W.G. Sebald and the Altermodern
July 6, 2009
The work of W.G. Sebald continues to provide inspiration and intellectual underpinning for exhibitions of contemporary art. In 2007 there was Waterlog, in 2008 there was After Nature, and now in 2009 we have Altermodern, the recent Tate Triennial curator by Nicolas Bourriaud:
Usually an exhibition begins with a mental image with which we need to reconnect, and whose meanings constitute a basis for discussion with the artists. The research that has preceded the Triennial 2009, however, had its origins in two elements: the idea of the archipelago, and the writings of a German émigré to the UK, Winfred Georg Sebald. the archipelago (and its kindred forms, the constellation and the cluster) functions here as a model representing the multiplicity of global cultures…
As for Sebald’s writings – wanderings between ‘signs’, punctuated by black and white photographs – they appear to me as emblematic of a mutation in our perception of space and time, in which history and geography operate a cross-fertilisation, tracing out paths and weaving networks: a cultural evolution at the very heart of this exhibition. The two concepts – the archipelago and Sebald’s excursions – do not intertwine arbitrarily: they represent the paths I followed led by my initial intuition: that of the death of postmodernism as the starting point for reading the present.
Bourriaud’s thesis is dense and impossible to condense. It’s also supplanted with essays (or lectures) by Okwui Enwezor, T.J. Demos, and Carsten Höller, as well as an “Official Document” delivered by the International Necronautical Society (one of whose founders is the novelist Tom McCarthy). Suffice it to say that one of the central topics that Bourriaud and others are trying to define is what comes after post-modernism:
Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia of the avant-garde and indeed for any era – a positive vision of chaos and complexity. It is neither a petrified kind of time advancing in loops (postmodernism) nor a linear vision of history (modernism), but a positive experience of disorientation through an art-form exploring all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in all directions of time and space.
Sebald comes into the picture as an obvious – and perhaps accessible – example of heterochrony and altermodernism. The other main themes of Bourriaud’s exhibition will also be familiar to any reader of Sebald: Exile, Travels, and Borders.
Altermodern – the book – has been designed by the cult design firm of M/M (Paris). Although I’m not consistently a fan of their work, which often appears more retro-hippie than post-Helvetica, they provide the perfect packaging for a project in which the curatorial concept dominates the art and the artists. On page after page the artwork disappears into or spreads across the gutter; in the end, Altermodern fails the test Bourriaud sets out in his opening sentence: “to establish a balance between the artworks and the narrative that acts as a form of sub-titling.” In the book, at least, the “sub-titling” dominates. Bourriaud likens the curator’s role to something on the order of an ethical Noah, determining which species will survive and which won’t. “The very act of picking out certain images and distinguishing them from the rest of the production by exposing them is an ethical responsibility. Keeping the ball in the air and the game alive: that is the function of the critic or the curator.”