Following its rapid expansion, the art world has become a more complex place than it ever has been. This new ‘complexity’, we should hope, has its positive traits, and it is this notion – the aesthetics of complexity – that we will return to later. To attempt to summarise, hopefully not too ingenuously, where things stand: there are seemingly many more artists circulating, exponentially more institutions, significantly more cultural metropoles, a massively expanded audience, and a delirious art market economy. At least in the western world, neoliberalism has gripped the public sphere of the cultural industry, changing how audiences, finances and even creativity are addressed.
Furthermore, the West has opened the door to much more of the globe, and has held up a distorted mirror to globalisation, celebrating difference with its own brand of ‘internationalism’. And then there are the theorists, offering much curious speculation as to where the broad thrust of art and culture is heading, much somewhat fetishistically latched onto the perceived legacy of modernism – think of altermodernism, metamodernism, etc. This overall ‘mash-up’ is in itself rather interesting, as heady moments can take you somewhere unexpected. But in the midst of things, a rather surprising question may have surfaced – is it worth re-evaluating the painfully unfashionable, seemingly anachronistic idea of ‘identity’ in art? The discourse of ‘identity politics’ in art for a long time looked like it really wasn’t worth resuscitating, and for very good reasons too. With few exceptions, it was something that had rather stifled aesthetic limitations, with its clichéd images of the self or the body holding forth a marginalised status – a kind of figurative portraiture of one’s ‘otherness’ if you like.
Ultimately though practitioners of identity politics art also became aware that this practice was actually a form of systemic ghettoisation within the parameters of the art world. So the transition at the time was only from marginalisation (on the outside) to ghettoisation (on the inside). ‘Identity politics’ art, arguably, may even have caused more problems than it set out to resolve. It became embedded in the political correctness of institutional practices, as well as even being the basis for whole new multiculturalist institutions that followed – think InIVA in London, for example. The ‘identity’ paradigm also became a kind of strategy device for some individuals to find success in their careers – using the kind of ‘selfothering’ found in the work of many well-known but unmentionable artists. Thus there is a certain amount of baggage that comes with ‘identity politics’, and not all of it is helpful.
At least there is one realisation that may be helpful – the situation for the context of internationalism in art today mirrors that of 1970s and ’80s institutional multiculturalism in the Anglo-Saxon world. Whilst the western world of art has expanded the geographical horizons of its map, it has legitimised new, previously marginalised entrants in a similar way to how it eventually legitimised those that were socially marginalised in the 1970s and ’80s.
Previously, the constituencies of identity were vis-à-vis race, gender and sexuality most visible, which could here be replaced with the regionalism – nationality, race and ethnicity rolled into one – of those practicing in the non-western context. Whether artists are aware of this mirroring, or even care, is unclear, but the broad apparatus is largely the same. Artists are allowed access to the art system, once again on the condition that they have to act, or be framed, as socio-cultural representatives of the place/ people they “are from”. In this situation, the role of biography is used to essentialise individuals, meaning artists are expected to portray, artistically, their own social and political culture.
This condition of celebrating difference is within the universalist understanding of cultures in art using the traditional imperialistic modern western perspective for constructing a shared sense of humanity and ‘dignity’ in all its vagueness – something prominent in exhibitions in art institutions as well as other exhibition platforms such as biennials. The fact is that the conditions for accommodating ‘others’ – their identities, and the accepted strategies for the constructs of their identification – has pre-defined parameters.
The discourse about representation of the ‘othered’ self is massively synthesised in the case study of Renzo Martens’ much-discussed film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008). As a project, it holds up a mirror, reflecting the art world’s blunt attitude towards marginalisation, its associated politics of visibility and economies of reproduction. It focuses on the lucrative business of poverty journalism that caters for a western media that consumes images of people that have been exploited once through heavily unbalanced socio-economic conditions, and who can therefore be exploited again through pictures. In the film, Martens attempts to train people from an under-privileged community in the Congo to benefit themselves by taking images of their own status as impoverished (yet complicit) people.
They portray themselves as what Giorgio Agamben would refer to as “bare life” – mere biological subjects with little in the way of choices or rights. The project fails of course – they simply do not have access to the same channels of distribution for catering to the demand. In their attempt at visibility through representations as marginalised selves, portrayed as a kind of universal basic human subject, the tiers of legitimisation for their work to be able to succeed remain invisible. It is also worth exacting here that the connection between figuration of the human subject and a perceived universality is as much an issue in crisis journalism as it is in global contemporary art.
Numerous artists today produce art in a way that is quite conscious and complicit with how the art system accommodates the politics of identity, which though successful, also highlight the problems. We might think of the work of the collective Slavs and Tatars, who present an ethnic marketing of Eurasian regionalism for a western audience through the use of ethnocentric motifs, identifiers and ironic wordplay. Or the post-colonialist self-othering in the work of Danh Vo that plays heavily off the artist’s personal and family biography as displaced migrants to Denmark from Vietnam. (It inadvertently informs us that some parts of Europe are only just having their first multiculturalist moment in the art context.) Then there is the recycling of the US civil rights era themes in the work of artists like Theaster Gates, who appropriate the same perspective of black minority artists from the previous generation, perhaps at least partially because they see it as being a recipe for their own success as artists.
The global acclaim of artists such as these has been rapid, combining classic ‘self-othering’, a savoir-faire of the art world, and much charisma. Others thankfully work more progressively. So we return to the proposition of what may well have emerged out of the ‘mash up’ that the art world finds itself in. It is indeed evident that artists are reconsidering the politics of identity once more. Identity returns as an important subject precisely as a way to make sense of our lives under the conditions of this mash-up. It argues for the reasonable – for plurality, for visions beyond the mimetic criticality and legitimation of the art world, and for the possibility of new aesthetic directions. Some, as I already mention above, are operating in the old paradigm of the 1980s, but some are raising legitimate prospects of a wholesale shift for the consideration of identity and subjectivity in the artistic realm, working in a way that is more complex than the system has been able, or willing, to accommodate.
Simple observation can tell us that figurative representations of the self and its false universality have been rejected, and they have been replaced by the potentials offered by the likes of abstraction, performativity and fiction amongst many other approaches. And in doing so, they bring significant experimentation towards dealing with identity without the essentialist necessity of identification. Identity becomes something multi-faceted and flowing in the expansive practices of an artist such as Haegue Yang.
The compound nature of her works fuses numerous notions of identity together, forming layers and dimensions that co-exist. It appears for example through the works acting as a form of portraiture, often of figures working for inclusivity, including from feminist histories such as Petra Kelly or Marguerite Duras. This is in turn synthesised with other ideas – of social class, migration and co-habitation, coming mainly through the symbolic use of objects. Her renowned use of venetian blinds in installations, for example, as well as their function of obscuring your vision, symbolising what the artist has referred to as “communities of absence” – communities hidden from mainstream culture. All of this, poetic and elemental, functions on a formal level of abstraction in Yang’s work.
The role of the viewer is also operative in works by Iman Issa, whose installations possess the key characteristic of a kind of democratic offer. Whether it is her Material (2009–2012) series, or her installation Thirty-three Stories about Reasonable Characters in Familiar Places (2011), she provides sets of abstract propositions and fragments that avoid the pitfalls of identification, instilling a deliberate anonymity to the representation of specific places, people, events and emotions, sometimes simultaneously, with which you can associate and narrativise. These artists themselves work with an implicit sense of self, as well as a critical distance from the politics of visibility. They are just two influential examples amongst numerous that exemplify where things are going.
It is difficult and probably even inappropriate to describe this as an actual movement for dealing in appropriate and progressive terms with identity politics per se, but still, it is a transition that is in its own way redefining the parameters of art. Maybe it could be described as being a generation, as long as this generationality is defined in terms of practice rather than biography. The relations of these artists to their works is not one of the figurative economy of reproduction, but something more urgent and experimental, mirroring more relational or intersectional understanding of identities formed through the interactions between biological, social and cultural spheres.
Each of the artists working with this mindset adopts a more relativistic attitude, foregrounding the self-determination of their practice, and an attitude towards identity and identification that defies traditional socially-coerced beliefs that they possess a stable, identifiable core. Rather than being stuck between the old dichotomy of the invisibility of the legitimating bourgeois art world and the strategy for attaining visibility for the traditionally marginalised subject, they have created the conditions for allowing themselves the freedom of floating between both, producing a new kind of cognitive space. There is, as always, the risk that it may only be the moments before something that could potentially cause broad change is recuperated by the art system, inevitable even, but then again it is hard to catch something without a fixed identity, especially when it is steps ahead.
This text is a follow-up to the text “The Invisible and the Visible: Identity and the Economy of Reproduction in Art”, also by Nav Haq, published in the exhibition catalogue Kerry James Marshall – Painting and Other Stuff. Antwerp: M HKA and Ludion, 2013