The local culture and the Biennial format

Manray Hsu

Originally, I was not a curator. I come from a background in philosophy and literature; I grew up in Taiwan and was then educated in New York. Over the last three years I have seen perhaps twenty Biennials and I am going to talk about the two aspects that I particularly observed in this Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art. The first is what I want to say in response to Olu Oguibe’s comments regarding the direct physical intervention of the conceptual artist, while the second part of my talk has to do with the issue of “glocal.”
The development of contemporary art in the last century has made it a general truth that artists can operate in the world as if in a studio without their own direct physical involvement in the process of making a work. The process of art making has turned into the mobilization of material to create forms through the use of technology and economic and industrial systems. The artist as a creative individual is recognized by particular ways of envisioning a world as a concept. Remarkably, there is still a common desire in the art audience to look for evidence or traces  of the artist’s direct physical exercise, with which to discern an artist’s special character or genius, or skill in the creation of a work. The fact that this tendency is hard to dispel indicates that we are somehow still under the spell of Romanticist individualism, whereas society in general has evolved and recognises that the individuals who are in charge of a collective action should be held responsible for such an action. For example, does George W. Bush kill people? The answer is an obvious yes. Yet, if we follow our art world’s inclination to find Bush’s direct physical involvement in the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians, then we should conclude that Bush never killed. For unlike the sniper who recently gunned down victims in Washington DC, Bush never held a gun to shoot anyone in the wars he created, even though a lot of people lost their lives and families because of these wars. George W. Bush is like a conceptual artist in terms of his mobilization of weapons and persons to create destructive wars through the use of technology and the economic, political and diplomatic systems.
What is fascinating for me in the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art is the use of the biennial format and organization to combine forces of conceptual artists and a vigorous local craft industry, a dynamic mobilization that would otherwise hardly take place in the discriminating cultural fields. It raises the questions of whether and how far a medium confined by certain visual traditions allows for experiments and conceptual interventions, and specifically how in the age of remix and hybridity conceptualist art can revitalize itself through cross-disciplinary collaboration.
A major shift in contemporary art over the last two decades concerns the rise of global culture, in which biennials play a significant role. As international biennials are now increasingly conducted in collaboration with each other — no matter where the events take place — many in the field of contemporary art are questioning the relationship between the biennial and its host site. Is the biennial merely a parallel phenomenon of global capitalism in the form of political populism and art market? Given the increasing demand for going beyond national representation, how can a biennial create a new synergy and platform for local artists and “guest” artists who usually arrive at the host site for an extremely limited period of time? International biennials, particularly those on a large scale, are also criticized for being loaded with various art-unrelated political agendas, such as tourism, national identity, international image-making, etc., and for being geared to spectacle-generating, which not only avails politicians of opportunities to translate cultural capital into political capital, but also puts art works at the risk of being simply consumed as cultural forms. However, there are also those biennials on a “human” scale, which instead of spectacle, allow for more intimate interaction between foreign artists and local artists as well as the general audience. And quite notably, in the cases of host cities and countries — usually newly industrialized — where contemporary art communities are active and resilient and yet face adamant resistance of conservative political and cultural forces, international biennials can help to legitimize contemporary art and increase the global visibility of the local art scene.
In relation to the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, we observe another dimension of these questions, which bears on the practice of contemporary art and the local folk arts in the face of global capitalism. The global art world at the moment has seen artists becoming more and more like philosophers, who speak in universal or general terms, while connecting these terms to their local tradition and lives. On the other hand, local histories or artistic heritage from almost every corner of the world have become — or have been taken — as “our” history, or “our” heritages, where “we” refers to a sense of being contemporary as a global phenomenon. So, for example, artists living in Paris, with a Latin-American back-ground can use Japanese materials or cultural symbols as their working tools. By mixing different cultural traditions contemporary artists are somehow responsible for preserving a creative openness within each tradition, while ensuring cultural diversity in our age. So, there is a new imperative for the current generation of artists: that of resisting global capitalism’s power of homogenous assimilation. In short: through the major trend in global economies of standardizing products through an international division of labour, we can envision that, within a short period of time local arts like ceramics or pottery will soon lose their variety because of this assimilation — paradoxically either by intensifying local “features” or by incorporating what are seen as global “symbols”, often under the premise of cultural tourism. By working with conceptual artists with different cultural backgrounds it is now possible to give these traditions a chance to open up, to ensure the diversity through which they can still develop.

Excerpt from the Proceedings of the “Local ceramic traditions and globalisation of contemporary art” conference, 19/20 October 2002, Fortezza del Priamàr, Savona.

Conference proceedings Local ceramic traditions and the globalisation of contemporary art