Alterity Begins at Home

by Alice Lyons


“The community can only be legitimate when it questions its own legitimacy.”
--Krzysztof Wodiczko


At this year’s Venice Biennale, Krzysztof Wodiczko’s installation Guests in the Polish Pavilion worked as a sort of luminous trap. It brought the audience into astonishing intimacy with an awful truth: we fear strangers (in Wodiczko’s project the strangers are immigrants) and we make them invisible –and worse– by any and all possible means. Through the simple trope of projected ‘windows‘ behind which silhouettes perform a choreography of custodial jobs, our attention was driven to the milky scrim of ‘glass’ that divides us from them.

The Polish Pavilion in the Giardini is an imposing structure, built to impress. There are no windows in it, rendering it insular by definition. Likely, it was Wodiczko’s conceptual omphalos; an enclosure, a perfect architectural metaphor for the purposes of critiquing European xenophobia, and his installation physically and ideologically perforates it. But the metaphor doesn’t stop there: for many people, artists and non-artists alike, the art world is as insular, incarcerating and exclusionary a structure.

I sat in Wodiczko’s installation for a long time last June, on a break from my job as assistant curator for Ireland’s participation in the Biennale, and I watched my own current thoughts mingle and insert themselves into his conceptual framework. It was so apt. For the Venice Biennale is, if nothing else, a mecca for art-world insiders, people on this side of those windows. Sitting there on the carpeted floor in the dark, I imagined all the serious artists who are put, or who put themselves, on the other side of that milky scrim. Alterity, as Emmanuel Levinas theorised it, is a notion as applicable to the art world as it is to any other community.

As it happened, not too long after I finished the work on the project in Venice, I had the opportunity to visit for the second time an artist who lives in Warsaw. Her name is Zofia Malanowska. You will not have heard of her. She is not a name, she is not positioning herself for a career, she is not involved in the ‘discourse of centre and margin’, of ‘otherness’. Yet she is, ipso facto, wrapped up in all of it.

Mrs. Malanowska is a very old woman now, 95 years old. She has lived through quite an epoch in a very unlucky spot on the map of Europe, and her life story is the stuff of screenplays. In fact, we could never really know what she has lived through. But the important point for us is that in one year in her eighth decade of life, Mrs. Malanowska took up a life in visual art. She began to embroider tiny pictures, not with the usual thick embroidery thread, but with flimsy, thin ordinary sewing thread and tiny needles. She lives in a typical 1970s housing block in Warsaw; thus, the gray view out her window to the snowy courtyard with the thin winter trees became a subject. Sometimes she tears out photos from Gazeta Wyborcza as starting points. She works five hours every day in her studio–the second bedroom in her flat. She said she goes to bed each night with joy thinking of the next day’s work. Her little thread pictures reveal a remarkable quality of bravura (tiny), inventiveness and earnest searching. But, much to the detriment of visitors to contemporary art venues, Zofia’s work is unlikely to appear there: she is old, she is self-educated, she does not speak art-speak, all factors working against her.

That this person and her remarkable work would generally be considered outside of the art world defines the sorry limits of that world (of which I include myself). I could go on about ageism in the art world and the art world would probably reply, “Well there is Louise Bourgeois.” But I do not want to go on that rant (even though the art world is ageist). Perhaps, Zofia might be patronised as some sort of quaint outsider by a curator, but she is too discerning to allow it. I wonder what language would be used in the process of exclusion had she approached a contemporary art centre for an exhibition. I would guess the communication would include the phrase, does not fit our profile. But it’s only a guess.

Just as community is a contested term and fortunately, is beginning to be deconstructed and detached from its usage as some sort of monolithic, easily identified thing (‘let’s go out and round up the community”), the term the art world is subject to the same sort of gross misconceptions. It’s bandied about without any precision, but I think it’s fair to posit that the art world most commonly refers to the community who organise and exhibit in biennales, art fairs and museums, who read periodicals such as Frieze, October–and Verge– who teach in and attend art schools. It also refers to the galleries and auction houses– the art market. And as with any other community, the art world has a language, which can act as an insidious, exclusionary force.

To read much of the written material that was snapped up and placed in cloth bags distributed by the more minted pavilions at the Venice Biennale is to encounter a language that belies a world lacking in faith in itself. It cannot rest in clarity, so it has instead developed a system of codes, a lingo which allows one insider to signal his status to another. Use of the code is an exercise of power, a marker of those ‘in the know‘, the power brokers of a community. At its worst, it is a form of linguistic goose-stepping and an instrument of gate-keeping.

The language of the art world deserves a deeper sociolinguistic analysis than is possible here, but suffice it to say that it is highly populated by the vocabulary of critical theory with an emphasis on the authors and ideas based in post-structuralist European philosophy. This isn’t a problem, per se, but the extent to which this language has been colonised by these influences is near hegemony.

Many serious artists are completely disengaged from this art world because they have not learned to speak the art world’s language or pitch their minds in a post-structuralist slant. So their proposals and artist statements read like a foreign tongue to the art world’s gatekeeping forces; thus are created the strangers of the community. Here is the obdurate, insidious boundary.

Robin Whitmore, a visual artist who lives in London, uses drawing as a means of helping adults with severe mental disabilities to communicate and as the basis for his role as art director for Duckie’s Gay Shame events. Whitmore’s projects are the epitome of the socially-engaged work that holds sway in the art world today. Yet as he says himself, “With every year, the art world and I drift farther apart.” Why? More than any reason, I think it comes down to an issue of language: to engage with the art world as defined here, he’d have to use the argot, and he’s too wrapped up in his work to be bothered. .

‘Networking opportunities’ provided by events such as the biennales and art fairs create deeply rutted tracks travelled by curators, critics, artists alike. They form the solid bonds of a sheltered world, which constantly falls prey to exclusivity, to smallness of vision. Marilynne Robinson, in her novel Housekeeping, a brilliant exploration of ‘otherness’ writes, “Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire.” Perhaps it is human nature to crave this smugness, the sort that is in evidence at insider art world events. But only by directing ourselves both to those on ‘the perimeters of our attention’ and to the tacit and blatant acts of border control committed by the community –language is but one exclusionary force– can we begin to delineate the problem of alterity within the art world. The art world needs to constantly question its practices, identify its repellent behaviours, question its own legitimacy.

Thank goodness for art’s wild, intractable nature, so much so that it won’t –will not ever– fit into a camp, a shelter, a politics, a discourse. The art world will always by its nature be plagued by the dilemma of xenophobia. And it will remain impermeable and impoverished as long as it blinkers itself to the disobedient, often wrinkled, strangers babbling in odd languages and making unrecognisable gestures, turning their backs–with joy even–at its margins.




1. Krzysztof Wodiczko, Critical Vehicles (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1999), 208.
2. Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, trans. M.B. Smith (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1999).
3. From a conversation with the artist, London, September 2009.
4. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), 154.
5. Ibid., 154.
6. Wodiczko, op. cit., 208.