Amongst this year’s numerous recession-defying, large-scale art events in Belgium is the group exhibition ‘Newtopia: The State of Human Rights’, which presents art work by more than 70 artists at a number of venues around the city of Mechelen and at the ING Cultural Centre in Brussels. The point of departure for ‘Newtopia’ is the highly contentious subject of human rights, the definition of which is central to debates on everything from the victims of war and torture to the recent furore in Germany over circumcision. Curator Katerina Gregos’s highly politicized approach to the subject can be challenging to evaluate because ‘Newtopia’ demands consideration in terms of its politics as well as its art.
Gregos’s stance on the definition of human rights is rooted firmly in its historical development in Europe, from the Enlightenment through to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, until today. The genesis of human rights revolved around the idea of a shared, universal sense of humanity and ethics for all, and those that support this perspective tend to reject cultural relativism. Yet the existence of universalism remains a part of the Western imaginary and has, more recently, been questioned by philosophers and political theorists. Immanuel Wallerstein’s 2006 book European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power provides perhaps the most pertinent narrative, positing universalism as a successor to colonialism as a means of speaking on behalf of the developing world and interfering in the business of other countries. In his view, universalism can be seen as the shift from the Western stereotypical perspective of the East (historically described as Orientalism), to a Western sense of something shared, to which the non-Western world might not always conform. As universalism is ascribed the status of natural law by the West, non-conformity permits the right to intervention, whether through aid or warfare. It is an idea that allows an artist such as Ai Weiwei (whose work is part of Kendell Geers’s contribution to ‘Newtopia’) to be heralded in the West for conforming to its ideas on human rights.
Rather than interrogating the notion of rights and universalism, however, the rhetorical framework of the exhibition treats them as given. Through its various chapters, the show instead foregrounds particular types and generations of human rights issues in a historically guided sequence. The first focuses on the fundamental ‘first generation’ issues, including freedom of speech, capital punishment and abuses of the state; the second section mainly on socio-economic conditions and education; the third on ‘inclusivity’ issues like gender rights, minority rights, the rights of asylum seekers, as well as the environment and sustainability, and other issues relating to the ‘social contract’ between state and citizen; while the fourth section covers Utopian aspirationalism – all of it embedded, curatorially speaking, within an ambiguous notion of democracy.
Inevitably, within the exhibition context an implicit connection is made between human rights and the ‘unrestrained expression’ of art, wherever it may be – even in ‘Farawayistan’, which Karen Moeskops, Director of Amnesty International Flanders, refers to in the exhibition catalogue’s foreword. In a curious, unwitting way, ‘Newtopia’ explains how the globalizing principle of universalism is itself mirrored in the art world. As an exhibition on human rights, ‘Newtopia’ is, as it should be, international in scope, and internationalism in art is arguably itself a construct and import based on Western consensus. Symptomatically, art by non-Western artists is often confined to a Western-defined form of multiculturalism, often based on respective crises. The political situation in Syria, for instance, is represented in ‘Newtopia’ through the work of cartoonist Ali Farzat, while Amar Kanwar’s exacting The Torn First Pages (2004–08) addresses the political realities in Burma in a 19-channel video installation about a Burmese bookseller sentenced to three years in prison for tearing out the first page of every book he sold, normally reserved for military propaganda.
The elephant in the room, in the context of both the exhibition and the main host city of Mechelen, is the Catholic Church. Like other places, the city, which is the home of the Church in Belgium, has been hit with many scandals around the systematic sexual abuse of children by the clergy over many decades. This issue is raised in Lieve van Stappen’s installation of Timelines (2012), which, despite the inclusion of glass christening-dress sculptures in Esse est Percipi (1999–2012), is a rather objective, straightforward presentation of raw numerical data. Thomas Locher’s untitled contribution, which brings together a selection of his existing works – a number of large photographic panels on a wall present the UN Declaration of Human Rights, on top of which Locher has scribbled notes, interrogating the vagueness of the words and notions that constitute it – is one of the few that suggests a sense of direct progress with the human rights issue, looking to engage with the subject directly rather than simply being ‘about’ it.
Formally speaking, ‘Newtopia’ is a well-presented exhibition that manages to avoid being a sort of UN school of curating. And it is certainly one of those shows where, as a curator, you lay yourself on the line. The strength of Gregos’s show lies in its will to consider human rights as a field in transition. And yet it leaves a dilemma for those that currently prefer such a pro-universalist frame, particularly for those who consider Postmodern discourse a hindrance whose arguments have destroyed the notion of universalism, and exposed human rights as a modern Western evolutionary construct with it. Either they need to clearly articulate what exactly is unquestionably universal, which thus far seems to be pinned on the rather vague notion of ‘dignity’ that has lingered since the Enlightenment, or they must accept that universalism is a misnomer and possibly a distraction to the development of the urgent human rights discourse, and thus new, yes, relativistic, terms of engagement must be found.