Elegua, afro cuban on top of books

Some Thoughts on Contaminations (Incorporating parts of The Syncretic Turn)

Some Thoughts on Contaminations

(Incorporating parts of The Syncretic Turn)

To name something as a ‘contamination’ is usually to imply that its presence somehow devalues a context that would otherwise possess some ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ state of existence. This is typically applied in the context of the rhetoric of national identity, but in Britain the idea of a unitary national identity is not sustainable in reality. What constitutes contemporary ‘Britishness’ is a diversity of often conflicting realities, differences and aspirations, which go against the grain of the demands of both the nation-state and transnational corporatism for, on the one hand, a unitary national identity, and, on the other, a commodification of difference through the globalising markets. Caught in the middle is the expression of the local or vernacular: the little differences of everyday lived experience that erupt to contaminate the smooth logic of official rhetoric. This, then, is part of the background against which one has to make some sense of the complexity of contemporary art practices that are produced from diverse cultural positions, and their relations to the institution of art.

The intention here is to reconsider ‘contamination’, to think of it not as an undesirable quality but as a productive process of cultural exchange, beginning from the premise that we cannot know what an ‘authentic’ state of existence is. I am thinking, among other things, of Marcel Duchamp’s speculations that a two-dimensional object is the shadow of a third, which is a shadow of a fourth, and so on into infinity. If we indeed inhabit such a world of shadows, then we cannot know things in their entirety and therefore their ‘true’ state of existence. To this thought one might add those discourses of the self that maintain our perceptions and interpretations are driven by desire, at both the subjective and societal levels; this means that even if the world were transparent, we would tend to ‘see’ what we wanted to see, or were otherwise conditioned to seeing. Thus the world is a contingent, partly perceived, partly understood web of relations and alliances in a state of flux, connections whose duration may be very short-lived and almost imperceptible, or so extended that we do not perceive their rate of change, or, indeed, the full implications of their contents.

In terms of cultural phenomena, we tend in our analyses to attend or give relevance to the immediate past or ‘historical’ time. And yet, in the overall scheme of life and humankind’s cultural development, a millennium for instance is a short duration, and it is not difficult to cite examples of communities of people in which cultural changes established with contact with others long ago still resonate in their cognitive processes, their cultural productions and uses of language.1 It is towards acknowledging the already ‘contaminated’ complexity of culture that these thoughts are ultimately directed.

In part, the trajectory of this enquiry has been prompted by some troubling aspects in the debates on ‘cultural identity’ as they relate to the visual arts. The first involves an overall critical impoverishment in art institutions’ to art of the non-Euro-American artist: either it is not addressed at all, or it is narrowly framed by Eurocentric aesthetic traditions and their hierarchical value systems. A rather anecdotal example is provided by the opening of the posthumous retrospective of the work of Hélio Oiticica at the Witte de With in Rotterdam in 1992, at which a European art critic was overheard commenting that Oiticica’s work was ‘not art’ – his practice was incoherent since it covered a plurality of material expressions. Other critics did recognise Oiticica’s gestures as ‘art’, but dismissed them as ‘inauthentic’: they reflected Euro-American avant-gardism and therefore were not sufficiently ‘Brazilian’ – whatever that might mean in the European imaginary. What distorts these assessments of the artist’s aesthetic-political concerns is an underlying assumption that modernist avant-gardism is the property of Euro-American art history, thereby simultaneously denying the historical trajectory of global modernism as it evolved in the specific context of Brazilian culture, and maintaining the latter as the ‘exotic other’.

As it happens, Oiticica didn’t call his work ‘art’ either, because ‘art’ was academicism and he was concerned to bring art out into a wider public arena where both artist and viewer could be participants. To this end, he used whatever languages that were to hand – local vernaculars and modernism – not as an anarchistic Dadaist gesture, but in the belief that the essence of art is in processes of thought and action: in invention, play and transformation. Of course, if your idea of art was the autonomous and authoritative object (the privileged bearer of some transcendental meaning), Oiticica’s work was not ‘art’. We have here, then, two irreconcilable concepts of art: the museum object and a transformative process which, in Oiticica’s case, provocatively used a heterogeneity of means, contaminating ‘high’ with ‘popular’ culture, and ‘northern’ with ‘southern’ aesthetic traditions in ways that disturbed conventional critical categories.

This leads us to the problem of cultural context. By the late Seventies, many art writers, myself included, impatient with the lack of intellectual rigour of art criticism and the narrow perspective of art history, had begun to assume an interdisciplinary approach that extended outside the field of art into film studies, psychoanalysis, literary and linguistic theory, sociology and anthropology, and so on. The problem, however, is that aesthetic theory has been slow to radicalise itself relative to these interdisciplinary ‘contaminations’, such that questions of the aesthetic dimension of a work have now been overridden by those of cultural context – national or ethnic identity, sociopolitics, and so forth. I am not advocating here a return to some art-for-art’s-sake formalist critique, but asking how we might more effectively understand the processes of art, especially where transcultural symbolic orders are employed, without reducing them to, say, anthropology or sociology. Visual art remains a materially based process and functions on the level of affect not semiotics alone – i.e., a synaesthetic relation is established between work and viewer that is in excess of visuality. It involves rather enigmatic sensations such as the vibrations of rhythm and spatiality, a sense of scale and volume, of touch and smell, of lightness, stillness, silence or noise, all of which resonate with the body and its reminiscences and operate on the level of ‘sense’ not ‘meaning’. For such reasons alone the work of art cannot be grasped in reproduction. While this is obvious to a practitioner, it is not always so for an anthropologist or literary theorist, for whom art is more a cultural object than a process or a complex set of immanent and sensuous relations. If one adds to this the fact that work springs from an articulation between whatever minimal ‘codes’ produce the recognition of a process or thing as ‘art’ together with the particular psychosocial history of its maker, then ultimately the ‘meaning’ of any artwork is not strictly determinable and is potentially as nuanced as the number of viewers who bring to it their own histories and interpretations. In so far as it draws on local vernaculars or experience, repetitions, the ‘grain of the voice’ and the response of the receiver, art is close to the parole of oral storytelling – art is a speaking, not an already spoken. Consequently, to frame a work only by reference to the cultural identity of its maker is to impoverish the complexity of its material relations.


I was struck in one of my day-dreaming digressions that pass for ‘serious’ reading by a suggestion in Michel de Certeau’s essay ‘Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals”’,2 to the effect: Where I am visible, I cannot speak. This seemed to have some relevance in considering the debate on cultural identity and the mainstream art system’s interpretation of ‘multiculturalism’. To those of us watching the response of the galleries and museums, it has seemed as if the demand to end cultural marginality could be solved simply by exhibiting more non-European artists provided that they demonstrated appropriate signs of cultural difference. Globetrotting has become a popular curatorial pastime over the past couple of years. In Britain in recent times we have had ‘New Art from… the Indian sub-continent/China/Cuba/Africa…’ (However, as the number of global art shows has increased, so the number of British black and Asian artists exhibiting their work has decreased.) Geo-ethnic divisions maintain the separation between the art practices of the European and non-European, while masking the economic and power relations inherent in such projects (there is no equality because primary discourses and finance are still dominated by the northern metropolises, exacerbated by the poverty of critical writing by non-English speaking scholars circulating in the Anglo-dominated art system because it is simply not translated into English.) Above all, multiculturalism evades the complex negotiations that must take place between European aesthetic languages and those of the rest of the world. For the West to frame and evaluate cultural productions through its own criteria and stereotypes of difference is to reduce the work to a spectacle of essentialist racial or ethnic typology, and to ignore its individual insights and their universal applications – a treatment not meted out to the work of white European artists.

Thus, one side of the problem has been institutional – a conservatism of western aesthetic theory that has assumed the universality of its own criteria, that any form of making can be translated unproblematically into its terms of reference, and that any work incorporating transcultural codes is ipso facto ‘inauthentic’ and inferior to a ‘pure’ cultural identity (the problem of Magiciens de la Terre in Paris in 1989). What is valued by art institutions becomes national patrimony, which is intimately tied to myths of an idealised national identity, not only on the level of assumed national characteristics but also through a consensus of what constitutes a sophisticated internationalism (one which pertains throughout the élite of Lagos and São Paulo as well as London and Paris.) This is bound to exclude black and women artists. Moreover the internationalism here is western culture – its universalist language and value judgements. Until this is broken down, and western culture accepts itself as one parochialism amongst many others, then we cannot have a true multiculturalism in which all perspectives have equal value.

At the same time, for black and non-European artists to allow themselves to be promoted through the commodified signs of ethnicity is for them to be complicit with the western desire for exotic separatism. The exoticised artist is marked not as an inventive artistic subject in her or his own right, but as a bearer of pre-determined cultural signs and meanings. To be locked into the frame of ethnic subjectivity is also to be locked out of a rigorous philosophical and historical debate that risks crippling the work’s intellectual development and excluding it from a global market of circulating ideas. Indeed one may ask whether any art can develop unless it enters a public discursive space and measures itself against what is currently regarded as most vital to the spirit of the age. For better or worse, the western metropolis has been the place where money and energies have concentrated and to which ambitious artists have gravitated. But it has also been necessary for them to create a place from which to speak and be heard, so we return to the problem of visibility.

A rather perverse turn of thought is required that reconceptualises cultural marginality no longer as a problem of invisibility but one of an excessive visibility of a certain order, one based in readily marketable signs of cultural difference, which is itself bound to visuality and the tendency in European thought to equate what is visually verifiable with ‘truth’. The fact that the work of black and non-European individual artists still does not circulate freely through the institutions and collections suggests that stereotypical codes of visibility block their power to speak otherwise. And aside from the blame we can lay at the door of institutional racism, we must also look at the strategies of art practice itself.

Much art of the late Seventies and Eighties with a deliberate gender, sex or racial political agenda coming from within the western system focused on visibility in the form of autobiography: a bearing witness to one’s own experience as a testimony to the fact that the official version of reality was not universal. This had legitimacy at the time since, within the master narratives of western art, these artists were excluded as historical subjects and this needed to be debated; and art needed to be reclaimed from its entrapment in the ahistorical universalising space of modernist critique and returned to historical and geographical specificity. However, the autobiographical in itself is no guarantee of escape from the ‘phantasmogenesis’ of the symbolic order. By Freud’s own account, the unconscious – that which is commonly held to be the most intimate to the self – is profoundly social in its formation; the subject, formed by language, can never be present to or know itself. However, if there could be no ‘authentic’ self in the modernist sense, then, as has often been said, what was already an inscription could be reinscribed and the signs of identity reconfigured.

These strategies of visibility have had limited success: they helped to force cultural studies onto the academic map and siphoned some institutional money towards so-called ‘ethnic arts’. However, they have also been counter-productive for art when the work has been incorporated exclusively into what has since become known as ‘identity politics’, a context in which art is assessed for its sociological or anthropologic efficacy, or even entertainment value, not for the aesthetic values it might project or the critical space it might be opening up. Where art takes up an essentialist identity position – even if this is a masquerading political tactic – it risks becoming excluded by the exclusionary politics it proffers, which fails to provide it with a sustainable production or promotional support system.

Moreover an emphasis on identity politics tends to be reactive rather than proactive – it responds to a given set of cultural terms rather than attempting to analyse the structure of language in ways that might problematize their usage. In an often didactic manipulation of the already commodified sign, an art work can too readily be assimilated into the already known, leaving no space for uncertainty or imaginative reinvention. The visibility produced here is measurable and distance-able, thereby foreclosing on that enigmatic space in which the coherence of my selfhood could be challenged or different realities imagined. One needs to be taken into a more philosophical and aesthetically sympathetic terrain, which would interrogate the deep structures of our relations to reality – our proposals about reality itself and the role of visual art. The artistic dilemma remains how to express one’s worldview, with all the multiple, cultural inflections that inform it, without betraying either one’s historical and geographically specificity or art, and without being caught in the web of signs that are too readily consumable as exotic commodity. One needs to think cultural expression not on the level of the artistic subject, nor even the sign, but in terms of concept and structure. To consider both the work’s internal rationale and the heterogeneity of ideas and experiences that may govern the aesthetic choices an artist makes about materials and process.


Over the past few years, the most popularly cited model of intercultural expression has been the border zone status of hybrid identities. On the face of it, cultural hybridity sounds like a unifying model (if it is also possible to imagine that somewhere in this alienating world a human culture exists in a ‘non-hybrid’ state). But it is a term still fraught with connotations of origins, loss and redemption: two identities combine and cede to a third one capable of resolving the contradictions of its origins. However, the world is not the ideal ‘melting-pot’ of early American modernism, but a constant producer of difference and ‘others’ vulnerable to ever-evolving forms of discrimination. Sarat Maharaj therefore cautions that in its popularity, hybridity risks becoming an essentialist opposite to the now denigrated ‘cultural purity’.3

In looking for a way out of this reductionism, the authors Marcos Becquer and José Gatti proposed that we reconsider the notion of syncretism, which is not synonymous with hybridity.4 The authors argue that syncretism has the advantage of not implying fixed elements but presents something like an expedient affiliate of disparate terms capable of shifting positions or relations depending on circumstances. Boundaries between positions are permeable, suggesting not an absolute difference between self and other, but that they are partially present in one another. They also argue that the original classical military/political meaning of the term, subsequently depoliticised in its passage through theology, should be reclaimed as a way to think the possibility of agency. In any case, syncretism has the advantage of redirecting the emphasis from the subject to relations or positions.

The distinction between hybrid and syncretic relations in a work of art may not be clear-cut; elements of both may coexist, and intention is as important as material result. But I want to try to make a distinction by reference to a Mexican film made in 1992, Nuevo Mundo, which concerned the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the sixteenth century, when Mexico was still a Spanish colony. The film proposes, somewhat heretically, that it was the Catholic Church itself that invented the saint out of political expediency. A bishop discovers Aztec ‘idols’ hidden behind images of Catholic saints in the church, and assumes that his Indian flock had not, after all, been converted. His interrogation of, among others, Diego the Catholic icon maker, an indigenous Mexican, fails to produce a culprit. The clergy, abstaining from retribution for fear of another Indian uprising, hit on a brilliant compromise: Diego was to paint a picture of the Christian Madonna using an Indian model, take it secretly to the shrine of Tonanzin, the Aztecan ‘earth mother’, and then bring it back in a big public display claiming he had painted it from a vision. (A service for which, of course, he had to be assassinated.)

It is an historical fact that the miraculous appearance of the ‘Indianised’ Virgin did indeed serve to pacify the unrest amongst the colonised Mexicans, the mestizo and Spanish colonials fretting about their enforced allegiance to Spain; the Guadalupe Virgin was a Mexican-born unifying symbol with which all could identify and, as such, redemptive. It was, nonetheless a ‘hybrid’ manufactured (in this account) by the Church and seamlessly incorporated into Christian orthodoxy as if Tonanzin had willingly relinquished her authority to the Virgin. What remains syncretic in this tale is the tactic of the Indian painter who, not surprisingly was revealed as the maker of both Aztec and Catholic icons, and whose masquerading shrines permitted the Mexican Indians to have what James Joyce described as ‘two thinks at a time’: a heterogeneity of meanings – both/and, as opposed to a reductive either/or binarism. This is the essence of the appeal here for contaminations.

The Americas are replete with such examples in which resistance to the aggressively imposed culture takes the form of a conscious but concealed masquerade, where the alien sign is used either to disguise or in fact to enhance the meaning of the repressed referent; or, only those signs are adopted whose meanings can be remotivated to serve the subordinated symbolic order. It may look like ambivalence from the ‘outside’, but is a clear statement of active agency to those on the ‘inside’.

A case closer to home may be that of the relations between English and Celtic Irish languages. During the course of colonisation of Ireland, a form of English arose in which vocabulary was articulated – or ‘translated’ – through Celtic syntax and verb tenses, producing an elaborate metaphoricity characterised by comic word play and neologisms, whose subtleties were beyond the grasp of the English authorities. The Irish would capitalise on this contamination, especially in confronting the judicial system. While from the authorities’ perspective these linguistic deviations from ‘proper’ English would be interpreted in a racist way as signs of Irish recalcitrance, poetics, or stupidity, for the Irish speakers they were a means to confuse authority, while at the same time speaking for themselves without contravening the law.

Such tactics do not produce a loss of cultural meaning but an elaboration; the repressed elements survive in some form within the interstices of the institutionalised language, contaminating it with a pulsion or murmur always ready to destabilise its syntactical and semantic fields, and hence, its established meanings. Although I do not wish to substitute one imperfect cultural model for another, the interest of Becquer and Gatti’s proposals to a discussion of how we might reinvent our critical relation to artworks that do not fully subscribe to western aesthetic patterns is to see it as a relation amongst differing but non-hierarchical linguistic sign systems in a constant state of transformation and reinvention. Perhaps we can begin to speculate that hybridity hinges on the visibility of the sign that seeks to establish itself and attempt to resolve ambiguity; whereas syncretism is concerned with constantly mobile relations that operate on the structure of languages and at the level of performance. The emphasis would not be on the ethnic subject but on the dynamics of the transaction between self and other, on contamination as the trigger for the production of difference, from which one can begin again, as Oiticica insisted, the work of aesthetic invention, play and transformation. ‘Beginning’, as Edward Said said, ‘is making or producing difference; but difference which is the result of combining the already-familiar with the fertile novelty of human work in language.’5


1 One might speculate, for instance, that the British class struggle is also residually an ethnic one between Anglo-Saxons and French Normans rooted in the Norman Conquest of AD1066, a theme fundamental to Thomas Paine’s anti-monarchist treatises for social reform in the 18th century.

2 Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse of the Other, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1996, pp 67-79

3 Sarat Maharaj, ‘Perfidious Fidelity: the Untranslatability of the Other’, in Jean Fisher (ed), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, London: Kala Press, 1994, pp 28-35.

4 Marcos Becquer and José Gatti, ‘Elements of Vogue’, in Third Text, no 16/17, 1991, pp 65-81. Syncretism is a term appropriated by theology and developed largely in Latin America to describe the religious and inter-cultural expressions following contact among indigenous Amerindian, enslaved African and colonising European worldviews.

5 Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985, p xvii.

Published in Jean Fisher, Vampire in the Text: Narratives of Contemporary Art, London: Iniva Press, 2003, pp 252-257. This essay is a synthesis of several related papers. It was originally developed from conference papers read at Arte Expo in Guadalajara, 1992 and 1993, Quinta Bienal de la Habana, 1994, and the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, 1995. Earlier versions of it were published as ‘The Syncretic Turn’ in New Histories, Boston: ICA, 1996, and as ‘Some Thoughts on Contaminations’, in Third Text, no 32, 1995.