September 30th, 2008


Foreigner sweet, foreigner pretty

Cairoscape - Images, Imagination and Imaginary of a Contemporary Mega City is a big exhibition going on in various venues around Berlin. I saw the Kunstraum Kreuzberg part of it twice at the weekend. As the title implies, it's about Cairo, a city I know very little about.

My favourite piece in the show was a video by photographer Hermann Huber of the Tiring building, a big shabby commercial centre in the centre of Cairo. With the eye of a still photographer, Huber leaves his camera set up to watch, in real time, casual moments of "street life" unfold in this warren of corridors, more like a covered city than a building. Gradually, you begin to understand how the dreamlike space fits together; Huber's static framings swivel, overlapping scenes you've seen minutes before. The time element is used mostly to communicate the acoustics of each environment, and also to show a certain existential quality: there's boredom and loneliness in the men caught staring -- both menacingly and pleadingly -- into the camera for minutes on end, and relief when they're joined by a friend for a smoke.

My second-favourite piece in the Cairoscape show was another video, "Chinese Sweet, Chinese Pretty" by Doa Aly. It's a reportage about Chinese peasant farmer women who've relocated to Egypt and make a living by selling lingerie and nightwear to the Egyptians from door to door, fishing them out of black garbage bags and modelling them for prospective customers. Watching the video, I had the following sequence of impressions:

1. After the scowls and machismo of the Egyptian men in Huber's video, sheer relief to be in the company of chatty, friendly Chinese women. I personally experience the Middle East -- and men -- as somewhat threatening and alien, and the Far East -- and women -- as reassuring and familiar.

2. A fascination with the "double foreignness" of the scenario, from my point of view. This wasn't just a video about Asian people, or a video about Cairo, but a video about Asian people in Cairo, made by an Egyptian artist. It therefore appeals to my Romantic sense of the exotic, and to my orientalism. (I'm trying to be honest here!)

3. The thought that -- given the current financial crisis -- we might all learn something from people who work without bank loans and without shop premises, in selling mode but not in a particularly capitalist-as-we-know-it mode.

Googling the piece when I got home, I found that the video has been quite widely exhibited since it was made in 2006. It's been in biennials, at Tate Modern, at the Arnolfini in Bristol. Something about it appeals to curators putting together shows which -- in the critical clichés -- "interrogate" globalization and migration by means of "dialogue" and "gaze".

In Focus tells us that "Aly is mainly interested in ideas relating to performance, growth, and identity; the constant struggle to Become which gives way to a hybrid form forever suspended between different sets of connotations". The blurb for the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial showing calls the video "an interrogation of the dynamics of cross cultural integration in Egypt", and adds: "Issues of displacement, belonging and memory are re-occurring themes that speak to the particular dynamics of globalization and migration and their effects on individual lives in and beyond Africa".

For Brian Holmes in Transform it's an Egyptian "gaze on immigration to their own country, and a look at the city from the radically different perspective of Chinese peasant farmers who find a way to improve their life back home by means of a temporary stay in Egypt". And for Nerve it gives "the sense of the individual as part of the vast and complex process of global migration".

Tate Modern, meanwhile, uses the video to remind us that "movements across international boundaries can lead one to encounter a storm of political and historical meaning... the pressures and fantasies of a better life which prompt the desire for migration must negotiate the limits of walls, barriers and occupations, as well as economy and status".

Now, all this curatorial langue de bois is perfectly true and perfectly reasonable and admirably progressive, even if it quickly becomes a boring cliché to those of us who encounter it too often. It seems to see the world through a rather 90s, Andreas Gursky-ish lens; globalization is occurring, it tells us, but not without problems and human consequences. It presents an "Egyptian gaze" on these problems and consequences, but fits it into a Western curatorial framework. What's more, when you look at the biography of the Egyptian artist in question, you find that she's working as a design intern in Milan and New York. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but this is not "the deep other"; there is nothing deeply resistant to Western framings here. This video is made by someone much closer to "our" perspective than the average Cairo resident.

I wonder, most of all, what it means that the curatorial stuff leaves out the things I mentioned in the numbered list of my own personal responses. All this talk of globalization pointedly ignores the Romantic, escapist and exoticist angle which I responded to -- foreignness for the sake of foreignness, doubly strange because it's doubly foreign. This, not economic and social ruminations on the process of globalization, is what made me sit fascinated in front of the video.

But to frame it this way sets me up for inevitable disappointment. I'm disappointed -- as an unrepentant orientalist, interested in net difference -- both by a curatorial tone which basically seems to come straight out of The Economist, and by discovering that the Egyptian artist is in fact a design intern in New York. The curators seem to usher you towards one kind of personal pleasure (the pleasure of knowing you're a good person, concerned with human geography and the consequences of globalization) but to block the way to another (the pleasure of escaping, for twenty minutes or so, your own life and your own culture, and perhaps of learning something by an encounter with true and utter difference, and perhaps even the pleasure finding foreigners -- or just their fabrics -- sexy).

Or is this just a question of curatorial texts (the kind nobody reads, to be honest) being a sort of Freudian super-ego, and orientalist pleasure being a sort of id, unspeakable but powerful, a kind of buzzing hub of pleasure supplying the real power of the aesthetic experience? And mightn't the cultural-historical equivalent of this personal id be empire, the thing the curatorial texts don't mention, perhaps because to mention it might be to propose globalization as its contemporary face?

Do you see what I'm getting at here? If we have empire (disguised as "globalization"), why can't we have its cultural corollary, orientalism? Maybe we do. Maybe that's what this art is, secretly. Then again, given the current meltdown, I think our empire just went. And what may replace globalization (the globe as we'd like to see it, all roped together in our perspective -- globalization in Fareed Zakaria's odd phrase as "America's great mission") is globe: the world as it is, unphased by (and uninterested in) what we see as its foreignness.