A Naïve Belief in Global Citizenship as an Equalizing Force

Portland’s arts biennial, Converge 45, adopts an idealist vision of what it means to be a citizen of the world

BY Claire Voon in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 18 SEP 23

Around the world, signs mark the 45th parallel north, the circle of latitude roughly halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Considering this imaginary line as both a Western mapping tool and an emblem of cross-border unity, it’s fitting that this year’s Converge 45 – Portland, Oregon’s biennial named for the parallel – is themed around art as global citizenship. Works by more than 50 artists, shown in various places around the city, including galleries and institutions, aim to shift our individual perspectives towards a responsibility to collective well-being.

How might the biennial complicate dominant ideas of global citizenship, which smuggle neoliberal Eurocentric viewpoints through purportedly benevolent acts in the name of some common, essentializing humanity? What does it mean to be a citizen in or of a world upended by climate crises, where personhood and rights of movement are entwined with legal status? Converge 45’s artistic director, Christian Viveros-Fauné, has long been thinking about the changemaking power of art: the exhibition’s main title, ‘Social Forms’, directly references his book Social Forms: A History of Political Art (2018). Speaking on the opening day of the biennial, Viveros-Fauné described citizenship as ‘a fundamental right – a “right to have rights”’, quoting former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren – who was himself channelling Hannah Arendt. Without citizenship, Viveros-Fauné  went on, ‘the vulnerable, the poor, the refugee don’t stand a chance.’ There’s a lot of truth to this simple but powerful creed – not for nothing is Warren a giant of twentieth-century American liberalism – but there’s something narrowing about neglecting the strategies of stateless people who have survived without legal recognition, while the idealization of citizenship as an equalizing status can sometimes feel naive.

Richard Mosse Broken Spectre
Richard Mosse, Broken Spectre, 2018­–22, installation view, Lewis & Clark College. Courtesy: the artist and Converge 45; photograph: Mario Gallucci

Converge 45 adopts such thinking; the results are scattershot. Richard Mosse’s Broken Spectre (2018­–22), a five-channel video documenting the destruction of the Amazon through highly aestheticized and discomfiting footage, leans into an archetype of West-dependent global citizenship. (Mosse is Irish and lives in New York.) The installation at Lewis & Clark College also includes a QR code for visitors to donate to the Yanomami Nation in Brazil. Frustratingly, some of the most memorable works feel distant from the theme, contributing to the biennial’s overall feel as a bunch of disjointed exhibitions. These include the late Jesse Murry’s deeply moving abstractions at Reed Gallery, which reveal grandeurs that belie their scale; Amanda Ross-Ho’s material and lexical explorations of memory through her past life as a competitive figure skater at ILY2 gallery; and Anna Gray and Ryan Paulsen’s text-inscribed bricks, scattered treasure hunt-style throughout Converge 45, trailing a chain of shared secrets. The dearth, though, of critical engagements with diverse positionalities in a world of arbitrary borders, cascading displacement, climate migration and passport privilege feels like a missed opportunity.

Hung Liu
Hung Liu, A Question of Hu: The Narrative Art of Hung Liu, From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, 2023, installation view, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Courtesy: Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation; photograph: Deann Orr

The presentation most directly addressing citizenship and belonging is a compact survey of the late Chinese artist Hung Liu at Portland State University. Liu, whose life was ruptured during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, moved to the US to pursue art, and later acquired citizenship. Her paintings and tapestries memorialize marginalized people like field workers and sex-trafficking victims, in portraits that feel heroic and intimate. Most intriguing is Official Self-Portraits, a trio of self-portraits from 2006, each overlaid with a different photo ID Liu received in China. Together they connote the complex ties between her ever-evolving identity and her homeland. Wall text (in English and Chinese) state that they depict Liu as a persecuted youth, an immigrant in a new country, and ‘finally as a global citizen who has acquired a full set of rights’ – a glib suggestion that America had finally afforded her emancipation. Liu’s art is necessary viewing, but it is undermined by such declarations, that reduce her life to an easily digestible narrative of struggle and triumph, rather than examine the compounding, complicated experiences of living and working as an East Asian woman in the US. Jordan Schnitzer, who owns the works on view, said Liu’s art appeals to him because it ‘shows a defiance,’ as he stated during the exhibition’s opening. ‘Look at those eyes. She’s determined to persevere, and not just survive, but thrive.’

I recalled this sentiment when viewing tapestries by Portland artist Vo Vo at Parallax Art Center, host to the biennial’s most cohesive exhibition. Informed by the artist’s comic-art practice, they feature images of wildlife and phrases conveying the exhaustion of survival – a riposte to the idea that there is beauty in struggle. One weaving of an unfinished brick chamber, Better out than in (2023), is an understated portrait of rest and refusal.

Sara Siestreem at Parallax
Sara Siestreem, Summertime, 2021, installation view, Parallax. Courtesy: the artist and Converge 45

Nearby, ceramic baskets, a weaving and a multipaneled painting by Sara Siestreem, of the Hanis Coos people, are an expansive response to the notion of global citizenship, providing an Indigenous lens through which to consider one’s relationship, and responsibility, to the nurturing force of land. Fragrant mugwort and sweetgrass, gathered and braided by Siestreem, adorn one wall as a sensory invitation into the indigenized space. Also at Parallax, Nariso Martinez, a former farm worker, shows portraits of migrant labourers on found produce boxes. Martinez’s on-the-nose approach confronts us with the faces of people who are essential to the food-supply chain but often undocumented, underscoring the uneven access to citizenship.

The strongest curatorial statement of Converge 45 is at Oregon Contemporary, where a five-channel video by Portland-based, Aotearoa New Zealand-born Sam Hamilton (Sam Tam Ham) rejects the hegemonic world order in favour of a more equitable network of relations. An experimental opera/interdisciplinary project, Te Moana Meridian (2020–22) proposes relocating the Prime Meridian from the imperialist orientation on Greenwich, London, to the global commons of Te Moana-Nui-ā-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean). Voices of impassioned orators, filmed inside a parliament and an archive, merge with those of youth of the Lincoln City Children’s Choir, seen dancing on a beach. Their sustained, intergenerational chants are a grounding thread through footage that aligns human gestures and nature’s rhythms into a cyclic flow. Te Moana Meridian is an earnest consideration of something that might seem impossible, and a provocation to imagine what seismic changes we may will into existence. It’s an example of what Converge 45 does at its best: affirm that communities can be united beyond arbitrary lines or normalized gestures.

Converge 45’s ‘Social Forms: Art as Global Citizenship’ is on view across 15 venues in Portland, Oregon, and will close on a rolling basis starting in October, and continuing through the end of the year.

Main image: Richard Mosse, Broken Spectre2018­–22, installation view, Lewis & Clark College. Courtesy: the artist and Converge 45; photograph: Mario Gallucci

Claire Voon is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, ARTnews, Artsy, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cultured, among other publications.