Issue 3/2015

Ethnography Now


The vanishing point of ethnography? The ethnological, or more generally speaking, the anthropological, as the field of vision of an art practice that concentrates primarily upon itself? Artists not necessarily as ethnographers, but geared, consciously or unconsciously, in what they do to an “ethnos” (literally “people”)? This idea, which may at first sight seem presumptuous, has gained fresh momentum recently.
For some time now exhibitions have been reflecting on the status accorded to objects of everyday culture that do not per se aspire to any artistic added value. As a result, objects drawn from the most varied ethnographic contexts have shifted to a more central position in global art practice. It seems the huge global muddle can best be ordered through the prism of ethnic categories and fields of practice, moving beyond the idea of capital as a universal common denominator. And it is precisely this kind of context for practice, however heterogeneous or imaginary it may be, that the art scene often seeks to attain in order to endow the world of objects with a thoroughly revitalized sense of engagement.
Ethnography’s Vanishing Point delves into the question of the extent to which a shift in discourse on a larger scale can be perceived in these intensified references to non-artistic objects and practices. Is it possible to identify a specific increase in knowledge, indeed perhaps even heightened aesthetic experience, on the threshold between art and non-art, in as much as this can be clearly pinpointed? Or does the ethnographic extension of artistic practice continue to foster a tendency to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, which does not help either art or ethnography to move forward? To put a question from the opposite perspective: is to possible that everyday or ethnographic detail exhibits precisely the vividness and explicitness that seems otherwise more and more to be at risk of vanishing in art?
Susanne Leeb and Pascal Jurt take Hal Foster’s renowned essay, The Artist as Ethnographer, which is 20 years old by now, as the point of departure in their dialogue in order to address the changes in the connections between art and ethnology. While Foster first and foremost criticised the way that the ethnically “Other” is frequently pushed into service as a kind of alibi to camouflage the deficits of contemporary art, this scenario (if indeed it ever existed) now assumes a much more nuanced form. Currently for example it is no longer possible to maintain the demarcation of a self (or something that is the same/alike) from an “Other” in any form whatsoever–which has crucial consequences for art with an ethnological thrust. Leeb emphasises at present that the focus more than ever on entanglement, superposition, solidarity and the inherent contradictions therein than on an “Othering” that has always tended to be rather suspect.
Such intermeshing and resistivity is given tangible expression tangibly Kader Attia’s works. In his collage series Following the Modern Genealogy, excerpts of which are reprinted here, Attia reveals how “modern” French and “pre-modern” Maghrebin architecture are interwoven. In this context, he also turns a critical eye on the social function for example of housing estates constructed primarily for migrants in the French suburbs.
Codifying “Others” in terms of their foreignness and alterity is a sad, indeed disastrous, political reality in contemporary Europe, and extends far beyond the Parisian banlieues. Edit András hones in on the situation in Hungary by way of example to search for to escape from the identitarian or nationalist paradigm by drawing on current art practices. A multitude of activities are addressed in András’ overview that give grounds for hope, but this will all prove futile unless the fundamental “negativity of culture” is recognised. This reflective “negativity”, functioning as an antidote to compulsions of identity stems from an approach developed by anthropologist Johannes Fabian, who views it as a fundamental precondition of ethnic or general cultural life (and survival).
Drawing on examples from the Turkish art scene, Süreyyya Evren reflects on the way in which the ethnic enters into artistic practice (for example in the sense of ethnic origin) and the question as of whether precisely this question might constitute one of the fundamental problems of ethnographically oriented art. One of Evren’s central conclusions is that the “authentic”, whether this is based on Armenian or Kurdish origin, always also requires destabilisation if it is not be become formulaic.
Nicolas Siepen reviews the process of engulfing of the “Other”, looking at it from the other side of the constellation: taking as his point of departure two germane cases from various biennials, he sheds light on the perpetual concern to bring material from outside the world of art, and indeed “ethnicities” from everyday culture, into the art space–a process in which a stubborn frontier persists, irrespective of how this may be temporarily rendered inoperational. Even against the backdrop of an expanded ethnographic context, it is not easy to answer the question of whether this boundary, which in no small part also applies to the general framing conditions of art, can ever be profoundly called into question.
As part of our \"20 years of springerin\" activities, a small gift is included with this edition: excerpts from Sanja Iveković’s Lost & Found series appeared already in the last edition: unfortunately however a dating error slipped in, and we have therefore now published the expanded series in the form of a separate brochure. Lost & Found juxtaposes street views from Yugoslavian and post-Yugoslavian everyday life–a further example of the form that the vanishing point of art might assume.