Power, poverty, equality and freedom (also coffee and cookies), Part II

May 15, 2010 at 2:39 pm 1 comment

Yesterday F.A.R.’s Bruce Ferguson spoke on a panel titled “History, Experience, Truth and Empathy.” It’s a mouthful and a brainful, but he acquitted himself admirably. To begin with, anybody who is willing to acknowledge that the art of writing frequently involves productive procrastination gets automatic points, extra points when that procrastination involves reading Chatwin’s “Songlines” and watching “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.” And the conclusions Ferguson reached in the paper he ended up writing were elegant and substantial.

First, he wrestled the title into submission by adding “s”s to each of the unfathomable nouns, making it “histories,” “experiences,” “truths” and “empathies.” In other words, instead of one Truth, there are many truths, and instead of one narrative, many narratives. Next he defined what it is to be empathetic (at the very least, it means to be NOT sociopathic or psychopathic — Imperialism, he noted, was psychopathic in its construction of the other as not just inferior but worthless). And third, and perhaps most important, he pointed out that empathy is not a substitute for action. Reading “The Kite Runner,” for example, does not change the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, or American policy there.

“I would call for works of art that are empathetic but productive,” Ferguson said in conclusion. “I would call for an art that is about current and future injustices.”

Ferguson’s talk was a kind of prelude to the panel this morning, titled “First People, Diaspora and Fourth Worlds.” Biennale Artistic Director David Elliott started things off by telling the audience that there’s no one discourse, and no one perspective, and the panelists went on prove him right, in ways both intended and unintended.

The standouts on the panel were Claudio Dicochea (I admit  I’m biased, but unbiased sources agreed) and Canadian artist Kent Monkman.

Monkman, a Toronto-based artist of Cree ancestry, works with themes of colonization and colonization of sexuality, all of which began when he started examining the depictions of North American aboriginal culture in the paintings of artists like Alfred Bierstadt, Paul Kane and George Catlin. To counteract the straight white male gaze that produced those images, Monkman created his own alter-ego artist: Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, who can be summed up in one word — fierce. “Miss Chief rampages through art history,” Monkman said, “borrowing liberally from Poussin and David,” among others.

Here are links to a couple of good articles about Monkman’s work, from Canadian papers:



Miss Chief exists both as the artist in the paintings Monkman produces, often depicted almost naked and in high heels, painting her own versions of what she wants white men to look like, and as Monkman’s performance persona, a statuesque figure whose Indian/stripper costumes were inspired by none other than the original cultural cross-dresser Cher. But there are serious undercurrents to Monkman’s work, beyond the obvious ones of racism and traditional homophobia. “The European point of view didn’t understand that there could be plural sexual identities, plural gender identities,” Monkman explained. In creating Miss Chief, he is rescuing from obscurity the idea of the man-woman, or “berdache,” who once had an integral, respected place in native society, and restoring that figure to a position of power.

While several of the panelists questioned the very idea of marginalization — who’s doing the marginalizing, whose center are we talking about, etc., all indisputably good questions — Monkman’s approach was slightly different. “At the margins,” he said, ” there is freedom to find beauty in the dustbins of other cultures.”

Dicochea, a Mexican-born artist living in Phoenix, began his presentation by thanking the First People of the Land, a custom that has been almost universally observed at this Biennale, and expressing the hope that the Biennale participants will take the custom back to the U.S. and Mexico and Canada with them. His explanation of his contemporary iterations of eighteenth-century casta paintings, which were on view earlier this year at Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, was lively,  smart and clear. Like his paintings, Dicochea seems to operate on several levels at once, including both that of critical theorist and that of pop-culture fan-geek; his whole face lit up when he described who Wesley Snipes’ “Blade” character is and what kinds of powers he has. Of Blade (the vampire) and Buffy (the slayer), Dicochea said, ” I thought it’d be really romantic to have both of them together,” and you know that while he recognizes and intends the absurdity of that statement, there’s also a part of him that means it in earnest. “These are chimerical, mythological,” he said of his historical-celebrity-mutant hybrids, “but there is something real going on.”

– Deborah Sussman Susser

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Biennale snapshot Pictures of Cockatoo Island

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May 2010

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