Out Of Place
This curatorial introduction by Gary Dufor appeared Out Of Place, a catalogue published by The Vancouver Art Gallery
We perceive the world in one of two ways: as a foreign land or as home. We are either astounded by the differences or comforted by the similitudes between places. Wherever it is we make our home, we behave as wanderers or travelers returned.1
The preoccupation of late is to emphasize the polarity of separate isolated situations in discussions of difference, otherness, and identity. The focus is on borders and boundaries, “with terms like “there” and “here” or “they” and “we.”
Inclusion and exclusion are hotly contested or vigorously affirmed. However, because radical and often invasive changes to economies, systems of exchange, and communications throughout the world have disrupted borders and are redrawing boundaries, geographic distance no longer ensures the social coherence of unique identities. The flux and energy of life paradoxically produces both a plurality of isolations and communities, irrespective of borders. These communities are imbued with the technological capabilities to be in constant dialogue across great distances.
Out Of Place acknowledges the often invisible traditions and cultural patterns of locales, while resisting equally definitions of difference built upon conflicting antagonisms or totalizing world views that spectacularize iconographies at the so called margins into a wonderland of diversity. Out Of Place sets out a dynamic complexity based upon the highly individualized practice of each artist. A complexity that invites comparisons intracultural and historical influences active “here” as well as “elsewhere.” Where do our externally constructed images of elsewhere meet or miss another’s internally constructed realities? Close attention to the particular milieus in which each artist’s work participates within and across histories link individual practices to specific pasts and projections for futures. These dialogues explore the socio-historical relations of mutual otherness in the shrinking space and collapsing time of fluid but unblended cultures re-organized by global economics.
Out Of Place seeks to engage a plurality of strategies to form a dialogue rather than to mythologize a new international practice with vague humanist notions. The exhibition sets out to disrupt the myth of the curatorial odyssey — a report from afar gathered to re-invigorate our renewed sense of cosmopolitanism. While the work of each artist is essentially a transnational urban practice, it is the interface of local with global as a dynamic worldwide that ensures an agency for the artists’ individual voices within and across historically, culturally, and geographically diverse situations. Each artist actively recuperates a sense of place in his or her work with complex metaphors drawn from personal experiential history within hybridized cultural contexts.
Assembling the exhibition is an attempt to further efface a polarized structure of binary identifications. The exhibition presents both newly made and pre-existing works. This juxtaposition provides multiple co-ordinates from which to appreciate and understand individual works within both the already internalized conditions of the sites of production and through external comparisons of one artist’s work with that of another. While almost all the works are site-determined, they still draw upon circumstances and material sources specific to their places of origin as essential determining factors that influence the recognition of meanings. The complex relationships of subject matter and historical milieu are drawn out in the catalogue essays and interviews. Individual authors bring a local familiarity to the work and, in some cases, present a record of on-going conversations spanning several years. The evaluative criteria and critical framework varies with each essay and interview. When taken in combination, they dislocate any notions of either homogeneity or synchronicity of experience and reveal instead a level of sophistication that embraces the movement of artists and multiple cultural identities in single locations at this moment when cultures are increasingly deterritorialized. The essays and the production addressed neutralize exclusionary binarisms, encouraging instead a recognition of the hybridized identities that define the make-up of locales and our identities.
The assembly of Out Of Place is analogous to these newly hybridized realities. Materials essential for some of the installations were obtained from geographically disparate sources. These were often combined with equally necessary components obtained here. For instance, Caldas’s Mirror with Light (1974), the earliest work in the exhibition, was made up in Vancouver only recently. The domestic objects needed for Panya Clark’s Re Appearances (1993) were borrowed from Paraskeva Clark’s descendants, while numerous private collectors and the National Gallery of Canada lent the canvases. Dittborn’s Airmail Paintings fully incorporate travelling, linking Santiago de Chile to multiple sites throughout the world using the postal service. Their artistic structure serves as a meditation on proximity, which Dittborn has characterized as “love letters sent to keep distance intact, crossing it by registered mail.”
The material languages of the works freely blend cultural traditions of unique isolated situations with an abstraction that encourages intellectual engagement beyond what were previously impenetrable frontiers. Stereotypes recede as new and complex potentialities for meanings emerge. What is being re-thought by the artists is the illegibility of meaning that results when subjects are detached from a specific time, location, and history. Simultaneously, the works reinforce the notion that meaning is discernible only discursively in the present as contiguous coherent experience. We construct our wholes out of the fragments of the different situations we are in together.
“What to me seems essential … is the need to convert the greedy and binary slogan of difference into the quite different denomination of situation-specificity at a location that can always be concrete and reflective.”2
With the idea of a global culture exceeding our imaginative capacity, and with notions of local cultures as somehow self-contained now completely improbable, what is revealed through this blurring of borders? A third zone is suggested, one outside but not completely detached from the antagonisms of here and there, a space “in between” — a hybridized arena of destabilized conventions and double meanings. The exchange and dialogue enacted “in between” has been described by Mikhail Bakhtin as the basis for a historical poetics. His ideas were articulated with even more precision to describe hybridity as a zone for the elaboration of meanings that are conflicted, but not because they are based upon cultural antagonisms competing for superiority.
“There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts for dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. … For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.”3
Bakhtin was acutely aware of the relative but different observations from individuated points of view — that what we see is governed by how we see, and that how we see is always determined by where we see from. The paradox is, of course, the apparent contradiction of linking history and poetics. History attends always to the temporal, the particular, and the different, while poetics seeks to underscore recurrent motifs by revealing similarities and patterns. This paradox links the temporal characteristics of history — past, present, future — with social realities that are constructed as a whole out of fragmentary situations and experience. The artistic hybrid develops its voice within this complex situation.
“In other words, the hybrid is not only double-voiced and double accented but is also double languaged; for in it there are not only two individual consciousnesses, two voices as there are two socio-linguistic consciousnesses, two epochs that are not unconsciously mixed … The artistic hybrid demands enormous effort: thoroughly pre-meditated, achieved and distanced. This is what distinguishes it from the frivolous and unsystematic mixing of languages.”4
Each of the artists in Out Of Place situates his or her practice within these expanded co-ordinates. Individual and culturally specific pasts are recalled to inform the present. Evidence of this can be seen in the precise and stylistically dated cinematography used by Stan Douglas, in the multiplicity of time periods and constructed identities converging within the images of Eugenio Dittborn’s Airmail Paintings, and in the challenges Panya Clark raises to long-held notions of representation, artifact, and authenticity in Re Appearances. Deliberate double-voiced expression carries an equivalent intensity throughout the temporal discontinuity of Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophie: Ruskin, B.C. and in the challenge to a history of easel painting as a commodity in the structure, strategy, and travelling of Airmail Paintings. Doug Hall’s Non-Place works present a paradox where the familiar and the uncanny simultaneously co-exist and elaborate in each photograph a highly structured conflicting subjectivity. Chie Matsui, through her choice of materials — brick and plaster — and the intensive labour needed to realize her work, invokes the body as subject on a somatic level. Her work also extends a subconscious invitation to viewers to experience another reality: a reality through which the subjectivity of the artist and viewer are equal. Claudia Cuesta’s sculptures carry a raw, rough-edged physicality and the kinetic immediacy of the here and now. Cuesta’s work just as vigorously projects an inner space, a potential explored, affirmed, and protected. The pressure of processes, the rhythm and struggle of making what is outside and visible and what is inside and hidden, resound through multiple elements conjoined in symbiotic compliance.
Each of these brief descriptions only touches the surface of the complexity of hybridized constructions. At a time when proximity is no longer a function of geography or linear time, the means by which any action deforms or restates particular traditions needs to be reconsidered. It depends not only on the innovation of any object’s “made” features, but equally upon the agreed conceptions that form points of view within a particular culture at a particular time. Our tendency is to form analogies for experience drawn exclusively from our own histories — a condition that not infrequently privileges the vantage point of first-world participants.
“Art histories in the powerful countries have constructed all post-war movements around “their” artists, establishing a mainstream of familiar, successful images to which anything else is made to look peripheral.”5
This vantage point can only accommodate the spectacularization of the innovations and difference of others. History is called upon solely to reinvigorate dominant developmental paradigms. The histories of elsewhere remain as the continuous debutante or ever-emerging talent.6
For all of the artists, the changes to their lives and their homes when the global and the local share the same vocabulary and space have led them to question the transposition of histories and ideologies. Their works look for ways to create fissures within established hierarchies of history. Their works speak of the meeting and clashing of histories at a time when local histories are necessitating a re-interpretation of historical narratives that previously privileged dominant cultures.
Waltercio Caldas’s sculptures seek to destabilize habits and syllogisms of seeing. His work gives rise to the doubtfulness he sees as essential to understanding how belief conditions perception. His position of resistance challenges absolute categories and the limiting boundaries of definitions drawn with unwavering certainty. The simple geometry of forms in his sculptures disarms seemingly obvious everyday materials. This characteristic of Caldas’s work has been described by Brazilian critic Sonia Salzstein Goldberg as “their resistance to metaphor.” Caldas’s interest is in the physical presence of materials, phenomena such as gravity and perception, and acting on traditional materials to re-invest forms with conceptual rigor, irony, and wit. Ideologically, his practice has stressed the disillusion of positions of detached observation.
Caldas’s work, while influenced by minimalist and conceptual art, has its roots in the intellectually and artistically innovative nec-concrete movement that emerged with the Brazilian cultural explosion of the 1960s and the experimental practices of Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticia. The neo-concrete represented the modern, the rational and industrial. It challenged and surpassed modernist notions received from away. Parallel to propositions of the “void” familiar here from the projects of Piero Manzoni and John Cage, this “new” space was being explored bv concrete poets in Sao Paulo (The Noigandres). The terrain of the “void” in Brazil, continues to exert a strong philosophical influence throughout much artistic production. Clark and Oiticica extended concepts from the neo-concrete with strategies for spectator participation and the relational role ot objects used to animate a dialogue between artist and participant. Tins legacy of the precarious and the unstable has permeated Caldas’s production over the past twenty-five years with works that often question the nature and form of art and language by presenting a paradox between what one knows and what one sees.
There is an invocation of the past and a challenge to paradigms of development and discovery in both of Panya Clark’s installations. Both Research & Discovery and Re Appearances establish non-synchronous time frames to question notions of authenticity, authorship, and representation. The idea of “an original” is set in motion and relieved of the authority often bestowed on photographs or artifacts associated with a prior time or far-off place.
Research and Discovery allows Clark to explore the representations of the exotic and friendly “other” that has characterized National Geographic for over one hundred years. Questions of territorial possession, tourism, and colonial domination are raised by the pseudo-archive of vanishing cultures that is seen in National Geographic and heightened by Clark’s pseudo-archival presentation of the magazine as a memorializing tableaux.
Clark’s installation explores memory, displacement, authenticity, and classification through a complexity of issues related to representation. Often the objects she creates look “authentic,” but the intervention of geography and time seem to mitigate against their authenticity and question their “authors.” Clark’s work susggests our willingness to create the fictions that incorporate experiences into our own histories. Her work’s critique of the museum is equally a critique of the pleasure of our gaze.
The representational incongruencies Clark’s work articulates take on both a more personal and poetic resonance in Re Appearances. This work addresses the modernist paintings of Paraskeva Clark, the artist’s grandmother, by placing its emphasis on the feminine domestic space of the home presented as an object within the essentially masculine space of a museum. The canons of the discourses surrounding modernist painting are rarely articulated through the subjectivity of women artists working in the home.
Claudia Cuesta’s sculpture is a testament to the pressures of the processes, to the struggle of making to create a rhythm between what is inside (hidden) and what is outside (visible). Like the work of many other contemporaries — Marcus Taylor, Rachel Whiteread, and Melanie Counsell, all students together in England in the mid I98Os — her work has an extended poetic sense of bodily awareness. This entire group of “British” artists explore the container as form and are united through the allusions in their work to the human body, whether through its presence or absence.
For Cuesta, it is the intensity of the physical form that connotes a poetic dimension. Each work appeals to our senses on multiple levels, not only through the pleasure or anguish of their surfaces, but equally through the uncertainty of unseeable inner spaces. The forms are fragmentary, incomplete, and interrupted. Their identity is heterogeneous, multi-layered, and split. When we seek to define them, our terminology comes up short and seems heavy-handed through its implied mastery. She has situated her work at the threshold of language in a space where something is both symbol and substance simultaneously.
Almost everything in our day-to-day experience is either forbidden or allowed by words, words that explain or transfigure our subjectivity. Cuesta’s aim is to make sculpture that has content distinct from meanings given by words — work that thinks through the body and is cognizant of the uncertainty of being. The making of the sculpture is a refuge of discovery, a passage between an inner consciousness and the ordered outside world. She often refers to networks as self-portraits and her work as a self-directed process of discovery. Her titles — Journey, Attempting to Integrate, and Life Perpetually Starting — speak also of transition through their invocation of time and memory.
Eugemo Dittborn’s Airmail Paintings present an intensity of perception. The images and texts from which he constructs his works emerge not so much from a program of research as from a desire not to forget. Along with the influence by pop art and conceptualist strategies, the most immediate influences on Dittborn’s work are the artistic practices that emerged in Chile in the 1970s. Although his use of photographic images and diverse processes responds to the experience of close scrutiny and surveillance under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, his work seeks to transcend a specific political context and to address more global themes. His work rescues what Adnana Valdes described in 1983 as “evidence — the photographic trace, the physical imprint of what official history left behind, the tangible evidence of bodies erased by written history.”7 Each Airmail Painting circulates with the uncensored freedom of a letter, offering person-to-person communication from the culture of its origin to spectators/correspondents at destinations far removed. Dittborn’s works reflect upon the transmission of information, images, and data. The images and texts in his work have their “lives” artificially extended. Sifting through the graphic production of both Chile and that received in Chile, Dittborn resuscitates life-traces from an absent time. The Histories of the Human Face, begun as a series in 1988, connects faces of different and widely dissimilar origins: screen-printed 1920s photographs of aboriginals from Tierra del Fuego, images of forgotten thieves and prostitutes from police files or cheap detective magazines, identikit composite photographs and commissioned portrait drawings. Each does not so much give voice to identity as speak profoundly of the social recourse of organized statistical control — a common link that can be traced to the very origins of photography. “Thus every work of photographic art has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the archives of the police.”8 As used in the Airmail Paintings, these faces are continuously shifting inventories and voice the instability of identities that were previously individuated and unique. Each foregrounds the paradox of simultaneously confirming existence and oblivion. They reveal with intensity the way power classifies, orders, and keeps under control all these faces retrieved by the news media after hundreds of years of invisibility. The ambivalence of meanings arises precisely from the records of unequal access to participation, a dilemma displaced by the Airmail Paintings.
Stan Douglas raises questions about our mediated experience of the world by recuperating, re-staging, and re-interpreting the events excluded from the make-up of “official” histories. Many of his projects begin with a reconsideration of neglected or at least overlooked incidents in history. In Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin. B.C., he constructs a melodramatic tale of an unexplained disappearance using the conventions of silent cinematography, an early atonal composition by Arnold Schonberg, and the archival day diary entries of B.C. Provincial Police constables. The point of convergence is 1929, the year Schonberg began his composition as accompaniment to an imaginary film and the year that construction of the power plant at Ruskin began. These two events, I can say with some confidence, were not destined to converge without the interested intervention of Douglas. The Schonberg work provided the highly formal compositional structure from which Douglas constructed a shooting script, while the power plant provided the epitome of the modern industrial re-organization of a pastoral and agrarian region.
In a pattern familiar from earlier works, Overture (1986) and Onomatopoeia (1985), Douglas introduces a circularity to the structure of the work — a looping 16 mm film — and a syncopation to the structure of the narrative. This destabilizes and interrupts the linearity of a dominant historical construction by disrupting narrative closure through a mechanism that allows the film to repeat potentially endlessly. When Theodore slips out the window in the last sequence of the film, the window closes and the image is of an electrical circuit completed again. Much like the looping film, the circuit is reconnected and the filmic sequence is ready to begin again.
Douglas faithfully reconstructs diverse genres: silent film, musical accompaniment, and melodrama. Preserved in each genre are undying elements of the archaic. These archaic elements are preserved only thanks to their constant renewal — by their being “made” contemporary. “That is, while present vestiges of earlier genres are never precisely what they were, connections to their ancient identity can still more or less be achieved.”9 It is this simultaneity of disparate temporal constructions that underscores the urgency of the questions Douglas raises to racism in this century utilizing the discrepancies of specific and local incidents to interrupt the presumed seamlessness of Eurocentric historical narratives.
Doug Hall’s recent black-and-white photographs and projected video images explore the variety of spaces inhabited by bureaucracy. Over the past twenty years, Hall’s interest has been continuously focused upon structures that influence and shape society. The early performances, videotapes, and installations were often satirical parodies of the pervasive authority of media in contemporary culture. Hall engaged in the study of spectacle and rhetoric central to all forms of address throughout mass media and the architectural environment. This emphasis on the rhetorics of power — languages designed to persuade or impress — continues to inform the architectonic structure of People in Buildings.
“Thinking about these buildings as a group, I am struck by the anonymity of their spaces: how — similar they are to one another and how placeless they feel . . There are many areas that could easily be mistaken for an airport lobby in Buenos Aires, a convention foyer in Omaha, Nebraska, or a state building in Lithuania or Geneva. Perhaps one should not be surprised by this: the manner in which bureaucratic and public interiors blend into one another and become indistinguishable. These are the non-places where our identities threaten to dissipate into the ordinanness of their surroundings.
These are the spaces that abhor surprise; and, if surprise is the metaphor for hope and change, they speak to the values of continuity over innovation; of drudgery and conformity over epiphany, individualism or vision.”10
To Hall, our initial ideological intimidation by the media and the mechanisms and architecture of power needs to lead to an understanding of their structure or organizing principles. We are accustomed to these environments and are often inured to the power and authority they represent. This dynamic, once revealed, cannot be exclusively and rather simplistically read in purely political terms. Instead, seemingly contradictory viewpoints are reconfigured within a circularity of structures that frame divergent ideologies. The prosaic objects and spaces scrutinized by Hall’s detailed observation acquire the presence of sets for the arcane rituals of our modern world.
Chie Matsui’s earliest installations incorporated many materials and objects that she invested with a personal and metaphonc symbolism. Influenced by the work of a preceding generation of Japanese artists, such as U-fan Lee and members of the Mono-ha movement, Matsui extends upon their desire to create a new kind of art based in revelations of space relations and temporal situations. Matsui’s installations reveal themselves over time and space through the haptic discoveries each viewer makes with his or her body as a whole. For Matsui, her installations are to be a beginning for each viewer’s experience of self-awareness, not simply the physical evidence of the artist’s conclusions. Matsui’s installations encourage a meeting of consciousness and existence through the medium of the human body and the subjectivity each viewer brings to the work.
This aesthetic position is not easily understood here, in the west, where the simply applied description “spiritual” is too readily attached to work that situates desire outside of conceptual and theoretical discourses. With her work, Matsui repositions the spectator’s body, inviting each viewer into constructed environments replete with the indexical signals of human labour. Untitled (1993) draws you into its spaces, where a delicate visual turn of phrase is slowly discovered within unique individual experiential moments.
Taken as a whole, the works in Out Of Place necessitate an empathy for and, perhaps, an understanding of viewpoints and histories alternate to one’s own. They ask only that we suspend the urge towards narrative closure analogously offered through references to singular histories. Inherent in much of the work are the characteristics of being out of place — the level of uncertainty, chaos, profound differences, and inevitable misunderstandings that resists easy categorization. The centres of power have always assumed the right to define and explain the rest of the world. The West assumes consciously or unconsciously that it is “the measure of all things.”11 What seems essential to any emerging dialogue is to position work from here with work from elsewhere to enable it to be another’s “other.” This way, the full dynamic complexity of individuated histories will begin to function beyond the simple reinforcement of humanist theories of cultural convergence or the continuous satiation of voyeuristic appetites for difference.
- 1 Alberto Manguel, "Introduction: Homecoming" in Out of Place, Ven Begamudré and Judith Krause, eds. (Regina: Coteau Books, 1991), xi.
- 2 Frederic Jameson, Preface to Caliban Nuevo Texto Critico No. 5 (San Francisco: Stanford University, 1989).
- 3 M.M. Bahkhin, Estetika, cited in Michael Holquist Dialogism Bakhtin and His World (New York: Routledge, 1990), 39.
- 4 M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, Michael Holquist, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 360. See pages 358-366 for a discussion of the relationship between stylization and the artistic hybrid.
- 5 Guy Brett, Border Crossings in Transcontinental (Verso: London, 1990), 22.
- 6 Gary Dufour, The Continuous Debutante or Ever-Emerging Talent, unpublished manuscript, Selek Minc Lectures, University of Western Australia, 1984.
- 7 Adriana Valdes, Eugenio Dittborn in Fifth Biennale of Sydney 1984, Private Symbol: Social Metaphor (Biennale of Sydney:Sydney, Australia, 1984), unpaginated.
- 8 Allan Sekula, The Traffic in Photography in Modernism and Modernity, B.H.D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut, et al eds. (Halifax: NDCAD Press, 1983), 124. See Sekula’s article for a discussion of the use of Photography to delimit the terrain of the other.
- 9 Michael Holquist, Dialogism Bakhtin and his world (Routledge: New York, 1990), 130.
- 10 Doug Hall, The GDR Project, unpublished manuscript, San Francisco, 1993.
- 11 Guy Brett, Border Crossings in Transcontinental (Verso: London, 1990), 10.
© 1993 Gary Dufor and Vancouver Art Gallery, all rights reserved