Posts Tagged 'identity'

Little big man

Martijn van Berkum, Svolvaer — From my fifth until my 16th I set out every year with my parents on a holiday trip to France. We had huge a orange tent and a station car with a metal construction on top that my father filled with a one meter pile of plastic chairs, a table and loads of toys and other junk. Then a bright blue plastic cover went over it and the whole thing was fastened with a couple of meters of neon orange rope. Squeaking under the tremendous weight it was carrying, the car would sink around twenty centimeters and it’s a miracle the axes never broke on the way.

Inside the car every cubic centimeter was filled, minus a small space exactly matching the dimensions of my body. There I would sit for twelve long agonizing hours while temperatures were slowly crawling over thirty degrees the further we approached our destination. To add insult to injury, I had to sit with my feet up all the way, because the space in between the front and back chair was exactly large enough to fit in a cooling box. A light brown cooling box, with a dark brown lid on top and round corners, the loyal travel companion of every average Western family in the eighties.

Now, if you were to travel today to Lofoten, in the far north of Norway, and visit a tiny town called Svolvaer (a trip I can highly recommend), you will find at the sailboat harbor in the center a cooling box exactly similar to the one my parents owned. The colors are different, a soft pale orange box and a bright orange frame, but the design is just the same. It was put there in 2004 by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset for the LIAF 04 (Lofoten International Art Festival) exhibition.

Elmgreen & Dragset
Tiergarten, Berlin, May 21th, 1991
2004

LIAF is a biennale and therefore the 2004 edition collected the “best of” biennale material: Henrik Håkansson, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset and Pipilotti Rist, among others, all Nordic or international art heroes. Being the biggest exhibition in Norway, together with Momentum in Moss, it is rather strange to be located in Svolvaer, which accounts for only 4000 inhabitants. Why organize such a huge event in such a remote area? I’m not sure whether the 2004 edition managed to answer that question and hitherto, every second year discussions about the legitimacy of LIAF’s being at Lofoten surfaces again. The Elmgreen & Dragset piece always plays a central role in that discussion and given the number of occasions it has been vandalized one can argue whether it is a successful public art work.

On the other hand, I could also argue that the merits of the work are super interesting. It takes up the ready-mades by Duchamp and puts it into the context of a growing local tourist industry and the romantics of outdoor camping. Being casted in bronze and over painted to look exactly like a plastic box, it issues questions around mass production, uniqueness and prize vs value. But these are very much ‘white cube issues’ and don’t speak very much on a site-specific level, let alone that they’ll mange to answers questions around the legitimacy of LIAF at Lofoten. Why should inhabitants be so interested in such boring questions about what art is? And why should they care about international artists making statements about their tourist industry? in a way they don’t care about and financed with a chunk load of public money that could also be put in maintaining local fisher industries or other public matters. Could that be too big a discussion for such a small art work?

Despite the arguments that surround the work, the fierce debates and misunderstandings, the cooling box has a quality, or rather, it has developed a certain quality. Each and every year the box gets kicked into the water; it’s been mocked, debated, covered by snow, attacked by storms, loved and hated. Nonetheless, it survived and I admire the little fellah for its resilience. It’s small size, apparent vulnerability and triviality turn it into a perfect actor in the debates surrounding public art and LIAF’s legitimacy. It’s a chameleon that can shift from representing two internationally acclaimed artists, to being a controversial public art work, to an expensive solid bronze object, and to being an innocent, beaten little child, abandoned by its spiritual parents and left at its own devices. In other words: it’s a little big man.

I love these schizophrenic characteristics the work embodies. But what fascinates me even more is the fact that all the violence and critique the work has endured over the past years yields one crucial result: the much sought-after legitimacy. The box is battered and bruised, but still stands proudly on the jetty by the water. It has earned its place there and has become a proper citizen of Svolvaer.

A report about LIAF 08, which ended a little while ago will follow shortly.

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Collectivism after modernism

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam – – This cover could completely go without a book. My first thought at seeing the picture on the book Collectivism after modernism, a collection of essays that “explore the ways in which collectives function within cultural norms, social conventions and corporate or state-sanctioned art”, reads the back.


Needless to say, to a certain degree this weblog is a collective practice as well, and how I’d love to be with our members on that arrow-shaped boat. Even more when I read that the essays explore collectivism in social, cultural and political contexts. They are set in New York after 1975, the Cuban national crisis in the eighties, the sixties in Japan and in the last decade in Senegal. Not to mention the introduction which ambitiously plays out collectivism against the backdrop of the cold war in which collaborative practice is identified as suspicious communist activities and individualism is hailed as the prodigal practice of Western capitalists artists. Hmmm, this begins to look like a tasty menu.

Unfortunately, promising as it may sound, it seems like the authors forgot to add salt, pepper and a nice sauce. Very few manage to really give proper analysis of the relation between collectives and the contexts and surroundings in which they operate, on how they carry out political action, provide discursive places and alternatives and, most important for me, what kinds of strategies and methodologies they have developed.

To enable transformation on a social, cultural or political level, as the introduction promises, collective practices need to be translated to an operational level. How else can you be an actor in such societal fields? Only Okwui Enwezor manages to translate theory into practice in his text The Production of Social Space as Artwork: Protocols of Community in the Work of Le Groupe Amos and Huit Facettes.

It is a rich and intelligent text that combines insights from social studies, post-colonialism, community practice and collectivism to describe the political and cultural situation in Senegal. Situated in this complex framework he describes the practice and methodologies his case-studies Le Groupe Amos and Huit Facettes have developed. It is a theoretically complex and layered story combined with a very insightful, hands-on description of subversive collective practices. In all honesty: one the best texts I’ve read.

Therefore, my advice is to borrow the book, make a big coloured photo copy enlargement of the cover and put it on your wall. Photocopy Enwezors essay and lock yourself in the room with the poster and read it to last word! Inspiration guaranteed!

Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (editors), Collectivism after Modernism: The art of Social Imagination after 1945, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4462-9
Authors: Jelena Stojanovic, Reiko Tomii, Chris Gilbert, Jesse Drew, Rachel Weiss, Ruben Gallo, Alan W. Moore, Okwui Enwezor, Irina Aristarkhova, Brian Holmes.

Stealing beauty

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — Busy, busy weeks. But I have to squeeze in this article since the art work in question is one of the funniest and most intelligent works I have seen the last months.

Stealing beauty is a 20 minutes video art work by the Israel-born artist Guy Ben-Ner. It’s a parody on typical sitcom soap opera’s on television, staged in different IKEA stores over the world. We follow the fictive lives of Ben-Ner, his wife and their two children as they struggle with problems that are drenged with moral and cultural issues. The camera is put up without authorisation of the IKEA stores and people are walking by, looking into the camera and intervening in the imagined lifes of the Ben-Ners, while price tags change from euro to dollar to yen.

The real Ben-Ner and his family themselves have migrated to the United States and in a very comical way the video issues problems of migration, of trying to fit in, trying to adapt to a Western way of living. “Honey, I’m hohooome”, is the first thing Ben says when he arrives in an IKEA living room. But their foreign accents, and their hilarious comments on the peculiarities of Western-American culture reveal that they don’t fit in precisely. References in their texts to Marxism give a hint, for instance when the children yell “children of all nations unite” when they are arguing with their father. The want for dissolving into a collective, symbolized by the globalized IKEA consumer ideal, is apparently stronger than maintaining your own identity.

For more information, please check this great article in the New York Magazine Art Review.  

A four minute trailer of the video:

Stuff white people like

#37 Renovations: All white people are born with a singular mission in life in order to pass from regular whitehood into ultra-whitehood. Much like how Muslims have to visit Mecca, all white people must eventually renovate a house before they can be complete.
– Taken from Stuff White People Like

Cultural diversity is a big thing on this blog. We are trying to make sense of our countries as a place where Western and non-Western cultures can live together. We travel the world and report on our findings. And, not in the last place, all contributors are from different countries.

Nevertheless, we are all white… And there’s no nicer way to break it to you, but my legs look like milk bottles when I wear shorts in summer, I listen to 80s rock, Michael Jackson and Sonic Youth, my favourite sport is soccer and I love Asian restaurants.
So check out the blog Stuff White People Like if you feel like laughing your ass off, or, in case you are white, are in urgent need of some self-knowledge and perspective.

Oh, and please also look at the stock photography the website is using, which, at times, enhances the irony to almost unbearable heights:

#51 living by the water

But there is more than meets the eye. The articles on Stuff White People Like implicitly reveal how power and subordination is exercised through seemingly benevolent issues such as ‘knowing what’s good for poor people’, ‘diversity’ and ‘travelling’. Which proves in the end that point #50, irony – which ties together the whole purpose of the website – is in fact as white as white can be. And, moreover, is a way to justify overruling, criticising and domination of other cultures, as we saw for instance in the Danish cartoon conflict.

Some of my favourite points:
#70 difficult breakups
#62 knowing what’s good for poor people
#55 Apologies
#24 Wine
#18 Awareness: An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.”
#15 Yoga
#7 Diversity: White people love ethnic diversity, but only as it relates to restaurants.
#4 Assists: In basketball, it’s kind of a must so that white guys can carve out a niche and guarantee acceptance on a team.

Lise Harlev against populism

At the end of January, beginning of February an anti-Islam movie by the Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders is due. Prime minister Balkende is seriously preparing for a global crisis; the government summoned Dutch embassies in Muslim countries to prepare for the worst; ‘different cultures’ in the Netherlands are asked for a wise and calm response. This may become The art work of 2008.

I’m not sure whether I should feel pride or shame of the fact that the populist voice has discovered the power of art and images. Was I ever worried that art might have become obsolete, upper-class elite, abstract avant-garde or intellectual nihilistic? Well, if it is any comfort, art is real politics today, more than ever. Submission, by Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Sooreh Hera depicting Muslim prophets as homosexuals; the Danish cartoons; even the media images of the 9-11 attacks should be considered as ‘great works of art work according to Damien Hirst‘.

What disturbs however, is the over confidence and know-it-all attitude or these works. What they lack is a sense of uncertainty, of not knowing the truth, of asking questions rather than providing easy answers, of approaching the world with an open mind.

I often catch myself defending my own country. But do I really think it’s a good place? Or did I just grow up believing it is?
I’m thinking about Lise Harlev whom I met at the Momentum 04 Biennale in Norway. Her work ironically plays with these populistic, slogan-like, rhetorics. But rather than confirming their two dimensional statements, she replaces the slogans with personal questions. The posters have this special quality of her personal uncertainty, of NOT knowing it all and asking questions on identity rather than providing easy answers.

Eindhoven / Forms of resistance


The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven organised the exhibition Forms of resistance, which comprises works from different periods that deal with activism. The exhibition contains many posters, all of them fantastic old-school silk-screen art works. I’ve photographed couple of them.

Furthermore, the upcoming year the Van Abbemuseum will enter the second half of the project Be(com)ing Dutch, which deals with issues around multiculturalism and national and cultural identities, currently some of the most urgent issues in the Netherlands. Reports on these activities will follow; please check the first debates on streaming video here.

Multicultural boiling point

The public debate about the Dutch multicultural society – and in particular the integration of Muslim culture – has been infested by populism, false sentiments, anger and xenophobia. Last week, all usual suspects spoke out again in the media when the director of the City Art Museum in The Hague banned a controversial work.

The possibility for open-minded people with balanced ideas – by and far the majority – to have a proper and rational discussion has been trampled on. Extremists on both sides have hijacked the debate with dogmatic, hyper-emotional and uncompromising arguments. An interesting point is that art plays a conspicuous role in conveying, or communicating, some of these ideas. One famous example is the film Submission, made in 2004 by Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, dealing with the suppression of Muslim women, which led directly to the murder of Van Gogh, and indirectly to Hirsi Ali fleeing from the Netherlands to the USA.

Last week the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera broke the news when her photographs were banned from the City Art Museum in The Hague by its director Wim van Krimpen. The pictures showed homosexual lovers wearing masks of the prophets Muhammed and Ali. Van Krimpen had no problem with issuing the difficulties of homosexuality in Islam culture, he disapproved of the provocative and insulting nature of the photographs.


Again, issues of freedom of speech, of religion and sexual orientation were discussed, and again, the debate was hijacked by the usual, populist suspects. Political parties in The Hague argued that art institutes cannot shut out the public debate and political issues, others claimed that the museum had violated the freedom of speech, and provocative works could not be banned simply because they are provocative.

I think the decision was perfectly sound. The argument that the museum avoids political discussion is false. Its decision to avoid a provocative work, which would further polarize a public discussion that’s already been spoiled and infested, is purely political. The viewpoint of Van Krimpen is to have a discussion which is balanced and avoids further polarizing. Moreover, this decision shows that, as a museum, an artist, a theorist, a politician, any stakeholder in this discussion, you have a choice. Not regarding participation in the discussion, or avoiding it, but a choice in the way you want to discuss it.

Currently, the public debate is completely dominated and corrupted by two extremist opinions: the first is the populist viewpoint, which means showing the work without any questioning, because criticizing the political content of art – based on rational arguments – is immediately disregarded as violating the freedom of speech. Second is the Islamic extremist viewpoint, which allows only the complete rejection of Hera’s work, which has been expressed by death threads towards Sooreh Hera, who is now in hiding. Consequence: end of discussion.

Certainly, the utopian ideas of a multicultural society, dating from the eighties and the nineties, must be challenged, but extremist opinions must be as well. Currently, anyone on the left favoring a proper, balanced discussion regarding multicultural issues in the Netherlands is being disregarded as left extremist, against freedom of speech and terrorist-in-action. And on the other side of the spectrum, any right-wing party favoring a proper discussion, is disregarded as secular extremist, anti-religious, racist and xenophobic.

To use the famous words of Spike Lee: “Ye’ all need a chill!”. And to make my point, please check the following feverish, raging fragment of Lee’s Do the right thing, because this is where we are now: at boiling point.


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