Maria Thereza Alves
In 1995, Greenlandic artist Pia Arke put forward an observation that holds true today: ‘There are quite a few of us who belong neither in the West, nor in the marginalised rest. … We need an expansion of the border; … that will seriously disturb the binary logic of First and Third World relations’.1 For Arke, one means of achieving this was through the critical practice of what she termed ‘ethno-aesthetics’, a position of ‘a narrative of the West seen from the outside … from a point of view of the “other”’. These words are a fitting entry into this issue of Afterall, which brings together points of view, practices and histories from influential artists such as Pia Arke, Rustam Khalfin, Hans Ragnar Mathisen and Maria Thereza Alves as well as other fascinating accounts, including the one of the Green Horse Society in post-communist Mongolia. Mongolia, as well as Kazakhstan, Greenland and Sápmi, are places that might be considered on the periphery of practices of modern and contemporary art, yet the essays in this issue resituate the formation of contemporary practices from the perspective of those living and working in these places. In her visual performative essay, Aymara activist and sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui asks: ‘From where do we speak when we rant against “Western culture”?’ Carola Grahn notes that ‘far away depends on where you start’, as this already ‘assumes a centre and a periphery’. Her contribution is a call for Sami art to also find a way to address the familiar and the everyday by emerging from the trappings of the exotic and manufactured margins.
In Mongolia, contemporary art begins to shape itself with the post-communist art movement Nogoon Mori (Green Horse Society, GHS), which emerged in the early 1990s out of perestroika and the Mongolian Democratic Revolution. Tsendpurev Tsegmid details in her essay how its members broke with the tradition of Socialist Realism and its attendant aesthetic and intellectual suppression by looking afresh at pre-communist Mongolian culture (the time when Genghis Khan emerged from history to replace Vladimir Lenin as a figurehead). The GHS found their theoretical basis not in the urban centre, but in the spirituality, aesthetics and cultural practices of the remote provinces where people lived off the land in much the same way as had been done for thousands of years. Not without incident, their experimental approach to learning led them to develop the Green Horse Modern Art College; students who trained at that experimental school continue to influence contemporary practices in the country today.
The ideologies and rituals of the nomadic influenced Rustam Khalfin’s art writing, videos and performances. In Kazakhstan, he formed his own strand of contemporary practice based on the idea of a Eurasian utopia emerging out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Merging nomadology with the ‘corporeal landscape’, as Yuliya Sorokina articulates in her text, Khalfin’s practice was centred on radical estrangement, love and longing. In one of Khalfin's performances, a nude man leads a horse into the gallery space. With a piece of clay in place of a saddle, an imprint was created of the space between horse and rider, the horse’s back and the underside of the man. For Khalfin, this elementary gesture symbolised what he considered a ‘degree zero’, a space of true potential, tactile evidence of a nomadic perception and way of being in the world. This issue also includes an insert by Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, a reproduction of two works from his All Living Things series (2017), which suggest further links between world-making and the body.
As outlined by Stefan Jonsson and Carsten Juhl, Pia Arke spent her career questioning colonial doctrines by holding a mirror up to colonists to render them the ‘other’. Deeply sceptical of ethnography and anthropology – for her, these are disciplines steeped in abuses of knowledge – she exposed the degree to which these sciences are constructions, oftentimes revealing more about the predilections of the masters than their subjects. One of Arke’s video performances sees her nude, writhing atop a large photograph of the Arctic landscape, clawing at the paper until it is left tattered and torn. The video’s title, Arkitsk hysteri (Arctic Hysteria, 1996), is taken from an invented affliction: Danish men, inspired by the gendered views of Victorian-era doctors, held the belief that indigenous women had a propensity for a particular form of hysteria. The symptoms? Tearing off one’s clothes and running naked through the icy landscape. For Arke, this was the colonial imaginary at work.
Delving into the presumed unknowability of the northern landscape, Jan-Erik Lundström and Maria Therese Stephansen describe the extraordinary cartographies of Hans Ragnar Mathisen, whose maps have, since the late early 1970s, documented the decolonial process in Sápmi (the Sami territory that extends across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia). ‘Landscape is a linguistic structure manifest in place names,’ observes Stephansen. Lundström sees the totality of Mathisen’s practice as a living archive. Mathisen’s map-making, which began when he first traced an early bilingual map, in Sami and Norwegian and outlining the territory of Sami reindeer herders, documents both loss and recovery of land, and with this, language and culture. Importantly, his maps were never made to function as art – they were distributed en masse, often for free, at different gatherings, including the first meeting of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, hosted by the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nuučaanuł) people in Port Alberni, Canada in 1975. His more recent maps reveal areas of incomplete research or lost knowledge. As Lundström rightly notes, ‘Mathisen’s maps are not only proposals of historical recovery, but inroads towards different futures.’
Maria Thereza Alves also creates cartographies. Her maps are not necessarily found on paper, but in documents such as seeds. Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra details Alves’s project in places including the port city of Guangzhou and Berlin, where dormant seeds collected from the harbour or the soil were sprouted. These are not simply about nature; instead, as Ezcurra puts forth, they enact something of a zoöpolis, the basis for a reintegration of the inhabitants of the urban landscape: human, animal and plant. The sprouted seeds tell stories of migration, trade and colonialism, as well as of radical interruptions in natural ecosystems caused by events such as war. In her research, Alves uncovered that the early Mongols spread seeds over 25 per cent of the earth’s surface; but seeds not only accompanied conquerors, they were also spread by priests, by the slave trade and by nature itself – ingested by migratory birds, blown by wind and water. Ezcurra asks that we not just focus on human history, but on the web of relations and temporalities formed by natural networks of communication as well. An essay by Paloma Checa-Gismero documents Alves’s earlier works: realist photographs and installations from the mid-1980s and 90s. These include a series of photographs with captions that offer details such as ‘Grandmother Maneca sews for one dollar a week’ and ‘Sergio is a man now and harvests potatoes for thirty cents a day’. The captions also mention that Grandmother Maneca, when drunk, would try to drown Sergio in the river. These works ‘render visible the everyday conditions of the oppressed’.
Turning the focus from the subjects of the museum to the museum as subject, in her first line on the Museum of Solidarity, María Berríos provocatively asks: ‘Can a museum be a weapon?’ There has been a renewed public function of the museum, whether in a time of revolution (Chile’s Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende was founded in 1971) or in the present moment, particularly in the face of the weakening of other institutional pillars, both democratic and economic. Marcelo Expósito and Manuel Borja-Villel ask whether there is a way to govern institutions through ‘a critique of the institutions themselves’. This is an urgent question stemming from the need to reinvent the public function of the museum. In a related set of thoughts, Victor Burgin, in returning to his participation in an exhibition at Gallery House in London in the 1970s, productively traces a shift in perceptions of mainstream art institutions since that time. His concluding question also forms an apt ending to this introduction: ‘What form of society does the institution of art as we know it today presuppose?’ And in this presupposition, I ask, what forms are left out?
Pia Arke, Etnoæstetik / Ethno-Aesthetics (trans. Erik Gant and John Kendal), Copenhagen: ARK, Pia Arke Selskabet and Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010, p.343; originally published under the title ‘Etnoæstetik’ in ARK, no.17, 1995. Emphasis mine. ↑