“Mirror’s Edge”

Up until the 1970s the art world was, roughly speaking, a white male club headquartered in New York City. In the wider arena of culture, art had about the same status as tennis or golf in the world of sports; but rather than Wimbledon or Pebble Beach, the art-world meccas were Kassel and Venice.

Fortunately, things have changed in recent decades. In the multicultural, postcolonial present, West is not always best; the time of absolute, universal standards is ancient history. Parts of Europe have literally fallen to pieces. And the stiffening competition from the Pacific Rim, especially Japan, is felt both in Europe and in the US. We have witnessed a multiplication of “centers.” The so-called periphery will no longer be marginalized. The monocultural art of yesterday has had to reconsider its relationship to the cultural “other,” to the world’s nonwhite majority, to women, to ethnic and sexual minorities. Every culture, not least in the West, has had to rethink itself in relative terms. The once exclusively white male conclave now boasts prominent female and nonwhite members.

This is the backdrop against which the exhibition “Mirror’s Edge”—curated by Okwui Enwezor, who is organizing the forthcoming Documenta 11—took place. Some thirty artists from sixteen countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe participated. It was an impressive show produced by a relatively small museum in northern Sweden. Jan-Erik Lundström, director of the BildMuseet, had met Enwezor in South Africa in 1997, when Enwezor was curating the second Johannesburg Biennale. On the spot, Lundström invited him to do a show at the opposite end of the globe, and Enwezor accepted.

So what, if anything, distinguished “Mirror’s Edge” from its sometimes notorious multicultural predecessors? In 1984, for example, New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” There, works of Picasso and Giacometti could be seen alongside anonymous African masks and sculptures. From an art-ideological point of view, this gigantic show constituted a last desperate attempt to affirm a universal, modernist art canon. But, as Thomas McEvilley [see AF, Nov. 1984] and others have pointed out, it was too late. The show was rightfully sunk for its purely formalist and culturally imperialist view. Five years later, in 1989, Jean-Hubert Martin’s “Magiciens de la Terre” opened at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; works by Western artists such as Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, and Daniel Buren were shown together with works by contemporary artists from Africa and Asia. In spite of its well-meaning global and postcolonial ambition, this exhibition was also roundly criticized: The very title “Magicians of the Earth” revealed residual colonial attitudes. The selection and presentation of the non-Western works were, in addition, tainted by such romantic clichés as “the earthy native.”

Compared to “Primitivism” and “Magicians,” “Mirror’s Edge” represents a markedly higher level of (self)consciousness. Here, the multicultural didn’t constitute the content or subject of the exhibition, but was its self-evident point of departure. The artists were not chosen because of their ethnic or geographical backgrounds, but solely on the strength of their works. Yinka Shonibare’s photographic series “Diary of a Victorian Dandy,” 1998, enacts the sentimental clichés of Merchant-Ivory films by means of the figure of an aristocratic “black” fop. Shonibare’s mural-size Cibachrome prints effectively mimic Western-style history painting in a farcical way. Bodys Isek Kingelez’s architectural sculptures (here he showed Hommage à Jean Nouvel, 1995) are fascinating dystopic visions of uninhabited cities built for no one but ghosts. And an almost hypnotic, vertiginous feeling emanates from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s drained movie screens (in the series “Interior Theaters,” 1977–), with their intense luminosity.

“Mirror’s Edge” was held together by a theme that Enwezor puts to us in the form of a question in his catalogue essay: “How can we stage the correspondence between The Real and Fiction in contemporary art today?” This problematic, far from novel, was nevertheless compellingly reflected and articulated in the show. It could be seen in the ambivalent works of Thomas Hirschhorn, Carlos Garaicoa, Henrik Håkansson, and Meschac Gaba, among others; it also manifests itself in the Scandinavian collective N55’s “products,” which occupy the space between art and political activism, art and design, art and social reality. More generally speaking, many of the works in the show addressed the factuality of fiction as well as the artificiality of reality in today’s world.

“Mirror’s Edge” may not have broken new ground, but it stayed focused, and its relatively moderate scale allowed viewers to take it in as a whole. The exhibition contained a number of strong works, from Steve McQueen’s video Dead Pan, 1997, to Ceal Floyer’s Carousel, 1996, which consists of a phonograph playing a recording of slide-projector sounds.

While the show certainly reflects significant changes in the cultural status quo, one would hesitate to claim that “Mirror’s Edge” ultimately points to any watershed transformation of power relations in the art world. It is true that the participants came from five different continents, but practically all of them live and work in Western cities such as Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, and London; Enwezor, himself from Nigeria, has been living in New York for many years.

To be mirrored, albeit at the edge of the mirror, it still seems necessary to work in the West, preferably in one of its capitals. Enwezor, perhaps not a rebel but by no means a collaborator, has been appointed director of the next Documenta simply because the power elite in the art world are intelligent enough to realize the obseleteness of “occidentocentrism” and universalism in the era of globalization and cultural relativism.

Lars O. Ericsson is associate professor of philosophy at Stockholm University and an art critic for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.