Art from Elsewhere: Museums "think and dream and act" as contemporary art show opens

By Ben Miller | 22 October 2014

Five museum groups spent more than £4 million on contemporary art - and the results are about to go on tour

A photo of lines of gold text
Shilpa Gupta, There is no Border Here (2006)© Shilpa Gupta / Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris
In 2007, a new scheme, Art Fund International, gave £4 million to five museum groups.

Their task was to build “outstanding” contemporary art collections with the money. They emerged with 239 works by 99 artists, representing 96 cities in 37 countries. So how did they do?

A photo of various portrait photos on a wall next to cartoon versions of them
Eugenio Dittborn, The 13th History of the Human Face (The Portal of H.), Airmail Painting No. 95 (1991) (detail)© Eugenio Dittborn, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo: Alison Bettles
“In the regional collections that have bought them, they’re gonna be game-changers, I think,” says David Elliott, who, having spent 20 years directing the then-Museum of Modern Art Oxford, knows all about the limitations bank balances impose on galleries.

“There have been years of chronic underfunding of regional museums and galleries.

"A lot of them have got very fine collections of British art, going up to Bacon and even beyond, but they’ve been bound by a lack of funds.

“The aim was to break this kind of impasse by offering the opportunity to five consortia to think and dream and act.

“Those three things are very important; they go together. This is enabling museums to have some money to do some research as well as buy the works – you can’t do the one without the other – and to build on their collections.

“They can look at stuff they’ve been interested in, create contemporary echoes of what they have, and think, ‘well, we’re no longer in the Victorian age, what do we do now?’

A photo of a piece of airmail with a photo of a woman in a fashionable hat at its centre
Paulo Bruscky, Poem Molded for Mail (Poema moldado para correio) (1967)© Paulo Bruscky
“They can build on existing collections and think anew about regional history and the view of the world from Middlesbrough or Glasgow or Birmingham.

“I think they’ve done very well. I wouldn’t have got involved in it if they hadn’t chosen wisely."

Speaking from a chamber in the depths of the Scottish city’s Gallery of Modern Art, the genial curator says the first show of the tour is an “opening gambit”, adding that the “pomposity of the building” – GoMA used to be a bank – is “perfect for the social criticism of a lot of the work”.

The host gallery’s purchases are a set of photos of downtown New York during the 1970s and 1980s, taken by Peter Hujar.

“He’s a really important photographer,” says Elliott. “He was very much on the outskirts of urban society.

“This is what he photographed, whether it’s desolate areas of no people or people who are on the edge themselves.

“They have a very strong lyricism; they’re beautiful photographs.”

A photo of a painting of a woman hanging in the air
Kara Walker, Girl (2006). From Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art© Kara Walker / Sikkema Jenkins & Co
There is, perhaps, one dominant theme.

“This whole question of borders is something that comes up in a large number of works – not surprisingly, as all the conflicts that are going on in the world at the moment seem to be about borders,” says Elliott.

Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta’s installation is one of the works portraying the partition of India and Pakistan.

“It is telling a kind of apocryphal, mythological story about a couple who tried to join themselves together, to cut the sky in half so they could have one half each.

“But the clouds kept pushing across, and so each territory kept pushing into the other.”

Elliott’s initial selection, of 70 works, has an air of radicalism to match Glasgow’s past. Decades ago, when he started out as an art assistant at Leicester City Art Gallery, he was more concerned with works from the beginning of the 20th century, impressed by Leicester’s celebrated collection of German art from the period.

“Their aesthetic charge also had a strong political charge, because the German art that I’m talking about was branded degenerate by the Nazis.

“They burnt it or sold it off as quickly as they could. As a teenager it struck me that anything that has the power to upset must be really worth knowing a lot more about.”

A photo of various portrait photos on a wall next to cartoon versions of them
© Eugenio Dittborn, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo: Alison Bettles
He laughs. “It was a great collection and the keeper of that collection, who I got to know, was a complete inspiration for me.”

To provoke for the sake of provoking, he says, is “really dumbass and irritating”.

“The main aim is to make a really good piece of art, and if that means being provocative, under the circumstances, then so be it.

“These are statements or arguments in themselves, and for me that is what being a curator is: having a strong point of view – not just one, but many points of view – but having a strong point of view particularly about art.

“Not just the latest thing or whatever, but committing completely to what you show.”

The line-up differs on each part of the tour, ending in Bristol, where “everything changes.”

“There’s a lot more to see as well. It gets a little frustrating because you want to pull more out.

“But it hangs together, as a whole, and certainly by seeing it you’ll get the general idea.”

A photo of a film stall showing a woman blowing into the air while holding her arms out
Yang Zhenzhong, Let's Puff (2002)© Yang Zhenzhong, courtesy ShanghART Gallery
The catalogue of all the scheme’s acquisitions is in a separate room, and Elliott hopes visitors will use it to curate their own choices.

“It is a really, really important initiative, but it’s only five consortia across the whole of Britain,” he emphasises.

“Please let’s not leave it there. It’s been a significant amount of money but the benefit – we’re not talking about the immediate benefit, although I do believe there will be one – is about ten, 20, 50 years from now and longer, when people look back from whatever the world is like then.

“They’ll really be able to understand through art what we’ve become, and how art has changed. I think it has changed quite radically over the past 20 years in its awareness, because we’ve become much more connected.

“We can no longer claim that we don’t know things are happening. It’s what we do with that knowledge, both personally and politically.

“That is a big, big question. And as politicians don’t seem to know very well what to do with this knowledge, I think that artists, with their different way of looking at the world, can maybe add something into it.”

Elliott jokes that the likes of the V&A, who he borrowed from during his first exhibitions as an undergraduate in Durham, were “overcome by my enthusiasm.”

“No-one’s going to solve anything by making art,” he concedes. “The media is so spun, the opinions are pre-masticated for you; you really have no chance to think for yourself.

“But art can certainly help clear up some of the fog and give people the freedom to think about things."

  • Art from Elsewhere is at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow from October 24 2014 – February 1 2015; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, February 14 – May 31 2015; mima, June 19 – September 27; Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, October 9 – November 30; Towner, Eastbourne, January 23 – April 3 2016; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and Arnolfini, Bristol, April 22 – July 17 2016. A Hayward Touring show with support from the Art Fund.

The works:

Jitish Kallat, Sweatopia (The Cry of the Gland II) (2010)

A photo of a painting of three male figures against a dark yellow backdrop
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Art. Funded in 2011© Jitish Kallat
“The first thing you see when you come through the doors is Kallat’s big painting. It’s a five-metre wide painting of these vaguely dodgy-looking men with moustaches.

He was interested in the shirts that working people were wearing. He’s from Mumbai and he’d been on the streets.

There are huge unemployment problems there and although these men are not badly dressed – they’re not beggars – they’re floating labour.

So they might not know what they’re doing the following day or week. There’s a huge workforce like that.

It’s a hugely ironical title: your place of sweat, whether it’s from the climate of having to work very hard for very low pay.

The city penetrates into this. There’s a kind of strange object which is floating in the sky of amongst these men.

They’re half or full portrayed. It looks as though it’s half made out of oil, oozing across the surface of the painting.

If you look at it even more closely there are collaged bits of urban rubbish, equipment, crashed up cars…on the edge of it you can see a skyline, a strangely morphing thing in the middle.

It’s a strong picture. It’s not propaganda, it’s not socialist realism – although in a sense it’s aware of it – but it’s refusing to go down that path.

What it does is to show the complexity of urban labour in India at the moment and also the aspirational quality of it: these people are neither madly heroic nor horribly pushed down.

They’re trying to make a way, but you can’t quite see where they’re going because they’re walking into you.

That’s the slightly disconcerting thing: confrontational is the wrong word because it suggests that there’s an aggressive element, but the movement in the painting is towards you, into the space.

It’s not a threat; it’s suggesting, maybe, that they’re caught in the painting itself – for me, anyway.”

Meschac Gaba, Brazilian Bank (2006)

A photo of a box full of coins
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery Art. Funded in 2013© Meschac Gaba
“He’s from Benin, although he doesn’t live there any longer. It’s one of two works – it happens that there are two artists from Benin chosen by two different museums.

They both decided to use the metaphor of African economy or, to put it another way, the roadside stall. Gaba took a stall that he found in Sao Paulo, so it’s not African at all, you just think it is.

It’s selling lots and lots of different kinds of money, coins and banknotes of all denominations and countries. They’re all obsolete, they’ve all been devalued.

Brazil was famous, I think in the 70s, for its hyper-inflation. They had millions and millions of Pesos, it was worth nothing.

It was like East Germany in the early 20s when you were taking your wages home in three suitcases. It’s not just an African problem.

But it’s asking something much more abstract about money: what is it worth? It’s no longer intrinsically worth anything, so what gives it worth?

And basically the answer is it only has worth if you believe it does. It’s not tied to a gold standard or anything, it’s in circulation as we know from several occasions, but even the people in charge don’t know what the worth is.

By showing it in this slightly voodoo way, Gaba’s making the point that maybe international money markets are far less rational than so-called educational western attributions to people in African situations, where people think there are lots of superstitions and all of this.

But actually our whole system is based on fear and superstitions and blind belief rather than on any verifiable or commonly-held system of value.

Of course it’s an absolutely central issue for us wherever we are in the world at the moment, but also for many artists. I think that Gaba deals with this in a very, very elegant, well-considered and witty way.

All the clichés and stereotypes that one can have are overturned. There’s an African aesthetic, but also the aesthetics of the money and what it shows.

They tell tales of power and nationhood, different systems, many of which are no longer valid.”

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

A photo of squares of brown wood set in an angular formation across an art gallery
Carl Andre, Phalanx (1981)© Carl Andre
“There are a whole bunch of works that MIMA bought from North America. To generalise, these are North American minimalism and Latin American drawings, all works on paper.

Because of Middlesbrough’s holdings, which came out of the Cleveland Drawing Biennale, all on paper, they wanted to concentrate on drawings in the Americas.

There’s a very impressive group of objects they’ve put together. There are two drawings by Nancy Spero which are really incredible, relating to the Vietnamese war.

There’s a Kara Walker collage which is relating to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the repeated failure of the white majority to have done anything to prevent that. It’s a very strong, anguished work.

Carl Andre’s seven books of poetry are absolutely fascinating because they really add elements to one’s knowledge of Andre’s work which haven’t necessarily been considered before, literary and poetic.

He’s quoting work from the early settlers in America. He encounters the first people – there’s a kind of biblical element, as well, in terms of how the words are laid out on the page.

Sometimes they look like his own minimal sculptures; other times they look like George Herbert, the British metaphysical poet, sketching a kind of shape.

Obviously we can’t show all the poetry books but we’re trying to show the tip of the iceberg of what is there.

It’s really great that Middlesbrough now has this in their collection and people who want to study it further can see it online.

People who are really interested can consult these and enjoy them. I’m still digesting some of them myself.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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