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BI.MA 3 - 2010

3rd Edition Art Biennale in Malindi

3rd Edition Art Biennale in Malindi - MALINDI BIENNALE
Safari (Artists and Shamans) - Achille Bonito Oliva
In Arabic "safari" means a shift, a movement; it means going from one place to another: a question of nomadism and certainly not of big-game hunting. In the 21st century contemporary artists have maintained a view inherited from the 20th century's historical and more recent avant-gardes, a multi-cultural, trans-national, and multimedia outlook. A cultural hybridization between nomadism and linguistic eclecticism prevails. At the same time, artists from various continents continue to work as responsible researchers in an attempt to find a link between their own work and surrounding reality: an anxious questioning of the world in an attempt to weld a relationship between visual form and secular spirituality. An osmosis between the figure of the artist and that of the shaman who makes the invisible visible and vice-versa.
Here at the beginning of the third millennium our epoch is being shaken by the twin extremisms of globalization and the tribe, homologation and the individual. In both cases this radicalization leads to a loss of complexity. Globalization, the outcome of the structural imposition of a global economy, tends to confirm rules of behaviour which are increasingly similar to the strong models of dominant countries. One result of such a hegemony is an emotive and regressive reaction based on ethnic roots and territorial imperatives, the producer of historical tragedies and third-world isolation.
It is, however, possible to find in contemporary culture examples of tribal models that have, in a balanced, creative and constructive way, faced the problem of aggregation and individualization. Art's tribes are born and expand in great modern cities dominated by anonymity and social standardization. Groups of artists and intellectuals, the producers of diverse languages and cultural settings, tend to join up with each other, united by the double adhesive of cultural affinity and daily practice. A tribal attitude, in a metaphorical sense, can be found in the collective answers that such groups give to the problems posed by industrial civilization and mass society. In this solidarity they find a greater propulsion and energy with respect to individual answers. This kind of genuine ethical and aesthetic plus value marks an artistic and existential production that is guaranteed by following a collective habit of behaviour and a common cultural mentality.
Such tribes gather in a special way in the great European and American cities and search for a collective connotation that might give them a strong group-identity in a society that tends to dissolve them into the vast numbers of solitary and anonymous individuals. So cultural and artistic tribes reject blood-links and stable family groups in order to embrace a wider genius loci, one that is self-generated as a result of the dynamics of collective behaviour. The tribal attitude has become a great mobile mirror in which individual participants can see each gesture enlarged, reinforced as it is by the mirroring capacities of collective, ethical and aesthetic norms.
It is not always the case that art tribes correspond to twentieth century historical and neo-avant-garde movements because, at times, belonging to them was simply a question of finding linguistic models without any involvement in the strategic need to confirm the ethics of the group.
Such tribes have certainly derived from industrial civilization and mass society their need to leave behind the loneliness of their own studio and to involve themselves with the group, the storehouse and location of creative excitement. This noisy world, with its accent on exchange and confrontation, becomes the background even for individual creative processes. Tribes need to belong to a common cultural identity that positively and inevitably involves some slight depersonalization in order to be, as far as is possible, part of a common front without dispersion or onanistic self-satisfaction.
A kind of utopian anarchy armed twentieth century art tribes, insofar as it created a protected affirmation of the individual through the group and, at the same time, deprived the aesthetic community of any kind of territorial identity. If anything there was the affirmation of a collective non-place (which is what the word utopia means: u-topos), as both a point of departure and arrival. A departure from the precarious stability of the imagination, and an objective or behavioural approach almost always outside or beyond the art system.
To act as a community concentrated outside the market of ideas and forms means both a productive development and a rejection that in some way is reminiscent of thirteenth century models, even though without their spiritual fervour and, in any case, extremely heretical in the face of modern civilization's strongly economic matrix. It is a secular heresy with respect to that, for example, of the Free Spirit movement that spread so quickly at the end of the thirteenth century. From then until the end of the Middle Ages this heresy was propagated by men commonly called "begards" and who formed an unauthorized secular counterpart to the mendicant orders. They too were beggars (in fact their name probably derives from the English words "beg" and "beggars"). They haunted towns and wandered the streets in noisy and pugnacious groups, calling aloud for alms with their characteristic cry of "bread for the love of God".
What distinguished the followers of the Free Spirit from other medieval sects was their total amorality. They really considered themselves to be "free" and everything they had was "in common": they were free to drink in a tavern and refuse to pay and, if the owner asked for money they would beat him up.
If a follower gave away money he had extorted then he had taken a step back "from the eternal to the temporal", and if, while nursing someone ill, the follower asked for alms and this was refused, then he was free to take it by force and without scruples, even if the victim might die as a result. Fraud, theft, and armed robbery were all quite justified. "Everything the eye can see and longs for can be seized by the hand!" was one of their sayings.
Calling themselves "holy beggars", they despised monks and friars for their easy life; they enjoyed interrupting religious services and would not tolerate ecclesiastic discipline. They wore clothes resembling the habits of monks but with exclusive details in order to differentiate from them. Usually the habit was red and at times torn from the waist down; in order to underline their profession of poverty the hood was small and covered with patches. They came from all classes of society: artisans, the wealthy; yet others came from the less privileged orders of the intelligentsia: ex monks, priests and clerks from minor orders. Like any other prophet, a follower of the Holy Spirit owed his power in part to his reputation as an ascetic, considered to be a thaumaturgic guarantee, and, more fundamentally, to personal gifts of eloquence and appearance. But the following they searched for was different to that of other prophets. After having ennobled the uprooted and disoriented masses of poor, the Free Spirit passed from open activism to secrecy and its leaders turned to people with other, no less important, reasons for feeling disoriented and disillusioned: women and, in particular, the unmarried women and widows of the upper classes of urban society.
So it is no surprise that bourgeois spinsters and widows, with no need to work, no domestic duties to perform, no definite position, and with no social stimulus, often joined the poor masses in order to find some kind of saviour, some special man who would help them to reach some absolute superiority in place of their humiliating present.
The begard women had no heretical aims, but passionately desired the most intense forms of mystic experience. Undoubtedly, the emotive bonds linking them to the movement were often erotic.
The eroticism of the art tribe is quite different: it is a widespread platonic love, the binding agent of the group which multiplies aesthetic effects through feverish collective creation; the aim is to unhinge linguistic and social rules and search for constructive action, for a perimeter that is paradoxically vaporized by the works and behaviours themselves.
The subjects of such tribes, then, are not the inhabitants of some ethnic geography so much as the stateless protagonists of aesthetic communities attracted by a nomadic life and who are receptive to each adventure of the creative spirit.
In fact these are the "travellers of the spirit" as defined by Laurence Sterne in his Sentimental Journey:
"Idle Travellers,
Inquisitive Travellers,
Lying Travellers,
Proud Travellers,
Vain Travellers,
Splenetic Travellers.
Then follow:
The Travellers of Necessity,
The Delinquent and Felonious Traveller,
The Unfortunate and Innocent Traveller,
The Simple Traveller,
And last of all (if you please) The Sentimental Traveller".
Nomadic travellers from the tribe of art are citizens of mass society, and often of modern mega-cities; they have frequently been subject to both repressive or liberal political situations. This has led to diasporas and to a lack of stability, depending on individual resistance, though these have never undermined a sense of belonging or of solidarity. In the first half of the twentieth century these values flowed together into a common dream: that of founding productive counter-communities with a high degree of both ethics and aesthetics, in the hope that their actions might lead to social renewal.
Between the wars, fascist and communist dictatorships ruined social life and were fatal to the art tribe's cultural and libertarian nomadism. In fact these regimes opposed and imposed a stagnant culture and encouraged local traditions in the face of contemporary art's anarchic cosmopolitanism.
After the Second World War various groups returned, not just to the experimentation of the historical avant-gardes, but also to ethics in their search for new languages which might also lead to renewed social behaviour.
"Idle Travellers, Inquisitive Travellers, Lying Travellers, Proud Travellers, Vain Travellers, Splenetic Travellers. Then follow: The Travellers of Necessity, The Delinquent and Felonious Traveller, The Unfortunate and Innocent Traveller, The Simple Traveller, and last of all (if you please) The Sentimental Traveller" have been redeemed.
So even after the war, art's tribes were travellers without luggage and ready, in a medieval sense, to strip themselves of professional labels and typecast production; they became part of the modern tendency to break down boundaries and to make multimedia experiments.
In this period, then, the new avant-gardes returned to the spirit of research of the historical ones; they experimented with new techniques and materials but, with a great sense of reality, they also became aware of the international context, one transformed by technology. By now art had become the linguistic product of a laboratory which only metaphorically referred to the world's anxiety for change - something which, instead, had been the driving force of the historical avant-gardes.
And yet, through collective poetics but with the individual production of works, some groups develop objective behaviours that offer an alternative to current ways of thinking and to an art system that is based on an international economic circuit.
Such groups have, willingly or unwillingly, taken over a strategy typical of tribes: mutual life-systems and ways of thinking based, in fact, on a common identity, though not one that annuls individual differences; they are groups of artists but never anonymous groups.
The map of creative outsiders has continued to spread until today; this is the result of the art of tribes which have never lost sight of the specifics of their researches or of the autonomy of art. Even recent generations of exhibitions show the continuity and individual development of such tribes, though without in any way closing them in a ghetto.
Memory is the result of individual and collective experience. In the former case, the subject shifts past time into the present time of his continuous daily life, also as a personal deterrent valid for the future. In the latter case it is the result of the collective actions of people who use memory and are conditioned by historical behaviour.
In its expressive forms, art too reflects its own specific memory, one tied to linguistic history and that of individual artists. In the past territorial memory, a genius loci, characterised art forms by specifying the anthropological aspect of its artefacts according to underlying geography and the history of its production.
Hegel's philosophy proved to be a great drawback for the freedom of many artists' production in the centralized cultures of the nineteenth century's powerful empires. In the twentieth century the historical and neo- avant-gardes, following the supranational development of technology, reversed such a mentality and made use of an international experimental linguistic strategy and attempted to establish a system of forms valid for all cultural geographies and territories.
In the second half of the 1960s the Trans-avant-garde respected these aims while seeing the dangers of being overwhelmed by the American art which, at the time, dominated experimentation and the market in the guise of the internationality of creative languages.
Exaggerated experiments with new techniques and materials were replaced by an emphasis on the value of memory, something which could give works a specific identity and also give an accent (one that was not dialectical and autarchic but subjectively and historically individual) to a language that was necessarily international. In its passage from 'hot' to 'cool' trans-avant-gardes, from the quotation of the styles of painting and sculpture to the reuse of everyday objects, the art of the 1990s conserved the dignity of memory by replacing its static territorial purity with the artist's individual nomadism.
Cultural nomadism and stylistic eclecticism have ensured that current art has a mobile identity, also as a result of the arrival of telematics which reduce geographical distances but homologize the everyday behaviour of various peoples. This development was accompanied over the past decades by the emigration of individuals from various continents and a pacific yet conflictive invasion of masses of people from one country to another for social and economic motives.
The passage from the 20th to the 21st century was marked by a kind of ethnic mixing that had the fertile result of cultural interchanges and enrichment. The power of opulent societies and the standardization of collective behaviour based on patterns seen on the television have led to homologation, and this has been answered by art which uses the moral value of memory as its deterrent. But which memory? Obviously not the Hegelian one with its idyllic interweaving of nature and culture, the territorial anthropology of static peoples, but a new memory, one that is positively hybrid, the result of intermixing and mobility. Such characteristics mean a dynamic deposit of memories that accept facing up to today's reality and reject any regression to the static separateness of the past.
Artists have developed a resistance strategy by the expressive representation of personal yet objective forms. Personal memory becomes the necessary material for building an objective and striking form: the only one, due to its new complexity, capable of dealing with the spectacular loss of memory of the electronic mass media which are only interested in celebrating the present.
Art answers data telematics' two-dimensionality with the depth of its installations; these are the carriers of the particular aims of an artist who wants to offer for the viewers' contemplation forms resulting from a personal creative process rather than from the anonymous assembly-line of mass taste. The creative process becomes a neo-humanist symptom of a renewed level of resistance by the subject who uses it, not in order to annul the present, but to restore a time running from the past to the future. The solitary character of art production signals the possibility for an individual redemption able to create a possible, even if uncomfortable, coexistence with technical developments that have by now arrived at virtual reality.
Art answers virtuality with a counter-reality built from adequate techniques and materials. It answers telematics' anorexia with antibodies materialized in consistent and complex forms. Subjective memory becomes the blood flowing through the veins of works which pulse with their own life and counteract the repeated iconography of telematics which circulates as a result of its lack of individual memory, of the lack of that difference which might block its circuits.
To summarize: art at the end of the twentieth century reaffirms the right to be different and promotes the circulation of individual memory purged of psychological waste and reinforced by the consistency of its own motivations. The ultimate motivation of art is to promote a body of forms for future memory.
Artists from various generations are to be found here. They have not only influenced the language but also the mentality of other artists at an international level. Quite apart from their poetics, they are cultural and moral exemplars of incisive creativity and, at the same time, are suited to our epoch which unites a search for identity with behavioural homologation.
If each tribe needs an ethical-social texture which also binds it together, this section instead is based on the documentation of exemplary cultural and moral figures who indicate many possibilities. In this case, the tribal leader provides an example of creative and operative solitude which pours its original load of aesthetic forms onto the social context. Such an outpouring does not come about in a vertical or hierarchical manner but, rather, is the result of a cultural context that recognizes its exemplarity, productive quality, and behavioural coherence. The ethic of continuity permeates the individual figures of "tribal leaders without a tribe"; they have the capacity to elaborate forms that can even penetrate the art system and, at the same time, are the heralds of behavioural innovation. In some way, in fact, these artists are not only people who push their way through the present to grasp the future, but they are genuine behavioural models for a critical contact with our own context. This is what confers visibility and recognition on a social body in search of new forms of awareness and of ways for examining our difficult times.
In the passage from the second to the third millennium, and after the disappearance of a proscriptive culture (ideologies and human sciences), art has become a way of suggesting, rather than imposing, vertical and problematic models overflowing with ambivalent and complex richness.
Today's IT and electronic society increasingly produces positive services matched by the passivity of their solitary user; its strategy within the community has been to become another way for experiencing the quantitative space of cities, but one which produces loneliness, aggression, and violence as well as energy.
Cities have standardized collective behaviour to produce a community which often seems like a ferocious pack, a group which copies gestures in order to increase the visibility of the individuals within it. Such gestures are not always criminal: they might be shifted into the cosmetic area of disguise and clothing, but their aim is always to drain away meaning and increase the aspect of camouflage. The pack's camouflaged behaviour, the result of mass society's tendency to copy, explains the quantitative recognition of the group and the violence that binds it together.
But then art's tribes are not parasites sucking the blood of mimetic behaviour: they thrive instead on the creative multiplication of artistic gestures that start from within only to superimpose themselves on what is without. Such an ethical fabric permits an increase of boundaries that are mobile and flexible and that confront the quantitative loneliness of the pack with the individual solidarity of those who are proud of their differences and affinities. The pack has no idea of the value of differences and continues to insist that everything must remain the same as it was. By its very definition, the tribe of art consolidates its internal differences by concentrating on its common aims; this it does by encouraging the coexistence of differences vouched for by works resulting from the same mentality. Due to their historical and contemporary status, art's tribes were the first to be developed before, during, and after the fall of ideologies: their guarantee was their coagulating and cohesive existential solidarity.
So art's tribes represent contemporary art creation in its search for a balance between ethics and aesthetics, in the knowledge that there exists a social value that art can not only use to its advantage but that is the best way for facing up to everyday life which is always ready to destroy fellowship and participation.