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Loose Canons

As museums around the world seek to make their collections and displays more inclusive of non-Western art, how are German institutions responding?

In 1923, André Malraux – a writer and poet who was later France’s Minister of Culture – travelled to Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire. At the time, archaeological expeditions in Cambodia, sponsored by the French authorities, were plundering Angkor Wat, the city’s largest religious complex: its riches are now housed at the Guimet Museum in Paris. Malraux headed to the recently discovered Banteay Srei temple, seeking artefacts to resell. Upon his return to France, he was accused of removing and keeping a bas-relief from the temple and arrested. Believing he had acted within the law, Malraux contested the charges. The statues, he felt, belonged not to French colonial authorities but to ‘mankind’.

Twenty-five years later, Malraux began to assemble what he came to call his Musée imaginaire, a ‘museum without walls’ recording ‘the common heritage of all mankind’. He started this project – which prefigured later decades’ tendencies toward bold curatorial gestures – at roughly the same time as the biennial model began its expan­sionary trajectory: the São Paulo Biennial was founded in 1951 while 1955 saw the opening of documenta, the Biennale de la Méditerranée in Alexandria and the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts. If Malraux’s approach makes us feel uneasy, it is because it highlights how humanist universalism was imbricated with cultural plunder – whether symbolic or material. Predicated on a potentially infinite inclusivity, Malraux’s Musée imaginaire embodies the opposing tensions – between inclusion and expansion, centre and periphery – that exist in today’s notions of a ‘global museum’.

In his 1994 article Some Problems in Transcultural Curating, Gerardo Mosquera describes an increasingly internationalized art system’s divisions between the ‘curating west’ and the ‘curated rest’, which experience unequal structures of legitimation, inclusion and connection. During the last two decades, however, attempts have been made to expand the artistic canon to extra-occidental art practices, while others have aimed to undo notions of an existing canon altogether. In 2012, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art called for ‘different cultural and epistemological traditions to be reconciled’ within museums of the future. Earlier this year, Okwui Enwezor – the curator of documenta 11, an important benchmark for this global view – was honoured by Essen’s Museum Folkwang for raising ‘a global awareness of art beyond the Euro-American canon’.

Bagyi Aung Soe, Untitled, 1987, from the exhibition ‘Misfits‘ at HKW. Courtesy: the artist and Gajah Gallery, Singapore and HKW, Berlin

Bagyi Aung Soe, Untitled, 1987, from the exhibition ‘Misfits‘ at HKW. Courtesy: the artist and Gajah Gallery, Singapore and HKW, Berlin

In Germany, the ‘Global Museum’ programme, launched this year by the Federal Cultural Foundation, seeks to encourage several of the country’s key institutions to ‘redefine their collections from a non-Western perspective’. The exhibition project ‘A Tale of Two Worlds’ examines European and South American postwar artistic movements. It will result in two exhibitions: the first at the MMK Frankfurt later this year; the second at MAMBA, Buenos Aires, in 2018. Also as part of ‘Global Museum’, the show ‘Eccentric Modernism’ will open at K20, Düsseldorf, in April 2018. This exhibition aims to reframe the institution’s existing collections in relation to extra-occidental artistic practices. Lastly, ‘Global Resonances’, due to open at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in March 2018, likewise seeks to explore what the modernist canon would look like if it were expanded beyond 20th-century European and US models.

A separate, long-term project at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, ‘Kanon-Fragen’ (Canon Questions), which launched in 2016 and will continue until 2019, sets out to examine ‘canonization’ as an institutional operation. The first iteration of this project, ‘Past Disquiet. Narratives and Ghosts from the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978’, revisits the titular show, which was intended to lay the foundations of a ‘museum in exile’ for the Palestinian people. This project encapsulated what its curator Anselm Franke refers to as ‘undead histories’: those lacking sufficient authority to question officially sanctioned narratives, or simply without the financial support or infrastructure to be exhibited in the first place. ‘Past Disquiet’ illustrates the tensions within ‘global’ networks and the problems of access and uneven authority that persist in contemporary art at large.

Currently on display at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, ‘“Misfits”: Pages from a Loose-leaf Modernity’, curated by David Teh, focuses on three artists whose practices step outside of the canon. The eclectic works of Tang Chang confound categories such as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, while Bagyi Aung Soe, a Burmese painter who died in poverty, and the Filipino filmmaker Rox Lee were unaligned with either liberal-progressive norms or with the transnational vectors of socialist realism that opposed US imperialism in the 20th century. In ‘Misfits’, the question becomes: how do you narrate global artistic trajectories without recourse to the readymade knowledge structures of Western art – that is, without establishing parallels with pop, abstract expressionism or conceptualism?

Alanis Obomsawin, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, 1993, screened as part of the ‘Keimena’ film programme at documenta 14. Courtesy: documenta 14 Kassel and Athens

Alanis Obomsawin, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, 1993, screened as part of the ‘Keimena’ film programme at documenta 14. Courtesy: documenta 14 Kassel and Athens

The possibility of a ‘global museum’ was predicated on a consensus about the meaning of culture, partially derived from ideas of universal history or humanist universalism. But this desire for a global semiotics was by no means impartial. It’s tempting to find echoes of Malraux’s attempt to dress pillage in humanist garb in François Hollande’s recent pledge to grant asylum to artworks threatened by Daesh, when the EU has been less kind to people fleeing the same menace. The issue of restituting cultural goods other than Nazi-looted art remains largely unaddressed in Germany, despite official requests from Egypt, Iraq and Greece for artworks to be repatriated – with the Ishtar Gate, the bust of Nefertiti and the Pergamon Altar being just some of the most high-profile examples.

Policies of inclusion seek to atone for past Eurocentrism and histories of subjugation, violence, colonialism and globalization. But they must not overlook the normative dimensions of ‘canon questions’. Individual objects, once collected and assembled inside museums, concretize notions of history, ethnography, cultural heritage, reception and aesthetics. Curatorial approaches, however diverse, adhere to the museum’s own regulation of cultural difference. More keenly, the oppression and exploitation of indigenous peoples tends to be recuperated as the cultural valorization of their heritage. Violence, be it symbolic or material, cannot be undone via inclusion alone. The conceptual categories that buttress the Western canon – authorship, artistic autonomy, value, representation – still require further scrutiny.

In a recent open letter addressed to the ‘viewers, participants and cultural workers’ of documenta 14, the collective Artists Against Evictions accused the exhibition of failing to support migrants and refugees after their precarious shelters were raided by Greek authorities. Yet, the experiences of migrants are explored in a significant portion of the works included in the show. This tension between representation and real life was also felt at the organizational level. The opening press conference made manifest the exhibition’s straddling of opposing directions: one occupied with questions of curatorial positioning and method; the other signalling an interest in matters relating to arts infrastructure and public space. Outside of the traditional exhibition sections of documenta, ‘Keimena’, a film programme curated by Hila Peleg, is to be screened on the public channel ERT2. Other projects include the radio series curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and an ambitious public programme organized by Paul B. Preciado. As these instances suggest, shared culture and collective history might find a more suitable medium beyond the secluded museum and the norms of exhibition-making. Might the aspirations of the ‘global museum’ be better attained outside of it altogether? 

Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon who lives in Berlin. She is currently finishing her PhD at Humboldt University, and is a regular contributor to frieze d/e, Art Agenda and Mousse, among other publications.

Main image: Rox Lee, Juan Gapang (Johny Crawl), Untitled, 1987, from the exhibition ‘Misfits’ at HKW. Courtesy: the artist and HKW, Berlin

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June - August 2017
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