PRINT May 1998

World Report

Jean-Hubert Martin

JEAN-HUBERT MARTIN isn’t shy when it comes to speaking his mind on modernism and non-Western art. The former director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou, who remains best known as curator of the mammoth, controversial “Magiciens de la terre” show in Paris nine years ago, dismisses as “arrogant” the “conception of modernity that is only interested in the exotic arts’ contribution of formal novelty” and calls this notion one obstacle to “the idea of the equality of cultures and the valorization of non-Western arts.” Martin’s views should get another very public hearing in the near future, as he has just been appointed to the prestigious position of director of the Biennale de Lyon for the year 2000.

While it’s obviously premature to predict what form the Biennale’s fifth installment will take, with Martin at its helm there can be little doubt that the exhibition’s emphasis will be on globalization. Indeed, the curator, who is currently director of the Mus´e National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, considers that “the West today must be able to admit that the meaning it has attached to history—and the gradual disappearance of religions in favor of reason—can’t be erected as dogma. There is no superiority of Modern art under the pretext of its agnosticism and its historical consciousness.” How might a more ethnographically conscious focus come into play in the planning and selection of the Lyon Biennale? The answer is hinted at in Martin’s insistence that museum culture “make religious art and Western contemporary art coexist.”

One way to do so, Martin suggests, is to emphasize “an anthropological approach” to the material rather than the usual art-historical focus. In the same vein, he observes that an interesting exhibition would be one that juxtaposed “objects that are the result of ritual activities or analogous functions.” An example he offers as a productive comparison is that between the emblems of the Central African Ejagham people and Daniel Spoerri’s late-’60s snapshots of the remnants of meals. The vertical Ejagham panels “display reliefs and the utensils of a ceremonial meal during the investiture of a member. The vestiges of the feast are all on display—the skulls of animals consumed, the drums that mark out a rhythm, and the bundles of sticks used as brooms to sweep away spirits. The whole thing is hung in the initiatory house as a permanent reminder of this intense moment. Given the importance of the Last Supper in the Christian tradition, there’s no question that the rites to which Spoerri invites friends will look pagan to the anthropologists of tomorrow. Are we so far from the emblems of the Ejagham clan? Isn’t this where we’ll find the types of analyses that will finally allow us to stop contrasting objects—and the behaviors that establish them—and to reconcile them on something more than formal grounds?”

Daniel Soutif is director of the department of cultural development at the Centre Georges Pompidou.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.