Recalcitrant Geographies

National Claims, Transnationalism, and the Institutionalization of Contemporary Art

Kitty Zijlmans

The time is ripe for modern and contemporary art museums in the West to reconsider their position in a globalizing world, to engage with such questions as how their collections have been formed and presented in the past fifty years or more, and what they represent. Modern art is said to have an international scope, but in reality this generally means Euro-American. Consequently, its origins, which lie in part in art from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, are denied. Contemporary art as a global phenomenon is making a somewhat hesitant entry into museums in the Western world and into art history. It may be making its entry and may also be included in the discourse of art history, but in many cases this move is problematic. Throughout the past twenty-five years, Third Text founder Rasheen Araeen has fulminated against the “West’s” appropriation of modern art and the concept of Modernism.[1] Third Text has persistently argued that the Western analytical paradigm of the arts is distorted in its history and imposes its values and aesthetics without acknowledging the contribution of artists “from elsewhere,” as Okwui Enwezor terms it. This has had a number of consequences, not least the neglect in art historical textbooks and by modern art museums in the West of crucial Modernist work produced by non-Euro-American artists. Not having been written into the mainstream of art history, or seen as foundational for the formation of the canon of modern art and displays in modern art museums, this neglect results in a distorted view and calls for a thorough rewriting of modern art history, as well as a reconsideration of the layout of art museums. This urge is felt even more in the present-day globalization of art and the art world. “Art from elsewhere,” which is abundant, cannot simply be added to the existing canons or inserted into prevalent discourses; rather, we need to critically assess the foundations of art historical writing, canon formation, and museum displays.

This is also the reason why the notion of “geographies” needs to be scrutinized. Geography is often seen as overlapping with the nation-state, meaning a particular form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; that is, a state containing a single state nationality as opposed to several nationalities.[2] However, such nations do not exist; most, if not all nation-states are polyethnic, and state borders often cut right across ethnic geographies. The problem with “geographies” is that many ethnic and cultural geographies resist nation-state boundaries, whereas the nation-state claims the art production from within its borders and homogenizes it to “Dutch” art, “Nigerian” art, “Chinese” art, and so forth. Many artistic practices and much art production cannot, however, be mapped geographically. Art can be—but is not necessarily—a mirror image of a nation’s geography, as will become clear in the examples below.

The relationship of art (the practice) to its histories (its discourse) is a complex one. Art is produced somewhere on the globe at a particular time; it is literally located, but what does this “located-ness” mean? To complicate matters further, the discipline of art history was a key institution in the formation of modern European nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we examine the urge to found national museums of art in postcolonial and post-communist countries that have recently obtained their independence, it becomes apparent that this still applies to the formation of nation-states today. Even if modern art museums resist claims that are too blatantly nationalist, the Euro-American dominance is striking. Merely adding artworks “from elsewhere” to their collections does not redress the imbalance or rectify the false assumption that modern art originated in the West and that contemporary art can simply be added to the already existing canons. Much contemporary art challenges the national claim, connecting contemporaneity to local practices and traditions, or epitomizes diasporic communities who are not acknowledged as contributing to a nation-state’s artistic identity, for example, Surinamese artists in the Netherlands. If art is this diverse, along what lines can arrangements of layouts in art histories and in museums then be made? “Recalcitrant” means to be obstinately defiant of authority or discipline, difficult to manage or operate, and not responsive to treatment. How do museums fit into this picture? What could be their potential role?


Can we imagine a world different from ours, that is, a world that is not geographically grounded? If we look at science fiction, societies and worlds are presented that may differ from ours, even radically—think, for instance, about the Borg in the popular TV series Star Trek, and dissidents such as the character Seven out of Nine. Yet, nonetheless, they have an actual and a factual place. There is a home planet somewhere out in space, or clusters of interconnected spaceships as in the case of the Borg, who travel through space to “assimilate” other species. But even the Borg have an HQ with a Queen. Even if they are part technology, part humanoid/organic, they have a sense of belonging, of “Self.” Moreover, all the species they attack try to defend their respective planets—their territory, their home. Science fiction films are imagined and produced by human beings, and consequently, are also limited to the human imagination, vast as it is, and not by species from outer space. Even if such species exist out there, we probably would not even recognize them, since we are unable to think beyond being human.

Human beings are clearly deeply grounded, even in today’s globalized world. They feel connected to the place of their birth, the countryside, the land, the geography, or the village, town or city. Every day in the news we are confronted with disputes between people defending their territory, their culture, habits, customs and values, and their religion. In the TV series De Bergen achter Sotsji (The Mountains Behind Sochi), by Dutch documentary filmmaker Jelle Brandt Corstius, broadcast on Dutch television in the context of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, episode after episode showed the Caucasus peoples’ rootedness in their country, especially after decades—sometimes even centuries—of occupation. Sad as it is, the fight over the Crimea and the Ukraine is a case in point. There are disputes over borders and rights of way, and a great deal of tension that focuses on power relations, labor inequality, access to resources, economic situation, and the like. The feeling of belonging in the country, of identification with the land, is deeply ingrained, and for the local people, art and cultural practices testify precisely to that: they are Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Chechens, Georgians, Ukrainians, and (last but not least) Russians. That is their identity. Apart from all these complex genetic and social connections, and cultural and religious modes and codes, geopolitical aspects are often also at play.

In contrast to this, however, from the dawn of mankind people have also always been on the move, as John Onians’ Atlas of World Art (2004) clearly shows.[3] His atlas is referred to by journalist Paul Depondt as a cartographical “mundaneum” that begins with the Ice Age some 40,000 years ago and ends with a map of art institutions worldwide in the year 2000. The maps (320 in total) show a multitude of factors: mass migration of peoples, trade routes, imperialistic expansion, patterns of influence, rising and declining civilizations, metropolises—in short, a geography of the arts.[4] “The breadth of coverage of art through time and space was not easy to achieve,” Onians comments in the introduction. A whole new approach to the subject had to be developed, one that acknowledged the need for a great diversity of expertise, from archaeologists and anthropologists to area specialists, art historians and people from local communities. The challenge for each specialist was to present his or her knowledge in such a way that it related to that of the other experts. The combination of great breadth and clarity of focus allows insights into “what unites all art and what makes it so varied.”[5] The challenge now is to try to put all this into an art history, or a museum.

From Art History to Art Histories to World Art Studies

Two seemingly contrasting positions in the spectrum of contemporary art historical discourse are the 2008 volume World Art Studies. Exploring Concepts and Approaches and the 2012 volume Art History and Visual Studies in Europe. Transnational Discourses and National Frameworks.[6] Both are historiographical, one dealing with what we have started to refer to as “World Art Studies,” and the other dealing with the emergence in Europe of the discipline of art history within national frameworks and its development (or not) over time. In World Art Studies, art is seen as a panhuman phenomenon and, as such, it aims to study art from all times and all regions of the world in an integral manner and from a number of disciplinary perspectives.[7] Seemingly opposite to this book is Art History and Visual Studies in Europe, of which the subtitle, Transnational Discourse and National Frameworks, points at the core issue: simultaneously, art and its discourse resist and are embedded in national discourses. This book and the project out of which it grew were initially planned as a critical study of the contemporary practices of art history and visual studies. Funded by the European Science Foundation, the study was to focus particular emphasis on Europe as a geographical frame—but it was also intended to balance somewhat the Anglo-American dominance of the discourse. On the one hand, the notion of a specifically European set of practices and ideas can be seen as a curious and outmoded approach, since art history and visual studies have long operated as sites of transnational intellectual exchange. Yet, on the other hand, and perhaps contrary to expectation, the research project generated a competing image of the landscape of scholarship, in which such border crossings must contend with the continuing dominance of the national paradigm, as well as with the fact that most scholarship on the history of architecture, art, and visual culture continues to be conducted within the framework of the nation-state.[8]

The editors therefore decided to dedicate half the book to addressing the specific national, political, ideological, social, and cultural frames within which art history as a discipline emerged across a large number of European states, and which have underpinned the continued existence of specific traditions of art historical knowledge that are nationally determined. This part of the book sought to include accounts both of the major centers of art historical scholarship—Britain, Germany, France, Italy—as well as “peripheral” zones, such as the Baltic States, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Serbia, and Poland, which have maintained a frequently isolated presence on the landscape of art history in Europe, if only for reasons of linguistic ignorance on the part of art historians elsewhere.[9]

A similar strand is to be found in Leiden-based historian Eric Storm’s contribution to a forthcoming edited volume (2015) on the conceptual history of large European regions such as Scandinavia, Central Europe, and the Balkans, in which different academic fields like Geography, Literary Studies, Economics, History, and Art History deal with the changes in borders and their implications, from around 1800 to the present.[10] Storm’s contribution (which I proofread) gives a concise overview of the history of the discipline of art history in Europe. He argues how art production and the systemization of art have been at odds with each other from the very beginning. Whereas universal taxonomies and classification systems were predominant in the Early Modern period, and geography and history hardly mattered, from the nineteenth century onward national schools and geopolitics became the ruling principle. Under the influence of new historicist ideas, civilizations were geographically defined and put into a chronology. Thus, the story of artistic evolution became largely constructed in national terms (geography) and was put into a linear chronological timeline (history). In this era of thriving nationalism, art history became an academic discipline. Even today, Storm concludes, the nation-state is the main geographical boundary in art history, and the hanging of paintings in museums and at art exhibitions is still largely determined by national schools. But the story does not end there. Somewhere along the line, in the twentieth century, the world’s diversity in art became narrowed down to the Modernist formalist-aesthetic view of the hegemony of the Western European avant-garde to determine the history of modern art. Only in recent decades has a new awareness of regional diversity and the global scope of art emerged, challenging us to rethink our ideas regarding systemization and the writing about art. After all, writing art history—or rather, art histories—means to reduce complexity, to forge connections between artworks, and to deal with both spatial and time frames. But what about art itself? Art is always created somewhere. It may explicitly refer to this location, a particular region, but not necessarily to the nation-state geography, as the following example elucidates.

The case of Estonia: Kristina Norman’s After-War (2009)

In one of the conferences organized by the network funded by the European Science Foundation, entitled “Discourses of the Visible: National and International Perspectives” (2003–2007), and which concluded with the aforementioned volume, Art History and Visual Studies in Europe, scholars from Slovenia, Estonia, and Latvia sketched the difficult process in their countries in the post-Soviet era of building self-awareness and self-esteem, while at the same time becoming part of the European Union. It is an example of the dis-simultaneity of evolving art systems that these countries are concurrently struggling to forge national cultural identities, and subsequently a national history and canon of art, while being open to becoming a European country. For example, the art history of Estonia is in the process of being written: thus far it is a series of seven large volumes, reaching as far as the mid-twentieth century. But the question arises: What precisely constitutes the Estonian (national) identity? As Kristina Norman’s art installation After-War showed, things are much more complex.[11]

Norman’s installation was exhibited at the Venice Biennale of 2009. Walking into a room in a small house in a back alley of Venice, we saw a larger-than-life golden statue of a soldier on his back, floating in midair.

Fig. 1. Kristina Norman, After-War, 2009, Golden replica of the Bronze Soldier © Kristina Norman 2009.

There were a number of rooms with videos and texts, and more objects and, after a while, putting all the pieces of information together, visitors got a sense of what was being referred to here. The work is a case study of the conflict surrounding the “Bronze Soldier monument” in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. The statue, dating from 1947 and marking the grave of Red Army soldiers, became a constant source of conflict in Estonia following the restoration of independence in 1991. As Norman explains, for most Estonians, the monument is a symbol of Soviet occupation, repression and mass deportations. For many Russians (approximately one-third of Estonia’s population are Russian or of Russian descent) it symbolizes victory over Nazism and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became a positive signifier of their Russian identity in Estonia.[12] The installation is based on a specific event and the issues surrounding it, which can be regarded as the most traumatic event in Estonian society since the restoration of independence in 1991. In April 2007, the Estonian government removed the monument commonly referred to as the Bronze Soldier from a prominent place in the center of Tallinn, where it had stood since 1947. The memorial, officially called the Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn, was dedicated to the Red Army soldiers who fell during what, in Russia, is known as The Great Patriotic War (World War II), but for most Estonians this memorial was a symbol of Soviet occupation. The monument was removed from its original site and relocated two-and-a-half kilometers away at the military cemetery. The original location was then planted with low shrubs and flowers, as if there had never been a monument there at all. This “psycho-geographical” maneuver, as Norman calls it, carried out by the Estonian government provoked a huge protest by the Russian-speaking community of Tallinn, and was followed by two nights of rioting on the streets of the city.

Two years after these events, on May 9, 2009, the day when many Russian people traditionally celebrate Victory Day in an expression of their cultural identity, Norman placed a full-size, gold-colored replica of the sculpture at its former location. Although the government had proclaimed the site secular, it had remained a revered place for the Russian population.

Fig. 2. Still from video of Kristina Norman’s intervention in public space, 2009, Russian Estonians have their picture taken. © Kristina Norman 2009.

The act was intended to demonstrate how sensitive these issues regarding national monuments and veneration still remain. The local authorities, however, saw this act as an offence, removed the golden soldier,

Fig. 3. Still from video of Kristina Norman’s intervention in public space, 2009, soldiers remove the golden replica. © Kristina Norman 2009.

and arrested Norman (but did not detain her for long). Another demonstration by Russian Estonians followed.

Fig. 4. Still from video of Kristina Norman’s intervention in public space, 2009, Kristina Norman is arrested. © Kristina Norman 2009.

In the end, the replica was removed. What is left is an empty flowerbed—for many Russian Estonians, still a place of veneration—and a tabletop-sized Golden Soldier as a memento.

Using the concept of a memory community, Norman’s After-War is a reference to the idea that the war may be over, but the conflict still continues. It is also about dominant cultures and power. Whereas, in Soviet times, the Russians were in the majority, after 1991 they became a minority and have since been discriminated against because they are seen as the former occupiers, and not as “real” Estonians. Thus, even in tiny Estonia, geography is quite an ambiguous notion, and nation-state identity—and hence its art history—is thought of in terms of purity in a sense; that is, real Estonian as a form of self-description and identity formation. After-War challenges precisely that.

Best practices

Accordingly, we have here a complex conjunction of a number of factors: the writing of art history, the forging of national canons of art and its mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, the role of museums/venues in this process, the role of museums as platforms for international art, the aspiration to look beyond national boundaries to transcultural and transnational exchanges, and processes of interculturalization, and last but not least, the artworks that do or do not transcend or challenge national or geographical determinations. This conjunction cannot simply be “resolved” in neat taxonomies or display guidelines; there is no one size that fits all. What we can (and must) do is to acknowledge the problematic issue of art production versus art presentation and art writing from the past and in the present, and even more so in our era of globalization, postcolonialism, and post-communism. Through a firm assessment of past practices of art writing, we need to further develop and test other formats to write about and display contemporary art. Fortunately, things are being stirred up in the art world: museums are testing new displays, and there are many debates revolving around the question of how to deal with the global in regard to the acquisition and display policies of museums.

For instance, the Tate Modern has appointed José Roca, a Colombian, as curator of Latin American art for the period from 2012–2015, reflecting the Tate’s commitment to broaden its geographical scope; Latin American art was entirely missing from their collection until now. Whether this will also change the underlying Western assumptions regarding the history and development of modern and contemporary art remains to be seen. In October 2013, the Centre Pompidou in Paris launched Multiple Modernities, the new display of its modern art collection, which presents a fresh overview of modern art from 1905 to 1970. The collection contains a selection of over one thousand works by four hundred artists from forty-seven countries. In its press release, the Centre Pompidou stated that “rather than the usual linear viewpoint focusing on European movements, it presents a history now extended to include the fringes and outer reaches of art. This new-look journey through the collections is a genuine map of all the connections and cross-influences that have shaped the great adventure of modern art—not to mention movements going against the flow.” For the first time, “works by still little-known pioneers in modern art from the US (such as Morgan Russell, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Patrick H. Bruce), Latin America (Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Vicente do Rego Monteiro, Julia Codesido), Africa (Irma Stern, Ernest Mancoba, Baya, Marcel Gotene), the Middle East (Mahmoud Mokhtar, Bejat Sadr), and Asia (San Yu, Yun Gee), along with works by the Indian architect Raj Rewal,” are shown.[13] The thirty-five-page press kit presents the exhibition circuit in detail, introducing the selection of rooms bearing names such as “Primitivisms,” “Crossovers,” “Leiris, the Integral Man,” “Women Artists from across the Globe,” and “Covering the World.” With this reinstallation of its modern art collection, the Centre Pompidou has taken the lead in showing an alternative route through art history’s vast field of modernities, leaving behind the Eurocentric focus and acknowledging the multiplicity of modern art.

A final example of practices aiming to render visible contemporary art and debate in a global context is the ongoing GAM (Global Art and the Museum) project at the Center for Art and Media/ZKM in Karlsruhe, initiated by Peter Weibel, Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg in 2006. It centers around such questions as: How is contemporary art currently understood in institutions located in different cultures? How does its exhibition practice differ from that of “modern art”? Does global art practice substantially change the concepts of contemporary versus modern art? In a number of international workshops, conferences, and expert meetings, the issue of “art and the global,” the postcolonial condition, the institutionalization of contemporary art, the role of the museum and of the art market, art production, and consumption were scrutinized by a large number of international scholars, curators, critics, and artists. This resulted in three large volumes that together map out the field of debate.[14]

The project culminated in a final exhibition, The Global Contemporary. Art Worlds after 1989, in the winter of 2011–2012 at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, exhibiting installation art from one hundred artists from all around the world, accompanied by a large volume intended as a companion guide to the topic of the exhibition, and as a contextualization of its aims.[15] As stated on its website, Global Art and the Museum as a whole can be seen as a first attempt at documenting the contested boundaries of today’s art world. In Amsterdam, the Stedelijk Museum’s March 2014 conference, “Collecting Geographies: Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art,” can be seen in the light of GAM’s aim “to spark a debate on how the globalization process changes the art scene and to undertake a critical review of the development of the past twenty-five years.”[16]

In my view, we need to accept the challenge to make a further critical assessment of the formation of the canon and history of modern and contemporary art as it has been constructed in the past as a predominantly Western affair, and which has had such an enormous effect on the collecting policies and display of art in modern art museums. We need to change these strategies in order to meet the challenges of today’s globalized world, which call for us to look anew at the past. We need to come up with new writing, new exhibition, and new collecting strategies that negotiate between the different concepts of art that exist worldwide, and that often transgress national boundaries. Adding “art from elsewhere” to existing canons is not enough: it does not change anything, nor does it get to the heart of the problem, which is to recognize that art is a panhuman phenomenon, that art concepts change over time and differ from place to place, and that art itself negotiates where it belongs and how. To return to my original question of what the potential role of museums could be, they have an important role as a platform for debate, on the basis of thematic cross-global art displays, that includes how art positions itself with regard to contemporary issues—whether these be social, political, institutional, cultural, religious, aesthetic, or a combination of all of these. It may then be expected that they will adapt their acquisition policies accordingly.