Visual Culture Questionnaire

In 1996, the journal October published the Visual Culture Questionnaire—four questions about the study of visual culture—alongside responses from art and architecture historians, film theorists, literary critics, and artists. These four questions are being republished in both Chinese and English by Podium, with October’s permission, to reflect on how the understanding of visual culture has changed since this 1996 enquiry. A new group of respondents is invited to respond to these questions, and their answers are published as part of Podium Issue 1: Visual Culture.


OCTOBER 77, Summer 1996, 25–70:

1. It has been suggested that the interdisciplinary project of ‘visual culture’ is no longer organised on the model of history (as were the disciplines of art history, architectural history, film history, etc.) but on the model of anthropology. Hence, it is argued by some that visual culture is an eccentric (even, at times, antagonistic) position with regard to the ‘new art history’ with its socio-historical and semiotic imperatives and models of ‘context’ and ‘text’.

2. It has been suggested that visual culture embraces the same breadth of practice that powered the thinking of an early generation of art historians—such as Riegl and Warburg—and that to return to the various medium-based historical disciplines, such as art, architecture, and cinema histories, to this earlier intellectual possibility is vital to their renewal.

3. It has been suggested that the precondition for visual studies as an interdisciplinary rubric is a newly wrought conception of the visual as disembodied image, re-created in the virtual spaces of sign-exchange and phantasmatic projection. Further, if this new paradigm of the image originally developed in the intersection between psychoanalytic and media discourses, it has now assumed a role independent of specific media. As a corollary the suggestion is that visual studies is helping, in its own modest, academic way, to produce subjects for the next stage of globalised capital.

4. It has been suggested that pressure within the academy to shift towards the interdisciplinarity of visual culture, especially in its anthropological dimension, parallels shifts of a similar nature within art, architectural, and film practices.

© 1996 Editors, October Magazine, Ltd.

Respondents

Image at top: Martin Parr, Hong Kong (LON156562), 2013. Pigment print. M+, Hong Kong. © Artist and Blindspot Gallery

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Visual Culture and the Popular

Iftikhar Dadi

My years in the doctoral program at Cornell University during the late 1990s and early 2000s coincided with extended debates on campus and beyond regarding the rise of visual culture as a disciplinary formation. My own investments in these discussions were somewhat divided. During graduate school and after, I always wanted to work under the discipline of art history rather than visual culture, for the reason that the former was a well-established discipline that was ripe for rethinking from within. However, the visual culture debates had the salutary effect of enabling the study of modern art beyond the Western canon within art history itself, in ways that no longer had to conform to existing paradigms. Art history at that time was quite congealed and hermetic. Scholarship on modern art seemed to be afflicted by an even narrower tunnel vision. Barring honorable exceptions, the established and emerging modern art historians in the United States were indifferent or hostile towards developments beyond the Western canon, even those who worked with critical methodologies, such as the Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, postmodernism and poststructuralism. Thus, the opening up of the analysis of modern art history to works and methods beyond these closures was a tremendous gain, in some measure a consequence of the challenges posed by visual culture studies.

Three images side by side. Each image features a plastic toy against a bright colourful background. Each toy is accompanied by text in Urdu underneath it. The toy to the far left is a plastic tiffin carrier with the bottom tier painted green, the next tier painted yellow, the next tier painted a dark brown, and the top tier painted pink. The handle is painted red. The toy in the middle is a plastic boombox in neon pink with green speakers. The toy to the far right is a mobile phone painted turquoise.

Iftikhar Dadi & Elizabeth Dadi, from left to right: Tiffen #1, Cassette Player #1, Mobile Phone #1, from the Tilism Series, 2018. Archival pigment prints on diasec, 49 x 37 inches. Courtesy of the artists Courtesy of the artists and Jhaveri Contemporary

The 1996 October Questionnaire is by now, long in the tooth, and best read as a symptom of the anxieties of those who had never seriously engaged with developments outside the western world or ventured beyond the fields of high modern art, cinema, and architecture. Despite being posed in a passive voice, the tone of the four questions is hardly neutral. The second question is schizophrenic in claiming both breadth and disciplinary fidelity for art history itself. For a journal broadly associated with Marxism, it assumes the peculiar stance of claiming that the analysis of capitalist modern culture is better addressed by the work of early twentieth-century art historians whose expertise was not in modern art—rather than offering any generosity towards emerging paradigms. The third question is also loaded, claiming that the so-called ‘disembodied image’ floating free of media specificity forges a subjectivity devoid of media-specific criticality. And what to make of the comical accusation that visual culture was ‘helping … to produce subjects for the next stage of globalized capital’, as if older disciplinary formations—especially art history’s complicities with the art market—had remained resistant to late capitalist instrumentalisation in the neoliberal university?

However, the limitations of claims made for visual culture as a field of study in the United States were becoming more visible to me. As a graduate student working on South Asia and its diaspora, I was aware of two other intellectual formations unfolding at the time: Cultural Studies in the UK, and Subaltern Studies on India and Latin America. Both drew from Gramsci and were interested in questions of ‘history from below’, and indeed of questions on historicity more broadly, as well as hegemony and its relation to struggles for enunciation. They were much more advantageously placed to address marginal experiences in ways that were not formulaic, but open-ended. By contrast, American visual culture studies seemed conceptually impoverished and inattentive to questions of form. It was too presentist in its approach, almost exclusively analysed media and advertising, focused primarily on reception and consumption, and above all, relied on already formulated categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationalism, et cetera.

Installation artwork on a wall which consists of an LED sign in which the English word ‘Cosmos’ is written in three dimensional letters with a pattern of a starry sky on them. Below that is a print with a drawing of a type of power tool on it.

Iftikhar Dadi & Elizabeth Dadi, Cosmos, 2019. Pigment prints on wall, LED signage. Installation view: Ríos Intermitentes at the Palace of Justice, Matanzas, as part of the 13th Havana Biennial (15 April–12 May 2019). Courtesy of the artists

Today, art history has become far more open and hospitable in its methodology and focus, primarily because of sustained feminist, queer, and postcolonial work during the past few decades. The study of modern art beyond the canonical West no longer needs to be justified, and is indeed one of the most vital research areas in art history today. And the ecology of art in Asia and Africa is immensely larger today than it was a few decades ago, in terms of institutions, patronage, and practice, so that these can no longer be seen merely as lesser imitations of Western developments. On the other hand, the importance of popular cultural forms in the Global South has only increased during the last few decades, with accelerated modernisation, the uncontrolled growth of the Asian and African megalopolis, and multiplying media production and circulation. Seemingly local craft practices and design are increasingly shaped by transnational forces as well as efforts by city and state authorities eager to brand these under the rubric of ‘creative economies’. In the cities of South Asia, one encounters a dense juxtaposition of artistic and sensory forms, many with distinctive medium specificities and genre characteristics, but which also resonate with one another to attenuate or amplify various facets. Contemporary art also traffics easily with the domain of the ‘popular’ in its visual language, as well as in its mode of address.

I posit that the ‘popular’ has emerged as an important term for thinking about recent developments in the Global South, and needs to be understood as possessing a specific valence that partly overlaps with, but cannot be equated by, other terms such as the ‘informal’ and the ‘public’ that are also important to flesh out. Here, due to space limitations, I offer merely a few provisional and schematic comments on the ‘popular’.

A green LED sign on a dark wall spelling out the Cyrillic letters ‘BODA’.
A white LED sign on a dark wall spelling out the word ‘MYCIL’.
A blue LED sign on a dark wall spelling out the word ‘Lahoot’ in the Urdu alphabet.

Iftikhar Dadi & Elizabeth Dadi, from top to bottom: BODA, MYCIL, lahoot from Homo Ludens Series (2014-ongoing). Metal, acrylic, LED. Asia Art Archive & Spring Workshop Residency Programme, Hong Kong, 2014. Courtesy of the artists

The term ‘popular’ is a palimpsest bearing multifaceted connotations that have become layered historically. A lineage can be traced via the German thinker Johann Gottfried von Herder, who died in 1803. Von Herder conceived of cultural specificity in terms of national ‘folk’ traditions, which remains salient today when regional cultures of the modern nation-state are taxonomised. But with the emergence in the West of ‘mass’ forms of media, such as sophisticated print advertising, radio, cinema, and television, a new social body emerged in the early and mid-twentieth centuries: the ‘mass society’, which was understood by theorists of the Frankfurt School as being coopted by consumer capitalism on the one hand, and by fascism on the other. For this reason, many mid-century thinkers, including Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg, denigrated the popular as kitsch, and sought instead to valorise artistic modernism precisely for its difficulty in being instrumentalised. On another front, Raymond Williams, a founding theorist of Cultural Studies in the United Kingdom, characterised the term ‘popular’ with a critical valence in his important book Keywords. He observes that the older meaning of ‘popular’ as denoting something ‘low’ or ‘base’ shifted over the course of the centuries to a more neutral or positive sense, to that of connoting what ordinary people might like to make or enjoy.

These theorisations were primarily developed to account for Western historical experiences. The question as to how they translate over into contexts of decolonisation, uneven development, and with multiple traditional ideas of the ‘popular’, is a complex one that cannot be fully fleshed out here. Nevertheless, it is evident in South Asia that the ‘popular’ encompasses mass culture as well as folk, vernacular, and religious modernities. All these acquire new significations and amplified trajectories of circulation through reproduction by mechanical and electronic means. And certainly, the ‘popular’ has possessed political valences in regions where struggle for political representation continues, as in popular mobilisation for social justice and autonomy. Nevertheless, popular forms are neither simply socially progressive nor regressive. Rather, their riven and divided character provides insight into the tensions and struggles within a social formation.

This becomes more evident today, when ongoing transformations in electronic and social media over the last two decades continue to alter society at a dizzying pace. Cell phones, small cameras, multiple television channels, and social media have engendered new capacities for production, circulation, and consumption of ‘culture’, increasingly incorporating those who were previously marginal to the production of mass ‘industrial’ cultural forms. What is the role of piracy and informal economies in creating new infrastructures and aesthetic forms? Does a plural media space provide new possibilities for engendering vernacularisation? We cannot ascribe a singular valence to these powerfully transformative decentered and networked forces, and must situate their ‘popular’ social and aesthetic facets in terms of social fractures, dynamic processes, infrastructural recodings, multiple publics, and emergent subjectivities.

Contemporary artists also intervene in this field for legibility, and jostle for visual and relational space. But artists also need to be attentive to the privileges of literacy, class, and social voice they possess. They may not simply reproduce an image of the ‘popular’ in representational fidelity——this is a false gesture of authenticity because it does not account for the discrepant subject position of the artist, nor does it seriously examine valences of the ‘popular’ that one might not wish to celebrate or reproduce. Instead an artist might reflect upon how their work offers a critical intervention in the rich, but fractured terrain of the ‘popular’.


Footnotes:

  1. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  2. The first question contends that visual culture purportedly draws from ‘anthropology’ rather than ‘history’. I imagine that this is supposed to flag a methodological shortcoming, but I remain mystified as what this means exactly. Nevertheless, I would like to interpret this in an enabling manner, as offering an opening towards previously unstudied cultural forms that can be situated, for example, to the way the concept of culture had been articulated by Franz Boas and his students—that every society has a ‘culture’ (rather than only ‘advanced’ societies or cultural elites possessing it). See: Louis Menand, ‘How Cultural Anthropologists Redefined Humanity’, The New Yorker, 19 August 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/26/how-cultural-anthropologists-redefined-humanity
  3. Categories such as race do not have an exact analogue in South Asia for example, so the US approach to visual culture seemed to me to be too narrow and prescriptive.
  4. Recent studies include, Pedro R. Erber, Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015); Elizabeth W Giorgis, Modernist Art in Ethiopia. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2019); Joan Kee, Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Sonal Khullar, Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930-1990 (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015); Chika Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Ming Tiampo, Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  5. All these conceptions must be tracked temporally and relationally. The relation between the ‘subaltern’ and the ‘popular’ has the subject of an extended research project at the University of California, for example. ‘The Subaltern-Popular Workshop’, http://www.ihc.ucsb.edu/subaltern/
  6. Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 198-199.
  7. Williams notes, ‘the familiar range of senses, from unfavorable to favorable, gathered again around this. The shortening gave the word a lively informality but opened it, more easily, to a sense of the trivial.’
  8. For an important study on Delhi, see Ravi Sundaram, Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism (Routledge, 2010).

Iftikhar Dadi is an associate professor in the department of art history at Cornell University, where he received his PhD. He is the author of Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (2010) and the edited monograph Anwar Jalal Shemza (2015). He has co-edited Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space (2012) and Unpacking Europe: Towards a Critical Reading (2001). Dadi is advisor to Asia Art Archive and serves on the editorial and advisory boards of Bio-Scope: South Asian Screen Studies; Archives of Asian Art; and previously Art Journal (2007–11). He has been a recipient of grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Getty Foundation.

As artists, Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi have collaborated in their practice for twenty years. Their work investigates memory, borders, and identity in contemporary globalisation, the productive capacities of urban informalities in the Global South, and the mass culture of postindustrial societies. Recent exhibitions venues include Art Gallery of Windsor, Canada (2013); John Hartell Gallery, Cornell University (2015, 2018); Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai (2015 & 2018); Dhaka Art Summit (2016); Office of Contemporary Art Norway, Oslo (2017); Lahore Biennale 01 (2018); Havana Biennial at Matanzas (2019); and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK (2019).

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Beyond Discipline

Gala Porras-Kim

Studying visual culture helps to understand the contextual differences surrounding the production of artworks in different parts of the world, where visual signs have varied associations. As an artist, I have shown works in rural villages in the south of Mexico, where visual signs changed the function of objects that could be considered artworks elsewhere. At one residency in Oaxaca, artists were invited to produce works that would remain in the surrounding communities. A well-regarded European artist made an abstract sculpture that was to be installed outside of a fish cooperative and taken indoors at the end of each day—something that the locals did not think of as an artwork but as a burden. During this residency we also worked on the production of a mural, which we thought of as community service but the community thought of as a commissioned artwork since it ‘looked like art’. Without understanding the visual culture of the viewer, it is difficult to make works that will be interpreted in the way an author intended.

Four photographs in a row, each showing printed signs on paper displayed in various spots in different shops. The signs are written in languages spoken in Oaxaca. The photograph furthest to the left is of a sign displaying opening hours, hung above a round metal pot of a dark brown food. The next photo shows two elderly and slightly smiling people, one sitting and one standing next to two orange signs hanging above a display of drinks in plastic bottles. The third photo shows two signs hung on a scale. The last photo shows signs of various sizes and colours on small wooden sticks that are stuck into packages of food lying on a shop counter.

Gala Porras-Kim, sign installations in Oaxacan stores in Corredor Soledad, Centro Histórico, Mexico City (2014). Cardboard, marker, coloured pencil. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist

When I approach a project in a place that I might not be familiar with, most of my time is spent listening and learning about people’s perceptions of things. If by chance there are some signs that we have in common, then there exists a possibility of a project. But for the most part, the work manifests as a collaboration with someone who knows the signs. But even within the same geography, people can have different experiences of the same landscape depending on their cultural background. In Los Angeles, you can go to Koreatown, which is also a major Latin American neighbourhood, and you can see how Koreans and Latin Americans have totally different experiences of a space that they share.

In the past, I have worked with antiquities in institutions that have lost their cataloguing number, therefore losing the description of where they come from and what they were used for. I have researched different ways in which professionals have tried to define what objects are by projecting their understanding based on their knowledge of what certain characteristics could mean. In a way, this reflects more on the person making the projections than on the object itself, since we cannot actually know what an object’s original context was—we can just see what this specific person thinks about it. I would like to propose that, since the original function or location of an object or a visual sign is impossible to know, any individual projection is as good as the one presented by the institution.

View of an exhibition in a white-walled gallery space. Two framed works hang on one of the walls, with two rows of numerous smaller works hanging on the other. In the middle of the room is a white display table. Four podiums are placed on the table, each carrying a sculpture. Smaller, flat artworks are displayed on the table in between the podiums.

Gala Porras-Kim, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (12 June–28 August 2016). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Brian Forrest

In his writings about historiography, the American historian Hayden White argues that literary writing influences historical writing in many ways, sharing a strong reliance on narrative for meaning, therefore eliminating the possibility of an objective or truly scientific history. In his 1973 book Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, White describes the idea of ‘emplotment’—the narratological modelisation of explanation in any historiographical narration. As professor Robert Doran has summarised, White ‘held that while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. Stories are made and not found in historical data; historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.’

If we extend this idea to the relationship of art history as the framework in which we see artworks, it is clear that the most prevalent interpretations in the field have come from a western academic point of view. If the authors of art history are emplotting works of art from a mainly western perspective—which is to say locating artworks within a western frame of reference—then how can they understand and write stories with artworks made all over the world? If art historians historicise artworks according to a specific form of art history and are surrounded and influenced by a specific visual culture, what does that say about the discipline of art history and its engagement with the multiplicity of visual culture when considered from a global perspective?

View of a brick wall displaying a number of artworks. A brown shelf carrying a smooth, shell-like sculpture is surrounded by papers displayed on the wall, some of which contain text and some of which appear to display different images of the sculpture.

Gala Porras-Kim, Reconstructed Southwest Artifact (c. 900/2017/2017). Installation view in Rafa Esparza’s installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (17 March–11 June 2017). Photo: Ron Amstutz. Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

We should refuse the reduction of art’s study to the frame of western academia, since the prioritising of these academic disciplines of thought undermines all the accumulated visual knowledge of indigenous people and decentralised perspectives that do not share the same foundations or methodologies. There is no way to actually define visual culture since every individual experiences the subject differently, and subjects themselves are shaped by the contexts in which they are formed. In his introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai argues that objects cannot be interpreted without understanding the place where they were made and the context in which they exist today. In terms of art, we can suspend belief when looking at artworks, but in the end they do not exist without the context in which they are first made and the contexts in which they are experienced.

Beyond the context in which an artwork is made, the production of works of art is increasingly inter-sensorial—that is, beyond a visual or even physical representation that prioritises the eyes over other bodily functions for its constitution and consumption. The formal qualities of the subject might not be primarily understood through a relationship between the hand and eye, but maybe the mouth and ear, such as oral traditions. Works can and do rely on other forms of communication. These differences speak to a need for a more interdisciplinary practice, through which the modes of production and the references an artwork is making are able to exist in more than one field.

View of artworks installed in a white-walled gallery space. Three large mixed-media artworks on canvas are displayed on the wall. Two podiums with sculptures stand in front of them.

Installation view of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, (17 May–22 September 2019). From left to right: La Mojarra Stela and its shapes (2019); La Mojarra Stela negative space (2019); La Mojarra Stela illuminated text and La Mojarra Stela incidental conjugations (2019). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ron Amstutz

The relationship between content and form is defined and studied differently by different academic fields, which in turn are constrained by their methodologies. Artists, on the other hand, can go between them because there are fewer rules. If a work of art is made in a way that it functions beyond representation—as an active contributor to the ideas it tries to consider while, bringing together different disciplines to do so—then an understanding of different disciplines is not only useful, but necessary. An artwork about memory, for example, could be useful in the lab of the neuroscientist studying where memories are formed.

Collaborations between academics and artists could enable a reconstitution of anthropology, art history, and other academic disciplines, so that these fields of study might become more inclusive in their approach to framing the discourses around the subjects they are referencing through a reconsideration of methodologies.

When it comes to studying visual culture, it is important to go beyond an art historical and anthropological framework to understand the methodologies of other fields used in the production of a work, as this will impact an object’s interpretation. It is also important to decentralise fields of knowledge so that visual images can also be understood within scientific, legal, or non-humanities disciplines—even beyond disciplines altogether.


Footnotes:

  1. Robert Doran quoted in Neil Genzlinger, ‘Hayden White, Who Explored How History Is Made, Dies at 89’, The New York Times, 9 March 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/obituaries/hayden-white-who-explored-how-history-is-made-dies-at-89.html
  2. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Gala Porras-Kim (b. 1984, Bogotá, Colombia; lives and works in Los Angeles) received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has had solo exhibitions at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito (2018); LABOR, Mexico City (2017); and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2017, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2010). Selected group exhibitions include the Ural Industrial Biennial (2019), Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2019), Future Generation Art Prize exhibition at Palazzo Ca’tron, Venice and PinchukArtCentre, Kiev (2019); Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul (2017); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); and FRAC Pays de la Loire, Carquefou (2016). Porras-Kim has received an Artadia Award (2017), the Rema Hort Mann Foundation grant (2017), Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2016), Creative Capital grant (2015), Tiffany Foundation Award in 2015, and the California Community Foundation Fellowship (2013). She recently curated a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University (2019–20).

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Discipline and Practice

Lee Weng Choy

If I may speak personally, and I often do in my writing, though rarely do I mean to go on about myself; rather, the aim is for empathetic contact with the reader. As an art critic, I see the job as less about winning agreement than fostering understanding. On this occasion, however, the personal might seem out of place. My remit is to revisit a set of questions from over twenty years ago that emanated from across the Pacific Ocean and the North American continent: the October Visual Culture Questionnaire, published in the summer of 1996. The reason for evoking the personal is because I want to raise the issue of intellectual vulnerability.

Art criticism is not something I would consider a discipline, an example of which would be art history. Art criticism is a practice, like art making. If you want to become an artist, you simply start making art; likewise, to become an art critic you start writing about it. In either case, it’s not easy, but you keep practising. In most cases, critics and artists go to university, whether for degrees in fine art or design, literature, philosophy, and so on—there are few departments of art criticism, by the way; but these excursions into the academy, while highly recommended, are not required. You can’t say the same about becoming a historian, sociologist, anthropologist, and the like; these are professions that are far more institutionally regulated.

When a museum embraces visual culture as its purview, does it matter whether or not visual culture has become a discipline like art history? Is it necessary for visual culture to have institutional legitimacy and rigour as a museological category? As I read the October Questionnaire—instructive and edifying as it was—I realised that I didn’t have a stake in the theoretical debates from back then, and was unsure how to respond to them now. It has taken me many years, but I have gained some clarity about working outside a discipline; I feel I know what it means to practice criticism. Yet I have struggled to write this text, stumbled to articulate an argument, and I hope the reader cares to understand why.

Chromogenic print under Plexiglas depicting a red sky viewed from below. A black silhouetted urban landscape, featuring skyscrapers and lampposts, rises up all around the viewer to frame the sky.

Leung Chi Wo, Queen’s Possession, 2002. Chromogenic print under Plexiglas. M+, Hong Kong. © Warren Leung Chi Wo

In Southeast Asia, the corner of the art world I call home, there is a recurring suspicion towards theory—often read as Western in its essence—that comes from audiences, artists, curators, writers, and even academics. To be sure, an increasing number of scholars and cultural workers espouse theory—but I am not suggesting a dominant tendency, only a common one. I have no surveys or ethnographic studies to cite, but after twenty-five years of attending and participating in all manner of gatherings held at museums, universities, art spaces, fairs, and galleries—from academic conferences to artist talks and writing workshops—I have a good deal of anecdotal evidence that warrants at least a serviceable generalisation if not a fully formed position.

What are some of the patterns in these various suspicions or refusals of theory? I could chart a range of underlying reasons. Instead, let me point to something that these refusals of theory might have in common with the intricate debates in October about the intrusion of visual culture into art history. What strikes me reading the Visual Culture Questionnaire today is the level of apprehension: a number of respondents worried about how the visual might dominate over the discursive, though others, like Susan Buck-Morss and Martin Jay, argued that there was no going back, since visual culture had already changed the way we think about art and art history. Surprisingly, only a few, like Thomas Crow, explicitly argued for the importance of comparative studies of different geographies. While there was diversity in tone and message, with hindsight, it seems the very framework of the whole exercise was about specialised self-reflexivity as a highly evolved modality of anxiety.

It is important to make a distinction between a ‘refusal’ and a ‘resistance’ to theory. The two might be reactions rather than carefully considered responses to the same situation, and both could be rooted in anxiety. (I don’t mean to pathologise or normalise the emotion, but it bears emphasising how much it figures in intellectual activity, on both personal and institutional registers.) Resistance has a criticality that refusal lacks. Small reactive resistances can build to a critique, whereas even the most enduring refusal can belie insecurities that remain unexamined.

Photograph of four people stand on a metal scaffolding platform to the left. One of the people in a red shirt leans back against the railing, and the other three face them. One person is taking a photo of the person in the red shirt, while the other two are talking to them. To the right of the photograph is a tall white sculpture depicting a person standing confidently with their arms crossed. An urban landscape of skyscrapers is in the background.

Lee Wen, Untitled: Raffles, 2000. Part of AIM: Artists Investigating Monuments, organised by The Artists Village. Photo: Koh Nguang How

Trying to respond to the October Questionnaire has made me confront some of my own resistances, refusals, and anxieties. Eleven years ago I gave a talk in Hong Kong called ‘Biennale Demand’. In preparing to write for Podium, I returned to that essay. It described the various demands that ‘we’—local audiences, the international art world, governments, sponsors, and so forth—make on biennales. But my point was to ask instead what biennales demand of us: our attention, and in many instances our guilt. Beyond this, I suggested that biennales also ask us to think of them in time, in history.

Usually, I am ready to acknowledge my own mistakes—how else do you learn but by recognising and admitting them? Still, it can be an uneasy thing to look back at an old text. Reading ‘Biennale Demand’ now, I see it as too polemical: it rushes over complexities, and I would not depict biennales in the same way today. Moreover, it did not address the discourse around exhibition histories. Chelsea Haines identifies Reesa Greenberg, writing in 1996, as providing one of the earlier scholarly discussions on the topic of exhibition histories, although Haines notes that it was really in the 2000s when the surge of attention on the subject began. Doubtless, the field deserves study, but I find myself anxious about the subject’s increasing popularity. Am I afraid that exhibition histories may eclipse other modes of writing stories of art? Surely we do not have to choose between curatorial or artistic authorship, or between the exhibition and the production of art, as the site of meaning.

And why compare M+, and its framing as a museum of visual culture, with the biennale? Across Asia there isn’t a strong tradition of the regional art museum—most have a national focus. The older Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and the newer National Gallery Singapore are among the few exceptions. It is the biennale that has become the platform for the contemporary art and culture of the region. If M+ proves any different from existing museums, perhaps it has less to do with the shift to expand beyond art to include visual culture as it does with the commonalities that the museum shares with the Asian biennale—and not just because of its wide geographic scope, or its interdisciplinary approach. Could we say that what many biennales in the region share is a foundational anxiety about how to frame everything that they display, and how to thematise what they contain? Is this same anxiety also shared by M+?

Numerous people stand in a room with tall ceilings, white walls, and multiple plastic chairs and tables. The people in the room are all standing with the arms stretched out to the sides, facing different directions. One person is dressed in a red coat and three people are dressed in black coats. The rest of the people are dressed in white coats. A screen is projected onto the wall above the people, showing a person with a white bob wig in a white coat against a red background. They are sitting down with only their top half visible, and is looking straight ahead.

Loo Zihan in collaboration with Ray Langenbach, Shawn Chua Ming Ren, Lee Mun Wai, Bani Haykal, Kelvin Chew, Chan Silei, and TRIPPLE, I am LGB (2016). Performance commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), performed at 72-13, Theatreworks Singapore. Photo: Kong Chong Yew. Courtesy of Singapore International Festival of Arts

To speak of anxiety and M+ inevitably raises the larger question of anxiety in Hong Kong, a topic well beyond my capacity to comment on, although I’ve mentioned it in a text comparing the Special Administrative Region with Singapore. Let me address only a specific instance of unease that Hong Kong arts communities share with many others across Southeast Asia: not the refusal of theory, but an overcompensating embrace of it. How often has one read a text that explains an artwork with plenty of references to this and that theorist, yet the work remains unconvincing? I have focused on ‘theory’ not only because it is one example among others of the conceptual tools used in the construction and understanding of art, but precisely because it is a powerful apparatus of intellectual legitimation. When does a tendency to lean on theory speak to an anxiety—on the part of artists, writers, and curators in this part of the world—about becoming accepted by the gatekeepers of ‘global art’? And when is the application of theory genuine? Could such a distinction ever be maintained?

Some of my best encounters with theory, history, ethnography, and other tools and materials, are not moments when intellectual anxiety is overcome, but when vulnerability is accepted. I know I am far from the best expert—there is always so much more to read, so many more people to speak with and listen to. But the point is to try and try again, and to speak with a sense of conviction, even if I know for certain that there will be corrections. Much as I appreciate institutions and disciplines, would it be fair to say that they do not always provide the best conditions for practicing intellectual vulnerability? I’d like to think the ideal of criticism is a practice of radical openness: to both care deeply and risk greatly with one’s attention, analysis, and reflection.


Footnotes:

  1. As an art critic, I write in order to better understand the art and ideas I am writing about. The critic tests the art: what does the work say, how does it say it, and so on. One tests oneself too: reflecting on observations and intuitions, interrogating opinions and interpretations, all with the aim of achieving some clarity and some sense of conviction, and of telling a good story. Criticism asks its readers not necessarily to agree with the writer. Rather, the demand of criticism is to better understand—both the art at hand and the critic’s own arguments.
  2. See October 77 (Summer 1996). This is the second time that I’ve been asked to engage with something that first appeared in October. In 2012, Asia Art Archive invited me to participate in the second part of their ‘Expanded’ Questionnaire on the Contemporary, which was based on the Questionnaire from October 130 (Fall 2009). See: https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/an-expanded-questionnaire-on-the-contemporary-part-ii/type/essays/page/2
  3. My ‘Biennale Demand’ talk was part of the October 2007 workshop ‘Cultural Events, Celebrity Curators and Creative Networking’, organised by the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, Chinese University, Hong Kong, in association with Asia Art Archive and Para Site. The text was first published with Asia Art Archive in 2008, and reprinted in Contemporary Art in Asia, edited by Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011). In August 2018, Zoe Butt, Bill Nguyen, Ben Valentine, and I met for a ‘writing intensive’ where we read specific texts from each other. For my part, we discussed ‘Biennale Demand’ and a rough draft of my contribution to Podium. I want to thank them immensely for their generous criticisms, although the remaining faults are mine alone.
  4. Chelsea Haines, ‘Exhibitions on Exhibitions’, Mousse 39 (Summer 2013).
  5. Unlike the Fukuoka museum, which has a regional descriptor in its name, National Gallery Singapore does not, but its mission is indeed to be a museum of Southeast Asian art, and to promote Singapore as a regional hub. See: https://www.nationalgallery.sg/about/about-the-gallery
  6. In ‘The future was when’, published in the December 2017 issue of Journal of Visual Culture (volume 6, issue 3), I compared the two cities and engaged with the writing of Hong Kong art critic Jaspar K. W. Lau. Lau has spoken of his envy of Singapore because it has its independence, whereas his hometown does not. On my part, I’ve envied Lau’s place of residence because in Singapore, street demonstrations are prohibited; in Hong Kong, they are legendary. A tale of two envies the essay was not, but it was an attempt to explore contrasting lacks and desires. Considerations of smallness (space) and the future (time) have figured repeatedly in my interpretations of Singapore, and I was curious about thinking through those same considerations in relation to Hong Kong.

Image notes:

  • Leung Chi Wo, Queen’s Possession, 2002, chromogenic print under Plexiglas, M+, Hong Kong. © Warren Leung Chi Wo
  • Lee Wen, Untitled: Raffles, 2000. Part of AIM: Artists Investigating Monuments, organised by The Artists Village. Photo: Koh Nguang How. In 2000, The Artists Village organised AIM at three sites in Singapore: the Raffles Landing Site, Merlion Park, and Hong Lim Park. The project invited artists of different backgrounds and disciplines to create responses to existing monuments and heritage sites, or to create new monuments of their own.
  • Loo Zihan in collaboration with Ray Langenbach, Shawn Chua Ming Ren, Lee Mun Wai, Bani Haykal, Kelvin Chew, Chan Silei, and TRIPPLE, I am LGB (2016). Performance commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), performed at 72-13, Theatreworks Singapore. Photo: Kong Chong Yew. Courtesy Singapore International Festival of Arts. ‘You are a performance artist. It is the 24th of January 1994. You teach contemporary art at a public university. One day, you receive an anonymous letter from your students. The letter calls for a boycott of your classes. … You are LGB. LGB is Lan Gen Bah. You were born in 1948. You are a Marxist. A scientist. An ideologue. A member of the government. A citizen of the State. You are Song Liling. You are Cheng Dieyi. You are Ray Langenbach. You are Loo Zihan. You are Lee Mun Wai. You are Shawn Chua Ming Ren. You are Bani Haykal. You are State power. An individual. An ISA (Ideological State Apparatus). A KPI (Key Performance Indicator). You are LGB, without the T. You are a meme. Propaganda. You are not yours alone; you are an idea demanding its own acceptance.’

Lee Weng Choy is an art critic, and president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics; he writes on contemporary art and culture in Southeast Asia. From 2000 to 2009, he was the Artistic Co-Director of The Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary art centre, and he has taught at a number of institutions, including as a visiting lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More recently he has done consultation work for National Gallery Singapore, NTU CCA Singapore, ILHAM Gallery and A+ Works of Art, both in Kuala Lumpur. Lee’s current projects include a collection of essays on artists, The Address of Art and the Scale of Other Places, which asks, among other things: What is art’s address? How does it speak to us and locate us in the world?

***

The Dilemma of Disciplines

Yeewan Koon

If I were to respond to October’s Visual Culture Questionnaire in 1996, my answers would be less wary than they are today. At that time, I was a Chinese art historian beginning her graduate studies in the United States and was exposed to heated debates about the merits of visual culture and the future of art history for the first time, largely by scholars in Western art. For art historians, there were concerns whether the inclusive nature of visual culture would erase historical specificity, how the disembodied image (so often reduced as ‘text’) denies the intelligence of the material, and how reducing art to the ocular can narrow discussions—not least because it excludes the self-consciousness of artists to reflect on their own antagonism with the visual.

Meanwhile, proponents of visual culture pushed for scholarship that included all images and radically changed the scope of what can be investigated, expanding into new areas of visuality and the social practices of seeing. But perhaps more than anything else, visual culture (along with other New Art History theories) was making the art field reflect back on itself. My own field, in contrast, was a little slower in joining the party. In 1996, it was dominated by male scholars from elite institutions writing about other male painters, equally heralded as cultural leaders. To a female graduate student trained in a conservative British system, visual culture seemed revolutionary.

In those early beginnings, there were small steps that fulfilled the promises of visual culture in Chinese art history. Publications such as Richard Vinograd’s Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraits, 1600—1900 (1992) introduced a polycentric world in terms of identities and their representations. Craig Clunas’s Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (1997) examined pictoriality and visual flows in the sixteenth century. Clunas, a curator with a doctorate degree in Mongolian literature, took the boldest strides in developing Chinese concepts of visual perception and the ideological authority of the ocular regime.

One of the advantages of visual culture was how easy it fit in with other methods and theories. In studies on non-Western art, visual culture and postcolonialism formed a fruitful partnership. Postcolonial studies, with its emphasis on geopolitics, fuelled the development of area studies. In turn, area studies provided geographical frames that could rein in the all-embracing tendencies of visual culture, creating a concentrated focus that mapped out more and more previously marginalised areas. This helped fulfill that larger ambition of postcolonialism: to create a world map where there is no ‘Other’.

That visual culture found a ready partner in postcolonial studies is not surprising given how they are both extensions of postmodernism. Both provide concepts to assess cultural productions that are outside dominant Anglophone traditions and promoted arguments of pluralism. They are both interdisciplinary with interests in issues of power, subjectivity, and subjectification. Lastly, they draw on a wealth of materials that have traditionally been marginal to mainstream scholarship. Global changes, however, have shifted centres and borders. In a period when new boundaries are being reshaped by powers that exceed an area studies approach, postcolonial studies, whose frameworks remain essentially geopolitical, have come under scrutiny.

Without wanting to stray into a hotbed of whither postcolonialism (and interested readers can find many debates about this elsewhere), let me return to the limits of visual culture as it shifts concerns from method to discipline. Let me be more specific about the case of Hong Kong art and, more generally, about my concerns for the future of visual culture’s criticality. Visual culture has been crucial to the development of Hong Kong art studies. In part, this was because of the general distrust of what was seen as too much attention given to the appreciation of the autonomy of the art object by art historians, and the ensuing judgment values that serve an art market, not to mention Hong Kong’s own role within that market. Visual culture also offered an alternative model of looking, not only for the audience but also for artists who want to distance themselves from the taint of commercialism.

Acrylic painting on paper of an architectural sketch depicting two identical, symmetrical high rise buildings facing each other. Each building consists of an L-shaped section cutting through a round section, with walls lined with windows.

Remo Riva, Painting, Exchange Square I, II & III (1981–85), Hong Kong, 1981. Acrylic paint on paper mounted on wooden board. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Remo Riva, 2013. © M+, Hong Kong

The distrust towards art historical methods of looking at Hong Kong art has marginalised its effectiveness as a discursive approach—a marginalisation that was countered by the rise of Comparative Literature. Crucial to this rise was Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1998), which argued that sections of Hong Kong constantly disappeared and reinvented itself as a form of ‘déjà disparu’. This book inspired numerous articles and books that similarly wrote about the visual as a symptom of loss and recovery using variations of similar types of materials, including art, film, photography, journals, and memorabilia and ephemera. But let’s not be fooled that this selection of materials can stand in for a totalising comprehension of visual culture, because the grouping also excludes things like scientific graphs or architectural drawings that have no place in what constitutes a ‘visual culture’.

But if art history has been slowly disappearing from the study of Hong Kong art, the mainstreaming of visual culture has been an unabashed success story. Visual culture is now institutionalised as a discipline, with MA courses available in almost every university—a success I do not begrudge, though I am concerned about the growing gap between art history and visual culture. Tellingly, none of these MA degrees are offered in an art history department and, as a result, we must ask whether we are producing too many students who investigate images without the necessary skills of knowing how to look closely, or the language and knowledge that enable them to challenge their own positions. I have heard too many presentations that carry bias, even fear, towards the imagistic and material properties of art. Has the disciplinary expansion of visual culture sacrificed the critical potential of its own methodologies?

The early success of Hong Kong visual culture studies established two methods: a mapping exercise of examples of cultural production that leads to conclusions of Hong Kong-ness (I will return to this later), or to read all related visual materials as ‘text’, so a film poster, a painting with words, or an art performance and a neon street sign are investigated as comparative, and even comparable, materials. These two approaches, which have produced some interesting works, also leave one wanting. There is a tendency to take a teleological approach to the contemporary that treats the forces of historical developments and changes too lightly. There is also an inclination to reach conclusions of a cultural zeitgeist (which T. J. Clark and others accused art historian Michael Baxandall of), and the nuanced conditions of society and their impact on the visual. Moreover, to think that any disembodied image can be levelled as textual signs equal enough to become subjects of comparative discussions seldom take into account the physical (and again the historical) differences between objects. This lack of a historical investigation (and I mean where history is more than context) also renders history invisible in its role as mediator of how we see things, which is not the same as the history of what is actually seen. This is perhaps why visual culture has never found a ready home in art history, and why art historians find visual culture suspect.

But my concern is not whether art history or visual culture should be done in such-and-such a way—I am arguing that there should be a place for the embodied image that expands the methods used, whether this is through visual culture or art history. I am making an argument for the return of the object, but one that can go beyond medium and form (the conventional approach in traditional art history), and into areas of imagination, intuition, and experience. I think this can open up investigative routes that offer depth rather than simply breadth of coverage and the pluralism espoused by a tired-out postmodern narrative. I should also add that there are alternative approaches by fellow peers looking at topics such as activism, exhibitions, and heritage as ways of framing Hong Kong art. But let’s also not lose sight of the parts that make up this whole. Surely, in order to understand how art is a cultural object/subject we need to be able to read ALL of the components of the artwork, including image, scale, material, production, enactments, and lifespans—all of which I would put within the category of art history. If we are going to ask what images are doing, then let’s not shy away from looking at images through the frame of art (and vice-versa).

I understand that my proposal may carry echoes of Kant, but my proposal is for a more analytical form that sees art (and image) as something that ‘imaginatively expand[s] the ideas presented in virtue of the indirect means through which they are obliged to embody them in sensible form.’ It is also a way that provides a critical lens that can form connections between art practices, art histories, and visual cultures, and brings together historical art and contemporary art—something which visual culture has never managed to do.

Oil painting on canvas depicting an abstract wash of beige, black, and grey, with the black and grey colours falling from the top and covering up the beige. A beige piece of plaster shaped like a flat, cracked rock is placed on the top half of the canvas, covering most of the black and grey colours.

Hon Chi-fun, HSIANG 65-5, 1965. Oil and plaster on canvas. M+, Hong Kong. © Hon Chi-fun

In short, what visual culture had promised was interrogation not explanation, and we seem to have lost sight of this important distinction. Does anyone make a sharp distinction between popular and high culture at this point? In the world of visual commodities, is there even such a thing as national culture in the age of corporate globalism? What were once charged terms now seem dated and are now more typically used to shut down thought rather than to provoke it. Perhaps that is my biggest issue with visual culture: when the image is treated as an emblem of social life, we are no longer pushing the boundaries of intellectual inquiry.

There is one more issue that I must address about Hong Kong art and visual culture. One of the common objections is that art history is a Western enterprise and we need a more ‘Hong Kong’ (often interchangeable with Chinese) approach. This proposal for a ‘Hong Kong method’ is an extension of the idea of ‘Asia as Method’ based on works by scholars such as Kuan-Hsing Chen and Takeuchi Yoshimi. While I might once have been more sympathetic to this position of thinking more locally, in truth, I have never been quite sure what Hong Kong method means. ‘Asia’ as a method, as proposed by Chen, works because Chen was using it as a site without determinant borders or definition, and as such it was able to take on the weight of being a subject of critical investigation by always being a malleable force that is manipulated and constantly restructured. Moreover, Chen’s work was never about providing pedagogical tools, but rather disabling habitual thinking. Although some scholars have pushed for a similarly open-ended idea of Hong Kong as a ‘method’, it lacks actual and real discursive tools, and runs the far greater risk of festishising a local identity of Hong Kong-ness that closes off debates. Is there such a thing as a European, Hong Kong, or Chinese method? Continuing this line of reasoning, where methodologies are seen as culturally determining, can only add fuel to already entrenched discussions of cultural authenticity, which is not an interesting debate, let alone a conclusive one (since there is no such thing).

My bid for art history is not radical or new but bears repeating, as it is a discipline that has been sidelined. Let us not forget that Michael Baxandall—whom almost all the 1996 respondents to the Visual Culture Questionnaire recognised as a major proponent of visual culture—dismissed the role of the art historian, while also making the claim that historical reconstruction can prompt a sharper sense of pictorial cogency. What would happen if we were to think of visual culture as a method of art history? If nothing else, one of the greatest impacts of visual culture is how it forced art history to interrogate its own practice. My field no longer looks the same as it did in the 1990s.

I will end on a positive note. In our high-speed digital world of social media and performative spectacles, the disembodied image is even more empowered. The difference in the speed and scale of things on the move, the different modes of transportation and circulation, and the shift of the visual to the virtual, have added greater disconnections, even severed ties, between the bodily and the visual. We only have to note how goods can readily cross borders while our own movements are curtailed or under greater scrutiny to know that dramatic shifts are remapping and rescaling our sensory worlds. In order to understand these shifts it is perhaps visual culture that has the greatest potential to guide us forward.


Footnotes:

  1. In the October questionnaire, Tom Crow, Jonathan Crary, and Susan Buck-Morss were some of the respondents who questioned the long-term merits of visual culture.
  2. For readers interested in the state of the field of postcolonialism (or whether it can be called a field), see the volume dedicated to this topic, New Literary History vol. 43, nos. 1 and 2 (2012).
  3. An exception to this is the work by art historian David Clarke. Of import is his Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization (London: Reaktion Books, 2001).
  4. This is a point that has been taken up by scholars in Farewell to Visual Studies, edited by James Elkins, Gustav Frank, and Sunil Manghani (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2015). This book is the part of the Stone Art Theory Institute series.
  5. Peter Mack and Robert Williams, eds. Michael Baxandall, Vision and the Work of Words (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 55–56.
  6. Diarmuid Costello, ‘Kant after LeWitt: Towards an Aesthetics of Conceptual Art’, October 18 (2006), 101. Costello takes on Kant’s aesthetic idea to challenge Greenberg’s formalist approach to conceptual art to move beyond the containment of form to consider the expansion of the imaginative.
  7. An excellent example of how historical art can be connected with contemporary art (and its concerns) is Jennifer L. Roberts, Transporting Vision: The Movement of Images in Early America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).
  8. An example of this pedagogical proposal is Hong Kong as Method (香港作為方法), an international conference held at the University of Hong Kong (7–9 December 2014).
  9. Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), revisits Takeuchi Yoshimi’s 1960 lecture of the same name.
  10. Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 136–137. Baxandall, in a forthright interview held at Berkeley (3 February 1994) talked about how his writings often ruffled many of his art historian peers, and that while he often writes to irritate specific scholars, his intentions were never to irritate the progressive art historians who were also changing art history such as T. J. Clark.

Yeewan Koon is Associate Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong. She has published numerous works including A Defiant Brush: Su Renshan and the Politics of Painting in 19th Century Guangdong, which examines how an artist produced iconoclastic works in response to the violence that besieged China in the mid-nineteenth century. She is the recipient of several research awards, including a Fulbright Senior Fellowship to conduct research for her new book project on China trade art and the construction of Canton as a portable place. Koon also works in the contemporary art field as a critic and curator. In 2014, she was guest curator of the exhibition It Begins with Metamorphosis: Xu Bing at the Asia Society, Hong Kong Center, and co-curated the 12th Gwangju Biennale in 2018.