text > The Hemispheres and Continents of the Contemporary Global Art World

Hemispheres & Continents is the name of a new exhibition recently opened at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City. On display there are sixteen photographs made by the English artist Darren Almond between 2002 and 2012. The stills were shot using long exposures at various times of day and night on all seven of our mother Earth’s continents and all four of her hemispheres. The artist set up his camera in darkness and renounced all technical control over it. The photographs are beautiful, as long-exposed pictures set in picturesque parts of the world can be. But there is more to this all-hemispheric and all-continental beauty captured on the surface of paper—there is also a conceptual component, or maybe even more than one.

I will not discuss the aesthetic qualities of these sixteen pictures—describe, for instance, the morning haze or the pretty rainbow that mingles gently with a spectacular waterfall. I will go into the technical detail neither of how the artist achieved such photographic good looks, nor how he studied the landscape and kept the shutter open for many minutes. Instead, I would like to tackle the broader context in which Almond and many like him operate, taking the name of this exhibit as point of departure. I may even be a bit critical—not in order to diminish, God forbid, but as Clement Greenberg once put it, quoting Kant, in order to test limits and improve the world. I would like to make the visitor to the exhibition ponder on something else, on something that is not often written in reviews about this or other contemporary British artists; I would like to speak about something that Greenberg would never have dared to—not about the formal but rather the substantive and seemingly external conditions for contemporary global artistic production, of which Almond is one of the best representatives.

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The Matthew Marks Gallery press release tells us in one paragraph that “this exhibition marks the first time that Almond’s images from all of the continents are on view simultaneously” (italics added). Two central philosophical categories—Space (continents) and Time (simultaneity)—after reaching their absolute limits, collapse into each other and come together in this sentence in order to celebrate this event. Here, space and time seem as a priori and inevitable as they were once for transcendental aesthetics and for the entire speculative system of Kantian metaphysics.

A sense of this absoluteness and a priority of space and time also seem to be today an essential condition of the contemporary global art world that unfurls almost simultaneously across all four hemispheres. Most of the reviews about Almond’s work emphasize this artist’s interest in Time. But to tell you the truth, Almond does not make me think as radically differently about temporality as he does about spatiality, or about the globality of the contemporary art world—a universe, in which if one wants to succeed, one must be able to traverse it with ease and safety. For this series of photographs, for instance, Almond traveled to all the continents plus the Arctic Circle. Isn’t this a wonderful feature of the contemporary global art world, to be able to travel to every corner of the earth with a toolbox of equipment in one’s hands and an artistic agenda in mind? Isn’t this one of the defining features of the contemporary global artist?

It is then the a priority of time and space—of these pure forms of intuition imposed upon the entire manifold of appearances—that sets the ground today for contemporary global art. In other words, one can manage today to be a successful artist if one is spatially and temporally well placed, if one manages to settle up an account and pay in full and at once both the balance and the high interest demanded by these two absolute philosophical categories.

But how does this affect the work of such artists?

Let me share with you an observation that I formed after, on several occasions, coming upon works by British artists, including Almond’s work. You must be aware that this short review is not written in the tradition of British empiricism, and that what I am about to convey will not be empirically proven; it is the product of fancy, of sheer speculation and unsupported hypotheses. So read it at your own risk.

After coming then, on several occasions, upon a certain category of contemporary British artists, I began to discern a certain pattern in their artistic oeuvre and behavior. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the demands imposed upon them by the space-time continuum of the contemporary global art world, or if I simply have happened to run into only one kind of British artist. The pattern may be described in the following terms: certain artists (British but also representatives of other Western powers) can afford today to be called artists only on the condition of their complete submission to the a priority of space and time within the global and contemporary universe of the art world. This is to say that these artists can be artists only with the condition or rather privilege of being able to unrestrictedly travel (almost simultaneously) to every possible corner of the earth in order to conduct their artistic investigations.

From a certain peripheral perspective, one might say that there is something colonial about this condition or privilege. Hemispheres and Continents is also illustrative of this privilege, but it does not strike one as obviously as it does in other works of this and other artists. What I am finally aiming at is that Almond belongs to a certain category of Western global artists who for some reason prefer to address themes and issues that are most of the time unrelated to their own social and cultural contexts, or their own countries of origin. Could this be the case? Here is what The Independent writes: “As British contemporary artists rarely engage with current affairs, let alone political or environmental issues, Almond's works are pleasingly engaged with the world at large.”1

Aha! Here is an explanation—these artists do not deal with their immediate context because they choose to engage with the world at large; they are true citizens of the world. All of this is fine and may even seem progressive when these artists go into the world to find its Spirit or a certain undiluted Beauty, as may be the case in Hemispheres and Continents. But this becomes a bit problematic when British artists start getting overtly political, when they get socially or environmentally agitated only when they get off their British Airways flights. Sometimes it even seems that it is only when they are overseas, scattered across hemispheres and continents, that they become the eyes of the world, its soul and consciousness; they take on the pain of humanity, the sins of all men and of all women onto Themselves. It is precisely this aspect in their work that sounds like a burp of good old-timey British colonialism, as a remainder of a colonial mentality that persists today within the contemporary global art paradigm.

Prior to Hemispheres and Continents, Matthew Marks showed other works by Darren Almond (this is his sixth show in this gallery). Most of these works also “engag[ed] with the world at large,” except that back then Almond was not after Beauty but Truth; he sought out political, social and environmental injustices in Beijing and Lhasa (In the Between, 2006), in the caldera of an Indonesian volcano (Bearing, 2007), in the Polish town of Oświęcim (Oswiecim, 1997), in the dark and cold Siberian town of Norilsk (Minus 60,000, 2005) and in many other remote places of the globe. And even when Almond’s other works build upon his personal past, his family, his childhood and his train-spotting passion—which every reviewer mentions when they talk about this artist’s passion for Time—the artistic and aesthetic resolution always happens overseas: in Poland, Germany, Russia, China, Tibet or Indonesia.

Of course, Almond is not the only British artist that I know of who does this—some time ago I witnessed a forty-five minute PowerPoint presentation that took all of us in the audience to a refugee camp in Palestine, to a disco club in Cairo, and to a child prison in Ukraine. For some reason, certain “post-Conceptual” “post-YBA” British artists seem to have lost all interest in their own Heimat, as if nothing ever happens on the CCTV monitors of Tottenham, Hackney or Brixton, as if there is no more injustice left, no riots, no shattered windows, no ravaged Nike shops and long term imprisonments. For some reason these contemporary British artists still seek beauty, justice and truth across all the continents of the British Empire.

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A few days ago—while I was working on this review—I ran into an artist from Beirut who was telling me about his recent adventures. He related to me how he had missed his own opening abroad due to problems with his Lebanese passport. Here again, we have Time (missed) and Space (exhibition abroad) set as central categories, only this time he is not free with respect to them. This is another way of relating to the a priority of Time and Space, only this time as they unfold at the peripheries of the contemporary global art world, where artists still work within their local context and dream one day of becoming global.

Octavian Esanu, 2012


[1] Susie Rushton  “Captain moonlight: A new exhibition of Darren Almond's ethereal, nocturnal images is about to open at White Cube,” in The Independent (Thursday 17 January 2008.)