Conf/Prog - Revisiting the Transcultural Paradigm in Art and Art History, 19-20 May 2017, Free University of Berlin, Germany

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Revisiting the Transcultural Paradigm in Art and Art History

Over the last six years, the research unit has analysed the production of art and its discourses in transcultural contexts brought about by trade, travel, migration, or globalization. The research group served as a framework for projects which share aspects of approach and methodology, but differ in their regional and historical focus.

One of our central concerns was that “transcultural” should not be understood and employed as a descriptive term, as this results in an essentialist view of objects and cultural diversity. We addressed this by focusing on processes of negotiation in situations of contact which include works of art or artefacts as well as agents. As mediators or as the object of negotiations, works of art form part of the negotiation process. The paradigms translation, mobility, and decentering proved particularly fruitful with regard to this process-oriented approach. These models will be discussed with recourse to concrete case studies in the three respective panels of our final conference.

Panel A   Dynamics of Transcultural Translations

One of the key issues of a transculturally oriented historiography of art is how to deal with the perception of alterities: Why do certain entanglements and translations remain pertinent while others do not? How are differences produced and then negated and eliminated through the process of appropriation? In order to address these problems, it is necessary to apprehend the process of artistic negotiations of cultural identities and integrate it into the analysis of art. A transcultural perspective of art thus focuses neither on a certain group of objects nor on a strongly defined category of art historiography; instead, it showcases the fundamental ambiguity of cultural identities as they become visible in artefacts.

This ambiguity can be more precisely characterised by examining the practices of reception and attribution that are applied to the object as well as the translational dimensions of the object itself. Thus, our attention is not primarily directed at the relatum—the artwork itself—but at the cultural framework for the perception and reception of artefacts. Artistic forms of othering and identity markers are then recognizable not as given entities, but as products of specific practices of relating and attributing.

On the other hand, the dynamic structures of the transcultural processes of negotiation lead us to designate works of art as translational media within the realm of negotiation, since they validate various alternating levels of reception and thus “perform” translation. In this way, the artistic media themselves already articulate translation as a consequence of interaction, as an act of translation and a translational movement. This self-referential dimension of media can be termed “structural performativity,” since the ambiguity inherent in the objects almost demands their negotiation.

Accordingly, we need to interpret artefacts both as objects of specific—in some cases changing—processes of attribution, and also as self-referential media of translation in order to be able to portray and analyse transcultural processes of negotiation and their dynamics.

Panel B   Mobile Art Histories

Studies in project area B have dealt with questions of transcultural exchange in the context of the mobility of artists and artefacts. This has resulted in two methodological challenges that the panel will discuss:

First, how can we position our research with regard to the prevailing classifications that dominate both scholarship and many of the available translations of historical sources: national perspectives, ideologies, omissions, and hierarchies of genre, gender, and culture?

Second, an art historical approach to the transcultural paradigm requires that we attempt to transfer theoretical concepts from other disciplines to object-oriented studies. Postcolonial and transcultural theory and Mobilities Studies are often oriented more toward contemporary constellations rather than historical contexts or object-oriented approaches. Accordingly, the panel will focus on the question of which concepts can be used to analyse the mobility of artists and artefacts as well as how to describe transcultural encounters in the field of art.

Studying historical mobilities promises to overcome obsolete designations that to this day continue to influence both the organisation of historical collections at museums and university education. However, we must also examine the idea that leads panel B’s research closely: Focusing on mobility and thereby dismantling hierarchies and national boundaries itself raises questions: Whom do we regard as mobile, and whose mobility is studied? Does this not entail making a choice which may be based on assumptions influenced by imperialist policies? It is all too easy to construct binary, hierarchical structures with mobile artists on the one hand and immobile, “travelled cultures” on the other hand, and thus to perpetuate the “denial of coevalness”.

Is it possible to counteract the dangers of a merely superficial critique of colonial power structures or of Eurocentrism through a close examination of historical sources and object-oriented studies in order not to endorse these hierarchies and not to continue histories of segregation? The panel will highlight the difficulties described with regard to specific case studies, focusing on Japan, America, the Ottoman Empire and Palestine.

Panel C   Decentering

In panel C, the question of a transcultural perspective is applied to modern and contemporary art. Above all, we want to examine aspects of marketing, institutionalisation, education, and theorization. Case studies will highlight methodological problems, challenges, and insights related to the processes of decentering art and art history. By critiquing older attempts to present these relationships as those between a normative center and merely passive peripheries, we want to discuss the dynamics that result from this tension in today’s perspective. This practice has a long tradition in art history; several “International Congresses of the History of Art” addressed the question at the beginning of the twentieth century. The approaches discussed there have been significantly expanded by Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg, among others, who spoke of “polycentrism” or “polyperiphery” in their essay “Center and Periphery” (1979). However, they limited their application of these concepts to Europe.

The dialectical relationship between “center” and “periphery” can no longer be considered in purely geographic terms. We understand the center as a device/dispositif of shifting power that continually forms new constellations, thereby creating peripheries. With regard to art, this manifests itself on various levels—economically, for instance, in regard to the art market, as well as educationally, ideologically, institutionally, geopolitically, and as it relates to the community. If center and periphery are to be understood as a constant negotiation of spatially and temporally shifting power relationships, we must ask which categories and concepts can be used in what way to describe and analyse art and how new perspectives should be taken on well-established methods and tools of art history.


Friday, May 19, 201

15:00 Karin Gludovatz, Welcome and Introduction

Panel A Dynamics of Transcultural Translations

15:30 Christine Ungruh, Advertising Hermitism: Italian Medieval Porches as a Locus of Transcultural Artistic Negotiation

16:15 Alberto Saviello, Box of Relationships: A Sinhalese-European Ivory Casket from the 16th Century

17:00 Coffee Break

17:30 Margit Kern, The Body Image of Mummies as Object of Transcultural Negotiation

18:15 Julia Kloss-Weber, The Transcultural Potential of Images: A Case Study from New Spanish Art of the 16th Century

Saturday, May 20, 2017

9:30 Joachim Rees, Introduction

Panel B Mobile Art Histories

9:45 Nora Usanov-Geißler, The Arrival Reconsidered. An Approach to Differing Interpretations of Japanese nanban byōbu

10:30 Ulrike Boskamp, The Language of Flowers. Mobility, Gender and Spywork in the American War of Independence

11:15 Coffee Break

11:45 Annette Kranen, Multiple Antiquities. Seventeenth Century Travellers’ Interpretations of Historic Remains in Ottoman Territories

12:30 Moya Tönnies, Forming a Colonial Heritage Community. British Concepts for Legitimizing Arab Palestinian Cultural Heritage, 1918

13:15 Lunch

Panel C Decentering

15:00 Georg Vasold, From the Peripheries to the Peripheries: The Case of the Austrian Trade Museum

15:15 Ursula Helg, Mangaaka: On the Crosscultural Power of a 19th Century African (Art) Object – Dynamics of Decentering and Recentering Aesthetic Narratives

15:30 Melanie Klein, Moments of Decentering. A Case Study from South Africa

15:45 Tomoko Mamine, Knots and Dots: Scribbling at the Peripheries of Art in the 1950s

16:00 Pauline Bachmann, The Exhibition Apparatus Decentered? – A Case Study with Art Objects from Brazil

16:15 Response: Charlotte Bydler / Discussion

17:30 Reception

Time & Location

May 19, 2017 - May 20, 2017

Freie Universität Berlin, Department of History and Culture Studies, Fabeckstraße 23–25, Level 2, Lecture Hall 2.2058, 2.2059

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