In the beginning of March 2017, at the symposium Collecting Art by Women at Whitechapel Gallery in London, curator Camille Morineau – one of the founders of the organization AWARE: Archives of Women Artists Research and Exhibitions and director of La Monnaie in Paris – publicly praised the new display of the collection at Tate Modern for its capacity to include a large number of female artists as well as artists from a variety of geographical and cultural locations outside Western Europe and North-America. According to the museum´s press release, 75% of the artworks presented in the new display of the collection – inaugurated in June 2016 – were acquired since 2000, thus reflecting the way in which the collection was transformed since Tate Modern´s opening to the public. In an interview with Art Newspaper in May 2016, Frances Morris – current director of the institution – described the new hung of the collection and the opening of the museum´s new building, the Switch House, in the following terms: «The significant shift is to a much more international picture. (…) The work is very diverse and there’s a real shift from a dominant centre to multiple interconnected centres. Although 75% of the work now on show is new, it’s not all contemporary. The collection was originally built according to a dominant art history which we are very familiar with, but the real story is a much bigger one, because that dominant story left out a lot of places and a lot of practices and a lot of women artists. We haven’t rewritten the history but we are asking questions about the history and plotting co-ordinates.»
Although Tate Modern´s inaugural temporary exhibition, Century City: Art and Culture in the Global Metropolis – in 2001 –, paved the way for the museum to engage in a more international understanding of artistic production in the twentieth century by considering the role of nine different cities as significant centers of cultural transformations – New York, Paris, London, Vienna, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro –, its initial display of the collection, organized around specific thematic lines, attracted some criticism because of its lack of diversity in geographical and cultural terms.
In «The Postcolonial Constellation», for instance – an essay whose first version was published in 2003 – Okwui Enwezor explored, in the context of a discussion of the geopolitics of contemporary art and its relations with the forces of globalization, the curatorial choices associated to Tate Modern´s opening display of the collection. Without entering into the details of Enwezor´s analysis, suffice to say that the treatment of representations of black bodies in ethnographic films – in the spaces dedicated to the theme The Nude /Action /Body – materializing the «naturalized conventions of otherness» in Western European modernism is critically questioned. Furthermore, the absence of artists from Africa whose work was particularly relevant, in Enwezor´s view, in the constellation articulated by the curators, as well as the treatment of a Western African sculpture as «evidence» rather than as a work of art, prompted him to consider that: «The very idea that there might be an African conception of modernity does not even come up. Nor does the possibility that between Western modernist artists in correspondence with their African contemporaries there existed and now exists an affiliative spirit of mutual influence and recognition». In fact, according to Enwezor, in the new display «…what was concretely conveyed was an untroubled attitude, a singular point of view, a sense of sovereign judgment».
The issues raised by Enwezor find an interesting echo in «Les contradictions de la Tate», an article by art historian T.J. Demos published in Art Press in 2007. While his analysis aims at avoiding simplification and reductive readings by taking into account the institution´s complex functioning, internal contradictions and heterogeneous outputs, Demos nevertheless suggests that: «… l’art contemporain international est assez mal représenté à la Tate Modern. En particulier, les expositions d’art non occidental doivent passer le plus souvent par la petite porte. Les seuls artistes non européens et non nord-américains ayant bénéficié d’une exposition personnelle depuis l’ouverture sont Frida Kahlo, en 2005, et le Brésilien Helio Oiticica cet été…». According to Demos, the work of artists from countries outside Europe and North America is generally exhibited at Tate Modern in collective shows rather than in individual presentations. It is important to note, though, that in recent years solo exhibitions such as those dedicated to Sudanese modernist artist Ibrahim El-Salahi (2013), Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair (2013), and Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid (2017) have apparently attempted to redress this disparity. What processes of transformation within the institution and outside of it led to this change of direction?
It is particularly challenging to reconsider Enwezor´s and Demos´s critical perspectives from the early and mid 2000s today, after the opening of the Switch House, in light of Tate Modern´s explicit effort to articulate new narratives that develop from and through artworks from a variety of regions previously excluded from a Eurocentric view of modernity. Adopting the museum´s newly inaugurated display as a case study, this text proposes to move beyond the question of «inclusion» – without underestimating its importance – in order to explore some of the heterogeneous challenges that emerge from the process of collecting and exhibiting artworks from a variety of cultural and geopolitical contexts – challenges that are curatorial, art historical, educational but also economic and political. In this sense, this text attempts to outline some ideas and preoccupations that will certainly deserve a more in-depth exploration in the future.
I first visited Tate Modern´s new display of the permanent collection at the Boiler House and at the Switch House in January 2017 when I started to collaborate with the museum as a Brooks International Fellow in residence at Delfina Foundation. One of the questions that emerge when looking at this presentation concerns the challenging of Eurocentric art historical canons. Does the opening of the museum´s collection to artworks by artists from many different geographical and cultural areas such as Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudan), Gego (Venezuela), Saloua Choucair (Lebanon) and Sheela Gowda (India) – just to name a few – constitute a simple expansion of Western art historical canons that does not interfere with the canons´ very structures and their production of a division between an inside and an outside, or does this «inclusion» set in motion a process oriented towards a different understanding of artistic practice and art history altogether and its relation with society and culture at large? Is the museum really open to the transformations provoked by cross-cultural encounters and the inevitable ruptures, conflicts and dissonances that may emerge from it?
In the late 1990s, Griselda Pollock proposed an analysis of canons through the lenses of Raymond Williams’ reading of Gramsci´s notion of hegemony. «All hegemonic systems,» wrote Pollock, «depend for their survival on some degree of pliability towards the forces or groups which contest or resist incorporation. These oppositions must either be included or disqualified.» And she added, «Certain activities or positions may be incorporated better to protect the underlying interests by concession and innovation». Considering the danger of hegemonic absorption of dissonant practices into canonical art historical and curatorial discourses – which would imply the neutralization of disruptive questions that may defy Western construction of notions of quality, influence, originality, work of art vs artifact etc. –, how did the museum respond to the different challenges posed by newly acquired works from a variety of world regions?
It is, of course, difficult to answer this question in a clear-cut form and perhaps it is too early to do so. As T.J. Demos indicated: «... il s’avère que la Tate est une institution complexe, dotée de musées à Liverpool (Tate Liverpool), Saint Ives (Tate Saint Ives) et Londres (Tate Britain et Tate Modern), composés chacun de plusieurs départements, missions et services. Il n’y a donc pas ‘une’ Tate Gallery, il y en a plusieurs, disparates et souvent conflictuelles, changeantes et irréductibles à une ligne conductrice. Si la Tate Modern est caractéristique du musée à l’âge de la mondialisation – elle se présente elle-même comme le musée d’art moderne le plus visité au monde, avec 4 millions d’entrées par an –, c’est parce qu’une telle institution est aujourd’hui un lieu de conflits, aux missions diverses et aux effets politiques variables.»
Without losing sight of the institution´s complex, multilayered and sometimes contradictory functioning, I propose to consider some specific reflections developed in the field of a transnational art history and feminist interventions in the art historical and curatorial field as useful for a critical exploration of Tate Modern´s new display. The first one, elaborated by Aruna D´Souza and Jill Casid, opposes to the paradigm of expansion of Western art history the possibility of its «explosion». «What would it mean to understand art history´s ´global turn´ as something that does not merely expand, but potentially explodes the borders between fields and even the disciplines itself?» asks D´Souza, «What models might scholars turn to in order to deal with the radical difference, unevenness, and even untranslatability that emerge when one attempts to bring into conversation fundamentally different instances of cultural production?». The envisioning of the relations between art history and globalization in «agonistic» terms – guiding the conference organized by D´Souza and Jill Casid at the Clark Institute in 2011 – was meant, in the authors´ view, «…to move away from unifying ‘global’ art history projects» developed in the previous decade.
From a different perspective, the paradigm of equality as the predominant way to measure substantial change in cultural institutions has been strongly questioned by feminist art historians and curators as potentially misleading. «To revisit the discourse of equality in the context of a transnational feminism project today also requires attention to the rise of the creative industries,» observes Jeannine Tang, «and their interest in measuring diversity to support developing cities´ economic growth. Indeed, the implicit emphasis on a politics of inclusion rather than systemic transformation has often been appropriated by neo-liberalism´s rhetoric of diversity.»
A view from…
When looking at Tate Modern´s new display of the collection, its main thematic articulations – such as «Artist and Society», «Material and Objects», «In the Studio» and «Media Networks» at the Boiler House – do not immediately suggest a specific dislocation of previous approaches, nor a rupture with conventional terminology. At the same time, some micro-narratives within the display seem to assume, on a smaller scale, the necessity of taking the risk of experimenting with different curatorial formats. I am referring in particular to the four rooms titled «A view from…»: «A view from São Paulo», from Buenos Aires, from Tokyo and from Zagreb. First of all, these rooms seem to respond to the need of finding a solution for a complex problem that inhabits the whole collection. The acquisition of artworks from different regions in the world is highly (although not exclusively) reliant on a number of acquisition committees in which private donors sit and to which they contribute financially. The first acquisition committee, the North American AC was created in 2001, followed by the Latin American in 2002, the Asia Pacific in 2007, the Middle East and Northern Africa in 2009 and more recently the African in 2011, the South Asian and Russian and Eastern Europe in 2012. This division, which is matched by curatorial staff with a specific expertise on these regions, is structural and structuring the collection itself.
The rooms «A View from…» propose a display mode focusing on a number of moments of encounter or co-participation involving artists of different nationalities, thus bridging over the regional divisions within the collection. These moments are constituted by exhibitions considered particularly significant as transnational and transformative nodes in the history of modern and contemporary art. In this sense, they temporarily suspend the thematic breath of the display and reintroduce art history – and more specifically the history of exhibitions – as an important tool to shape a more transnational approach to artistic practice. The room «A view from Zagreb» – possibly the most cohesive –, curated by Valentina Ravaglia, presents op and kinetic works by artists who exhibited in the New Tendencies exhibition series from 1961 to 1973. It includes artists such as Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus Rafael Soto, Dadamaino, Victor Vasarely and Francisco Sobrino, along with archival material from the exhibitions, presented in a display case. «A view from Tokyo», curated by Mark Godfrey, a beautifully hung space, references the experimental character of the 1970 Tokyo Biennale, «Between Man and Matter», by exhibiting Japanese artists like Susumu Koshimizu along with Western artists who took part in the event and travelled to Japan such as Carl Andre and Luciano Fabro. Archival photographs propose a glimpse of the event. «A view from Buenos Aires», curated by Tanya Barson and Valentina Ravaglia, displays artworks by artists associated in different ways to the Centro de Arte y Comunicación, created by Jorge Gulberg in 1968. It presents pieces by artists like Luis Camnitzer, Antonio Caro, Cildo Meireles and Dora Maurer.
Finally, «A view from São Paulo», curated by Matthew Gale, is possibly the most challenging of these rooms, from an art historical perspective, especially because of the absence of key figures of São Paulo´s concretism such as Waldemar Cordeiro and Geraldo de Barros. In fact, the room presents works by artists of different nationalities that exhibited at the Biennale in the 1950s. In reality, the key works in the space seem to reflect a common view of Brazilian art in international circles that concentrates on a few celebrated artists such as Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape and Mira Schendel. Without diminishing the indisputable relevance of the work of these artists, a more comprehensive view of concrete art would certainly be interesting and appropriate. Possibly, the collection itself did not allow for the articulation of such a view. Furthermore, as opposed to the other rooms of the same genre, «A view from São Paulo» privileges notions of genealogy that tie together different temporalities. Thus, Lygia Clark´s Creature-Maquette (1964) stands between works by Mondrian and Léger (Clark studied with Léger in Paris). Interestingly the documentation in the vitrine does not present material about the São Paulo Biennial but, by displaying the neo-concrete manifesto and a bulletin from Signals Gallery in London, seems to privilege «A view from Rio de Janeiro» and transnational connections in the 1960s rather than in the 1950s.
Beyond these specific questions, I believe that the module «A view from» is a significant variation in Tate Modern´s «collage» style thematic presentation of the permanent collection. On the one hand, through the articulation of art historical perspectives it complicates – and thus implicitly problematizes – the more thematic and formal associations in the display. Is this kind of thematic association a good enough instrument to materialize the collection´s diversity and the radically different histories, practices and positions that intersect – connecting and diverging – within its boundaries? In this sense, «A view from» stimulates, in my opinion, a questioning of the relations between the museum´s curatorial strategies and art historical scholarship. Perhaps, in an exploded field of transnational museum practices, curating and art history – borrowing D´Souza´s and Casid´s proposal –, trans-disciplinary discussions, contaminations and conflicts are meant to gain a renewed importance.
On the other hand, the module «A view from» proposes a perspective on modernity that highlights the significance of «off-center centers» like São Paulo and Tokyo. In this sense, it proposes to explore international moments of exchange between artists since the 1950s as a prefiguration of the connectedness of contemporary art in the present. As observed by Terry Smith, «Complexity within modernity itself laid the groundwork for the diversity that we now see flowing through the present.»
Transnational ways of working together
In the last few years, discussions around the idea of the «global museum» have developed broadly in different contexts, as attested by diverse projects such as Global Collaborations at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2013-2015) and the program Global Museum (2015- 2017) of the German Federal Cultural Foundation. Symposia and conferences such as Collecting Geographies: Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art (March 2014) organized by the Stedelijk Museum in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, Moderna Museet Stockholm, Folkwang Museum Essen, and the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, and The Idea of Global Museum at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (December 2016), created significant platforms for exploring the problems and possibilities associated with museums´ engagement in a «global turn».
Significantly, at the conference at Hamburger Bahnhof in December, Patrick Flores, Curator and Professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines in Manila, claimed for an interaction between a «grounded globality» and an «extensive locality». In a similar form, at CIMAM´s 2009 annual conference in Mexico – titled Fair-trade: The Institution of Art in the New Economy – Natalia Majluf, Director of the Museum of Art in Lima, Peru, explored questions related to the locality of culture and its confrontation with the global market. «In less than two decades,» observes Majluf, «we have seen a radical transformation in the piercing of the modernist canon and its paradigms of development, as a result of both an increasingly globalized art market and the sustained efforts of Latin American collectors in the United States and, more recently, in Europe. Yet the inclusion we fought for was as necessary as it was blind to the consequences of what it proposed, although in the process we forgot the sites of production, the locality of culture and the place of institutions like museums in this new field of production and exchange.». The engagement of local artists with the international market often translates in fact, as observed by Majluf, in an increase of prices that prevents local institutions from acquiring the works. «Added to the modernist dream of a universal language of art, we now have a global dream of a new kind of contemporary survey museum that can claim to collect the world. And we know that not all of us can collect the world. The Lams at MoMA may no longer hang by the cloakroom, but they are certainly not hanging in many Latin American museums.»
What is the impact of the global art market, and of global collecting by museums like Tate and MoMA – that benefit from the support of many private donors and patrons – on local institutions? Certainly the local consequences are complex – and possibly positive as well as negative. In the view of Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina «…the involvement of the elites in institutions worldwide is one of the key elements of the inclusion of southern art in the global canon. Their economic contributions, more than our theoretical discourses, have succeeded in undermining the monopoly of the account of modernism and the unidirectionality of culture. Even so, it is undeniable that the contribution of southern elites to central institutions implies a strengthening of the centre’s actual centrality – it is still an expression of dependent capitalism.»
If museums do not openly engage in this sort of questioning connected to their position in neo-liberal economic globalization, they fail to fully commit to the transnational agenda that they set for themselves. For besides the ownership of artworks, and the inclusion of pieces from many different regions of the world in collections, transnationality and the «global» should also be problematized from an economic and political perspective as a form of working together as curators, art historians and museum professionals based in different geographical, cultural and political contexts shaping strategic alliances to share knowledge and resources. If failing to do so, the global – devoid of political substance and criticality – becomes just another form of branding, as Julian Stallabrass would put it, or, in the words of Terry Smith, the museums search for «competitive edge as centers of attraction within spectacle culture.»