Greg Girard, “Paper Boy (“Stars and Stripes”), Yokota Air Base, Japan” (2008) (image © Greg Girard/Courtesy the artist and Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver and Toronto)

“Wow your accent sounds so amazing,” is a phrase I often hear when people detect my South African accent. Whereas this is usually a compliment — and I accept it graciously — it can also have the effect of creating a distance between me and the other person if they aren’t South African. In short, it can often clarify that they belong to this place and I am an alien in their territory. But as pop star Sting’s pithy “legal alien” phrase comes to mind I quickly snap out of my self-imposed victimization. Of late, however, it has been quite obvious that the art world still propagates a fascination with the “other.”

David Mckenzie’s work at “Ungovernables.” He described as born in Jamaica and working in NY. (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

Attending Ungovernables at the New Museum — after reading Thomas Micchelli’s savvy review of Adrián Villar Rojas’ work — I was dumbfounded that the curator Eungie Joo had purposefully imported a representative artist from every corner of the “other” globe and brought them to New York to be reinstated as exactly that … the “Others.”

With only two artists from the United States the rest of the exhibition comprised works shown primarily in isolation, premised by the artist’s name, origin and a lengthy text explaining the work in context to the history of its place and circumstances around which it originated.

Many of the works cannot be understood in isolation without this context making “place” and “situation” integral and relevant indicators of artistic practice. Am I the only one feeling like a peeping tom at being given a glimpse of a world I have not, and most likely will never, be a part of? Is the superficial understanding gained through an exhibition text all we need to get by? If so, the “other” will always be unfathomable and meekly understood.

Greg Girard, “Air Force Exchange, Osan Air Base, Korea” (2008) (image © Greg Girard/Courtesy the artist and Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver and Toronto)

The lady doth protest too much? She continues … The International Center for Photography (ICP) Perspectives exhibition — the second annual exhibition of the series—is a novel take on an annual survey exhibition. Instead of a superficial overview of a group of artists the ICP selects three photographers to exhibit a selection of work from a representative series they are working on. This affords the viewer the opportunity to learn about the artist and their subject matter in depth. This year, the three selected artists dealt with the idea of what it meant to be from elsewhere and reside in the USA, or in Greg Girard’s case be part of the US military and be stationed in a base camp in the Pacific. In this way, the exhibition gave three unique perspectives of immigrant communities, perspectives that shared in common not only the idea of being displaced, but also preconceived ideas in the approach to dealing with the “other.” In all three bodies of work the USA was situated as the place of residence and well being and the center. The Jewish community, working class men in Chinatown and Japan (despite the fact that the US bases are portrayed as colonizing the area, America is Girard’s point of departure) are situated as the periphery and therefore remain “other.”

Chien-Chi Chang’s diptychs of New York’s Chinatown and China compare and contrast the two landscapes. (Photo courtesy ICP, New York)

If art is a global language and globalization ever-present, why is emphasizing the “other” so topical and prefaced as the entry point to understanding these artworks? Perhaps the curators are providing their audience something to brush up against in order to understand who “we” are in relation to the rest of the world — the “other” telling us who we are not and how we differ. At least in the process the “other” is becoming a little more accessible, less unknown and therefore a little less scary at a safe distance arms length to our center.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...