A cultural identity for Europe

Culture can have a strong unifying impact. It can connect people to common roots, a sense of history, shared ideas and means of expressing them. Usually the broader the society becomes, the more diluted the cultural cohesion. Assuming that one can therefore speak of a general Greek, German or Dutch culture, what happens when the issue changes from the culture of a nation to the culture of Europe? Is there a European cultural identity, and if so, how distinct or strong is it? This is the question that is raised by «Copyright Europe Exists,» an exhibition of contemporary art currently taking place at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. Jointly curated by the well-known Swiss art theorist Harald Szeemann and the internationally active Spanish curator Rosa Martinez, the exhibition comprises works by two contemporary artists from each of the 15 European Union countries (the soon-to-be EU members are not included). As is true of its curators, the exhibition includes some of the most established contemporary artists: Christian Boltanski, Juan Munoz, Mona Hatoum, Mariza Merz, Maurizio Cattelan and Tracey Emin. Greece is to be represented by Yiannis Kounellis and Aimilia Papaphilippou. Organized by ArtBox within the context of the Greek European Union presidency, «Copyright Europe Exists» is hardly meant as a documentation of European contemporary art but as a symbolic attempt to underline a European identity. A political subtext may exist, especially in the echo of the war in Iraq and following the accession of the new member states but, as the title suggests, there is also a playful, even ironic mood to the exhibition. The idea comes from the stickers Szeemann has produced bearing slogans such as «I love bUShicA» or «I love Pretzels, Copyright European Bakers.» «Copyright» is a key word as it suggests both originality and ownership. Can Europe define itself culturally, does it have a «copyright» on its own cultural definition so to speak? And why should it define itself in terms of culture, anyway? The exhibition in Thessaloniki attempts to clarify these questions and sparks some thought not only on a European identity but also on how a cultural perspective of the world is gaining currency. It opens up questions of culture, the surge of cultural events, the expansion of contemporary art and art «politics.» Curator Rosa Martinez spoke to Kathimerini English Edition on these issues. «Today art has become a tool for cultural diplomacy. It serves to promote a ‘tourism of quality’ and to place the cities on the map of cultural prestige. The proliferation of biennales responds to a desire from the periphery to be heard and to its need to participate in the enthusiasm of internationalism, so these events provide a new way to articulate the local and the global. I think the emergence of peripheral biennials has contributed toward balancing the arrogance of the West and its main centers,» she says. Martinez has curated several art biennials and numerous exhibitions of contemporary art. The 1997 Biennale of Istanbul and the 1999 Santa Fe biennale were two of her major projects. She was co-curator of the Rotterdam Manifesta in 1996 and director of the Barcelona Biennale from 1988-1992. «Today it is essential to be critical with the homogenization of thought and of products. Personally, I like developing my projects in places where pressure by the artistic establishment is not too strong. In places like Istanbul or Santa Fe, with such young biennales, I feel a great openness, a thirst for knowledge, a strong will for establishing new links. The curator has a lot of freedom to choose, to establish a dialogue with the context, to interact with it. I like the feeling and the energy of those emerging places much more than the weight of institutional structures which oblige you to follow established paths. I feel there are still possibilities to breathe, to discover unexplored connections and to create new thoughts and new emotions,» she says. Still, it is the artistic centers that determine the direction that contemporary art takes. What also seems true is that despite the spirit of multiculturalism and the plurality of styles and ideas, non-Western contemporary art is still marginalized. On that subject, Martinez sounds optimistic. «I think the inclusion of artists from the Third World has been and is very healthy for contemporary art. The hegemonic centers in the West need the energy and the new visions of the periphery to renovate their own exhaustion. But many artists of the Third World are allowed only to speak about their own alternation because this is still exotic in the West. The system obliges artists to follow fashionable trends and to create a style that allows them to be easily recognizable to the market. It is obvious when artists just copy international trends and when they are also prisoners of their own local traditions. It is difficult, but not impossible, to escape to a logic of appropriation and belongings. We have to be intelligent enough to be critical and innovative at the same time. We should work hard to construct other possible models for aesthetic, political and cultural action.» The need to be critical seems greater especially as mass culture is increasingly spilling over into art, turning much of it into a spectacle. «Today the mass media have converted everything – even war and death – into a spectacle. The hysteria of consumerism of images is producing the fast obsolescence of any product and sucking the blood from any critical understanding of reality. Art is not following the rules of acceleration imposed on today’s capitalistic societies,» says Martinez. Institutions and curators can help reveal the critical side of art. They can present art in interesting ways and bring attention to intellectually stimulating concepts. Martinez says she enjoys curatorial projects in alternative venues but also thinks exhibitions organized in museums can spark creativity. «I believe that temporary thematic exhibitions can be sites of investigation, laboratories of thought. An exhibition is like a text. Through the display of the works, you can put on the accents and mark the rhythm of a visual and intellectual experience. Ideally an exhibition should be a place where a political dialogue can be established between the arts and the community. I hope we can provoke a rich aesthetic experience and sharp criticism about some relevant contemporary issues with the show in Thessaloniki, even if we have not counted on much time to cook everything at the right speed…» says Martinez. In many ways «Copyright Europe Exists» helps bring such current issues to the surface. It does not come up with a «European» cultural identity but shows the diversity of contemporary art and reflects on issues that are pertinent to art and culture. «Copyright Europe Exists» is being held at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, through to September 15.

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