A Tribute to Monica – Practicing Transcultural Art History: “The ability to navigate multiple scales”

by Birgit Hopfener, Carleton University

I am immensely grateful to Monica.[i] Her conceptualizations of what transcultural art history is and does have been deeply formative for me, and I would not be where I am today without her continuous support. Thank you for that, for the numerous inspiring exchanges, and for your friendship!

I first met Monica when I was still a graduate student. I was working on a Ph.D. thesis that sought to critically expand mainstream contemporary art discourse in a global framework through the lens of contemporary Chinese art. Based on my expertise in art history and Sinology, and equipped with tools of post-colonial theory I adopted a bottom-up approach on the global, hoping to offer new insights into how installation art in China had been constituted through regionally specific yet transculturally entangled narratives and aesthetic idioms of art. In so doing, I sought to provincialize the universalized Euro-American aesthetic narrative of installation art as challenging modernist medium specificity, conceptualize cultural difference as performatively negotiated, and engaged in creating a critical awareness of the transcultural complexity of contemporary art.

It was in this context that Monica’s keynote lecture on “Global Art History and the ‘Burden of Representation’” in June 2010 at the Summer Academy Global Studies: Art and Visual Media Today at ZKM, Karlsruhe struck a chord with me—one that has continued to resonate.

In her lecture (now available in its published form)[ii] she explained:

A transcultural history of art goes beyond the principle of additive extension and looks instead at the transformatory processes that constitute art practice through cultural encounters and relationships, whose traces can be followed back to the beginnings of history. Casting art history in a global/transcultural frame would involve questioning the taxonomies and values that have been built into the discipline since its inception and have been taken as universal.[iii]

She continued:

Rather than postulate stable units of investigation which exist next to each other and are connected through flows and transfers, the problem of how these units themselves are constituted needs to be systematically addressed.[iv]

Monica’s critique of an additive approach to global art history rooted in the modern Western logic of representation, together with her deep commitment to analytical and critical historiographic approaches of what constitutes art and its critical frameworks in a global framework, not only provided me with discursive and analytical tools along with a vocabulary to articulate these ideas but also with the hope that a different art history beyond the institutionalized modern Western spatial and temporal structures will eventually become a reality.

Now, more than 10 years later, things are changing, indeed. Many institutions of art and art history have become increasingly aware of their political and ethical responsibilities in relation to the role they play in shaping worldviews, subjects, citizens, and communities. Current global ecological, political, and social crises have once again underscored the urgency of unlearning universalized modern Western frameworks and the importance of studying our world’s cosmological, epistemological, and ontological heterogeneity that constitutes and is operative through manifold cultural and artistic articulations. In recent years, museums, art history departments, and art historical journals have begun to engage with their Eurocentric biases and difficult colonial histories, albeit in varying degrees and according to specific historical, social, political, and ideological contexts in different regions around the world. Monica has been an important catalyst and advisor in many of these transformative processes in institutions in Germany and internationally.

For me personally, my relocation to Canada, where I took on a professorship at Carleton University in 2017, had a big impact on how I situate and practice art history in a global framework. I have become increasingly aware that discourses about the global and art are complexly situated and structurally multidirectional. They are responding to specific locales while at the same time participating in transnational realities and transcultural conversations. Shaped by German social and historical realities, I today find myself also implicated within difficult histories of a settler-colonial society, learning about indigenous art and epistemologies. I am adopting decolonial approaches that are much more prominent here in Canada than they are in Germany, and I connect them with transcultural methodologies that I have been introducing here in return.

Based on these invaluable experiences of transcultural self-reflection, my current research centers on the question of how to rethink historiographical and temporal frameworks of contemporary art in a global framework. Despite post-structuralist critiques of historicism, art and art history continue to be predominantly governed by modern Western linear models of time, underpinned by notions of modernization, rupture, avant-garde, revolution, causality, progress and the denial of co-evalness of what is conventionally called “non-Western” art.  Arguing that the world and its art are shaped by multiple and transculturally entangled conceptual, aesthetic, and epistemological frameworks, I consider a combined approach of Western critique, a critique of unilinear and universalist time models, and the exploration of other worlds of meaning (the world’s epistemological diversity), as a useful method to worlding and decolonize universalized Western historiographic models and temporal regimes of contemporary art. My current book project takes contemporary Chinese art historiographic works as the starting point to shed light on transcultural art historiographies of contemporary art from a specific locale. What transcultural connections are constructed in these artworks, how and why? Among other aspects, I am exploring how historiographic artworks can be read as critically engaging with longer histories, epistemologies, and aesthetic idioms of historiographic art in China, and how these insights help us to grasp the transcultural complexity of what constitutes contemporary art, our shared yet “disjunctive contemporaneity.”[v]

Such understanding of the global as a multi-sited yet entangled constellation is also the starting point of the trans-Atlantic research project “Worlding Public Cultures: The Arts and Social Innovation”[vi] on which Monica and I are collaborating together with other wonderful colleagues. It is in this context that I am greatly looking forward to collaborating with Monica on a book project on translation as a tool of worlding/decolonizing the terms of our conversations on art and countering “asymmetric ignorance.”[vii]

Endnotes

[i] The quotation in the title is taken from Monica Juneja,“‘A very civil idea…’ Art history and world-making – with and beyond the nation,” in Engaging Transculturality: Concepts, Key Terms, Case Studies, ed. by Laila Abu-Er-Rub et. al. (London; New York: Routledge, 2019), 35⁠–64.

[ii] Monica Juneja, “Global Art History and the ‘Burden of Representation’,” In Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, ed. By Hans Belting, Jacob Birken, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 274⁠–297.

[iii] Juneja, “Global Art History,” 281.

[iv] Juneja, “Global Art History,” 281⁠–282.

[v] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or not at all: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (Brooklyn, New York: Verso Books, 2013).

[vi] Members of WPC are affiliated with Heidelberg University, Carleton University, Concordia University and University of London, Free (VU) University of Amsterdam, National Museum of World Cultures, Amsterdam, Tate Modern, London, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, National Museum of World Cultures, Amsterdam, Institute of Cultural Enquiry (ICI), Berlin. WPC was conceptualized by the Transnational and Transcultural Arts and Culture Exchange (TrACE) network, initiated by Carleton University, Heidelberg University, and London University of the Arts in 2018.

[vii] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2000).

 

Birgit Hopfener is Associate Professor of Art History at Carleton University in Ottawa, where she is also cross-appointed to the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture (ICSLAC). Her specialization is contemporary art in the global context, with a special emphasis on China. She is author Installationskunst in China. Transkulturelle Reflexionsräume einer Genealogie des Performativen (2013) and co-editor of Negotiating Difference: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Global Context (2012) and Situating Global Art. Topologies – Temporalities – Trajectories (2017). Supported by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant she is currently working on a project entitled Contemporaneity’s Transcultural Entanglements. Historiographic Interventions by Li Ran, Qiu Zhijie and Yan Xing, which examines border crossing transcultural art historiographies by three contemporary Chinese artists. At Carleton, she is co-director of the Centre for Transnational Analysis (CTCA) and the co-initiator of the international consortium Transnational and Transcultural Arts and Cultural Exchange (trACE).