The beauty of critical distance

July 26, 2010 at 1:52 am Leave a comment

“There’s no one discourse. There’s no one perspective.”

David Elliott, artistic director of the 17th Biennale of Sydney: “The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age”

If, as David Elliott proposed in May, the 17th Biennale of Sydney is a kind of symphonic experience, with a range of voices and melodies, then naturally some of those voices and melodies are bound to have greater staying power than others. I find myself returning to particular voices and melodies I experienced in Sydney, both on my own and prodded there by a related image or idea (like this pistachio-shell Sydney Opera House I came across at MassMOCA earlier this month):

Some of the voices and melodies are beautiful, some are less so. All are interesting.

In retrospect, one thing that emerges very clearly is the dark side of our multiple-discourse reality: that is, the struggle for dominance among those discourses. I tend to prefer a “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right” approach to conflicts of perspective, so the outright assertion of any one particular way of seeing things, to the exclusion of any other, tends to make me not only uncomfortable but suspicious. Isn’t the person who says, “Your view is wrong; only mine can be right” falling into the same trap that the person with the formerly dominant idea fell into?

A specific example: In a Biennale panel titled “First People, Diaspora and Fourth Worlds,” the artists and curators onstage, including Phoenix’s own Claudio Dicochea, seemed to agree that it would be good to move past the idea of “marginalization” as some kind of defining factor when discussing indigenous art. As panelist Ngahiraka Mason put it, “Being marginalized has nothing to do with it.” Thus far, I was in agreement. But when the moderator asked all the indigenous people in the audience to raise their hands, then nodded when dozens of hands went up and said, “We’re getting there,” I had to wonder if this wasn’t just a case of working to flip the margins.

For one thing, as someone who has often felt/been marginalized within my own culture(s), I have long considered art people “my” tribe, in a way that transcends race, or age, or religion, or any of the other boxes we put people in, and that has been a tremendous comfort to me. We may come from different places, we may see the world differently, but we have art as our common ground. To hear someone I consider a member of my tribe — such as it is — say, as one of the panelists did at the conclusion of the First People talk, “We (indigenous people) care, we just don’t care about the same things (that non-indigenous people care about)” fills me with a sense of distance that is neither beautiful nor productive. Who is “we”? The notion of some kind of monolothic indigenous perspective is convenient, but highly unlikely — as is the notion of some kind of monolithic American perspective, or Muslim perspective, or female perspective.

Which brings me to “Serenity and Terror in Vermeer, and After,” Lawrence Weschler’s Nick Waterlow Memorial Lecture.

A product of the Swinging ’60s in London, Nick Waterlow was the artistic director of the Sydney Biennale in 1979 (as well as 1986 and 1988), and is credited with being the first to include indigenous Australian art and artists in an international exhibition. His murder, only months before the opening of this year’s Biennale, shook the Sydney arts community deeply; his friends still speak of him as if he were about to walk in the room. The keynote lecture of the Biennale has been named in his honor, and David Elliott dedicated the 17th Biennale itself to Waterlow.

Weschler was a fitting choice for this first lecture in Waterlow’s memory. A writer with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a generous spirit, he’s the director of The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, and the author of numerous books, including Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin and Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, about L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. He came, he told the audience, to talk about “that most contemporary of contemporary artists: Johannes Vermeer.”

In the 1990s, Weschler covered the aftermath of the grisly Bosnian wars, and he spent a lot of time in the Hague during the war crimes trials. He recounted the story of a judge there who would go to look at Vermeers when he wasn’t presiding over the trials, “to keep from losing his mind.” But the peace we see in Vermeer’s paintings, Weschler says, does not depict the world Vermeer lived in; when Vermeer was painting, all of Europe “was Bosnia, or had just ceased to be.” The world Hobbes described — in which life was “nasty, brutish and short” — was the world in which Johannes Vermeer created his images of domestic tranquility, and Hobbes’ state of nature is “everywhere present at the edges” of the Dutch painter’s canvases. A map, for example, is not a neutral object in the Netherlands of the 17th century.

Nor is a letter: The piece of paper that the pregnant woman holds in her hands could very well be from a husband away at war.

Vermeer, Weschler says, is “inventing this particular idea of what peace might be” in a time of tremendous turmoil. One of the ways he does this is to paint portraits not just of people but of “inner subjectivity,” of people being entirely themselves in a way that the viewer recognizes as human and familiar. “Peace lies in that perception of that other person as someone like ourselves,” Weschler concluded.

And that, I think, is why I find it disheartening when the discussion begins breaking down into “us” and “them.” Because once we are so divided, with the emphasis on the things that separate us rather than the things that bind us together, communication becomes necessarily circumscribed, and the all-too rare opportunities for rich and genuine conversation die on the vine — an outcome that strikes me as the antithesis of the spirit of the Biennale.

– Deborah Sussman Susser

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