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Issue 166

The Stories They Need

A slew of recent exhibitions and projects reveal an interest in the artist as anthropologist

BY Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Features | 25 SEP 14

In her fourth novel, Euphoria (2014), the American writer Lily King sends an erotic charge through a most unlikely subject – the story of three intellectually striving, socially awkward anthropologists stumbling through the swamps of the Sepik River, in New Guinea, in the lull between the 20th-century’s two devastating world wars. The book is a thinly veiled fiction about the amorous entanglements of Margaret Mead, her second husband, Reo Fortune, and her third husband, Gregory Bateson. Looming in the background are Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas, and her colleague, Ruth Benedict, a former classmate and, possibly, her lover.

Euphoria opens with the disgruntled members of a warrior tribe chucking the body of a dead baby at a woman named Nell Stone. A stand-in for Mead, Stone is wounded and sickly and travelling by canoe with her overbearing partner, Fen. She is clearly brilliant, to the extent that he can’t hope to match the strength and flexibility of her mind. With Fen left seething in Stone’s shadow, a toxic strain of competitiveness has crept into their marriage. The two of them have also failed, miserably, in their joint mission to understand the lives of the Mumbanyo people (all the tribes in the novel are fictitious) and are retreating to Australia in defeat.

Haris Epaminonda, Images, 2010, black and white riso print artist’s book, 20 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia, and Rodeo, Istanbul

On their travels, they run into Andrew Bankson (i.e. Bateson), an older, gentler anthropologist who has been studying another tribe, the Kiona, for years. He falls for Stone and, in the manner of all unhealthy love affairs, is both tortured by her presence and desperate to keep her close. The resulting relationships – tangled and confused – end more or less disastrously for everyone. The group’s grand theory of the world’s cultures becomes famous for a time but is then taken up as a favoured text by the Third Reich. Bankson, by then the only author left alive, disavows the work and asks that every known copy of it be destroyed. Hard-won wisdom and substantial pain have shown him that the spark and fervour of their ideas were only ever dangerous.

At its best, Euphoria captures the heat of those ideas amid the intellectual friction that was ascendant in anthropology’s early days, when the so-called soft science was just beginning to stretch its capacities for understanding the world. Bankson, Fen and Stone represent divergent approaches to the same task – each puzzling out, in King’s words, ‘the story of humanity’ from ‘the psyche of a culture’. One of the novel’s most intriguing subtexts considers how anthropology’s communities of concern – a generation of young practitioners, their academic elders and the tribes they encountered in the 1930s – were both recovering from and readying themselves for unconscionable conflict.

However, what drives the plot and undoes everyone in the book is not the trauma of first contact but the desire for good art. All of the main characters are searching, whether respectfully or rapaciously, for the work of potters, painters and mask-makers; for the rituals and ceremonies that smuggle the stories of a people’s origins into live performance; for the code-like evidence of tribal artisans; and for the objects of study that support the creation of language or the transmission of knowledge.

Cyprien Gaillard, Artefacts, 2011, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin, Bugada & Cargnel, Paris, and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London

Obviously, the relationship between art and anthropology has always been complicated and, arguably, it has only become more so since Mead’s studies. A curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History from 1946 to 1969, Mead studied adolescent sexuality in Samoa, and, unlike Stone in Euphoria – whose body was thrown from a ship carrying a sacred flute stolen from an avenging tribe – she was able to divorce, remarry and live a long and fruitful life. Still, the era that Mead most memorably represents – those interwar years when anthropology was extracting itself from colonial enterprise and pushing for cultural relativity over elitism and hierarchy – continues to stir academic debate, and has lately marked out fertile territory for contemporary artists to return to, reflect on and reassess.

One of the most mesmerizing works in this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York, for example, was Jennifer Bornstein’s four-and-a-half-minute video Untitled (2014), featuring a handful of supple young dancers – all naked, all women – engaged in a strange choreography oscillating between sensual and combative. Based on a film that Mead and Bateson shot in the 1930s (and released in 1952) titled Trance and Dance in Bali – which, for decades, was assumed to be an ethnographic document depicting a ritual dance for a witch and a dragon, but which turned out to be a collage made from disparate film fragments, including a performance staged for Mead’s birthday – Bornstein’s video is, in essence, a re-enactment of a re-enactment.

As such, Bornstein’s video, which was chosen for the Whitney by Michelle Grabner, delves into a controversy that dogged Mead for years: namely, whether she’d been the victim of a hoax, fooled by the tribes she studied, who were said to have given her the material she wanted while keeping their authenticity to themselves. A similar sentiment is expressed, albeit with humour, in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s video Kobarweng, or Where Is Your Helicopter? (1992), which quotes from numerous anthropological sources and ethnographic texts, including one of Mead’s informants, who declares: ‘We never tell everything. We always keep something for the next anthropologist.’

Jennifer Bornstein, Untitled, 2014, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York

However, the veracity of one historical figure’s fieldwork does not appear to be the objective, or even the interest, of Bornstein’s art – nor of Grimonprez’s, for that matter. More to the point for Bornstein are the ways in which early anthropologists made use of certain forms – etchings, photographs, 16mm films – which she revives in her own work, using old modes of documentation to find new elements of vocabulary and voice. At stake for Grimonprez – who, like Chilean video artist Juan Downey or French photographer Jean-Luc Moulène, is a godfather figure for what might be called ‘the anthropological turn’ that is taking shape and gaining momentum in contemporary art today – is the fragile, possibly delusional, notion of there being any such thing as objectivity, neutrality or detachment in the collision of cultures at all.

Certainly, a tender affection for outdated forms of anthropological and ethnographic display is currently evident in contemporary art across the board, from the gorgeous iPhone-to-35-mm footage of a ruined Iraq in Cyprien Gaillard’s Artefacts (2011) to the dried and pressed flowers in Camille Henrot’s Jewels from the Personal Collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan (2011 – 12). Both artists revel in the seductions of a certain National Geographic aesthetic, which walks a fine line between the romantic and nostalgic on the one hand, and the critical and provocative on the other.

The diamond-shaped arrangements of Polaroids in Gaillard’s ‘Geographical Analogies’ series (2006 – 11) or the petal-folded pages of his own collection of National Geographic magazines (2013) may be pretty, but they also allude to modes of seeing, engaging with and understanding the world that have been lost, arguably to our peril, even as they were driven by divisions between rich and poor, tourist and local, first world and third.

Camille Henrot, Jewels from the Personal Collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan, 2011–12, dried flower and reproduction of Christie’s auction catalogue, 43 × 28 cm

A fellow artist who is largely sceptical of Henrot’s work – describing her breakout film, Grosse Fatigue (2013), which won the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Biennale, as ‘hip but too digestible’ – told me he admired her recent survey at the New Museum, titled ‘The Restless Earth’, because it included earlier works, such as the videos Coupé/Décalé (Cut/Offset, 2010) and Le Songe de Poliphile/The Strife of Love in a Dream (2011), which were keenly, self-critically aware of their own problematics. Indeed, for the catalogue accompanying the New Museum exhibition, Henrot speaks candidly in an interview with the celebrated anthropologist Arjun Appadurai about the pitfalls of being both a tourist and an artist, out there in the world, guided by curiosity and intuition alone. There ensues a brilliant exchange on Gilles Deleuze and Claude Lévi-Strauss, the minefield anthropologists face when naming a purpose for art, and the imperative to keep fluid the categorical boundaries between objects, species and the spirits they hold to be true.

This interest in the tools and methods of anthropology, and in the discipline’s ability to discover the world and organize knowledge, has found its fullest expression in a number of recent sprawling group shows, beginning with Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Intense Proximity’, the main exhibition of the Paris Triennial in 2012. Setting out, according to his curatorial statement, to explore the convergence of art and ethnology ‘in the renewal of fascination and estrangement’, Enwezor brought together the anthropologist Timothy Asch’s Sphinx-like riddle of a film, The Ax Fight (1975), about a seemingly spontaneous but actually staged altercation in a Yanomami village in Venezuela, with the rarely seen drawings of Lévi-Strauss, the films of Jean Rouch and a slew of contemporary artworks tracing the cross-cultural tensions – and the politics of post-colonialism in particular – by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Yto Barrada, Eric Baudelaire, Henrot, Bouchra Khalili and others.

Dieter Roelstraete’s ‘The Way of the Shovel’, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2013, considered the archeological impulses in works by artists including Marianna Castillo Deball, Gaillard, Moulène and Anri Sala. Hicham Khalidi’s exhibition ‘Where Are We Now’, for the 2014 Marrakech Biennale, proposed a fascinating sub-theme about the violence of cultural encounter, most powerfully expressed in Shezad Dawood’s Towards the Possible Film (2014), depicting an epic clash of quasi-punk cavemen and blue-tinged astronauts, and Kader Attia’s towering installation Political Anthropophagy (2014), inspired by the forgotten histories and leftover traces of the Moroccan Rif War. Khalidi also assembled a sensitive study of old-fashioned exhibition styles, as evidenced in both delicate and muscular works by Eric van Hove, Adriana Lara and Walid Raad. Katarina Zdjelar’s 2014 video, Into the Interior (The Last Day of the Permanent Exhibition), was among the show’s highlights, digging into the guts of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium, allegedly the last expressly colonial museum in the world, which closed for renovation in 2013.

Iman Issa, Common Elements (detail), 2013, 54 text panels, 14 framed c-type prints, five wooden sculptures, five painted white plinths and sources/courtesies wall panel. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul

Earlier this year, Juan Gaitan’s Berlin Biennale pulled several of these strands together into a singular and sustained study of museum culture and architectural restoration. Using the ethnological collection of a soon-to-be-abandoned Modernist museum complex, the Museen Dahlem (which also houses museums of Asian art and European culture), Gaitan’s exhibition considered what he calls ‘the loose ends of history’, exploring the politics of using art for the edification of citizens versus the attraction of tourists, and revealing the ways in which stories continually trump facts whenever narratives of the past are reconstructed in the present.

‘One of the aspects we have disregarded in the study of ethnographic collections is the role imagination plays,’ Gaitan told me in an email. ‘I don’t mean imagination tout-court but its mediating function, where it places itself as the arbiter between the objects, as surrogate subjects of scientific study and knowledge, and the audience, which is commonly perceived as an amorphous mass of under-educated individuals who need some degree of entertainment.’

Outwardly, Gaitan’s exhibition situated itself in locations that fell outside prevailing narratives about Berlin, which tend to focus on either the political history of the East-West axis or the architectural revival of the city’s Prussian past, allowing for a questionable kind of storytelling that skips over the 20th-century’s highly localized horrors. Inwardly, among participants, Gaitan established only one rule for the show, for which he asked artists to refrain from intervening directly in the Museen Dahlem’s collections.

‘In contemporary art as a whole,’ he says, ‘very often we operate under the impression that we are the enlightened children of the current age and are thus allowed to cast judgment on anything and everything, disregarding pre-existing knowledge. This has something to do with the fact that, if treated as a movement – in the same sense that Modernism can be seen as a movement – contemporary art operates against history.’

Mitigating against that, Gaitan’s biennial approached the museum as if it were a readymade, with new works of contemporary art placed alongside, but not within, the show of ethnographic objects. The point was not only to establish a kind of dialogue with the past but also to keep the exhibition’s own display style from becoming too clean or clinical. The idea, in other words, was to maintain a certain awareness of where we, as viewers, might stand in relation to history, and in relation to the other, whoever that other may be.

Shezad Dawood, Towards the Possible Film, 2014, film still. Courtesy: Film and Video Umbrella and Delfina Foundation, London

Some of the most interesting instances of anthropology being repurposed by contemporary art take place on the seams of post-colonialism, at the edges of a rapidly expanding, ever-globalizing art world. Consider, for example, how the National Geographic bent of recent projects by Egyptian artist Iman Issa (objects referring to off-kilter museum collections in 2013’s Common Elements), Greek Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda (gorgeous old books, doctored photographs, found sculptures) or Palestinian artist Basma Alsharif (in the materials gathered to piece together a missing narrative in her 2011 video The Story of Milk and Honey) draw on museological styles that remain distinctly 19th-century, as are common in much of the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. Whether in Egypt, Cyprus or Palestine, to be a young person engaged in contemporary art practice and searching for a sense of belonging to a functional state, is to be involved in pursuits that are inherently, painfully fictional when compared to the nationalist or lingering colonialist ideologies at play in the region’s crumbling museums, schools, monuments, theatres and other derelict houses of culture.

The anthropologist’s way of working also plays into the nomadic logic of moving from one residency programme to the next. The artist Rheim Alkadhi, for example, has created an enigmatic series of Francesca Woodman-style self-portraits in Cairo. She turned blankets into sculptural objects while living with a Berber family outside Marrakech and replicated burial mounds for an ill-fated public artwork in Bahrain. As a child growing up in Iraq, she remembers watching her mother, a cultural anthropologist, at work on an ethnographic study of a girls’ school in Baghdad. From that experience, she told me: ‘I understand anthropology [as] an immersive practice, whereby personal narrative and consequence are always at stake, at risk of expanding. In my mind, immersion is key, and what makes it effective is self-reflexivity. This is what has redeemed anthropology, placing the gaze at once inward and outward.’

Alkadhi pushed that practice furthest in 2012, when she spent days sitting with elder Palestinian women in an occupied village, collecting hair from a donated pile of women’s hairbrushes, knotting the long strands together to reach from there to Jerusalem, a symbolic journey that is the substance of one of her most poignant projects. Collective Knotting Together of Hairs yielded maps, texts, photographs, spools and innumerable clumps of hair – but mostly it gave rise to an experience that could never be adequately documented except in the artist’s retelling.

And perhaps that is the defining characteristic of the anthropological turn. After the mad archivist and the melancholy archeologist, the artist as anthropologist is heir neither to Mead nor to the tribes she studied. He or she is most like Lily King in Euphoria – a storyteller or fabulist using the techniques of anthropology to tell again, or tell differently, a story of encounter. And if the novelist ultimately tells a polished fiction, then the artist may often find him- or herself searching not only for anthropology’s stories of origin but also, closer to the present (and to quote Joan Didion), for the stories we tell ourselves in order to live.

Shezad Dawood, Towards the Possible Film, 2014, film still. Courtesy: Film and Video Umbrella and Delfina Foundation, London

A strong undercurrent, and one rebellious reference among many, in Dawood’s Towards the Possible Film, is his discovery of the work of the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, who broke rather famously from the work of his mentor, Lévi-Strauss. ‘A young curator named Cinthya Lana first suggested I read Clastres’s book of essays, Archeology of Violence (1980),’ Dawood told me. ‘That led me to his 1974 book Society Against the State, which was a revelation. Clastres had set the field alight with the radical notion that so-called primitive tribes engaged in perpetual warfare not due to some essential primitive drive but as a much more nuanced refusal of state formation and the bureaucracy that would necessarily accompany it.’ Dawood found this idea such a radical shake-up of his ‘liberal, pacifist views’ that he turned Clastres’s theory into a guiding principal for the film.

If anthropology as a discipline has moved, over the decades, from colonial complicity to the bombast of identity politics and multicultural apologia, then Dawood today locates ‘the salient edge of anthropology in documentary films that are taking a bold step back into the ring to make anthropology radical again. Anthropology is, in many ways, a failed discourse within a politically correct framework.’ But, he adds, ‘contemporary art is always looking for new frontiers’. Artists may be reviving the discipline’s radical potential ‘as a reaction to the apologetic neoliberal tone of a lot of contemporary anthropology, and as a way of excavating not just the accumulated knowledge of earlier formations but also celebrating their poetic and often-times quixotic qualities’.

In a similar vein, the artist and writer Naeem Mohaiemen, who works between Bangladesh and the us, is in the process of making a series of accomplished books and films about the ultra-left in the 1970s, including United Red Army: (The Young Man Was, Part 1) (2012) and The Young Man Was, Part 2: Afsan’s Long Day (2014). He is also pursuing a doctoral degree in anthropology at Columbia University. Mohaiemen defines his artistic practice as ‘a search for objects’. He emailed me: ‘Without the object there cannot be work on the wall, and one of the factors for doing anthropology is reeling back further to find the people, or social groups, that invented the myth of that object – the missing film canister, the trunk full of documents. It is [about] embracing the impossibility of a certain mythic object, and writing about that absence, about why people invent the story of the object – akin to inventing a god to structure your society – to give themselves the story they need.’

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.