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Look and show: such different histories of art viewed through the lens of critical geography


Natalia Smolianskaia — an artist, curator, and philosopher of art specializing in the problems of institutional critique, the role of avant-garde in the era of “surpassing art”, and the issues of actualizing art in modern condition. Together with a group of curators, she runs research projects Vojti I razreshit (To Enter and Permit) and Mesto iskusstva (The Place of Art). From 2007 to 2013 she was the head of the research program dedicated to avant-garde theories and practices and the languages of art at the International College of Philosophy in Paris


Art history has different stories. They are defined by when and how we tell these stories and what reference point we choose. We can no longer talk about a common global narrative, there are many of them because the world is multidimensional and art reflects these changes. Nowadays, when the colonial approach to art is highly criticized, the history of art gathers new names and ideas. Piotr Piotrowski’s “horizontal art history” removes clichés and resists any centrist narrative. After the collapse of the USSR, removing the contradictions between the leader and the follower, the main and the subordinate, central and peripheral makes it possible to constitute and analyze the history of art without referring to the “main” narratives. But what about the analysis of the artworks, on what material to build such art histories?

Critical geography


Two main questions for this “Place of Art” issue are brought together in this text. The first is the question of a canon: are there canons that help us to get some idea of art, its origins, development, and goals? And the second question: are there artistic phenomena that mark artistic attitudes as well as certain milestones in the evolution of art? Critical geography deals with the analysis of these questions. In this combination, “geography” not only maps places, themes, and stages of art but also symbolizes a new stage of relationship between artist, viewer, critic and art history, between object and method.


Canon and “unlearning” from it


Reviewing the history of art, we would like to turn to the known and unknown facts that paint a new picture of art. We open our issue with a section devoted to the rethinking of the history of art and Piotrowski’s concept of “horizontal art history”: in Anna Markowska’s text and the following discussion the history of art includes the “localization” of the speaker who tells this story — as Natalia Prikhodko writes about this, analyzing the concept of ”horizontal history”. Markowska suggests abandoning all directions for understanding art, even if they are professional and based on knowledge, which is so important for the art historian. “Unlearning” or, we might say, “paradox of ignorant schoolmaster” [1] comes to the fore. And although “unlearning” is impossible without prior learning, the “ignorant schoolmaster” here is more likely to be a figure of silence necessary to guarantee the emancipation of a subordinate student and artist who is outside the canon of art history. 


So there is a new theme of “another” history of art — rejection of the canon. But how to write the history of art without a canon? What does the “canon” of art history mean today? In the article “Writing History Without a Prior Canon” Bartolomeu Mari [2]addressing the issue of the localization of the speaker notes that a single canon helps establish a hierarchy, but it is impossible to imagine any art history without archives and documents, so the question is how to use them. However, one may ask: how do documents become a part of history? And this question outlines ethical issues in the text of Tatiana Mironova. The material itself becomes the subject of research, and the process of collecting material determines the place of art, and, at the same time, raises the question: is it possible to consider this material as the foundation of a new history/history of art?

Expansion of the territory: place of art in the optics of critical geography


Again and again, the East-West opposition affects the art sphere under influence of the unspoken canon. Therefore, the initiative of the Riga Biennale of Contemporary Art (2018), which violated the established tradition, interested Polina Lukina because the local contexts of the Riga Biennale did not seek to compete with large European and international projects, nor exploit the exoticism of the post-soviet space. Artists from the Baltic states and close European regions participated in this exhibition, activating local artistic contexts. At the same time, the long-existing Manifesta that was created as an opposition to the Western canon operates according to the same Western rules and does not activate the local art scene of Palermo.


Understanding critical geography as a research method, one can ask a question about the fact of art itself, from which the fabric of art history is woven. In 1989, Daniel Buren interviewed many famous artists who participated in the exhibition “Magiciens de la terre”, asking a question: how do they appraise the exhibition and their participation in it? In the text presentation of her Place of Art project, artist Esther Shalev-Hertz talks about her interviews with artists. She deliberately includes in her exposition the interviews taken by Buren, but she separates narrative, sound, and image, creating new relationships and expanding the “territory” of art because it turns out that you can answer questions about art and its place by turning the camera in the opposite direction.

And finally, Natalia Prikhodko’s text focuses on the speakers themselves — where are we talking from? Analyzing how artists include the place of actions, exhibitions, and other events in the meaning of their works, the author shifts the emphasis in the description and analysis of the work: the place is not an addition to artwork, it is an integral and functional part. 

By a work of art, we can understand not only performance or exhibition but also some kind of joint action, called an “excursion”. A joint excursion is shown as an expansion of the territory of art, as removal of clichés and criticism of the canon of the relationship between an artwork and a viewer. In the interpretation of Anna Kozlovskaya, an excursion is not only a physical and artistic activation of the territory but a joint prepared action related to the specifics of the place in advance. In the genre of excursions that Kozlovskaya writes about, there is no such opposition as student — teacher, rather a joint discovery. 

But what about the history of art? What art history is possible if we take into account such micro-events in artistic life? Probably, it’s worthwhile to return to the discussion about the role of the “Russian avant-garde” in compiling the history of art.


Alternative art histories: the storyteller’s place


We want to contrast the existing canons with alternative art histories, which localize the speaker and describe artistic events in different ways. But, as Tatiana Mironova noted during the discussion, by dividing the places of art into “institutional“ and “alternative“ we repeat the hierarchy once again. Indeed, as Anna Markowska said, even Piotrowski did not escape this trap: he says that there is “modernism” as a strategy of the West and “socialist realism” as a strategy of the USSR. But “progressive” modernism on the territory of the socialist bloc in Western Europe often looks conservative and apolitical.

Another example of turning one alternative story into many is a criticism of the term “Russian avant-garde” in the context of post-Soviet transformations in Eastern Europe. Given that many artists of the “Russian avant-garde” came from Kyiv, and some, like Tatlin, especially emphasized their Ukrainian roots, is it possible now, after the decisive separation between Russia and Ukraine, not to notice these geopolitical trends? And what the discussion about Malevich’s cultural affiliation so popular now in Poland and Ukraine says to us? The Polish art prize bears the name of Malevich. There was also a discussion about whether to give the Kyiv airport the name of Malevich. And, although this decision was not made, it is obvious that it is impossible to ignore this “apple of discord”, that means a desire to create different art history.

A “horizontal” approach in contemporary art is a desirable but complicated project. During the round-table on the problems of the “center and periphery”, we return to the vertical of power again and again: in questions of Antonina Trubitsyna and the discussion about Garage’s project “Open Systems”. This vertical is also manifested in the fact that the very comparison of the center and the periphery already imposes a dichotomy, which no one can refuse. This is noticeable both in the isolation of art groups united by a conditional “center”, and in how self-organization and artists from the “periphery” are forced to position themselves as opposed to any “center” and, thus, emphasize the specifics of their marginality. Is it possible to build a horizontal history of art? In any case, we will have to redefine all concepts, including modernism and avant-garde. But the methodology of critical geography of Piotrowski allows us to reconstruct our way of looking and see the discrepancies between modernity and its perception in art.

  1. J. Rancière “Le maître ignorant” — P.: Fayard — 1987
  2. Bartolomeu Mari “Writing History Without a Prior Canon” / l’Internationale. Post-War Avant-Gardes. Between 1957 and 1986, ed. by Christian Höller, l’Internationale Project Network, JR|P|Ringier, Zurich, 2012. L’Internationale — transinstitutional association of major European museums and art archives: MG+MSUM (Ljubljana, Slovenia); SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey), MACBA (Barcelona, Spain), Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, the Netherlands), M HKA, (Antwerp, Belgium), MSN (Warsaw, Poland) / NCAD (Dublin), HDK-Valand (Gothenburg) and Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid, Spain)