Read an article and comment (and you might need a dictionary)

This week’s homework from college was to read this article by Hai Foster called The Artist as Ethnographer.

Seeing that it was only four pages long I assumed that it would be a quick read and best left for Sunday evening. How wrong and naive I was. It is probably the most difficult article I’ve had to read since starting the course last September. I work in the field of academic publishing and I don’t often encounter text as off the scale of clarity as this.

What the word means.

What the word means.

Perhaps I should have known what an ethnographer was but I confess I didn’t. I had to look it up.

The Internet (Princeton University) gives this definition: ‘an anthropologist who does ethnography’.

Not helpful. I next had to look up ethnography.

The OED online gives this definition: ‘The scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences’.

This sounded like a field of study that might interest me since I am very interested in people and their things.

Hal Foster - the man of many long words

Hal Foster – the man of many long words

On my second reading of this article, I see (or at least I think I see) that it is arguing that contemporary art (in the 1990s, when the article was published) had taken an ‘ethnographic turn’. In other words, some contemporary artists had started to change the artist-observer relationship in art and were moving towards an art of the observation of culture as an object (at least this is what I think it means but then again I’m not sure I understand my own interpretation). Artists were choosing to mix art and anthropology. They were turning into observers or anthropologists to highlight cultures separate from their own (or classes separate from their own), often chosen cultures they thought needed recognition or recovery. They believed that there is something useful that can said about ‘others’ and that studying ‘others’ is a worthwhile persuit.

The article cites two examples: Fred Wilson with his Mining the Museum (1992) installation which presented the collection of the Maryland Historical Society’s African-American collection of artifacts in a new, critical light. He was addressing institutional repression of African-American communities. The second example cited is Andrea Fraser Aren’t They Lovely (1992) which in contrast to Mining the Museum looked at institutional sublimation (see below). Fraser reopened a private bequest to the art museum at the University of California at Berkeley to investigate how ‘heterogeneous domestic objects of a specific class…are sublimated into the homogenous public culture of a general art museum’ (Foster, p. 76). She transformed the domestic objects into something else by putting them in the museum setting. They changed from being something mundane and suburban to something worthy of examination. Fraser critiques institutions and is known for her enthusiastic yet controversal work.

Mining the Museum

Mining the Museum

Here are some of the big words I had to look up to understand this article:

  • Alterity: otherness
  • Epistemology: the philosophical theory of knowledge
  • Appropriation: something made suitable or proper to the circumstance
  • Appropriation art: an art movement that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1980s which was all about taking an image out of context or making a copy of a copy; words associated with this sort of art include: ready-made, pastiche, simulation, parady, mimesis, brocolage, recycling, uncanny
  • lingua franca: a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different (I knew this one but couldn’t verbalize it)
  • Paradigm: a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model
  • Sublimation: (chemistry) a change directly from the solid to the gaseous state without becoming liquid; (pyschology) making troubling ideas acceptable; generally it means transforming something into something else
  • Heterogeneous: diverse in character or content
  • Homogeneous: of the same kind; alike
  • Reflexive: being self-analytical, self-critical; considering the cause and effect of own actions
  • Contextual: looking at the wider setting, making comparisons, making a judgement based on existing knowledge; putting a framework on an observation
  • Hermetic: tightly sealed
  • Narcissistic: having or showing an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance (I know this word but I didn’t understand the context in which it was used)
  • Neo-primitivism: a new way of making ‘primitivism’ look romantic; romanticising the primitive in some way, e.g. Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco.

I sense a cynical tone towards the end of the article. Here Foster cites Renée Green’s World Tour which he saw as an example of art where self-promotion is more important than social awareness. Foster is critical of much, but not all,  this new (in the 1990s) ‘ethnographic / anthropological’ art. He questions the point of it beyond being ‘narcissistic’ and whether it achieves anything of value. Does it really engage the community in anything meaningful? He says that it in some cases it can effectively highlight lost cultural spaces and recover suppressed histories.

After reading the article, I was tasked with thinking of artists within my ‘specialism’ (not sure I have one) whose work can be related to the art of the ethnographic turn. So I’ve thought of three.

The first artist that comes to mind is Sophie Calle who is a sort of artist / sleuth who observes people and their trajectories to create art works. I particularly like her Hotel Room works which record objects she found in hotel rooms where she worked as a chambermaid. Calle’s use of the ethnographic present tense and her staging and manipulation of the distinction between the self and other draws heavily on the idea of ethnographer as artist.

Be careful what you leave in your hotel room - an artist might be studying you

Be careful what you leave in your hotel room – an artist might be studying you

The next artist that comes to mind is another I’ve come across recently, Stephen Willats who is interested in the sublimation (that word again) of art and society. He is definitely an observer of culture. His Personal Islands (1993) is a good example of ethnographic art. He collaborated here with residents of Kelson House and Top Mast Point on the Isle of Dogs to create an installation composed of individual ‘histories’ for each participant.

Willats looking at society and art

Willats looking at society and art

The third ‘ethnographic’ artist that I’ve recently come across is Tony Cragg with his New Stones  – Newton’s Tones which I saw in the art museum in Cardiff. For this piece he collected the everyday debris that ordinary folks had left behind. I love this because it says connects people with ‘rubbish’ and turns rubbish into art. These are the objects unwanted.

Colourful rubbish

Colourful rubbish


Foster, H. (1996) ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ in The Return of the Real MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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