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Review: “The Global Contemporary” documents growing multiplicity of art around the world

The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds The language and perception of global culture have come a long way since the end of the 1930s, when Benito Mussolini announced that a 1942 Universal Exposition in Rome  would be “an Olympics of Civilizations.” Immense, megalomaniacal exposition architecture continued to be constructed long after the outbreak of a worldwide war had rendered the project ludicrous.

When Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Olympic Games, I proposed a differently ludicrous project: the world’s first global art show, featuring contemporary art from every political entity on earth, from China down to Pitcairn Island. It could have been organized on the principle of the United Nations, with one work of art from every country regardless of population; or it could have been restricted to the members of the International Olympic Committee, with the quantity of art apportioned according to the size of the national teams in the preceding Olympics.

Needless to say, the global art show never happened, although a healthy quantity of art and artists from underrepresented countries did show up in Atlanta exhibitions.

Two decades later, the general idea is commonplace, although the reality still is not. In September 2011, the ZKM / Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, presented an exhibition that has now been documented in a substantial book: The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, edited by Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel, published by the Center for Art and Media and distributed by MIT Press.

The size and scope of this nearly 500-page volume make it clear why the book has appeared 18 months after the exhibition. Far more than an exhibition catalog, it contains essays documenting the proliferation of global biennials — about 150 at last count — and the major moments in the rise of the notion of global contemporaneity, a more complex concept than “globalization.”

Still from SOSka Group's 2007 video,"Barter," in which a Ukrainan villager trades a chicken for a Cindy Sherman print
An image from SOSka Group’s 2007 video “Barter,” in which a Ukrainan villager trades a chicken for a Cindy Sherman print.

The book still doesn’t cover the art of the whole planet, only the several “new art worlds” that have become unequal players on the global field. It does, however, include a delicious moment in which members of Ukraine’s SOSka Group trade prints of Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close and Roy Lichtenstein for eggs and chickens in the Ukrainian farm village of Prokhody, where the villagers by and large are not impressed with the output of those American artistic superstars. Anyone who has tried to spread the gospel of contemporary art to equivalent towns in the United States will immediately recognize the relativizing phenomenon.

The point of the book, however, is that the world does not consist and never has consisted of nothing but places like Prokhody; complex centers of regional art production cover the globe and are finally becoming recognized as such in the era of globalization. For all of that, their role in the global art market remains a subject of contestation, and this book provides more perspectives on that subject than most of us knew existed.

If we already knew about such topics as Rasheed Araeen’s 25 or so years of editing the influential global-art magazine Third Text, we may still not have realized that Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry centered in Enugu, is the world’s third-largest such enterprise, or paid much attention to Oscar Ho Hing-Kay’s extraordinary exhibitions of everyday objects staged in Hong Kong in the 1980s — more culturally complicated, because of local circumstances, than Christian Boltanski’s superficially similar collocations of personal possessions.

Welcome to Nollywood

Even if we happen to be among the persons who noticed all this, we probably couldn’t have read the late Édouard Glissant’s brilliant 2009 summation of our globalized condition: “Everyone likes broccoli, but I hate it. But do I know why? Not at all. I accept my own opacity on that level. . . . Why wouldn’t I accept the Other’s opacity? . . . [A]fter seeing on TV the aborigines of Australia, Japanese, Parisians from the ‘hood, Inuits from Alaska, we’ve understood that we can’t understand everything and that there are things that remain within themselves. As a result, the world catches up with this sort of reflection on its complexity, on mixture, etc., and people end up accepting this idea.”

Having been a fan of the poets of Martinique ever since I made my own Aimé Césaire T-shirt 35 years ago, I was particularly attracted to Glissant’s dazzling meditation on diaspora and multiplicity, “arts of mixture, of adjustment to situations”: “[I]t’s of fundamental importance . . . to say that everything is happening in a rhizome world; that is, roots that intertwine, mix and mutually assist each other.”

Other readers are more likely to be drawn to, say, Clare McAndrew’s discussion of the nature of the global art market. Still others will prefer Gerardo Mosquera’s rethinking of the intercultural perspectives that grew from the Brazilian Anthropophagy art movement, or . . . one could go on and on, through many different ways of making and looking at art.

The main point remains that we have never before had this sort of one-volume compendium of the issues and ideas associated with the rise of multiple art worlds. Being less wedded to a single dominant perspective, The Global Contemporary can present something closer to genuine multiplicity, mostly reframed in less tendentiously obscure terms than were used by past collections.

Regarding this, Sabine Vogel’s contribution on “The Role of Art Criticism Today” notes: “The most striking characteristic of art criticism today is that we write in intelligible language. For we are no longer addressing a small circle of the initiated but an ever larger, anonymous audience.” In fact, the strongly visual format that alternates with the critical essays makes the book almost uniquely intelligent but user-friendly.

Some spoilsports, recalling such efforts as the influential catalogs of the short-lived Johannesburg Biennale, which are documented here, might point out that The Global Contemporary comes out of the country that dominates the present-day European economic dialogue (a debate that entails a completely different sort of entangled history). But it may be comforting that, though ZKM is a globally famous center for the presentation and exploration of new media, even those Americans who have frequently visited Germany might have difficulty pointing to Karlsruhe on a map.

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