Monday 13 June 2011

Silent and apolitical?

Photo: Maria Vlachou
One hundred million sunflower seed made of porcelain, each one created individually by more than 1600 artisans. Do they look inoffensive? ‘Apolitical’? Well, they aren´t. Actually, it was the progressive discovery of the political meaning in this work by Ai Weiwei that thrilled me when I saw it in Tate Modern last October.

Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and political activist, was detained by the Chinese authorities on April 3, when he was ready to board a plane. Nobody heard of him for weeks. There were no formal accusations, except some rumours about economic crimes. His wife was able to see him more than a month later, in the presence of two guards. He looked well physically, but was visibly nervous.

Photo: Reuters
Ai Weiwei´s world, artists and museums of contemporary art in many countries, reacted to his detention. Among other initiatives, Tate Modern projected on its façade the phrase “Release Ai Weiwei”; artist Anish Kapoor called on museums and art galleries all over the world to close for one day in protest; Cuban artist Geandy Pavon projected Ai Weiwei´s portrait on the Chinese consulate´s wall in New York; the Guggenheim Museum started a petition online that has already been signed by more than 140.000 people (read about the various initiatives here). Last week, Philip Bishop wrote in the Guardian that museums are not doing all they can. Signing a petition is not enough, he was saying, museums should make their support for Ai Weiwei more visible, namely through their homepages. And in the same newspaper, Hari Kunzru was questioning the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts´s silence, which is now exhibiting the famous terracotta warriors, and was hoping that this unique opportunity to raise awareness about the Chinese artist´s detention wouldn´t be lost.

In the middle of all the worries expressed at an international level, the statements of some museums directors that museums “don´t do politics” (read the interview with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts director) or that museums “don´t do protests” and that “they are apolitical” (read here about the statements of the Milwaukee Art Museum director and the reactions of other professionals) are disappointing, to say the least. Of course museums do politics: when they decide what to exhibit or not; when they allow for dialogue or not; when they choose their partners; when they turn a blind eye to issues such as human rights and freedom of speech, claiming to be ‘apolitical’. Both at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Milwaukee Art Museum there will soon open exhibitions on China. Clearly, both directors are doing politics.

There are museums whose nature clearly associates them to political (and social) issues: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Ottawa or the Museo de la Memoria y de los Derechos Humanos in Santiago de Chile; the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (deeply committed to the prevention of genocide, but where the word ‘Palestine’ is not mentioned even once); the District Six Museum in Cape Town, to mention only some, very few. In general, history museums that cannot (although sometimes they wish and try to…) escape their nature. Nevertheless, any declaration of neutrality would be false.

Are art museums exempt? But… can they be? Neither the nature of their collections (art is not neutral, it´s not apolitical) nor their businesses allow for it. Curiously enough, the Guggenheim Museum, that started the online petition in favour of Ai Weiwei, has found itself involved in a case related to human rights. The New York Times announced back in March, together with a number of other media, that more than 130 artists had decided to boycott the new museum being built in Abu Dhabi, due to the working conditions of foreign workers involved in its construction (conditions that became widely known some time ago through the CBS programme 60 Minutes, but which have also been registered on the site of the Human Rights Watch). The artists demanded an immediate independent inspection and threatened not to participate in any events neither to sell their works to the future museum. The situation isn´t easy for the Guggenheim Museum, that aims to build a collection from scratch for this new museum, mainly dedicated to artists from the Middle East (some of the most prominent figures are part of the protest group). The Museum´s answer may be read here.

In a post I wrote last year, entitled Places of encounter, I quoted David Fleming, president, at the time, of INTERCOM (the ICOM international committee for management): “Gone are the days when museums have to stand aloof, pretending they are not part of the society they are supposed to serve, carrying on oblivious of their surroundings as though the culture they display has no political or social relevance. Museums need not be neutral spaces – they can be so much more”.

Life is not apolitical. Art is not apolitical. How could museums be? Museums that truly wish to be part of society and to get its support are not silent nor neutral nor apolitical. Museums that have a notion of their mission do not become irrelevant.

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