Going global

Can we reconcile the gap between the local and the global in visual culture? Is this possible or even desirable? Is the 'global' just another name for Western culture calling the shots? Is the 'local' just another name for parochial narrow-mindedness or even ethnic absolutism?

From Soundings issue 3 Summer 1996

The small, white labels hanging beside each artist's work at the recent Istanbul Biennial were discreet but poignant reminders of the continuous, criss-crossing movements and migrations of individuals across the globe: Tiong Ang, born in Surabaya, lives in Amsterdam; Yufen Qin, born in Shandong, lives in Berlin; Mohammed El Baz, born in Morocco, lives in Lille; Jyrki Siukonen, born in Tampere, lives in Leeds; Ghada Amer, born in Cairo, lives in Paris; Anish Kapoor, born in Bombay, lives in London; Alfredo Jaar, born in San Diego, lives in New York; Zvi Goldstein, born in Transylvania, lives in Jerusalem'. It is ironic, but perhaps not unexpected, that at the same time as an increasing number of individual lives are being shaped by these global displacements, calls for strengthening (and, in many cases re-inventing) the traditional values of religious and national identity are becoming louder and more vociferous.
While the organisers of the 4th International Istanbul Biennial proclaimed Istanbul to be a player on the stage of the international art world, Istanbul's municipal government, in the hands of the Islamic Welfare Party, preferred to invoke Istanbul's Ottoman past as a legacy of its continuing Islamic cultural traditions. At that moment, Istanbul seemed to exemplify the irreconcilable tension between the forces of the transcultural, progressive and modern on the one hand, and the monocultural, retrospective and anti-modem, on the other. From a liberal, Western point of view, the choice seems clear: a culture must either 'go global',

Murat Isik, Bulusma Noktasi (At the Meeting Point), 1995.

embracing modernity, democracy and internationalism, or else sink back into a regressive and despotic fundamentalism. On the edge of the Bosphorus, with Rome to the West and Tehran to the East, the choice seemed less clear cut.
Poised between 'East' and 'West', North and South, Istanbul has occupied a unique position for the last millennium, both strategically and culturally. As the Turkish artist Murat Isik says, 'Turkey is like a decompression chamber in between the West and the East...Both the Western and the Eastern cultures (specifically the Islamic culture) are experienced to their ultimate points simultaneously. But having been catapulted into modernity by Ataturk's comprehensive programme of modernisation in the early years of the century, Turkey is now wondering whether it threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in its bid to keep up with its Western European neighbours. Consequently Suleyman the Magnificent has become the standard-bearer of national pride in a distant Islamic past. But the 'East' is not alone in invoking a continuous, national past in the face of a rapidly changing present. Even Istanbul's Western neighbours, it appears, are trying to preserve their national identity against foreign linguistic penetration, or worse, the spectre (and it does seem more illusory than real) of a swelling tide of (non-European) immigrants. But while the French Academy may contest the recent infiltration of anglophone words into the French language, conjuring up a mythically pure and unchanging cultural identity expressed in and through language, countries like Turkey are reacting against a cultural synthesis which has been part of their metropolitan experience for several hundred years.
This is not to say that the tension between Western and Eastern (and particularly Islamic) cultures has not been experienced before, but rather that in recent years it has been experienced in a radically different way. Rapid developments in communication technologies have dramatically altered the balance of cultural power in the eyes of ordinary people in the southern hemisphere of the globe. Global travel, mass tourism and television have been contributing factors to this shift in cultural hegemony which is now visible and tangible in a way that it has never been before in the everyday lives of Turks, Egyptians, Algerians and many others. What has become increasingly evident to them now is that 'going global' in most instances simple means 'going Western.
Reluctant to relinquish the specificities of their cultural, religious and national identity for a so-called internationalism which too often takes the form of the West imposing its own cultural priorities on the rest of the world, a significant majority in Turkey is seeking to re-establish a continuity with its pre-Ataturk past and assert a distinctly Islamic Turkish identity.
In European countries a parallel development has been emerging with a gradual but significant shift in focus from international and even national politics to local politics on a grassroots level. In both East and West, the broader picture seems to be giving way to the specific, the global to the local, as individuals become increasingly disenchanted with their diminishing autonomy and sense of identity. But is the 'local' inevitably just another name for parochial narrow-mindedness or

Huang Yong Ping, Reptiles, 1989, in 'Magiciens de le tern, Paris.

even ethnic absolutism?
Far from being aloof from such political concerns, art is at the centre of the battle for hearts and minds in the war between the local and the global. And the battle-lines have already been drawn: global culture v national culture; progressive art forms v traditional ones; modern art v historical art. Into the arena have stepped a number of contemporary artists who have been making works which explore the possibility of reconciling different cultural traditions, while at the same time maintaining the specific character of an individual culture. In Murat Isik's paintings Herge's young European adventurer Tintin encounters various aspects of Turkey's cultural past and present, united by the flat planes of colour and cartoon style of the original drawings. In one painting entitled At the Meeting Point (1995), Tintin meets his peer equivalent from Ottoman times on one of Turkey's beaches; in another painting called Impossible (1995), Tintin and Snowy express their disbelief at Turkey's Islamic heritage: 'Impossible!', exclaims Tintin, 'Turkey is part of the European Union'. Encountering Islamic culture within the European context, Tintin can only comment upon the impossibility of cultural difference.
Another artist, Huang Yong Ping (who was born in China but has lived in Paris since 1989), has tried to 'resolve' this problem of dialogue between East and West by washing two books of Chinese and Western art histories in a washing machine. He displayed the end result of washed-out, illegible paper pulp in mounds in front of the empty washing machines which had erased all trace of cultural identity or art history from their original sources. The inevitable consequence of a crude internationalism, implies Huang Yong Ping, is the erasure of specific cultural histories and identities. Other artists like the young Bulgarian artist Pravdo and the British artist Mona Hatoum have commented on the fragility and transience of national and religious identities. Pravdo's parade of anonymous mud flags - fabric flags caked in mud which obscures their specific colours and marking - are like tragic souvenirs of war whose individual ethnic or national identities have been wiped out in a muddy battlefield. Hatoum's Prayer-Mat (1995), made of a bed of nickel-plated brass pins into which she has inset a small brass compass, may assist the diligent Moslem to locate the direction of Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, but frustrates his/her capacity to pray without physical pain and discomfort. As A. Sivanandan once said, 'There is no point in finding out who I am if I do not know what to do with that knowledge'. Hatoum's point, perhaps, is that it is all very well to know the direction of Mecca but what use is that information without the essential element of intellectual critique and self-analysis which has always been a vital part of Islam. No identity, whether it be national, religious or cultural, can be painless, but where does this leave the possibility of establishing some kind of international dialogue in the cultural realm and, more specifically, in the visual arts?
Two years ago at the Tate Gallery, artists, art historians and critics from all over the world gathered to discuss this very question at a conference which marked the beginning of a new London-based organisation, the Institute of International Visual Arts, whose remit was to promote the work of artists from a plurality of cultures and cultural backgrounds and to establish a framework for dialogue and exchange between artists across all four continents. Inevitably perhaps, there were no easy answers but rather a series of questions: How do you define international and indeed how do you define the national? How can you establish a true dialogue between different cultures unless that dialogue is based on an equal understanding between cultures? And what can be done about those awkward gaps in understanding which are a productive part of cultural difference, what the art historian Sarat Maharaj calls the 'impossibility of translation'? In the end, Maharaj concludes that we have to live with the gaps, appreciate their usefulness as markers of difference and acknowledge that what we know of each other is always destined to be partial and fleeting. This is exemplified by the artist Lothar Baumgarten's installation Imago Mundi for the Wall to Wall exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 1994 which defies the viewer's desire to have a comprehensive view of different parts of the world. 'Wherever we stand', comments Sarat Maharaj, 'wherever we position ourselves, we are not able to grasp the dispersed elements of the drifting continents. However acrobatically we twist, turn and contort ourselves to bring things into view, it only serves to make us aware of the limits and blindspots of the view and viewing'.
As we approach the next millennium, the most important question - social, political and cultural - which faces us all is how we as individuals can speak from a particular place, a particular time and a particular experience but not be limited by that particularity. Like the encounter with an unfamiliar work of art, the encounter with a different culture offers one of two options: either to dismiss the artwork and turn away, or to attempt to negotiate the space between ourselves and the work to find a common point of reference - some quality in the work which triggers a memory, an experience of our own. The question of how we can hold onto the specificity of our identity, our specific location and experience and at the same time get beyond that experience to speak to other experiences, locations, identities, is the over-riding cultural and political issue of our time.