Five Questions With Manuela Ciotti

Art, of the high or pop kind, is something many people have experience with. Scholars have labored as they’ve attempted to understand what particular artistic representations might mean, what they might say about who we think we are.

A scholar discusses how she’s exploring those questions in her work on art exhibits in this week’s conversation with a Framing the Global Fellow.

Manuela Ciotti is Assistant Professor in Global Studies at Aarhus University. She’s been researching and writing on modernity, agency, gender and politics, and art and society in India and beyond. The title of her Framing the Global project is Modern and contemporary Indian art and the global: Culture, capital, and the development of post-colonial taste.

She spoke with Rosemary Pennington about how the idea of “form” helps her enter the global.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Manuela Ciotti: I was drawn to it by my emerging interest in modern and contemporary Indian art and its presence in different geographical locations. A study of art in this context has a strong need for a global lens in order to capture its many life-spaces.

My interest in Indian art was triggered by an exhibition titled ‘The Empire strikes back: India art today’ that I saw in London in 2010. I was fascinated by several questions which emerged through my visits to this exhibition — the representation and display of ‘Indianness’ in and out of India, what this art was about, its audiences and supporters, the role of the market vis-à-vis cultural production, and how the ‘India story’ was connected to the story of the wider art world.

I addressed some of these questions in the article entitled ‘Post-colonial renaissance: ‘Indianness’, contemporary art and the market in the age of neoliberal capital.’

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Art work from the exhibition ‘The Empire strikes back’ Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni. From the ethnographic series – Native women of South India: Manners & Customs, 2000-2004. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery, London. (c) Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni, 2010.

‘The Empire strikes back’ is now part of a group of exhibitions I am analyzing for my FtG project through a large-scale ethnography. Here, I am ‘chasing’ presences of modern and contemporary art during the period between 2010 and 2015. My field sites range from London and Venice to Mumbai, Kochi, Delhi and Shanghai – and my research also explores the geographical, conceptual and epistemological ramifications which these locations evoke.

This vast research terrain and wide-ranging set of questions might suggest an unproblematic use of ‘global’ to label the phenomenon of modern and contemporary Indian art. However, our FtG project has forced me to reflect on what exactly I mean by ‘global’, what ‘global’ is in my research, and which methodological tools are required to capture it.

Interestingly, Indian art and ‘global’ have become parallel objects of inquiry in my project. In turn, this inquiry has fed into our FtG collective — and much needed — effort to re-signify the far too ubiquitous label, ‘global’, and ground it in specific locations, histories, and differences.

 RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

MC: I chose ‘form’ because it goes to the very heart of the workings of the global art world — I see art institutions such as ‘biennale’, ‘museum’, ‘gallery’, ‘auction house’, and ‘art fair’ among others as global cultural forms.

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Gwangju Biennale 2012. (Photo by author.)

These forms have been circulating, multiplying, and have been appropriated endlessly around the world — especially over the past two decades — and especially outside the regions where these institutions have historically been situated (Europe and the US).

In my view, the globalization of the art world consists of a number of cultural forms/art institutions spreading to an increasing number of countries where they have been appropriated, and in the material, cultural and conceptual production which this spread has engendered. My project does not look at ‘art’ per se but at the ‘art world’, a networked system built through these circulating cultural forms. I am interested in the careers of cultural forms, their life and death as well as in what makes them so powerful and hegemonic.

Interestingly enough, there is not much ‘new’ in terms of the art world system, the new very often emerges when forms territorialize in new locations and enter into conversation with what exists locally. Forms are appropriated in very different ways, and they generate new contents. There are very different phenomena which, for example, are grouped together under the biennale cultural form, even when we look at only one region of the world, Asia.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

MC: I am facing a number challenges, first of all methodological ones. How does one study a biennale, which is a large event that might take place within the walls of a building or can spread all over a city? How does one account for the research ‘fronts’ of such a complex event: does one only talk to artists, curators, and organizers?

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Shanghai Biennale 2012 . (Photo by author.)

Does one focus only on the art works — and their prior and future journeys — or the infrastructure hosting them, or on discourse production around that particular biennale, etc? And given the numbers of the biennale circuit around the world, how to think of them as a whole? What about audiences? What can one say about an exhibition which might be visited by some 400-thousand people?

Further, I am interested in circulation, space, and the production of symbolic and financial value resulting from the movements of art works and artists. Thus, the biennale cultural form is only one of the many sites to explore in this area. What about all the other forms and the relations among these? Which cultural form is ‘representative’ of the circulation of art works and artists and of the production of value, and which individual form’s territorialization in a given context can be taken as the ‘right’ site?

There is also the question of history — with the biennale cultural form in mind, in my project I am dealing with exhibitions at the ‘biennale archetype’ (Venice, where the first biennale took place in 1895) as well as with one of the newest ones, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (which began in India in 2012). It is logical that the archive will be key to the study of many editions of the former whereas for the latter, other data repositories, Facebook and the Google Art Project for example, will be important.

But this is not just a question of “history-full” vis-à-vis “history-less” events in the art world and the methodologies I call upon in order to capture them. It is about the role that historical research plays in (re)thinking contemporary art events — here I have in mind my research on India’s history at the Venice Biennale since 1954. It emerged from my initial interest in a recent event, the 2011 India pavilion, and it led to the reconstruction of a much longer presence of India in Venice and reflecting on what this presence says about the present itself.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know it;’s global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

MC: It was when I realized that making sense of what was happening in the art world in India would necessarily entail bringing into the picture how Indian art was being exhibited, displayed, and traded everywhere else – and when I realized that I needed to know how the ‘out of India’ and the ‘in India’ research terrains are connected with one another – that I became aware of the global condition of modern and contemporary Indian art.

The way I understand such art is as a co-constitution of events, discourse production and business occurring both within India and outside of India. But how are these two terrains related? That is the tricky question. It is this very nature of modern and contemporary Indian art that requires tracing and deciphering the connections between “within India” and “outside of India.”

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Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012. (Photo by author.)

Thus, in my project ‘global’ has manifested itself first and foremost as an epistemological realization — I could not research modern and contemporary Indian art without that ‘double lens’ looking into India and outside it, the traffic crossing them, and the kind of geocultural maps which are produced. One might argue that this is true for all phenomena today, but I would argue that the logic of exhibiting, displaying and trading art and the expansion of the life spaces of cultural forms through new media – which are quintessential to the very existence of the art world makes the relation between the “in India” and the “out of India” more compelling than in other fields of human/non-human activity. And I am saying this also on the basis of my previous research experience.

In other words, if one does not keep track of what is happening in London, Shanghai, Venice, or many other places, then one does not get much of an idea of the role that events/institutions/people there have in the careers of artists, artworks, and institutions from India, and vice versa.

Equally important, studying the meanings of global has not blinded me to the geocultural awareness of where things happen, of the hegemonic forces existing in specific geographical locations. Actually, my FtG project has rendered their analysis in the transnational art-related traffic even more compelling while simultaneously it has led me to rethink some long-standing tropes.

In this respect, my project empirically and conceptually traverses the North and South of the world, backward and forward. The importance of ‘South’ in the globalization of the art world is undeniable. As it is also undeniable the fact that South/North dichotomies are not exhaustively and persuasively explanatory of art world trends. There is too much – and meaningful – traffic in fact, to be able to read these trends solely along these lines.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

MC: I am an anthropologist by training and I have carried out extensive fieldwork on India, first in a village, then in a state capital and now over a vast geographical canvas. This has not necessarily meant a scaling up to ‘big theory’, as I think this can emerge from any field site.

My FtG project lies at the confluence of Anthropology, Global Studies, South Asian Studies, Art History and Postcolonial Studies among others. This synergy has led to many questions regarding the meaning and functioning of ethnography in the 21st century, and what anthropological inquiry can do to advance the understanding of ‘global’, and whether we can deploy anthropology alone or, as seems to be the case, interdisciplinary research is the key.

But I would like to wait to reflect on my home discipline until I complete my project, and I can then look back and think about anthropology. All I can say now is that FtG and working with the fellows has taken me into a completely different and fluid space, and it is in this space that I would like to stay for the time being, watching my research leads develop in exciting directions, and later get back to what has happened to anthropology in the process.

You can follow Manuela Ciotti on Twitter: @manuelaciotti. Or email her: manuela.ciotti@gmail.com.

You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.