No Borders: Art Without Frontiers?

No Borders is an exhibition currently being held at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It represents a collaboration between the Arnolfini and the host institution and features the work of artists from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

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Portrait of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei (Image: Leung Ching Yau Alex/Flickr)

Portrait of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei (Image: Leung Ching Yau Alex/Flickr)

No Borders is an exhibition currently being held at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (15th December 2012 – 2 June 2013) and represents a collaboration between the Arnolfini and the host institution. The exhibition features the work of artists from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, including the work of Chinese dissident art Ai Weiwei (recently voted the third most powerful individual within today’s globalised art world). As the accompanying text informs us, the exhibition aspires to explore ‘how we are all linked internationally and politically, through our histories and the economic system that increasingly dominates the world’. The central themes of the exhibition can be perceived to be geo/bio and sexual politics, globalisation and cultural interconnectivity.

The exhibition certainly has a number of impressive exhibits, for example Amar Kanwar’s A Season Outside which is a thirty minute film on the India-Pakistan border, specifically focusing on the Punjab. The piece commences with a twilight shot of the border fence and proceeds to show footage of the Wagah Border ceremony, a jointly practised lowering of the flags every evening before sunset (by both the Indian and Pakistani military). This ritualised confrontation described by Michael Palin as “carefully choreographed contempt”, is powerfully captured and serves as an excellent introduction to the rest of the film. Kanwar highlights, via reflection on the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the notion of truth, and subsequently asks the question “what happens if you arm your truth?”. What follows is an eloquent geo-political reflection on the dynamics and functioning of cultural division.

There are some other striking lens based exhibits, specifically the respective photography of Zwelethu Mthethwa and Akram Zaatari. Mthethwa’s photographs, which depict South African sugar cane workers without condescension or idealisation, whereas Zaatari’s beautifully taken and compositionally excellent Studio Scheherazade makes a photography studio in a Lebanese cinema its subject.

No Borders aims to interconnect with a large number of salient art historical and historical topics, for example, themes such as Conceptual art, Minimal Art, performance/re-enactment, and the Lebanese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution in China and the British Raj in India. However, what I found most interesting, and what arguably enabled the exhibition to go beyond being another generic exhibition of geo-political art, is its exploration of the global cross fertilisation of visual languages. So, let me explain how I think this tendency operates within the exhibition. To do so, I will commence with Imran Qureshi’s Standing Figure in Camouflage Pantaloon, which is a miniature painting that depicts a young man wearing camouflage trousers. The image uses the flattened side profile typically associated with the Mughal tradition, yet the subject is clearly contemporary, perhaps even cosmopolitan. However, had the artist included a headdress on the figure, in conjunction with the Urdu script featured on the piece, we may very well have read the figure differently; In the literature that accompanies the exhibition, the Qureshi states ‘Ever since 9/11 religious people have been marginalised because the mass media has systematically made them symbols of terrorism. If a religious person wears a camouflage print we immediately see it as a threatening statement, but if we wear it, it’s just a fashion statement’.

Tala Madani’s Manual Grid is a large oil on canvas painting dominated by a grid from which various contorted masculine faces emerge. The exhibition blurb suggests that the grid may well be a reference to Conceptual artist Sol Le Witt, but is also evocative of many Modernist painters and designers. Indeed, the grid was a frequently used motif by artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg. Given that Madani is known for ridiculing masculine behaviour within her work, in this case I would suggest Madani is parodying the male dominated and eurocentric narratives that dominate our understanding of Modernism and twentieth century artistic production; Which is suggested by the faces that splurge from the grid and disrupt our experience of the painting.

A Ton of Tea by Ai Weiwei (Image: Sa//y/Flickr)

A Ton of Tea by Ai Weiwei (Image: Sa//y/Flickr)

Weiwei’s A Ton of Tea, continues this tendency to disrupt assumptions held about particular artistic styles. Weiwei’s contribution is a ton of tightly packed tea and its aesthetic brings to mind the work of Minimalist sculptors Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin; just like these artists the Chinese dissident appears to be concerned with shape, form, texture and space. However, what is crucial is that tea (or the British desire for tea) was to a large extent a catalyst for the Opium Wars, when the British waged war against the Chinese, a conflict that arose when the Chinese attempted to stop the British from peddling Opium (the revenue generated from which was used to buy tea from the Chinese). Therefore, what looks like a minimal artistic gesture is effervescing with political and post- Colonial associations. This is significant on another count since the Minimalists, whose artistic language Weiwei has borrowed, believed as Francis Frascina observes in his book Art, Politics and Dissent that it was important to be politicised as citizens and protest when required, but that their art should be removed from political or social responsibility. Such a view was upheld by dominant voices such as Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and arts institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art New York by presenting art as being an autonomous sphere and separate from life. Weiwei upholds that there can be a productive relationship between art and transformative politics and his work is a détournement of the Minimalist aesthetic since he gives it a political dimension.

To conclude, No Borders is a fascinating exhibition and certainly well worth a visit if you find yourself in the South-West, encouragingly the curators have also organised an array of talks and lectures which should enable audiences to further explore the myriad of themes and issues contained within the exhibition; for further details see Bristol.gov.uk.