Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2016
Categories such as Western, Non-Western, Eastern, Primitive, Modern, Postmodern art are based on assumptions that there are intrinsic qualities to “Western” or “Non-Western” art that determine their unbreakable identity. But such interpretive practices, in which an artwork is assigned an “essential” identity, have lost their relevance for understanding the complexities of works of art.
Aesthetic essentialism is seen, for the most part, as a philosophical tendency that goes back to Aristotle who writes: “the essence of each thing is one in no merely accidental way, and similarly is from its very nature something that is.” [i] Historically, it has also been part of what Edward Said calls “Orientalism,” and its philosophical arguments presuppose binaries of dominant and other that are intertwined with the political and economic interests of governing classes. Said thus argues that “Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).”[ii] Binaries such as Western/Non-Western and us/them are not simply comparisons but rather a set of power relationships. It is through the concepts, categories, terms and vocabularies of Western that Non-Western is interpreted. Positioning the West in the “center” of interpretation of artistic practices and as the point of reference, limits the multiplicity of interpretations, privileges the West and displaces the Other/Non-West.
If we imagine an artistic practice as a structure with a “center” (such as the artist, viewer, location, form, function, materials), we would be restraining and closing what Jacques Derrida calls the “play of the structure.” As Derrida argues the center constructs “Presence”—what gives the illusion of proximity to Truth without difference[iii] and of totality as Truth free from “otherness.” The function of the center, he writes, is not simply to “balance, and organize the structure” but “to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure.”[iv] By “play” Derrida means a transgression of set limits, the emergence of the “other” in the “same.” In other words, this transgressive “play of difference,” for Derrida, subverts the hegemony of the center and marginalization of the other, by undoing the binaries on which they depend—there is no self-same identity, no “presence,” no essential truth. Each is divided by differences, transgressed by its other.
Post-binary aesthetics is aesthetics of play, of contingency, and mutations. It reads works of art not as “structures” with fixed identities (“center”), nor as simply different from another but as hybrid “events” different in themselves. It reads one artist’s work not as different from another artist but rather understands the same artist’s work at odds with itself, different in itself. Instead of seeking and fixing the difference of Western from Non-Western, a post-binary aesthetics unravels the differences of the Western and Non-Western within themselves. It demonstrates how an artwork can activate the transgressive play of difference, thereby breaking boundaries, disrupting the hegemony of the center and bringing forward the “other.”
An exemplary artist of such dislocating, mutating play is El Anatsui whose enigmatic, large-scale sculptures blur the borders of Africa and West. Discussing this in a conversation session at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2013 El Anatsui was asked to what extent he encourages or invites people to look at his work in terms of African art and African history as opposed to the context in which it is now displayed that is world art and contemporary art? His response was: “I don’t think that is a problem for me. I know as an artist I am trying to reach out to people, no matter where they live or come from. So whether that’s African or Western that just doesn’t matter to me. I regard myself just as an artist.”[v] His response dissolves any center of interpretation for his art: it is neither Western nor African but both, thus blurring the boundaries of international/national, contemporary/traditional.
This decentering is evident in El Anatsui’s complex and colossal sculptures. Although large in scale they are made to be flexible and hung in any configuration with no fixed direction. From a distance they appear to be unified shimmering textiles or curtains, which have been compared both to Venetian mosaics and Vienna Secession fabric designs. However, upon closer examination, they are composed of many discarded liquor bottle caps that are folded, flattened and connected together with copper wires. But these caps are not simply found objects; El Anatsui explains their transcultural and politico-economic significance: “Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with [Europeans] to exchange for goods in Africa. Eventually alcohol became one of the items used in the transatlantic slave trade. They made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then it made its way back to Africa. I thought that the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa.” [vi]
Historically a piece of aluminum was transformed into a bottle cap as a single object that functioned to seal the bottle of liquor involved in trade of objects as well as humans. Presently a discarded liquor bottle cap not only carries this history but also marks “other” histories, and at the same time it becomes part of many bottle caps that are trashed or recycled in different ways or transformed into flattened metal pieces that are connected together with wire to form immense sculptures by an artist (El Anatsui) to be viewed as objects of beauty and value. As El Antasui also reflects: “I return them [bottle caps] to use by giving them a different function – a higher function – maybe even the ultimate function. Each bottle-top returning as an object of contemplation has the capacity to reveal to us a more profound understanding of life than it ever did as a stopper (on a bottle).”[vii] Through the “play of difference” El Anatsui’s art transgresses binaries—Western /Non-Western, colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed, global/local, fine art/craft, treasure/trash, far/close, stagnation/flux—weaving one into the other, dissolving any “essence” in a rich web of multiplicities.
[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book Gamma.
[ii] Edward Said (1978) Orientalism. (p.43)
[iii] Jaques Derrida (1974) Of Grammatology. (p. 43)
[iv] Jaques Derrida (1978) Writing and Difference. (p. 278)
[v] El Anatsui in Conversation with Susan Vogel, Brooklyn Museum of Art, February 10, 2013.
© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.
* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #36 | Summer 2016
Image: El Anatsui, Trova, 2016 (detail images), Aluminum and copper wire, 122 x 117 inches, 109 x 110 inches (installed).
©El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.