Caribbean Art and the ‘White Cube’ Aesthetic

– Natalie McGuire

“The history of modernism is intimately framed by [the gallery] space; or rather the history of modern art can be correlated with changes in that space and in the way we see it. We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.”

– Brian O’Doherty[1]

Though subversive, the environment in which art is exhibited has been used in contemporary art to display implications of contextualizing outside of the typical.  The use of space is no longer neutral, it adds another dimension of what the exhibition wishes to communicate, whether it is being engaged with or not. Theorist Walter Benjamin in 1939 described ‘Cult value’ as the worth of art due to its inaccessibility to the public, only readily available to people in authority[2]. The more valued pieces of art were the ones that only got revealed on special occasions, such medieval sculptures that are not visible on ground level. Then when art was being created in different ways, such as easel painting, art obtained a new type of value – ‘Exhibition value’, where works of art were being hung in public galleries. Art became even more accessible through the technology of photography, which Benjamin believes obliterated the authorities hold on art value. It now became that the more an artwork was exposed to the public, the more valued it was as art, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which since 1913 has been reproduced in over 300 paintings and 2,000 advertisements[3]. However, ‘Cult value’ in art still seems to exist, it has just been blanketed over by art galleries. For example, no matter how many times the Mona Lisa has been reproduced and exposed to the public, the Louvre museum in Paris, where the original is housed, recorded approximately 8,300,000 visitors in the year 2007[4].

Even though internationally, art movements such as Conceptual Art and Street Art have highlighted the elitism implied in the white cube aesthetic, it still seems  as a Caribbean people some generally feel uncomfortable engaging with contemporary art in an unconventional setting. They don’t like to think critically about art, but rather keep it at a level of aesthetic pleasure: if the colours go with your décor, then it is a good piece of art to own. Thinking about art as part of our culture, involves heavy interrogation of the creolization from colonization, something which Caribbean people like to ignore. The notion of ‘Cult Value’ is very much existent as well, it is not important how or why a piece of art is hanging in a gallery, if it is in there then it must be good art.  It is undeniable that our contemporary culture still holds facets from our colonial past. The very nature of what art is seen in our galleries exemplifies this: glorified landscapes and faceless people are the main icons in identifying Caribbean Art. The picturesque and primitive are popular, and exhibiting them on clean white walls directs the viewer to visualize how the images would look on their own walls. Also in Barbados for example, there currently is no national institution to direct a sense of Art History on the island and insinuate taste, taste is completely controlled by commercial galleries which in turn are controlled by the source of profits: tourism. The white cubes here are not so much an elitist space for patronization and dictation as they are flattened shelves for displaying produce.

As a result of the monotonous purge of imagery that comprises galleries, informally the present trend is for art networks in the Caribbean to convene outside of one type of space and into another. That is mainly to separate from the mainstream commercial galleries and establish non-conventional platforms as well as an expansive presence in the digital ‘space’. Art spaces like these are seen in Alice Yard (Trinidad), Fresh Milk (Barbados), Projects and Space (Barbados) Tembe studio (Suriname), as well as territorially abstract resources such as ARC Magazine (www.arcthemagazine.com), ARTZPUB (www.artzpub.com), Small Axe (www.smallaxe.com) and Caribbean Review of Books (www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com) to name a few.  These digital spaces represent the reality that the Caribbean itself is a diaspora, that is, not confined to where it is geographically but also how it has traveled culturally. On an international level, digital media and its impact on the arts has also had strong implications on the gallery / museum model, questioning it’s relevancy in an age of instant accessibility.

So are they more suited to exhibiting artwork in a setting outside from the white cube aesthetic and is there enough critical thinking through the Caribbean for it to be significant where art is displayed? Or is it more of a ‘whatever is available’ type model? Arguably, despite perhaps superficially it seeming to be the latter, it is the former, even in its latency. Look at the plastic action movement in Cuba, where they literally took art out to the streets and presented it to the public. Or the Carnival costumes by Peter Minshall, which will never be as comfortably communicated displayed on museum mannequins as they are on revelers. Ebony G. Patterson’s 9 of 219 (2011) would not have had the same impact exhibited down the halls of a gallery, the same for Charles Campbell’s sphere which he rolled through Port Of Spain in 2011. And not only that, how Caribbean artists engage with the white cube space displays the potential of critical thought. For example the recent exhibition by Sheena Rose in Barbados, ‘Town to Town’ (2011). She presented two of her animation features simultaneously projected against parallel walls. The combination of the constant visual of being in a town with it being exhibited in a confined space created a pleasant juxtaposition, something which a thousand images of palm trees in a thousand galleries could never achieve. Another Barbadian Joscelyn Gardner achieved a similar effect during the Black Diaspora Symposium in 2009. Her piece words…just words…. comprised of extracts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem Zong! colliding with the 1657 text by Ligon The True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes projected onto the wall of the Public Library[5]. This deconstructed the subjective nature of documenting history, and how that perception translates into a national sense of heritage.

Charles Campbell (2011)

Ebony G. Patterson (2011)

Sheena Rose (2012)

To conclude, there is a lot of room for exploration into Caribbean artists’ relationships with space when it comes to exhibiting work. It would seem the white cube aesthetic is still necessary to generate a perception of value on works exhibited, but at the same time the dialogue between the non-white cube spaces in the region is the significant driving force for the evolution of art reception.

Images compliments http://aliceyard.blogspot.com and http://sroseart.tumblr.com


[1] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, (1976), Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 14-15

[2] Walter Benjamin ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illumination (1936) p.218

[3] Donald Sassoon ‘Mona Lisa: The Best Known Girl in the Whole Wide World’ History Workshop Journal (2001) p.1

[4] Viktoria Nagy, ‘Museum Curator’ http://www.hetivalasz.com/article/0805/museum_curator (2008)

Fresh Milk III review

By Natalie McGuire

 

Fresh Milk III: A Broad View

 

January 15th 2012 saw the third Fresh Milk event and first one for the year with inspiring discussions of two parts: the MFA experience and the theme of ‘Abroad’, topics both separate but connected at the same time. With the ‘Abroad’ section, speakers had ten minutes to talk about twenty images and how they express their interpretation of the chosen theme. The panel consisted of Alberta Whittle, Harriet Rollitt, Dorothea Smartt, Linda Deane and Adrian Greene, a healthy mix of visual contemporary artists and writers.

 

Alberta Whittle (via skype) commented on the benefits of her experience completing a MFA in Glasgow. One of the main points she highlighted was that it added a new dimension to who she created for, the concept of an audience interacting with her work became much more relevant. This actually reflects a current complex amongst some artists practicing here in the Caribbean. Creating anything outside of the conservative is usually not easily received by the general population here, so for Alberta as an installation artist, it is understandable how she withdrew into creating for herself.

 

Alberta’s installations look a lot at the themes of mysticism, and she spoke about the use of the traditional ‘Shaggy Bear’ character with the ‘Harlequin’ character as a way of integrating Caribbean mythology in a European context.

“I decided to use the Shaggy Bear character with the Harlequin character and look at basically bringing the Shaggy Bear into a European context. Playing with I guess the ideas that we have of masculinity and mythology, ideas which we can’t construct, history has such bias in one direction, it’s nice to find a way to actually play with mythology.  It makes it more vibrant, and I guess more personal to me, the idea of displacement has become very apparent to me living in Scotland for so long and finding a way of resolving you know my feelings of difficulty with being in the UK, and looking at British mythology as a way of comforting myself. Also I think my feelings about being a woman have been so much informed by my feelings of not being a man, how all my ideas about femininity have been informed by the absence of masculinity. And the Shaggy Bear character is very much this kind of aggressive character in the video, someone who almost embodies the darker side of masculinity, which we don’t really like to talk about, you know in Barbados it seems very much that masculinity is a specific idea, whereas femininity is something you can play with more easily. So the Shaggy Bear, he is kind of dancing between these two ideas of masculinity and the purer, softer, I don’t know maybe more sensual side and the sort of vibrant, aggressive, sexual side of Harlequin. In a way then it is Shaggy Bear but it’s also Harlequin, the costume you see on Shaggy Bear you see all over the world, he’s built up so much in mythology in Europe, in Africa, in the Caribbean, he’s not just our Shaggy Bear.”

This fresh perspective on a part of culture that is so ingrained in the Caribbean mentality is a vital illustration of how relevant artists like Alberta are to the contemporary Caribbean condition. It suggests that our culture is not necessarily definite within the boundaries of our own festivals and myths, but is integrated in cultures that tie with our colonial past and the present Diaspora.

Harriet Rollitt was the next to speak about her experience doing a MFA at Newcastle University. She stated that what motivated her to pursue a Masters was her frustration at the consumer driven concept of art seen here in Barbados, where she found herself producing works which were solely aesthetically pleasing for the ‘potential buyer’.  “The best thing about doing the Master’s degree was that there were people there with so much knowledge, they would constantly give me references for other artists, so I was just learning and learning so much.”

 

Harriet’s work for her Master’s degree was a reflection of her displacement of identity felt, something that she reiterated powerfully in her interpretation of ‘Abroad’.  Her experience of the term abroad is the most unique and under discussed. Linda, Dorothea and Adrian during their interpretations all talked about the complexities of maintaining the Afro-Caribbean identity, Dorothea and Linda in their melodic prose, and Adrian in his strong lecture. For example Dorothea looked at the notion of hair associated with identity in Afro-Caribbean women, where Adrian looked at the imbalance of Barbadian culture as produced by tourism and the expectations attached to that industry. Such as when he discussed the expectation of ‘cultural unity’ in his humorous delivering, showing a slide of the Mother Sally figure dancing on a tourist whilst saying “..when it comes to Barbadian art form and Barbadian culture and Barbadian performers, this is more akin to what they where expecting.” Linda talked about the comfort of nostalgia for the Diaspora through the familial preservation of West Indian folk songs. And although what Linda, Dorothea and Adrian discussed in their presentations was interesting and engaging and definitely expanded the meaning of the term ‘Abroad’ in expressive ways, these topics have been looked at and emphasized many times before, in fact they symbolize the absolute when it comes to thinking about Caribbean identity.

 

Harriet’s version of ‘Abroad’, however, was contemporary and addressed a different and somewhat ignored type of struggle with identity, the Euro-Caribbean complex, you might say. What she outlined was that being born in England but growing up in Barbados she felt like she was both and neither at the same time, mainly due to stereotypical perceptions of what it means to be British and to be Barbadian that she could not relate to through her personal experience. And its true, to be Euro-Caribbean is to be displaced. White people are always questioned as a person from the Caribbean due to the colour of their skin, even if they were born here and can trace their ancestry back to colonization. There is no ‘Euro-Caribbean’ ethnicity box to tick like there is an ‘Afro-Caribbean.’ Why is that, when logistically we all contributed to the forming and development of the region at the same time? There is no ‘indigenous’ ethnicity currently in the Caribbean. I suppose it could be that white people are assumed to have ethnic loyalty to Europe, but that seems to slightly oppress their right to identify as a Caribbean people too. At one point in her presentation, Harriet stated “I began to envy the trees as they had roots, and I wanted roots.” This illustrates perfectly the complex, and the metaphor has been used by other Barbadian artists in the past such as Annalee Davis in her ‘uprooted’ series. The majority of what is ‘Caribbean culture’ has been derived from the African side of our heritage: Carnival, Calypso music, the Creole language. It seems the ultimate backlash to the horrors of slavery was to strongly emphasize and ingrain these traditions as ‘ True Caribbean’ rather than more European traditions. So how do Euro-Caribbeans find a sense of their personal heritage through these aspects of culture?

 

Ultimately, what makes Fresh Milk platforms like these so important is the questioning of our own cultural circumstances, taking what is deemed as ‘truth’ and exploring its flexibility. Each speaker’s presentation illustrated this, and Harriet’s final quote encompasses the zeitgeist of the event:

 

“Truth is the sand on the beach of beliefs, constantly shifting in the tides of temporality.”

Performance Art, Not the Art of Performance

Performance Art as a movement and style is a somewhat hazy area for definition in the language of art. When asking a non practitioner or academic, the response usually points to the most familiar direction: theatre. Desperately, you try to find words to describe to them that yes what appears to be theatrical is not theatre as the level of concept behind the piece goes beyond any sort of script, the site specification means it can never (mostly) be reproduced, bought, or re- exhibited, and there is little room for traditional narrative. But when it comes to handing out technique terms to the arts, Performance Art has been neglected. Even the word ‘Performance’ is spread out thickly as an adjective across multiple disciplines, making its meaning almost generic.

Trinidadian performance artist Michelle Isava outlines a version of the term, stating:

“I usually define performance art by what it is not: it is not theater and it is not dance although it does use the body. It is important for me to do that because in the development of the arts in Trinidad & Tobago people tend to have a clear reference of theatre and dance through our rich folk traditions. However it must also be those things because our folk traditions are an important aspect of our history in which as a people we were able to create a voice through reclaiming an identity using the body; this is also crucial if we are to understand performance art in a historical and local perspective and truly claim it instead of borrowing it. At the moment it is something more ephemeral- something being created so it is and is not anything but once we realize how richly performative our culture is we will know that we are in a fertile space for performance art…Performance art in the Caribbean does not have to fit any mold or definition once we can clearly see the performative qualities of a transformation taking place. New media is fluid in this way and so photography can be a performance, an opening of an event can be a performance….”

This provides a localized relevance to Performance Art. Being an underexposed medium in the region, Caribbean viewers appear to find it hard to engage with or interpret Performance Art other than in the sense of theatrics. This could be due to a combination of the conservative nature of Caribbean people when it comes to art, as well as the lack of a formal Art History curriculum to provide a background on the origin of the movement.

Performance art first surfaced arguably during the brief art movements of Dadaism and Futurism, which were founded on questioning the perception of art and society at the time. For example, the Dadaist Hugo Ball in the early 20th century would present his ‘sound-poems’ to audiences, taking apart words and exhibiting them phonetically rather than for their meaning, deconstructing the function of language, as a demonstration of his dissatisfaction with the structure of society. However, it wasn’t until the Conceptual Art era of the 1960s-1970s that Performance Art really came into a medium of its own. Some notable artists to emerge at this time were Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys and Gilbert and George. Nauman highlighted the often repetitive nature of the relationship between body and object, through his monotonous works such as Eating My Words from 1966-1967, where he is depicted continuously spreading jelly on bread letters.

British duo Gilbert and George viewed their everyday life as an art form, and so incorporated this theme in their performance pieces, effectively constructing live self portraits, claiming every action they carried out is an art piece. Joseph Beuys took on a more holistic approach through his performance pieces, drawing on the Dadaist principles of re-defining the boundaries of art. For example, in his work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965, the audience were prohibited from entering the gallery space where Beuys performed, rather, they had to view through the windows. Beuys then preceded to explain in hushed whispers to the carcass of a hare a series of artworks on display. The concept of the artist as a Shaman (spiritual, inverted self) also resonated with Beuys, a concept which Michelle Isava said she connected with in relation to Annalee Davis’ use of the term for Barbadian artist Joscelyn Gardner’s work White Skin. Black Kin. Speaking the Unspeakable. It would appear this sense of introversion as inspiration, the desire to self transform rather than perform, crosses cultural barriers when it comes to performance artists and is a key aspect of the work produced in the Caribbean.

Joseph Beuys ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’ 1965

In the contemporary Caribbean art scene, Venezuelan Sandra Vivas as well as Michelle Isava seem to be the fore runners for Performance Art. In her own words, Vivas sees her works as “a sort of contemporary pastiche that deals with the irony of things from our daily lives, the questioning of certain ideas taken for granted…” This ideology can be seen in a recent performance work of hers, Bolero IV from 2008. In this piece, Vivas encircled herself in a ring of liquid fire, ritualistically using a spoon to draw the ring with the gas. Then she preceded to light it, and inside the burning entrapment, she sang “Rien de Rien”. The conclusion of the performance was Vivas extinguishing the fire. This work could be viewed as depicting woman trapped within the definitions of gender roles, the lyrics of the song roughly translate to “Nothing at all…it never happens to me”. The extinguishing could be seen as Vivas liberating herself from these roles simply by exhibiting and questioning them. Another interesting piece was her 2006 work XYZ carried out at the Galeria de Arte Nacional in Caracas. During this performance, Vivas was sat at a typewriter, typing paragraphs on a long sheet of paper which was then passed over her head and to her husband who sat behind her at a second typewriter and edited the material. This was interpreted as a commentary on the censorship of the Venezuelan press. However it could also be viewed as a type of oppression for women, that the woman’s thoughts must be edited by a man before they are deemed acceptable. Universally it seems slightly patronizing as well, in the visual of the material literally going over both of their heads, perhaps suggesting that the Venezuelan people are oblivious to the censorship.

Sandra Vivas ‘XYZ’ 2006

Michelle Isava’s work appears to demonstrate the correlation between her space and anxiety. This is seen in the performance piece Why Did You Go So Far? from this year. In this performance, Isava begins by being trapped between a sheeted bed frame which has been fixed vertically to a window sill. She proceeds to remove the white sheet from the frame, and reveals herself wearing a white child’s dress. The next section of the performance sees her attempting to escape from between the frame and window, whilst periodically chanting ‘Emergency’. Finally, she frees herself from the contraption and slides down onto a pile of white feathers collected on the floor. However, she seems unable to retain any balance in her freedom, and her attempts to stand up continuously fail. In the end, she covers herself with the white sheet amongst the feathers. Inside the cage, she is in full control of her limbs and desperate to escape. Once escaped however, she finds that she is no longer able to communicate function through her movement, and so the paradox is revealed: If we escape from our stereotypes, our heritage that cages us, are we, as Caribbean people, still able to function and communicate some sort of identity? Or do we just suffer from a different version of our anxiety?

 
Photography and video are crucial to the preservation of Performance Art, something which makes the pieces accessible to a vast range of audiences and a beneficial tool for the exposure of the medium to the Caribbean. However, the best way to view a performance piece is in its original space. For Performance Art is not a commodity of entertainment, it is not meant to be distributed or applauded at. You wouldn’t applaud at a painting, so likewise, a performance piece should be engaged with on a conceptual level. It is Performance Art, after all, not the art of performance.

©Natalie McGuire 2011

Artists in Residence and Barbados

With the ongoing surge of contemporary art in the region, hosting artists in residence is imperative to the expansion of a new sense of Caribbean Art. This is due to the creative, economic, and social advantages a residency programme offers to both the artists experiencing them and the institution hosting them. So why isn’t there more of an initiative for them in Barbados?A residency program consists of an art institution or informal network inviting an artist to live, create and share in a different environment. There usually is an Open Day showcasing the artist’s work at the close of the residency, depending on the nature of that programme. The notion of having an artist in residence is one that started roughly 100 years ago with artist colonies in the European and American countryside, based around the theory that as a collective artists could expand their creative ideas. It was an exciting time for art then, as style was shifting and the Modern Art movements were emerging. Equally, now is an inspiring time in Caribbean Art, and residency models can only help strengthen the collaborations in the region and shape the future of our artists.

Barbadian based, Cuban artist Leandro Soto has completed a vast number of residencies in his career so far, and is a strong advocate for recreating that atmosphere for other artists through his classes. He described in a recent interview that interacting with new environments and building alliances with other artists from around the world is invaluable to the development of an artist and the venue:    “For an artist, being in an art residence is an open window for themes, for materials, to have new friends (to meet other artists), to have new collectors…in the art residence, you see the artist’s work but you also (get to) know the artist, so you have a better picture of who is doing the art, how they are doing the art, what is the connection that this artist has…it’s extremely important.”

Leandro Soto’s installation during his residency in New Dehli. Photograph compliments http://www.leandrosoto.com

What better way for Barbados to integrate with the Caribbean art world as a whole than to host artists from the region on a regular basis, injecting fresh ideas into the circulation? It could also work on an international level, as seen in the residency programme at Eden Rock in St. Barts. They host various artists from all over the world who contribute to the thriving arts culture, and it has become an important aspect of their tourist industry. So not only is their population exposed to a vast amount of international art, but tourists see it as part of the reason to visit.

Alice Yard in Trinidad had it’s 5th Anniversary this year, which was a national and regional event, attracting creatives from all over the Caribbean. This is no doubt partly due to their extensive practice of hosting artists in residency there, exposing themselves to networks outside of Trinidad while expanding their own critical space. 

The advantages of being exposed directly to other art atmospheres can be seen in the ambition of the artists who experienced it. Sheena Rose, Mark King, Joanna Crichlow, Ewan Atkinson, to name a few, have all done residencies and are all active catalysts and participants in the movement of contemporary art in Barbados and will be on the FRESH MILK platform in November to share their residency experiences. Sheena runs a number of events with her group Projects and Spaces, Joanna has been exploring the language of her artwork in her articles. There are no real previous models on the island of the things they are involved with, so the question has to be raised- would they have the motivation or knowledge to carry these things out if they had not been exposed to similar things through their residency experience? Not to mention the encouragement to create more experimental works, exhibit their works outside of the commercial gallery sphere, from gaining support of their work by outside institutions.

Both Sheena and Annalee Davis have also made movements towards hosting artists in residency, such as Sheena’s 24 Hour Residency at her studio as part of Projects and Space and FRESH MILK’s own upcoming weekend event to be held next month when Dominica based, Venezuela born Performance Artist, Sandra Vivas will be in residence to perform and offer a workshop experience in Performance Art. But why does it have to be just the informal networks and individuals striving towards the expansion of the residency community? When Leandro was listing places outside of the Caribbean he had completed residencies at, most of them were programmes tied to schools or Universities. Imagine the wealth of exposure for the institutions and the students if this were to happen on a continuous basis here at the Barbados Community College or the UWI. Currently Popup Studios in the Bahamas, Tembe Art studio in Suriname, the IBB in Curacao, Ateliers ’89 in Aruba and Alice Yard in Trinidad offer Caribbean residency opportunities. One international opportunity for artists to carry out residencies overseas and one which several Caribbean artists have participated is the Triangle Network (http://www.trianglearts.org/), which  integrates artists of all backgrounds, enabling them to compare initiatives.  However, when the artists return to Barbados, there are no formal institutions to support the experience they gained overseas. And so the number of informal spaces grows, trying to fill the void, sustaining the art community, keeping it from fragmentation.

 

A thriving creative culture should not be something that scrambles to find a place in a community, it should be a nurtured and prominent aspect of society. Incorporating artist residencies is one of the ways to ensure this.

Natalie McGuire