Global and local in art

At a time when trends in contemporary art are extending all over the world and becoming globalized, it is interesting to think about whether art has features distinctive to the country in which it is produced. Does French art differ from Greek, Spanish or US art? And, if not, what is the value of exhibitions that present an overview of a country’s contemporary art scene? Two exhibitions currently on display at the Benaki Museum, one on Chilean art and the other on French art, and an exhibition on contemporary Danish art that was held at the Ileana Tounta contemporary art center as part of Danish cultural events held early this the summer in Athens, present an occasion to ponder such a question. The tradition that Scandinavian countries have had in nurturing societies that promote social, democratic welfare has sensitized artists in addressing issues related to sociopolitical issues. According to Katerina Gregos, the curator of the exhibition «Regarding Denmark» (she was also recently appointed artistic director of Argos, a center for art and media in Brussels), the fact that Denmark and other Scandinavian countries are gradually veering toward neo-liberal, conservative politics, is triggering this political sensitivity, making it even more pronounced. This political response to the transformations taking place in Danish society prevails in «Regarding Denmark,» an exhibition that is not intended as a generalized presentation of Danish art but aimed at highlighting a particular area of Danish contemporary art practice. As with most contemporary art that carries a political message, most of the works had a documentary-like quality with content prevailing over form. Almost all the works were more forceful as texts and less so as images. Several Danish artists expressed their social and political sensitivity by making process-oriented and community-based works. An example is the work of Superflex, a group involved in projects aimed at fostering social egalitarianism. The bold lettering reading «Foreigners, Please Don’t Leave Us Alone with the Danes,» presented as a panel in the exhibition, was meant as a criticism of xenophobia. Other artists included in the exhibition were Jakob Kolding, Lars Mathsen, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen and Kirstine Roepstorff. Contrary to the exhibition on Danish art, «Profils, 15 Years of Artistic Production in France,» which is curated by Philippe Piguet and presented in the Benaki exhibition (it was shown at Istanbul’s Pera Museum earlier this spring), does not isolate any particular aspect as distinctive to contemporary French production. The exhibition’s curator writes of the plurality and diversity of French art, an aspect that also echoes a more general tendency in contemporary art that favors globalized rather than local characteristics. The 70 works by 40 artists that are presented in the exhibition come from France’s national and regional collections of contemporary art (FNAC and FRAC, respectively), both state ventures that are aimed at promoting contemporary art and showing the art of the provinces. In the exhibition, one will see the surreal photographs of Philippe Ramette, the black-and-white, large photographic portraits of Valerie Belin, the paintings that Philippe Cognee makes by using the encaustic technique, or the deserted but calm landscape in the painting of Adam Adach. Curated by Patricia Ready, «Chilean Art, Crossing Borders» is the largest survey exhibition of contemporary Chilean art (it includes works by 78 artists) to have toured international museums. To a European, many of the works presented will seem more ethnic or culturally specific. Examples include «Thanks to Life,» a bust made out of yarn and knots that Isabel Margarita Perez made by using a pre-Columbian technique, Ester Chacon’s sculptures of knotted fibers or Hugo Marin’s totemic-like sculptures. The exhibition is structured along themes with landscape painting being one of the most prevalent. Other sections in the exhibition highlight turning points in the course of postwar Chilean art. The inclusion of Matilde Perez, for example, underlines the importance of the Rectangulo group, which pioneered abstract, geometric art in Chile during the 50s. The richest and most encompassing exhibition of the three, «Chilean Art» brings contemporary art from a distant region of the world to Europe. Although diversity is what typifies the exhibition, the viewer will find distinctive Chilean features in some of the works, whether in reference to the political situation or aesthetically. The more distant from the main European centers of art, the more «different» the artistic work is likely to appear to us. The question of whether there is Chilean, French or Danish art therefore invokes a different answer depending on who is posing it. Arguably, some distinctive aspects do apply, yet one should appraise them without falling into the trap of labeling and stereotyping. «Chilean Art, Crossing Borders» to August 20, and «Profils, 15 Years of Artistic Production in France» to September 3. At the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, 210.345.3338).