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Art as a field work: escaping the centre


The dizzying contrast between world-class mega-exhibitions and marginal, semi-developed, and ephemeral local art initiatives raises the question of the dual nature of the “territory captured by art”: can art, inevitably immanent to the globalized world, produce territories that allow to look at this world from the outside?


Our way of thinking about the art sphere based on the “center—periphery” concept assumes that contemporary art has one universal global language. One way or another, contemporary art must be translatable into this language. During this process extensive biennial dynamics appropriates various strategies of experiencing the present, existing in local contexts.


Since the landmark exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989), non-Western artists have always been exhibited at Documenta, Manifesta, and the Venice Biennale. However, such projects inevitably fall into the vicious circle of exoticizing the Other, because, as postcolonial theoretical optics tells us, their mechanics is based on the idea that local initiatives crystallize out and recognize themselves in dialogue or confrontation with the global art process. The very concept of contemporary art thus acts as a universal idea that serves as a measure of various cultures.

In this regard, focused escape strategies are becoming more and more interesting. They allow art to distance itself from the global process and at the same time not to lose the authenticity, connected not so much with a place, but with a collective experience of the present. Artists focus on a specific, private space and capture its dynamic dimension: a place does not act as a static object, it is always in the process of appearing or disappearing. Performative art connected with a specific place indicates its elusive experience and intersecting trajectories.

This approach is used in Ai Weiwei’s installation “Straight”. It is based on “field research” which means working with direct experience that doesn’t fall into objectification. Specific experience is not appropriated and not analyzed, but created during artistic practise (that is close to the ideas of N. Möntmann and N. Bourriaud). It can be seen by means of an example of the transformation of local art communities into self-organizing laboratories.


In reflecting on local and specific materiality the artist joins the game with a critical distance: how not to turn art into speculation? How to talk about the invisible and the impossible? This is the turn from the description to the production of the place: for example, by capturing external language or mapping (working with signs instead of symbols). Art as a signpost of the invisible can be more or less hermetic. For example, it can be a trace of an invisible event that is experienced only by material (Cai Guo-Qiang’s powder paintings created by pyrotechnic explosions) or a trace of invasion, which is devoid of any history as a result of radical minimization of material (such as street art “partisan” initiatives, for example, the series of blue dots on the streets of Ghent).


Meeting the impossible experience of the Other is possible beyond the limits of the “human”, and posthuman experiments today attract more and more attention. Maybe this is how we get the opportunity to see something new — in art, which produces spaces for incredible experiments and impossible experiences.