Walker Art Center
Globalization from the Rear: "Would You Care to Dance, Mr. Malevich?"

On October 13, 1994, a European curator in charge of the Malevich room at the Bienal de São Paulo threw out some dancers who had entered the exhibition wearing Hélio Oiticica's Parangolés.[1] His exact words were "Get out."[2] This micro-event, which took place fourteen years after Oiticica's death and a few months after the first international retrospective of his work,[3] remains an informative example of how art history and art institutions have too often neglected artistic productions that fall, aesthetically or geographically, to the left of the canon.

What was at stake here? What exactly was supposed to "get out" of that room? One canon dominating the Malevich exhibition might be the notion that Western culture has been for more than two centuries the normative civilization, leaving indigenous cultures (Brazilian in this case) on the threshold of recognition, guilty of being marginal, "premodern." Another canon relates to the now all-too-familiar tension between high and low cultures. Indeed, the dancers with whom Oiticica collaborated belonged to a neighborhood samba school and were training for the carnival. How dare such an impure, highly popular (in a social, not Pop art, understanding of the word), performative, if not downright subversive practice, where social hierarchies do not apply, enter the temple of high European modernism which Malevich exemplifies?

There are no easy answers to the issues raised by this incident, and blaming a curator after the fact won't help us understand the underlying crisis in art and in the practices of cultural institutions: a crisis that echoes the historical ruptures, the political traumas, and the epistemological breaks that have occurred over the last thirty years and have challenged the centrality of the Western world. The fact is that since the 1960s and the independence and liberation movements of decolonization, new kinds of discourses have emerged, irrevocably altering Eurocentric discourses and their fragile claims of universal validity.

In a closer and more critical historical framework, one could declare that the world is a different place since the uprisings and geopolitical restructuring that began in 1989. The revolutions in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989, the democratic revolution in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, also in 1989, the Gulf War in 1991, and the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 have opened a new era for the twenty-first century--one in which the world economy and new information technologies have "not only reconfigured centrality and its spatial correlates, [but] have also created new spaces for centrality."[4]

1 The Parangolés are colorful costumes intended to optimize body movements, conceived by the artist for dancers at a samba school with whom he was working.

2 See Luciano Figueiredo, "The Other Malady," Third Text 28/29 (autumn/winter 1994), pp. 105-116.

3 The exhibition Hélio Oiticica traveled from February 1992 to February 1994 to the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona; the Centro de Arte Moderna da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian,Lisbon; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

4 Saskia Sassen, "Global Cities and Global Value Chains/The Topoi of E-Space," in Politics, Poetics: Documenta X, The Book (Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz,1997), p. 736.