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The legacy of 'Les Magiciens de la Terre'

Alfredo Jaar says the Pompidou's landmark show was "the first crack in the Western art bunker"

Neil Dawson, Globe, 1989, © Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky

I moved from Santiago de Chile to New York in 1982. To my great disappointment, I quickly realised that New York was incredibly provincial. The art being produced and shown there was completely self-referential. It was as if no other worlds existed. Other so-called art capitals were even worse. I felt that this situation was totally anachronistic. An international exhibition in those days meant a few Americans and Germans. As an artist from Chile, I was pushed aside into small “minority” ghettos. The “art world” was a fortress. The status quo was clearly unacceptable.

I participated in the so-called culture wars during the Reagan-Bush years. Some domestic battles were won but, in my view, “Les Magiciens de la Terre” was the first crack in the Western art bunker. It became evident that after the exhibition there would be no turning back. Today we live in a very different world. But even if substantial progress has been achieved since the Pompidou show, I am afraid that there is still a great deal missing: the art world continues to be racist and sexist, and this will only change when Western institutional structures change and when non-Western cultural structures become more powerful. The fact that there are a few African, Asian and Latin American artists operating within the art system today does not make the scene truly global. We are heading that way but we are not there yet. For the moment, artists like me, who are active in the global scene, have become models for young artists working far from the centres of power who at least now know that they can build upon what we have been able to achieve.

But I am afraid that our little art world is no more than a perfect reflection of the geopolitical reality of the world. In other words, if the majority of artists in the international scene are still American and German, it is because of the size of the economy of these countries. If a few Chinese or Indian artists erupted in the scene in the past few years, it is nothing more than a reflection of their economies booming and becoming relevant. If Brazilian artists are the most well known from Latin America it is because Brazil has the strongest economy in Latin America and belongs to the Bric block of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China). And I could go on and on with more examples of this kind.

How do we change the system from within? I have been searching for an answer for many years. I am convinced that the new generation of curators and cultural producers emerging now in different parts of the world will create the conditions necessary for a major shift. Things will change. The centre cannot hold. I cannot ask the world of art and culture to change the world, but I can ask that every effort should be made not to replicate so perfectly the same imbalances of the real world. Artists create models of imagining the world. The world of art and culture is perhaps the last remaining space of freedom. Let us transform it into a space of hope.

"Midnight Moment: a Logo for America" by Alfredo Jaar, will take place in Times Square, New York, 1 August-31 August, 11.57pm–midnight. The installation is part of the exhibition “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today” (until 1 October) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and is made possible by the Times Square Advertising Coalition and Times Square Arts.

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1 Aug 14
18:54 CET


Alfredo Jaar is right to reference the ambitions of ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ as a sincere attempt to open up “the first crack in the Western art bunker”, but it is also v. important to acknowledge that this often-cited 1989 exhibition at the Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette was significantly flawed in its conceptualisation AND realisation… Firstly, the false premise of creating fixed binary categories to distinguish the ‘West’ from the ‘non-West’ was a deeply problematic point of departure. Then, the curatorial team of Martin, Luque and Magnin, etc. applied v. Euro-American ‘norms’, biases, and historical ‘Orientalisms’ to their sourcing of artworks & the commissioning processes used for certain artists. And established names from affluent nations (e.g. Richard Long, Alghiero Boetti, John Knight, etc.) were given the most prominent, central and/or focal display spaces – with the spatial dominance further reinforcing histories of marginalisation of artists from the global South.

30 Jul 14
22:0 CET


Alfredo Jaar's comments on the state of the art world may be spot on, but he must agree that people, some people anyway, are trying very hard to broaden the scope of what is seen by the public. What he did not say about 'Les Magiciens de la Terre' is that it was an amazingly stunning show, on a grand scale, with every work full of multiple meanings, all of which contributed to much of what is good about today's artworld. The problem, as framed by Thomas Love Peacock, is "What do you call a surprise the second time around?"

30 Jul 14
22:1 CET


" the new generation of curators and cultural producers" will create the conditions...? Does he mean Pussy Riot/Zona Prava, Akiane Kramarik and the people of Uruguay who have already created a major shift in creating reality not just "imaginary models" ? Even the title of Zizek`s next book is great: Total Recoil: Towards A New Foundation For Dialectical Materialism. All artists can participate in Zona Prava by sending books,books and more books (in the uk English Pen and Amnesty International have the info for forwarding.) In New York Maria from Pussy Riot asked the audience "Are you free if women are being beaten and murdered in the room next to you?" If you are not indifferent you can support Pussy Riot artists said Nadya (its all on Youtube). "Crucify curators" say Gilbert & George in the uk.

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