BY James Trainor in Reviews | 06 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA

BY James Trainor in Reviews | 06 JUN 03

Minneapolis lies smack at the heart of what some Americans derisively refer to as the 'flyover zone'. It's probably not most people's idea of a global melting-pot, but this prairie metropolis, once a bastion of Lutheranism and a regional Scandinavian-American culture associated with ice fishing, reticence and self-deprecatory cuisine has lately become, as the artist Julie Mehretu put it, a city in East Africa. Thanks to an influx of refugees fleeing places such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, visitors may find injera bread or peanut soup at their corner shop as easily as Wonderloaf and peanut butter.

It's somehow fitting, then, that this heartland town should host 'How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age', which has the Walker Art Center examining how current shifting perceptions of place - influenced by air travel, the rise of the Internet and transnational flows of people, capital and ideas - affect the making of contemporary art and its absorption by culture at large. Whether globalization is fostering a new-found sense of artistic internationalism is a hard discussion to escape, evinced by shows such as last year's mammoth Documenta 11, which descended on Kassel like the art world version of a truth and reconciliation commission. The curator of 'Latitudes', Philippe Vergne and colleagues Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi, have clearly mulled over the issue at length, their more focused take on the subject involving a four-year 'global initiative' that culminated in a selection of 28 emerging artists from Brazil, South Africa, China, Japan, Turkey, India and the United States. The resulting conferences, interviews and research are all exhaustively documented in the show's excellent, manifesto-like catalogue. (The exhibition is travelling to the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin in June, and next year to the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston.)

The importance the show's curators attach to the debate is reflected in the way they have reverently hijacked the title of Harald Szeemann's seminal 1969 exhibition 'When Attitudes Become Form', which not only declared Conceptual and Process-oriented art practices as the new reality, but also embodied a new jetset transnational reality in art-making and exhibitions. Of course, back in 1969 'Internationalism' was a largely Euro-American affair, the 'developing' world counting for little in the kunsthalles and galleries of Cologne, Paris or New York. Thirty years on, however, the art circuit, as the worldwide proliferation of biennials, triennials and megafairs attests, is no longer restricted to the North Atlantic.

The curators of 'Latitudes' carefully avoid presenting globalism as their theme or even the preferred subject of the artists in the show, which features a diversity of media with a discernibly strong showing in performance, film- and video-based work and installation. Instead, they propose it as a method for identifying new spheres of meaning in work by people who might otherwise be uncomfortable with the 'global artist' moniker. No preachy digressions on logos, branding or corporate hegemony here. While Documenta 11 laudably redressed past imbalances and delved into 'real life' issues such as poverty, famine and exploitation, 'Latitudes' redraws the map along different lines. Neither portentous nor glibly overreaching, at its best it highlights work that can be characterized as local in the sense of being personal, yet comfortably at home in its worldliness.

One side-effect of a shrinking globe is the way in which awareness of what lies elsewhere can allow one to become a tourist at home. Brazilian appropriationist-cum-ethnographer Marepe, for example, scours his country's poorest urban areas collecting artefacts - colourful rat poison vendors' stands, elegantly knotted laundry bundles - that act as politically charged ready-mades when transferred to a gallery context. You know you have arrived in the 'First World' when everything around you begins to look like an art object, and there is just a hint of condescension, however unintended, in this act. Marepe's gift for blurring art and everyday life (a bent he shares with his compatriot Cabelo) is better served when using local household objects as performance props in works such as Acoustic Head (1995), where tin washbasins and cook pots are transformed into a one-person mobile echo chamber.

The idea of the artist as collector of the world in his own backyard may partly explain Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin's impulse to wander his native Istanbul taking snapshots of every hotel named after another city. (It turns out there are plenty, including the Sebastopol, the Vegas and the Bora Bora.) Satisfying the artist's own psycho-geographic flâneurie, Capacity (1998) also reveals how a citizenry's fantasies of elsewhere can be physicalized.

While technology and global media have wrought a togetherness - South African Robin Rhode's scampish performance drawings use pro basketball, the trappings of youth culture and cartoon clichés as a common visual shorthand equally recognizable in Cape Town and Brooklyn - it's no secret that the networking of the world has facilitated an accompanying rise in factional tribalism. Cameron Jamie films the rituals and regalia of little-known, frequently dysfunctional subcultures. Set in torturous slow-motion to a thrashing hardcore soundtrack, BB (2000) documents the frenzied operatic mayhem of white trash kids in California's San Fernando Valley staging elaborately 'extreme' backyard wrestling tournaments. Jamie depicts suburbia as a failed, almost extra-national zone of volatility and aggression in a manner that is admittedly thrilling, if not a little exploitative. More interesting to consider is how mass culture, translated at ground level, can spawn new communal bonds and behaviours, no matter how twisted.

Wang Jian Wei, also working somewhere between documentary film and art, examines another failed place whose inhabitants are caught between worlds and are forced to improvise provisional identities. Living Elsewhere (1999-2000) follows the lives of a group of displaced Chinese in Szechuan who, having left their farms for non-existent jobs in the city, find themselves squatting in an unfinished, abandoned community of suburban villas. In this surreal environment - the houses little more than grandiose concrete shells without plumbing or electricity - they doggedly reconstruct a semblance of their former rural lives as best they can, hunting, gathering and growing vegetables in a rustic dystopia.

In a memorable performance documented on video in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the portly Song Dong, his camera slung round his neck, at first looks like any tourist happy to be in town for the weekend. So happy, in fact, that in Jump (1999), like a sightseer with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he hops, takes a photo, steps to the right or left and then repeats the action. Evidently the artist's behaviour in a public place associated with protest and repression is made acceptable to passers-by by being coupled with the ubiquitous activity of tourist photography. That Bruce Nauman's repetitive performances of the 1960s are the reference point that springs to mind is a culturally skewed bias on my part. It may be that the practice of Taoism, evident elsewhere in his work, equally motivates Dong's mind-numbing bouts of endurance.

That is perhaps the useful crux of this show's perspective, which accepts the fact that images, actions or forms accrue and shed meaning as they are translated from one cultural sphere to the next. While modernity began as a Western export, some works here hint that, just as there are local traditional forms, so there may be emerging local modernities, circulating and disseminated as common currencies. It is an interesting facet of the new internationalism that many so-called 'global artists' have limited visibility at home, and depend instead on the itinerant rounds of biennials, 'festivalist' art events and travelling exhibitions like 'Latitudes'. 'Live in Your Head' was the groovy subtitle of 'When Attitudes Become Form'. As the curators of 'Latitudes' contend, in these nomadic times more artists are exploring ways to combine living in their heads and out in the wider world.

James Trainor was US editor of frieze between 2004–07