Foster on the Primitive

“Historically, the primitive is articulated by the west in deprivative or supplemental terms: as a spectacle of savagery or as a state of grace, as a socius without writing or the Word, history or cultural complexity or as a site of originally unity, symbolic plenitude, natural vitality. There is nothing odd about this Eurocentric construction: the primitive has served as a coded other at least since the Enlightenment, usually as a subordinate term in its imaginary set of oppositions (light/dark, rational/irrational, civilized/savage). This domesticated primitive is thus constructive, not disruptive, of the binary ratio of the west; fixed as a structural opposite or a dialectical other to be incorporated, it assists in the establishment of a western identity, center, norm and name. In its modernist version the primitive may appear transgressive, it is true, but it still serves as a limit: projected within and without, the primitive becomes a figure of our unconscious and outside (a figure constructed in modern art as well as in psychoanalysis and anthropology in the privileged triad of the primitive, the child and the insane).

Courtesy Stevenson Gallery, © Viviane Sassen, Series: Flamboya, 2009, Sister

(…) Western man and his primitive other are no more equal partners in the March of Reason than they were in the Spread of the Word, than they are in the Marketing of Capitalism. The Enlightenment cannot be protected from its other legacy, the “bad-irrational” primitivism (Varndoe’s dramatic example is Nazi Blood and Soil, the swastika ur-sign), any more than the “good-rational” primitivism (e.g. the ideographic explorations of Picasso) can be redeemed from colonial exploration. Dialectically, the progressivity of the one is the regression of the other.

Courtesy Stevenson Gallery, © Viviane Sassen, Series: Ultra Violet: Sketchbook, 2007, Trickster – 2007

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Enwezor on Africanism

“My curiosity about the origins and literary uses of this carefully observed, and carefully invented, Africanist presence has become an informal study of what I call American Africanism. It is an investigation into the ways in which non-white, African-like (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served. I am using the term ‘Africanism’ not to suggest the larger body of knowledge on Africa that the philosopher Valentin Mudimbe means by the term ‘Africanism,’ nor to suggest the varieties and complexities of African people and their descendants who have inhabited this country. Rather I use it as a term for the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people. As a trope, little restraint has been attached to its uses. As a disabling virus within literary discourse, Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education favours, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual licence, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability. Through the simple expedient of demonising and reifying the range of colour on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicise and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilisation, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom.”

— Okwui Enwezor “The American Sublime and the Racial Self,” in The Sublime (2010), extracted from “Representation and Differentiation: Lorna Simpson’s Iconography of the Racial Sublime,” in Lorna Simpson (2006)

Walker EvansMinstrel Show Billboard (1936)

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Gilroy on Race, Nationalism and Globalisaiton

“The fact that racism and nationalism are ubiquitous and violent doesn’t mean that race thinking is historically resurgent. They could be happening because the historic codes of race thinking are breaking down. We could read these events as symptoms of the breakdown, the decay of race thinking prompted by the fact that absolute identity cannot bear the weight that political interests are placing upon it. Globalization makes people anxious. They resolve their ontological and ethnic anxieties into a politics of identity and their anxieties over identity into a politics of ethnicity and nationality. We need to know whey those are the attractive and habitable options. We need to be able to show them that nationalisms are not the answer to their anxieties. We need to re-narrate national identities on different scales and address the integrity of the idea of Europe so that its colonial patterns become visible again.”

— Paul Gilroy in “Europe Doesn’t Know Its History: Conversation with Stuart Hall,” in Time Action Vision by Christian Höller (2010).

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Enwezor on Simpson, the American Sublime and the Racial Self

“There is in ‘the mythology of madness’ the oft repeated story of radical therapy effect by Phillipe Pinel when he released the madmen and madwomen from their chains in Bicêtre and Salpêtrière hospitals in Paris in 1794. Pinel’s freeing of the madmen and madwomen was said to have ushered in a revolution in the treatment of madness. Not only did he free these men and women from their literal chains, he simultaneously, through their de-incarceration, also freed them from the stigma to which the chain had interminably condemned them beyond repair.

Lorna SimpsonCompleting the Analogy (1987) c/o Salon 94 New York

By the same token, Pinel did not so much free the insane from their hellish confinement as much as he released their madness from total censure. In this way he returned them back into the world, or rather, into the social government of the asylum from which the insane had been banished. And in which for centuries scores languished, under lock and key, behind high walls, where no ‘serene’ gaze of rationality and respectability would ever fall on that insolence that represents the ruined human character.

In America race constitutes its own form of madness, along with its own asylums and governmentalities. From the earliest moment that European colonists arrived on the American shores, race has been the great alloy of a potent social experiment, one that produced slavery and the plantation economy. If the Bicêtre and Salpêtrière hospitals were more than therapeutic zones – being as they were places of seizure – the confinement on the plantation under slavery mobilizes similar senses of capture and stigma. Race in America simultaneously represents the unspeakable and the irrepressible, as well as an epistemological model of biological differentiation that produces a prodigious body of discourse and representation. And like madness in the asylum, it enjoys a particular kind of censure behind the high walls of its own asylum. Except, unlike the asylum, which is ringed by thick, mortared walls and protected by a forbidding gate, the madness of race exists nakedly visible in the tumescent flesh of the American social ideal and is practiced in the open terrain of the cultural landscape.”

— Okwui Enwezor “The American Sublime and the Racial Self,” in The Sublime (2010)

Lorna SimpsonThe Waterbearer (1986) c/o Salon 94 New York



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Hall on Culture, Technology and History

“Even if in the past there was a kind of sentiment that culture was a more settled formation, it certainly isn’t any longer. The culture we inhabit, partly technologically, because of satellites and modern communication systems, is breaking the link between identity and space, which is a very ancient one. The nation-state is the last moment when identity and place could be harnessed together. After that comes the satellite revolution and suddenly, people’s identities are in the airwaves. They are not located by space anymore. (…)

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Ricoeur on Plurality, Culture and The Other

“When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusory or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other” among others. All meaning and every goal having disappeared, it becomes possible to wander through civilizations as if through vestiges and ruins. The whole of mankind becomes an imaginary museum: where shall we go this weekend — visit the Angkor ruins or take  stroll in the Tivoli of Copenhagen? We can very easily imagine a time close at hand when any fairly well-to-do person will be able to leave his country indefinitely in order to taste his own national death in the an interminable, aimless voyage.”

— Paul Ricoeur “Civilization and National Cultures,” in History and Truth (1965)

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Rice on Secular (Consumerist) Culture

Lise SarfatiSloane, Oakland CA 2005 © Lise Sarfati, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

“Unlike Vodou worshippers in Haiti, we in contemporary America acknowledge no deities; we deny a pantheon of supernatural beings who determine our destinies, who have the power to “possess” our bodies or intervene in our lives. In our denial, we give more power to the archetypes that we indeed have created: those images of beauty, of sexuality, of wealth and power that are emblazoned in neon across our skies, projected into our movie palaces, beamed into our homes and offices — that possess us, in short, not simply in the course of a religious ceremony but throughout every waking minute of our lives.”

— Shelley Rice, “Inverted Odysseys” in Inverted Odysseys (1999)

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One off: Matteo Musci.

“Motel Kitchen” from Walking Solo by Matteo Musci.

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Solnit on the Desert

“The Holy Land belongs to the chosen people, but they have no talent for staying in it peacefully and are always shifting, struggling, splitting up, being cast out. For them the desert is an ambiguous zone: a place strangers, sinners, and scapegoats are driven out into, but also a place of purification and holiness. Hagar is driven into the desert because she is of another tribe and a rebuke to Sarah, but Moses goes out into the desert to speak with God. Their – our – religion is itself anomalous, not about the “here” of immanence and earth-based religion, but about the “there” of transcendence, immateriality, possibility, and whatever lies over the horizon; the cultures that come from it are uniquely dissatisfied, focused on the absent, the unassuageable. In some ways these are the inevitable results of a linear history – for commensurate with Judaism’s revolution of monotheism was its replacement of the organic cycles of myth with the arrhythmic time of history, so that the spheres of nature and landscape could never enclose them. The Old Testament itself, with its beginning in Eden, is linear – a road map of history that finds its completion in the New Testament, where the road runs all the way to the book of Apocalypse, the end.”

— Rebecca Solnit “Scapeland,” in Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach (1996)

Richard Misrach “Desert Fire #249″ 1985 from Desert Cantos © Richard Misrach, c/o Fraenkel Gallery (San Francisco)

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An Autobiography of Objects in the work of Mark Ruwedel

The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion — formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities — but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever” — Hannah Arendt

Mark Ruwedel Crossing #18, 2005 Inkjet Print © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

The photographer Mark Ruwedel is often, and not inaccurately, described as a forensic topographer – a term that fuses together the studious neutrality of the landscape work exhibited in The New Topographics (1975), with the scientific and analytical distance of an anthropological survey. Ruwedel’s emergence into photography, informed as it was by his interest in landforms and the work of Robert Smithson, has certainly lent to his photographs a rigorous and expansive point of view. However, the layered complexities of Westward the Course of Empire (2008) developed out of the inexplicable disjuncture that exists between differing periods of history, and differing conceptions of time. In this the work pointed up the limits of measurement, and of documentary records, when confronted by the task of bringing to life a way of thinking about a future that has long since become a part of the past. In Westward Ruwedel took up the position and perspective of a late 19th or early 20th century prospector or surveyor, but in regions of North America where the passage of time has unpicked the stability of their own expansive projections. Ruwedel’s photographs in that work demonstrated the ephemerality of ambition, the invisibility of imperial vision, and the indifference of ecological processes to the logic of the American frontier. All this is to say that at the root of Ruwedel’s systematic approach, there are fundamentally human questions about the scope and sustainability of individual and collective aspirations for stability, for a beneficent future, or for a clearer sense of our place in the world.

Mark Ruwedel Westward the Course of Empire Kettle Valley #83, 2004 Silver Gelatin print © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

In the ongoing series Crossing, Ruwedel’s photographs continue his decades-long survey of a western landscape full of relics, fossils, and the degraded skeletal remains of industrial and individual ambition. However these photographs deliver a simultaneously harsh and tender measure of irony, in that they are comprised of the relics of migrants who have sought passage north across the United States’ southern border — a flight from harm, or a pilgrimage toward opportunity no different in its essence from the westward journey across the American frontier. These new colour landscapes in a sense give us an image of the ancestral siblings of early nineteenth century settlers, bonded in a common search for new freedoms and opportunities, but segregated by the strictures of identity politics and the closure of a once open space.

Mark Ruwedel Crossing #7, 2005 Inkjet Print © Mark Ruwedel, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

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