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The past few years have seen an important shift within the art world. The exclusivity and cultural assumptions of the mainstream have been roundly challenged on a number of fronts. Fueled initially in Britain and North America by the sense of outrage from artists and critics of African, Caribbean, Latino, and Asian descent at their exclusion, the debate has now moved on to trying to define what is meant by internationalism for the visual arts in a postmodern culture. The spotlight has shifted from the traditional European/North American axis. How to present exhibitions which take account of artistic practice around the world has become a key concern for curators.
This situation naturally raises as many problems as it purports to solve. The spectacle of curators traveling the globe like anthropologists seeking to 'discover' new and exciting work gives rise to doubts about whether the shift of emphasis can go beyond a jaded art world's desire for rejuvenation through the appropriation of work from hitherto ignored parts of the world.
Nevertheless, this cultural shift is important. At the recent Venice Biennale, some of the most exciting work was to be found outside the main venue, the Giardini. "Transculture," curated by Fumio Nanjo, brought together fifteen artists from a number of countries including China, Brazil, Singapore and the United States as well as the Irish exhibition by Kathy Prendergast and Shane Cullen. Here, being on the margins at the Biennale had a distinct advantage, throwing the tired old format of the national pavilions into sharp relief.
The challenge must now be to move beyond a narrowly defined discussion about mainstream and periphery, inclusion and exclusion, and to recognise that, in the words of Uruguayan artist, critic and author Luis Camnitzer, ". . . the issue is not our access to the mainstream, but the mainstream's access to us. Only put this way can the mainstream act as a resonance box for our activities without eviscerating us."
This exhibition, "Distant Relations: A Dialogue Among Chicano, Irish and Mexican Artists," was first proposed to us four years ago. The premise, bringing together the work of artists from two countries in different continents, opens up a new discussion about cultural difference. Ireland and Mexico, on the surface two very different countries, have much in common and the more the project progressed, the clearer it became that this was not an artificial curatorial imposition.
From the outset, it was important that the framework for the show should not be a straitjacket. The intention was never to illustrate a theory about identity, but to give artists the space to contribute in whatever way they felt was appropriate. A crucial aspect of the project was the enthusiasm with which all the artists agreed to participate as well as the different ways they responded. Some chose to travel to the other country, others did not. Ultimately, it was the possibility of new meanings arising from the interplay between the work and the responses of audiences in England, Ireland, the United States and Mexico which would create the essential dialogue.
We hope that by juxtaposing work by artists of Irish and Mexican descent, the exhibition will encourage our audiences to question stereotypical assumptions, and to explore with an open mind similarities and differences of response to cultural situations through the work of living artists.
The exhibition and anthology could only have come about as a result of the support of many people. First we must express our gratitude to the artists, whose patience and commitment to the project have been invaluable. We would also like to thank all the contributing authors to this fascinating anthology, and the composers for creating new works for the accompanying compact disc. Finally, we are indebted to the curator, Trisha Ziff, without whose tireless energy and ability to convince key people of the importance of this project, the exhibition and this publication could not have happened.
Elizabeth A. Macgregor - Director, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK
Jenni Lomax - Director, Camden Arts Centre, London
Declan McGonagle -Director, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
Located on the edge of the Pacific Rim, the city of Santa Monica possesses the charm of a sleepy seaside community and yet is situated at the geographical crossroads of a hugely complex multiethnic metropolis. It is estimated that eighty-five separate languages are spoken in the Los Angeles County school system alone, and that by the year 2000 the non-Caucasian population will comprise two-thirds of the total population. The 1990 census reported that racial and ethnic minorities represented more than 59 percent of the county's 9 million people. As the demographics of Los Angeles County shift, and rapid changes continue to challenge our civic, social, and cultural institutions, the role, function, and responsibility of institutions like the Santa Monica Museum of Art are critical to the well-being of this community. It is for this reason that exhibitions like "Distant Relations" are of interest, for they provide a forum for dialogue between distant peoples.
Since its inception, the Santa Monica Museum of Art has sought to revitalize and redefine the relationship with the communities and artists that it serves. By presenting works by artists seldom seen in either the greater Los Angeles area or West Los Angeles, including work by artists whose beliefs or outlook may differ from those of the dominant American culture, the Santa Monica Museum of Art seeks to cultivate global dialogue among people of diverse backgrounds and aesthetic values. With the example of the "Distant Relations" exhibition, this leads invariably to a transcultural awareness, providing our audiences with insight into the parallel histories that flourish here, but very seldom emerge.
From its earliest conception four years ago, this exhibition has seen many twists and turns. For an exhibition as unorthodox in conception as "Distant Relations," perhaps this long gestation period was inevitable. A lesser or more feeble show would have simply faded away. It is therefore testimony to the resourcefulness, perseverance, and creativity of Trisha Ziff, the curator of the exhibition and editor of this accompanying anthology, that this exhibition has come to fruition. In bringing together the myriad strands of this exhibition--the participating artists and writers, the collectors and funders, and the participating institutions and governmental support, Trisha has truly orchestrated a wonderful exhibition. Let me thank as well Pilar Perez, without whose fundraising abilities the Santa Monica Museum exhibition simply would not have been possible. It is my fervent hope that this inspired and novel approach to curation serves as a model for other such transcultural explorations.
Thomas Rhoads - Director, Santa Monica Museum of Art
"Distant Relations" will come to Mexico in 1997. As I write this foreword, it does not seem possible to foresee with any clarity the context within which this exhibition will be viewed over a year from now, given the last year of tumult within the country.
In times of crisis and change we inevitably question the role of a Museum of Contemporary Art. Do we as a museum ignore the world beyond our museum walls? Or do we use the museum to address cultural issues that are pertinent to these times? During an economic crisis the arts suffer, and we at this time in Mexico are operating under severe limitations.
However, convinced of the absolute necessity to participate in the global discussion about art, culture, and identity, and the always open questions about what we do as museums, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Carrillo Gil decided to create a page on the World Wide Web--to avoid drying up and withering in isolation. Thus, when "Distant Relations" arrives in Mexico, the final stop on its tour, we can provide an international platform for a discussion of issues raised by the exhibition and catalogue that will not be limited by distance or budget.
"Distant Relations" is a dialogue between artists from cultures that have been subjected for generations, both directly and indirectly, to foreign domination and pressures. The intention of the exhibition is to provoke discussion on the issues we ruminate over constantly--art, culture, and identity.
Finally it is about people--creative people--the Irish in Ireland and in Britain; the Mexican in Mexico; and the Chicano in the United States.
We are looking forward to hosting the exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Carrillo Gil.