Category Archives: Exhibition reviews

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What is a photograph

what is a photograph


The current exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York, asks “What is a photograph?”

Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art. A new generation of artists began an equally rigorous but more aesthetically adventurous analysis, which probed photography itself—from the role of light, color, composition, to materiality and the subject.What Is a Photograph? brings together these artists, who reinvented photography.


Encounters: Photograph albums and their stories

Ulrike Bessel, Curatorial Assistant, Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive

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A new photography exhibition, open from 22nd October 2013 – 30th May 2014 at the Royal Engineers Museum, Library and Archive in Gillingham, Kent, will show a different side of the Museum’s collection. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England, the exhibition ‘Encounters: Photograph albums and their stories’ presents unseen photographs and albums, dating back to the 1850s, which have been chosen from a collection of over 600 photograph albums at the Royal Engineers Museum.

The exhibition explores the narratives that are told through photograph albums and scrapbooks. These hold an intriguing mixture of private photography and commercial prints and postcards. Until the end of the nineteenth century, photography was an expensive and complex process, so that the purchase of photographs was common practice. It is fascinating to see how the album compiler would personalise these prints by adding captions, further information and notes on experiences of their own travels.

The exhibition will further draw attention to the photographs themselves. Photography is seldom a clear reflection of reality as photographs are framed and their subjects arranged. A showcase will discuss the presentation of people – the way they portray themselves and the manners in which they are depicted by others. This is a particularly intriguing topic with regards to depictions of encountered cultures and natives. The aspect of colonial relations is central to the photography collection, which largely exists due to the expansion of the British Empire. Explorers, travellers and Royal Engineers were active all over the globe and used photography as a key documenting tool. The exhibition will look at the Royal Engineers and their uses of, and advances in, photography. The Royal Engineer Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney, for instance, helped to develop ‘instantaneous’ photography in the 1870s through a rapid gelatin emulsion process.

Imaginary museum of Marshall Islands Fine Mats


From the Pacific Islands Report:

The museum is an imaginary place designed to showcase the historic and contemporary mats of the Marshalls. In this wondrous world, you can ’stroll’ through rooms full of historic mats in Britain or Germany, relax in the cinema as you watch a ‘Majuro Productions’ show, or go shopping in the museum store. The museum, found at, is the result of many years of work that had its beginnings in 2004 when Maria Fowler, the daughter of Iroij and President Amata Kabua, was in Hawaii with her daughter.

“I met with my old friend MaryLou Foley and she took me to the Bishop Museum. It was my first time there and MaryLou introduced me to Betty Kam, who took us to the back of the museum to see the mats,” Maria said. ”That’s when I saw the historic jaki-ed for the first time. I nearly cried. There were over 10 mats and while I was looking at them and seeing how beautiful they were, I thought to myself that we really need to revive this skill.”

Maria went to back to Majuro full of ideas. At the time she was working with the Director of the University of the South Pacific’s Majuro campus, Dr. Irene Taafaki on compiling a book of traditional Marshallese medicine (Traditional Medicine of the Marshall Islands: The Women, the Plants, the Treatments by Irene J. Taafaki, Maria Kabua Fowler , and Randolph R. Thaman, IPS Publications). The pair began to think of how they may revive the art of weaving the jaki-ed. But first Maria knew they were going to need someone to be a patron of a project of this nature. “It so happened that Iroij Michael, my uncle, is really into reviving the culture. We went to see him and he said: ‘It’s about time that someone is interested in the culture!’” [...]

From that humble beginning, Maria and Irene went on to hold weaving workshops and also an exhibition and auction of jaki-ed, now held every year at the Marshall Islands Resort to coincide with Culture Day. In recent years there have been apprenticeships around the country in which many dozens of young women have learned how to make the finely-woven clothing mats. These trainings were sponsored by the RMI National Training Council, while the Australian Government has supported the creation of the virtual museum. With the help of these and many other organizations and individuals, the art of making jaki-ed has been revived and you can see the old and the new in the Marshall’s new museum.


From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy

Eleanor Williams  &  Theophile Desarmeaux,  UCL  Anthropology

magic lantern

The lanternslides exhibited in ‘From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy’ emerge from the depths of the UCL Anthropology Department’s Material Culture Room, part of UCL Museums and Collections.  From this cave of curiosities, the exhibition excavates a medley of largely anonymous ethnographic lanternslides, which were used for teaching anthropology during 1940 and 1950.  Today, a variety of slides are re-cast into three mock lectures that both explore the breadth of the collection and interrogate the use of images for teaching.

Lecture 1: We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia

The first lecture reveals the collection’s cornucopia of slides and questions the images’ instrumentality within a teaching context.  Employing a random number generator enabled the curators to have minimal input in the lecture’s creation.  To select the images, random numbers were applied to the list of slides.  An arbitrary narrative to accompany the images was obtained from Raymond Firth’s 1936 ethnographic monograph We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia.  Pages of the book were selected according to random numbers and text was extracted from the pages’ first indented paragraph.  The curators explore how the encasement of these multi-vocal images within the un-related narrative may manipulate one’s interpretation of the image.  However, the images simultaneously emancipate themselves from and subvert the narrative by visually bringing new meanings to the text.

Lecture 2: Duplicates

The second lecture concentrates on the collection’s duplicated images.  By exploring ‘the duplicates’ the lecture brings to the fore the slides’ materiality and resultant polysemy.  The material disparity of the duplicated images, in terms of their framing, inversion, enlargement and magnification, are examined in the lecture.  The varying material qualities cleave the same slide into two highly different images.  By contrasting pairs of duplicates, the curators explore how their varying materiality offers an avenue through which the images’ polysemy may be unleashed.  The curators question what the implications of using slides with different material properties might be when used for teaching purposes.

Lecture 3: The Image Speaks

The third lecture provides a space in which the most unruly and restive of the lanternslides may be revealed.  The lecture investigates the spectrum of the images’ semantic contents and aesthetic qualities that exists within the collection.  The selection exposes the images that confounded the curators during their exploration, due to their qualities such as blurriness and either under or over exposure.  The images’ incomprehensible nature and their ability to seemingly evade anthropological categorisation, led the curators to question how these slides might have been used for teaching.

[Editor's note: during their tenure in the teaching collection these slides have largely been separated from any contextual information and provenance. They are thus presented here as they emerge and are experienced within this particular archive, which is of course an archive that rests on the problematic histories of anthropology, photography, and colonialism. If anyone has any commentary or context to add to specific photographs, please either contact us directly or add to the public comments in this posting.]

The Tool at Hand

The exhibition,  The Tool at Hand asked what would it be like to create a work of art using only one tool?

In the Spring of 2011 the Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum invited sixteen established artists from Britain and America to participate in an unusual experiment. Each artist was asked to lay aside his or her standard tool kit and craft a work of art with one tool alone. The challenge presented to the artists sounds simple: create a work of art with one tool. The material and tool were left open-ended with the purpose of encouraging creativity within the one-tool constraint. The Tool at Hand brings together these artworks, the tools that crafted them and short, explanatory videos produced by each artist.  This was the artists’ invitation video, which the filmmaker, Nicola Probert, also created using only one tool.

Now all the artworks are on line, archived alongside essays and short films made by the artists who used tools ranging from a hammer, to a knitting machine, data, and a macbook pro.

Inventing Abstraction, Reinventing Our Selves

Jonathan Patkowski, PhD Student in Art History, CUNY Graduate Center and Nicole Reiner, Independent Researcher, MA Museum Studies, NYU

Figure 1

Figure 1. The Artist Network Diagram in Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013, organized by Leah Dickerman with Masha Chlenova. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

The recently-opened centennial celebration of abstract art, Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 at the Museum of Modern Art, has been lauded for offering a broadly inclusive and interdisciplinary perspective on hallowed art historical terrain.[1] Alongside modernist titans like Malevich and Mondrian, the exhibition spotlights comparatively unfamiliar figures like Suzanne Duchamp, and Polish Constructivist Waclaw Szpakowski. Curator Leah Dickerman further stresses the transmedial reach of abstraction beyond the traditional domains of painting and sculpture, by foregrounding abstract photography, music, dance, and poetry, paralleling the institution’s own disciplinary re-orientation beyond painting and sculpture. Thus, notably, the exhibition features an immersive sound chamber (“Reinventing Music”) featuring six short pieces by Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and other anti-tonal, turn-of-the-century composers, the sonic counterpart, we gather, to visual abstraction.

But even more remarkable than the diverse range of art on display is the oversized diagram greeting visitors at the exhibition entrance, which recasts modernism itself (figure 1). What was institutionalized as a linear progression of stylistic innovation from one avant-garde movement to the next by earlier generations of MoMA curators is here presented as the outcome of the free exchange of ideas across a social network of creative individuals. Adopting the network mindset of today’s neoliberal enterprise culture, the Artists Network Diagram in Inventing Abstraction replaces the figure of the solitary genius with the well-connected entrepreneur, and historical narrative with social network. The avant-garde becomes, in effect, linked-in.

Figure 2
Figure 2. The catalogue for Cubism and Abstract Art, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art,March 2-April 19, 1936, organized by Alfred H. Barr Jr. Courtesy of Art Resource

Designed by MoMA’s curatorial and design teams in collaboration with members of Columbia Business School, the Artist Network Diagram harkens back to MoMA founding-director Alfred H. Barr’s seminal 1936 flowchart depicting the origins and evolution of abstract art, and adopts its same font and color-scheme. The original chart appeared on the cover of the catalogue for Barr’s first thematic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art, and has been widely reproduced ever since (figure 2). Significantly, Barr’s chart harnessed the positivist language of the natural sciences in order to demonstrate how abstraction was the preordained conclusion of artistic developments since the late nineteenth century. One evolutionary trajectory, for instance, charts a continuous development from Japanese prints to Synthetism, on to Fauvism and culminating in Surrealism, the immediate precursor, we learn, to Non-Geometrical Abstract Art.

Yet, in spite of the Artist Network Diagram’s historical patina, this new map follows an entirely distinct logic; rather than charting an evolutionary history of stylistic innovation through a succession of isms, the Network Diagram visualizes relationships between individual artists through a spatial network of vectors laid out in broadly geographical terms. To the right, for instance, we find the names of Eastern European avant-gardists like Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky. To the left, we find New York-based artists like Francis Picabia and Alfred Stieglitz. On the top and bottom, we find clusters of artists who primarily worked in Britain and Italy, respectively. And predictably, at the literal and symbolic center we find those artists and intellectuals—from Picasso to Apollinaire—who made their names in France and Germany, long acknowledged as the epicenter of modernist innovation. Those artists with more than twenty-four connections are highlighted in red, drawing visual attention to the most ‘connected’ artists.

Those with fewer connections are listed in black, resulting in a diagram that closely resembles the social network visualizations that circulate widely on the internet and which seek to represent the webs of members of social networking organizations like LinkedIn and Facebook.[2]

Figure 3
Figure 3. Linkedin professional network map. CC Image © 2011 Source

Rendered thusly, the Artist Network Diagram provides a compass of influence that is calculated solely in terms of the number and quality of interpersonal relationships, or connections, a given artist had cultivated, and suggests that abstraction resulted from individual enterprise rather than from broader historical forces or cultural encounters. It also, and simultaneously, recasts cultural exchange and the figure of the artist according to the logics of neoliberalism, by picturing art history less as an evolution of avant-garde styles and more as the result of enterprising individuals, and by attaching cultural significance to social connection as much as stylistic innovation. This retelling suggest that the modernist artist achieved success not due to the amorphous forces impelling advanced art in modern times, but through his own agency, by establishing connections and capitalizing upon the insights, advice and exchange with peers. Call it the artist as cultural entrepreneur.

The network logic of the Artist Network Map is reinforced within the exhibition through a number of installation strategies and curatorial choices. For example, in stark contrast to the discrete chambers and isolated artworks found in the permanent collection galleries downstairs, Inventing Abstraction is mostly comprised of passable, inter-connected spaces, in which works are hung in a dense and occasionally cacophonous manner, evoking both the expansive reach and dense webs of the network diagram. In a room dedicated to Italian abstract art, for instance, no less than twelve pictures occupy a single twenty-five foot wall, and speak across the room to a series of eighteen other works hung enface.

The theme of network thinking and exchange is advanced further through object descriptions. While sculptor Henri Gaudier-Beska’s primitivistic portrait in wood of poet Ezra Pound (1914) might be a particularly fitting opportunity to note the influence of African art and artifacts on abstraction, the label copy interprets the work as a window onto the personal friendships and interdisciplinary exchanges that marked the period.

The comparison of avant-garde artists to cultural entrepreneurs is made explicit on the exhibition website, in a video interview with Columbia Business School Professor Paul Ingram, who helped to create the Artist Network Diagram. Outlining the characteristics of a successful cultural networker, Ingram states that people who “do” creative networks best “embrace diversity,” are “broad in their interests,” and “have a capacity for social engagement with very different types of individuals.” These capacities, Ingram believes, are so decisive for personal success that they often distinguish between artists who “reach greatness” and those who do not. Lest we mistake him for advocating collectivized cultural practice, however, Ingram cautions that, while social-networking can provide profound sources of creativity and innovation through the free flow of ideas and creative combinations, the successful actualization of ideas requires working in tighter circles, and oftentimes alone. In other words, crowd-sourced knowledge is best exploited in private hands.

While Ingram had in mind the early twentieth century, citing Bauhaus artists as examples of successful social networkers, his advice has as much relevance to our social and economic present, and resonates perfectly with post-1990 neoliberal calls for personal responsibility and self-empowerment within a de-regulated social and economic field. British Sociologist and social theorist Nikolas Rose (1996), for one, has described how the government and care of individuals has become privatized and dispersed in the wake of the partial dismantlement of the Western welfare states of yore.[3] Techniques of management and sociality that once flowed predominantly through institutions like the family, the workplace, and the nation state are increasingly dispersed across sprawling networks of privatized and individuated entities (America’s dysfunctional privatized healthcare system, social media sites such as Facebook, etc.). In turn, people are encouraged, by welfare-to-work government programs as much as by competitive reality TV shows, to fend for themselves within these dispersed networks, by cultivating their capacities for self-motivation, self-promotion, and flexibility.[4]

Transferring these values onto the turn-of-the-century avant-garde artist, Ingram, and the map he helped design, suggests that modernist exchanges were compatible with individualist, neoliberal modes of sociality, and that the entrepreneurial imperatives of our contemporary network culture are timelessly valid. Thus, the Artist Network Diagram effectively (and ahistorically) rereads artistic modernity through the precarious socio-economic conditions of our contemporary moment, as a free-flowing field of enterprising agents who attained greatness through incessant exchange and competition. We do not mean to suggest that the exhibition’s curators intend for this reading to underpin the show, nor even that they would accept it in principle. But by showcasing the Diagram so prominently, both at the Museum and online, they have provided it ample room to impress its logic upon its viewing publics.

Figure 4
Figure 4. East Art Map (detail), 2006. Courtesy of IRWIN.

Interestingly, a mapping project conceived as a work of art and executed under entirely different circumstances provides some useful clues as to how the Artist Network Diagram’s creators might have produced a result less beholden to positivist thinking and more resistant to appropriation as a model for individual enterprising behavior. East Art Map (2001-present) is a multiplatform project by the Slovenian art collective IRWIN, consisting of research sessions, symposia, art exhibitions, a website, and a book. Together, these different components work to collect, reconstruct, and display information on art produced in Eastern Europe since the Second World War, a field traditionally inscribed within parochial, nationalistic histories largely ignored by the West. Of particular interest to us is the diagram included in IRWIN’s 2006 East Art Map publication, which attempts to visualize these obscured histories and which was exhibited in several installations of IRWIN’s work (figure 4).[5]

With its modules of interconnected artists, the diagram of East European art charts connections, but instead of compressing a historical period into a synchronic field, as the Network Diagram does, East Art Map charts connections in three dimensions, acknowledging that artistic exchanges took place across time as well as space. Further, the East Art Map diagram appears expansive and unordered, and suggests movement and flux more than natural order or intelligent design, as in the self-contained and visually ordered space of MoMA’s Network Diagram. Indeed, IRWIN’s diagram may be used to identify and connect disparate strands of art history, but we are not offered a comprehensive view of that of that history nor any metanarrative. Finally, East Art Map includes both individuals and artistic groups, and traces interests and affiliations alongside interpersonal relationships, preserving collective artistic identities and trans-personal relations. In this manner, the map appears less as an open field for personal maximization, and allows for the charting of paths without definite aim, purpose, or method.

In complementary fashion, a much smaller exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde, hints at yet another story about the origins of abstraction, which throws light on a conspicuous absence in MoMA’s story of invention.[6] The Met show traces the reception in New York of African artifacts imported via French art dealers and exhibited and resold to New York collectors. Though Manhattan is the focus, we are also reminded of the influential role that the experience of African ethnographic objects had on a great many of the European avant-gardists widely credited with “Inventing Abstraction.” While the appropriation of African material by the avant-garde is well rehearsed—even in 1936 Barr included “Negro Sculpture” on his flowchart—it does not figure in MoMA’s Artist Network Diagram. This is because the Diagram’s historiography is bent by the gravity of a certain political image of the human being as one who is autonomous, strives for personal fulfillment in earthly life, and interprets his destiny as a matter of individual responsibility, finding meaning in existence by shaping his life through acts of choice.

That MoMA, with its competing commitments to both twentieth-century modernism and its contemporary aftermath, should attempt to (re)present a pivotal modernist episode in terms of newly-ascendant political imagery, is certainly understandable. But with results so complicit with the logic of enterprise culture, curators and researchers may want to contextualize their revisions so as to present them less as self-evident truths, and more as historically-contingent perspectives shaped by pervasive ideologies of the present.


[1] See for instance, Roberta Smith, “When the Future Became Now,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012, accessed January 15, 2013,; Thomas Micchelli, “MoMA’s Show of Shows: ‘Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925’,” Hyperallergic, December 22, 2012, accessed January 15, 2013,; Peter Schjeldahl, “Shape of Things: The Birth of Abstraction,” The New Yorker, January 7, 2013, accessed January 15, 2013,

[2] Linkedin, for example, allows members to make visualizations of their professional networks:, accessed January 27th, 2013.

[3] Nikolas Rose, Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[4] Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, Better Living Through Reality TV: Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship, (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

[5] IRWIN, ed., East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, (London: Afterall Books, 2006).

[6] African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde is an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 27, 2012–September 2, 2013, organized by the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.


By Eugenia Kisin, Anthropology, NYU

 “Assemblage has been something that has been part of our fabric, the art historical fabric, since the beginning of time. If you think about the notion of hunters and gatherers, until we became an agricultural society 10,000 years ago, that is how we found our food, we scavenged, we foraged, we hunted, we gathered. And I always felt that impulse embedded in our genes, and that artists themselves are a particular kind of hunter-gatherer.”[1]

Assemblage is an ordering of the world. Both act and creation, it encompasses production and collection; in its finished form, assemblage prefigures its consumption through the deliberate juxtaposition of materials. In art historical terms, assemblage is a medium, albeit one that is sometimes too capacious—materials are all technically “assembled” to produce artworks, and all can be traced back through a political-economic circuitry. Yet in the realm of art, both the innateness and consciousness of the act seem to be significant. In the words of Sotheby’s Chairman Lisa Dennison, quoted above, the capacity for assemblage is an impulse “embedded in our genes,” and, as an act, characterizes the work of an artist as “hunter-gatherer” – assembling in order to produce meaning and value; in other words, the stuff of art world survival.

Such ideas about assemblage—its impulses, capacities, and routes—inform my discussion of a ‘selling exhibition’ held last year at Sotheby’s gallery space in New York called “Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage” (on view November 18th to December 16th, 2011). Showcasing a massive range of Western and non-Western objects that embody, in the words of its curators, the “accumulative tendency” in art, “Hunters and Gatherers” intended to show (and sell) nothing less than a new narrative of twentieth-century art history, a narrative grounded in material. Surrealist objet, neo-Dada collage, Songye power figure, Haida headdress, modernist Combine – major movements and diverse media were brought together under the rubric of their fabric, their status as assemblage. It produced a compelling, unifying story of art, looking forward as well as back: Nick Cave’s soundsuits appropriating (assembling?) tribal spiritualities, Dan Colen’s surface-obsessed painted sculpture a kind of fresh, contemporary Happening.

Based on catalogue descriptions—the “polychromed” Haida headdress, Western materials “ingeniously incorporated” into Native American material culture, the exclusively ceremonial contexts of the non-Western art, and the dubious universalism of the geneticized and apolitical urge to “assemble”—it would be warranted to dis-assemble this exhibition on the basis of its familiar primitivist tropes. Indeed, having not seen the exhibition in person, I can only imagine the visual force that such a juxtaposition of works would have as an assemblage. Together, the works might have comprised a perfect balance of on-the-wall and in-the-round, the wooden angles and planes of the African sculptures and Northwest Coast masks complementing the colors and textures of mid-century paintings and collages. There is a reason that modernist interiors are often decorated with tribal art, instantiating a visceral-yet-contained chromophilia, or “tiptoeing around the perimeter of the color danger zone,” that Michael Taussig argues is an effect of colonial and post-colonial encounters[2]– the inimitable effect of a contained, colorful, polyglot assemblage in a white cube, and an exhibition designed to sell.

But the questions I want to consider through “Hunters and Gatherers” are more general, given my limited experience of the exhibition via its catalogue and media. There is also something perversely imprecise about saying anything ‘contemporary’ of an exhibition held over a year ago—time moves fast in art, and assemblages are often ephemeral. Still, one year later, the questions this particular cluster raises are, to use that value-laden term of the contemporary, ‘fresh.’[3] Why this story, and why in 2011? My suggestion is that this exhibition tells us something lasting about contemporary art, and its relation to theories of assemblage. It also tells us about the perils of making materiality too capacious a frame for theorizing the contemporary as an instantiation of, as the catalogue puts it, the “impulse to scavenge.”


First, a note on ancestors. “The Art of Assemblage,” the subtitle of “Hunters and Gatherers,” was likely a deliberate reference to the famous 1961 exhibition of the same name held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – and one of the ways in which “Hunters and Gatherers” is bound to an art world lineage of modernism. For William Seitz, the curator of the 1961 show, assemblage was a modern notion, and thus had a history; both the creation of new art from fragments and the self-conscious execution could be traced back through all of the major modernist movements of the twentieth century, including Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract-Expressionism, and even further, to avant-garde nineteenth-century figures like Manet. Such a media-and-sentiment based narrative could include a spectacular range of work, encompassing, as Seitz put it in the catalogue, “The Art, Non-Art, and Anti-Art of Assemblage”– and, it should be remembered, providing a unifying narrative for MoMA’s collection, re-assembling the assemblage into a story of art.[4]

This reference to the 1961 show was, and is, extraordinarily generative. By including recent works, the “Hunters and Gatherers” established a connection between “the contemporary”—that ever-emergent, always-becoming, impossible category—and art history’s past, containing the unknown, un-categorizable contemporary within a stable framework of value and judgment. It produces a modernism for the contemporary, or a contemporary that can be fit back into the story of modernism. This is, as art historian Terry Smith has recently argued, a very contemporary thing to do. Smith suggests that both the tired return to an older avant-gardism – a process he names “remodernism”— and the self-conscious embrace of neo-liberal spectacular consumption—“retro-sensationalism”— are returns to modernist aesthetics that characterize much of contemporary art, naming many of the artists included in the Sotheby’s show as exemplars of such returns.[5] Moreover, as returns, they repress what is, at least for mainstream art histories, really new, and really now: other art histories that are global, decolonial, and deeply unsettling.[6]

Unlike its modern predecessor, “Hunters and Gatherers” explicitly addresses these other art histories. The incorporation of other cultures into Western art has, after all, had a long history in relation to modernism, and the catalogue recognizes the production of “hybrid compositions” throughout time a result of these encounters. Yet such recognition contains them within this modernist vision, a vision that is made contemporary by virtue of our shared genetic assemblage—no longer the “spirit” of Seitz’s bricoleur, but the genetic drive of the hunter-gatherer provides the compulsion to create. In such encounters, as in primitivist formulations, only the Western artist emerges as bricoleur-scavenger, Baudelaire’s ragpicker meets Indiana Jones as a disaffected, nomadic archaeologist of modern and contemporary civilization. What makes a difference in this new formulation of assemblage is how it submerges even as it incorporates. By acknowledging other art histories, “Hunters and Gatherers” enables a one-way tracking of routes between the West and non-West through a universalizing concept of assemblage, a concept that becomes a contemporary rubric under which non-Western objects—and only historical, ceremonial ones from the classic periods of collecting—can be recognized as “art.”

It is a familiar narrative, well-rehearsed in stories about the tribal and the modern. Yet this tracking is a particularly problematic framing in relation to the concept of assemblage. As Julia Kelly has argued, the 1961 “Art of Assemblage” exhibition, which did not explicitly include non-Western art as a form of assemblage, missed the extent to which non-Western ontologies of objects had conditioned many of the artists’ approach to materials.  Specifically, Kelly suggests that “assemblage” as conceived here is as much about magical efficacy as components – hence Seitz’s emphasis on spirit and transformative potential – and thus draws much more upon anthropological translations of non-Western practices than on some essential tendency of the modern towards bricolage.[7] In other words, assemblage happens as art because of the capacity of objects to do things.

This idea of efficacy continues to inform contemporary approaches to assemblage. In the video that accompanies the online component of “Hunters and Gatherers,” curator Elizabeth Gorayeb seamlessly connects early-twentieth century art as a mode of action – “representing the world as it could be, or how we can transform it in our mind” – to the contemporary desire to assemble as “universal force among all of us.” Such a framing is highly connective: it draws lineages between the past and the present, artist and collector, West and non-West, a connectivity and encompassment that justify the broad scope of the exhibition. As such, “Hunters and Gatherers” proposes that assemblage may itself be a theoretical tool, which is a position that uncannily resonates with much contemporary social theory.

Tracing the theoretical appeal of assemblage as a Deleuzian concept for analyzing such contemporary social formations, George Marcus and Erkan Saka suggest that the concept itself belies a particular kind of re-modernism, a desire for structure amidst the upsets of contemporary social theory. For Marcus and Saka, assemblage can provide an “evocation of emergence and heterogeneity amid the data of inquiry, in relation to other concepts and constructs without rigidifying into the thingness of final or stable states that besets the working terms of classic social theory.”[8] In other words, assemblage, as a theoretical tool, allows for an explanation of social action, of doing things, that is sufficiently ephemeral and processual. Analysis in such a frame consists of tracing the contingent connections that constitute emergent social worlds, and many of these social science approaches to social assemblage run parallel to certain art historical theories of relational aesthetics, which emphasize the emergence of social action via engagements with the material world.[9]

I wonder about the extent to which both kinds of approaches to assemblage are constituted by notions of thing-ness that did not emerge from a hermetically-sealed modernism’s encounter with globalization, but from particular entanglements of the Western and the non-Western—indeed, the recognition of objects’ efficacies owes much to the messy entanglements of art worlds and artifacts. Such entanglements also include long histories of critical indigenous activism and scholarship that uses, usurps, and transcends modernist historiographies to inscribe what Steven Loft calls a cultural aesthetic, nuanced ways of knowing that presume different relations between subjects, objects, meaning and time.[10] Yet these routes between indigenous aesthetics and notions of contemporary effect remain largely unexplored.

So we have a partial answer to “why assemblage” – it is a capacious category with ties to modernism, efficacy, and emergence. But what does invoking these ties mean now?



© 2011, Tim Noble & Sue Webster The New Barbarians, 1997–99 Translucent resin, fibreglass Dimensions: Figures: 79 x 69 x 137 cm Infinity cove: Painted medium-ply board Dimensions: variable Photo: Robert Fairer Source

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s The New Barbarians is a work that embodies the themes of “Hunters and Gatherers.” Formed out of fiberglass and resin, it is a sculptural self-portrait of the artists as early hominids, their hairless, sunken figures captured mid-stride in a foraging love story. The New Barbarians is deliberately evocative of an anthropological diorama in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, which imagines the early hominids, figured according to gendered expectations as a man and a woman, who might have left footprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli 3.5 million years ago. The exhibition catalogue for “Hunters and Gatherers” notes the pathos that this reference to the diorama enables, as the New Barbarians are “installed in isolation and presented naked to the world, [evoking] a sort of exit-from-Eden melancholia.” It is also an uncanny evocation: the New Barbarians maintain the contemporary facial features of the artists, bringing “this seemingly primitive pair into the present.” Simultaneously monstrous and innocent, the work is a hybrid assemblage, depicting the artists as literal hunter-gatherers, and it riffs on evolutionary science with all of its innocent hopes and explanations of the hetero-normative family of man.

Yet it also embodies the naturalness of these hybrid materialities, which, I argue, is an integral subtext of “Hunters and Gatherers.” The image of artist-as-bricoleur has always carried a certain innocence, an apolitical inscription of the encounters between modern and primitive. In such a story, we are all New Barbarians, our melancholic exodus a result of modernity. Like Baudelaire’s ragpicker, we assemble ourselves from the detritus of civilization – Julian Schnabel’s broken plate collage, Johnny Swing’s coin couch, Jaehyo Lee’s nail bed, routes, materials, and labor assembled to produce the contemporary and what Johanna Drucker has named its “complicit formalism”: a focus on materiality that transcends both anti-modernism and critical post-modernism’s political avant-gardism.[11] What is new about these New Barbarians is that their accumulative tendency, the innocent appropriation of materials, is figured as evolution: inevitable genetic destiny, an “impulse,” a “tendency.”


Wukchumne Yokuts Pictorial basket attributed to Mary Dick Topino. Source


Much of the non-Western art in the exhibition is also claimed by this narrative. For example, Northwest Coast art, we are told, is the result of “natural abundance” in the region, the success of hunting and gathering. Similarly functionalist language describes a late-nineteenth century basket attributed to Mary Dick Topino (Wukchumni Yokuts) as an object of beauty enabled by the “adaptability” and “high level of skill” of “hunter-gatherers.” None of this is untrue; certainly, art, environment, and the valuing of well-made objects are inextricably linked. Indeed, Surrealist Hans Bellmer, in his assemblage of doll parts for his puppes, could be considered similarly “adaptable” or “resourceful” in his recycling of his society’s material playthings. This cycle of accumulation and re-purposing is, in fact, the link drawn between West and non-West throughout “Hunters and Gatherers.” But the “adaptability” of Bellmer and his fellow artists is never named as such; instead, it is of a different, more active, sort, called “creativity” or “genius,” or, in Bellmer’s case, “obsession”: a conscious rather than an environmentally-enabled act.

Nothing is particularly new about these primitivist art world tropes, but they are worth highlighting here, because they reveal something about the kinds of connectivity that constitute assemblage. Coupled with the scientific romance of the “impulse to scavenge,” stories of adaptability obscure other networks and connections. For instance, the cross motifs on Topino’s basket, documented elsewhere in relation to her work as Christian imagery associated with two specific mission schools,[12] are not even mentioned in the basket’s relatively extensive catalogue note – indeed, certain kinds of “adaptability” are not considered part of the assemblage. Likewise, a marionette (“polychromed,” again) attributed to a Kwakuitl maker is noted as belonging to the Surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen, who travelled to the Northwest Coast, where he assembled a collection whose “aesthetic exerted a profound influence upon his work” – a glossed mention of the complex encounters enabled by the process of creating assemblages. In effect, the real entanglements generated in the process of assemblage are forgotten, as the genetic impulse removes the very real stakes behind the question of who is assembling whom.


* * *

In archaeological terms, when an assemblage with similar contents is repeated, it is referred to as a culture. If there is a lack of context for the recurrent assemblage, it is not quite a culture; it is an industry. “Hunters and Gatherers” assembled many of the tropes and strategies of containment that we have come to associate with the culture of art world primitivism, and did so in a way that I have been connecting to particular tendencies and narratives of “the contemporary” and its hybrid of scientific romance and willful forgetting, its particular engagement with materiality. Like good archaeologists, we would do well to not take every assemblage as an industry, and assume that “assemblage” is always-already complete. For it is precisely the unexplored potentialities of this mix, of the entanglement, that make assemblage a powerful metaphor for describing social and material worlds.



[1] From Hunters and Gatherers promotional video, available here . The catalogue of the exhibition may be found here .

[2] Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 11.

 [3] This usage of “fresh” is emphasized by the critic Johanna Drucker, who calls for fresh forms of theorizing that are complicit with the pace and materials of contemporary art. See Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2005), xv.

 [4] William Seitz, The Art of Assemblage (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961): 6.

 [5]  Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 7-10.

[6] Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, 169.

[7] Julia Kelly, “The Anthropology of Assemblage,” Art Journal 67, 1(2008): 30.

 [8] George Marcus and Erkan Saka, “Assemblage,” Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2006): 106.

 [9] On relational aesthetics, see Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. S. Pleasance et al. (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2004). On the connections between anthropological bricolage and assemblage, see Anna Dezeuze, “Assemblage, Bricolage, and the Practice of Everyday Life,” Art Journal 67, 1 (2008).

[10] Steven Loft, “Aboriginal Media Art and the Postmodern Conundrum: A Coyote Perspective,” Transference, Tradition, Technology, ed. D. Claxton, S. Loft, and M. Townsend (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 2005), 90.

 [11] Drucker, Sweet Dreams, xv.

 [12] Record 760/826, Fenimore Art Museum (n.d.), , accessed December 5th, 2012.


Hair Today

Haidy Geismar, UCL

This is a short commentary on the current special exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris’ “Museum of the others”. The exhibition, Cheveux Cheris: Frivolites et Trophies, translated into English as The Art of Hair is curated by Yves LeFur, Director of the Museum’s Heritage and Collections Department and draws on the museum’s extensive collections of objects made from (mainly) human hair and images of people and their hair. The argument is that hair is universally a powerful cultural and aesthetic medium. The result is a series of disconnected objects and images that contain an underarticulated narrative of gender, oppression, violence and power.

The exhibition, on the second floor of the museum, high above the controversial galleries, is first glimpsed through a tantalizing art installation that can be seen from below. I apologize as it is one of the few pieces I seem not to have documented the author of.

In the extensive commentary and slideshows to be found in the media it seems that most critics enjoy the curatorial strategy of juxtaposition between different kinds of object, and different art media. Slideshows such as those in the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily (for the exhibition appeals as much in the fashion media as in the museum and gallery pages) jump from Man Ray’s portrait of the back of Marcel Duchamp’s head, to a 1964 Neal Barr shot of a beauty conscious Texan track club, through to a decontextualized shot of a shrunken head from Ecuador. As I meandered through the first section from 19th century busts of Black and White people, through to documentary portraits of African corn-rows and paintings of Medieval Kings, the take home message seemed to be simple: look, hair! Pithy texts commented made comments such as

In the traditional iconography of feminine beauty, rolling waves of opulent curls are more readily associated with seduction than simple straight hair. For long periods of time the revelation of loose, unfettered hair was confined to the intimate, private sphere. Transferred to the public arena, it can suggest flaunted intimacy or transgression of these codes.

But individual artifacts were not drawn particularly into this narrative, providing the viewer only with the most basic of tombstone labelling.

The exhibition was divided into sections which mused upon the “universal theme”of hair, with sections devoted to metamorphosis and permutation (hair styles long and short), colours and normality (only for women), seduction (also only women), discipline (also mainly for women), a little bit of blurring gender boundaries, loss and removal of hair (mainly women), rights of passage and ornamention, ritual, trophies and the ancestors (the last sections were less gendered, but were the sections that dealt with a genderless other).


My attention was really caught in the transitional moment of the exhibition, which was a series of photographs by Robert Capa and a video (produced by the Museum) of French women, collaborators, having their heads shaved and being paraded by members of the French resistance in the town of Chartres, in 1944. Here for me was a powerful instantiation of the point made only glibly in the short exhibition texts, that hair is a profound, universal marker of gender and sexuality, and the hair styles are instruments and embodiments of power, and even force.

This point could have also been made in the second half of the exhibition which focused exclusively on the relationship of hair and the human body in contexts that, in the context of the exhibition, can only be catgorized as “primitive”. This is not my term or even that of the museum, but rather the inevitable conclusion of any visitor who moves from historicised and art historical display strategies (with authored creations, years of creation etc) to displays which are labelled only generically as ethnic or cultural. the move is also mirrored as a transition from the representational media of film, photography, painting, and sculpture, to the visceral medium and material of the actual human body. The transition was a shock that again was naturalized rather than critically engaged with in the exhibition. Excuse the lack of images but many of the objects are disturbing, and I feel that they are inappropriate to reproduce. An entire human being in a glass case – a mummy from Chancay, Peru (“1000-1450″), and an entire room filled with “shrunken” heads, one of whom looked reproachfully outwards, lips sewn shut.

It was at this point that the connections being made around hair started to dissipate at least for me. What does a photograph of an African woman by Samual Fosso taken in 2008, a portrait of a buxom blonde being kidnapped by Norman pirates (in a painting by Evariste Vital Luminaise) and a scalp from Tanzania at the end of the twentieth century (“Ce scalp pourrait etre celui d’un Europeen”) have in common? Yes, they may tell us about the violence of cross-cultural engagement and the role of women within it, but what do they really tell us about hair?

Overall the exhibition is impressive in its range and diversity and the attempt to create a universal sensibility out of such a range of objects and media is admirable. How indeed could such an exhibition really be achieved without falling into the inevitable trap of superficial connection? As with many of the exhibitions at Quai Branly, The Art of Hair raises provocations about the limits of cross-cultural representation and display.