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Internationalism and art
Els van der Plas

One of the interesting questions I received not long ago was this: now that you"ve devoted more than 15 years to stimulating intercultural exchange, to introducing non-Western art into the mainstream art world, and to cultivating a better understanding among people of their various cultural opinions, how do you feel when to all intents and purposes, the opposite is happening " greater chasms between peoples and cultures, an intensification of religious schisms, less cultural tolerance, and greater social unrest? Whether we"re looking at the Netherlands where a right-wing politician was murdered last year, or at Indonesia where a bomb exploded last week in the Marriot Hotel, it seems as if it's becoming harder and harder for us to accept our differences. It's as if we"re voices crying out in a wilderness of ever-increasing ways to communicate and more and more cultural exchanges, but that our message is being sent by homing pigeon.

Fortunately, the time when a curator of a prominent Dutch museum would ask me a question such as, "Is there such a thing as modern art in Indonesia?" is past. This happened in 1988, shortly before the 1989 exhibition "Magici"ns de la Terre" opened in Paris"in the year when the intercultural magazine Third Text had just been launched in England"and in the year before the opening of the 1989 exhibition entitled "The Other Story" in the Hayward Gallery in London " an exhibition that featured African and Asian artists working in England and which met with scathing criticism. It came on the eve of the major exhibition entitled "Chinese Modern Art" in the National Gallery in Beijing that was closed after one day by order of the government, to be followed shortly thereafter by the outbreak of riots on Tien-an-men Square in 1989. This was a period when interest in modern art in other cultures was developing, be it sporadically, in Europe and the United States. These initial strides toward a real international contemporary art world created possibilities for initiating exhibitions showing work by present-day artists working at locations everywhere in the world. At the same time, these exhibitions and their pieces of art criticised the history of Western art. The more tentative intercultural activities occurring during the 1980s can be seen within an historic perspective that goes back much further than just the twentieth century. The difficulty that Western artists, critics and experts had in the eighties in appreciating and embracing so-called "non-Western" art was due to an age-old philosophy indicating the superiority of European cultural heritage. Colonialism, slavery and the post-colonial period attested, among other things, to this Eurocentric vision within which the optimistic concept of progress was a one-way street. These ideas were only really questioned at the end of the 20th century, even in the art world, without an immediately forthcoming and adequate replacement for this philosophy.

A number of critical ideas were catching on at that time. The two major critiques were that the Western art world was too Eurocentric and that it had lost touch with society. Artists were no longer playing a role in society and were living in their own ivory towers where shape and colour were the determining factors and where, by now, there was a lot of money to be made. The artistic debate was centred only on itself. New ideas at the time were that artists should no longer be considered just the gatekeepers of beauty and morality but should also be magicians important questions for the art world. Have these intercultural exchanges, the increased interest in the myriad artistic communications worldwide, and the exhibitions that put them on display had a positive effect on the way we live within our society and/or the way we think? Did these intercultural exchanges ultimately lead to better art? And what are the theoretical questions we have to consider in relationship to these international exchanges?

Documenta 11
The Documenta, one of Europe"s largest international exhibitions, is held once every four years in Kassel, Germany. The 11th Documenta held in 2002 was of great importance within the discussion involving the consequences of international exchanges. The exposition showed work by artists from all over the world and broached subjects that appeared relevant and urgent at the time. What"s more, Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of this Documenta and a Nigerian by birth, involved other disciplines than just art history and art theory in setting up the exposition. Also included were political science, journalism and history. In doing so, he involved the artist and the curator as committed players within the international arena. Enwezor"s masterstroke was the organisation of four platforms about current social and political themes in locations not considered international cultural capitals: "Democracy Unrealized" in Vienna (in March 2001), "Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Process of Truth and Reconciliation" in New Delhi, India (in May 2001), "Creolit" and Creolization" in Martinique (in September 2001) and "Under Siege, Four Cities: Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa and Lagos" in Lagos (in March 2002). These sessions would then act as preparations for the final exhibition " platform five " in Kassel.

The exposition was impressive. The following characteristics of Documenta 11 were important:
" The topics broached by the organisation had been thoroughly elaborated by the four platforms. This added depth to the exposition.
" Because the organisation of Documenta 11 took place in various locations throughout the world " from India to Martinique " it directed attention to less well-known artists who displayed new approaches. It thus became what I call a "really international" exchange.
" Documenta 11 devoted a great deal of attention to interdisciplinary cooperation, examples being video, film and documentaries. This focus on the narrative aspect of art was relevant within this committed context. In regard to Documenta 11, the answer to the question about whether the increasing intercultural exchanges were also making a positive contribution to society would be "yes".

The outcomes of the conferences, published in four publications, were the subject of discussion among critics worldwide as well as among the artists participating in the exhibition. One of the subjects, "Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Process of Truth and Reconciliation", involved the participation of the Prince Claus Fund. The conference, held in New Delhi, addressed topics relating to truth and reconciliation processes in the world. Questions included: "Is there a greater degree of reconciliation in countries where truth and reconciliation processes are being stimulated?", "Does cultural expression contribute to unprocessed traumatic occurrences within a society?" and "What locations in the world could be recommended as sites for applying truth and reconciliation processes, and why?" The conference attracted a large audience to the Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The unprocessed emotions in India surrounding the partition into India and Pakistan and its political consequences were an important topic of discussion. The highly charged boundary conflict was then represented in Kassel in the 1997 work entitled "A Season Outside" by the Indian documentary maker, Amar Kanwar. The topic was further elaborated by artworks about other boundary conflicts. Pavel Braila from Moldavia exhibited a 40-minute film entitled "Shoes for Europe". This documentary showed the changing of wheels on a train before it crossed the border between Moldavia and Romania at the Ungheni Station. The western rails are 1435 millimetres wide, while the eastern rails are 1520 millimetres wide. The difference is 85 millimetres. The changing of the wheels takes two and a half hours to complete " the aftermath of a border conflict from the days of the cold war.

Certain recommendations for intercultural exchanges can be distilled from the intent and the results of Documenta 11. These could be listed as follows:
1. Integrate current political topics into the artistic debate.
2. Stimulate an awareness of the effect that the colonial history has had on how we think of culture and deal with it.
3. Decentralise intercultural encounters.
4. At the same time, offer central platforms for unfamiliar and new forms of art.
5. Present and visualise forgotten and unknown cultural histories.
6. Break down boundaries separating the various artistic disciplines

Enwezor had this to say: "My work in fact, is informed by literature (poets, essayists, novelists, dramatists), anthropology, sociology, politics and culture. But there is often this feeling that these subjects are anathema to art. I completely disagree with that" Art is also a form of politics and it would be silly to reduce art exhibitions to the ideological dishonesty of powerful art historians and their institutional supporters."

Venice Biennial
Another major international art event held in Europe is the Venice Biennial. This year"s edition seemed less successful than the Documenta held last year and seemed to suffer from the huge number of artists and the possibilities open to them.

In June of this year, I was one of the thousands of VIPs and special guests invited to attend the preview of the Venice Biennial. The art, however, was a vision of dreariness. Poorly presented expositions, unfinished pieces, and an abominable organisation contributed to a depressing mega-show. Naturally, there were exceptions such as Santiago Sienna"s walled-off "Spanish Pavilion": if you wanted to enter it, you had to go around to the back. The back entrance was guarded by two policemen who checked your passport. You could enter only if you had a Spanish passport. A timely and committed work in an exhibition that otherwise displayed very superficial and unimaginative art.

The most shocking thing about the entire manifestation, I thought, was the poor level of imagination, in spite of an artist"s expertise.

The exhibition entitled "Utopia Station" by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija, a group of intelligent and inspiring personalities, was the paragon of non-imagination - installations that looked a lot like cluttered attics and sloppily pasted, customised poster art. The cause here appeared to be an excess of commitment and a lack of imagination. Too much content clouded the message.

Even so, this Biennial was strong in the attention it devoted to intercultural aspects. The Arsenale, the large halls dedicated to the Biennial"s central exhibition, displayed Asian art in the exposition of curator Hou Hanru, work by African artists in the exhibition entitled "Fault Lines" that was curated by Gilane Tawadros, and Arabic video art selected by Catherine David. Carlos Basualdo, the Brazilian curator, had created an international presentation that included works by artists from such countries as Angola, Brazil and Israel.

Exhibited in the national pavilions were representations of various multicultural societies. Chris Ofili, an artist with Nigerian roots who grew up in Manchester, England, set up the English pavilion; Fred Wilson, an African-American, pursued colonialism in the Italian city of Venice; and the Netherlands displayed works by Spanish, Beninese and Mexican artists. This, then, was a collection of pavilions communicating the fact that societies are composed of various cultures that together form a multicultural society.

So why was this exhibition so confusing and disorganised? Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, the editors of the outstanding informative website, Universes in Universe " World of Art, blame the failure of the Biennial on the excess of art: "There is a basic problem with this biennial which affects all exhibitors equally and of which they themselves are a part: far too much art. There are over 300 artists and groups assembled in the 10 central exhibitions alone (8 in the Arsenale, 2 in the Giardini). And though the (extremely vague) main theme "Dreams and Conflicts " The Viewer"s Dictatorship" covers all of the exhibitions, one must adjust to completely different curatorial concepts with each one."

Bruno Flyte in his article appearing on the studio international website blames it on the new curatorship: "Now"a new tendency threatens to bury Venice as a serious art event. This is the Plague of the Curatorium. Yes, the curators are taking over the works from the artists, which means that although the subtitle of this Biennial is "The Dictatorship of the Viewer", it is not the viewers, but the curators who are behaving as dictators. Bonami was assisted in this regrettable coup d"etat by a cohort of ten extra curators, and in the case of the least popular exhibition, "Utopia Station" (a kind of bariada settlement of squatters) 18 senior and junior curators were actually deployed by Bonami."

One blames it on too much art, the other on too many curators. Another cause is the improved accessibility to information about artists and cultural movements worldwide. What started out as a clear art concept that was mainly white and conceptual turned into an exhibit with the work of Indonesian performance artists, Libanese photographers, Eritrean filmmakers and English sculptors shown side by side. When we"re open to such diversity, making a selection based on qualitative criteria and content is more important than ever, especially for these kinds of mega-shows.

The "everything is possible" idea doesn"t have to result in chaos as it did in Venice, but it does require the proper selection of information, the right experts, and a thorough knowledge of what"s going on from Phnom Penh to Berlin.

The zones of silence
Chen Shaoxiong"s gracefully swaying skyscraper evades an onrushing aeroplane. Since nine-eleven, it"s an image we all recognise. Shaoxiong"s work is about today"s international terrorism and image manipulation. Entitled "Windows 2002", it refers to both the windows in New York through which the catastrophe was seen, and to computer magnate, Bill Gates. Was this really what we saw? It wasn"t a computer manipulation, was it?

Topical subjects and images dominate the exhibition entitled "Synthetic Reality". Video, digital media and the energy of youth sizzle through the space in the East Modern Art Centre, or EMAC, in China. A large unfurnished, factory-like room has been transformed into a large exciting new-media show. You"re confronted by video images and strange sounds. You"re welcome to saunter or stroll through the space. The exhibit takes possession of viewers. There"s no "viewer"s dictatorship" here. Instead, viewers have to give themselves over to the power of image and space.

Ni Haifeng, a Chinese artist who lives and works in Amsterdam, flew back to his homeland a year ago to set up this exhibition with his artist friends. No curator, just a big empty room and a sense of urgency were what inspired these Chinese artists to go ahead with their plans. Although the exhibition had no major media coverage, the artists did open a website that was then available to anyone with access to the Internet.

This project is the other side of international exchanges. Due to Western influence, it wasn"t so long ago that video art started cropping up in China. Here, it attained a high level of quality and relevance. And, in spite of strict censorship, these artists, funded by European sponsors " another result of international communication " and armed with a lot of dedication, managed to pull this exhibition together.

These kinds of initiatives are gems in a world where international cultural exchange is a high priority but where the decentralisation of power has also led to new rulers. Another result of these developments is the travelling circus of well-known art celebrities and big-name artists. This circus, however, should be taking responsibility for carrying young artists, interesting topics and unusual art along in its wake.

Devoting attention to the zones of silence in the areas of geography, art forms and topics is something that I believe is highly deserving of recommendation. In the last fifteen years, the art world has undergone tremendous changes that have resulted in a Documenta 11 and Synthetic Reality in China " things that were inconceivable fifteen years ago. But there are still locations and topics in the world that deserve attention and delving into. Artists can play an important role in this so that art can be " and will continue to be " a force in positive cultural and social processes of change.