Text written for Tramas
first publication. Buenos Aires, 2001.
Between the local situation and a globalization that squeezes us,
between my history or our historydepending on the space where
one places oneselfand the contexts which we generate from
them, between the identities which we buildor negotiateart
institutions mix and generate discourses, alter principles and,
as they usually do, categorize at their fancy. This is not new,
but in the 90s institutions have grown in power and importance,
and today it seems impossible to escape them. In spite of this situation,
some artists are elaborating projects which include a reflection
on institutions. As I expect to demonstrate further along, this
is not a new edition of the so-called "institutional critique"
which engrossed significant artists of the 60s and 70s.
Taking these problems to a new point, without resigning and anchoring
their discourse in the personal and the local within the international
framework in which the artistic discourse is today played out, they
are exposing the institutions new mechanisms, and the histories
which make them possible letting them manifest, at the same time,
their own history as artists. Two artists will serve to clarify,
partially, this situation: Meshac Gaba, born in Cotonou, Benin,
today living in Amsterdam, and Hong Hao, born and still living in
1. Meshac Gaba
When Meshac Gaba started his project, the Museum of Contemporary
African Art, the very name determined one of the strategies upon
which this project developed over these last few years, and will
continue in the future. We know that the words of the name he selected,
can be arranged in other ways: Contemporary Museum of African Art,
African Museum of Contemporary Art. This is not the acronyms game
with which museums have amused themselves following the corporate
bent , some, recently, from their very birth. Rather, the surprising
explosive character the combination of some of them may have: on
the one hand, the promise (Museum of Contemporary Art) and on the
other an unexpected surprise (African). In fact, to many, Africa
as culture is not associated with the contemporary, much less with
an artistic production that can be defined as such. Although in
most African countries there is a full development of modernity,
this has been continually repressed in favor of an archaic idea,
even though the masks shown in museums, with which this archaism
is usually associated, are barely from the late XIX Century, and
those sold in antique shops, were produced yesterday.
The project of the Gaba Museum, pure fiction to let loose themes
and commentary about Africa and the contemporary, has its pendant
in the Marcel Broodthaers Musée dArt Moderne, Département
des Aigles. Without the Belgians archeological spirit, Gaba
launches his project to decipher the labyrinths on which Africa,
the continents perception, and its cultural production are
The Museums Architecture and its Space
The "Museums Architecture" is the projects
second installation. It is an open proposal that must be finished
by the public. Its mechanics is based on the game principle: wooden
blocks are scattered over a blue carpet. Visitors to the exhibit
are invited to construct their architectonic proposals for the Museum
of Contemporary African Art. During the exhibit and the shows where
this work was exhibited, visitors have proposed a long series of
imaginary constructions. The numerous proposals reveal the manner
in which the visitors imagine this architecture, and the series
of relations which, consciously or unconsciously, they elaborate
for a space which would contain contemporary African works unknown
to the spectator. There is nothing that indicates which nor how
these architectonic proposals will be inhabited. With the "Lego-museum"
as we called it familiarly, Gaba organizes a series of relations
in which "Museum", "art" and "contemporary"
reveal our own ideas about the museums space if it is devoted
to African art. Africa determines and governs the discourse. The
fact that Gaba has placed architecture at the very beginning of
his project is significant. The museums architecture not only
has been transformed into the container of works of art par excellence,
but has also been the space in which different negotiations about
African art has taken place. Ethnology museums were the heirs of
the "curio collections" in which the most varied kinds
of African objects were collected at first, as well as those from
other continents. Then, with the advent and triumph of avant-garde
movements, modern arts museums started to introduce and show African
artistic objects, essentially masks, which had formed the base of
the language with which XX Century artists put together their works.
The typologies, both of the Ethnology Museum and the Museum of Modern
Art, are, at the same time, the typologies of classification and
continuous passing of objects from one space to another. The staging
of these negotiations is made evident by the way in which these
spaces and the objects contained in them have been positioned by
European museums. A moment which Gaba reveals in the manner of a
In the "Museums Architecture" there is no retrospective
look. The discussions about museum architecture were launched in
the 80s, and have gone through the 90s sheltered by
the numerous museums built in Europe, and the many remodelings and
extensions which even today are being carried out. But before the
massive presence of the new museums and the updating of others,
Gabas is governed by an open game based on the imaginary,
the body, and continuous change. Nothing is stable, and the continuous
succession of "models" proposed by anonymous visitors
dilutes the materiality so that only the idea remains. The "architecture"
will thus be the mirror of desire, the screen of the imaginary,
the blank sheet ready to receive both design and scribbling.
When considering the first six installations Gaba has carried out
so far, there is an important contrast that should be pointed out.
In none of his latter projectsThe Museum Shop, The Museum
Restaurant, The Game Room, among othersdoes he emphasize what
in general terms we consider to be the center of the museum, that
is, the rooms where works of art are shown. What centers the discourse
of his first six projects are secondary products. The shop, the
restaurant, the game room, etc., are subordinate products which
have been transformed into essential ones. This is one more mirror
which Gaba places to reflect a contemporaneity in which the museum
as an entity enters and leaves, hides in or has to be sought, in
a constant game.
In the "Museums Architecture" and what followed,
there is a conscience that the museum has changed to the point of
transforming itself into something unrecognizable. Beyond institutional
critique, including and outdoing the proposals of Broodthaers and
even those of Buren, Gaba decentralizes the analysis while continuing
to hit a raw nerve.
2. Hong Hao
Borgian is the most apt adjective to apply to the Hong Hao Selected
Writings. A profound expert of Borgess works such as he, as
are many Chinese artists of his generation, he seems to have kept
in mind for his Selected Writings a story from "El libro de
arena" ("The Book on Sand ") in which a man finds
a book with neither beginning nor end. This was pointed out by the
Chinese critic Yuting Chou, remembering at the same time that it
is "impossible to set a human order" to Borges book
"and the pages are numbered with no apparent reason".
Hong Hao calls his book an "encyclopedia", which brings
his project even closer to Borges favorite readings. The Selected
Writings took Hao over ten years and led him to make a series of
31 engravings. Each engraving has as its base an open book, and
each page/engraving reveals, step by step, different stories related
to China and the situation of change it lived from the mid-80s
to the mid-90s. Interactions between old and new traditions
lead to the switching back and forth between subjects such as acupuncture
and instructions on "The Road to Success" or "Seeking
the Truth", which in Hong Haos words are shared by "people
from the East and the West who put their heads together to find
a solution, but who look towards the void (maybe the problem will
never find a solution)", or in "The Mystery of a Spring
Night", in which, on one side of the page an old man is watching
a television body building program and on the other one, there are
upside down Chinese characters. On the first page of the book, the
Prologue consists of only one Chinese character, and the rest of
the page is occupied by the "sponsors" (Netscape, Sony,
Philips, Kodak, Ford, among others) and a fictitious list of prizes.
On the opposite page a text indicates that "this book is recommended
The projects framework is composed of a series of maps which,
by the eloquence of its subjects, make the total reading different.
In "The Sharing Out of Nuclear Weapons", intentionally
drawn as an old map, but centered on the Pacific Ocean, real and
imaginary places are marked by their military potential. In "The
New World Order", Hong Tao has altered the countries
frontiers and names. The United Sates is named the Popular Republic
of China, Europe is Mozambique, and Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador are
marked as Lebanon. In "The Worlds New Topographic Map"
countries and continents have a size according to their prestige
and power. The imaginary reeled off by Hong Haos work is elaborated
locally. Thus its references to situations from the Chinese societys
recent decades and its anchoring on (art) history. In "Histories
of the World" (Shishuo Xinyu), while the name is taken from
a Chinese classic, the image is derived from Gericaults Medusas
Raft. On the opposite page a traditional Chinese painting pictures
the fisherman-god Jiang Taigong, all preceded by the Chinese characters
meaning East (dong), West (xi) and thing (dongxi). Its description
in map code is loaded with the meaning of the word "Chinese"
(Zhongguo) which means "country in the middle", as old
Chinese maps drew it. The strength of explaining the contemporaneity
they contain springs from that locality which sustains it.
Deleuze and Guattari pointed out that maps are one of the clearest
examples of the rhizomatic, or better still, are part of it. "If
the map is opposed to the tracing, it is because it turns completely
towards experimentation to grasp reality. The map does not reproduce
an unconscious closed on itself, but builds it", they assert.
If maps "are open, connectable in all dimensions, detachable,
reversible, susceptible of being constantly modified", it is
because they "favor the connection between areas by releasing
the bodies without organs, by opening them to a maximum on a consistent
Cartography presents itself as the ideal way of destroying analyses
which are tree-formed, vertical, hierarchical. And it is not by
chance that Hong Hao makes use of them in a moment when Chinese
visual arts had started to struggle for visibility both inside and
outside of China; opposite the countrys internal orthodoxy,
which rejected any form of contemporaneity in the arts, and opposite
a "West" which ignored the serious attempts of a modern
discourse in visual arts, and had constructed a Chine made up of
calligraphy, vertical landscapes and blue ceramics. Between the
internal ideological control and the institutions which marked the
hierarchies of the canon so as to be able to describe the "other
one", as derivative or inauthentic due to its application.
The space in which visual arts relations are established internationally,
is the space of the so called "curatorships". And in these
last years there has been no cultural space more "curated"
than that of China. The avalanche of exhibitions of contemporary
Chinese art have culminated undoubtedly in the massive presence
at the central exhibition of the 1999 Venice Biennial, curated by
Harald Zeeman. The "dAPERtutto", as it was called, included
the presentation of a private collection of contemporary Chinese
art owned by a Swiss collector. This event, silenced by the European
press but amply discussed in that of Asia, exposed the negotiations
regional art is subjected to outside the centers of cultural power.
This fact has been openly discussed and denounced in Asian magazines.
In this sense it is interesting to point out a work by Hong Hao
in 1997-98, in which this contemporary cultural space has been exposed.
Due to its rhizomatous character, I believe it can be seen as a
prolongation of his maps in previous years, although here, it must
be explained, the drawing of the map was not made with pen and paintbrush,
rather it acquired a performative character making the protagonists
themselves act in such a way that their actions "make the map".
In 1997 Hong Hao had a friend mail a letter, written in German,
from "Europe" to China, headed by a fictitious logo of
Documenta X. The letter was sent to different art galleries, visual
arts centers and museums in which plastic arts activities had been
more constant. These letters asked the addressees to collaborate
by showing works of contemporary Chinese artists since the curator
who signed the letter would visit China between June 30th and July
15th, hoping to see, evaluate and select Chinese artists for the
exhibition "Aus der andere Welt: Chinesische Avant-garde"
(From Another World: Chinese Avant-Garde). Although the letters
date, May 21st was enough to raise suspicions (Documenta X opened
to the public on June 21st of that year), the Chinese visual arts
milieu went into turmoil. In a few days dozens of exhibitions were
prepared waiting for the curator, in the hope that some Chinese
artists would be selected for an event in the framework of what
was, and continues to be, one that attracts massive attendance of
public, press, art merchants and institutions, and can even bring
about fame and financial success.
A few days before the "arrival" in China of the illustrious
curatorship, a Chinese artist living in Europe deciphered the letters
signature, and so informed China. The letter was signed by Lelnay
Gnohoah, mirror representation of Hong Hao Yanlel. In spite of this,
many of the exhibitions were carried out, constituting one of the
more important artistic events of the China of the 90s, at
the same time closing the thematic change movement and new experiments
which even in China was called the Chinese avant-garde.
A year later Hong Hao made a map to mark this event. He printed
the letter on a map of Kassel, city where Documenta takes place,
marking the "defense" spaces in the area where this exhibition
usually takes place.
The space which Hong Hao uncovered is complex and actual. On the
one side it points out the estrangement of the local in the international,
and its negotiations. Without forgetting the contemporary curatorship
"techniques" which determine which cultures or countries
or continents, such as China itself, appear or disappear with the
fluctuation of cultural fashions. On the other side, it exposed
the mechanisms of the West to curate, and the willingness of "letting
itself be curated" to which not only China, but also other
countries submitted gladly. The new world order of plastic arts.
Without forgetting the index-like forms in which "other cultures"
have entered international exhibitions and their taxonomies.
I cannot avoid thinking of the fact that this has been revealed
by Hong Hao, Chinese artist, lover of Borges. Because in what today
seems more like the property of Foucault than of the Argentine writer,
Borges has told of a Chinese Encyclopedia where animals were divided
into: a) belonging to the Emperor; b) embalmed; c) tamed; d) suckling
pigs; e) sirens; f) fabulous; g) loose dogs; h) included in this
classification; i) are excited as if mad; j) innumerable; k) drawn
with a very fine camels hair brush; l) etcetera; m) those
which have just broken the vase; n) those which from afar look like
Art historian and artist. Born in Santiago del
Estero, Argentina. Studied at Universidad Nacional de Tucumán.
He is director of The Gate Foundation, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
He is also currently a guest lecturer at the Department of Art History,
Leiden University, The Netherlands.