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Forgetting the Art World

by Pamela M. Lee
The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2012
248 pp., illus. 6 col., 43 b/w. $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-017732.

Reviewed by Flutur Troshani
Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki

While globalization is constantly reviewed vis-à-vis contemporaneity, art in recent years has been (re)positioned in ever more intensified – and significantly expanded – networks of production and consumption. As evinced by a vast array of global developments, national borders, local geographies and cultural identities have become increasingly ‘porous’ in ways that have never been intimated before. The rise of Manuel Castell’s “network society,” the archeological methodology of Michel Foucault, the “shifting paradigms” of Thomas Kuhn are just a few examples among many others of how contemporaneity foregrounds pluralities, instabilities and discontinuities. Along these lines, globalization – our persistent fascination with it – has engendered over the past decades an epistemic recalibration of the historical context and function of art. The more we try to capture and map the art world today, this study argues, the more frustrating the effort turns out to be. The traffic of biennales, art forums, group and/or personal exhibitions and other related activities is so accelerated by global (super)structures that it is impossible for a single person – either a critic, artist or amateur-like consumer - to keep track of. A possible strategy for rectifying this cul-de-sac, Lee suggests, is by “forgetting the art world,” which is to say that it is possible to have a more nuanced understanding of contemporaneity if we acknowledge that the situation of art at the present moment is asynchronous with the “historical” – somewhat more canonical and deeply sedimented – Weltanschauung of the previous century; or better put, of late, the art world as we have always recognized-it-to-be-like is being swiftly pushed aside by a more transitory/transient global paradigm.

The critical implications of reading the reciprocal crossovers between globalization and contemporary art are valuable. Such relations are culturally ubiquitous; hence, opening with the observation that “art actualizes, iterates, or enables processes of globalization,” Lee shifts her discussion from tension to mutual acknowledgment. Her methodology brings into line the axis of artwork-to-artworld relationality and proposes to trace the aesthetic/semiotic undercurrents through which globalization is to be recognized as a foundational puissance. She leaves aside the definition of a work of art as an archeological given - a “phenomenon of divisible sociological import” - and proposes, instead, to handle it as the material evidence of how and through which “globalization takes place” (8). This argument has been outlined into four chapters, each of which is dedicated respectively to Takashi Murakami, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Hirschhorn, and the collective practice of the Atlas group (consisting only of Walid Ra’ad) and the Raqs Media Collective (including Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi, Shuddhabrata Sengupta). The resulting discussion oscillates, from one chapter to the next, between exegetical reading of individual works and an “injunction” to deploy the global/contemporary much more cautiously.

Globalization is frenetic; it is in the making and it is “happening” now (17). So a full-fledged critique of its geopolitics must reference an enduring sense of post-Fordist aesthetics grounded in the commitment to modernity. In the first chapter, entitled “The World is Flat/The End of the World: Takashi Murakami and the Aesthetics of Post-Fordism,” Lee summons Gramsci’s concept of the “psycho-physical nexus” to speak of Superflat-ness in Murakami’s oeuvre, finding evidence in his DOB templates (section 1), a careful reading of his essay “A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art” (section 2) and interpolating between the interfaces of screens and factories (section 3 and 4). For the most part, these sections come together in the proposition that whenever Murakami’s work is concerned, time/space collapse in a dialectics of instantaneity/depthlessness, both a prerequisite and consequence of globalization.

It is therefore not surprising that in the second chapter Lee relates the underlying epistemology and postmodern impulse of Gursky’s large-scale, ‘tableau form’, photographs of “market floors,” “ports,” and “factories.” The singularity of his artistic gesture is what enables structure, “far- and near-sightedness, perspective and scale” to be undone into some sort of “depthless depth of the image” (72). That is, each print gives itself up cum an endemic, unstable referent. It “projects” a slippery “world” – one “in which the availability of everything for visual consumption tallies with the seeming availability of communications and the market” (77, italics from original text). And, its ethereal effet de réel signals transparency where representation is to be taken for granted.

In conjunction with this emphasis on transitoriness – and, notably, slipperiness of both meaning and referents – Lee moves into a discussion about the “mixed-media displays” of Thomas Hirschorn (chapter 3) and the “pseudo-collectivism” of the Atlas Group and the New-Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective. Foregrounding the saliency of their practices, Lee’s approach takes on as a theoretical framework that subsumes as much the materiality as the ‘mattering’ of a work of art. There is a useful index at the end of this book.


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