Up until the 1970s the art world was, roughly speaking, a white male club headquartered in New York City. In the wider arena of culture, art had about the same status as tennis or golf in the world of sports; but rather than Wimbledon or Pebble Beach, the artworld meccas were Kassel and Venice.
Fortunately, things have changed in recent decades. In the multicultural, postcolonial present, West is not always best; the rime of absolute, universal standards is ancient history. Parts of Europe have literally fallen to pieces. And the stiffening competition from the Pacific Rim, especially Japan, is felt both in Europe and in the US. We have witnessed a multiplication of "centers." The so-called periphery will no longer be marginalized. The monocultural art of yesterday has had to reconsider its relationship to the cultural "other," to the world's nonwhite majority, to women, to ethnic and sexual minorities. Every culture, not least in the West, has had to rethink itself in relative terms. The once exclusively white male conclave now boasts prominent female and nonwhite members.
This is the backdrop against which the exhibition "Mirror's Edge"--curated by Okwui Enwezor, who is organizing the forthcoming Documenta 11--took place. Some thirty artists from sixteen countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe participated. It was an impressive show produced by a relatively small museum in northern Sweden. Jan-Erik Lundstrom, director of the BildMuseet, had met Enwezor in South Africa in 1997, when Enwezor was curating the second Johannesburg Biennale. On the spot, Lundstrom invited him to do a show at the opposite end of the globe, and Enwezor accepted.
So what, if anything, distinguished "Mirror's Edge" from its sometimes notorious multicultural predecessors? In 1984, for example, New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." There, works of Picasso and Giacometti could be seen alongside anonymous African masks and sculptures. From an art-ideological point of view, this gigantic show constituted a last desperate attempt to affirm a universal, modernist art canon. But, as Thomas McEvilley [see AF, Nov. 1984] and others have pointed out, it was too late. The show was rightfully sunk for its purely formalist and culturally imperialist view. Five years later, in 1989, Jean-Hubert Martin's "Magiciens de la Terre" opened at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; works by Western artists such as Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, and Daniel Buren were shown together with works by contemporary artists from Africa and Asia. In spite of its well-meaning global and postcolonial ambition, this exhibition w as also roundly criticized: The very title "Magicians of the Earth" revealed residual colonial attitudes. The selection and presentation of the non-Western works were, in addition, tainted by such romantic cliches as "the earthy native."
Compared to "Primitivism" and "Magicians," "Mirror's Edge" represents a markedly higher level of (self)consciousness. Here, the multicultural didn't constitute the content or subject of the exhibition, but was its self-evident point of departure. …