The continents. A new iconography

"It doesn´t take much imagination to picture the world in its early incarnation as Pangaea, the supercontinent that, sometime in the mid-late Jurassic Period, split up into two land masses (known as Laurasia and Gondwanaland), which some 80 million years later broke apart to form the continents as we now know them. It´s basically a giant jigsaw puzzle. A few of the pieces are missing, and a couple of others have become damaged or warped over time, but it can be reassembled." - Michael L. Sand : Continental Drift -

Influential pictures depicting the five continents, the world, have been created in recent decades: the Buckminster Fuller Map by Jasper Johns, Öyvind Fahlström's World Map, the woven map pictures of Aligieri e Boetti and many others. All the artists were well aware that the whole world, even its most remote secretive areas, has been photographed and surveyed by satellites and, at the same time, no permanent picture could possible exist because, more than ever before, its surface is changing by the hour. The world's skin has become a new type of puzzle and putting its pieces together lies within the possibilities of mankind. No blank spaces remain on this skin, and the accessibility of the entire globe appears guaranteed. Everywhere information on the continents is being produced and absorbed, leading to an increase in mutual acknowledgement and familiarity.

In 1999 Thomas Hirschhorn constructed the continents as large separate assemblies/bricolages, combining their cartographic contours with pictures that could be connected. In the process he keeps to the path of the pictorial language of tourism advertisements (surfers and Toyota land cruisers for Oceania/Australia; elephant and palms for Africa; Coca-Cola, Indians and skyscrapers for the Americas; Buddha, Fujiyama and water carriers for Asia; the Eiffel tower, the Pantheon and Big Ben for Europe) and attached photocopies on one wooden board for each: notice boards with texts and pictures that appear to be random and interchangeable but require attention. One notices. for instance, a newspaper article on European court painting of the 17th century with self-portraits of Velasquez and Rembrandt in Africa, reads texts by Nietzsche ("Philosophy of the Future, Beyond Good and Evil, Maximes and Interludes 63-185") in Asia, and the European notice board shows pictures and reports on Arno Breker and the notorious Munich exhibition "Entartete Kunst" [Degenerate Art] of 1937. The American continent is red, Australia blue, Africa black, Asia yellow and Europe green.

The allocation of pictures, drawings, symbols, and colours to the illustrated objects is entirely haphazard, the contexts are only temporarily mounted. Their claim to credibility is low. They are in the form of play structures, inherently humorous.

Under certain conditions those continents that exist in the imaginations of mankind, composed of contours, memories, characters and symbols now change slower than the real continents themselves, but the "great stories" about them, that have created propagating texts - fairy tales, novels, epic poems - barely survive in their iconography. A new iconography and new stories are created.

Some exhibitions
Nomads and the settled

Since Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari promulgated the concept of artists as nomads in 1985, its influence is also visible where artists seek to understand themselves, in the discovery that the whole world is at their disposal. Where, for example, organisers of large exhibitions base their projects on an international requirement. In 1993 the biennial Venice Art Festival gave itself the theme "Cultural Nomadism". African artists showed their works here for the first time, and there was an international debate on expectations. What is expected of an African artist? How does he meet or evade these expectations? It turned out that the role of the nomadic artist offered one possibility for solving the dilemma. The nomad wanders between the cultures of the settled gaining a feeling of freedom from this rootlessness. The globetrotting artists seemed to belong to their own "république géniale" (Robert Filliou), a "new cultural continent beyond geopolitical frontiers" that Peter Weibel sought in his exhibition "Inclusion - Exclusion": "The gradual discovery of this immaterial continent, this tangible, globally interwoven network of critics, colleagues, artists, curators and galleries was a particularly exciting experience. The country had evidently been there for a long time but it had not yet been put on the map." (Weibel). Artists really do not need any national cultures. Their pictorial language does not follow linguistic borders. Their society is global in its own way and is constructed from exhibitions, catalogues, books and newspapers. They can, however, fulfil an important function there, where it is the corrections, new encodings and transformations of national or other group identities that matters.

Dialogue between continents cannot, of course, take place solely at the mobile level of the cultural nomads. That would too easily lead to a sphere of autonomous art history that would isolate them from all societal discourse. Thus I feel an uneasiness regarding a one-sided conversation, a mismatching of weightings in the wonderful abundance of valuable material exhibited at the "Art Worlds in Dialogue" project of Cologne's Ludwig Museum in 1999. While in the Museum's own backyard the documents of post-colonial discourse and applications for citizenship pile up (as a result of new laws). Given this background it seems necessary to consider neither the wanderers between cultures, nor the neo-colonial exploiters among the European artists, but rather those that are trying to settle in a different continent while retaining their own cultural inheritance.

In 1993 I showed the "AFRICA EXPLORES. 20th century African Art" exhibition of the New York Center for African Art at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen meeting artists such as Sokari Douglas Camp from Nigeria and Chéri Samba from Zaire, who in their works show a very different relationship to the culture of their homelands than, say, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré in Senegal, who became well-known through the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition in 1989. He was unconditionally settled where he had been born, and used the language of the former colonialist rulers to develop encyclopaedic pictures for an African identity; for Chéri Samba the conflict between two cultures played more of a role in the content of his work than in its from, and Sokari Douglas Camp, who has few material links with her land of origin, creates extensive picture ensembles of a culture of memory, at whose heart lies the land of her forefathers. She is settled in London. The following statement, by Okwui Enwezor, applies to her and many other world artists who work in European centres of art:

"But we must understand that, in reacting against this notion of Latin Americanism, of Africanism, one is not necessarily reacting against stereotypes - one is reacting against expectations. We´re dealing with the structures of institutions that for many years have had the upper hand in defining what African - or Latin American, and so on - means. We shouldn´t forget either how artists themselves are implicated in producing these clichés of identity. They´re very marketable."

The CONTINENTAL SHIFT project is the result of many meetings attended at first by the curator and artist Bernhard Lüthi. At that time the model for the project seemed to be a photo of an installation by the Israeli artist Benni Efrat, showing a live camel bearing video monitors: the caravan not allowed to stand still. But we also involved non-European artists, writers and composers in our talks, who suggested that the meeting of the continents does not take place in cultural locations and the media but on our streets, in our administrations, on the top floors of our cultural producers. We had the opportunity to talk about hosts and guests, and the rights that a guest earns through their lasting influence on some joint undertaking. "Black, red, yellow. Cultural variety in Germany" is a project of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt [House of World Cultures] in Berlin, that appears ready to take over the theme of these talks in summer, 2000, through a variety of media.

CONTINENTAL SHIFT developed in other directions because of a cross-border team of curators from museums in Aachen, Heerlen, Lüttich and Maastricht. The three countries have different social backgrounds. The colonial history of Belgium and the Netherlands is different from that of Germany, and has different consequences for the composition of their populations. But the orientation of their artistic experts also differ. Because many Chinese artists (surrounded by other Chinese) have settled in Paris during the last thirty years, Lüttich's scientists were interested in giving the joint exhibition project a Chinese emphasis and collaborating with the Chinese curator. The Maastricht experts selected an African emphasis, because the works of African artists have rarely been shown in the Netherlands. Heerlen decided on the Iran/Armenia section because it appeared to be the smallest, the easiest to gain an overview of, best suited to the small museum (though a larger building had to be found later). The spacious Ludwig Forum is available for an extreme contrast: (Latin) America on one side, Japan - Korea on the other.

CONTINENTAL SHIFT shows the works of settled artists who have made themselves noticeable and known both where they do their work and beyond, and in whose work traces of both European artists and artists of their homelands can be found. Forms of a dialogue between these continental cultures, the focus of our interest, are to be found in these mutual influences.

The dynamic concept of the nomads characterised the eighties, its geopolitical turbulences and the breaking down of the frontiers between east and west. Since relations between the continents have become more peaceful, thoughts and projects have increasingly revolved around terms such as "the others", "altérité", "otherness, "othering", "Der Fremde", and "Der fremde Blick" [the foreign view], a project of the Westphalian culture secretariat. Here we find a line of vision whereby two partners in dialogue ask whether they are not each inventions of the other - and logically basic elements of themselves. The "others" probably create their own great "story" of the 20th century.

The Ludwig collections

Since the "discovery" of America in 1492, "America" has been one of the great "stories" in the imaginations of the Europeans, in line with the ideas of Lyotard, an irrational complex of legends and dreams, the object of a mythology that does not limit itself to occupying the minds of authors (such as Kafka), composers (such as Debussy), and artists (such as Mondrian or Beuys), but invites the millions of settlers to continue writing it. Joseph Brodskij tells of an empty tin of corned-beef that, like a valuable jewel, he kept as a vase on his window sill in Leningrad. American consumer goods, introduced to the Europeans after the Second World War (such as Lucky Strikes and Coca-Cola), have become icons of cultural history. The enormous global influence of American pop art is a chapter in the history of the Americanisation of the world that did not begin in 1945, but which after the war took on the dimensions of a campaign whose aim was to carry an ideological system to the farthest corners of the earth.

When collector Peter Ludwig, from Aachen, began acquiring a large number of important early works of American pop art in 1966, and exhibited them in the museums of Aachen and Cologne, he was absolutely convinced that these works expressed a contemporary "Lebensgefühl" [attitude to life] that did not just affect him but carried the vast majority of his generation along with it. (The word "Lebensgefühl" was included in the title of his PhD thesis "Das Menschenbild Picassos als Ausdruck eines generationsmäßig bedingten Lebensgefühls" in 1950.) When he expanded the horizons of his collection and, from 1980 onwards, became more involved in the artistic landscape of eastern Europe, he did not stop seeking the influences and traces of that American pop art of the sixties that were at the same time symptoms of the "Lebensgefühl" that he had discovered in American art. These symptoms have gradually and naturally become more and more visible in the art scenes of the former eastern Germany, Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and in Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, Cuba and China, so that today Ludwig's collection, like no other, allows the global history of the effect of pop art to be followed. The symptoms were political and heralded the collapse of ideological systems and the transformation of states. They were also elements of that Americanisation that was intensifying all over the world.(Selection of illustrations of Russian, Chinese and other works, that show pop art influences: Tatjana Nazarenko "Publicity and Information" 84, Bulatov and others)

But in the same way that Ludwig admires the "Spaniard" in Picasso, he also sought to discover the idiosyncrasies of American art, as such, that were not shared by himself, a German; and when the west German artists Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorf and the east German A. R. Penck developed a "story" about Germany, German artists and German history, that reached back to the "De Germania" text by Tacitus, he bought the important early examples of their work. He knew that these works also contained a strong anti-American effect, a resistant awareness, that generated a Lebensgefühl of "re-convalescence" in the so deeply humiliated Germans.

The question "What is English in English art?", that inspired Nikolaus Pevsner's well-known book, was the original starting point for those state exhibition projects that Peter Ludwig's collection work had led me to. The antagonism between national characteristics (that could be read out from the art history of the differently closed societies of the eastern bloc), and those seen in an international contemporary style of open societies (that manifested itself chiefly in the traces of American pop art), was often plain to see. It was not unusual for it to form the basis upon which artists were divided into two groups: the official and the dissidents; the members of associations of artists and the underground - and even Russians and Jews. Ludwig and other collectors, as well as those critics who followed him, knew that they increased this antagonism in this way, that they introduced the laws of the European-American art trade within the socialist bloc, and that they turned the traditional estimation of the value of artistic products on its head.

Political conflicts are reflected in the confrontations between national and international styles. When I attach an international style to American pop art here, I know too that its picture world is principally conveying American civilisation and the ideology of an open society, and reaches an incalculably large public in its translations in the mass media. While Ludwig was busy with the setting up of a museum for international contemporary art in Peking, and we were developing exhibition projects involving Chinese art, it became clear that in a highly developed pictorial culture like that of the Chinese even the acceptance of a medium such as oil painting on stretched canvas at the start of the 20th century caused great upheaval in a highly traditional national culture and was always condemned at those times when it appeared necessary to make calls on a national identity.

The dialectic between particular and universal interests appears in Peter Weibel's text as a process that leads to a "hybrid". He explains the term "world art", that can come about as a result of a synthesis, by referring to "world literature" leading, in an excursion via Goethe, to: "World literature", as Goethe meant it, was thus a hybrid built upon the dialectic of the difference of particularity (nationality) and universality (common property of mankind)." He adds a view and an aim: "Apart from the literary there must also be a non-Eurocentric comparative art." Projects such as "Inclusion/Exclusion" and "Continental Shift" attempt to build upon this comparative art. The Ludwig collection provides excellent study material for this.

But the term "world art", as Weibel derives it from the concept of the world literature of Goethe and his contemporaries, is too general to encompass the dialectic of national and intercontinental styles because he leaves aside the political background. As much as the collector Ludwig felt tied to Goethe's inheritance, he also felt he was a public person, moving political energies. At the same time as he was acquiring collections of east European contemporary art he was creating a collection block of Russian avant-garde of between 1910 and 1920 that exemplified the political significance of artistic innovation in the 20th century.

Consequently, Peter Ludwig was not interested in the art of exiles and emigrants and stopped collecting the works of artists as soon as they moved from their original cultural landscapes. After the historic fragmentation of 1989 he therefore became interested in those places where the break had been incomplete: Cuba and China. He was not interested in North Korea.

I would like to add a qualification to the end of this chapter: it must be understood that I am using the collector Peter Ludwig in my discourse to illustrate the historical preconditions of the CONTINENTAL SHIFT project. A deeper, more differentiated consideration would be required in order to do justice to his activities. Abridged, trenchantly portrayed, an influential position emerges during a turbulent epoch of the second half of the century.

Old continents
New nations

The international society of artists observes a geopolitical situation in which mass migrations stand opposite new formations of fundamentalist nation states where pictures, in the broadest sense of the word, seek references in the traditions of national cultures. Migrants, however, follow a superficial international system of guidelines produced by transnational commercial companies. Our CONTINENTAL SHIFT project seeks its place within this dialectic. The dialectics of the first and third worlds have become obsolete for this project: "The mass migrations of real persons and the global circulation of cultural symbols today allow that which could in the past be localised elsewhere, excluded and suppressed in its reality as the third world, return as a centre in itself." (Bronfen & Marius 6)

Our perspective is greatly influenced by ideas that question the concept of the nation, however much we ourselves are attached to linguistic frontiers, national media, and the problems of the historical writings, monuments and memorials of our national cultures. I co-founded a COMMEMOR, a Commission Mixte pour l´Echange des Monuments aux Morts in Aachen with the French artist Robert Filliou in 1973, and suggested an exchange of war memorials between the towns of Lüttich, Maastricht and Aachen, situated near the border. Filliou's project was branded blasphemous in Lüttich, practicable in Maastricht, and artistic in Aachen. Differences in national culture gain transparency in border regions. Their profiles become blurred.

It is without doubt necessary to bear in mind that this relaxed attitude exists neither in the countries of the former Soviet Union nor in Asiatic countries. The Indian Arjun Appadurai insistently describes "fears of tradition in a global context of art": "The desire to represent the present in the present is a problem everywhere, but perhaps particularly so in Asia, where the power of the countries, the power of the educated classes and the prestige of discourses on classics, culture, civilisation and nation prevailed for so long."

This results in an uncertainty about evaluating pictures originating from traditional national cultures carried over into intercontinental contexts. The work of the Iranian Shirin Neshat would seem to be typical of this. It retains the threatening alienness of the exotic and carries it over into an area of interest that bursts its borders.

In closed societies with traditional national cultures the constraints they create strongly impinge upon artistic production and determine its distribution. Many of these societies today carry the crises of their national identity more in the form of internal disputes, similar to civil wars, than acting as nations turning against other nations. Open societies appear to develop elastic systems of order more easily, by questioning traditional concepts of nationhood.

Migration itself transforms the relationship of open towards closed societies in the geographical continental neighbourhood into a national problem. For emigrants do not just gather at particular locations within the new "homeland" that they have pinned numerous hopes upon - they also reconstruct a better old homeland in the new location. "Chinatown" is a special form of China. In the worst case, the old homeland is reflected in the new homeland in the form of a ghetto.

Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco or Paris also attract large numbers of the inhabitants of these metropoles and tourists, and numerous artists have devoted themselves to this unique picture hall of emigrant nostalgia. Playful forms of the exotic have been created in these branches and enclaves freeing them of their menace. Andy Warhol did not, so to speak, portray the Chinese statesman Mao Tse Tung but discovered and exploited the picture of an idol in an imaginary Chinatown. Chinese artists followed him without being able to achieve the same cynical distance.

In contrast to the immigrants who collect in such enclaves in their new homelands, artists seek the training sites for art - the academies, the intercontinentally well-known exhibition centres and those metropoles in which the production and distribution of art is concentrated. They seek advanced technological service sectors at the locations of production, and alongside these they expect to find the highly developed mercantile system of agents, clients, galleries, critics, and curators that developed from New York outwards during the sixties. Nam June Paik, the Korean experimental musician, moved to Cologne in the 50s because the Westdeutsche Rundfunk radio station had allowed the composer Stockhausen to create a studio for electronic music and provided a platform for such music. The video-artist Paik later moved on to New York in order to participate in the development of the first picture synthesiser.

The broad oeuvre that he has developed, however, is positioned beneath the emblematic icon of the TV Buddha. In the case of artists such as Paik or Zao Wouki no interpreter would neglect the references to the traditional culture of the country of origin in favour of their "internationality". The difference is not so much expressed in their works as in the histories of their effects.

Paik never loses the expression of relaxed amusement, that attitude that we connect, cliché-like, with Asiatic philosophers, in the confrontation between continental icons such as the Buddha with Rodin's Thinker (Illustration ?). It appears to be gaining in influence in art and is certainly also a result of the previously non-existent availability of the whole cultural arsenal. Appadurai develops a vision from this availability of traditional national cultures: "In this way the Leviathan of globalisation can be turned against itself, namely when those who work in the production of a location take flight from the golden cages of their traditions and adopt all traditions as their potential palettes and toolboxes. ... Thus locations and local identities are created that are more than just grist to the mill of national propaganda, or the classification fantasies of global collectors and tourists. Of course, the desire to acquire all traditions requires a great amount of effort - and should therefore not be dismissed too quickly as dilettantism or futile bricolage. ... When artists and intellectuals seek this way out of the fear of tradition they may be able to shake off the phantoms of repetition and replication that dog the project of the creation of "alternative modernities"."

Hybrids - Hybris
The cultural scientists have searched out a vocabulary, already developed by natural scientists, for the mixing processes caused by migrations. Mestizos (Mestizisation), Creoles (Creolisation - Edouard Glissant: "Die Welt kreolisiert sich" [The World Creolises Itself]), bastards, hybrids (the cultural critic Homi K. Bhabha sees in hybridity the future "third space"). Bronfen and Marius define what characterises "hybrid":
"Everything that is the upshot of a mixing of lines of tradition or of chains of significants, that links different discourses and technologies, that has come about through the techniques of collage, sampling and combination, is a hybrid. National identity can at best exist as one of many identities in such hybridised cultures ..." It is not unusual for the term hybrids to have a negative meaning in the natural sciences. The entry in the Encarta encyclopaedia plus 2000 is summarised below:
"Hybrids occur in nature where they serve the important evolutionary function of increasing genetic variety. They are also produced artificially by combining the sex cells of organisms of unlike types. The closer the parental relationship is, the more successful the hybrid. If, for example, the parents differ only in the expression of one or more genes, a viable, fertile hybrid will usually result. Hybrids of animals of differing species are, conversely, often infertile. Female mules, the result of crossing a male donkey with a female horse, can indeed bear offspring when paired with male horses or donkeys, but mules that are hybrids between male horses and female donkeys are almost always barren. ... Plant hybrids resulting from a cross between two homozygotic (pure bred) populations of one species often show so-called hybrid vigour or heterosis: they are larger, grow quicker and thus provide greater yields. Ornamental plants, for example, are crossed in order to obtain larger flowers. ..."

Plant metaphors for the history of cultures (and epochal styles in art) have a long history: they are sown, they take root, they mature, they form offshoots, they flower, their fruits ripen.... We must now expand them or even update them: plants are, after all, saved from extinction, regenerated and hybridised. Cultures too.

One can easily enough transfer this concept to the current state of the art of the Australian Aboriginal or the Fulani and Shona in Africa and the Indian cultures of the Americas, but it appears to be infinitely more difficult to make use of it where we speak of one intercontinental art. Unless we rely on the definition of Bronfen and Marius that is most easily applied to international DJ culture and what we call world music. Does hybrid art, then, really exist today?

If we take up the discourse of the sociologists and look at contemporary art in the context of a hybrid culture then we make it do the splits: it is that part of the culture characterised by mass migrations where it opens itself up to the mass media and makes use of them, and not where it excludes them, seeking distance to them, developing alternative cultural models. It lets itself be monopolised, and it alienates itself. It earns its disturbing vitality in this dialectic.

At this point I would like to remind you that in Greek tragedy hubris means overstepping the laws made by the Gods. The hybridised person is thus entering a new era in which they leave the old laws behind them. Bronfen and Marius correspondingly refer to the flux-artist and author Dick Higgins: "Until about 1958 the cognitive questions posed by most of the artists of the 20th century, supporters of Plato and Aristotle, were: "How can I interpret this world, of which I am a part? And what am I in it?" The post-cognitive questions, on the other hand, that have been posed by newer artists since then are: "What sort of a world is this? What can be done in it? Which of my selves should do it?" SHIFT gains a significance here that can be plumbed from the works of art before the societies, in which they were created, feel the thrusts to which they are subject.

"Africa explores" had as programmatic a title as "The Savage Hits back", a book by Julius Lips, an ethnologist from Cologne published in 1937 in London and New Haven/USA after being driven out of Germany in 1936. His widow published it in German in 1983 in Leipzig: "Der Weiße im Spiegel der Farbigen" [The White in the Mirror of the Black]. Both books turned an accustomed perspective upside-down - on the basis of a doubt: is the other really less interested in getting to know me than I am in him? I like to imagine a library in which all the books that have been written about Europe on other continents are collected. Today the art scientist must take hold of these thoughts, raised by Aby Warburg in the early 20th century, and drastically extend their horizons. For the migrations of people also create wanderings of pictures that we can compare with those of the time of Charles the Great and Harun al Rachid, the Crusades, or the Renaissance but which are very much more powerful. In the process a global picture, originating in megalithic cultures, is constructed: the first towns are built, urban elites develop elements of high cultures that allow a global superstructure to be erected, under which regionally based cultures develop. These, undisturbed in relative seclusion, create a pattern on the face of the earth upon which a diaphanous structure of migratory paths are formed within whose web individual points grow, crystal-like, into metropoles: Baghdad, Venice, Paris, New York. This network still exists for the arts today. The concepts of time and space that rules it demands, however, that the participants see their history against a distant background.

    5 colour illustrations of Hirschhorn with captions:
    "The Five Continents (Asia)" 1999 Relief: wood, foil, cardboard, aluminium foil, adhesive tape, photocopies 180 x 225 x 15 cm Argentina, private collection by courtesy of Galerie Arndt & Partner, Berlin
    "The Five Continents (Africa)" 1999 ditto Belgium, private collection
    "The Five Continents (Europe)" 1999 ditto London, private collection
    "The Five Continents (Oceania)" 1999 ditto
    "The Five Continents (America)" 1999 ditto Paris, private collection