Monday, October 03, 2005

Exhibition Case/Shop Window/Television Screen: CHina on Display week3: World's Fairs

Exhibition Case/Shop Window/Television Screen

About two years ago now I was laying in bed watching a late night documentary in a last ditch effort to try to sleep after a night up working, insomniac fashion. The program was called “Travels with a Gringo” if I remember correctly, and was on this occasion concerning our young and very socially conscious host’s trip to a silver mine in South America where a crew of miners daily crawled through tiny darkened tunnels and breathed in toxic fumes that were killing them not so slowly, crumbling away their lungs to nothing, in order to obtain silver for trade. The host and the camera crew duly followed the team into the pits of mountains where they would have to pause to try and breathe and discuss what was going to happen when they couldn’t get into the deposit line anymore. The tale was engrossing, sad, painful, but that wasn’t the part I remember. At one point the mining party and the camera crew that followed were sat in semi darkness in a tunnel deep in the mountain, bathed in sweat and gasping for air, chewing coca leaves while waiting for rocks to be moved so that the passage could be cleared. Our socially aware “gringo” turned to the miners and began telling them in Spanish that this film was going to be shown in Britain, in Europe, perhaps all over the world. The implication, I believe, was that people would see the program and care about their plight…that perhaps the lives of the miner could be bettered. One of the miners looked the camera dead on and said, “Do people like watching this sort of thing over there?”

What are we seeking to gain anyway? Is it a view of lives unraveling that makes us feel magnanimous if we offer a few dollars of aid? What the miner meant, I think, was partially about what the intent was of watching him and his friends struggle and die to eke out a living, what kind of vicarious thrill or sense of Schadenfreude was being enacted, or at least, these are the question that I thought of when I thought about what he had said, but also, why would people want to watch something that is just life? Just real life. Tragic, happy, drunken, confused, dangerous, dirty, dramatic, mundane. This is what made me think of this instance two years ago when considering this week’s readings.

In The World as Exhibition, Mitchell argues that Europeans and Americans sought endlessly to create a replica of reality, a picture that would encompass all in one imperious and imperial vision. This might also be thought of as a constellation of that “Universe of Symbols” discussed in the introduction to the discussion of the Louisiana Purchase Fair. It also makes me think of how the television functions in today’s society as both of these things, as a sort of constant world’s fair at one remove…pictures encompassing and representing with a conceit of reality by virtue of accuracy, trueness to life, and all this to such a degree that television and cinema like all truly circulating and potent cultural phenomena influences lifes expectations and the way we live, just as Mitchell argues the World’s Fairs altered the epistemological frames, symbologies and view point of Fair goers.

In thinking about our South American miner, as he looks through the TV and into the living rooms, that is, past the digital velvet rope that cordons “us” from “them” something else occurred to me in connection with exhibition and the World’s Fairs. Something about how the “natives” experience the fair, what looks were directed at the specimens of Europeans or Americans, perhaps just “the White Men” in their Native Costumes as they filed past conveniently for view. If the World’s Fair, as the grandest type of exhibition, the crucible of a universe of symbols that allows the existence of a certain sort of cultural order, has a narrative, can that narrative be read against the grain and if so how?

Mitchell’s article about the Egyptian view of the Europeans begins to consider this question, but I would like to know more about how those gazes functioned and how that dynamic worked…what of those Filipino guardsmen who strolled about with St. Louis schoolteachers? What did they think of the fair? What did they think of St. Louis? Or what indeed became of Columbus Chicago? This is one further aspect of the literature produced on the world’s fair as describe in Hinsley’s piece on the Colombian exposition…the extraordinary discrepancy between the scene portrayed and the interpretation given in the literature below in for example the “portrait” of the “turk” and his family. The caption is extraordinarily racist and strange, but even more it just seems so bizarre in reference to the picture. The man in the picture, although he looks posed, looks determined, half looks at the camera with a confronting gaze. The caption seems to be the American photographer reassuring himself from behind the lens as to the jocular, not quite real, not quite serious status of the “primitive” “brown man”…that is…unable to quite make the scene fit a picture by photographing it, he has to tidy up the edges with literature, place the image firmly into a “symbolic universe” so as to render it comprehensible.

All the talk of the camera and cameraman being the ultimate unseen, voyeuristically partaking in pleasures of the screen does raise one important additional point in this connection, however, before we throw up our hands and throw the camera out the window. All too often the anonymous male gaze of the camera is understood to be an imposing and dominating factor, a machine that changes behavior, changes images, renders them up to a (Western) god of photography/pictures for exhibition of a real that undermines the subjectivity of the people portrayed. I want to argue that while it is true that the cameraman often aims to go unseen in a fashion, to be unpresent, and to record people going about their business authentically there is indeed agency in the sideward glance, in the look away from the camera, and inn the getting on with your life that the “subjects” of the photograph rarely get credit for. A look directly into the face of the camera is powerful indeed, but are we so egotistical as to assume that this is the only way in which subjects can b rendered real?

Thus too an approach which does not conform to the requirements of the world’s fair can still be seen as an approach with its own agency and consciousness of power. The Chinese displays are endlessly contrasted with those of the Japanese contingent at the various Fairs of the Fair Fever at the turn of the 20th century, and the strategy employed by the Japanese curators is analysed and understood to be a political one. While it is true that the approach of creating a space incomprehensible to the symbolic order of the exposition did not necessarily serve US?chinese political relations well, the way in which those displays were mounted does warrant attention, in that they represent a different epistemological space, and perhaps can give ideas about alternate modes of exhibition and the understanding of same with regard to Chinese art. It is interesting too to compare the US political stance vis a vis China to former discourse about Japan. Endless articles appear today asking if “cChina is the New Japan?” (what an odd question) and by virtue of the question itself the conclusion is made to some degree, as before, we identify something of the “Yankee” spirit in the entrepreneurial dealing of the mysterious east…”with luck and pluck they may go into business for themselves”

That the “East” and particularly the ultimate other that is still so often constituted by the aesthetics and cultural values of China is still engendered as a market place in European and American pictures of “real” life should come as no surprise in the era of late capitalism, when the “imperial” gaze of the camera has become as ubiquitous for Indian and Chinese tourists as for travelers from the US. Paris, that endless labyrinth of mirrors, and maze of simulacra was host in 1997, I believe to an exhibition of Chinese goods at one of it’s major palais to commerce, Printemps, for example, and such eposition have it would seem, moved from the educational to the truly commercial sphere, or else frayed and bled into the kaleidoscopic pictures of television news. But if we acknowledge that the symbolic universe, and indeed the World’s Fair is, to some degree, alive and well at the dawn of the 21st century in the form of brothel holidays to Thailand, Fox News and the Department Store, what of the exhibition space, the museum. In the series of essays Cosmopolitanisms by Homi Bhabha et al. a convincing argument was made for rethinking the city, walking against paths, zig zagging across squares, walking on the grass in theoretical as well as physical terms. The same principles must be applied to exhibition.

Last week discussion of the trend for nostalgic curatorship was discussed in some of our readings…curatorship that would seek to create an exhibition as it really happened if such a thing can even be entertained. While there must be room for this kind of psychological play too, such a nostalgia would doubtless find it’s dead end in the curatorship of most Chinese art from before the late 20th century, besides creating of the past a picture, a cinematic other to be studied, and of the people who lived it objects to be viewed at a safe distance and with air conditioning. Taste makers, experts have always been at the forefront of defining the category of Chinese Art, or Japanese Art, and this is likely to remain a continuing trend, but to form a sort of heteroglossia of back steps, misreadings, rereadings, and gaps in this visual universe for the viewer to inhabit, and to acknowledge that the viewer makes the exhibtion as much as the exhibition influences the viewer, in a sense to put the viewer on display is perhaps the only way to circumvent the totality of hegemony in favor of personal agency. The viewer become the exhibition as they internalize it and it’s values long after the installation comes down and it’s pieces broken up, long after the Filipinos develop small pox and the “turks” (interesting to note modern usage of that word) are sent home because, after all, “some memories don’t fade”.

There are a great man questions that remain, as I have outlined above, but one that is particularly “beautiful and piquant” is this:

What would an anthropological exposition of Americans in their natural habitat look like?


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Anonymous said...

Henry Miller's "Air Conditioned Nightmare" sums up the anthropological study.

emmalou said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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