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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

First Look Inside “Foreigners Everywhere” Exhibition

Representation and opacity are the two primary tensions that artists have been grappling with in recent years. This year, the Whitney Biennial took the softer, less legible, more protective approach. At the Venice Bienniale, meanwhile, visibility trumps vulnerability.

In “Foreigners Everywhere,” some culturally specific references get lost in translation to be sure, but being represented, and being seen, is framed as a good thing. Some curators might have hesitated to include works made by an artist confined to psychiatric institutions (Aloïse Corbaz), or drawings by a Yanomami shaman done in collaboration with a French anthropologist (André Taniki). Both are interesting works to be sure, but those artists’ inclusion begs questions about the ethics involved in putting their work on display. Who benefits the most from their subsumption into the art world: the maker, their heirs, their community; or art dealers, and/or liberals looking to learn about diverse experiences?

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It’s a difficult question—case-by-case, catch-22—and the Biennale’s artistic director, Adriana Pedrosa, didn’t shy away from taking a stance. The show includes lots of works by artists who, in the 20th century, worked in contexts other than the art world—“outsider artists,” the intro text admits in scare quotes. Many of them are Indigenous or self-taught: standouts include Santiago Yahuarcani, and Claudia Alarcón, who worked in collaboration with Silät, a collective of hundreds of women weavers artists from the Wichí communities in Argentina.Their works are shown alongsideyoung, even trendy artists decidedly working for the white cube, like Salman Toor andEvelyn Taocheng Wang.

There are a few threads to  Pedrosa’s argument, and the strongest one is in the Arsenale, which is filled with works that blur the line between fiber and painting—pictorial ideas worked out with dye and thread. There, artists draw from contexts, traditions, and techniques outside the West; several didn’t show in, or make work for, museums at all during their lifetime. As the art world grows more geographically diverse, the very idea of “fine art” is expanding too, since after all, it’s a Western construct. While fiber has had a seat at the table for a while now, Pedrosa has introduced dozens of underappreciated examples. Some are better than others—aesthetically, the show is highly varied, with works united by theme and not aesthetic approach. Pacita Abad, Olga De Amaral, Anna Zemánková, and Susannne Wegner all stand out.

This infusion of the vernacular into the realms of fine art and the museum is not without uneven power dynamics. Two artists approach this thoughtfully and self-consciously—confronting inclusion with skepticism, and asking questions about whether the art museum, being a Western construct weighed down by colonial and imperialist baggage, is inherently a good place to be. For me, they steal the show. (They tie it all together, and they bookend it, too.)

One of the very first pieces you see upon entering the Arsenale is a gigantic polyptych by Frida Toranzo Jaeger. After she paints, Toranzo Jaeger hires her relatives, who are trained in traditional Mexican embroidery, to stitch scenes right on top of her canvases. Here, in one scene, a lesbian orgy overlays an idyllic landscape, and this is flanked by paintings of futuristic machinery woven with bondage-like ribbons and grommets. When I interviewed the artist in 2021, she told me she does this because she wants to insert an Indigenous tradition into a Western one, and to fuck with the preciousness of painting, which was invented by Europeans and then contorted to justify white supremacy—as if other cultures without painting-filled museums were inherently lesser. She calls this act “semiological vandalism,” and told me then that, while often and for good reason, Indigenous artists are concerned with preserving cultural heritage against all that has tried to kill it off, she thinks it’s important to imagine decolonial futures, and to carve a space to dream. Embroidery means her canvases have a backside; there, she wrote a message next to an embroidered heart: HEARTS THAT UNITE AGAINST GENOCIDE!

One of the last works you see, meanwhile, are Lauren Halsey’s towering stone-like concretecolumns outside the Arsenale. Halsey borrows from the vernacular funk of her neighborhood in Los Angeles—handmade signs from local businesses in South Central, vivacious and full of character—to render these Egyptian-style columns, insisting both deserve pride of place in a continuum of Black culture. The column’s capitals are portraits of local friends, made monumental. Halsey has long expressed skepticism toward the ways the art world can extract from marginalized cultures and communities. So when the Met commissioned a major rooftop installation from her last year, she didn’t let them buy it; instead, she sent it back to her community, to the people it was meant to serve. Similarly, she uses proceeds from work she does sell to fund food justice initiatives in her community, utilizing her proximity to the ultrarich via the art world to redistribute wealth.

Halsey didn’t want the Met to own that piece of her culture like some trophy of conquest—even though of course, that’s precisely what encyclopedic museums were originally designed to do.

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