The Invisible and the Visible. Identity Politics and the Economy of Reproduction in Art

Haegue Yang, 5, Rue Saint-Benoît, 2008. 8 sculptures made of household appliances. Dohmen Collection, Aachen. Installation view of The New Décor, Hayward Gallery, London, Great Britain, 2010. Photo: Steve White.

"The art world stands to the real world in something like the relationship in which the City of God stands to the Earthly City." (Arthur Danto 1964, p. 582)

"While there is a deeply ethical appeal in the desire for a more inclusive representational landscape and certainly under-represented communities can be empowered by an enhanced visibility, the terms of this visibility can often enervate the putative power of these identities." (Peggy Phelan 1996, p. 7)

Some questions seem to always remain urgent. I would like to consider one of them: Just where are we exactly when we consider the dynamics of power in the field of contemporary art? Following the well-documented artistic strategies of 'institutional critique' of the 1960s and 1970s onwards, we had come to know more about art's power relations through the waves of socially- and politically-engaged movements and tendencies in art that were categorised under the broad frame of 'identity politics'. With hindsight, this is most often typical of the 1980s generation in the West – perhaps in the United States and the United Kingdom predominantly. Working with defined constituencies of Otherness based on perceived 'minority' or 'marginalised' status – mostly via notions of race, gender and sexuality – the thrust of these movements was to seek the light of cultural emancipation. It is fair to say that the art system, or what is often referred to as 'the art world', has over the recent decades worked through various necessary phases of attaining self-reflexivity: postmodernism has allowed it to take apart its own partialities of taste and collapsed its understanding of aesthetics; it has become aware of how it has mediated the cultural narrative in close alignment with broader socio-political hegemonies; and it has eventually authorised 'other' perspectives to enter into the fold in the name of inclusivity. Broadly speaking, it has claimed the understanding that it possesses a locus of power at its core, and that it is taking steps to address it. But at the heart of it all, the question is – how much has really changed? Has artistic practice fulfilled the potential provided by the space that opened up especially for this emancipation through all the theorising? To what degree have the traditional terms of engagement between art's infrastructure and those wishing to be artistic practitioners been addressed, and where might we go from here?

It is perhaps worth undertaking the exercise of revisiting the trajectory of identity politics thus far, albeit with the effect of tightly condensing its discourse. Much of the key practice and debate around the subject of cultural marginalisation attributed to the 1980s occurred as part of a broad drive by groups marginalised from the art sphere demanding to be included, but also to be able to insist on their own identity. For artists, there was a deep desire to be made visible – identifiable – exactly for who they were. Subsequently, it could be said that they were offered the conditions to position the defining factor of their marginalisation – i.e. their race, gender, sexuality – as being something intrinsic to their art. We might think for example of artists ranging from Keith Piper to Ana Mendieta in this regard. For Other perspectives and personas to be given the kind of opportunity they were previously deprived of was an understandable and legitimate desire in the name of inclusivity and pluralism. But what level of progress was this? What was lacking? Theorist Russell Ferguson, in his introduction to Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (1990), a key book on this subject, discusses the particular conditions of this desire for visibility.1 He observes that the "unquestionable, invisible, universal", that is the bourgeois, heterosexual, white male, has ultimately been the legitimising force for both the discourse of art and those able to practise within it. Ferguson suggests that this power to legitimise extends towards those considered marginalised in society, with the mode of acceptance happening through a process of recasting them via predetermined criteria of identification. All the while, the invisibility of the dominant group has meant someone's perceived difference (as manifested in their art) could only be meaningful in terms of a system of oppression. What in effect was formed was a subservient relation between the invisible and the visible. It is something we have known for a long time as the discourse of identity politics is well established. The move to address under-representation in art became like an act of holding up a distorted mirror towards society in order to form an institutionalised sort of multiculturalism. Furthermore, through the limited modes of representation for this kind of 'identity art', there ensued an identity reductionism, a severe flattening out of the ways in which identities could be visualised and thus understood.

We have to go back literally half a century to the foundations of the so-called Institutional Theory of Art, first raised by American writer and philosopher Arthur Danto, to the moment when the way the art system sustains itself was first verbalised: "To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an art world." (Danto 1964, p. 580). Danto, and others considering this theory such as George Dickie, fleshed out what he at that time might have meant by an 'atmosphere', determining that this ultimately correlated with the conditions that created the aforementioned "unquestionable, invisible, universal" figure at the art system's centre. Discussing how an anonymous participant navigates the art field, Danto states in his essay "The Artworld": "We cannot help him until he has mastered the is of artistic identification and so constitutes it a work of art" (Danto 1964, p. 579). This introduces the notion of 'identification' – an understanding of the codes that constitute the 'atmosphere' surrounding an artwork that can deem it identifiable as art, and only then can someone fulfil the aspiration of being part of the art world. "The greater the variety of artistically relevant predicates, the more complex the individual members of the art world become; and the more one knows of the entire population of the art world, the richer one's experience with any of its members" (Danto 1964, p. 583-4). It seems an obvious point in hindsight to state that it is the art world that defines what art is, and many would argue that Danto's idea remains profoundly relevant today. Yet it is difficult to describe this 'atmosphere' concretely, as its effectiveness lies in its sheer intangibility. The implication of Danto's text is that there exists some sort of codification – behavioural codes of such great value that they even act as a legitimate form of cultural capital. Furthermore, some sort of art community 'meme' is nurtured in this state of intangibility. It drives the memetic behaviour that spreads between people within a group – the art world – in order to perpetuate its streaming of value. But perhaps the identity politics generation lacked sufficient awareness of this meme to instigate the real change required?2 The discourse of 'identity politics' in art for a long time has looked highly redundant, and for very good reasons too. With some exceptions, it was something that had rather stifled aesthetic limitations, with its clichéd images of the self or the body holding forth a marginalised status – a kind of figurative portraiture of one's "otherness" if you like. 'Identity politics' art, arguably, may even have caused more problems than it set out to resolve. The act of making visible, though considered necessary for a certain period, could now be thought of as a second tier of marginalisation. It could be seen as a ghettoisation harboured within the fold of art world legitimisation. As Peggy Phelan so eloquently elucidated in her landmark book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance in the 1990s, visibility under these conditions can be considered an institutional trap.

These kinds of generic denominators for the self-representation of the marginalised create a kind of ethical dilemma for artists, with their promises of being able to enter the base stratum of the art system, but on the condition of having to perform the prescribed role of the Other. The 'identity' paradigm also became a kind of strategy for some individuals to find success in their careers – using the kind of 'self-othering' found in the work of many well-known but unmentionable artists. Even whole institutions have been built around supporting this kind of practice – one thinks of organisations such as Iniva in London. Thus there is a certain amount of baggage that comes with 'identity politics', and not all of it is helpful. At least there is one realisation that may be useful – the context of internationalism in art today mirrors that of 1970s and 80s institutional multiculturalism in the Anglo-Saxon world.

In the time since the emergence of the 'identity politics' discourse, the art world has entered rapid processes of internationalisation, and today numerous new metropoles of culture, including from right across the non-Western world, have joined the hegemonic centres. Yet it feels evident that the old modes of legitimisation identified as prevalent in the Institutional Theory of Art, along with its institutionalised multiculturalism, have found their way into the realm of art's internationalism. The Western art world has legitimised new, previously marginalised entrants in a similar way to how it eventually legitimised those who were socially marginalised in its own societies the 1970s and 80s. Again, those previously marginalised, in this instance by geography, have been allowed in by the art world, on the condition that predetermined roles are fulfilled. Whether artists are aware enough of this mirroring, or even care, is unclear, but the broad apparatus is largely the same. Previously, the constituencies of identity were mostly vis-à-vis race, gender and sexuality, which could now be replaced with the regionalism – nationality, race and ethnicity rolled into one – of those practicing in the non-Western context. This is often, for example, through participation in the national or regional representation format for exhibitions – for example art from India, art from Mexico – which ultimately positions artists as regional representatives, and thus their art as being intrinsically linked to their national culture. This positioning would explain the success of artists such as Shirin Neshat or Subodh Gupta. Modes of visibility and identification are at the fore. Once we accept that what we see as contemporary art (in the memetic sense) around the world is ultimately a kind of colonial export, we can take the simple step towards understanding that the visibility and success of any artist or even metropole in the context of the art world only happens through the consensus and mould of the Western art establishment. It ultimately follows the same institutional logic described by Danto as well as Ferguson. The gateway is opened, a meme is planted, and then an image of art is requested – all in the guise of inclusivity. Alongside national representation type exhibitions, other exhibition formats such as biennials, which could be seen as the contemporary versions of the colonial-era Universal or World Exhibition, are the spaces of concentration for this legitimisation.

This new geographic paradigm for art has also been provided with its own curious lexicon that implicitly demarcates Otherness. Stepping outside the art sphere for just a moment, we can observe how certain words reappear in particular public contexts time and again. In South London, for example, it is not entirely uncommon to come across a word such as 'vibrant' in newspapers, local authority literature or elsewhere, when describing a district such as Brixton. What it really means of course, is that a lot of Caribbean folk live there – it might be a bit 'edgy' for some, but the locals are surely content, making plenty of noise, selling brightly coloured fabrics and exotic fruits. Similarly, art institutions have their own special lexicon for when they work with artists (and occasionally audiences) who may sit awkwardly within their traditional institutional frameworks of practice and reference. The word 'local', for example, is another somewhat discourteous term invoked when an institution wants to communicate to the world that they do, on occasion, work with locally-sourced, lesser-established artists. 'Voices' is another common one, with regard to 'third-world' artists in this instance, evoking frail, human, emotional stories from the battle-scarred, crisis-ridden outback. The word 'celebration' appears regularly too. Normally found in either the snappy opening, or last pensive paragraph of press releases and exhibition wall texts, it is a word often used in connection with foreign, predominantly non-Western artists exhibiting in solo shows or the ever-ubiquitous 'national representation' type exhibition. The type of celebration here is sprung on groups of artists hailing from the same region or country, who succumb to exhibiting together in this tenacious, and frankly, anachronistic format for exhibitions. The general tone is radically different from the norm, creating occasions when the pecking order between institutions and exhibiting artists becomes excruciatingly transparent. The message translates, crudely, as: "congratulations for making it this far!". To the public, artists are often portrayed as if they are 'happy-clappy' ethnics – expressive beings, always grateful, always ready and waiting for celebration to take place in the (one would think) momentarily self-conscious bourgeois museum. In this arena, visibility and faux-celebration go hand in hand, and evidently, this 'celebration' is unhelpful as it dissipates any attempt at criticality and intellectual relations. Yet following its rapid expansion, the art world has become a more complex place than it ever has been. This new 'complexity', we should hope, has its positive traits, and it is this notion – the aesthetics of complexity – that we will return to shortly.

The discourse about representation of the 'othered' self is distilled in the case study of artist Renzo Martens's much-discussed video Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008). The work holds up a mirror, reflecting the art world's blunt attitude towards marginalisation, its associated politics of visibility and economies of reproduction. It focuses on the lucrative business of poverty journalism that caters for a Western media that consumes images of people that have once been exploited through heavily unbalanced socio-economic conditions, and who can therefore be exploited again through these pictures. In the film, Martens attempts to train people from an under-privileged community in Congo to benefit themselves by taking images of their own status as impoverished (yet now complicit) people. They portray themselves as what Giorgio Agamben would refer to as 'bare life' – mere biological subjects with little in the way of choices or rights. The project fails of course – they simply do not have access to the same channels of distribution to cater for the demand. In their attempt at visibility through representations as marginalised selves, portrayed as a kind of universal basic human subject, the tiers of legitimisation for their work to be able to succeed remain inconspicuous.

The key platform of visibility for marginalised artists has been, as mentioned earlier, the exhibition. Irit Rogoff helps us move forwards here with her insightful and untypically anecdotal short text "How to Dress for an Exhibition". This is her personal account of the opening of the exhibition Black Male at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, in 1994 – an exhibition renowned for considering representations of African-American men. She describes the experience of viewing the exhibition, and, afterwards finding the attendees to the opening profoundly more fascinating than the works of art on display. It was a rare occasion for a predominantly Black-American artistic crowd to convene within the bourgeois institution that is the Whitney. The guests had individually used the opportunity to present themselves for the occasion, dressing, conversing and participating in a way that brought to the fore a much more complex self-image. In her text, Rogoff initially asks: "In the shift that took place from art histories to discourses on representation within cultural criticism informed by post-structuralism and questions of difference during the 1980s, a certain move was made from looking at cultural artefacts as reflective to perceiving of them as constitutive. This was of course part of a much larger question to do with the establishment of meaning. How and where are meanings determined? By whom? For which readers or viewers? And through what structures of identification or disidentification?" (Rogoff 1998, p. 132). She then considers the notion of participation in relation to marginalisation and the possibilities not only for an awareness of the trap of institutionalised visibility, but also to open up the idea of addressing representation through more performative ideas of participation, including "... participation that is generated by unconscious strategies of self-staging, be it through dressing, of fantasising, or fictionalising" (Rogoff 1998, p. 139). The key point here is that 'representation' is differentiated from the 'reproduction' of the image. To echo Phelan, who in relation to the performance of identities suggested "[p]erformance's being, like the ontology of subjectivity [...], becomes itself through disappearance", the desire in the here-and-now of the art system should be for modes of representation that do not succumb to being forced through the mechanical die of institutionalised visibility (Phelan 1996, p. 146).

It is evident that many artists today produce art in a way that is quite conscious of and complicit with how the art system accommodates the politics of identity, which though successful, also highlight some of the tensions. We might think of the work of the collective Slavs and Tatars, who display a marketing of Eurasian regionalism for a Western audience through the use of ethno-centric motifs, socio-cultural affectation and ironic wordplay. Or the flirtations with post-colonialist self-othering in the work of Danh Vō that play heavily off the artist's personal and family biographies as displaced migrants to Denmark from Vietnam. (It also informs us that some parts of Europe are only now having their first multiculturalist moment in the art context.) The global acclaim of artists such as these has been rapid, combining classic 'self-othering', a savoir-faire of the art world, and much charisma. It is a visibility in awareness of the art meme. Yet who can be blamed for pursuing a route to success?

Artists are reconsidering the politics of identity once more. Identity returns as an important subject precisely as a way to make sense of our lives under the very conditions of complexity. It argues for the reasonable – for plurality, for visions beyond the memetic criticality and legitimisation of the art world, and for the possibility of new aesthetic directions. Some are operating in the old paradigm of 1980s legitimation, but some are raising prospects of a wholesale shift in the consideration of identity and subjectivity in the artistic realm, working in a way that is more complex than the art system has been able, or willing, to accommodate. Simple observation can tell us that figurative representations of the self and its false universality have been rejected, and they have been replaced by the potential offered through abstraction, performativity (as discussed by Phelan and Rogoff) and fiction, amongst many other approaches. And in doing so, they occupy valid positions to deal with identity without the essentialist necessity of identification.

Identity becomes something intricate and flowing in the expansive practices of an artist such as Haegue Yang. The compound nature of her works fuses numerous notions of identity together, forming layers and dimensions that co-exist. It appears on one level through the works acting as a form of portraiture, often of activists who laboured for inclusivity, referencing feminist histories via Petra Kelly or Marguerite Duras, through to figures such as that of the spiritualist thinker and teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. Mainly through the symbolic use of read-made objects, her works also synthesise other notions – of social class, mobility and co-habitation. She is renowned for her use of Venetian blinds in installations for example: how do we relate to them and others in space as we move around, with their function of obscuring our vision? This symbolises what the artist has referred to as "communities of absence" – communities hidden from 'mainstream' culture, yet are also very present, active and indefinable. The installations are situations for various contrasting elements – large and small objects, industrial metal with natural fabric – which all have to co-exist. The elements sometimes take on anthropomorphic characteristics, and through their spatial relations, foreground ideas of cultural relativism. All of this functions on a formal level of abstraction in Yang's work. The role of the viewer is also operative in works by Iman Issa , whose installations possess the key characteristic of a sort of democratic offer. Whether it is her Material (2009-12) series, or her installation Thirty-three Stories about Reasonable Characters in Familiar Places (2011), she provides sets of abstract propositions and fragments that avoid the pitfalls of identification, instilling a deliberate anonymity on the representation of specific places, people, events and emotions, sometimes simultaneously, with which you can associate and narrative. These artists work with an implicit sense of self, as well as a critical distance from the politics of visibility. They are just two influential examples amongst numerous others that exemplify where things are also going.

It is difficult and probably even unnecessary to describe this as an actual movement to deal in progressive terms with identity politics per se, but still, it is a transition that is in its own way redefining the parameters of art right before us. Maybe it could be described as being generational, which might equally here be defined in terms of practice rather than biography. The relation of these artists to their works is not one of the figurative economy of reproduction, but something more urgent and experimental, mirroring more relational or intersectional understandings of identities formed through the interactions between biological, social and cultural spheres. The artists working with this mindset adopt a more relativistic attitude, foregrounding the self-determination of their practice, and defy traditional socially-coerced beliefs that they possess a stable, identifiable core. Rather than being stuck between the old dichotomy of the invisibility of the legitimising bourgeois art world and the strategy for attaining visibility for the traditionally marginalised subject, they have created the conditions that allow them the freedom to float between both, producing a new kind of cognitive space. There is, as always, the risk that it may only be moments before what could potentially cause broad change becomes evident and is recuperated by the neutralising-reflex of the art system, perhaps this is inevitable even, but then again it is hard to catch something without a fixed identity, especially when it is steps ahead of you.

To begin to equip ourselves with a sense of progress, we must acknowledge a level of inadequacy for self-representation within the traditional context of art. And so, Phelan's proposal – to consider the place of identities as being beyond the sole denominator of visibility in artistic practice – remains relevant and largely unresolved. Yet it should and is, allowing us to work towards a new situation. One where the current paradigm of the art system is forced to annul the existing economy of reproduction for those marginalised by addressing its unwritten, memetic rules of engagement. Thereafter, our sense of what is valued in terms of art's relational property can be re-conceptualised, with a new sense of ownership of this value. It feels timely to raise these issues during a phase when many nations in Western Europe – such as Germany, Belgium, France, Denmark, etc. – are experiencing the early stages of their multicultural moment in the art context. Something that seems all the more complicated as it is also taking place after the advent of art's internationalism. Of course, things change through the new perspectives brought about by subsequent generations, in both society and in art. The 'atmosphere' will dissipate once those from backgrounds previously considered marginalised gain broader comprehension of the art world and its meme, understand it as a form of symbolic violence, and avoid being coaxed into the trap of visibility. But, most significantly, we must acknowledge that we cannot find this progress unless we gain the belief that artists just might possess more intelligence than the art system in the act of touching the real.

REFERENCES Danto, A. 1964, "The Artworld", The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 61.

Ferguson, R. 1990, "Introduction: Invisible Center", in R. Ferguson, M. Gever, TT. Minh-ha and C. West (eds.), Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, The New Museum of Contemporary Art and The MIT Press.

Phelan, P. 1996, Unmarked – The Politics of Performance, Routledge.

Rogoff, I. 1998, "How to Dress for an Exhibition", in M. Hannula (ed.), Stopping the Process? Contemporary Views on Art and Exhibitions, The Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art.

1 — "Real changes are impossible without a questioning of the master(piece) discourse which forms its foundation. As Toni Morrison points out, resistance could begin with a questioning of the unspoken assumption of white, male, heterosexual identity which underlies the concept of the 'universal' " (Ferguson, 1990, p. 10).

2 — "Currently, however, there is a dismaying similarity in the beliefs generated about the political efficacy of political representation. The dangerous complicity between progressives dedicated to visibility politics and conservatives patrolling the borders of museums, movie houses and mainstream broadcasting is based on their mutual belief that representations can be treated as 'real truths' and guarded or championed accordingly. Both sides believe that greater visibility of the hitherto under-represented leads to enhanced political power. The progressives want to share this power with 'others'; conservatives want to reserve this power for themselves. Insufficient understanding of the relationship between visibility, power, identity and liberation has led both groups to mistake the relation between the real and the representational" (Phelan 1996, p. 2).

Renzo Martens, Episode 3, 2008 (video still)
Courtesy Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; KOW, Berlin; and the Box, Los Angeles
Haegue Yang, Yearning Melancholy Red, 2008, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin. Installation view of Asymmetric Equality, REDCAT, Los Angeles, USA, 2008. Photos: Scott Groller.
Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture recalling the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance, 2010, from the series MATERIAL, 2009–2012. Mahogany sculpture with black tassel, white wooden pedestal, 64 points vinyl writing, 142 x 49 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul.
Iman Issa, Material, 2010-2012, series of ten displays. Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul.
Posted 16 Sep 2015
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