Saturday, March 13, 2010

Beral Madra

Reflections on the Global South
Culture today is an entity composed of modernism, postmodernism, technology, administrative reason, media, and institutions. This notion of culture has its roots in the age of Imperialism and Colonization; it is a definition based on twentieth-century European culture and its extension to the U.S. and vice versa. Such a heritage is difficult to deal with for others: it is subject to continuous change and is internally deeply divided. What happens when we start defining culture beyond this environment, without a mandatory modernism, a colonized memory, and the derivative forms of global capitalism? If there is any similarity between these contexts, it is because global capitalism removes local difference. But it makes a difference to define global art outside the West and its current systems.

The meaning of contemporary art for a society shifts from politics to social engagement, from civil rights to individual freedom. Most of the countries east and southeast of Turkey, with their cold Global South, have either authoritarian regimes or ruling religious dogmas. Only some are in the process of democratization. In such environments contemporary art is a political tool or an access to free expression. It lends itself to criticism of the prevailing order/disorder or offers a way out of the local art scene.
In addition, there is a vast modernist production that determines the local art markets and solitary artists who work for the sake of art or art as a sign of a privileged class status. Contemporary art mainly introduces a platform where high and low culture, the common and the particular merge as a meeting point of different social classes. In most of these countries, cultural politics are pervasive and inevitable. However, we always think that official culture politics have a bad reputation, because culture is misused to serve a political end; such as engineering culture politics to legitimate militant aims.

Contemporary art with its political content challenges official culture policies and reduces their hegemony. The paradox is that contemporary art is nourished from the crisis of current cultural environments. We should definitely evaluate the function of contemporary art in different cultures according to its relation to politics. Most curators of the past Istanbul Biennales have not considered this crucial fact. As a result, we had a series of exotic and touristy concepts, while during the 1990s the Gulf crisis, local military operations, and PKK terror made the headlines. During the last biennale, which definitely had an Iraq conflict background and which debated Istanbul itself, the curators and the artists were more willing to articulate these realities in the context of their exhibition strategies.

Modern and contemporary art are initially visual and stimulating or challenging; they inflict visual thinking, critical thinking, and awareness. During modernism, in the Global South, visual thinking and individuality, was traditionally restricted by Islamic dogmas. When modernism was imposed on the Islamic cultures it tried to practically overtake the place of verbal culture. This change is even an ongoing process within the global network (electronic communication) hegemony. Seen in this light, modernism was a rupture and it created the mutilated gaze. In the modernisms of the Islamic world, the visual aspect of modernism was split into form and content. Here, what is usually expected to complement each other, became detached from each other: Detached in the sense that when form was adjusting itself to the norms of Western art, content adjusted itself to local traditions. Such a defensive approach was disguised under the modernist form. The artists, therefore, wanted to use abstract or geometric abstraction for expressing traditional and ethnic issues. In the Global South, surrealism did not exist in its Western form, as Daryush Shayegan described it: “It is a world, in which the reality is disguised behind masks, in which the lies (illusions) transformed themselves into forlorn aims and became independent. It is sub-realism, where everything is upside down.”(1) In contrast to modernism during the postmodern process, the artists battled with this mutilation.

Paintings, photography, and video with their psychoanalytical and everyday content opened a new path towards the reintegration of form and content. Many artists liberated themselves from notions of colonization and nation state ideologies as well as Islamic dogmas. They instead engaged in deconstructing and reconstructing the world they lived in. They considered hegemonic modernism often as synonymous with Western art and with modern in the larger sense. Modernism all over the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East was an upper structure, imposed on the people with the vigour of colonialism and nation state ideology. Turkey is the best example of this development. Its modernism, in fact, is rooted in the Westernization program of Sultan Mahmut the Second and in the Tanzimat (Reformation) of 1839; therefore all modernist art production was in conflict with attaining Western aesthetics and standards. When contemporary art in Turkey split from modern art quite early in the 1970s, it happened because contact to the Western world became more intense through the information flow, liberal economy, and political communication. First attempts to abandon a modernist/formalist discourse were connected with adapting and practicing Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, and Nouveau Realism.

Such movements were practiced within the boundaries of the Academy of Art and in close gallery circles where a very small group of artists mostly supported the Left of the time. The rest followed modernist trends, deforming all kinds of modernist forms in terms of decoration and kitsch. During the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Turkey was the playground of Soviet and American cold-war politics. Pro Soviets and pro Americans even split within their own fractions, fighting and killing each other in the streets. The state ruled every space and time in the private life of the individual breaking down the dissident spirit of two or three generations of artists. Modernism as much as postmodernism were looked at as a strategy to overcome a hopeless situation. The Western artist’s behavior appeared as a model. Contemporary art offered tools for developing strategies of deceiving, mocking, and confusing the gaze of the authority.

Modernism is indispensable as an unfinished process all over the world, since all aspects of global capitalism and democracy generate and supply negative and positive elements of modernism. In more concrete terms, modernism survives within Islamic culture, where it is vigorously present, including the epistemological schizophrenia, which Shayegan has analyzed so aptly.(2) In his view, non-Western civilizations have never experienced Foucault’s three epistemological mental tremors. They are exposed to these forms of episteme via infiltration from outside. The non-Western world was confronted with a ready-made of human sciences (anthropology) and history. Yet, most of these societies are still thinking and feeling within the boundaries of the pre-classical world. Two heterogenic epistemes exist in one mind. Shayegan, in particular, points to a kind of suture in finding a compromise between the two different paradigms; there is always a danger that this process will create empty statements, confusion, and introvert ideologists rather than intellectuals.

© 2007 ZKM


(1) Daryush Shayegan, Le Régard Mutilé. Pays traditionels face à la modernité (Édition de l’Aube, 1996), p. 143.
(2) Shayegan, loc. cit., pp.72–79.

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