Cultures are complicated things. This is one of those firm grasps of the obvious that seem to elude the scholars as much as the general populace.
We have long since outgrown some of the stereotypes about cultures with which we grew up in the days before multicultural children’s books, but there is still a great deal of nonsense abroad regarding the immutability of cultural characteristics and the importance of maintaining cultural ownership of said characteristics and the objects that accompany them.
Two exhibitions currently in Atlanta weren’t designed to disprove that scholarly assertion, but they do demonstrate the paradoxes of hybridity and globalization.
“Walking to Guantanamo,” the photographs of Richard Fleming on his 2000 walk and hitchhike across Cuba, is presented at Whitespace in conjunction with a book recounting his experiences (with a book of photographs to come). Fleming undertook his on-the-ground exploration of the state of Cuban society armed with only a couple of cameras, a fluent knowledge of Spanish, and a few thousand dollars in small bills to last for several months.
He acquired firsthand experiences that ought to provide valuable information for sociologists, but the anecdotes alone are brilliantly written (and Fleming performs them beautifully in his readings, incidentally).
He ends up traveling at one point with a man who channels one of the orishas of Santeria, and repeatedly encounters the general practice of Afro-Caribbean religion. This hybrid practice, co-existing with anything and everything including Communism, is the adaptation of traditional West African practice to the circumstances of life in the Caribbean and the Americas after the Middle Passage from Africa to slavery. It has not only survived but evolved ever since.
So it was peculiar to be talking to people at the opening who projected their own issues into the photographs in the ways that they did. It isn’t unusual that people project their own issues into artworks; that it what the aesthetic encounter is all about; it is always already relational, a world of words to the end of it no matter whether the work be formal image or conceptual text.
And in truth it took a good deal of caption-reading to begin to understand what was going on in the photographs. There was an inevitable quantity of exoticism simply because anyone visiting another place sees the exotic first and foremost; it is why we are used to seeing the same exoticizing photographs even of Atlanta, photographs that frequently echo the images beloved of the Chamber of Commerce but just as often echo remembered pictures out of Walker Evans or, for the sophisticated, William Eggleston.
But Atlanta artists exoticize their own city, romanticizing down-at-the-heels spots that look cool but are nevertheless not particularly happy. As one friend quotes the joke of someone regarding the clichés of the Great Depression, “Growing up then, we didn’t know we were poor. We just knew we were plumb miserable.”
Anyway, Fleming has broken out of the mold of gorgeous-architecture-of-old-Havana or other genre photos. And it would be useful to compare and contrast, in the good old-fashioned essayistic way, what he has seen and what he has overlooked or chosen not to put in the show, versus the exhibitions of other photographers whose work has been seen and written about at Jackson Fine Art or Fay Gold Gallery. None of them will ever be confused with travel photographers, and it is the dramatic difference between the images they give us that makes them useful starting points for thinking about the conversations between cultures.
For as I pointed out on opening night, the world’s cultures have been mixing and matching for a very long time, and disparities of power do not change that fact. We are in the midst of immense change at the moment, and have been, and pieties about autonomizing and empowering cultures will not change the fact that all of our cultures are being altered by external factors, the empowered as much as the powerless.
The problem of power is a problem of politics, not culture. Cultures find their own ways of asserting power, and they slip between the barriers built by the guardians of official culture.
And the exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art from the Rubin collection, at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, is particularly illuminating in that regard. It’s also a larger and to some degree better show than the pioneering one presented at Emory University (in the art department gallery, which is not to be confused with the Carlos Museum).
How the artists of Lhasa become marketed in London (at Rossi & Rossi) and elsewhere, sometimes alongside the artists of the emigration, is a story worth pursuing, and apparently the Rubin Collection has full documentation. But for starters it is illuminating to look at what is being created inside Tibet as well as in exile.
Gonkar Gyatso’s setup self-portrait photos depicting himself as a Mao-suited cadre painting standard-issue socialist realism, a tangka painter celebrating the Dalai Lama, a New Age émigré, and an artworld celebrity are the only works that appeared in both the Emory and Oglethorpe shows (since most of the work in the two shows were paintings, there couldn’t have been overlaps of actual work otherwise). They illustrate, of course, the ironies of Tibetan artists of a certain age.
But there are curious biographical details about which we would like to know more (or I would, anyway). Tsering Nyandal, born in 1974, was educated in the exile school in Dharamsala from 1985 to 1993, then returned to Lhasa to work as an artist. This does not fit the expected models in any respect.
And the entire exhibition deserves an extended review, which I hope to give it one of these days. The conversations between tradition and innovation are more complex than we would anticipate, and it would be interesting to know just how much of this art is ever seen in Lhasa prior to export…and by whom. We would need on-the-ground observation to know what the composition of the art scene is in Lhasa and what role it plays in the society as it exists in 2009.