Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Curator Essays: Generation 1.5

CONSIDERING 1.5 by Tom Finkelpearl

I. The fresh eyes of an alienated insider.

In 1964, V.S. Naipul -- a 1.5 Generation Trinidadian-British intellectual of Indian descent – published his rather nasty travelogue on India, An Area of Darkness. In the book, he argues that Mahatma Gandhi was the least Indian of Indian leaders. “He looked at India as no Indian was able to,” wrote Naipaul, “His vision was direct and this directness was, and is, revolutionary. He sees exactly what the visitor sees; he does not ignore the obvious.” And why was Gandhi able to see India so clearly? Naipaul argues that it was, “because he was in part colonial. He settled finally in India when he was forty-six after spending twenty years in South Africa. There he had seen an Indian community removed from the setting of India; contrast made for clarity, criticism and discrimination for self-analysis” Naipaul could be writing about himself, of course. Both having left home at 18, Gandhi and Naipaul were educated in Britain, and both experienced the life of a diasporic Indian community – Gandhi in South Africa, Naipaul in his native Trinidad. But while Naipaul certainly shares Gandhi’s ability to “see what a visitor sees” he also acknowledges that part of his experience in India was integration. “For the first time in my life, I was one of the crowd.” He was an alienated insider, able to blend in, but not too familiar. It is often noted that an author cannot edit her own text. She knows it too intimately, understands it too well, has internalized its rhythms too completely. She needs a set of “fresh eyes” to see what is actually on the page. Critical intelligence is aided by distance. Just so, Naipaul seems to say, a native who never left can not see his homeland.

Forty years after Naipaul lambasted the land of his forefathers, Suketu Mehta wrote an equally fresh-eyed account of India: Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Mehta, a 1.5er who left Bombay for New York (yes, Queens) at the age of 15, has a similar insider-outsider vision of the sub-continent. He told me that he could never have written Maximum City if he did not leave. But he certainly could not have written it if he were not “one of the crowd.” In the book, he accomplishes one tour de force of behind-the-scenes reportage after another, even getting an audience with the mega-gangster Chotta Shakeel. I could not imagine a non-Indian being able to penetrate with his degree of success. But Mehta’s dismay at the difficulties of getting gas for his stove ring of the outsider, the transplanted New Yorker put out by the inconvenience of it all – similar in content, though kinder in tone, to Naipaul’s exasperation with the hyper-indifferent bureaucracy that forced him to register his bottle of liquor when he arrived in India. In Maximum City, Mehta veers from describing his teenage longing for his beloved Bombay, to the destructive hatreds that fuel communal violence, from the excesses of Bollywood, to a Jain renunciation -- but his vision remains clear. Is clarity of vision a characteristic unique to 1.5ers? Of course not. But bi-culturalism can give you a head start in understanding both sides of the fence.

Though their visions of India were quite different, Gandhi, Naipaul, and Mehta all see “what a visitor sees” and more. They see freshly what the insiders see. In some ways I am reminded of the Romantic poet’s idealization of seeing the world with the eyes of child or Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of defamiliarization. But these notions, both cornerstones of Western modern art, are more focused on seeing the everyday as new. Neither addresses cross-cultural vision. In a conversation, Mehta suggested that the 1.5 Generation is “neither here nor there.” Quite true but also both here and there: At home in multiples settings, never without the clarity of contrast, the “discrimination for self-analysis.” This vision seems to be a gift – if not to the 1.5 generation artist, then to those who can see through their eyes.

II. Seeing difference

In Queens, immigration is a present topic, a lived experience even if you are native born. Immigration patterns enrich our lives, make for confusing communication (usually handled with humor), and has supported the middle class nature of Queens for many decades. But for artists here as elsewhere, biography is a contested framework for an exhibition. There is a degree of uneasiness with themes like “New Art from Korea” because the artists seem to be reduced to their ethnic identity, and even that seems so vague these days. After all, who is really Taiwanese? It is well known that a majority of Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese. Just as important, do you need to live on an island to be included in a Caribbean show? If not, how long did you need to have lived there? In 2000, as the North American Commissioner of the Gwangju Biennale, I invited Nicki Lee, who grew up in Korea as an American artist, while Kim Hong-hee invited Byron Kim, who was born and bred here in the U.S. (of Korean descent) to represent Korea. It is all mixed up these days, and to a large degree this is a good thing. Artists routinely represent different countries in Biennials – Lee Mingwei represented Taiwan in Venice in 2004, a nice follow-up to his project at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003. Emily Jacir participated in the Whitney Biennial in 2004 but was listed as Palestinian in the Gwangju Biennale that same year. We claimed her as a Queens artist in our own Queens International in 2002. Ellen Harvey says she is seen as an American artist in England but an English artist in America. Shirin Neshat is listed on ArtNet as an Iranian artist but was a US representative in Istanbul Biennial in 1995. And so on. It would be difficult to argue that any of these designations is wrong, but they are obviously contradictory. These artists do have multiple identities. But do these artists’ multiple identities make a difference in their work? At some level, of course, I am claiming that they do, though I would not want to argue that this is a determining factor in all or most artistic decisions that they make, conscious or unconscious. Why is Suketu Mehta more sympathetic and empathetic in his descriptions of India that V.S. Naipaul? Is it because he actually grew up in India? I think it is probably because he is a more generous person, a characteristic that is independent of his immigration status. So, why not simply agree that we are all human, and ignore biography all together?

Ellen Langer, a professor of Psychology at Harvard, has written, “most attempts to combat prejudice have been aimed at reducing our tendency to categorize other people.” The standard argument, she says, is that if we could just see everyone as a “human being” then we all would be seen as equal and all would be well. However, she says, categorization is a fundamental human activity, and she goes on to argue that a better way to combat prejudice might be to “make more, rather than fewer, distinctions among people.” In discussing our perceptions and prejudices of people with disabilities, she writes, “If we keep in mind the importance of context and the existence of multiple perspectives we see that the perception of skills and handicaps changes constantly depending on the situation and the point of the observer. Such awareness prevents us from regarding a handicap as a person’s identity.” When I read this, it rang true to me. The more you know about groups, the finer your distinctions become, and mindless prejudice is replaced with knowledge. For example, earlier in my life, growing up in mono-cultural Harvard, Massachusetts and in Poughkeepsie, New York, I had a sense of “Asian” as a general category. I had never actually met anyone from Asia. On the other hand, I had a refined set of distinctions when it came to class and religious differences within the Catholic and Protestant communities that surrounded me in Massachusetts, or of the various sorts of Jews and WASPs that inhabited my school in Poughkeepsie. As I went through college and came to New York, I began to meet a more diverse group of people, and began to see differences in East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian friends. Meeting and marrying an American Born Chinese (ABC) woman obviously made a difference as did her active participation in the nascent Asian-American art scent. Then I began to travel, particularly six or seven trips to Korea. As I got to know Koreans, I learned about the North-South political partition, but also about the East-West division in South Korea. I know that there is a style difference between the Easterners from Pusan and the Westerners from Gwangju, and certainly the differences between both of those and the cosmopolitan folks from Seoul up north near the border, and of course the differences between the Christians and Buddhists. The more I go to Korea or hang out with Koreans, the smaller the categories get, and the more critical I might be if someone makes a broad statement about Koreans. Also, I feel that this greater amount of information helps me not see “Korean” as the identity of the people I have met. It is way more complex than that.

Better understanding small categories can help you accurately understand tendencies and tastes. This has certainly been understood by the geniuses of micro-marketing on the internet. How does Amazon.com know what I want to buy? Because their program looks closely at what I buy and compares it to what people “like me” have bought. Instead of marketing to my general demographic – they look at my individual profile, and it is scary how right they can be. The more I buy, the better they get at predicting what else I might like. Just last week Amazon suggested that I might want to buy Claire Bishop’s book on collaboration in art. I snapped it up. Why hadn’t anyone else told me about the book? Certainly Amazon does not look at me as “just a human being like everyone else.”

So it is this sort of nuanced vision that provides a justification for organizing a show around the topic of Generation 1.5. It is a refinement of our normal categories of “native” and “immigrant.” It is a smaller category, allowing us to “make more, rather than fewer, distinctions among people.” It seems to me that the notion of finer categories is also characteristic of many of the 1.5ers I have met. Their life circumstances have put them in the position to be mindful of difference

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