Walker Art Center
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Musings on Globalism and Institutional Change


that this is a strength moving forward into the twenty-first century, which does and will belong to people who can live in multiple places simultaneously and recognize that their identity changes from place to place.

Yet, as leaders in cultural institutions, is it our task, when taking on a new project like this, to try to make connections by finding similarities, which is different from being homogenous, or to look for the differences in how people deal with these issues and accept these differences, learn from these differences?

KH: I'm realizing that the older I get, though I remain galvanized by the single art object, what really keeps me involved daily are the ideas contained in that object. I am looking, I guess, for people whose approach may be very, very different from my own, but through dialogue with them, even if it is frictive, I become bigger and the ideas--as well as the artwork--become richer. Certainly, when starting our initiative, we needed to have a core of familiar people on the committee, just to create a foundation, some security. But most of the people around the table were new faces. And, somewhat miraculously, we found facets of each other that linked us together.

I want to go back for a moment to this notion of the avant-garde. I don't hear that word used much in visual arts discourse these days. The question for me is, does it have any historical currency in, say, China, which you mentioned earlier? From the Western perspective, we may have embraced their artists as engendering a revolutionary reflection of the avant-garde. I know this is very hard to answer in a broad sense, but what, if any, historical currency does the notion of the avant-garde have in Asia?

VND: Again, it depends on the culture, so you have to parse it out. In the Chinese tradition, it was something that people were really attracted to, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s. I would venture to say that one of the reasons for this is because China, within its own cultural practice, has a tradition of resistance to a mainstream. Therefore, this was an idea that they could relate to and make their own. It is simply not that foreign to the Chinese, whereas it was not a word that had the same level of currency in Southeast Asia. In India, it's very complicated because of the nationalist movement. There, the notion of subverting a mainstream or of subverting the national ethos in some way--in this case, it was a colonial ethos--was a part of the practice. Therefore, people could also relate to the notion of the Western avant-garde as something they would resist, subvert. At the same time, India is a very peculiar place. Even just recently, I was in India and I heard again and again that people are very proud of how various food companies--McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dominos Pizza--have to drastically change their usual practice to suit the indigenous taste in India. And people talk about how outsiders who come to India end up being Indianized to a much greater extent than they are able to assert some sort of influence on India. That reveals a very different way of dealing with the dominant, the outside: by incorporating it into something indigenous. It departs from the resistance or the dialectic model. I've sometimes referred to the Indian approach as an amoebic model--little pieces that open up, get separated, and then get incorporated into a larger organism, which is a very incremental process.

KH: What I find interesting is that the Indian embrace of the avant-garde, if I understand it correctly, resulted paradoxically in the Gandhian delight in tradition and the imperative of tradition.

VND: Exactly, since that was a predominant way to subvert the colonial enterprise.

KH: So, in fact, even though we think of the avant-garde and the idea of resistance as being about the creation of something new, in India, the avant-garde was a return to something indigenous, precolonial.

VND: That was the most revolutionary thing you could do. But, then, that quickly became the conservative model, and artists and intellectuals moved away from it. It's partly the injection of the nationalist discourse into the avant-garde that makes it much more complex.

KH: And rigid?

VND: Sometimes rigid and dynamic at the same time.