For an anthropology of the art world: Exploring institutions, actors and art works between circulation and territorialisation processes
Location SOAS Senate House - S116
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Manuela Ciotti (Aarhus University) email

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Short abstract

The proliferation of biennales, art fairs and museums is the hallmark of the global art world today. This phenomenon has surprisingly attracted little attention among anthropologists. This panel invites papers exploring institutions, actors and art works towards an anthropology of the art world.

Long abstract

The proliferation of biennales, art fairs and museums - and the circulation of art works, artists and other professionals - is the hallmark of the global art world today. Understood as cultural forms (Ciotti 2014), these institutions have become increasingly hegemonic (biennales and triennales being powerful examples, see Dimitrakaki 2012) through the inclusion and exclusion mechanisms they command, the re-repurposing of space they engender, and for being notable sites of value production. Despite their ubiquitous presence, global art world institutions have surprisingly attracted little attention among anthropologists. At the same time, the renewed interest in the anthropology of art over recent years has mainly focused on (re)defining the relation between art and anthropology and exploring their cross-fertilizations (Schneider and Wright 2006), while scholars have pointed to the need to reinstate their 'very different ways of engaging the world' (Grimshaw and Tavetz 2015: 432). This panel invites papers on art world institutions from multiple geographical contexts which address the following questions among others: what are the novel material worlds that these institutions generate? What are the different effects of exhibiting art works (for example commodification processes) - at the core of many art world institutions? Does the study of the art world re-signify ethnographic practices and how? How does the internet shed light on the art world? Ultimately, how does research on art world institutions speak to the legacy of the anthropology of art? It is envisaged that selected papers from the panel will be submitted for publication in a journal special issue.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Contemporary Art Biennials as Ethnographic Sites: Value, Activism and Politics in Large Scale Exhibitions

Author: Panos Kompatsiaris (Higher School of Economics, Moscow) email

Short abstract

This presentation examines the art biennial as an ethnographic site, looking at how the in-built tensions between the domains of art and politics take shape when spectacular displays attempt to operate as immediate activist sites.

Long abstract

Contemporary art biennials are at the forefront of a process of claiming a new socially relevant role for art within our societies. They are sites of status, novelty and experimentation, where the category of art is meant to be rearranged and redefined by opening itself to the world and its contradictions; to the world of politics and critical theory; to the world of business and creative branding; to the world of flexible labour and urban renewal; to the world of left-wing activism and social intervention. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from recent biennials across Europe, this presentation examines the art biennial as an ethnographic site, looking at how the in-built tensions between the domains of art and politics take shape when spectacular displays attempt to operate as immediate activist sites. It explores how biennials attempt to reconcile the destructive and elitist ethos of avant-gardism with the pacifying and popular taste of the general public, asking the following questions: What does it mean for a biennial to mobilise political energies and for whom are these energies mobilised? How are these two spheres of action - art and politics - entangled, layered and performed by biennials and their participants? What do the in-built tensions of this conjunction say about the trajectories of the historically conditioned category of art and the contemporary biennial as its key contemporary articulation? What are the forms and affects that this category releases to the world through the institutions that represent it?

Behind the Display: the role of Rockefeller foundation on the first's exhibitions of Contemporary African Art at the Venice Art Biennale.

Author: Amarildo Ajasse (Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice) email

Short abstract

The Venice Art Biennial, is the oldest biennale and one of the most prestigious art show.

In recent decades, after long years of absence, there has been an increased presence of contemporary African arts.

How and what was the institutional structure behind this increasing circulation?

Long abstract

The Venice Art Biennial, is the oldest art biennale and one of the most prestigious art show in the world and is an exhibition where we can find not only some artists chosen by the curator of the edition or represented by galleries though collateral events but also national pavilions organized the governmental institutions.

In recent decades, after long years of absence, there has been an increased presence of contemporary African arts. For example, at the 56th edition in 2015, three out of the five countries that participated in the show for the first time were from the African continent and the numbers of artists was the highest ever. At the 57th this trend had continued.

But how the growing presence of contemporary African arts started? What were the conditions that had determined it? What was the institutional structure behind this increasing circulation and acceptance?

The purpose of this paper, which part of my ongoing 3 years PhD research, is to present some results that emphasis the crucial role of international private institution such as the Rockefeller foundation though the support and organization of the first exhibition of the contemporary African arts at Venice biennale, that took place in 1990 and 1993, on the context of the 44th and 45th edition respectively.

To deepen the he analysis the paper also shows how the institutional arrangements had evolved since then.

Curatorial Practice and the Pursuit of Reciprocity in Indonesia

Author: Changkyu Lee (SUNY Binghamton) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the role of curators in shaping the production and circulation of contemporary Indonesian art. By focusing on the materiality of curatorial practices, this paper also examines the notion of global artworlds with the rise of diverse art worlds in Southeast Asia.

Long abstract

By conducting an ethnographic study of Biennial Jogja (Equator series), Art fairs, museums and the global web of auction houses in Indonesia, this paper looks at how aesthetic dispositions are produced through curatorial practices beyond European and US centers. More specifically, this paper explores how the practices of market abstraction of global artworlds and the aesthetic sensibilities of contemporary Indonesian art have been legitimized and contested in local arrangements, and to what extent the role of curators as cultural mediators matter in these processes. This paper will deepen our understanding of how material and visual culture has been symbolically and practically deployed in cross-cultural exchange, and how reciprocity has regarded as a fundamental mechanism in circulation as a means of cultural translation.

The Role of Critique in the Critique of Roles in the Indian Contemporary Art World

Author: Karin Zitzewitz (Michigan State University) email

Short abstract

Artist-driven curatorial and archival projects in India have cleverly subverted the division of labor in the art world. While the resulting works, exhibitions, and institutions have been evaluated as art, this paper considers their critique of the art world at a time of market upheaval.

Long abstract

The concept of the art world decentralizes artistic production, so that what was often romanticized as a solitary creative process is recognized as a collaborative activity. The anthropology of the art world often involves the analysis of the connections between actors—artists, curators, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, etc.—as they function in institutions, articulating how together they make possible the production, circulation and evaluation of art. Focusing on the case of India, this paper looks at what happens when the conventional divisions between these roles are violated. It describes a series of artist-driven curatorial and archival projects in which artists have encroached upon the roles of curator, administrator, and historian. The results, whether works of art, curatorial projects, or even new institutions, have been considered by the art world in terms of their artistic value. This paper, by contrast, evaluates their critique of the art world and its functioning, particularly within a period of broad shifts in art institutions and their priorities that has followed the rapid market fluctuations brought on by the 2007 Great Recession. Cases under consideration include Judy Blum Reddy's historical rebuke of the canonization of the "Modern Masters," Raqs Media Collective's discursive and political alternative to the 2014 India Art Fair, and, most spectacularly, the Kochi Biennale's demonstration of the continuing relevance of state arts funding in the neo-liberal present.

Critiquing the Institution through an Anthropological Lens: a view from South Africa

Author: Kathleen Rawlings (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa ) email

Short abstract

This paper considers the anthropologist's role in the critique of art institutions from the vantage point of South Africa, taking the contentious Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 and the equally contested opening of Cape Town's Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in 2017 as its case studies.

Long abstract

The anthropologist's role in critiquing art institutions has only recently begun to be negotiated, but the set of methodological and theoretical tools specific to anthropology grants it a unique lens through which to question the social phenomena that surround these cultural sites. In her seminal paper 'From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique', Andrea Fraser argued that when we, "speak of the 'institution' as other than 'us', we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions" (2005: 5). This paper will attempt to broaden the scope of that 'us' to include anthropologists, and will argue that the ethnographic gaze lends itself favourably to the study of global artistic enterprises like biennales and museums. Taking two significant and contested historical moments in South Africa's art world as its case studies - The Second Johannesburg Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor in 1997, and the momentous opening of Cape Town's Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa exactly 20 years later - this paper will consider the politics of representation, of access, and of value production that pervade institutions in the art world. Is it possible to really decolonise these forms? Does the MOCAA contain the potential to critically counter Eurocentric institutional practices, or is it bound to repeat the mistakes that Enwezor made at the Johannesburg Biennale? An anthropological approach to these questions will allow novel engagement with the relationship between history, geography, politics, and the sociocultural worlds that art institutions come to inhabit.

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Branding the nation through art: The case of the Jaya He GVK New Museum in Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport

Author: Caroline Lillelund (University of Copenhagen) email

Short abstract

The paper explores the way art is used to brand the Indian nation and the GVK conglomerate in the museum exhibitions installed in Mumbai's new international airport and points to the potential of the museum form as a means of validating not only art and artists, but also nations and corporations.

Long abstract

In the course of the past decade a number of new private museums for modern and contemporary Indian art have been established by ultra-rich industrialist art collectors in the Indian metropoles.

Showcasing the owners' private collections in exhibition spaces set up in corporate parks and even in a shopping mall the new Indian art museums mainly serve the new educated upper middleclasses, while branding the owner's businesses as culturally sophisticated.

Owned by the GVK conglomerate that operates Mumbai's new international airport the Jaya He GVK New Museum is one of the latest new private museums in India and by far the largest single exhibition of Indian art in Mumbai today with more than 5500 works on display and a potential audience of 45 million passengers travelling to and from the city every year. Combining antiquities, folk art and crafts with modern and contemporary Indian art in large scenographic wall installations, the museum aims to represent India as both an ancient and culturally rich civilisation and a modern nation with a global outlook to make the people of India feel proud of their country. But what is actually on display in the museum? What is supposed to make the Indian travelers proud and how are newcomers presented with Indian art and culture in the arrival halls?

The paper examines the ways that the exhibitions and discourses of the Jaya He GVK New Museum brands the nation as well as the GVK conglomerate as modern and culturally sophisticated in a fast globalizing world.

Indigenous artists negotiating the art market – A Central Australian Indigenous case study

Author: Chrischona Schmidt (University of Queensland) email

Short abstract

Indigenous artists from Utopia in Central Australia work outside the traditional model of an Indigenous-owned and –run art centre. They act as their own agents creating relationships with a variety of sections of the art market by engaging directly one-on-one with commercial art dealers, collectors and tourists. This paper analyses their role within this local art world.

Long abstract

Most remote Indigenous Australian artists in Central Australia work within an art centre environment. The Indigenous-run and –owned art centre takes on the role of selling artworks on behalf of the artists, marketing their work and being their agent, thus limiting direct contact between art dealers and artists. In the Central Australian community of Utopia, located 230 km north-east of Alice Springs, the art centre closed down in 2002 after ten years of operation. This left the internationally-renowned group of artists without the services and support of an art centre. However, this did not mean that the artists stopped working nor having exhibitions nationally and internationally, or winning art awards. Utopia artists forged their own relationships with art dealers across the globe, negotiating the art market without the usual infrastructure; creating a unique system of relationships that connect them directly in one-on-one relationships to the art dealers and the art market.

This paper gives an insight into the strategies developed by Indigenous artists from Utopia when working with a variety of art dealers: from art dealers who focus on the tourist market to the ones situated within the fine art market. The artists’ modes of distinction between the different art markets range from materials used, time invested and size of the artwork to the significance of the Altyerr (Dreaming) stories depicted. In the last few years discussions around establishing a new art centre have flared up, making a close analysis into these long-established structures of this local art world timely.

Translations, diasporic travels, and art world receptions in From Where to Where? by Annabel Daou

Author: Rania Jaber (University of East Anglia) email

Short abstract

The artwork From Where to Where? (2010) by Annabel Daou demonstrates translatability in the global art world context. Building on the questions asked by the work “where are you going?” and “where are you coming from?” this paper focuses on how artworks and representations by artists are not easily translatable in certain contexts

Long abstract

This paper argues that the artwork From Where to Where? (2010) by Annabel Daou explores the limits of language nationalism in a multi-lingual contemporary art world, dominated by hegemonic cultural politics and the English language. This paper also examines experiences of place, travel, and migration as they are reported in the work and questions their translatability when it comes to art world contexts.

From Where to Where? was first shown in 2010 at the Cairo Biennale as part of the Arab-American group show Orienteering (2010). In examining the controversy that the exhibition generated in Cairo, it became evident that the reception of the work unexpectedly confirmed the actuality of the subject matter: in the context of restricted travel opportunities, the diasporic experiences of mobility are not easily “translated” to national, Arab-nationalist audiences, who misunderstood the work, rendering it untranslatable.

The title, which appears to anticipate the outcome of the work, is taken from an Arabic saying “min wayn la wayn.” The literal translation of the title from Arabic is “from where to where” but has an entirely different meaning in Arabic. In asking “where are you going? and “where are you coming from?”, the work’s voice thematises notions of origin, location, and travel in a range of languages.

Through a discussion of the artwork this paper demonstrates the untranslatability of artworks in specific art world contexts.

When a Film 'Travels': World Cinema and Its Local Audience

Author: Maayan Roichman (University of Oxford ) email

Short abstract

At a time of thriving film festivals, many films are made to 'travel'. By exploring the relations formulated on social media between "world cinema" (Elsaesser, 2005) and its local audiences, this paper reflects on the effects of exhibiting artworks in global arenas.

Long abstract

At a time of thriving film festivals, many films are made to 'travel' from the outset. Indeed, film scholars have demonstrated the ways in which "world cinema" (Elsaesser, 2005) has its own audiences, as well as aesthetic and thematic styles. Aiming for success abroad often means that in their homelands, less people watch these films. However, does it mean these films do not communicate with their domestic audiences at all?

This paper draws on a digital ethnography of Israeli social media platforms. It analyzes social media interactions and debates about a few recent Israeli films that featured in leading international festivals. By examining the types of comments and interactions surrounding these films, this paper offers a reflection on the domestic effects of exhibiting artworks in global arenas. Specifically, it shows how a film's ability to travel (i.e its success in film festivals) actually prompts different types of online engagements of local audiences— the same audiences who most likely have not watched and will not watch the full film.

Finally, by reflecting upon the methods employed in this study, this paper discusses the unique contributions digital research methods have to offer to studies of the art world, as well as the hesitations and challenges in combining them with other methods commonly used in the anthropology of art.

Magic vitrines, the artist Karl Marx, and Gods on the market: Unstable exhibitions, encompassing assemblages, and renewable anthropologies

Author: Manuela Ciotti (Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

This paper analyses selected ethnographic moments at museums, biennales and auction houses at several geographical locations and discusses the broader significance of what it means to ethnographically investigate the art world.

Long abstract

This paper analyses a number ethnographic moments at museums, biennales and auction houses at several geographical locations. Against the backdrop of exclusionary processes determining what might be viewed as art, commodification trends and an overall 'art world governmentality', the ethnography shows objects, people, spaces and architectures in a fluid interrelation. Exhibitions and displays appeared as flexible and engendering diverse human reactions which at times had little to do with the art world per se. This paper is concerned with the broader significance of what it means to ethnographically investigate the art world. Marcus (2016) has argued that ethnography 'creates opportunities for anthropology to be renewed on the borders of the classic discipline and makes new partners for it. Ethnography, not anthropology, does this crucial borderwork.' Drawing from the above insights, this paper discusses the work of ethnography towards an anthropology of the art world.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.