BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
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Issue 48

Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s

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BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

'Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s' included work by well over 100 artists and artists' collectives, many of them not widely familiar but deserving of interest. They were grouped regionally and by period: 1950s to circa 1973 included Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand; c. 1973 until the late 80s, the Soviet Union, Africa, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The breadth of material was intended to be seen in critical relation to the more conve-ntional account of Conceptual art as a North American and Western European export of the 60s. The exhibition might be seen as something of a riposte to Los Angeles MOCA's 'Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965-1975', a more cohesive but less challenging Conceptual art show.

The inclusiveness of 'Global Conceptualism' rested in part on a distinction emphasised by the project directors, Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss in the highly informative catalogue: a distinction between Conceptual art as 'an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of Minimalism' (though this may come as a surprise to some of its practitioners) and Conceptualism, 'which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art on physical form and its visual apperception' and was characterised by the de-emphasis of the object in favour of the 'idea' (a largely unexamined term in the discourse on Conceptual/ist art) and the conduct of art. This is perhaps too fine a distinction, which tends to separate good (political) from bad (formal) Conceptual artists.

The desire to valourise conceptualism as woven into moments of political and social upheaval yields plausible results, especially in Latin American contexts: Brazilian artist Cildo Mereiles stamped questions about political assassination onto money in circulation in her piece Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Banknote Project (Who Killed Herzog?) (1973) and the most radical example, the Argentinian mass-media art/guerrilla collective action, Tucam·n Arde (1968). But what are we to make of the relations between art, politics and history in the Hungarian Miklos ErdÈly's metaphysical puzzle, a vacuum flask containing Snow of Last Year (1970)? (Let alone, say, the work of Joseph Kosuth.) If, as the exhibition demonstrates, many politically active artists have taken approaches that look a lot like Conceptual strategies - de-materialisation, engagement with institutional contexts, emphasis on relations between language and perception - those artists have also, clearly, been concerned with the form of their acts. (We might consider, for example, the Australian artist Ian Burn, an integral participant in North American/Western European Conceptual art and a committed leftist.)

The show opened with Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965. This seemed auspicious, particularly in terms of centre/periphery arguments: Ono is a transcultural figure, and the first gallery, with works from Japan on one side and from Western Europe on the other, was the most successful illustration of one of the exhibition's premises: a globalism which acknowledges global links, but which insists on the difference between conceptualist movements 'spurred by urgent local conditions and histories'. There were a number of striking relationships, though not necessarily structured by relations to political events, but by relations to everyday experiences of Capitalism. Documentation of Akasegawa Genpei's Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident (1965-7), in which Akasegawa was tried and convicted of currency fraud for making one-sided copies ('models') of bank notes, sat opposite Yves Klein's Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: Sale to M. Blankfort (1962), in which the artist (who studied Judo in Tokyo in the 50s) 'sold' a zone in exchange for a quantity of gold supplied by the collector, which the artist then threw into the Seine.

Works which were confined to regionally-organised galleries made connections and parallels between ideas less clear. Upstairs - particularly, where Africa, the Soviet Union, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were located and where the focus shifted to work made in the 70s and 80s - multicentered globalism seemed to fall prey to a kind of uneven development argument, as though Conceptualism were the inevitable corollary to political and social oppression or upheaval. Here, unfortunately, no matter how interesting - and in many instances valid - the attempt had been, conceptualism became too baggy, temporally distended and leaky a category to make productive sense of the relations between works made not only under different, local conditions, but long after the global emergence of Conceptual/ist strategies. By the end, Conceptualism didn't seem like a strong enough context in which to consider, for instance, the astringent irony of Komar and Melamid's abstraction of the bureaucratic means of Soviet surveillance in the form of a red square (Documents: Ideal Document, 1975) or the reflection on meaning and freedom that underlies the Chinese artist Wenda Gu's series of works using 'pseudo characters', fake Chinese characters (begun in 1985). But if 'Global Conceptualism' overreached itself, it was nonetheless compelling.

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