Walker Art Center
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Interactions/Intersections: Cultural Globalism and Educational Practice


CA: This is an important issue for educators as we struggle for adjectives to describe artistic products and practices for our audiences. Art language is a little abstract to begin with. A descriptor such as "Japanese artist" gives our audiences some recognizable information, but how useful is that information?

KMS: If birthplace identity becomes the only measure, it implies that only the place or the culture in which the artist was born has a major influence on an his or her work, which isn't necessarily true.

SR: One danger is to make the meaning behind a particular artist's work speak for the entire culture. For instance, in looking at Huang Yong Ping's work, we talk about connections with the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the history of his own lifetime, including the events at Tiananmen Square. For many Americans, those particular references tend to evoke certain assumptions and associations. We don't always emphasize that the piece is one person's interpretation.

CA: Yes, for most Americans Tiananmen Square recalls the events of 1989. For the Chinese, Tiananmen Square recalls multitudes of significant events stretching back to the fifteenth century.

KMS: Similar issues arose during Forgiveness. The piece dealt with hot issues, yet the artists made it very clear that they were comfortable addressing those issues only through an artistic context. The artists were also clear that Forgiveness was not going to provide "solutions" to historical conflicts, even though the title might imply a possible resolution. They simply wanted to raise audiences' awareness of historically contentious issues, so that they might begin their dialogue.

But I knew we had to provide some historical context for the audience to fully grasp what this piece is about. It's not fair for us to expect the artists to have all the answers. They're only responsible for bringing their own personal perspectives to that piece. So we debated about how best to lay out those historical contexts in a manner that didn't represent just one voice or culture, but several. As a result, we decided to present the artists' points of view through an artists' talk and postperformance Q & A sessions, which allowed the artists to share their perspectives on historical issues and their emotional links to the project, while providing historical context through a commissioned essay by a scholar, which was printed in the program notes, and a community forum with local activists and historians.

MW: It's dangerous to use someone's nationality as the first point of entry into a work of art and to rely on a brief history of modern China and a reference to Tiananmen Square. Particularly because we may have only one or two contemporary Chinese works, and you end up loading an entire contemporary history on that work, sometimes, perhaps, as a way of avoiding issues that our audiences find more complicated, such as formal issues or issues of art history, quality, or taste.

CA: I agree that we do that, but we do it as well with Mike Kelley, Kara Walker, and Matthew Barney. The very first thing we say is that they are American.

MW: More than a few of their pieces specifically address American cultural attitudes.

CA: In some ways the global initiative has taught us to look at Americans as products of their culture, too. As we have this conversation, I'm realizing that I still tend to validate global voices more with the teens. It's back to that exoticizing of the other, as if the non-Western work is more urgent, more in touch. This is what's real, not the la-la land in which Americans float around. But isn't Mike Kelley's message equally important?

SR: We also tend to be more comfortable questioning the work of American artists--whether it's good or bad, whether we agree or disagree with the artist's point of view, whether his or her take on artistic practice is valid or uninteresting. We are afraid to question work from outside our own culture to the same degree.

KMS: Nationality might not be the right word, but the dominant culture of an artist should be identified because it may make a difference in how you view the work. If that culture tends to be something that Americans don't have much knowledge of, it's important to provide context for the audience. In some ways, nationality does