Contemporary Art and Anthropology. (2006). Edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Reviewed by Andrew Irving, Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies and Dept of Anthropology, Concordia University, Montreal

Contemporary Art and Anthropology, edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, is an exciting and timely volume that offers interesting and unconventional ways for looking at the relationship between art and anthropology. The possibilities put forward in the volume are not based in the static disciplinary categories of 'art' and 'anthropology' or epistemologies that privilege particular ways of knowing and understanding the world over others but are based in the types of creative dialogue and productive exchanges that emerge when artists and anthropologists engage with one another's work and practices, as in the recent Tate Modern conference Fieldworks: Dialogues Between Art and Anthropology, upon which much of the book derives.

The book brings together artists and anthropologists (for a detailed list of contributors see table of contents below) to consider current representational practices within art and anthropology and explore the possibility of how inter-disciplinary forms and collaborative hybrids might shed new light upon the art, aesthetics and socio-cultural life. Often the critically detached 'view' of social-scientific truths speak little about being a sensory organism caught up in a particular social or cultural world. Accordingly the volume tries to engage our senses by way of such things as books made of out of iron oxide and linseed oil, and by identifying points of commonality and discrepancy within the practices of two disciplines so as to facilitate better informed dialogues, even creative tensions, between anthropologists and artists. As such the book is a credit to both its authors and its contributors but also to Berg whose own creative approach to anthropology has been responsible for publishing some of the most interesting books in the discipline over the last few years, many of which, like this one, have the potential to speak to audiences beyond the narrow disciplinary confines of anthropology. That said, given the visual and performative nature of the book an opportunity seems to have been missed by the publishers to create a website that would accompany the book and bring the works discussed in the different chapters to life.

Contemporary Art and Anthropology advocates an approach that is not wholly of art or anthropology but instead operates around the edges and borders. As such it can be read as an attempt to 'destabilise from the margins' by evoking and re-imagining social, cultural and aesthetic practices not through systematic, social-scientific fieldwork and research but through the capacity of art, aesthetics and the human body to reveal things in social life that would otherwise remain unseen. This world-particularly of interior dialogue, reverie and imagination-is not easily found in anthropological texts and monographs, but by locating itself in between art and anthropology the book advocates new approaches and creative methodologies with which to access and represent these worlds.

Schneider and Wright's introduction seeks to place contemporary art, aesthetics and anthropology in the realm of multisensorial experience by way of radical experimentations and collaborations that might offer anthropology a way of critically engaging with the whole range of material practices and sensual experiences rather than simply emphasising the visual. The senses and sensory engagement, however, are obviously not the exclusive preserve of artists and by simply being a human organism one's nervous system is continually subjected to different sensory and aesthetic experiences and so one important question that is raised is how can we represent and better understand this through art and anthropological practices. Accordingly it might also be useful to recall the etymology of the word 'aesthetics' because it is this earlier understanding that we keep finding ourselves returning to throughout the volume. Aisthitikos is the ancient Greek word for that which is 'perceptive by feeling' and as Susan Buck-Morss (1992) [1] suggests the original semantic field of aesthetics was not art but reality -or rather a corporeality: a discourse of the body or form of knowledge whereby taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell are the means by which we come to know and understand the world.

For Schneider and Wright this is 'the challenge of practice' that they hope to address by way of the chapters they collected for this volume, and the book is at its most interesting when it questions its own practices and presuppositions vis-à-vis established notions of what constitutes 'anthropological', as well as 'artistic' knowledge and practice. This capacity for uncertainty is perhaps unintentionally reflected in the title. Is the title a comment on the relationship between contemporary art and anthropology, by which anthropology is defined as the 'traditional' party, therefore evoking the discipline's traditional engagement with art as an 'object of study' rather than as a resource with which to comprehend, reflect upon and better understand human behaviour and anthropological theories?. Or does the title suggest that art and anthropology are coeval partners whereby the prefix of contemporary does not just refer to 'art' but also inquires into the into the state of contemporary anthropology, which as we know is much fixated with questions of method, evidence and the [im]possibility of representation.

Indeed like the title, the book can be read in many different ways: as an alternative fieldwork research methods manual, a questioning of traditional disciplinary presuppositions and as a radical manifesto that advocates a different approach to art and aesthetics. It is in its practical and methodological implications that the book excels and distinguishes itself from other books on art and anthropology, and to my mind the book is best read as a necessary counterpoint to the multitude of social scientific and anthropological research methods books on university bookshelves that reinscribe and privilege certain ways of knowing and epistemological methods over other (usually non-western) alternatives. Otherwise the book can still be very usefully read as an overview index of current theoretical ideas on material culture or as an introduction to many interesting artists and artworks that that one otherwise may not have come across.

Anthropology might be considered a 'fieldwork science/documentary art'. However, after reading this volume we can also make a case for anthropology being a 'fieldwork art/documentary art' thereby recalling the approach of Victor Turner whose own attempts to combine ritual, performance and ethnography can be thought of as a presentiment of the concerns raised throughout the volume. For Turner anthropology too often failed to provide an open, living quality to its texts precisely because "our analysis presupposes a corpse" (Turner 1982:89) [2] and he advocated the use of drama and performance to bring the discipline to life; and George Marcus, in a piece written with theatre practioner Fernando Calzadilla, notes that Turner was less interested in matters of method and epistemology than questions about mind and emotion that could be explored through the aesthetics of performance. Marcus recounts how he himself had just about given up hope that the aesthetic implications of Writing Culture would be addressed and properly developed by anthropologists themselves, who seemed to only concentrate on the issues of textual and ethnographic authority. However, Marcus' co-author Calzadilla attempts to enact anthropology's theoretical, aesthetic and sensory concerns in the field, with fellow artist, Abdel Hernandez, by using pipes, plastic sheets, asphalt, onion sacs and carrier bags to create a structure within a Caracas marketplace, in collaboration with people who worked at the market, with which to question and represent multiple issues from everyday market life and artefacts to violence and the Venezuelan oil industry.

Many of the book's authors consider the possibility that the world, as revealed through art, can be used to supplement (and at times is better equipped to understand) the worlds we find represented in models and theories. Michael Richardson, for example, recasts Michael Serres notion that literature often sees a way through whereas philosophy sees an obstacle, and suggests that art often goes 'deeper' into the nature of human relations than anthropology but that the artist still needs the anthropologist to show how deep they are going. Accordingly Richardson uses the work of Czech painter Josef Šima to suggest that reality is not simply constituted by its material components and therefore needs art to explore the immaterial dimensions of being. Susan Küchler also looks beyond the boundaries of social science to explore the borders of visual perception and cognition via the ideas and methods that exist in between mathematics and art, and which are currently being explored so fruitfully in terms of sculptural and architectural forms. Küchler considers the possibility of exploring art through the lens of science and mathematics rather than simply in aesthetic terms and the intriguing implications this might have for visual research in anthropology.

Nicholas Thomas considers another kind of intersection whereby different artists are brought together to reveal the complex flows of culture, displacement and living history that are inscribed on the surfaces of the skin in tattoos. These flows are embodied in artistic encounters, for example between the skin and the camera, whereby Polynesian tattoos become an object of photographic interest and in doing a second skin is formed that enters into the representative milieu, sometimes exotically and sometimes ironically, as in Greg Semu's self portraits of himself as an ironically displaced subject of a nineteenth century ethnological photograph. A similar 'self-portrait' of displacement is provided by Mohini Chandra's series of installations, photographs and video works Travels in a New World and Album Pacifica, as discussed by Elizabeth Edwards. Chandra's starting point is that of multiple displacements in the form of her families uprooting from India to Fiji by the British and then their subsequent diasporic movements. Edwards understands these works, and the journeys they represent, not simply as idiosyncratic and fragmentary articulations of issues of homeland, identity and belonging but in terms of a method and ethnography appropriate to understanding the contemporary world.

The denial of coevalness within the artworld is explicitly addressed in Chris Pinney's interesting and illuminating chapter Moon and Mother: Francesco Clemente's Orient, where he considers how Occidental misconstructions of India not only fail to engage with contemporary Indian realities but also exclude the political and economic 'frame' that surrounds an artwork. Thus the Orient does not simply inhabit a different time frame (an ancient, romantic, Disneyfied histo-alterity) to the western observer but Indian alterity is also a static one whereby social, political and revolutionary change within the culture rarely enters into occidental representations and appropriations, thus calling for a 're-orientation' of the subject.

Time is also the matter of Jonathan Freidman's chapter on the work of contemporary artist Carlos Capelán whose paintings and installations makes reference to anthropology's own modes of appropriation and representation, that Friedman, somewhat tendentiously, extends out to discuss the anthropological appropriation of other people's experiential worlds which he claims is something that no 'real artist' would not do. The theme of [in]appropriation is the subject of Schneider's chapter in which he argues that the incorporation of cultural differences into material artefacts, such as in the encounter between Picasso and the 'magic' of African sculpture, is perhaps the most central defining characteristic of Twentieth Century art as well as anthropology which not only appropriates artefacts for museums but in a form of academic alchemy turns myths, rituals, social-life, persons and their kin relations into ethnographic, literary artefacts for wider academic consumption. Thus raising the question as to what kinds of appropriation are appropriate for C21st artists and anthropologists.

Perhaps one way to avoid this dilemma is to appropriate oneself. Thus an essay by art critic Denise Robinson, on the work of contemporary artist Susan Hiller, considers how we move from one condition of knowledge to another, for example by way of altered states and phantasms. Hiller herself makes this journey by transforming herself from a practising anthropologist to a practising artist in response to what she deemed was anthropology's intellectual, economic and political colonalisation of other peoples. A further reflective gaze is provided by a series of specially commissioned photographs, taking the Anthropology Department at the University of East London as its ethnographic site, by photographer Dave Lewis; and a dialogue between Schneider, Wright and various protagonists of 'fieldwork' and 'tracking evidence' movements in the contemporary art of the last 20 years, including Rainer Wittenborn, Claus Biegert, Nikolaus Lang, and Rimer Cardillo.

Argentinean sculptor and painter Cesar Paternosto's case mixing a limited range of earthy and sandy-grey pigments mixed with marble powder to obtain subtle textural differences that are suggested to the eye as much as the hands. These textures did not emerge through the imagination but via the lingering effects of being 'in the field' travelling around the Andean landscape and witnessing Incan monoliths, temples and sculptural forms.

Not that the book succeeds on all counts. Artists themselves have long known that failure is essential to the creative process but perhaps anthropologists also need to embrace failure as being fundamental to the processes of both fieldwork and writing. This is highlighted by the reiteration of the conventional 'truth' of the impossibility of representing and translating fieldwork experience, images and objects by way of language, but perhaps this would better explored as a creative tension that generates new and multiple forms of thinking and writing rather than being an obstacle to a single 'truth'. Similarly, while commenting on the relationship between contemporary art and anthropology the book fails to properly address how one might define its central subject of the contemporaneous vis-à-vis art, material culture and aesthetic affects. For anthropologists are rightly wary of the inherent temporalisation of cultural difference whereby non-western practices, be they artistic or otherwise, are seen as some throwback to earlier, more primitive forms of humanity. By this measure all art that is currently being made and produced in different parts of the world needs to be understood as 'contemporary art', and if not then by what criteria and on whose authority are the multiple and various forms of art currently being produced declared 'traditional'? And should anthropology be buying into this language and form of representation, for whenever processes of categorisation, temporalisations of difference and restrictions of the interpretative multiplicity of art occur we have to look at the power operating behind the scenes, which in this case is the western art-world/industry whose terms (as Pinney shows) anthropologists cannot accept uncritically. To do so goes somewhat against the spirit of the volume which otherwise admirably succeeds in destabilising conventional categories and borders of differentiation. These criticisms aside the book offers a rich and varied attempt to follow in Turner's footsteps and use rather than merely study art, in order to explore, evoke, provoke and better understand the fluidity, complexity and depth of social life, and as such it offers essential new perspectives for the study and practice of art, aesthetics and anthropology, and much more besides. However it is to an artist, Jean Genet, as quoted by Denise Robinson, that we leave the last words: 'Art should exalt only those truths which are not demonstrable, and which are even false, those which we cannot carry to their ultimate conclusions without absurdity, without negating both them and yourself. They will never have the good or bad fortune to be applied'.

Contemporary Art and Anthropology. (2006). Edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Contents and Contributors:


Introduction: The Challenge of Practice (Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright)

1. Appropriations (Arnd Schneider)

2. Moon and Mother: Francesco Clemente's Orient (Christopher Pinney, University College London)

3. Where Green Grass Comes to Meet Blue Sky: a trajectory of Josef Šima (Michael Richardson, Waseda University, Tokyo)

4. Encounters with the Work of Susan Hiller (Denise Robinson, independent scholar, London)

5. Reflections on Art and Agency: knot-sculpture between mathematics and art (Susanne Küchler, University of London)

6. Artists in the Field: On the Threshold between Art and Anthropology (George E. Marcus, Rice University and Fernando Calzadilla, New York University)

7. Photographic Essay (Dave Lewis, photographer, London)

8. Dialogues with Dave Lewis, Rainer Wittenborn, Claus Biegert, Nikolaus Lang, and Rimer Cardillo.

9. Travels in a New World: work around a diasporic theme by Mohini Chandra (Elizabeth Edwards, University of the Arts, London College of Communication)

10. The Ancient American Roots of Abstraction (César Paternosto, Painter, Sculptor and Author, Segovia, Spain)

11. Carlos Capelán: our modernity not theirs (Jonathan Friedman, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and University of Lund, Sweden)

12. The Case of Tattooing (Nicholas Thomas, Goldsmiths College)


[1] BUCK-MORSS, SUSAN. 1992 Aesthetics and anaesthetics. In October. Fall 1992 1-41 back

[2] TURNER, VICTOR. 1982. From Ritual to Theatre: the seriousness of human play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications back

About the editors

Arnd Schneider is Reader in Anthropology at the University of East London, England and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Christopher Wright is Lecturer in Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Anthropology Matters Journal ISSN: 17586453 Publisher: Anthropology Matters url: