Just Here to Help: Global Art Production and Local Meanings
Kutlug Ataman is an artist whose production ranges from feature films to wordless video images projected onto tiny dolls’ beds. Many of his video installations are portraits in which the subject is shown speaking to the camera, held by Ataman himself, in an intimate domestic setting, often the subject’s own home. The portraits have been tremendously successful, both as art and in the market. kutlug ataman’s semiha b. unplugged (which portrays a 94-year old Turkish opera diva) first brought Ataman to the attention of curators and critics in 1997; The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read (a 2002 portrait of a British flower bulb collector) has been shown in a dozen major museums and helped Ataman make the short list for Britain’s coveted Turner Prize; Stefan’s Room (a 2004 portrait of a German moth collector) quickly sold out its edition of five and is in major collections in Europe, the US, and Asia.
In 2002, Ataman began to experiment more deliberately with group portraits, still using the video interview approach. The most notable success was a large installation called Küba, which he made for the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and which won that year’s Carnegie Prize.
Küba portrays forty people living in Istanbul’s tiny, left-leaning neighborhood of the same name. On forty separate monitors, each subject speaks for fifteen or twenty minutes. Their monologues play on old, used television sets, typically scattered throughout a single large room. A variety of thrift store chairs sit in front of the televisions. Forty voices fill the air with a pleasant din, as viewers wander from one set to another, assembling what Ataman calls a “portrait of a kind of utopian community” for themselves.
Küba won the admiration of audiences and curators around the world, and by 2006, Ataman had a new commission from the Orange County Museum in California; Basis voor Actuele Kunst in Utrecht; Harris Gallery in London; and the Vancouver Art Gallery, to make what the artist called “a companion piece to Küba,” to be titled Paradise. Ataman would assemble interviews with twenty-four people in Southern California to portray “a place that brands itself as paradise.”
I encountered Paradise and Küba at the Vancouver Art Gallery last March, when I was asked to present a lecture discussing the two pieces in relation to the history of West Coast utopias. I was a typical piece of public programming—a native of the region whose historical research could stitch these two products of a global art practice back into the fabric of the museum’s “local context.”
My lecture—and, indeed, Ataman’s art—were meant to bridge a gap that marks arts institutions throughout the world, the gap between global art production and local meanings. Both sides of the gap are essential to these institutions. The commissioning or display of international artists confirms the power and relevance of the institution, while the production of local meanings insures their importance to the place where they work; often, it can insure a fair percentage of their funding. Cities and regions maintain these institutions as global nodes, the knots in a net that spans the earth, connecting local lives to a broader discourse.
While artists, or even visiting lecturers, are not specifically instructed to bridge this gap—my hosts went to great lengths to encourage me to develop my presentation in any way that pleased me—everyone involved knows this is a desirable, even necessary strategy. Ataman, for one, may have approached the commissioning museums as an autonomous author of his own work, but he won their support, in part, by describing the light _Paradise _would shine on the meanings of California and Orange County.
Ataman is not alone. Many careers are advanced or sustained by applying an easily transferable, global mode of production to any one of countless locations around the world, anywhere that local will and funding has built the infrastructure to commission or host new art work. Artists as diverse in their strategies as Kutlug Ataman and Harrell Fletcher, Doug Aitken and Martha Rosler, all work this way. The globalized production of local meanings has arguably become a dominant mode. And so the sites of Münster, Germany, are reconfigured by dozens of itinerant artists every decade; the history of Charleston, South Carolina, becomes grist for a half-dozen mills with each return of Spoleto; artists take the past and locales of Santa Fe, New Mexico and transform them into SITE SantaFe; and this year, the industrial past of Trentino, Italy, draws the covetous attention of artists working toward Manifesta 7.
The names of artists will repeat. The valourized mode of global production is dominated by a relatively small guild of artists (a group of more than fifty but fewer than one hundred) who are sufficiently “branded” to sell in every market. In each locality, presenting institutions stand ready to stitch these artists into the fabric of the place. The localities promise more than just a new audience, a new collectors’ base, or numbers of bodies moving through turnstiles. “The local” also looms as a great holding tank of dormant meanings, truths that await the arrival of the global artist. There is work to be done. And so “the local”—which can be found anywhere and everywhere on the globe—becomes idealized as a kind of passive receptacle, a treasure chest of meanings to be opened up by the enterprising explorer. The local becomes our new Orient.
Orientalism, as theorized by Edward Said and others, is a set of relationships marked by an imbalance of power that is the crossing point of divergent needs. In its central operation, a dominant narrator idealizes a passive subject to produce images that illustrate or embody possibilities the dominant narrator desires, but cannot tolerate in itself. In Said’s now canonical study, he argues that European travelers and scholars projected qualities of the sensual and irrational onto the dark people of the East and the New World. They cultivated a whole body of art and literature characterizing the identity of “the Orient” in these terms.
Orientalism is a concern of the dominant, narrating party—a kind of private conversation that only becomes a burden to the subject when Orientalist projections return to take their place in the subject’s imagination of itself. Paradoxically, with the current proliferation of globally produced images of “the local,” this process of reification has become the responsibility of the presenting institution and guest speakers, such as myself. We are there to bridge the gap, to bring the art and its meanings back home. This is where Orientalism extracts its greatest costs.
Now this may all sound very sinister, but such commissions and programs are well intentioned and, often, superbly done. The commissioners of global art practices do not cultivate power imbalances or projections maliciously; they cultivate these imbalances to make new art possible. That is, in fact, their mission. If such a practice constitutes a kind of Orientalism—and I contend that it does—then Orientalism is not simply an unwanted by-product or an error, but the institutional mode itself. This is what institutionally driven art-making looks like. The case of Paradise is especially instructive because all of the parties involved—the artist most of all—were keenly aware of the hazards and complexities of Orientalism. Ataman had previously dealt with these issues brilliantly in his portraits. Yet the piece that resulted from this commission was, nevertheless, wrecked on precisely the shoals of these hazards.
The curators who worked with Ataman still characterize the piece as “deeply personal...really all about Kutlug’s own ideas and experience.” They insist on the piece’s autonomy from the place and the people portrayed. The artist concurs, referring in interviews to “the mythology of Orange County, the image that the media broadcasts around the world” as his subject. And yet the work is made up of twenty-four conversations with actual people living in Southern California. Ataman, who conducted the conversations, turned them into monologues by assiduously excising himself from the footage, so that his questions, his presence, all the shaping force of his interests, were left on the cutting room floor.
In Paradise we encounter twenty-four lives stripped of their histories. The artist extracted their images and words to maroon them in sleek, flat-screen monitors feeding individual headphones, making the installation as quiet as a graveyard. (One monitor played into the room at a quiet volume.) When we listen, we listen alone to ghosts, unaware of what these people might have been thinking in life or what prompted them to speak to us. We’re only aware that they are talking about “Paradise” and California.
What they tell us is completely dispiriting, a cloud of narcissistic fantasies that condemn them to our skepticism and derision. To elicit and record a nine-year old boy’s enthusiasm about race cars, as Ataman does here, so that museum goers can reflect on the boy’s evident naiveté and materialism, is only cynical. This is an ideology of the other lacking in sympathy or relevance, and fatally lacking in any demonstrated curiosity about the lives of its subjects, outside of their usefulness for the artist.
The strategies in Paradise resemble those in Küba closely enough that viewers are invited to read the two as a single installation, a diptych. The reality is something close to that: two autonomous works that the artist conceptualized as “companion pieces” and that he is content to pair in exhibitions. Yet the contrast between the work could not be starker. In Küba, the installation is animated, even suffused, with admiration and sympathy. The subjects’ voices matter enough to be heard; they are venerated by their audibility in the room, not hidden away inside the silent contraption of the installation. In Küba, the erasure of the artist’s questions does not leave its subjects stranded in a web of unexplained relations. These people assembled themselves long before Ataman arrived to document them. They are a self-defined community that has shared daily lives, stories, and a home, for years, if not decades. By contrast, the subjects of Paradise were assembled, temporarily, from across a terrain of nearly five hundred miles, in the service of the artist’s project alone.
Küba shows us that the Orientalist strategy is not doomed to failure—it can also produce superb art. For, in Küba, Ataman was as much of an outsider, a professional observer with his own interests and agendas, as he was in Paradise. He possesses that critical resource that defines the Orientalist mode— an imbalance of power enabled by physical and/or ideological separation. With it, he hewed a complex piece of art that enabled divergent interests, not merely his own. In Paradise he wielded power to articulate only his own, narrow interests. The success or failure of these pieces did not turn on the question of the artist’s “native” insights into Turkey or conversely his “foreignness” in California. (Ataman, who has spent considerable time there, is no less a Californian than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger.) It turned on Ataman’s use of unchecked power—which is to say his skill as an artist.
The dynamics of Orientalism can no longer be understood through the dichotomy of “foreign” and “native,” first described by Said. The very idea of the native, of the marginalized local, has become an idealized projection—a trap in which many lives and possibilities are held captive. To unpack it—to engage Orientalist strategies critically and productively—artists and institutions need to abjure talk of “the local” and speak instead of the ways that a purposefully organized imbalance of power can be used to enable divergent interests. Here is the essential instrument of both Orientalism and of art-making: a creative imbalance of power. This is the tool that commissioning institutions engage when they bring global art production to bear on local meanings.
Looked at through this lens, the Orientalist mode emerges as a practice with great potential. Certainly, amidst the increasing call for globalized production of local meanings, it has growing relevance. Artists invited to work this way should be frank about their positions of power and skeptical of any self-justifications that summon “the local.” Artists should be aware that institutions and audiences will be predisposed toward such justifications and proactively disable the myths they rest on. For example, the very idea of “the local” or “native” can be made unintelligible, as in Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen’s site-specific installation for the Seattle Art Museum, partly composed of a cabin they built 2,000 miles away in the wilderness near Kodiak, Alaska. A critical practice of Orientalism could also literalize some of its operations, as in Olaf Breuning’s film Home 2 (2007), which documents his journey through Papua New Guinea. Breuning wore bright blue contact lenses that turned him into a grotesque, completely obvious tourist and Orientalist. Or, as Ataman has done with Küba, the Orientalist mode can be suffused with enough sympathy and human curiosity to make its problems well worth having.
It is important to remember that Orientalism does not lead to either good or bad art, nor does it oblige us to right or wrong human relations. It only restricts us to certain recurring relationships—an imbalance of power that can be used to enable divergent interests, or not—within which we try to make the best art we can, or try to maintain the most ethical relationship we can. Generosity, curiosity, sympathy, and frankness are invaluable assets here, as elsewhere.
I think it is a mistake to idealize “the local” by privileging those who are born or have long resided in a particular place. It does them no service to summon their lives up as evidence in an argument that is not their own. Use them, yes, but don’t purport to be articulating their concerns. And it is unfair to burden them with the task of validating an art work by confirming that its insights or prejudices are somehow “true” to their “native” experience of the local. “Locals” are neither the subject nor the judges of these artworks, except in so far as they are equipped, without regard to locality, to be judges.
Finally, artists who deal with this mode by passing the power they have been granted along to “locals” (as with, say, social practice projects enlisting local volunteers) fail to deal with Orientalism at all. They simply reinforce the idealization of “the local” as a privileged receptacle of meanings (that the artist’s interventions can then liberate and make visible), and they completely disguise the power imbalance that was the origin of the work by passing its completion on to others. This approach to social practice art does not critique Orientalism so much as it obscures it by shielding the artist’s power from any kind of public critique.
Within the institution, crucial discussions must be had about the terms of these commissions and the public programming that shapes the discourse around them. The dichotomies of “local” and “global” or “native” and “foreign” should be brought into the bright light of critique or abandoned altogether. If resources are to be embargoed for select populations (as seems to be the intent of “local” commissions and programming), the justification and guidelines should turn on the issue of disproportionate power—not home address or ethnicity. No matter who is commissioned to make new art, the resources that can make a difference are either difficult to measure (such as quickness of insight) or hard to come by (such as time spent on the ground).
The debates that shape new commissions, as well as institutional commitments to home localities, can no longer rest on an idealization of “the local” nor a contrast of local needs to “global” ones. Every locale is global. The institution and the city are at the centre of a connected, dynamic globe, always—never a remote or special space awaiting the arrival of art and insight from distant capitals, always the centre of a global discourse that returns and returns, as blood through a heart.
Thank you to Sadira Rodrigues of the Vancouver Art Gallery for commissioning the lecture that led to this essay, and to Eric Fredericksen, Hadley Howes, Maxwell Stephens, Jenifer Papararo, Stephanie Snyder, Patricia Reed, Wayne Koestenbaum, Julia Meltzer, Aimee Chang, Berin Golonu, Thomas Boutoux, Larry Rinder, and Anne Stadler for the conversations that have informed this essay.
About the Author
Matthew Stadler is a novelist who also writes about art and architecture for various publications, including Frieze, Artforum, Volume, The Organ, Domus, The Oregonian, and Nest Magazine, where he was the literary editor. He is also the co-founder of Clear Cut Press.