in Frieze | 09 AUG 95
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Issue 24

Just An Illusion


in Frieze | 09 AUG 95

On the plane from New York's Kennedy Airport I began to consider an article I wanted to write on the culture of whiteness in contemporary visual practice. Two minutes later, I was sound asleep. I started to wake up while waiting in line at British customs. As the queues thinned I was left alone to deal with 45 minutes of intense interrogation. After staring with disbelief at my stated profession the Customs Agent looked me in the eye and asked, with a straight face, 'Why isn't a British writer doing this job?' I shrugged my shoulders in silence. The official harassment sort of made me feel like I was at home.

The premise and promise of the ICA's Frantz Fanon festival seemed to mirror critic/curator Kellie Jones' Malcolm X exhibition which toured the US a few years back. Like X, Fanon has become a mythic angel of the black liberationist movements. His 1968 tome Black Skin, White Masks is infinitely quotable and utilised by everyone from postcolonial academics to Far Right extremists hell bent on stopping miscegenation. Wisely, David A. Bailey, writer, lecturer, photographer and curator of 'Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire' avoided the obvious pitfall of Jones' show by making sure none of the work directly referenced its mentor, even though many of the artists in the exhibition have previously made pieces quoting Fanon.

During my first few days in London, I was told repeatedly that such all-star conferences and exhibitions dealing with race issues are rare over here. Chaired by Homi K. Bhaba, the 'Working with Fanon' conference featured such luminaries as Paul Gilroy, bell hooks, Isaac Julien, Raoul Peck, and Ntozake Shange. Opening the first session, Bhaba spoke of 'claiming a critical genealogy that was non-celebratory.' So, I figured, we have come here neither to praise Fanon nor to bury him. Bhaba continued. 'The philosophy of praxis is to occupy the space of contradiction. It is a way of resituating Frantz Fanon in his view, not just at this most quotable moment.' This seemed to be the most prescient explanation for an exhibition which included so many feminist and homosexual issues in the name of someone who was a noted misogynist and homophobe. Bhaba went on to suggest that working with Fanon meant discovering an 'international humanism that can replace colonialism.' Uh-oh. The idea of one world/global village/one people seems to me to be too close to Benetton and Coca-Cola style marketing. As Fanon wrote, 'The Negro is universalising himself ... There is a drama there, and the black intellectuals are running a risk of being trapped by it. What? I have barely opened eyes that have been blindfolded, and someone already wants to drown me in the universal.' 1

Following Bhaba came Stuart Hall, with a voice that thundered and flowed as if trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Enamoured with his prolific texts, this was the first time I had actually seen him in action. I trembled a bit while that thundering bass spoke of the 'jouissance of theory'. I was awash with frisson when, in referring to a 'distinct system of equivalation', he articulated, 'It is into this black hole I want to plunge.' Presenting an intelligent view of Fanon's Black Skin... Hall suggested there were three unfinished dialogues with which Fanon was engaged: Freud/Lacan; Sartre (and through him Hegel's master/slave dialectic); and the Negritude poets. Unfortunately no one in the conference would pick up on this last one. Bhaba and Hall shared the stage in what seemed to be an all too comfortable buddy routine with tinges of the Oedipal, Hall representing the mother of Black British Theory. At one point Bhaba suggested that their theorising had come full circle: he once sounded like Hall, and Hall now sounds like him. Bhaba laughed at his own witticism while Hall smiled silently in near-agreement.

Later that day, Lola Young presented a feminist reading of Fanon. It seemed strange that anyone could read Black Skin, White Masks without getting an awful taste of misogyny in their mouth. Fanon even states himself, 'Those who grant our conclusions on the psychosexuality of the white woman may ask what we have to say about the woman of colour. I know nothing about her.' 2 Apparently ticking off Young's critique, bell hooks presented an unscripted view of Fanon as one of her fathers. But most impressive was Françoise Versages, who explored the way in which Fanon systematically avoided biography and memory because of their inherent unreliablity and their lack of any actual political significance. By illuminating Fanon's conservative reparation with history, Versages showed how Fanon's historical amnesia allowed him to link colonisation and the rejection of basic psychoanalytic principles. Suggesting that for Fanon, this led to an inability to find a redemptive masculinity that was not rooted in misogyny, she elucidated a man who was only able to be free in a world without women. Brilliant.

In Kobena Mercer's otherwise cogent catalogue essay for 'Mirage' he talks of a 'reciprocal relation of visual arts practice to critical theory.' When dealing with contemporary art, this seems highly suspect. How many artists would agree with this statement? In essence, as the conference made crystalline, the two seem stuck in an endless attempt to cannibalise each other. While Bhaba's The Location of Culture, for example, opens with a discussion of the work of Renée Green, there is a pervasive sense that Green's work, much like Toni Morrison's and Nadine Gordimer's, is being utilised by Bhaba to reinforce what he already knows. The lack of a broad-based art knowledge which can place Green in her art world and art historical context is not there. Is this a reciprocal relationship? Perhaps the exhibition would elucidate.

The show began downstairs with Glenn Ligon's canvasses and punchbag (made in collaboration with Byron Kim.) While these canvases are Ligon's best known work, I felt that his recent runaway slave auction posters might have made a less obvious connection and opened a new door onto Fanon's concepts of history, memory and (80s buzzword alert) identity. I walked past Steve McQueen's video as the tape was rewinding, into Lyle Ashton Harris' installation, a return appearance of last Autumn's New York show: C-prints rephotographed from his grandfather's collection hang on red, black and green walls, with an eclectic soundtrack that only further typifies Harris and his world. Context is everything. In 'Mirage' Harris' The Good Life seemed to have left the narcissistic revelations of its New York setting and approached the narcissistic transcendence into which Fanon delved: ' was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person ... I was responsible for my body, my race, for my ancestors.'

Upstairs, the room-size installation by Eddie George and Trevor Mathison (of Britain's Black Audio Film Collective) held several televisions screening grainy video footage. Their plinths lay in a black labyrinth, with different grains and natural elements scattered beneath one's feet. In the next room Sonia Boyce replaced a wall with a photograph of an interracial kiss about to occur, or possibly already taken place. This piece suffered so badly from its placement that whatever power it possessed was seriously diminished. It hung in what was actually a hallway leading to the room which Martinican/French/New Yorker artist Marc Latamie shared with Renée Green. Latamie's installation consisted of a Martinican sugar shack housing a monitor showing Martinican cane fields resting on a mound of (guess what?) pure, white, refined sugar. All of these pieces fell flat mainly because they pushed a literal invocation of Fanonian ideas which left the viewer wondering where the art began and the politicking ended. As an artist who usually knows how to combine the two with an unerring intelligence, Renée Green. in her installation Revue (1990), presented an exhumation of myths and mania surrounding Saartje Bartmann (the 'Hottentot Venus') and Josephine Baker. As usual Green's work reveals an intellectual quest which drips with sardonic irony, but it could have used the emotional narrowing of distance that some sort of subjectivity would have brought.

On returning to Steve McQueen's installation, light suddenly appeared and I discovered two incredible things. The first was somewhere to sit. (The only place I can imagine someone actually enjoying standing and watching a monitor is at a betting parlour. The display of Isaac Julien's film THAT RUSH! (1995) in a hallway made viewing almost impossible as people were constantly interrupting the viewer's line of sight.) The second was McQueen's work. Two films, Bear (1993) and Five Easy Pieces (1995), must count as some of the most interesting film-as-art being made today. Bear is a deft exploration of black masculinity wherein two nude ursine actors wrestle/embrace as the camera's movement and brilliant editing buttress a feeling of tension that is matched by moments of salient tenderness. The film lightly dances between moments of homosocial antagonism and homoerotic bonding without giving either away. The second film, Five Easy Pieces, is a montage of motion experiments, alluding to narrative while never going near it. It is poetic in the extreme. A beautiful and determined woman walks a tightrope in a silvery grass skirt. The skirt blends into an aerial view of five hula-hooping actors, fading into a panoramic spin of a black male bust which melts into a headless black torso standing above the camera, wearing only underwear, hesitating a bit before whipping out his penis and pissing on the camera. He hesitates again before shaking it off then spits into the puddle to finish it off. Instead of retreading Fanonian territory McQueen has moved on, ploughing new areas where all would be wise to follow.

In the US, art exhibitions attempting to grasp or rectify the social and political problems of the day are actually getting better. Successful recent examples include the late Trial Balloon's 'Part Fantasy' and Berkeley University Museum's 'In a Different Light'. The schism of blackness in a gallery setting is no problem in black museums such as Harlem's Studio Museum or SoHo's Museum of African Art because self-identification seems moot in these spaces. Museums like London's ICA or New York's Whitney, however, seem to be on a reparation course that is skewed in its reactionary stance. One can't make up for marginialisation with one-fell-swoop type of shows. But perhaps Mirage's real problem was illustrated by a conversation I had after missing the preview. 'So how was the opening?' I asked. 'Well, the art world wasn't there.' 'Oh. Who was there?' I asked. The day before I had spoken to an artist who was in the show and had said that it was packed. 'A lot of black people.' The struggle continues.

1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1968 pub. Pluto Press, London, p.186

2. Ibid., p.179