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank to Leibnitz's famous monadic city, in which there is no overall view but just a series of windows offering different views, no aggregate city but only amassed perspectival fragments. For what is glimpsed from inside each of these tiny illuminated offices is another world, another perspective about the world. Not only does each of these offices imply financial activities encompassing the globe, but the objects in Gursky's crystal-clear vision of them keep on opening up other spaces, other perspectives, other horizons: computer screens, charts on walls, televisions, telephones, fax machines. Indeed, the thought inevitably occurs that the whole building is itself merely a room in a larger building, and so on endlessly. There is no overall or world perspective, as each of its perspectives reveals itself to be only part of what is being looked at. Any supposed totality is only another perspective, which itself needs to be looked at from yet another. And indeed, this is actually the case with Gursky, where we know that the final image we see is only a computer-assisted composite of a number of different views or perspectives. The "original" itself is thus made up of cumulative perspectives, incorporating in advance the fact that there is no single or definitive view onto reality, not, that is, if nothing exists outside of these views. (Gursky's work is seamless, so we do not get any sense of some original substance that is then "stitched" together.) And it is in this same sense that Gursky's work is simulacral: what he depicts is not the simple unreality of the world, as many of his commentators would have it, for that would imply some outside perspective from which we could judge this--but rather, a marked undecidability with regard the world's ontological status, the impossibility of deciding whether what we are looking at exists or not.


So what is it in the end that truly globalist art like Gusrky's does? It does not offer a transcendent critical perspective about the world, or speak from somewhere outside of it, as someone like Danto supposes or yearns for. But neither does form an indivisible unity with it, immanently restaging the world's processes, as Lee proposes. The world is neither limited nor infinite, as these two alternatives might suggest. On the contrary, what Gursky's art might allow us to think is that there is no world--that because there is no limit to the world (or no globalization), because there is nothing outside of it, we cannot say whether it exists or not. In other words, art like Gursky's opens up a gap between the world and itself: the world can never be complete because at this point it disappears, can no longer be verified or negated. For a similar insight, one that is more Kantian than it at first appears, we must perhaps go back to Marx's great statement from the third volume of Das Kapital, that the only limit to capital is capital itself. (12) It precisely allows us to conceive of capital--and its economic and cultural equivalent, globalization--as a Lacanian/Copjekian "not-all" there. There is no external limit to capital, but only an internal one: it is (as with woman, so with the world) only because it has no limit that it has a limit. And it is this paradoxical "limit" that Gursky seeks to show in his photographs. We might then conclude with what seems like a totally counterintuitive statement, that what Gursky ultimately represents in Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank--and think here of the very title of the work, which brings together both the highest expression of capitalism and the historical legacy of communism--is class struggle.

(1.) On the question of international exhibitions, see Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic, The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art, Exhibitions and Biennales in Post-Wall Europe (MIT Press, 2006).

(2.) Fredric Jameson, "Globalization as a Philosophical Issue," in Cultures of Globalization, eds. Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Duke UP, 1998), 75-6. It will be noted that early in his essay Jameson imagines as one of his four alternatives for thinking globalization the possibility that globalization does not exist (54), but this is not the same as the inability to say anything about globalization, whether it exists or not, that we come to speak of in a moment.

(3.) Ibid, 55.

(4.) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (Macmillan, 1985), 402.

(5.) Joan Copjec, "Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason," in Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists (MIT Press, 1993), 221.

(6.) Cited in Pamela M. Lee, "Boundary Issues," Artforum (November 2003), 165.

(7.) Ibid., 167.

(8.) Ibid., 167.

(9.) See, for example, Norman Bryson, "The Family Firm: Andreas Gursky and German Photography," Art & Text 67 (1999), 81; and Andreas Gursky, ed. Peter Galassi (Museum of Modern Art, 2001), 29-30.

(10.) Copjec makes the point that the "negation" of the world in Kant is similarly not to be thought of as "implying that all we may properly know are finite, particular phenomena," which "simply supplies reason with an external limit by supposing a segment of time, the future, that extends beyond and thereby escapes reason" (223).

(11.) Ibid., 221.

(12.) "Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers, but overcome them by means which again place these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale. The real barrier to capitalist production is capital itself." Karl Marx, Capital, v. III (International Publishers, 1967), 250.

REX BUTLER teaches art history at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. His published work includes Jean Baudrillard: The Defense of the Real (Sage Publications, 1999).
COPYRIGHT 2008 The Foundation for International Art Criticism
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Butler, Rex
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Soma holiday: an interview with Richard Shusterman.
Next Article:Yuriko Yamaguchi.

Related Articles
Children and globalization.
Boundary issues: the art world under the sign of globalism.
Preface: globalization and childhood.
The 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville: Various Venues.
Australian Indigenous art in Paris: M. C. Dillon reads the significance of Aboriginal art at the new Musee Quai Branley.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |