Notes on the Workshop “Objects from Abroad: The Life of Exotic Goods in France and the United States”
by Noémie Étienne (Wissenschaftliche Assistentin, Univ. of Zurich)
The interdisciplinary conference “Objects from Abroad: The Life of Exotic Goods in France and the United States”, held at the Centre for International Research in the Humanities, New York University, in April 2013, addressed the question of the lives of exotic objects in the United States and France between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Within this context, the focus was on Western use, display and function of objects coming from “abroad”: in other words, on the consumption of material culture according to the expression used by Ann Bermingham. This conference’s emphasis on travelling objects prompted us to broaden Bermingham’s notion to “cross-cultural” consumption. With this expression we had in mind the way certain objects made in a specific cultural context, generally non-Western, did indeed take a new turn in their lives by stepping into another location in Paris or New York (fig. 1). This, in turn, raised questions such as: what are the specific implications of a cross-cultural perspective? What kind of impact does the movement from one culture to another have on artefacts, and vice versa? The conference demonstrated that consumption of culture in a cross-cultural context is not only an economic transaction but also a process of translation and appropriation. Here consumption is understood as part of a creative process, which transforms the objects as well as their new contexts.
Where does Exoticism come from?
Our methodological perspective was informed by what Igor Kopytoff has called “the cultural biographies of things”. This certainly represents one of the most fertile frameworks for the study of material culture during the late twentieth century. One of the main interrogations addressed in several papers was: what makes an object exotic? Exoticism is often a question of provenance. The term “exotic” may relate to the fact that objects come from “abroad”, as suggested in the title of our conference. However, this “abroad” is neither too close nor too far. In his paper “Western Zoological Gardens and the Objectification/Exoticisation of Human and non-Human animals”, Jean Estebanez pointed out that exoticism is a question of distance, be it symbolic or geographic. Taking the example of animals, Estebanez explained how some of them could hardly be exoticized by zoos – as for example dogs, which are common in Western daily life – or lobsters, too strange to be even considered as exotic.
Secondly, exoticism may relate to the origin and identity of producers, artists or craftsmen. In this context, “far” is often connected with “primitiveness”. Some objects may be seen as exotic because they were created by a native population in a colonialized country – as in the case of Native Americans in the United States. Hannah Fullgraf proposed a paper called “The Journey of a Kwakwaka’wakw House Post from British Columbia to Paris” in which she studied the case of a Native American sculpture owned by the artist Max Ernst between 1942 and 1975. Now exhibited at the Musée du Louvre in Paris it has been considered alternatively as an exotic object or as a Native American artwork. Objects may also be considered exotic when they are produced by a so-called vernacular population, as Manuel Charpy argued in his paper “Exchanges of Times: Curio Hunting and the Market of Archaic Goods between France and the United Sates (19th Century)”, which discussed the exhibition of African curios, peasant production and prehistoric specimens since the 1850s in New York and Paris. Charpy pointed out that during this period, exoticism was often thought in terms of distance to “modernity”: prehistoric production could consequently be perceived as being exotic, as well as vernacular, aboriginal or African contemporary material culture (fig.2).
Travelling Objects: Simultaneous and Potential Identities
In a transcultural history, collecting is an important step in the life of objects. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett demonstrated, collecting is the art of dismantling and reconstituting a corpus. Collection means extraction: taking an object out of a context and inserting it into another. As such, collection is part of a destructive process – destroying an original setup. Nevertheless, collection is also an art of montage, of recreating and reassembling objects. Alongside collecting, the second main movement of travelling objects can be called “relocating” (fig.3). Until the end of the eighteenth century, one of the most obvious places for exotic objects in Europe was the cabinets de curiosités. From the nineteenth century onward, museums followed suit, and foreign objects were set up in private spaces, anthropology museums, ethnography museums, as well as art museums – sometimes traveling from one place to another.
The transformation of displayed artefacts into artworks has been called the “museum effect” by Svetlana Alpers. In France, Nathalie Heinich has suggested the term “artification” to describe the turn of any product into art by its display in various contexts – but also by its conservation, by the critics surrounding the object, and so on. A good example of this shift is the case of what we call “primitivism”, or “art premiers”: i.e. the acknowledgment/transformation of African material culture into African art. This is a point that was explicitly demonstrated in the exhibition Art/Artifact, curated by Susan Vogel at the Center for African Art in 1989, and that the recent exhibition African Art, New York and the Avant-garde, curated in the Metropolitan museum of Arts by Yaelle Biro, actualized in a historical perspective.
The Kwakwaka’wakw sculpture, for instance, was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum until 1942. It was then located in Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim’s Manhattan brownstone before being relocated in his house in Sedona, Arizona. Since 1975, it is continuing its life in a French museum. As Fullgraff suggested, these locations reveal how the object was perceived at specific moments and how they also constructed its meaning: as an artwork in a domestic interior or as an ethnographical artefact. However, this example contradicted the idea of a progressive and irreversible “artification”. Quite the opposite, it demonstrated that an object, which begins its Western life as ethnographical in a museum, may be artificated in a private context – here directly connected to the contemporary surrealistic art world—then have again an ethnographical afterlife at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, before being exhibited at the Musée du Louvre. Thus, indeed, pointing out that there is no linear and simple evolution from ethnographic to art, but rather specific moments of relocation and redefinition. On the contrary, the status of travelling objects is always reversible and their definition may be shifting.
Then, Fred Myers underlined how Aboriginal paintings may carry various definitions successively but also simultaneously, according to the people contemplating them either as artworks or as complex and possibly even dangerous tribal representations. Various Aboriginal paintings exhibited in France since the 1970’s and in U.S. exhibition spaces were indeed attractive artworks for the Euro-American public. At the same time, they were prohibited cosmographical representations with destructive powers for the indigenous viewers according to the painters. Thus, travelling objects can have diverse identities simultaneously.
The Wild Thing
In the context of their exhibition at the end of the 20th century, and according to their creators, some Aboriginal paintings had to remain hidden from part of the public – mainly women and children. This occasioned the creation of specific displays suggesting a limitation of access. As Aaron Glass underlined during the workshop discussion, a red zone painted on the wall signalled the danger – and therewith, for some, the attraction – of these paintings. According to the power granted to the artefacts, they may indeed incite specific displays and transform the museum and galleries where they are inserted, characterizing even the rooms where they are exhibited (fig.4).
Something similar took place in the private domain in France at the end of the twentieth century: Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini, in their study of the contemporary space of French collectors of African artefacts, demonstrated how collectors – and in particular their wives – manipulated their acquisitions, changing their position in the private space to make them less scary or less disturbing. Indeed, collectors sometimes have also attributed a specific agency to their newly acquired objects. The idea of agency, coming from Anthropology, is taken into account by the Humanities, following the impulses given by the books of Alfred Gell, David Freedberg or Horst Bredekamp. According to Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, agency depends on uses of the artifact, on the ways and practices of activating its power and “aliveness”, providing it with various identities and qualities (“dangerous”, “domestic”, etc.) during its existence. Reciprocally, the “power” attributed to objects determined their positioning and impacted their progressive relocation, as for example in the case of a woman moving a sculpture from one room to another, closer and closer to her bedroom, during a process of progressive “exorcism”. Instead of “exoticizing” objects from abroad or keeping them “salvage”, they can also be domesticated. Indeed, if the fear connected to an artefact invites the creation of new displays for its exhibition, various manipulations may on the contrary modify its power.
Aboriginal painters were seriously concerned with a potential danger for the public, despite the relative scepticism of (white) museum curators. Nonetheless, it would be too simple to see a monolithical opposition between Western and non-Western relations to objects. French collectors and their families also attributed power to the sculptures exhibited in their interiors. Furthermore, due to their multiple identities, travelling objects may challenge clear-cut distinctions between life and death, between object and subject. A good example is the conservation of Native material culture products in the Museum of American Indian in New York. Many European curators and conservators treat and exhibit these as objects, despite the fact that they are living subjects for the people who created them. Thus, collection, conservation and exhibition are practices increasing or decreasing the “life” and power of things. The decrease of their life and power may be related to what Daniel Miller called “objectification” of things: their temporary requalification as objects by a specific group of people.
During the conference, we argued that questions concerning the power and life of objects may be successfully addressed in terms of “activation”, either by displays, people or gestures. Hannah Fullgraf showed photographs of Max Ernst standing close to his Kwakwaka’wakw house post in the second part of the 20th century (fig.5). Touching the sculpture and facing the camera, his gestures suggested a special relation to the object, one of possession and even domination. Similarly, several images were shown by Jean Estebanez of hunters standing close to their prey, with their foot placed directly on it, or sometimes posing up the dead animal: the dead body was treated as a trophy and a commodity (fig.6). Conversely, for instance, the painting by the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, depicting a little girl crying in front of a dead bird, makes the animal appear completely differently. The attention of the little girl, her sadness and the tender look given to the bird make it appear as a precious and lost treasure. Then, gestures are certainly performative and qualify the things.
But animals, as Estebanez demonstrated, can also resist this process of objectification. Despite the fact that they are expected to be “wild” and “exotic”, their frequent sleep, apathy or even complete absence from the viewer can be a big source of disappointment. Sleeping or even dying are ways to escape the expected exotic behavior. Finally, in contrast, unexpected violence and physical aggression coming from animals may challenge the public. During one of his field research trips, violently threatened and directly confronted by a panther assaulting him, Estebanez was very scared and stopped considering the animal as an exotic commodity. Forgetting the interpretation proposed by the zoo display, he saw the animal as a dangerous challenger. Exoticism is in this context a kind of performance that the animal can decide to play or not. Then, animals are able to resist and to de-exoticise themselves.
Strategies of resistance, de-exoticisation or objectification are connected to self-fashioning and individual affirmation for human beings. As Michel Foucault demonstrated, the human body produces new relations and social configurations, reflecting as well as transforming the society in which it is inserted. Bodies are likewise transformed by their environment and characterized by their social and geographical positions. Four papers during the conference focused on two particular kinds of objects, both of which relate to intimacy and the body: furniture and clothes. As Madeleine Dobie pointed out in her paper “Furniture, Culture and Commerce in C18 France”, “exotic” furniture can have a direct impact on daily life. If it is well known that the colonial empire induced a Westernization of the colonized world, Dobie has suggested another movement: the consumption of foreign culture induced an orientalization of the French society and bodies during the 18th century in Paris. Indeed, the presence of the sofa and other furniture “à la turc” induced different body positions as well as social relations between people in France at this time.
Clothes too change people’s habits. Exotic textiles may be refashioned and customized to be adapted to another lifestyle, but they also impact the people who are wearing them and thus transform human beings. European artists, collectors and travellers did not only bring home specimens from the countries they visited, but frequently dressed themselves with foreign clothes and accessories, and represented themselves wearing these attires. During the eighteenth century, the painter Jean-Etienne Liotard painted self-portraits wearing the Turkish costume after spending five years in Turkey—and had himself called the “Turkish painter”.
In his paper “The Daughters of the Republic on the Catwalk. Turkey’s diplomatic Fashion Show in France and the United States”, Rustem Ertug Altinay suggested that during the twentieth century wearing foreign clothes was a way to embody the culture of others and to become both “native” or “Turkish” and at the same time “Western” and even “modern”. With the case study of Turkish models in America, who were sent abroad to export a Westernized image of Turkey, Altinay demonstrated a complex connection between personal histories and national narratives (fig.7). In her paper “The Hybrid Orient: Japonisme and Nationalism in the Takashimaya Mandarin Robes”, Mei Rado scrutinised the characters wearing Japanese and Chinese robes in Marcel Proust’s series of novels, as embodiments of the late nineteenth-century French educated bourgeoisie.
In this perspective, it may be interesting to engage with the relationships between humans and objects as “interactions”, in which human beings and things have the power to change the space in which they both are. Finally, Lauren Benetua analyzed how expatriated objects are transforming also their context of production. She suggested in her paper that the greed for Pacific Tapa dresses by a North-American audience transformed and stimulated the Pacific production and market. Then, clothes have a material impact on bodies and gestures, on representations and imaginaries, and change potential movements and practices.
On Spaces and Places
As a discipline, geography distinguishes the notions of “space” and “place”: on the one hand, “space” is understood as an abstract category relating to urban planning and sometimes colonialism and war. “Place”, on the other hand, can be understood as a practiced space and, according to Michel de Certeau, as the result of daily practices. Therefore, place can be described as a space that includes/contains exchanges and circulations, made from concrete and constant interactions.
Objects themselves are able to design new connections and places, and this is especially true for travelling objects. The circulation of goods, of people and of objects redesigns spaces, creating unexpected and powerful connections. The word “territory” may be useful to describe the way travelling objects are redesigning space in a dynamic manner. This term allows us to underline the interaction between imaginary spaces and material places, creating new geographies and new relations with other objects and people. Imaginary spaces may be connected to the provenance of artworks and to commercial, personal, scientific and emotional narratives related to them. Material places can be the museum, a flat, or a room where the object is located. As evocated, Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini mentioned the example of an African sculpture travelling within an apartment according to the power and fascination attributed to it: first, the collector’s wife didn’t want it in the bedroom and located it in the basement. Progressively, after various experimentations, it seemed possible to relocate the sculpture closer and closer to the bedroom, in a place dubbed “purgatory” by the researchers.
Therefore, the word territory may be useful to describe the interlacing of imaginary spaces and material places. Products of material culture transform the places where they are inserted. Evolving, exoticized or domesticated, objects are reformatting space inside the apartment or the museum. Following the idea that the circulation of goods creates a specific geography, it is also useful to notice that objects themselves are used and exchanged and are thus constantly redesigned and created anew. On a micro level, this raises questions on the interaction between the new possessor and the object. The transformation of objects – their reparation, adaptation, update and appropriation – creates a tiny “contact zone”: the connection between the hands of the conservator/collector and the object. As Mei Rado demonstrated, studying the first decade of the 20th century, the creation of specific dresses, is then a place of negotiation of identities and borders in the representation of an ambiguous Orient, between Japonisme and Chinoiserie (fig. 8).
Finally, Madeleine Dobie suggested another level of investigation: she argued that we could also focus on raw material, concentrating our attention not on the object itself but on its components. This assertion allows us to see the object not simply as “exotic” or exoticized, but rather as a “global construction”, for instance, made in the West but from a material such as mahogany. Dobie proposed to see the object itself as a zone of encounter, and as a hybrid collaborative creation. She also underlined that exoticism is fundamentally related to a particular point of view. Mahogany was described as exotic according to the French fabricant or buyer from the 18th century: however, this designation was hiding a violent and tacit perspective induced by colonialism and slavery. If objects are transforming the context in which they are inserted, the relational geography of actors – which includes human beings, animals and also furniture – is fundamental to understanding the ways things are perceived and described as “exotic”: the networks of social, economic and political relations is creating “exoticism” as a way of looking at others.
In our conference, we assumed that objects travelling in France and the United States between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries were not “exotic” per se, but were seen – and made to be – this way. We focused on specific movements and gestures producing “exoticity” and transforming the material, symbolic and economic value of goods. The exoticism of a specific object, so it seems, depended rather on cultural practices and material life than on ontological and definitive qualities. In the fields of conservation and curating, we can identify specific treatments and singular methods which either preserve the exoticism of an artefact, or decrease it. On the one hand, the exoticism of an object depends on its reception and the manner in which it is perceived. On the other hand, exoticism can be activated by practices such as exhibition and conservation. Therefore, the issue no longer is to acknowledge whether an object is or isn’t exotic (an ontological interrogation), but rather to focus on the ways and practices which activate its “power” and “potential” (a practical and anthropological interrogation). Thus, it may be relevant to connect artefacts with gestures and thoughts, studying the interconnections between material and narrative, psychological or economic dimensions of things.
These considerations lead to questioning the life of objects and their modes of existence in specific times and places. Conservation and restoration update the object and change its modes d’existence (ways of existing). Focusing on the material existence of objects in time, this reflection addresses the artwork as a continuum, i.e. a material object undergoing perpetual transformations. This emphasis on continuous modification bridges the distinction between the consumption and the production of objects, while acknowledging their constant refashioning and the manner in which material transformation impacts their life and power. The question may be to determine which processes can instigate new regimes, troubling the ontological distinctions between object and subject, passive and active, dead and alive.