Reimagining Modernism, Mapping the Contemporary: Critical Perspectives on Transnationality in Art

23 September 2013 - 24 September 2013

Location to be announced


Devika Singh (Centre of South Asian Studies) 

Luke Skrebowski  (History of Art/Churchill College)


A major, two-day international conference reconceptualising modernist artistic practices from a transnational, interdisciplinary perspective.

The conference takes as its point of departure the consolidation of a new historiography of artistic modernism written at a global level and characterized by a weakening or even outright rejection of the demarcations that traditionally served to separate Western artistic practice from ‘the rest’. Influential recent studies and exhibitions have argued for the categories of cosmopolitan, rather than national, modernisms; global rather than Anglo-American conceptualism; a diasporic rather than continental Afro-modernism. These developments go beyond a tokenistic inclusion of artistic practices from formerly economically peripheral and semi-peripheral nations into the mainstream canon; they do not simply expand the group of nations understood to be ‘core’ to the development of modernism in line with changing geopoliti- cal realities and the waning of Western hegemony. Rather, they challenge the imagined community of the nation or region as the basic unit of artistic territorialisation, focusing instead on diverse, networked artistic communities that are understood to cohere at a transnational and/or transregional level, often with particular global cities as their enabling nodes.

As postmodernism has taken its place in history so we are obliged to rearticulate the notion of the ‘contemporary’ once again. This conference explores the ways in which doing so requires us to revisit the putative supersession of modernism, examining what types of relations may be found between modern- ist and contemporary transnational artistic practices. Does the development of a transnational history of artistic modernism reflect the ascendancy of a genuinely postcolonial disciplinary moment, one that surrenders the idea of Western exceptionalism? Is there a risk that we are witnessing a reorientation of scholarly priorities in step with the type of selective ‘denationalization’ pursued by global capital, one that preserves deep, if no longer uniform, structural inequities between the global North and South, West and East, while continuing to rely on the power of particular nation states as its guarantor? In the name of what present, then, is the past to be reimagined?

The conference develops a critical perspective on the proliferating discourses of the transnational, considering how they have reshaped the study of modern and contemporary art and the links that are articulated between them. It focuses on scholarship which foregrounds the methodological implications, as well as the historical unfolding, of transnational developments in and between artistic and curatorial practice. 


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH); Churchill College; and the Department of History of Art (all at the University of Cambridge); the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Institut Francais, the Japan Foundation and the TERRA Foundation for American Art. 


Location : Churchill College

Date : 23-24 September 2013

23 September



Registration and Coffee


Welcome and Introduction
Luke Skrebowski and Devika Singh (University of Cambridge)



  • Maureen Murphy (Paris I – La Sorbonne): The "Modern" or the Missing Chapter in the History of Contemporary African Art
  • Shruti Kapila (University of Cambridge): Husain's Walk Out of the Nation
  • Hiroko Ikegami (Kobe University): Goodbye Marilyn, Goodbye Elvis: Tanaami Keiichi’s Response to America

Chair: Karolina Watras



  • Partha Mitter (University of Sussex): Why Do We Need to Reimagine Modernism?

13.00 - 14.00




  • Stephanie Schwartz (UCL): After Revolution: Art and Homage
  • Christian Kravagna (University of Vienna): Purity of Art in Times of Transculturality: Modernist Art Theory and the Culture of Migration
  • TJ Demos (UCL, London): Transnationality in Contemporary Art and Ecology

Chair: Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll




Curated by Shanay Jhaveri (RCA, London)           

  • Les Visites de Rabindranath Tagore chez Albert Kahn, Paris (1927)
  • Charles and Ray Eames - House (1955)
  • Pere Portabella - Mudanza (2008)
  • Sedat Pakay - James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973)
  • The Otolith Group - People to be Resembling (2012)


Drinks reception at Kettle's Yard hosted by Andrew Nairne



24 September




  • Zahia Rahmani (INHA, Paris): The Positive Effect of the Anthropological Turn in Contemporary Art
  • Julian Stallabrass (The Courtauld Institute of Art, London): Populism, Elite Art and the Transnational
  • Kobena Mercer (Yale University): Interruption and Conjuncture

Chair: Alyce Mahon




Chaired by Andrew Nairne (Kettle's Yard)


  • Elvira Dyangani Ose (Tate Modern)
  • Kate Bush (Barbican Art Gallery)
  • Vasif Kortun (SALT, Istanbul) 



  • Terry Smith (University of Pittsburgh): Thinking Contemporary Art, World Historically





Maureen Murphy: The “Modern”, or the Missing Chapter in the History of Contemporary African Art
For the last few years, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London have tried to broaden the scope of their permanent collections in order to give more visibility to contemporary art produced outside the West. This recent impulse gave the two institutions the opportunity to revisit their collections. As for the Centre Georges Pompidou, one has to admit nothing much has been done since the groundbreaking exhibition, Magiciens de la terre in 1989 and very few works by African artists have been acquired. In terms of research, if much has been written on the art of African artists from the Diaspora, much less exists on the works of artists living on the continent and developing artistic proposals in the wake of the independence movements. The “modern” seems to be missing both in scholarly works and in museums. Why so? By focusing on the history of an unknown collection made of works done by African artists from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, this talk intends to shed light on the present French situation. The ADEIAO’s collection was constituted by an association housed by the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris between 1984 and 1994. With the arrival of Jean-Hubert Martin as director of the muse- um in 1994, the association had to leave the building. But since no French museum was willing to house its collection, it was given to the Malian national museum in Bamako, and left France in 2011. Testifying to the complex relationship existing between France and its former colonies in Africa, the history of this associa- tion will hopefully contribute to the writing of a missing chapter in the history of contemporary African art.

Shruti Kapila: Husain’s Walk out of the Nation
Emblematic of modernism and for the first fifty years of independence, Husain and India were inseparable iconic entities, each producing the other. If India was the nation that was celebrated as it confounded critics with its robust endurance then Husain was the nation’s celebrity artiste. I approach Husain and his works and the confrontations surrounding them as a historian of contemporary political ideas. A self-conscious commitment to ‘modernism’ that informed the Progressive Art Group that M. F. Husain founded with, among others, F N Souza; its radical potential was, however, shared with and constituted Nehru’s norms for the new nation. Encompassing themes of modernism and the nation, the paper reflects on the confrontation between Husain and Hindutva and the question of freedom and fraternity and the repositioning of the national and the aesthetic that replaced iconoclasm with a clash of icons.

Hiroko Ikegami: Toward a Transnational Understanding of Pop: A Case in Tokyo
This paper deals with the transnationality of Pop Art in the 1960s. If gestural abstraction permeated the international art scene of the 1950s, it seems Pop Art conquered the world in the 1960s, following its pres- cient emergence in Britain. However, as the term basically meant “American Pop Art” in the 1960s, mass culture-based works made outside the mainstream New York art system were not necessarily called “Pop”: “Capitalist Realism” in Düsseldorf, “Nueva Figuracion” in Buenos Aires, and “Anti-Art” in Tokyo. If so, is it ap- propriate to examine the phenomenon with the generic term of Pop? How can we reimagine modernism and its transnationality, when we think about the multi-locale emergence of readymade-based, often US- Pop inspired works made outside New York? And what do we make of its cultural and political significance, especially in relation to a given locale’s own indigenous popular culture? My paper discusses this question by considering a case in Tokyo, with particular focus on the inter-media practices by the artist/graphic designer Tanaami Keiichi.


Partha Mitter: Why Do We Need to Reimagine Modernism?
Why do we need to reimagine modernism from a transcultural perspective? At first glance, one may conclude that modernism has been an inclusive global concept, and even more so in our time. The heterogeneity of contemporary global artistic practices has even given rise to the anxiety about the end of art history. In actual practice little has changed. While today the visual culture of the West and the Rest of the World appear to share certain values, these values are in fact a product of the dominant Western discourse and its claims to universality. As this conference rightly argues, much has changed, especially the emergence of contemporary artists from the non-Western world and the diaspora artists, all of whom have engaged in undermining the dominant canon of modernism. Endorsing this view, the paper will argue that there is still the need to ‘decentre’ modernism and challenge its linear view of art history. While global geopolitics has led to the reconfiguring of the balance of power in international relations, art histo- ry seems to have lagged behind. There are no easy answers to the question of creating a more inclusive art historical discourse but in this new twenty-first century there is an urgent need to do so.


Stephanie Schwartz: After Revolution: Art and Homage
At the dawn of the 1980s, the homage became something of a trope or ploy for artists living and working in Cuba. In 1985, Tania Bruguera began her homage to Ana Mendieta in which she re-performed the re- cently deceased artist’s signature Silueta series in Havana. The performance lasted ten years. In 1989, the collective ABTV (Tanya Angulo, Juan Pablo Ballester, José Ángel Toirac and Illeana Villazón) staged their Tribute to Hans Haacke. The collective’s submission to the third Havana Biennale included the “Che Shop” in which the artists’ sold Korda’s famous photograph of the ‘heroic guerilla’ as a mass-produced poster. This tribute followed from their 1988 After Sherrie Levine—a remake—the re-photographing of Levine’s 1979 After Walker Evans. “After Revolution” queries the work entailed in these acts of paying homage. How are we to make sense of the remaking and appropriation of the work of these by then iconic American artists? Are these empty gestures; tributes only in name? Or do these engagements tell us something about the geopolitics of the Revolution ‘after’ revolution? “After Revolution” considers these questions through a close analysis of the Revolution’s media campaigns. It is in the context of the transmission of the Revolu- tion—in Cuba and abroad—that we can begin to assess the geopolitics of the homage and its relationship to the Revolution’s own historical relays and calls for a ‘new time.’

Christian Kravagna: Purity of Art in Times of Transculturality: Modernist Art Theory and the Culture of Migration
Between the 1940s and 1960s modernist art theory, prominently represented by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, erects a discursive structure in which modernity’s logic of progress seems to be cemented forever. This theory celebrates the purity of the arts, stresses the legitimate separation from others, calls for the exclusion of everything improper and condemns any form of intermixture as corruption and decline. In light of its hegemonic position in Western art discourse during the critical stage of decolonization, mod- ernist art theory with its radical rhetoric of borderlines appears as a fortress against the intrusion of the other. Thus it operates in a remarkable contrast to the coeval emergence of theories of transculturality in the context of the decolonization movements. How can we understand this relation between modernist border aesthetics and transcultural thinking in the mid-20th century? Can we only detect contradiction and conflicting interests? Or can we also discover certain transitions and modes of translation between these two positions developed in apparently unrelated contexts and rarely juxtaposed for that reason?

T.J. Demos: Transnationality in Contemporary Art and Ecology
This paper – drawing on my current research and guest-editing of the special issue of Third Text on “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology” (120), as well as my work on a new book on the subject – considers why it’s crucial today to develop a transnational and postcolonial perspective on contemporary art, particularly in relation to art that engages environmental matters.


Zahia Rahmani: The Positive Effect of the Anthropological Turn in Contemporary Art
The anthropological turn in contemporary art cannot simply be celebrated. The disappearance of exacting critical practice and the receding impact of aesthetics as the distinctive regime of modern artistic creation are ongoingly problematic. We live in an era of commentary on artworks which tends to read art as socio- logical “summary”. The major cultural events of the last two decades — ranging from ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in 1989, ‘Anthropophagy’ and ‘Partage d’exotismes’ to ‘Plateau of Humankind’, ‘Zones of Contact’, ‘Intense Proximité’ and ‘Collapse and Recovery’ (the title of the last Documenta) — have all bypassed the formal character of artworks in favour of a more “discursive”, narrative and even literary dimension. This “narra- tive” aspect itself now demands to be assessed. What is the value of these texts-as-artworks which belong to the field of contemporary art? These texts, which do not belong to the modern tradition, reintroduce into the history of modernity whole narrative aspects of ‘lives’ and ‘stories’, both of the individual and of the collective. But for what reasons? Here, the work of the Atlas Group and of the Arab Image Foundation comes to mind. Such narratives have broken down the hierarchies embedded in the knowledge produced about “the other”. To evade the rules of narrativising “the other” is to participate in a counter-writing of history, to construct a new and different history. But to what end? This paper addresses these questions, as well as what they leave unanswered, by affirming that there is something positive to be found even when criticism seems absent.

Julian Stallabrass: Populism, Elite Art and the Transnational
Some of the most successful art of the boom appealed to popular taste—Hirst, Koons and Murakami being the major figures. Others floated an art world reputation out of popular approbation, and this was especially true of Banksy and other street artists. In this development, the track from popularity to the art world heights seems less difficult than it once was. Do we see here a reworking and intensification of postmodern populism? And if so, does it pose a deeper threat to elite culture than previously? In an age when there are millions of cultural producers with a potentially global audience, how do the art world and the museum respond? And is there evolving a transnational visual language of global populist culture, forged in part through the tastes of a global elite, loosely anchored to their particular national cultures?

Elvira Dyangani Ose

Kate Bush
Vasif Kortun


Terry Smith: Thinking Contemporary Art, World Historically
The currents that constitute contemporary art began to take on definite—albeit paradoxical and bewilderingly diverse—forms throughout the world during the 1980s. Big picture understanding of these developments, and of their relationships to relevant contexts, eluded most commentators, or was rejected as premature, even improper. Recourse to indefinite articles such as “the contemporary” contin- ues to signal such temporizing. Recently, however, a few curators, historians, and theorists have proposed large-scale hypotheses about developments in contemporary art, which explore its relationships to such key contextual formations as economic globalization, geopolitical conditions, artworld institutionality, the broader exhibitionary complex, the experience economy, new communicative technologies, and the evolution of human thought concerning world being. The processes that shape these relationships— those of world picturing, placemaking, and connectivity—are, perhaps, coming into clearer focus. This leture will explore certain recent hypotheses, asking what their profiles of our contemporaneity, and their explanations of how we became contemporary, suggest for understandings of current art—and of the modernisms, traditionalisms, and indigeneity that preceded it, and persist, transformed, through some but not all of it.