When asked to imagine a post-industrial, urban dystopia, Westerners may summon images from Bladerunner, Neuromancer, or Ghost in a Shell. Backdrops of crumbling hyper-density, juxtapositions of poverty and neon, advanced technology and decaying urban infrastructure.
We may imagine humans living like colonies of ants within anarchic, decentralized structures covered in graffiti, filled with crime and the smells of laundry and street food. If asked to point to exact cultural locations, we would think of Tokyo or Hong Kong based upon the films, anime and books mentioned above.
What is it about those cities that brought those qualities to mind, especially as these are already historicized, locked away in 1980’s cyberpunk nostalgia? These cities are now likely cleaner, filled with high rises instead of slums, Still, these images persist due to the powerful work of artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers. Where did it all come from? What were the roots of this post-industrial dystopia and why does it still touch people? What meaning does it all hold for us now in the 21st century…a time of luxury condos and sterile interiors?
While looking at his work I reflect on my favorite post-war Japanese photographers who also photographed Tokyo at night, capturing this urban, dreamlike underbelly. Photographers like Daido Moriyama, or the terribly under-rated Osamu Kanemura whose disjointed, black and white images of post-industrial, post-war Tokyo couldn’t embody the dystopic imagination more. With rare collections with names like Shockhammer or Spider’s Strategy, they capture the darker, industrial aesthetic that is so different than works on Paris for example. Tokyo emerged from devastation after the war and built itself up in a hyper-modernizing pace as an amalgamation of both industry and pre-modern, Japanese culture. What we in the west see as an exotic juxtaposition actually carries deeper resonance for those in Asia.
This brings us to another city with a relationship between modernizing forces, cultural retention and change: Kowloon City in Hong Kong. Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamotocaptured this infamous locale in his works from 1987. Renowned for his photographs of demolished buildings he carried his expertise at capturing in black and white the detailed layering and texture of industrial decay. Kowloon City, as seen in this footage or Japanese explorers is really interesting as the creative team highlights attitudes urban Japanese have toward space, density and collections that differ from those in the West who might focus primarily on blight, neglect, and code violations. A longer documentary explains the history of Kowloon City, as one rooted in Chinese resistance to British rule, of creating a self-sufficient city of sorts, albeit one lacking in first world amenities. However, Kowloon City holds powerfully nostalgic value for many 20th century East Asians, as their worlds underwent changes from Colonialism and growing Capitalism. It was an incubator in many ways, a place of liminal transitions, a blurring of post-war ‘village’ with the dark underbelly of industrial urbanism.
When Hong Kong gained its independence and became prosperous, Kowloon City became a blemish from its past, and the government soon set upon demolishing it over a period of many years. Prior to its erasure many architectural and design students from Japan as well as New York rushed to document what they could of this unique walled city. Its impact upon the modern imagination persisted, soon providing a backdrop from everything from kung fu crime movies to science fiction and video games. The anime artist Mamoru Oshii cites it as the basis for his imaginative backdrop in Ghost in a Shell. The Japanese were so intrigued by Kowloon City that they created a three-story theme park in Tokyo replicating everything they could to preserve its cultural and architectural trace. The documentary footage linked here contains interviews with former residents, historians, artists and designers, all testifying to impact that city had upon post-colonial consciousness and memory.
There’s a working class, Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, that sees the artists and art galleries as the first wave in the gentrification that could destroy their homes and culture. Activists from this community want to hold off the influx of development by demanding the artists leave. When you can’t fight for fair representation in government to protect you from predatory realtors, investors and developers…is the solution to take it out on struggling artists? There’s got to be a better way to protect these neighborhoods.
There’s an arguable problem with this approach – that it promotes the concept that Art as a White thing, implying also that their neighborhoods don’t deserve art galleries or studios. How about parks? How about trees, cafes and good schools? Why perpetuate the belief that your people ‘can’t have anything nice?’
I agree that there needs to be cultural sensitivity. Establishing art studios and their associated creative economies needs to be done carefully and right now in many ‘hipster landscapes’….it’s not. Are the art studios affordable for local, native artists? Are the art galleries open to showing the work of local, native artists? Are the cafes serving their food too – playing their music too? Can the locals afford the food and drinks or is everything four times as expensive? Are these new artists and businesses extending themselves to welcome their community? Or are White artists coming in and creating invisible gated communities through economic and cultural exclusion?
Right now there’s a controversy in East Austin..a predatory realtor kicked out a long-term Pinata business, Jumpolin, and the space was later re-developed into a hip vegan cat cafe. I had no idea when we went there that that was that site, but now I feel very conflicted. While the concept is great, vegan food, helping people adopt shelter animals…the prices are high and there’s a cover charge to drink your vegan latte with cats. This is not something the locals can afford, or honestly asked for.
Something that I saw in the 70s-80’s in Berkeley, Oakland, SF, Santa Cruz that I don’t see anymore is creative cafes/art studio/galleries/bookstores keeping their prices at what the locals could afford and working very closely with their surrounding communities. There were bulletin boards for local events, businesses, classes, political issues….people in the neighborhood gathered, read the paper and talked to each other. Bookstores and comic bookstores had racks for local small press publishing, self-publishing, cheap mini-comics and books of poetry. The Irish pub displayed political posters bringing awareness in the 80’s to what was happening in Central America. There was an economic and cultural feeling of connection. You had local creative collectives, co-ops, people working with the schools and parks.
Now in this post-regulation world, after the internet, growth of online businesses like eBay, Amazon, with a generation that grew up in homogeneous suburbs with shopping malls where they could find commercially produced ethnic and subcultural merchandise…rather than experiencing and creating these from the ground up via do-it-yourself ways, this generation has moved into the communities that helped birth a lot of these things organically. Yet their new economic models bear more in common with the world of online marketing and venture capitalism. They are more aligned with realtors and developers than the diverse feet on the ground in their new neighborhoods. And all of this accounts for the unregulated and rapid slide into hyper gentrification that we have never seen to this extent ever before.
Artists (read: white artists) may be the first to ‘colonize’ a place, making it ‘safe’ for speculation and further development, but as we have seen with New York and San Francisco, after poor, working people of color are pushed out, the artists are next in line to lose their homes. Local creative retail, music venues, cafes in growing cities across the country…once they have attracted newcomers that land becomes too expensive for the creative businesses as well. Soon we may find the cities filled with luxury condos and the very culture that brought them in will have vanished. It’s a tragic trajectory that needs regulation because Capitalism without restraint produces dangerous bubbles. Only the people can create culture and art.
The sign upon entering the exhibit warns the viewer of adult content; this is real. Come As You Are: Art of the 90’s is probably one of the strangest and most unsettling exhibits I have seen in the Blanton. I had the sense the student and volunteer staffers felt a little destabilized with the content and its sensory challenges. This was not pretty art that lay quietly on the wall, it was a collection of jarring pieces that did not all play nicely. Each piece was provocative in the overall sterile space, like an isolated scream or a fist thrown up in an environment that expected polite behavior. When I discussed the exhibit with another 90’s era friend, we joked about how tempted we were to pull pranks with some of the pieces. We would probably be kicked out but it would have been in keeping with the spirit of that time. It’s always a strange thing to navigate a space that historicizes a time you either know intimately or know was anti-establishment. I felt similarly at odds visiting Punk and Fluxus retrospectives in museums. One could not help but feel the work better suited to dingy warehouses filled with cigarette smoke and the noise of motorbikes.
Ultimately however, the work has the last laugh….poking out at the viewers, making them shift uncomfortably and glance away. There is an overwhelming drone of noise that fluctuates in the space, partly stemming from an adrenaline-triggering installation of a late 90’s Aeron chair, typical of those populating 90s start-ups. The chair in Glenn Kaino‘s piece the Siege Perilous (2002) revolves within a glass box, faster and faster, simulating the feeling of the intensifying dot com era, until it whirls madly, filling the air with the sound of a something out of control. I couldn’t help but wish it was juxtaposed with something signifying the crash.
The other loud drone comes from a video piece across the hall in a small viewing room. Doug Aitken‘s Monsoon (1995) is a sobering, eerie piece, from the artist visiting the site of the Jonestown 1978 mass suicide almost 20 years later. The camera follows the overgrown jungle, littered occasionally with abandoned vehicles like a deserted, tropical ghostown. The only sound is that of insects, birds and the slowly building noise of an impending monsoon. The piece develops so much tension and unanswered questions that you expect the rain to wash it all away, but the rain never comes.
While you’re listening to these insects and thunder you overhear the LA babble from one of Alex Bag’s characters in her proto-YouTube/proto-reality show video diary (Untitled, Fall ’95), perhaps the new art student who is struggling with identity, theory and expectation. Her valley girl tones pierce your experience of all the art as she battles with perception and articulation. Are her characters ironic or truer than the audience wants to admit?
Does the exhibit capture the 90’s? To this I have to say no, because there was so much more to that era and these are only snapshots from a selection of conceptual artists. It’s difficult to build something immersive and cohesive out of time when we felt full of questions and rejected all the answers. Explaining to someone who was not there, or who was not in their youth at this time, it would be difficult to say that these pieces spoke for me, or even spoke to me. The show does call attention to most of the major issues of the time however, from the fallout after the AIDS crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a period after the 80’s when people wanted to pull down and critique all the walls and conventions.
Many of us grew up with the visual vocabulary of Dr. Seuss’s art. His wild trees with their fluffy tops or the whimsical horns on his animals all communicated not just creative freedom but also gave us a sense that there was more to the world than we were being taught. Apparently there was more to Dr. Seuss as well. During the day he wrote children’s books, by night he was a surrealist painter. Art on 5th Gallery has a wonderful collection of his many works, spanning a variety of styles and ranging from the familiar to more mature interpretations of his literary oeuvre.
Maybe you were one of those children who would spend hours pouring over the imagery in his books, absorbing the nuances in all of his characters wild expressions. You owe yourself a favor to spend some time now, revisiting these wonders in a new light. While you discover more to Dr. Seuss than you knew you may gain a new look into your own grownup imagination and perhaps marvel at the journey you both took.
If viewing these works up close at Art on 5th Gallery is still not enough, there is a wonderful volume on this secret art of Dr. Seuss that offers an introduction by the equally formative Maurice Sendak. Similarly there is another work on his secret art entitled the Cat Behind the Hat (which is also the title of one of his works featured in the Gallery.)
Running from February 21 – May 15, 2016 at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art is a survey of contemporary art from the 1990s. This is actually the first major museum exhibit to historicize this transitional decade. Over 50 artists are represented, spanning the gamut from installation, video art, painting, photography, sculpture and early internet art. This is truly a showcase not to miss.
The 90’s were time of radical identity politics, steeped in the AIDS crisis, events like the Rodney King riots, and the rise of theInternet. It was a time of “culture wars” which impacted creative freedom as well as a time when global expansionism and digital technology forever altered both production and the art market.
April 24: Hackers(1995) A film about teenage hackers starring a young Angelina Jolie.
May 1: The Glass Shield (1994) A film starring Ice Cube and Lori Petty about race and the LA Police.
And lastly, what would the early 90’s have been without mix-tapes? (Yes, for those of us geezers we were making mixed tapes back in the 80’s and earlier…but this is a fun interactive piece). The Blanton will be checking out walkman cassette players with 90’s mixed tapes! Plus, if you submit your own 90’s playlists you can earn free admission:
In collaboration with holdings from the Harry Ransom Center the exhibit will feature works from Peruvian photographers from the ’70s-80’s (from HRC collections) and their influence on photographic works from the ’90’s to today, (many newly acquired by the Blanton.) Spanning almost five decades the collection will trace the evolution of photography in Peru’s journey through political and social upheaval. Photographers in the ’70’s fought to have the medium recognized as an art form and in the 80’s used it to document war and poverty. Later artists would go full circle using the medium to investigate public space, explore race and national memory and creating a voice reaching out through the fog of government suppression.
I recently had the chance to attend the close of the Blanton’s hosting Moderno, an exhibit showcasing Latin American modern design. Organized by New York’s Americas Society it brought together forward-thinking designs for furniture, textiles, paintings, glass and metalwork.
Navigating through the contexts and biographies I realized, as a North American, how little we are taught of Latin American history, let alone early 20th century diaspora. The artists in the collection were Latin American, they lived and worked in Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela…but for many of them these places were not their first homes. I found the stories of the artists almost more fascinating than the works. Some of the artists were of course native to their countries but almost all were international in some degree, whether having studied in Germany after the war or having fled Germany before the war, having left the Netherlands in protest of colonial wars in Indonesia or having left Cuba for Mexico or Portugal for Brazil. Some of the artists were of Asian descent, either having been born in Argentina of Japanese heritage or having been Chinese-British now active in Mexico.
I found these biographies fascinating and wanted to read more. This is the story of the 20th century and modernity, this diaspora in the face of war, economic and cultural immigration. How have these trajectories influenced art, identity, design and heritage? What does it mean to have Latin American art created by North Americans who left the U.S. for Mexico in the 60’s? What was the impact of Dutch craftsmanship on Brazilian design? What was the impact of having a Venezuelan photographer study in German? I left the exhibit filled with questions.
The painting here Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (III) for example is by Argentinian Kazuka Sakai, born in 1927 to Japanese parents who moved the family to Japan when he was 7 to complete a classical Japanese education. They returned to Argentina in 1951 when he was 24. During the 50’s and early 60’s he was a leading member of the movement Informalismo. After exhibiting in Buenos Aires he moved to New York where he stayed til 1965. After that he moved to Mexico where he lived and worked until the late 70’s. After 1977 he returned to the U.S., exhibiting in Mexico, the U.S., Spain, and Costa Rica.
Stories such as these challenge our notions of identity and influence and reveal how marvelous and energetic the global spread of modernist ideas is. Each of these profiles ask us to reflect on boundaries, the impacts of cultural context and training, and how these artists have these in their work. Global modernisms have been a meeting place, a tool to articulate cultural cross-sections and produce meaningful and rich experiences.
For most of the 20th century it was assumed that modernism belonged to the Western Euro-American domain. However, there were junctures of global modernism that occurred in many hot spots around the globe: zones of interactions with modernization that prompted negotiations with one’s traditional culture and the rapid changes happening it. Travel, sometimes subsidized by national cultural programs, the exchange of ideas through books and film helped bring to the West disruptions of traditional Greco-Roman/European aesthetics while simultaneously invigorating artists in non-Western countries, who were coming to terms with their own changing world and identities. Wiley-Blackwell has published a wonderful overview in their Modern Art in Africa, Asia and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms.
The 1920’s, the 1950’s after the war, the late 60’s and early 70’s, the 80’s were all periods of intense change, idea migration and paradigm shifts. In Latin America many forms of art were impacted by political revolutions, oppression and wars. Native or Colonial styles of art were insufficient in communicating visually what was happening in these worlds, but would still serve as elements of the visual vocabulary. Modern art in these countries would use the visual arts to depict the negotiations and violence occurring to the Latin American psyche and spirit while also allowing the artist and viewer to transcend and challenge. These works are worth viewing outside of the Latin American contexts as the dynamics, passions, conflicts are not isolated, they are both relevant and inspiring for humanity at large.
José Vasconcelos, a writer, sociologist, historian, lawyer and philosopher was appointed minister of public education in 1921. Following the fragmentation of the civil war Vasconcelos commissioned many public murals, helping to establish a unifying Mexican art practice.
Diego Rivera, perhaps one of the most famous in part due to his work on commissioned public works in the 1920’s, had traveled to Europe in 1907 becoming acquainted with the work of Matisse, Picasso and Gaugin. While having some success in Europe as a cubist, the Mexican Revolution (1914-15) and the Russian Revolution (1917) transformed his calling to that of wishing to reflect the lives of the working class and native peoples of Mexico. Returning to Mexico to paint a series of public murals. During the 30’s and 40’s he was commissioned to paint murals in the United States, some were controversial due to his politics.
There is not enough space to devout toFrida Kahlo, a gifted Mexican artist who caught the eye of famous surrealists like Andre Breton. Kahlo however denied the surrealist label, she was not depicting her dreams she explained, she was depicting her reality. Raised by a German father and Mexican mother during the Mexican revolution, her mother domineering and depressive, Kahlo suffered from polio as a child. Her father encouraged her to engage in sports, bike riding, typically boy activities in order to regain her strength. However, later in her young life a traffic accident shattered her body and altered her life. Recovering in isolation and coping with the reoccurring pain Kahlo channeled everything into her artwork. Drawing upon Christian and Jewish themes as well as Mexican mythology, bright local colors and themes, Kahlo pioneered a very personal surrealist style that was well-received in both the U.S. and Paris.
Self Portrait, Kahlo, 1940
José Clemente Orozcowas a painter who helped establish the Mexican muralist movement along with Rivera and Siqueiros. He was inspired by the Symbolist movement and was politically committed to helping the poor and working class. Of the three Mexican muralists, Orozco’s works were darker, more concerned with the bloody toll the Revolution was causing. Injured by fireworks chemicals during Mexican Independence Day celebrations he was unable to see a doctor for several days due to the festivities. Subsequently gangrene set in and he had to have his left hand amputated. He started painting political murals during the 20’s, his works were set apart by their focus on human suffering. After spending some years in New York and enjoying success painting murals in CA and New Hampshire he returned to Mexico where he was invited to paint the ceiling of the Government Palace in Guadalajara. The work was entitled The People and Its Leaders. Soon after he was asked to paint frescos inside Guadalajara’s Hospicio Cabañas. This would be considered his masterpiece, a “Sistine Chapel of the Americas,” depicting a panorama of Mexican history from pre-Colonial times through the Mexican Revolution.
David Alfaro Siqueiroswas born in 1896 in Mexico. He was a social realist muralist and Mexican Communist. As a young teen he was inspired by the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism and the works of Dr. Atl who called for Mexican artists to develop their own national style. After the Mexican revolution he traveled to Paris where he met Diego Rivera and became acquainted with the styles of Cubism and Cezanne. In the 1930’s Siqueiros traveled to NY, where he ran a workshop for artists in preparation for the 1936 General Strike for Peace. Jackson Pollack attended the workshop learned the drip and pour technique from Siqueiros. In the late 30’s Siqueiros traveled to Spain to help fight against the Franco fascists before returning to work on murals. Later participating in a failed assassination attempt on Trotsky who was seeking asylum in Mexico forced Siqueiros into hiding.
The last twenty yearsin visual culture studies have seen a divergence from the hegemonic view that had dominated the academy for centuries, the assumption that what we define as “civilization” evolved only along the trajectory of: Egypt->Greece->Rome->Medieval Europe->Anglo-Britain->America. We know now that there have been multiple civilizations across the globe. We are now coming to realize there have also been in the 20th century multiple modernisms.
Art History departments, textbooks and museum exhibits are now reflecting histories, examples and works from these global, modern movements. No longer is non-Western art a kind of monolith or Other, relegated only to the pre-Colonial and the Ancient. Modernism has occurred vigorously and authentically in varying junctures in South, East and Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Vision of the Tomb (1965), by Ibrahim el-Salahi PR
From the continent of Africa, the cradle of humanity and large enough to contain the countries of China, US, Europe and India, we are now seeing recognition paid to burgeoning scientists, engineers, artists and other cultural leaders. While European modernism was ‘revolutionary’ for involving visual concepts from the non-Western world, the convention had long been to embrace, celebrate and condone these acts of intellectual appropriation….while similar efforts by the non-Western artists were derided and dismissed as imitation. The academy is gradually shifting, partly in response to global currents in the art market that have taken the art centers away from Paris, London and New York, but the road toward changing discourse and practice is ongoing.
During the 1950’s Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi pioneered, like other non-Western artists for their countries, a new visual vocabulary by fusing and re-interpreting Islamic, African, Arab and Western aesthetics. Having returned to Sudan from London in 1957, and rising to become undersecretary for culture, he traveled to Nigeria to meet writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka (who have a contentious view on the topic of African modernism) as well as the modern artists from Senegal,Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko. The 1960’s in Africa saw a kind of a renaissance in Africa, although the 1970’s found El-Salahi imprisoned without charge during the Nimeiri regime. Later released in 1977 he moved to Qatar to serve as a cultural minister, emigrating later to England. He currently finds himself working to promote the growth and acceptance of modernism within African nations while he enjoys recognition and success in the West.
A Beninese artist who followed in El-Salahi’s footsteps is the artist Meschac Gaba who pragmatically realized how the common people were not going to museums or understood contemporary art, so he took his work as performances to the markets and the streets. Within the gallery space his installation works are comments on economics, culture and the ways in which life and art blur.
The road to recognition of modernism in non-Western countries has been tumultous. Understanding the push-back against modernisms around the globe has always been political as well as cultural. Whether this is internal among civic governments, cultural ministers or between larger, cultural regions and established academies, to study emerging visual culture is to have a finger on a people’s unconscious pulse, something that cannot be easily controlled. It is what it means to be avant-garde, and why art can be revolutionary. It is also why it is so critically important to humanity. As Theodore Roethke once wrote “Art is our defense against hysteria and death.”