Compare and Contrast

Creating and contesting categories

Sibylle Bergemann, Birgit, 1984, gelatin silver print, 25 × 17 cm. Courtesy the artist and OSMOS Address, New York

Sibylle Bergemann, Birgit, 1984, gelatin silver print, 25 × 17 cm. Courtesy the artist and OSMOS Address, New York

Lately, I don’t hear many jokes told by stylish raconteurs at parties, and few funny stories. There’s too much reliance on late-night comics for laughs, and too few amateurs willing to risk failure. I tell some jokes, especially after a drink to celebrate almost anything, but when people ask why it’s funny, I know it’s hopeless. You get it, or you don’t. There’s no word to name the lack of joke-tellers, unless it’s malaise.

New words name the new. At openings and, yes, parties, I discuss the term ‘Global Art’, the meaning of which is vague and arguable. What precisely does it name, whose work and why? The ambiguity appears to be a symptom of the new world order’s disorderly new body. People name the new flow, its objects, to define changes. Any label, in a way, draws a perimeter around an object. Sometimes the name creates the thing.

I have gleaned that Global Art is fashioned primarily by non-Western artists, who utilize national, ethnic, regional traditions and join, merge, redo, undo these elements to ally with or trounce what has been called, variously, contemporary, modern and postmodern art. GA has been represented or featured in major museum exhibitions, and may have been named by the museums, some tell me, identifying a trend or making one. It is a concept still in motion.

heoretically, GA might propose another ‘post-’ to ‘contemporary art’ itself, since it exists in relation to it. Art is like other institutions – belief systems cross borders – and, in work, there can be attachment, detachment or disregard of place of birth by the maker. Nationality, ethnicity, et al. may or may not be inherent to an artist’s practice or material for her work; these concepts may not be essential to her sense of identity. But people often want to define their ‘others’ by them. Alienation is a beautiful word, a combo of ‘alien’ and ‘nation’ and not an anomalous feeling anywhere. Also, there are artists everywhere who believe in a variety of essences, and rely upon or draw from ideas of, say, national, religious or ethnic character.

It’s curious, the relationship of art, and theories about art, to the nation state, which now suffers from shock within and without. The usual divisions are questions, not absolutes.

OK, the internet – boundaries and borders mean nothing to it. But physical borders continue to be policed, no-man’s lands lie empty everywhere, wastelands. The passage of people and goods is patrolled with punishing vigilance. Five years of Syria’s war has forced huge numbers to flee to Jordan. Borders demarcate, hold in and push out people. The poet Robert Frost wrote that fences make good neighbours. They make enemies more easily.

Still, conceptually, borders matter less, and the words ‘permeable’, ‘porous’, ‘transition’ and ‘transparent’ are used frequently now. Also, in the midst of global shifts, home just isn’t what it used to be. Tracking these movements and displacements, radical geographers have become philosophers of drift. Change here affects change there.

The work of photographer Sibylle Bergemann (who died in 2010) was recently exhibited at the Osmos Gallery in New York’s East Village. Bergemann was born in 1941, in what came to be East Germany; before The Wall came down, as well as after, she shot fashion for women’s magazines, especially Sibylle, and made documentary work. Looking at her fashion photographs, I was fascinated by how Bergemann translated the language of Western fashion photography for her purposes. She revised its tropes, and her aesthetic took that visual language for and to her place, East Berlin.

In one stunning picture, Birgit (1984), a woman in a woolen hounds-tooth coat, whose large collar frames her face, sits on a curved park bench in Berlin. She leans forward, right hand dropping toward the ground, her wrist encircled by a thick chain bracelet. The woman is not looking at the camera. Her hair is wrapped in a scarf, like a factory worker. Her legs are apart. One trouser leg rests high above her ankle, exposing skin. Its placement appears both a matter of informality and a provocation. She’s an athlete on the bench, ready to be called into the game. She’s a prizefighter. That’s the pose: she’s in the ring, in her corner, waiting for the bell. The next round.

There’s an irony to Birgit, its glamour de-glamorized. Irony has no borders, and comparisons, say, of Bergemann’s photographs with New York fashion photographs of the time, when models didn’t spread their legs, may be odious. All comparisons are meant to be. But people make categories, live in and with them; then they contest them. Thinking is unthinkable without recognizing differences. Without comparison, literally, words wouldn’t mean a thing.

Lynne Tillman's latest novel, Men and Apparitions, was published last year by Soft Skull Press. Her collection The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories will be published in Spanish by RIPIO later this year.

Issue 171

First published in Issue 171

May 2015

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