The legacy of ‘Les Magiciens de la Terre’

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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.

 

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