In a comment in the Portuguese daily newspaper Público, my colleague Tiago Bartolomeu Costa commented on a controversial artistic residency at the Gulbenkian Foundation, which ended in October with a presentation of the works. A number of young visual and performance artists were invited for a 2-month residency in the very space where the Foundation’s collection of contemporary Portuguese art is usually presented. The place was completely transformed into 30 large cubicles or divisions. Visitors to the museum could eavesdrop and discover how each artist develops his work, as the space opened for the general public during several hours in the afternoon. Theoretically, one could accompany the entire process day-by-day (I wonder if anyone tried).
The entire (impressive and extensive) program which incorporated this daring initiative is called The State of the World, and this very title makes me feel somewhat uneasy. But first, let's hear Tiago:
Generally speaking, the protagonists of the arts of the body that were present [during the day of presentation] seem to have wasted an opportunity to reflect about what it means to create today. (...) the propositions (...) had in common what the artist Christian Boltanski called "the small memory" (...), but which to many of the creators became a runaway solution [in Portuguese: escape]: an apology of the idea that a selection of immediate and generational references can substitute, without any loss, History's evolutive processes.There are several very important statements implied in this short fragment.
1) That there is a History. And not many histories, stories, lines. Indeed, in this perspective it is clear that the artists Tiago speaks of missed the point completely. However, "History" remains to be proven. And although History's end has been suspended, this still does not mean we have but the choice of either facing it or questioning it. But the very fact that the word appears here, in all its capital-letter majesty, is not benign. It has to do with the very opinion that artists should work on something called "The State of the World". What World? What State? What are we to do of the the legacy of the last 40 years of thought (and Boltanski is in the midst of it), with its “shift from history to discourse, from a third- to a second-person address” (Craig Owen, quoted from a famous essay called The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism )?
2) That there is an evolution, and that it can be ceased. This does make sense if we see any change as evolution. And makes a very interesting point: how do we feel evolution today? Beyond terrorism and cell phones, how does our (my) world pulsate? What leaks? What swallows? What itches? What feels good? I quite agree with Tiago that there is a tension that remains to be read, deciphered, discovered. However,
3) Shouldn't we accept this sort of intimate storytelling as an acceptance of one's own limits, an artistic modesty that is praiseworthy? It might go further than the postmodernist paradigm described through Craig Owens’ words. There is a telling slip of the tongue in the comment. If we read it literally, it suggests that the "selection of references" cannot "substitute History". This, however, implies that the artists put the generational references as an ontological substitute for History's processes. Which they don't (nobody declares or implies that the processes are susbsitututed). The problem might be precisely this: in the case of some of the young performers, the artistic discourse doesn't seem to come near the question of histories vs. History. The modesty seems almost unconscious, more like a limitation than a choice or perspective.
So Tiago does raise an important issue: how can art deal with the world and its new type of globality? We are more conscious today of what the world is than ever before. Might that be why we are more reluctant to generalize, or even try and define its processes? But can we just turn away and ignore them? Of course we can. So why would we participate in an event called State of the World? On one hand, this "small talk" of the "small memory" could be saying a lot about the State of the World, seen from here and now. On the other, its difficulty with approaching these Capital-Lettered-Concepts could be a hint that maybe its time to start off without the caps.
Here is a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish Nobel-Prize-Winner:
No Title Required
It has come to this: I’m sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It’s an insignificant event
and won’t go down in history.
It’s not battles and pacts,
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.
And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact.
And since I’m here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.
Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday,
its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real
than those that a marshal’s field glasses might scan.
This tree is a poplar that’s been rooted here for years.
The river is the Raba; it didn’t spring up yesterday.
The path leading through the bushes
wasn’t beaten last week.
The wind had to blow the clouds here
before it could blow them away.
And though nothing much is going on nearby,
the world is no poorer in details for that.
It’s just as grounded, just as definite
as when migrating races held it captive.
Conspiracies aren’t the only things shrouded in silence.
Retinues of reasons don’t trail coronations alone.
Anniversaries of revolutions may roll around,
but so do oval pebbles encircling the bay.
The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.
So it happens that I am and look.
Above me a white butterfly is fluttering through the air
on wings that are its alone,
and a shadow skims through my hands
that is none other than itself, no one else’s but its own.
When I see such things, I’m no longer sure
that what’s important
is more important than what’s not.
I know, Tiago - the big question remains: is this, can this small memory be enough? Can we spend time watching little branches and the butterflies' wings, and claim to any sort of authority in regards to the State of the World, or the states of the worlds, for that matter?
It's a beautiful poem. One of the things I like most about it, though, is that Szymborska is not sure. There is a hesitation here. While us, poor contemporary creative bastards, often take it for granted. We just move on, as if this was it.
How many capital letters can we keep? How many should we? Is it a question of the times that are a-changin? The closest I ever came to a war was when the tanks appeared on the streets in Poland in 1981. I was 3. My memory of it is fairly clear. But do I need to have this memory to have my sense of what is important? Can’t we define the world as superficially as we feel allowed to? But shouldn’t a good artist be able to overcome the obstacle of taking all the caps off, and find a capital letter after all, say in the “l” that looks so much like a “1”? But then again, should she? Or is she better off in the small narratives?
Does the “I” only stand for “1”?
NB: Notice that Tiago is a performing arts critic. Would he write something of the sort if he were a fine arts critic? It seems unlikely. The modernist paradigm of an artistic soul that needs not the sullied, exterior world to create, is still quite omnipresent in the fine arts. The performing arts, particularly theater, have quite a different point of view, with a tendency to see the work through the prism of its engagement with the public, its dialog with “society”. I feel more affinity with the latter position. But doesn’t it sometimes limit our appreciation of the generous universe of art?
(photo by Juan Rayos)