An Essay by Sean O’Toole

Exceptional Circumstances

Despite prophecies about the demise of the national exhibition, it continues to prosper. Why?

Exceptional Circumstances

Catalogue from the show 'Indian Highway', Serpentine Gallery. © A Practice for Everyday Life

By Sean O’Toole

Writing in the introduction to a catalogue accompanying his exhibition New Japanese Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974, John Szarkowski, MoMA’s pathfinder director of photography, stated, ‘The progressive homogenisation of the world during the twentieth century has by now made the national exhibition a device of greatly diminished utility.’ I read his thoughts in 2004, while in New York covering the opening of the group exhibition Personal Affects, a showcase of emerging and neglected South African artists that included Robin Rhode, Wim Botha and Sandile Zulu. It was the same year I travelled to Tokyo to see Post, a group exhibition of South African photography at Tama Art University in Tokyo, and roundabout when Africa Remix – a pop survey of a largely postnational grouping of African and diasporic artists – was setting off on its global trek, which in May 2006 saw it visit Tokyo too.

To be fair, Szarkowski did qualify his statement, allowing that the ‘disappearance of discrete local traditions’ and the adoption of ‘universal’ techniques – key amongst them photography – hadn’t entirely done away with borders or the particularity of national cultures. It was still possible, he offered, for ‘exceptional circumstances to produce special perspectives’ – like ‘a distinctively Japanese photography’. It is no coincidence that, by 1974, Japan’s powerful economy, which in 1967 grew to be the second largest in the world after the United States, was the source of widespread interest. This hard numerical context neatly dovetailed with the perceived (and often-overstated) inscrutability of Japanese culture, a kind of soft context, to produce an exceptional circumstance that validated a national exhibition.

At what point does a state of exception however become the norm? Despite the progressive homogenisation of the world, as Szarkowski quite rightly observed, the national – and in Africa’s case continental – exhibition persists. Serving a variety of functions, ranging from stern visual anthropology and social historiography to touchy-feely diplomacy and bland market sampling, the national exhibition lends itself to ‘as many uses as religion’. This was Lewis Lapham’s conclusion after watching from a distance the showboating and grandstanding that accompanied Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, a nationally coded showcase of especially British perspectives hosted by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The 1999 show formed part of a matrix of national shows illustrating the partisan two-way traffic that goes on between the old and new anglophone empires.

In 2001, two weeks before 9/11 – an epochal moment, where the postnational exuberance of globalism confronted a postnational set of guerrilla tactics, ushering in the age of homeland security determinism – London’s Barbican Art Gallery presented The Americans. Curated by Mark Sladen and pitched as a summarising response to ‘a period of explosive activity in the American art world’, the survey featured 30 artists, amongst them Jeff Burton and Kara Walker. In the event, the discrete insurgency of the art, which in Burton’s case involved non-moments photographed around the sets of porn films, was decisively trumped by something more directed and determined, a practice equally skilled in the art of metaphor.

In the period after 9/11, during which time China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, the group exhibition has prospered, its utility undiminished. China has enjoyed concentrated attention in recent years – notably with shows at the Pompidou in 2003 and the Louise Blouin Foundation in 2010 – although it is not the only beneficiary of the greatest hits syndrome that national exhibitions often come to represent. In 2009, seizing on a wave of interest in contemporary Indian artists, the Serpentine Gallery presented Indian Highway, a travelling group exhibition that included a multi-channel video installation by the amiable filmmaker Amar Kanwar. The exhibition was explicitly positioned as following in the wake of the ‘remarkable and rapid economic, social and cultural developments in India in recent years.’

I asked Kanwar about this hard context when I interviewed him at his Delhi studio in 2009. The immediate prompt was not the Serpentine show but his exclusion from Fabrice Bousteau’s 672-page survey, Made by Indians (2007). ‘I don’t think anyone can miss the fact that India has become flavour of the month as the economy supposedly booms’, remarked Kanwar. ‘These are not unrelated events. These interests are concurrent. In that context, to be flattered is ridiculous; to think this is a boom time for Indian art is also absurd; to think that great art is being produced is also absurd; to feel happy about it is also quite silly.’ He paused to light a cigarette. ‘The great Indian growth – and the great Chinese growth – has been accompanied by severe destruction within these countries at the same time: destruction of natural resources, cultural traditions, music, food, habitat, species, a whole range of things that have had to be destroyed for this boom to have existed.’

Where I’m from, South Africa, national exhibitions are an entrenched feature of the artistic landscape. The dialogue they sponsor reminds me of that scene in Toy Story where, looking heavenwards, a three-eyed alien tells Woody, ‘The claw is our master,…’ to which another three-eyed greenie adds, ‘The claw chooses who will go and who will stay.’ That an ‘overseas’ national exhibition can decisively make a difference in an artist’s career is well known. In 1999, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Claudette Schreuders were scouted by dealer Jack Shainman off the exhibition Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa, organized by the Museum for African Art. ‘The work coming out of South Africa is fantastic’, Claude Simard, a partner at Jack Shainman, told me in 2007. ‘The work in general, like Indian art, is very international, not provincial, and I think it is relevant to our society [the US].’

There have been many shows since Liberated Voices, but I want to revisit Personal Affects. Largely enabled by the capital and connections of South African billionaire philanthropist Dick Enthoven, the show formed part of an ambitious six-month long programme of visual and performing arts in New York. ‘I believe that art is South Africa’s most valuable calling card,’ explained Enthoven in an interview. ‘Art is the most effective communicator because it goes over all barriers. The moment I come here [New York] as a politician or a businessman, I am standing on a soapbox and people know exactly where I’m coming from, my agenda, and they discount 90% of what I say. The arts demand engagement.’

A similar disguised economic motive subtly underpinned a 2010 exhibition in Berlin. Timed to coincide with the FIFA World Cup, which was hosted by South Africa – the first African state to achieve this distinction –Ampersand presented the German automaker Daimler AG’s collection of minimalist and conceptual art in conversation with performative, conceptual and abstract work by a younger generation of South Africans. Staged at Daimler Contemporary, a corporate-sponsored museum space in Berlin’s Haus Huth, the line-up included Nicholas Hlobo, Michael MacGarry, Athi-Patra Ruga and Lerato Shadi.

The show, to which I contributed a pseudo-essay, offered a fresh rethink of South African art as more than simply the sum of its identities. The context of the show was nonetheless freighted by an exceptional circumstance that lent subtle impetus and complexity to its existence. South Africa is an important manufacturing base for Daimler and has been producing right-hand drive cars for its global market since 2000 – in 2007 it started producing left-hand drive vehicles for its US market. Established in the late 1960s, Daimler’s South African factory, located in East London, has been the site of repeated labour conflict, especially in the 1980s. In 1990, labourers famously produced a ‘made by worker hands only’ bulletproof red 500 SE model, which was donated to Nelson Mandela. While none of the artists on the show engaged this context, it was not unrelated to the why of the show.

The why of any national exhibition is however never singular, and encompasses a variety of opposing and complimentary alibis, each as legitimate as the other. So, while the national exhibition is idiosyncratic, cursory, censorial and expedient, it is also unavoidable, useful and necessary. Yes necessary. Catering to a primitive set of impulses linked to curiosity and wanderlust, the national exhibition may well diminish objects, making them function as mere proxies, but just as often it affords intimate encounters far beyond the disembodied capacity of the virtual world. On balance, this fact alone makes the national exhibition, that lumbering and inelegant showcase of distance and otherness, tentatively worth defending.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.



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