Collecting, Destroying, Accelerating
In a famous early work, the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei had himself photographed dropping a Han dynasty vase, smashing it to pieces (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995). Two thousand years of history, perhaps inscribed on the surface of the vessel, vanished in that instant to give way to a violent new act, and to the art object it produced. The excited controversies and debates that followed this vandalism speak of a culture that finds itself confronting the idea of the past in ways that betray deep anxieties about any future; conservatism and good taste demanding the preservation of history as a fixed image of what is good, noble and hierarchical in human history, and radicalism at the other pole programmatically abolishing the past, or at least versions of it which simply confirm the injustices of the present age. Yet this romantic attachment to art, to objects and collections in the popular imagination – as repositories of a generally shared knowledge of mankind, as opposed to a part of esoteric libraries or cabinets of curiosity – is surely much more recent than the vase itself. While we associate, naturally, all literate civilisations with the need to collect and archive not simply information, but aesthetic pleasure in the form of paintings, poetry and sculpture, the museological relation to the past is more specifically a consequence of European modernity from the 18th century onwards – this relation being one where objects are considered worth preserving, often at some cost, for what they can tell us about our history and our present national character, or our humanity or any other suitable narrative. Objects in this relation, moreover, retain value even if they cannot ‘tell’ us anything significant about these narratives, as portals between eras, enablers of the historical imagination. Without denying that such a sense of holding together instances of recognizability across millennia is in fact valuable exercise of a human capacity, we can see that the development and intensification of the collecting impulse is in fact a contingent aspect of some of those activities we loosely recognize as art.
Can we compare the utter, pinpoint contemporaneity of Ai Weiwei’s action with the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhist carvings of Bamiyan in 2001? The latter instance, arguably, destroyed a much more valuable object, and therefore crossed the line between symbolic and ‘actual’ destruction; yet this view can be turned on its head by asking what kind of value we are talking about in the first place. As I’ve indicated, there is nothing natural or given about the value of these objects in the first place, apart from a civilizational, historical tendency to invest them with meaning and emotion. Moreover, the contingency of this situation does not make it false, only ‘groundless’ in the metaphysical sense. In fact, we are daily content with making such decisions about collecting, preserving or destroying objects in the public realm, as we tear down old buildings deemed to be ugly, or preserve ugly buildings if they are deemed to be old enough. In Pakistan, the disappearance of most of the Victorian statuary that graced the public areas of cities like Karachi and Lahore went largely unchallenged for a while – and the challenge today comes from those who see the past, even the recent colonial era, with a certain acceptance which comes from the ability to separate archives from ideologies, aesthetics from politics. To the collector and the conservationist, a statue of Queen Victoria languishing in a back room of a museum, deserves to be released from its association with the brutalities of colonialism and released into a space of uninhibited delight (by ‘delight’, I do not mean a vacuous enjoyment of surface beauty – after all, is the mode of intellectual appreciation and interpretation, curating and consuming meaning, very far removed from the cult of beauty for its own sake?).
I am referring here mostly to that aspect of collecting which is concerned with the preservation of the past, at the expense of other motivating factors such as fetishism, increasing social capital or even the removal of objects from free circulation (collections of erotica, forbidden books and so on). In Pakistan, where art collecting at the private and institutional level is still in its infancy, every act of collecting and keeping is also, naturally, an act of preservation. What remains in question, perhaps more here than in many other places of the ‘developed’ world, is what is worth conserving in the face of the devastatingly rapid changes of a society and its artefacts. Buildings associated with the Mughal era, for example, along with the art of that period are universally agreed upon as valuable; unsurprisingly, the most collectable Pakistani art refers, even if only ironically or at an intellectual remove, to this presumed high-point of Islamic civilisation in the Indian subcontinent. British or Sikh cultural objects, to take just two examples, do not have the same pull despite their deep and certainly more recent presence on our soil (although contemporary Anglophone and Indian culture permeate Pakistani society).
My point is that the collecting impulse, when seen as developed entirely in the Western world and nascent in the developing world, can be reconstrued as one symptom of a particular, accumulative system that constitutes a worldview – albeit a processual and ungrounded one. A single object might serve to illuminate something like the edge of this world-view, at a point where it met another obliquely: a mid-19th century Bengal sari, which I saw exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, that depicts on its border a repeated image of a European figure atop an elephant. Above this border, in an inner field is a Nawab seated on a deep cushion, smoking his hookah. What is curious about this garment – over and above the idea of this figural design draped on a 19th century Indian woman’s body – is the fact that the European man appears to be carrying a book of some kind on his journey. If the Indian Nawab’s hookah and languid repose speak of his aristocratic life, then the European’s book must indicate his position as well – a collector of revenues, perhaps, or a representative of Empire or of one of the great trading companies. In any case, what strikes me about this somewhat broad stereotype is how well it manages to convey, in the limited medium of woven silk, the idea of a European culture armed with books and ledgers. Now, recordkeeping is certainly not the preserve of any society, and the Bengali and Mughal rulers of the mid-19th century would possess records and archives as fine as any in the world – what then, can the association of Europeans with a book signify in this image, and so effectively that seen along with the square hat, there remains no question as to the ‘foreignness’ of the depicted figure? Perhaps I am letting my imagination run too wild in thinking that this formula, the hookah against the book, is symbolic of deep civilizational energies that become visible in the encounter with each other – the courtly meditation of the smoking man, against the lively, proud bearing of the tax collector. But even a more restrained reading allows us a glimpse into the self-perception of a world that marked its other in a distinct and exciting way, a few years before outright colonial rule had masked the incongruences and even the reciprocity of the engagement between natives and adventurers.
All this might seem to take us far away from anything to do with collecting – in fact, I am hesitant to suggest a strong connection between ways of acquiring, recording and collecting wealth, and collecting art. A weak connection, however, can still be suggestive of possible ways of rethinking the nature of collection, removed from the bland light of a universal preoccupation, and placed in the variegated light and shadow of a local or particular context.
One similarity between Ai Weiwei’s performance and the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist sculpture is that these were both acts of not just protest, but also of translation. The protest part is evident – the Chinese artist exposes the desires of an art system that can fetishize the old, the auratic and textual at the expense of the immediate, the contemporary. This is a political act insofar as it insists on China being seen as a living present that is not simply an artefact of the distant past or Confucianism or of Maoism, but is active and has agency. The Taliban too, protest against a world that pays great attention to valuable antiquities, and has relatively little time for the poverty and injustice of their present time and place. But both protests against history can only take place by translating the ancient objects into another medium and genre – Ai Weiwei turns the vase into contemporary art through photography, and the Taliban transform the Bamiyan carvings into contemporary news through video. Where the Taliban’s gesture becomes more radical is that they seemingly have less concern for the afterlife of this action, in the medium to long term – their desired effect is immediate and consonant with the short memory spans of the global news networks and their audiences. The artist, on the other hand, re-releases the cultural past into art history and narrative significance – his engagement is entirely within the parameters of the art-world and its values, without the desire to abolish it or change its foundations. In this sense – and perhaps this sense alone – Ai Weiwei’s work remains essentially tied to a conservative vision of art, inasmuch as contemporaneity finds itself respectably and progressively installed alongside Modernism, Romanticism, Classicicism and so forth, as a style and zeitgeist.
Art-as-destruction has not always been conservative, of course. When Duchamp suggested that the logical development of his readymades would be the transformation of an art-object into an everyday one – a Rembrandt painting as an ironing board – he indicated the furthest, hypothetical recuperable position within an institutional definition of art. Needless to say, Duchamp never attempted such an act of vandalism, although many others have tried with various revered works of art in museums. Nonetheless, an entire history of modern art can be told from the point of view of artists who have challenged collectors with work that resists documentation, valuation, archiving or storage. This death-drive is as evident in Duchamp’s stated indifference to the final destiny of a painting, as it is in the famed dematerialisation of the art object in the conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. In each case, predictably, art institutions and private collectors find ways in which to preserve some trace of the most ephemeral, some document of a moment, or some method of displaying an intention- and thus keep alive generations of artists and curators and critics, in a peculiar, barely logical symbiosis.
The question I am getting to, through the above (impressionistic and hurried) account is this: if we understand that some contemporary art draws on a certain self-perpetuating critique of value, collection and institutionalisation, while glossing over the possibility of the abolition of the system that authorises such functions- why remain attached in any way to this history of art, and its forms? Why collect and conserve this rebellion, if it has no power to activate anything but pastiche and repetition? Is it time for a reparative relationship to be forged between collectors or patrons and contemporary artists? Or for a retrieval of radical immateriality and its aims? Or for a complete acceptance of the realities of a ‘market-driven’ culture (whatever that might be)? Proponents of that vaguely defined philosophical endeavour known as Accelerationism, might argue that what we need in the present moribund state of society, is an art that surfs on the rapid and changing tides of techno-social capitalism, rather than resisting or denying the radical possibiliites opened up by it. As the word acceleration implies, such an art might be marked by a vertiginous and excessive joy in commodification, or by an unrestrained pessimism that molds to the contours of a disastrous world. In either case, what is sought is an ‘exit’ from the condition of post-modern pastiche, as much as from the endless loop of critique and valuation that marks the transaction between the collector and the producer of art. One does not need to agree with the prescriptions of what is called the ‘Dark Enlightenment’, to acknowledge that the emancipatory spirit of modernism and modernity holds something of this philosophical outlook- the desire to replace rather than to repeat, to seek the new even if it means destroying the past. This spirit is, in turn, not miles removed from that which motivates the Wahabis to demolish the archaeologically significant sites of early Islam, such as the dwellings of the Prophet Muhammad’s family and companions- the temporality associated with their religious world is evident everywhere in the Middle East today, in the rubble of Roman buildings in Syria and the dust of Sumerian pottery in Iraq. If preservation pits a belief in history against the radicalism of utopian acceleration, the question is whether we are choosing to drop the vase, reassemble its pieces, or display its fragments. Radical modernity is a dangerous vision- in a peculiar way it is inherited by religious warriors, with their untempered universalism. It cannot be left to them alone.
Adnan Madani is a visual artist and writer from Pakistan. He is currently doing a PhD in Visual Cultures at Goldsmith, University of London. His research interests include contemporary art systems, museum studies, theories of globalisation (especially in relation to the Islamic world and South Asia) and universalism. He has contributed to various publications and participated in several exhibitions both in Pakistan and abroad.