In his opening speech at the exhibition, The Global Contemporary. Art Worlds After 1989, held at the ZKM/Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Hans Belting said that we should neither rejoice nor despair about globalization. Good or bad, globalization is a disputed reality with which we ought to deal with. In terms of a definition, globalization is a wide spread term which most likely conjures up ideas about an economy moving and operating beyond national borders where goods, capital, services, and labour are allowed to move with a certain degree of freedom (i.e. with few restrictions). Although the economy and trade seem to be the main characteristics of globalization, it has to be acknowledged that political as well as socio-cultural factors are also at play here; and that it was most likely in the towrope of power and a global economy that ideas, languages, and cultures began to circulate on a transnational level. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term back to a 1930s publication, Towards A New Education, where it was used to describe a holistic view of human experience in education.
One could argue, however, that globalized economics and cultures have existed much earlier in history. One could mention the Greco-Roman world trading huge amounts of goods with India every year, or the development of the Silk Road ultimately linking China with Rome. The 17thcentury witnessed a rise in trade across continents through the establishment of The British and the Dutch East India Companies respectively. However, the modern origin of globalization usually gets traced back to 19thcentury Industrialization, where cheaply produced every day products needed new markets and consumers. With the advent of World War I, modern globalization began to break down, though it took on new shapes in the second part of the 20thcentury. Since the latter 1980s, the term globalization has been increasingly used by the mainstream press and today we feel that it has become part of our world—hence the age of globalization.
So where does this leave the world of art? Have we finally arrived at a point in history where we are all treated as equals living under the same sun?
What does globalization mean for practising artists around the globe? Have artists, through global mobility, global circulation, and global consumption of art at large, really come together to speak in a global language and are we now entitled to view and read art produced today as simply global art? Without a doubt we can say that globalization has transformed the arts. Such mechanisms and strategies are at the core of an investigation and discussion surrounding the conception of the exhibition, The Global Contemporary. Art Worlds After 1989 at the ZKM/Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe. Prior to the exhibition, a research project titled GAM – Global Art and the Museum was set up to investigate and document how—under globalization processes—art has changed over the past 20 years.
Some critical voices have noted that the timely starting point of the project as 1989—a definite geopolitical turn for Europe—seems to be nothing more than an extension of a Eurocentric perspective. 1989 is indeed a historical date in Europe´s history, demarcating the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the late capitalist era of the New Economy. Undeniably, this has influenced the art markets. However, this geopolitical turn also came with many new biennales in every corner of the world, scholarship programmes, artists-in-residency programmes, and international exhibition programmes that included instead of excluded artists with diverse origins and diverse perspectives. Modern art and modernism in general were largely about distinction, leaving out those places that had not been part of the same history or partaken in what the West had canonized as a historically developed system of art. In contrast, contemporary art refuses these limitations of history, laying claim to a “contemporaneity without limits and without history.
On the other hand, it is true that the art world has largely changed since the late 1980s. As an example far away from Europe, one could name the event of the 1986 Havanna Biennial—then the second of its edition. It showcased for the first time 690 artists from 57 countries and can be seen as a prelude to the extraordinary internationalisation or globalization of art that we are so familiar with today.
In order to make these new and global art scenarios presentable to an international clientele and travelling audience, global agents operating as curators emerged in the 1990s. Today these curators are largely in charge of a new system of inclusion and exclusion, and art history as a Western discipline in this scenario seems to be losing significance. This conjures up the idea that projects such as the one in Karlsruhe are more about the question of competency in art history in relation to a global development of art making, and thus raises the possibility of a crisis in the very discipline of art history.
Seven sections within the exhibition focus on the globalized world—each from a different perspective. The exhibition opens with an extensive documentation of the past twenty years, referring to the mechanisms of globalization that have arguably transformed art. Within the Room of Histories, the most remarkable presentation—at least for a German audience—is The Reading Room, which presents the spectrum and achievements of the art magazine, Third Text. Further attention is given yet again to the proliferation of biennials and museum projects across the globe, as well as to the interaction between the financial and art markets and how that plays a central role in developing new art regions in the world.
Within the section, World Time. The World as Transit Zone, Bani Abidi´s Security Barriers A-L (2008) are shown as evidence “for an analysis of political manifestation(s) of state violence, the maintenance of state power, and national strategies of demarcation.”Next to Ho-Yeol Ryu´s Flughafen (airport) (2005) (a digital print consisting of various layered shots of airplanes taking off); Raqs Media Collective´s Escapement (2009) (an installation made up of 27 clocks, high gloss aluminium with LED lights, 4 flat-screen monitors, and video and audio in loop); and Adrian Paci´s Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (2007) (a photograph showing dark-skinned and Hispanic people on a gangway apparently leading to nowhere), Abidi’s barriers gain new significance. The twelve prints of catalogued security barriers are examples of the sheer diversity such mechanisms are forming in Karachi. A documentation of a kind of social separation, their glossy and artificial character (the drawings , set against a white background and arranged in rows of three, are brightly coloured and sharply contoured), especially in the context of this section of Security Barriers A-L, are more than ever perceived of as being in flux—in transition—and are thus less about a national strategy of demarcation than about a globally directed one.
Bani Abidi is represented with another work in the section, Life Worlds & Image Worlds. Here, works are shown reacting to mass media and the visual consumption of popular culture referred to in various film cultures, thus resulting in collective image worlds. Abidi´s early video work, ….so she starts singing(2000), shows a woman enthusiastically recounting the plots of twenty-six Bollywood films. The artist carried out an interview with her cinephile roommate and edited it down to 3 minutes and 30 seconds. The result is a single narrative—a stereotypical scheme showcasing the formulaic character of the Bollywood phenomenon. This idea of the one-dimensionality of globally circulating images is also taken up in a work in this section by Rasheed Araeen. Golden Calf (1987) is an arrangement of four Andy Warhol portraits of Marilyn Monroe. The remaining four corners are filled with panels of silk-screen photographs depicting, what appears to be, a crowd of mourning women. The Marilyn panels face the center of the nine-panel piece where a single photograph shows a fallen soldier in close up, lying in a pool of his own blood. This photograph is a document of the Iran-Iraq war and, in combination with the iconic image of Warhol´s Marilyn Monroe, it is critical to global political strategies followed by American and Western art fetishes: The worshipping of the dead movie star is contrasted with the mourning of the fallen Iranian soldier.
An additional section titled Boundary Matters: The Concept of Art in Modernity presents art that exposes art history as a pure fiction. In her work, Did you come here to find history (2009), Nusra Latif Qureshi´s focus on identity and dislocation becomes ever more apparent. These twenty digital prints on transparent film refer to a process of self-reflection in the practice of art and to the artist´s relationship with art history. Latif placed one of her own document-type photos underneath and superimposed it with several historical portraits from European and South Asian art history. Examples of Eastern and Western portraits were layered upon the artist’s face to refer to her own training in art. Originally made for an exhibition within the Venice Biennale in 2009, this work questions whether it is possible to find one´s own identity within the medium of cultural representation and thus by by means of art making.
During the course of the exhibition, several walls and spaces were found vacant, waiting to be filled with art works. The ZKM invited thirteen international artists on an artist-in-residency programme to broaden the perspective of the curators and to intervene in the exhibition with joint projects. Thus the exhibition is not complete and the full picture will only be seen once all the works of art are installed.
Summing up, it can be said that globalization is not as global as it appears. Or, to paraphrase George Orwell, it is far more global for some than for others. This is certainly true for the regions that have only been marginally perceived within an exhibition that claims to present “a new kind of art, an art that is expanding all over the globe. It is not about representing all continents equally. Nevertheless, it is questionable why the regions of the Middle East, the Maghreb, and South America—all of which have produced important and relevant artistic positions—are almost neglected.