Once the overloaded buzzword of postcolonial discourse, “identity” has of late collapsed into platitude. But at the same time, any attempts at pronouncing identity politics as passé are often readily squashed with charges of intellectual snobbery, even as the truth remains that there is little left to contribute to this already crowded field. Part of this tension arises from the half-formed, dissatisfactory conclusions that the decades of rambunctious debates have left us with, trapping us amid a convoluted mesh of discourses straining to reconcile notions of a utopian cosmopolitanism with those that preach the untranslatability of the cultural other. Clearly, there are loose ends to tie, knots to be undone, but the will to do so is quickly diminishing. The prevailing sentiment is that of a blithe, seemingly enlightened, contentment towards this present state of chaos, or as the exhibition ongoing at the Institute of International Visual Arts would call it, this state of entanglement.
Going by its title, Entanglement: the Ambivalence of Identity is a show that would not be expected to be in any capacity to revitalise the presently stale discourses on identity, hybridity, assimilation and the like, and neither does it promise to. It positions itself more as a mirror of current attitudes towards this troubling and troubled field of discourse. Its gesture is observational, to the point of being utterly apolitical, which in itself embodies the curious nature of identity politics in contemporary art today.
In the works of the five artists featured in the exhibition, no longer can we detect the aggressiveness that marked identity-conscious art of yesteryear. The dominant approach instead is that of clinical detachment, peppered at times with wry humour. This distance only appears all the more imposed when one considers the autobiographical nature of most of the works, for the artists themselves – among them, a South Africa-born Chinese, a gay British-Japanese and a Danish-Tamil born and bred in Sweden – possess amalgamated identities that are the products of intercultural encounters. From the outset, the prognosis is delivered: we live in a strange world where strange things enter into strange relations with one another. There are clear lines of tensions, at times palpably materialised, but there is no attempt made to advance beyond the mere statement of this problematic. The paradoxes are left as they are, identities entangled. We are left feeling quizzical and suitably ambivalent.
Taking this notion of entanglement literally are the works of Anthony Key, made by fusing together everyday objects belonging to the putatively disparate cultural realms of the East and West. Upon a plinth, we see a Heinz ketchup bottle that has been refilled with soy sauce and beside it, a pair of chopsticks with one of its ends modified to form a minuscule and utterly useless fork and spoon. Sometimes, the objects are the products of painstaking labour: in Book of Numbers, wooden chopsticks, bounded together to form a long scroll, have each been labelled with a handwritten street address that contains telling signs of Chinese-ness, while in Trespassing, strands of noodles have been softened, disentangled and recoiled to assume the semblance of barbed wire. Strangely, while the politics complicit in Keys’ mutation of cultural signs are undeniable, the hybridised forms appear as nothing more than curios – physical facts claiming an innocent, unproblematic objecthood. The tedious labour that is meant to constitute a process of personal and cultural re-invention ends up appearing more as a quaint, almost slavish devotion towards the production (and reproduction) of cultural kitsch; political gesture reduced to the mute facticity that is the sorry state of “hybridity” today.
In Dave Lewis’ Contact Sheet, this observational stance turns anthropological – the common recourse taken by contemporary discourses bent on seeking in relativism a solution to the problem of cultural clash. Through the use of photography, Lewis mines both the ethnographic archives of Britain and everyday communities, uncovering the processes of identity formation and myth construction. His visual research, exhibited in the form of lightboxes, include his personal musings that are scribbled in as footnotes, positioning himself in relation to this pseudo-objective archive. Through the analysis of DNA samples, music singles, video stills taken from a surveillance camera and a bizarre procession in Wales featuring whites in blackface, the all-too-familiar notions of “contingency”, “positionality” and “performativity” are resurfaced. In face of such a thoroughly informed work, one cannot but give a polite, approving nod.
Then, there’s Nina Mangalanayagam’s photographic series, Homeland. The artist and her Tamil father are seen in a series of comical tableaus, enacting sets of cultural rituals – painting eggs for Easter, decorating a tree for Christmas – attempting to be as Swedish as they can. In one image, the artist and her father stand erect facing the viewer, a ludicrous ring of candles resting upon her head, and in an accompanying silent film, Lacuna, she is trying in vain to master the “Indian Head Nod” as the subtitles relate her relationship with her Indian heritage. Her expression is deadpan; it always is. She doesn’t quite know what to make of the gaudy pastiche that is her intercultural self, and to be honest, neither do we.
Enclosed in a separate room is Navin Rawanchaikul’s installation of works on the Indian diaspora in Chiang Mai, often referred to in local vernacular as khaek, literally meaning “visitor”. Certainly, there is an elegant poetry to be found in the delicate interplay of the personal and the social in the three works presented here, and different mediums used complement one another to great effect: a film featuring the video testimonies of the Indian immigrants is nicely flanked on the left by a long, monochrome painting of the diverse community of Chiang Mai in the classic guise of a civilisational mural, and on the right, by a loving letter written by the artist to his Indian-Japanese daughter living in Fukuoka. But at times, despite the authenticity of the testimonies, they too slip into platitude. The narratives told sound blandly archetypal over time, always beginning from the troubled voyage across the seas and culminating at the immigrant’s social integration into the local community. And as one of the interviewees enthused over how the Thais are so “generous, kind and always happy”, it almost seems as if our suspicions of a pro-assimilationist rhetoric at work are being confirmed. But surely, that cannot be the case, for this is contemporary life presented as it is – a disinterested observation, a fact. As with all facts, we have to accept it as it is.
It may be notable that I’ve thus far abstained form any forthright dismissal or praise of the show, for as mentioned, it leaves me ambivalent. But should that not mean I should applaud it for achieving precisely what it had set out to achieve? Maybe. But perhaps, it would be more worthy to question the value of an exhibition that, in most parts, merely reproduces the present critical consensus (or rather, non-consensus) on the multikulti debate. What we encounter in Entanglement at times amount to nothing more than a litany of observations, presenting the problematics as they are with a zen-like indifference that appears endemic to identity politics as a whole today – and here I’m speaking both in terms of the curatorial framing of the show and the individual works. Whatever happened to the exhibition as platform for making propositions, which however utopian or reductive, could at least serve to rouse the imagination from its present passivity? How often are we able find a show today with the bravura to go beyond the now-easy expression of “ambivalence”, beyond the contrived coexistence of oppositionalities made possible by the illogical logic of the “paradox”, to pursue what Neal Gabler calls in the brilliant New York Times article “the elusive big idea”?
But thankfully, in a darkened room at the corner of the gallery, art is reinstated as gesture. It is Artist’s Book Club: Hakuruberri Fuin No Monogatari by the half-British, half-Japanese Simon Fujiwara, who is here working in his characteristic autobiographical-fictive mode. The work is a video recording of a staged talk show in which Fujiwara plays a caricaturised version of himself discussing Mark Twain’s American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In a faux but amusingly accurate Japanese accent, Fujiwara discusses the controversial language of the novel, in the process bringing up issues such as his mixed parentage and consequent geographical translocation, his black boyfriend and xenophobia in Japan. As the interview shifts unstably between myth and anecdote, Fujiwara becomes a curious expression of queerness that resists all typification, but at the same time, the work never allows itself to rest at the level of the problematic. As with the whole of Fujiwara’s practice, there is always a restlessness, an unsettled energy that takes his works beyond a trite revelation of the artifice of identity construction towards an attempted albeit difficult resolution. The artist seeks not to dismantle fictions but to construct them, to narrativise his own life – narrative figured not as contingency, but ontological necessity.
There is also another novel gesture that Fujiwara performs: the reclamation of race (and perhaps sexuality) as a worthy subject within the overly culturalist and anthropologically minded paradigm in which postcolonial discourse happens today. The way Fujiwara uses his own body invokes the biopolitical, the phenotypical – crude remnants of an old imperial order that were never quite extinguished before we went on with the culture talk. This harks back to the perhaps still under-examined thesis put forth by Paul Gilroy in After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? that the “postcolonial migrant needs to be recognised as an anachronistic figure bound to the lost imperial past”, and that “it was racism and not diversity that made their arrival into a problem.”
Strangely, it is in this portrait of this utterly demure, interracial gay man that one finally finds a hint of the provocative.
Entanglement: the Ambivalence of Identity is currently running at the Institute of International Visual Arts at Rivington Place from 14 September to 19 November 2011.