CHRIS FREMANTLE

Deep Routes: research, scale and indigeneity

Posted in CF Writing, News, Research, Sited work by chrisfremantle on September 26, 2013

The Financial Times at the end of 2012 carried a review of an exhibition by Zeng Fanzhi at the Gagosian Gallery. The review opens with the following couple of sentences,

It has finally happened – a solo exhibition of a Chinese artist whose power and interest does not depend on Chinese themes or subject matter. Since the 1990s, China has been the promised land of the global arts scene, but not one of the numerous group shows staged in the past decade – at Tate Liverpool, the Saatchi Gallery, the Hayward – has been able to make a case that artists from the region are of more than local concern.

The image that accompanied the review is of one of Zeng’s paintings, a reworking of Durer’s ubiquitous Hare some 4m square, the surface appearing to be deeply cracked. Whether this was an ironic statement on the import of the canonical tradition of Western Art from the perspective of the East, or an aesthetic judgement, or the quality of the reproduction on pink paper, I don’t know. I didn’t see the exhibition and I haven’t read the press release.

It may be that in the ambit of art criticism published in the FT and moving elegantly between the transnational art fairs and galleries that construct value through those environments, this artist is significant. It may be that because this artist reworks iconic images from canonical western art that they are therefore of ‘power and interest.’ Their ‘power and interest’ might perhaps lie in the exquisite development of the surface of the canvas through brilliant brushwork, or their use of colour, seeming to soak the hare in the night-time neon lights of Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York or LA.

This painting, and the others in the exhibition, and in fact all the work for sale in Gagosian, or in any of the other key galleries and art fairs, only exists at the global level. As the review rightly states what is important at this level is that the work cannot be of local concern, it must speak to The Universal, the abstracted, deterritorialised. It will exist in no-place because thanks to the hard work of the FT reviewer and the hard work of the Gagosian curatorial team ensuring that their merch is only seen in the right places, it’s value has nothing to do with an specific locality, any personal intimate space, any town or region. It might hang in a domestic interior for a period, but it is more likely to go into storage in a warehouse somewhere as an investment: value stored for future exchange.

The reviewer wouldn’t have to highlight this point reviewing a Richard Serra exhibition (such as the one that opened Gagosian’s London space). It would be taken for granted that Serra was of global interest and power, an important element moving in the circuits of value of the international art world. A Chinese artist has now been allowed into this club.

Claire Pentecost, in her essay (pdf: Pentecost Notes on Continental DriftNotes on the Project Called Continental Drift offers an alternative structure for thinking about art. Her structure, and the wider structure of the book Deep Routes: The Midwest In All Directions (Compass Collaborators, 2012 see bottom for ways to get a copy), precisely values an analysis which is interested in multiple levels (p.17),

We aim to explore the five scales of contemporary existence: the intimate, the local, the national, the continental and the global. Within the mesh of scales, we want to understand the extent of our interdependence, how any action we may take has effects on and is shaped by all these scales at once. We attempt to understand these dynamics so that we can understand the meaning of our own actions, the basis for an ethical life.

But for Pentecost, global is not the exclusive realm of ‘power and interest’. Rather her global is a scale at which it is necessary to look to see the entwined flows that articulate our everyday lives. She wants to look at the food on our table (perhaps the jugged hare) and through following the lines of connection to see that we are connected to the workers making ceramics in China for sale in IKEA in Long Island City (cf Ai WeiWei perhaps). And through that examination to see the Phillippino crews of container ships continuously circumnavigating the planet (cf for instance Allan Sekula). For her the global simply cannot exist in isolation. No artist’s interest and power should be divorced from local themes and subject matters. It is simply not possible – those elements can be ignored, but they still exist – practically speaking iron ore is mined, corten steel is produced in foundries, barges, trucks and planes move sculptures. There are social and environmental interactions. A sculpture can be a sign separated from all the realities that are involved in it’s production and presentation – deracinated – separated from all considerations except value to enable it to circulate freely in this global space.

And where the exhibition at Gagosian and the review in the FT are elements in the urgent construction of capital, Pentecost takes us on a detour into a mis-remembered quote trying to latch onto an articulation of a different way of dealing with signs and the value they convey, or actually deferring dealing with signs and value (p.23),

… to the point where many of us aspire to practice an intricate, processual, and research-motivated version of art that resists evaluation by the prescriptive teams of institutions and markets.

Where for the critic and the gallery the essential acts are focused on the carefully orchestrated production and affirmation of the sign as value, Pentecost following the French artist Francois Deck, suggests that the most important act is to operate at the point before the sign is ‘finalised’ and value is conferred. So the artwork is always unfinished, it is always a project, precisely because at the point we confer value, that thing, whatever it is, whether food or art, moves into warehouses and other structures designed to enable and enhance the mobility of capital.

Pentecost’s essay is one of two that open up Deep Routes. Pentecost establishes some key points in a landscape characterised by the financial crisis and the occupy movement. The themes and contexts of the book are focused by the specificity of the midwest of the United States of America. Reading the book we get to know particular places such as Beardstown, IL, exploring through Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross’ glossary of terms the ‘vertical integration’ of a small town into global commodities markets through ‘the cold chain,’ ‘engineered tiling,’ GMO, chemical fertilizers and GPS mapping. Matthias Regan’s narrative offers a different trajectory, of a Greyhound bus journey from Chicago to Detroit. This is a gentle, reflective meditation on breakdown in which (p.188),

The future does not emerge from amongst the technocratic elite; it will not be driven by new inventions in digital media. We should seek it instead in what is meager and humble, tentative and transitioning. Not rushing away from breakdown, but opening ourselves to its after effects.

The other key trajectory established from the outset in Deep Routes takes us into indigenous experience, practice, pedagogy and critique. Alongside the spatial, economic and experiential journeys of the other authors, Dylan AT Miner’s interviews with First People’s organisers punctuate the book. Miner has been pursuing a project of imagining that we can all be indigenous – it’s not a condition restricted by genealogy, but rather a practice and a philosophy – a way of making sense of the world.

Near the end of the book, in the last interview, Jill Doerfler and Miner discuss tribalography, a methodology developed by by LeAnne Howe. Jill studied with LeAnne and explains the emergence of tribalography (p.228),

LeAnne has explained that tribalography grew out of the Native propensity to connect things together. It is the idea that Native writers often tell stories that combine autobiography, history, and fiction; we tell stories that include all these elements and also work in collaboration with the past, present, and future. …

Jill goes on to say,

These stories are not generally about finding out what really happened but are meant to teach us something and show us our place within our families, communities, nations, and the world. I found that in addition to serving as a critical lens for literary study and as a theoretical framework for cultural analysis, tribalography can also serve as an abundantly fruitful methodological approach relevant across the interdisciplinary field of American Indian studies.

I happened across Deep Routes staying with Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis in Chicago in the autumn of 2012 (I was introduced to them by Brett Bloom when I asked him for help finding somewhere to stay in Chicago). They had just received delivery of a number of boxes from the printers. There was one on the coffee table. I picked it up and started reading. I realised it was the sequel to MidWest Radical Culture Corridor: A Call to Farms, which I had come across a few years ago. I was in Chicago for the International Sculpture Conference, but in many respects this book is better art than much of what I saw in the conference presentations.  Not only did I meet Sarah and Ryan, but also Claire and Brian Holmes who came up with the concept of Continental Drift, and is the ’embedded’ critical theorist.

We ate preserved pears from the tree in their back garden and Sarah articulated some of the stress of working as a volunteer artist in a maximum security prison on her days off from teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

For me the description of tribalography tallies with my experience as an associate of a practice-led research programme. Practice-led research in the arts is autobiography. It is often history (contextualising practices in relation to precedents). It moves across the past, present and future (it has been said that practice-led PhDs are ways for artists to reinvent their practices). Truth in the sense of replicable experiment is not at the heart of practice-led research. But most provocatively fiction is sometimes there too (Sophie Hope’s work Participating in the Wrong Way certainly brings ‘fictionalising’ to bear on research).

Methods, whether Pentecost’s revisiting of the Modern School movement of the early part of the last century or tribalography, positively radiate out of this volume. It is built on the experience of a creative community that exists in a particular territory. Their art is research motivated, processual and intricately interwoven at different scales and with different collaborators. Ironically this work is of global power and interest even if it is all about the Midwest.

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You can order a copy here, or if you are in Scotland and we can meet, then I’ll lend you one.

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  1. […] this review of the Compass Collaborator’s excellent Deep Routes: MidWest in all […]


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