Present and Here

By Barbora Racevičiūtė

The exhibition There and Here is an excellent example of the recent curatorial impulse – especially within local contexts – to create exhibitions that feature works by emerging artists on the topic of immigration. The growing number of such exhibitions needs to be acknowledged as the result of not only a curatorial but also artistic impulse. They represent a critical mass of art, especially of emerging art. There and Here definitively marks a cultural moment in which the realities of migration have again become relevant for a broader art viewership.

Viewed in these terms, There and Here can be championed as a pertinent engagement with critical artistic responses to present realities of migration, especially with regards to the renewed public visibility of these realities across Canada today. As such, art on immigration is principally understood as a representation of reality. In the age of global capitalism, art that is defined as no more than a mere visually tangible representation – a material mirror image – of its current conditions of production remains in the realm of the purely aesthetic. The realm of the purely aesthetic is not the realm of art but that of production and consumption. A wholesale celebration of the display of art on immigration would signify the transformation of an earnest artistic production into a purely aesthetic realm of consumption. Such art would only serve to reaffirm the status quo of capitalist and neoliberal ideologies rather than critically analyzing them, and would signify what art historian Claire Bishop has so eloquently termed as “presentism.”[1] The term pointedly refers to a concern with the contemporary (as material conditions, as conditions of viewership etc.) – a contemporary, however, that is self-contained and in a vacuum, one that does not emerge from particular circumstances nor lays a context for futures to come, one that is not historically bound. This type of engagement with the contemporary is characterized by a deep ambivalence towards time in favour of high-impact, glossy artistic production. Production of this sort is too quickly absorbed back into the feedback loop of production and consumption, has no lasting effect, and invariably leaves us cold. Bishop argues for the necessity of contemporary art that is actively engaged in a relationship with history as the necessary condition of the present. Contemporary art speaks to the current state of culture, and our responses to such art need to do so without losing sight of what came before and what might come next.

Assessing contemporary artistic production on the theme of immigration – as either actively historically engaged or as temporally limited within the circumstances of contemporaneity – is challenging. This is because – within the current environment of global migration, and our own national political climate rife with tensions surrounding the admittance of refugees – art on immigration has an urgency that is easily conflated with immediacy. While both states share the energy necessary for swift action, urgency marks the weight and criticality of the topic at hand. Immediacy, on the other hand, characterizes the speed with which the topic is delivered rather than its content. Read as an immediate response or comment, such art has the potential to be quickly absorbed into the realm of the aesthetic. At the same time, the thematics of such works have precise and urgent histories. The histories of how realities of immigration have and continue to be major driving forces for artistic production in Canada have long been under-acknowledged. And so the question becomes, how does one make the distinction between work that is immediate and self-contained and work that expands beyond itself and stands within its broader context?

Art that is self-contained articulates its themes directly and wholly. In contrast, art that stands on its own does not have a quantifiable amount of possible meanings – it is not static because it is wrapped up with the constantly altering past and developing present. The works in the exhibition There and here stand on their own, within their histories, because they are not about “immigration.” They cannot be so easily circumscribed. The works of Nedda Baba, Diana Hosseini, and Nikkie To are exciting because what lies between the gloss and content of Baba’s photographs, between the flashes of lights that make up Hosseini’s carpet, and between the polished and textured surfaces of To’s paintings are the historical conditions from which the works emerge. The works speak of family histories, intimate glances, imaginary landscapes. They speak of womanhood and the expectations of happiness, wholeness, and coherence in the West. The works do not address the issues of immigration didactically; they do not spell the issues out. Instead, they leave room for the viewer. In the gallery, they push against each other; they do not form a coherent whole but remain uncomfortable with one another, thereby revealing the spaces between them. By not addressing the issues directly, by leaving space for what is unsaid, they acknowledge their conditions of emergence and the silences of history. In doing so, the works in There and Here productively contribute to shifting the mainstream perspective on art on immigration as a presentist idea, into an acknowledgement that there are no confortable, coherent ways of addressing these issues.

[1] For further reading on this concept see Claire Bishop’s beautifully succinct book Radical Museology, or What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art. London: Koenig Books, 2014