Approximation to the West Joaquín Barriendos Rodríguez

Although it is difficult to believe today, non-Western contemporary art has not formed a part of international exhibitions for very long. Only a few decades ago, what was referred to as universal contemporary art was actually made up of work produced exclusively by Western or Westernized artists, and the exhibition organizers—it seems incredible, but curators did not exist either—were all also from the Western mainstream. Needless to say, all the cultural institutions which gave life to the production, creation, and promotion of international contemporary art were also in the hands of Western or Westernized managers.

Peripheral art was therefore destined for “historical” or ethnographic museums, as if the development of contemporary and post-modern art was restricted and concentrated to an ecumenical field. The labels of primitive and naive that the West had placed on all that was left out of the cartography of the modernizing process meant that the periphery carried the disgrace of economic marginality and avant-garde repetition. The profitability of the periphery within the contemporary exhibition circuit was therefore not in any condition to be adequately calculated. The animosity which was experienced by the center toward those antipodes of modernity thus overshadowed the exchange value of their contemporary cultural merchandise.

However, the current situation is fundamentally different. In just two and a half decades the geography of contemporary art and the market of international aesthetics went from being exclusive and centralized to being omnivorously embracing. Everywhere we look, we can see biennials, fairs, conferences and exhibitions taking place, all explicitly international, in which Maghrebi, Sub-Saharan, South-Asian, Central-Asian, South American, Central American, Chicano, Eastern European artists and those from (apparently) any other place on the planet harmoniously coexist with North American and Central European artists. In a very short time the mainstream broke out of its limited territory and went searching for the periphery. Alterity, the exotic, and the diverse, or “the Other,” awoke the interest of museums, galleries, macroexhibitions, and commercial fairs of contemporary art, as in the old times of colonial expansion. Even such territorially and culturally distant groups as the Inuits were represented the last Kassel Documenta—a new arena for contemporary art.

In the blink of an eye, presenting multicultural art became the raw material of all international exhibitions. The West was eager for alterity, and when emerging cultures heard its calling, they “responded well, on all levels, with new peripheral experiences.”1 Through this economic capitalization of the marginal sphere, the “active periphery” was set in motion. This generated an additional value in global contemporary art which reactivated the market and the circulation of legitimately “exotic” but potentially international contemporary merchandise through the capitalization of its most characteristic and stigmatized value: its marginal peripherality.

The inclusion of cultural diversity and the acknowledgment of peripheral art played a decisive role in the process of “biennialification” of contemporary art, which Darío Corbeira called the institutionalization (one year on, one year off) of the practices of promotion of contemporary art.2 Anything resembling the West lost power, and everything that was different, that had alterity, was asked for maximal explanations, originalities and particularities. The more eccentric the character of the diversity was, the more likely it was that it would be included in an exhibition of contemporary international art. The era of global culture and market was born and in the complex assemblage of its puzzle, accompanied by its cartographical infiltration of all orders of everyday life, contemporary aesthetics were called upon to become a key element of its articulation. As Iván de la Nuez pointed out, “politics (read neocolonialist politics) would not be continued by war this time—as Clausewitz argued and which had been earnestly happening throughout the whole continent during the 1970s—but by aesthetics.”3

This history of the incorporation of the periphery into the mainstream of contemporary global cultures, despite its vertiginousness—or maybe thanks to it—is far from being the history of a true deconquest. Although it coincided with the so-called “postcolonial period,” this process of absorption of the artistic geography sinks its roots in a profound crisis of the West and in the unavoidable consequences of colonial modernity which persists under new models of deterritorializing domination through the management of cultural values and representations.


1 / Iván de la Nuez, “Arte Latinoamericano y globalización,” L’art a finals del segle XX, ed. Xavier Antich, Universitat de Girona, Girona 2002, p. 108.

2 / Darío Corbeira, “La bienalización del arte contemporáneo,” Brumaria, no. 2, Brumaria, Madrid 2003.

3 / De la Nuez, “La bienalización del arte contemporáneo,” p. 109–110.