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The Stark Impossibility of Thinking That…

Essay by Gilane Tawadros about classifying and categorising in the arts

"…as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.’ In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that".

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things [1]

It was Edward Said who, in his ground-breaking text Orientalism [2], identified classification as one of the key currents in eighteenth-century Western thought, on which modern Orientalism depended. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s historical analysis of modern European discourse, Said traced the cultural and political origins of contemporary perceptions and stereotypes of the Near East back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Leading Napoleon’s army was the flagship Orient which brought an army of intellectuals and scientists whose principle purpose was to create a living archive of Egypt, recorded in minute detail and published in the twenty-three volumes of Description de l’Egypte between 1809 and 1828.

Almost two hundred years later, the urge to classify and categorise remains undiminished, not least in the art world. Classified by nation (eg. Brit art), city (the New Leipziger school), geographical region (e.g. art from the Middle East), the drive to categorise artists and their artworks is unsurprising perhaps given the origin of museums and art galleries as ‘cabinets of curiosities’ that contained a varied assortment of art objects which had to be identified, labelled and organised into groups and affiliations. Over the past decade, as a curator and writer who, as Said put it was ‘out of place’ and concerned with the work of artists from diverse cultural backgrounds, I found myself continuously faced with the task of challenging classifications and categories which reduced and simplified the work of artists to narrow definitions and superficial descriptions. These clumsy and inelegant labels seemed at odds with the subtlety and complexity of the artworks and the ideas contained within them. Rather than shedding light on the meaning and context for artworks, geographical classifications obscured the subtle nuances and differentiated perspectives that artists presented. Institutions have frequently argued in favour of geographical and regional frameworks as a way to ‘introduce’ to mass audiences the work of little known artists from outside Europe, however, these introductions are rarely followed by individual solo exhibitions or more in-depth explorations of the work of artists shown, in stark contrast to the attention paid to individual artists from the so-called Brit art phenomenon, for example, whose meteoric solo careers have eclipsed those of many other artists of their generation. Without recourse to simplistic classification or stereotypical generalisation, however, perhaps it is possible to re-think the idea of place (as opposed to nation or culture) as a useful framework for presenting the work of contemporary artists in a way which pays attention to the specificity of experiences and world-views which are different to our own.

In recent years, it has become increasingly fashionable to discount the importance of place as a defining factor in the production and mediation of contemporary art. It is no coincidence that, during this same period, we have witnessed the rapid absorption of the contemporary art world into the global economy. As with other areas of the economy, there has been a gradual erosion of existing barriers to the consumption, distribution and exchange of contemporary art works across national borders. Part and parcel of a wider globalisation process, the art world has seen the proliferation of art biennials in every corner of the world from Prague to Gwangju, from Sharjah to Dakar, the expansion of the contemporary art market into a multi-million pound industry, and the rapid growth of the number of art magazines, websites and discussion forums, reporting on the state of contemporary art worldwide. All of this seems to indicate that an artist's or curator's place of origin no longer matters. It suggests that art - like any other global commodity or service - can be produced in one location and consumed in another without any attendant difficulties of translation or any particular need for mediation. But this view assumes a level playing field between all players in the contemporary art world, obscuring the disparities and differences which clearly exist. As in other parts of our globalised economy, there are those who can move freely across borders to access and consume art (like private collectors arriving at the 2005 Frieze Art Fair by Lear jet from the former Soviet Union who were apparently the most active buyers) and those whose movements and available resources are severely constrained. This point was made succinctly to me some years ago during a talk that I helped organise involving artists from Guatemala, San Salvador and Nicaragua. All the artists who spoke that day were exceptionally well-informed about the state of British art despite the scarcity at that time of truly international art magazines and the relative lack of easily accessible information on contemporary art from different parts of the world. 'We know all about the Brit artists,' said one artist, 'In fact, we have our own Damien Hirst in Guatemala, the difference being that he uses sardines in his work instead of sharks.'

The idea of place is not be confused with nation and geography that continue to be deployed as art world categorisations. These remain convenient tags for classifying and identifying current trends and for introducing new cultural commodities to an increasingly hungry art market. These national and regional classifications – Chinese art one year, Middle Eastern art the next – fuel the market place’s lust for new commodities and expands the opportunities to make new discoveries, and hence, to increase profits. Equally, the idea of non-place – that everywhere is now the same, undifferentiated and unspecific – has become a useful way of evading differentiated realities and specific experiences. The utopia of non-place is like the outside of the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottle. It may look the same from one place to the next but its ingredients are different (if only slightly) from one location to another. The idea that we are now all the same is comforting on one level. Sameness defies the absolutes of difference that perpetuate deeply-felt prejudices and long-established hostilities. But it is only by acknowledging and championing difference that we can safeguard against intolerance and zenophobia. Negotiating others' irreconcilable differences, navigating the untranslatable gaps in understanding, recognising the specifity of another's experience is surely the basis of a common shared humanity and understanding.

While writing this text, the question of place and difference has taken centre stage in the vociferous debates, demonstrations and violent responses to the publication (and subsequent re-publication) of cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of the prophet Muhammad which have offended and outraged Muslims in different parts of the world. Intermingled with the arguments which have raged about censorship and freedom of speech has been the question of place: why commentators asked cannot we [sic] be free in Western countries to ridicule and satirise any religion? After all, our [sic] countries are democratic states and not dictatorships where freedom of speech is paramount and censorship held in contempt. This argument is predicated on the assumption of parity, equality and sameness. In other words, it is assumed that we are all speaking from the same place, the same world-view, the same position of power and that the platform on which we all stand and speak is a level playing field. The argument fails to take into account the overwhelming sense of powerlessness, frustration and anger, not only in the Middle East but throughout the world, that has built up over recent decades, provoked by the hostility, double-standards, and prejudice which Arabs and Muslims in different parts of the world (including Europe) have had to endure. So when commentators challenge Muslim protesters against the cartoons in Europe, reminding them that they are free to demonstrate and express themselves freely because they are Europeans, these commentators confuse geography and physical location with difference of perspective and world-view. In this respect, place matters because it defines a specific world-view, that draws upon a broader vision, taking into account the lived-experience and belief-systems of fellow Muslims and Arabs in different physical location but living within the same political and religious framework. In other words, place is not confined to a single geographical location. The idea of place can equally embody a world-view or perspective, informed by particular experiences and values. The question, ‘where do you stand?’, is not a question about one’s physical location but a question about one’s political and cultural position. That place, or position, may very well be starkly different to your own. Engaging with difference in a very tangible way at the same time as finding our shared points of connection and sameness is the challenge we face, not only in culture but equally in politics and economics.


  1. Michel Foucault, , London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1970, p. xv
  2. Edward W. Said, , Penguin Books, 1978

Essay in the catalogue of the exhibition "Nafas"


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