– Spring 2009

Frontier Brokers

Juan A. Gaitán

Lothar Baumgarten's work was recently the subject of a monographic exhibition at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA). The exhibition included variations on a number of well-known photographic, graphic and text-based works, reflecting a variety within his practice that is extremely difficult to reduce to a single thematic, or at least one that is manageable in a short text.

Yet there have been aspects of his work (formal aspects, for example) that have been eclipsed by discussions, especially from the 1980s, that have focused exclusively on Baumgarten's longstanding commitment to ethnographic naming relative to indigenous peoples of the New World. This problem of ethnographic naming may now seem somewhat passé, in other words thoroughly expounded, in academic writings as well as in art. Nonetheless, retrospective exhibitions of such recent works of art can have the merit of bringing up discourses that appear to be historical but which, in reality, have developed in important ways. Names, when they refer to indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, continue to be 'unsettled objects', to use Baumgarten's expression;1 but they are not, or no longer, merely exemplars of acts of colonial erasure, acts of naming and possession. At least in the case of the Northwest Coast, and also in Australia and New Zealand, for example, indigenous names are also, and by now perhaps more so, complicated spaces where speech, culture, language and life converge.

In the last two of his lectures of 1975-76 titled 'Society Must Be Defended', Michel Foucault spoke of the construction of narratives that trace the foundations of a society's customs, beliefs and hierarchical structure to an absolute origin. He identified such constructions as indispensable

  1. See Lothar Baumgarten, Unsettled Objects (exh. cat.), New York: Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, 1993.

  2. It is worth remembering that only a few months before Baumgarten's exhibition, the quincentenary of the 'discovery' of America had been celebrated with Olympic pomp. Hoards of aficionados had set sail to retrace Columbus' original voyage, some in period galleons. Hardly any government in the entire Western hemisphere failed to organise some official celebration, although the outrage of indigenous peoples forced a few of them, at least in the places where it couldn't go entirely unheard, to tone down the rhetoric. By and large, indigenous peoples had seen the remembrance as an obscene affirmation of the master narrative amidst efforts to deconstruct it.

  3. Lothar Baumgarten and Bartomeu Marí, interview available at http://www.macba.es/controller.php?p_action=show_page&pagina_id=68&inst_id=24043 (last accessed on 17 October 2008).

  4. 'On Palermo. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in Conversation with Lynne Cooke', in Susanne Küper, Ulrike Groos and Vanessa Joan Müller (eds.), Palermo (exh. cat.), Düsseldorf: Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, 2007, p.166.

  5. Ibid.

  6. See Donald Preziosi, 'Hearing the Unsaid: Art History, Museology and the Composition of the Self', in Elizabeth Mansfield (ed.), Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, London: Routledge, 2002, pp.28-45.

  7. I keep Preziosi's distinction between object and artefact insofar as it points to a distinction between that which is evidently made (artefact) and that which is chosen (object) vis-à-vis its function.

  8. For a lengthy discussion on this term, which is found scattered throughout Spivak's work, see Ellen Rooney's interview with Spivak titled 'In a Word', in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, London and New York: Routledge, 2008, pp.1-25.

  9. As the Vancouver-based curator and writer Candice Hopkins pointed out in personal correspondence with me in the summer of 2008, this practice makes the indigenous name 'a continuous marker of the land also as indigenous land, and the multiplicitous understandings of place'.

  10. See Walter Benjamin, 'Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century', The Arcades Project (trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin), Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 2003, pp.10-11.

  11. Michel Foucault, 'Society Must Be Defended': Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976 trans. David Macey), New York: Picador, 2003, p.190.

  12. 'Imagined community' is Benedict Anderson's term, and as the reader may already know it is also the title of the book in which he brilliantly explains the modern phenomenon of the general identification of the people with a sovereign territory, that is, the Nation, in spite of great distances and in spite of not knowing and not being able to know each other. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London and New York: Verso, 1991 (revised edition, originally published in 1983).

  13. This is one of the themes associated with the birth of biopolitics as elaborated by Foucault. See M. Foucault, op. cit., especially lectures 10 and 11.

  14. John McCain, 'Introduction', in J. McCain and Mark Salter, Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember, New York: Random House, 2005, p.1.

  15. Walter Benjamin, 'Fate and Character', Selected Writings, Vol.1, 1913-1926 (trans. Edmund Jephcott), Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 1996, p.203.

  16. Lothar Baumgarten, 'AMERICA Invention', Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1993.

  17. Hal Foster, 'The Writing on the Wall', in Lothar Baumgarten, Unsettled Objects (exh. cat.), New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1993, p.12.

  18. This latter notion, Foster argued, was traceable to the Italian philosopher's Giambattista Vico's proto-materialist notions of historical progression. Ibid.