Tag Archives: Carnegie Museum of Art

Rachel Harrison: Expanded or Abandoned Field?


Rachel Harrison, Pablo Escobar, 2010, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In mid-July, I had the pleasure of visiting Chicago for the first time. We arrived in the middle of a mid-west heat wave, which was not all that conducive for sightseeing, but terrific weather to explore the magnificent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute is such a wonderful institution; I could have spent all day amongst their extraordinary collection of European modernism, not to mention their superb selection of pre-War American paintings. One work I was particularly pleased to see was Rachel Harrison’s Pablo Escobar 2010. This is a fine piece, and Harrison is an artist that I very much admire; coming across it on the second floor was a very welcome surprise.


Rachel Harrison, Pablo Escobar, 2010 (with detail of plastic chilli peppers).

Like many of Harrison’s best works, Pablo Escobar balances the gravitas of conceptual abstraction with an appealing playfulness and humor. The kitchy plastic peppers and garish Latino palette, are the perfect foil for the work’s faux-modernist angularity. Unfortunately, the curators have placed the work at the end of a roped off corridor, meaning that it is impossible to view Pablo Escobar in the round. This situation would be problematic for almost any piece of modern or contemporary sculpture; but the difficulties are particularly acute in the case of Harrison’s work.


Rachel Harrison, Utopia, 2002, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

In Pittsburgh, we are fortunate to have an equally excellent example of Harrison’s work: Utopia 2002, currently on display as part of the spectacularly re-hung Scaife Galleries. In November 2002, Utopia was reproduced on the cover of Artforum magazine. Set against a crisp white background, the peak of Harrison’s hospital-green polystyrene menhir rises through the centre of the page. Like most photographic reproductions of the work, its is photographed so that the small porcelain figurine that rests upon a ledge of this monolith is seen from behind, casting an inevitable comparison to the famous rückenfigur of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 1818. Like Friedrich’s wanderer, the figure appears absorbed in his environment, contemplating the pallid summit that soars above him.


Artforum, November 2002, and Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany.

The coherence of this photographic image is somewhat different to the physical experience of the work in space. For a start, in order to photograph the porcelain figure from behind, the photograph elides the presence of a second ledge, upon which sits a small geological specimen of metallic encrusted rock.


Rachel Harrison, Utopia, 2002, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

The direction with which the viewer approaches the sculpture determines which of these two objects are encountered first. If however, you approach the sculpture from the “rock” side, before circling the object in a clockwise direction, the first experience of the porcelain figure is not as rückenfigur, but front on, his crudely painted gilded face standing at approximately head height to the viewer. Rather than a figure of serious contemplation, the viewer is confronted with a kitsch mass-produced commodity. This is the kind of “trick” that Stefano Basilico sees in Harrison’s work, flipping expectations and making “the viewer aware of the transition of time in their experience of the work.”[1] Elizabeth Thomas counters, that Harrison is “a teaser, not a trickster,” setting up multipart compositions as part of the artist’s concern “with the act of looking, and of comprehending (or not) the whole field of visual culture that surrounds us.”[2]


Rachel Harrison, Valid Like Salad, 2012 and All in the Family, 2012 (installation image from the exhibition The Help, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, 2012).

Over a century earlier, this question of looking and comprehending the world similarly preoccupied the German sculptor and theorist Adolf von Hildebrand. According to Hildebrand, our relation to the external world is based upon our perception of its spatial attributes. As a result, he concludes, we must consider our perception of space and form as “the most important facts in our conception of the reality of things.”[3] For Hildebrand, the perception of form is not immediately given in visual perception, rather, it is grasped through the combination of visual and kinaesthetic modes of perception, the two modes combining to supply the material for our imagination of three-dimensional forms. For Hildebrand, this is an “impure” understanding, requiring a combination of experiential components. The role of the artist is to unify these components into a purely visual form.

In the artistic representation, we may check and control the relation between our visual and kinaesthetic ideas, and the test, both of these our own ideas and of the efficacy of the artist’s work is – Do we react immediately to the impression received from this representation … This unity which the artist makes of visual impression and kinaesthetic idea, is the most fundamental source of our aesthetic enjoyment in a work of art.”[4]


Adolf von Hilderbrand, Philoket, 1886

This creates a clear difficulty for the sculptor, who, as Hildebrand notes, works in the mental material of kinaesthetic ideas. If the role of the artist is to create a purely visual and immediately recognisable spatial unity, the unity of a sculptor’s work must be dependent on its two-dimensional image. Hildebrand even asserts the primacy of drawing, arguing that “sculpture has undoubtedly evolved from drawing; by giving depth to a drawing we make it a relief.”[5] It is relief sculpture that Hildebrand sees as the format par excellence for the capturing of form, in which spatial unity remains bound to a simple, understandable spatial unity. For Hildebrand, even sculpture in the round is conceived of as relief, as the sculptor works towards extracting a single, unified form by imagining the work from a single vantage point. This is contrasted to modelling in clay; where sculpture extracts an image from a spatial unity (the block), modelling works in the entirely wrong direction, starting with kinaesthetic ideas: “That which is not modelled is entirely lacking as volume. No general element of clay exists beyond that which is modelled.”[6]


Adolf von Hildebrand: Amazonenjagd (Mittelteil aus dem Amazonentriptychon), 1887/88

In her 1977 text Passages in Modern Sculpture, Rosalind Krauss positions Hildebrand’s argument as the articulation of a peculiarly neoclassical worldview. Like Hildebrand, Krauss also sees relief sculpture as the ultimate expression of this worldview. “The rationalist model, on which neoclassicism depends, holds within it two basic suppositions: the context through which understanding unfolds is time; and, for sculpture, the natural context of rationality is the medium of relief.”[7] Following from Hildebrand’s espousal of the instantaneousness of visual appreciation, Krauss argues that the medium of relief links the visibility of the sculpture with the comprehension of its meaning: from the single viewing point “all the implications of gesture, all the significance of form, must naturally devolves.”

Relief thus makes it possible for the viewer to understand two reciprocal qualities simultaneously: form and meaning. Just as the enlightenment heralded man’s capacity to understand the world through reason, the relief “aspires to comprehend and project the movement of historical time and man’s place within it.”[8] This also explains the neo-classical tendency to depict figures from multiple vantage points, in order to transcend the partial information any single aspect coveys, and to find an ideal vantage point that will contain the totality of information necessary for a conceptual grasp of the object. “Throughout the nineteenth century,” Krauss concludes, “sculptors continually tried to provide the viewer with information about those unseen (and of course unseeable) sides of whole objects imbedded within relief ground”[9]


Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1817

In essence, this argument does not depart substantially from Hildebrand, with the key exception that Krauss sees this as symptomatic of a particular epistemological moment, whereas Hildebrand sees it as the expression of a universal, aesthetic law. In noting that sculpture is a “historically bounded category and not a universal one,” Krauss argues that modern sculpture marks a paradigm shift in which logic of sculpture began to change.[10] For Krauss, this transition is clearly evidenced in the work of Rodin, in whose work, she argues the omniscience of neoclassical relief is replaced with an entirely different subjectivity: “This picture of the self as enjoying a privileged and direct relationship to the contents of its own consciousness is a picture of the self as basically private and discrete.”[11] In the essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Krauss argues that this sets ups a new problem for sculpture. With Rodin, sculpture enters into the space that Krauss terms its “negative condition.” No longer tied to the condition of the monument, it becomes homeless, functionally placeless and self-referential:

Through its fetishization of the base, the sculpture reaches downward to absorb the pedestal into itself and away from actual place; and through the representation of its own materials or the processes of its construction the sculpture depicts its own autonomy.[12]


Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac, 1891-1898

According to Krauss, this led to a situation in which sculpture could only be defined in the combination of exclusions not-landscape and not-architecture. This space could only be explored for a limited time, and by the 1950s its potential had been largely exhausted. This led Krauss to argue that the sculpture of the 1960s and 70s consisted of an expanded field “generated by problematising the set of oppositions between which the modernist category of sculpture is suspended.”[13] In Pop and Minimalist sculpture, Krauss saw a desire to defeat the idea of a centre towards which forms point or build, rejecting the ideal space that exists prior to experience and the psychological model in which a self exists replete with its meanings prior to contact with its world.[14] This was achieved by pointing to the externality of meaning.

Within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium…but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms … this is obviously a different approach to thinking about the history of form from that of the historicist criticism’s constructions of elaborate genealogical trees. It presupposes the acceptance of definitive rupture and the possibility of looking at historical process from the point of view of logical structure.[15]

In Passages in Modern Sculpture, Krauss concludes with a rhapsodic account of recent works by Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. In these works, she argues, the process that began with Rodin has reached fulfilment. “In every case, the image of passage serves to place both the viewer and the artist before the work, and the world, in an attitude of primary humility in order to encounter the deep reciprocity between himself and it.”[16]


Rachel Harrison, Installation image from the exhibition The Help, Green Naftali Gallery, New York, 2012.

In his 2007 essay on Rachel Harrison, John Kelsey labels the artist’s work “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field.”[17] Kelsey is not the only person to note the antagonistic relationship between Harrison’s sculpture and Krauss’ theorising. Situating Harrison amongst an emergent movement of “unmonumental” contemporary sculptors, Trevor Smith argues: “Though this work appears to be a retreat from Rosalind Krauss’s description of “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” it might be seen more accurately as a strategic bulwark against that field’s potential collapse into culture-at-large.”[18] For Smith, it is not simply that Harrison’s sculptures are “obdurately sculptural,” but that they re-examine pre-minimalist forms of address.

Even though Michael Fried’s landmark 1967 critique of literalism, “Art and Objecthood,” was concerned specifically with the phenomenon of Minimalist sculpture, his warning against the unexacting subject relations found in works that were primarily physical and durational, as opposed to optical and instantaneous remain critical to the discussion.[19]

Harrison’s Utopia does not have the theatricality of minimalism, nor does it evoke the kind of humility espoused by Krauss. In its use of found objects, it does not suggest the kind of self-referentiality of Rodin; neither does its mutlipart composition conform to Hildebrand’s single-view. Laura Hoptman argues that the organization of disparate elements into a coherent narrative is one of the crucial distinctions between 20th and 21st century assemblage. Compositionally, sculptures like Harrision’s Utopia are intended to be holistic, with discrete objects coalescing into a coherent narrative. “Organization,” claims Hoptman, “has superseded chance.”[20]

In the beginning of the twenty-first century, an era of customization in which selections from an almost infinite array of choices are collaged together to create personal soundtracks, social groups, menus, histories and canons, the most interesting artists are the mixers, the mashers and sewers-together, the cobblers of irreproducible one-offs.[21]

Kelsey draws the distinction between between “combines” and “complexes” to describe this difference, noting the highly individualised and personal nature of such customizations.[22] This is not a dissolution of artistic subjectivity, but rather a repositioning, that can be seen in Harrision’s balance of the fabricated versus the readymade. As Elizabeth Thomas notes:

Within a single work, Harrison sets up a complex relationship between the created and the found – it is unclear which was devised for which, whether the specificity of a particular photograph or porcelain figurine completes a sculpture, or whether the sculpture was in fact initiated in response to the objects.[23]


Rachel Harrison, Nose, 2005

This uncertain precedence gives Harrison’s sculptures a sense of contingency, as Kelsey comments: “there is always one more component, and it could be anything … that shows up to antagonise the idea that sculpture will ever be complete or identical to itself.”[24] This indeterminacy between object and plinth, artwork and readymade all suggest that Harrison’s work is not interested in the kind of dialectics between form and appearance, subject and object, duration and space that characterise Krauss and Hildebrand’s approaches to sculpture. Ellen Siefermann claims that, “Harrison’s strategies unsettle, provoke, mislead and destabilize … so that through such dialectical reversals she can immediately collapse them again.”[25]

This brings us back to the two-sided nature of Harrison’s Utopia (and the profound difficulties posed by the Art Institute’s display of Pablo Escobar). In presenting the rückenfigur in the round, Harrison seems to want to both re-inscribe the contemplative viewer while mocking the pretensions of the self-contained modernist artwork; to return meaning to the sculpted form, while keeping one eye firmly on the world outside. In doing so, Harrison does not seek to resolve this opposition, so much as reaffirm it as a space of play, undermining the critical force of both poles.


Rachel Harrison, from left: Pablo Escobar, Around the Water Cooler, Siren Serenade, Signature Roll, installation image, Regen Projects II, Los Angele, 2010.

[1] Stefano Basilico, “Rachel Harrison, Trick and Treat,” in Basilico, cur., Currents 30: Rachel Harrison exhib. cat. (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2002), 22.

[2] Elizabeth Thomas, “Rachel Harrision” in Laura Hoptman, cur., 54th Carnegie International exhib. cat. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2004, 158.

[3] Adolf Hildebrand, The Problem of Form in Painting and Sculpture, trans. Max Meyer and Robert Morris Ogden (New York: G.E. Stechert & Co, 1945), 17.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 125.

[6] Ibid., 134.

[7] Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring, 1979), 33.

[11] Kraus, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 27.

[12] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 34.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Ch.7.

[15] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 44.

[16] Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 283.

[17] John Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” in Heike Munder, cur. Rachel Harrsion: If I Did It, exhib. cat. (Zürich: Kunsthalle Nürnberg, 2007), 120-125.

[18] Trevor Smith, “Sculpture: A Minor Place,” in Laura Hoptman, cur., Unmonumental (New York: New Museum, 2007), 188.

[19] Ibid., 185.

[20] Hoptman, Unmonumnetal, 132-137.

[21] Ibid., 138.

[22] Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” 120.

[23] Thomas, “Rachel Harrison,” 158.

[24] Kelsey, “Sculpture in the Abandoned Field,” 124.

[25] Ellen Siefermann, “Many Layered Objects: Notes on Rachel Harrison’s Strategies,” in in Heike Munder, cur. Rachel Harrsion: If I Did It, 118.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Taking baby to the Museum

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed ideas might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

aug 13 1107

Discussing Carl Andre’s Equivalent V 1966-69, Museum of Modern Art, New York

As it is Friday, I thought I would post something a little bit lighter. In one of my earlier posts this week, I mentioned that museums are a guilty pleasure of mine. One side effect, is that my son Gabriel has found himself pushed around quite a few institutions.  In his short 14 months on the planet, he has been to the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, Toledo Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Brooklyn Museum (just to name a few). It has been really gratifying to see Gabe become so comfortable with the museum environment, pointing excitedly to things he recognizes, clapping and smiling to video installations, or peering curiously at things he finds of interest.


Gabriel (center) enjoying James Turrell’s Aten Reign 2013, Guggenheim Museum, New York

Clearly I am not the only parent who likes the idea of taking their children to museums (indeed, as the modern museum was founded on the idea of public enlightenment and self-improvement, it seems an inevitable result). I am not sure whether art museums can help stimulate cognitive development or produce more enlightened young citizens, but I do know that in my life the arts have always given me great pleasure. More than anything I would like to share that with my son; to inculcate the value of imaginative and poetic pursuits, so that he too can glimpse the myriad ways of seeing the world around us.


Examining El Anatsui’s Bleeding Takari II 2007, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Most major museums now cater to children in some way or another. MoMA and the Chicago Art Institute both have terrific children’s areas. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh has fantastic programs for slightly older kids, and thanks to Daniel Baumann, the Carnegie Museum now has a wonderfully retro Lozziwurm. The Toledo Museum of Art not only has a family center, but also offers “baby tours.” Many museums offer “stroller tours” – but more often than not, these are pitched equally at the parents as the toddlers (a bit like the moms and bubs sessions offered at cinemas). Toledo’s program differs, in that it was designed by Dr. Kathy Danko-McGhee, an expert in early child development. Designed for children from 2-18 months, these tours have a duel purpose: to stimulate cognitive development in young children, and to teach parents and caregivers how to engage babies’ with art, which in turn promotes brain growth and literacy skills. Sensibly, the tours are limited to half-an-hour, to accommodate for babies’ short attention span.  I am yet to take Gabriel on one of these tours, but am hoping we can get to one in the next few months.


Crikey it’s big! Checking out Alexander Calder’s Flamingo 1973, Federal Plaza, Chicago.

As it is Friday, and the end of the first week of my daily blogging exercise, I wanted to throw open the floor to you. What are your thoughts about taking baby to the museum? Do you think there is value in taking small children to museums? Have you had any great experiences, or shocking disasters? Is there a museum you particularly love, or a program that you think warrants commendation? Alternatively, do you think children should be left at home; that museums should be a quiet place for adult contemplation? I really look forward to hearing your thoughts, comments, stories… Till then, see you next week.


I think I’m ready to go Dad! With Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Filed under Blog

Objects of Power and the Power of Objects

Nksis NkondiCarnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Nksis Nkondi
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Passing through a long, elegant gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, its walls lined with masterpieces of nineteenth century European Impressionism, you come to a small dimly lit chamber. Peering out from within the darkness, your gaze is fixed by a pair of ivory white eyes. They draw you into the gloomy recess, where you are confronted by a fearsome figure; his right arm held above him ready to attack, his wide-mouthed scowl revealing two chipped and jagged teeth. You recoil briefly before realizing that all is safe: the brute is trapped within a Perspex case, and on further inspection you find that he is weighed down with a messy assortment of slings and arrows that pierce his body, a mélange of rusted nails sticking out in every direction. [Fig.1].

The figure is a nkisi (plural minkisi) of the type known as nkondi (plural minkondi) from the Congo basin in west central Africa. Nkisi is a general term referring to spirits and the objects that house them. Nkondi refers more specifically to the category of objects once referred to as nail fetishes but now more diplomatically called power figures.[1] Although the precise practices varied over time and place, nkisi nkondi were generally produced by nganga (ritual specialists), who would work in conjunction with a supplicant or a separate artisan. The carved figure (usually humanoid, but occasionally taking the form of an animal such as a dog or panther) would act as a container, which would be animated and empowered by the insertion of a parcel of medicine (bilongo). In the case of the Carnegie Museum nkisi, this parcel would have been sealed into the now empty cavity on the figure’s belly. Once animated by the nganga, supplicants would drive nails and other objects into the nkisi in order to enrage the spirit into action for the purposes of vengeance, protection, healing, or dispute resolution. In other instances, minkondi could be used to sanction an oath; if the oath were broken, the spirit would be released to hunt down the party that breached the agreement.[2] Reflecting this function, nkisi nkondi are often depicted in the pose of hunters, and the word nkondi is derived from the word konda meaning “to hunt.”[3] The Carnegie Museum nkisi is a fine illustration of this, and it is likely that its raised hand would have originally held a knife or spear.[4]

The nkisi in the Carnegie Museum is a striking object, but one of a kind that can be found in museums across America and Europe. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago all house impressive examples of minkondi. But is it appropriate to exhibit these objects in the context of a western art museum? On the one hand, they appear incommensurate with the western concept of art: they are functional objects whose efficacy was measured in ritual/magical terms and not aesthetic criteria; they were never intended as objects of autonomous aesthetic contemplation; moreover, they were often produced communally, bearing the scars of their shared use. Is it an act of interpretive violence to include these objects in a museum, where they are largely stripped of their context and become admired for their aesthetic impact or formal effect? Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to both their ubiquity in western museums and the conceptual challenges they pose, nkisi nkondi are frequently cited by those trying to grapple with the most basic questions of the anthropology of art.[5] Is art a universal category? Is it possible, practical, or even ethical to consider aesthetics cross-culturally? What kind of theoretical category could possibly embrace minkondi alongside a portrait by Gainsborough, an Islamic girih mosaic or a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol?

These types of questions gained a degree of urgency in the wake of post-colonialism, when the hierarchies of western vision came under scrutiny across all disciplines of the humanities.[6] As western conceptual artists sought to push the boundaries of what constituted art (a performance? a text? a urinal?), art historians and anthropologists drew attention to the fact that, not only was the category of “primitive art” a western creation designed to enforce hierarchical cultural distinctions, but the entire notion of aesthetic autonomy was a western epistemological eccentricity.[7] While such critiques were often overshadowed by the vehemence of their righteous indignation (and their tendency to homogenize western cultural attitudes), their basic premise was a valuable one: categorical distinctions such as “primitive art” and “fine art” were created and perpetuated by a social context designed to exalt western cultural achievements, while denigrating the art of non-western cultures as conceptually or formally inferior, positioning it on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder, while denying its coevality by placing the supposedly non-modern “primitive” in a less developed temporal frame.[8]  This paper considers minkondi within the context of these debates. In particular, it focuses on two contrasting theories of art, developed by Howard Morphy and Alfred Gell in an attempt to create a methodological framework for the interpretation and appreciation of art objects.

Nkisi NkondiMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Nkisi Nkondi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Minkondi present several grounds for disputing the hegemony of the western category of art. Far from being the relics of a primeval past, most minkondi housed in American and European museums are intrinsically linked to the forces of modernity. Like the Carnegie Museum example, most of these were created between 1875 and 1825; the period when the ethnographic “scramble” for African art began in earnest.[9] As Enid Schildkrout and Curtis Keim note, cultural objects from the Congo had been making their way to Europe since the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, but it was in the late nineteenth century as scientific and ethnographic theories of evolution created a new interest in “primitive” cultures that such objects began to be systematically acquired in significant volume.[10] Spurred by the emergence of orthogenetic theories of evolution, ethnographers clambered to collect these supposed relics of authentic primitive cultures for the information they could shed on the development of humanity. However, far from proving these spurious teleological theories of cultural development, minkondi point to more complex processes of cultural transaction and exchange. For although Zdenka Volavkova finds historical record of the creation and use of minkondi dating back to 1676,[11] and Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen suggest that the practice could have been current a century earlier,[12] Kasja Ekholm Friedman shows that there is significant reason to believe that the usage of these objects developed as a modern response to the changing social and cultural circumstances created by colonialism.[13]

While Friedman recognizes that the practice of nkisi nkondi was undoubtedly present before colonization, she argues that it played a relatively minor role alongside practices of ancestor worship and other religious observances. The flourishing of minkisi cults of the late nineteenth century was due to a combination of factors, including the spread of new diseases, the destruction of traditional authority structures in which Earth Gods and Kings were expected to intercede between subjects and the spirit realm, and the arrival of Christian theology which encouraged individual communication with God. Thus, according to Friedman, the rise in fetishism should be seen as “a product of dissolution and crisis.” [14] While critics of “primitivism” often put questions of representation on a temporal structure, Friedman’s conclusion suggests that fetish objects are a modern phenomenon and a response to the conditions of (an albeit alternative) modernity. As Jean and John Comaroff affirm, practices such as witchcraft and fetishism are integral to the experience of the contemporary world. They should not be seen as a return to pre-modern, irrational forms, but as part of a dynamic modernity constructed through the processes of globalization.[15] In such a context, minkondi can be seen as a hybrid cultural form, forged through exchange and coalescence.

If, in this sense, minkondi test the limits of our Eurocentric conception of modernity, they pose a similar challenge to the western category of art. It is not that minkondi are incommensurate with western art objects, but rather, it is their similarities that draw attention to the antinomies within such categorical distinctions. As Wyatt MacGaffey wryly observes, “Magic has been regarded as a bizarre phenomenon, the artness of art has not.”[16] Noting the rampant commodity fetishism inherent in the art market, along with the hushed reverence and quasi-religious status accorded artworks as the “embodiments of spiritual value,” MacGaffey concludes that, “the Kongo attitude towards fetishes is not all that different from the gallery-goer’s attitude to art.”[17] It is, perhaps, possible to take this argument even further, as Rachel Moore does in her study of modern cinema, in which she argues that the dual concepts of magic and the primitive were invoked by modern film-makers in order to overcome the disavowal of sensuous resonance that had made the connection between sign and signifier seem arbitrary and conventional in modern language. For Moore, modern cinema works precisely as a fetish, reconnecting sign practice with the physical act of expressive transaction.[18] It is noteworthy that this concept of magic corresponds almost precisely to the definition of art offered in R.G. Collingwood’s famous treatise The Principles of Art published in 1938.[19]

Unlike Collingwood, however, MacGaffey does not advocate a universal category of art, and ultimately resigns himself to the limits of cultural translation and exchange.[20] Rather, MacGaffey’s intention is to move beyond what he sees as a spurious distinction between function and aesthetic autonomy, towards a definition of art as a form of social agency. In doing, he draws upon the theoretical armature of Alfred Gell, who argues that the anthropology of art should be the theoretical study of “social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency.”[21] According to Gell:

Nothing is decidable in advance about the nature of [the art] object, because the theory is premised on the idea that the nature of the art object is a function of the social-relational matrix to which it is embedded. It has no ‘intrinsic’ nature, independent of the relational context.[22]


Nkisi Nkondi
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This line of thinking could easily be confused with the pure relativism of an institutional theory of art as theorized by Arthur Danto, in which art is defined as whatever is treated as art by the institutionally recognized art world.[23] Gell is quick to refute such a claim,[24] proposing instead that it was possible to consider art as a special form of technology, defined by the role it plays in advancing social relationships constructed through agency: “I view art as a system of action intended to change the world, rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”[25] For Gell, the art object is a mediating object in human actions: “the anthropology of art, to reiterate, is just anthropology itself, except that it deals with those situations in which there is an ‘index of agency’ which is normally some kind of artifact.”[26] These create “art like situations” – which, he argues can normally be recognized intuitively – in which the material index permits the abduction of specifically social agency.

Gell’s theory provides a useful starting point to move beyond western assumptions about art and aesthetics. His desire to sidestep the symbolic and aesthetic elements of art is driven by the recognition that such analysis can only ever start from a position informed by western assumptions.[27] As Robert Layton notes, Gell does not deny that works of art often contain an aesthetic dimension, but is conscious that the “aesthetic attitude” is a specific historic product of western epistemology.[28] However, as Layton and other critics have been quick to point out, by focusing on social action over signification Gell ignores the ways in which aesthetic and semantic elements contribute to the efficacy of this social action.[29]

This criticism is been leveled with particular force by Howard Morphy for whom these elements are central to the definition of art. For Morphy, “art objects are ones with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes (but in most cases both), that are used for presentational purposes.”[30] In simple terms, the difference between Gell and Morphy’s theories might be seen as a matter of focus: whereas Gell’s interest is in assessing what art does, (ie. what makes an art-like situation) for Morphy, it is the how question that is paramount. [31] The anthropology of art, he argues, “must engage with the study of form at the micro level, seeing in the production of art objects a form of agency that arises from bodies of knowledge.”[32] To ignore these elements, equates to a failure to account for the role of human agency in artistic production and the precise ways in which art operates as a mode of action.

This is not to say that Morphy discounts the role of art as a mode of social action, but rather, that understanding the nature of this agency requires some account of the role of symbolic meaning and aesthetic effect. Morphy is equally aware of the assumptions that underpin western categories of art and aesthetics. Unlike Gell, however, he is not prepared to side-step them completely in his discussion of art. This creates an inevitable tension. On the one hand, Morphy argues that art must be considered within the cultural context of its creation: “the set of objects that fall within the category of art objects have to be determined in each particular case in the context of the society concerned.”[33] On the other, he notes the necessarily biased cultural position of the ethnographer: “The anthropological category is an analytic one and will not necessarily conform to any category explicitly recognized by a particular society.”[34] In some ways, Morphy tries to have it both ways: under the judgment of Congo society, nkondi may well not be considered art works at all, but under Morphy’s analytical category (“objects with aesthetic and/or semantic attributes that are used for presentational purposes) they most certainly would be. It is, as Morphy admits, a fuzzy category containing “a series of overlapping polythetic sets,” but one that he maintains is useful in differentiating art objects from other objects, “even if the boundaries of the category are fuzzy around the edges.”[35]

It is to the aid of this differentiation that Morphy maintains his attachment to the symbolic elements of art, in order to create a useful category for cross-cultural analysis. One of the problems with Gell’s theory of art is its broad inclusivity, which can be stretched to include almost any object in which the material index can be used for the abduction of agency. Gell encourages this by offering the examples of guns and land mines as objects that extend agency. Layton chides the author:

Gell cites land mines as agents of the evil intent in the minds of Pol Pot’s soldiers. Pol Pot’s soldiers used them as extensions of their own agency. This is a misleading parallel. Art objects do not have the same kind of agency as mantraps or poisoned arrows. If Pol Pot’s soldiers had spent their time burying pictures of the Mona Lisa, or even pictures of Pol Pot, there would not be so many Cambodians whose lives today have been ruined by shattered limbs.[36]

Brooklyn Museum Nkisi

Nkisi Nkondi
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Certainly, Gell’s theory seems excessively broad, and yet, even with Morphy’s caveats, the question of theorizing the agency of matter – or more specifically, the intersection of human and material agency – remains a vexing problem for both Moprhy and Gell. Indeed, it is worth noting the affinities between Gell and Morphy’s theorizing of art and Nicole Boivan’s more general attempt to negotiate the relationship between the material and cognitive worlds. While Boivan is far less interested in the kind of categorical distinctions that occupy Gell and Morphy, her conclusions on the interconnection of the material and mental worlds end up looking remarkably similar.[37]

Like Morphy, Boivan sees material objects as being both integral to social relations, but also closely related to the ideational aspects of society, where it enters back into culture. For Morphy, this is one of the defining features of art: “art does not simply reflect culture (ie. act as a structural analogue for society) it is integral to the processes of its reproduction and transformation over time.”[38] In response to Gell’s suggestion that the art object is a mediating one, Morphy argues that:

Mediation is always a component of material cultural object but the mediating role is fundamental to art objects. They mediate between domains of existence, they mediate between artist and audience, and they mediate between an object that they are an index of and the person interacting with the object.[39]

This leads to one of Morphy’s key misinterpretations of Gell’s text.  While Gell argues that culture has no existence outside of social systems, Morphy is incorrect to assume that this means there is a direct relationship between object and index, or that “Gell’s objects are often simply social parrots.”[40] For Gell, the concept of agency is relational: for any agent there is a patient, and conversely, for any patient there is an agent. The work of art (index) is a patient with respect to the artist who made it, but is a patient with respect to the spectator who is moved by it.[41] Morphy’s criticism presumes that this is a direct relationship, and hence, he argues that Gell’s theory cannot extend to a theory of representation or semiosis.[42] This ignores the fact that the agency of the artist is necessarily abducted from the index (artwork), and hence the index is indispensible in this transaction. For Gell, abduction of agency cuts across the concept of meaning, for what the viewer abducts is never a ‘meaning’ but a system of actions. As a result, there is never a direct relationship between representation and meaning. If there is no space between the signifier and the signified, then there can be no abduction. We might compare this to Robert Sharf’s concept of irony, in which the art object is distinguished by the density of the relationship between signifier and signified.[43] For Gell, this indecipherability is precisely because we construe art objects as a system of signs that do not correspond to signifier and signified and which rely on the migration of agency.[44] It is this indeterminacy that MacGaffey picks up on in his analysis of nkisi nkondi. As MacGaffey notes, the minkisi is an:

Index of cumulative agency, a visible knot tying together an invisible skein of spatio-temporal relations of which the participants in the ritual are well aware … Minkisi are always ensembles of materials signifying, by there names, their appearance or their associations, the powers attributed to the whole.[45]

Nkisi NkondiMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nkisi Nkondi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

According to MacGaffey, the effect of the nkisi nkondi is a result of the complex interplay between concealment and accumulation of meaning: “containment gives the impression that something may be hidden inside, and accumulation adds obscurity to make the secret evident.”[46] Essential to this “cognitive stickiness” however, is the art object itself, and MacGaffey notes that the sense of interiority and mystery were often heightened by impressive workmanship. Finely created minkisi were intended to arouse astonishment (ngiukulu), and it was widely held that sculptures admired for their art made more effective minkisi.[47] MacGaffey uses this to illustrate Gell’s theory of enchantment, through which works of formal complexity or technical virtuosity exert a power of fascination upon the viewer because the viewer is trapped in the indecipherability of the index.[48] However, to return to Morphy’s “how” question, Gell’s theory falls short of identifying the particular properties of objects that trigger these feelings of enchantment.[49] In one of the least satisfying sections of Art and Agency, while discussing complex patterns, Gell hints at the possibility that complex patterns might act something like a picture of agent-patient relationships.[50]

In an abstract picture one patch of colour seems to be ‘pushing against’ another patch of colour, even though there are no objects in the external world with which we can identify these patches of colour. The causal interaction we perceive is internal to the index itself … the parts of the index exert causal influence over one another and testify to the agency of the index as a whole.[51]

In doing so, Gell offers the possibility that aesthetics work something like a structural analogue to agent-patient relations. By extension, this argument could be used to claim that the most charged objects of social agency are necessarily the most aesthetically charged, as they present a visual embodiment of this relationship. Such a conclusion would, however, vindicate Morphy’s call for the study of form at a micro level, and run counter to Gell’s central claim that art can be understood as a force of social agency entirely independently of aesthetic criteria.

This difficulty reveals an intractable tension in Gell’s work between culture as process, and cultures as bounded groups.[52] These are necessarily overlapping categories to which art is both a social agent and binding force, as well as essential mode of self-representation. As Marsha Meskimmon posits: “I would argue that art is a vital form of articulation, that visualization and materialization are active and forceful modes in the production of the real, and that they can transcend the limits of current understanding by pushing the boundaries of imagination.”[53] If, for Morphy, close formal reading reveals the agency that arises from a body of knowledge, the indeterminacy of art also allows for subtle expressions of cultural change, where hybridity and transaction allows for new forms of cultural expression. Having established nkisi nkondi as the representative objects of an alternative modernity, perhaps the next question that must be asked is whether and in which ways their forms have been altered in the traffic in culture, and how they might be able to speak cross-culturally of our shared experience of globalization.

Such questions reveal the indivisibility of the social and the cultural, and the arbitrariness of drawing distinctions between the aesthetic and social action of art. As Bart Vandenabeele notes, artworks “are human artifacts that cannot be understood at all separate from human values, intentions, interests, or habits. That is why they are not unchangeable: they are being constantly changed by and adapted to the human ways of life or communities that are equally temporary, historical and continually transforming.”[54] Likewise, as Gell notes, art objects are not solipsistic, but rather, they are collaborative, involving audiences and other artists: “art objects are not self-sufficient, but human agency is exercised within the material world.” His words echo Collingwood’s declaration that “the artist stands in collaborative relations with an entire community.”[55] Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker stress the importance of collaboration in the creation of minkondi and their integration into the practices of everyday life in the Congo.[56] However, this interconnection between art and life is not unique to the Congo, it should be seen as a vital component to understanding the category of art.

Nkisi NkondiDallas Museum of Art

Nkisi Nkondi
Dallas Museum of Art

James Clifford argues, that part of the problem with western interpretation of power figures derives from a deep anxiety towards fetishes:

A good collector (as opposed to the obsessive, the miser) is tasteful and reflective. Accumulation unfolds in a pedagogical, edifying manner. The collection itself – its taxonomic, aesthetic structure – is valued, and any private fixation on single objects is negatively marked as fetishism.[57]

According to Clifford, all identities are based around accumulation, but only western identity is obsessed with the collection of possessions. This, he argues, is a peculiarly western strategy for the development of a possessive self. At the same time, it reveals the underlying iconoclasm the W.T.J Mitchell argues motivates the profound discontinuity between image and reality (signifier and signified) that propels the western drive for aesthetic autonomy.[58]

If the nkisi nkondi reveal magic to be an evolving element of modernity, a process for building community, and a site for resistance, perhaps they also offer an opportunity to strip back the ethnocentrism of our own understanding of the world and highlight the peculiarities of our western vision. If the social context of nkisi nkondi remains in many ways inscrutable to us, perhaps it is precisely through their artness that they might communicate across time and space. Communication is never perfect, particularly in the case of art. And yet, as Collingwood argues, understanding can only ever be imperfect, but a partial and imperfect understanding is not the same as a failure to understand.[59] As Vandenbeele notes:

For successful (artistic) communication, it is not a necessary requirement that words, images, sounds, and concepts have exact meanings shared by all participants … incommensurability between languages and concepts could be interpreted in a positive way, that is, the communication process is kept in motion by what the participants do not share.[60]

These are the kind of cross-cultural “conversations” that Anthony Appiah suggests lead to imaginative engagement with the Other, an engagement, that in Collingwood’s words becomes “progressively stronger as conversation proceeds, and based on the fact that neither party seems to the other to be talking nonsense.”[61] It is through encounters like these that identity is extended: a perfect illustration being the profound influence of non-western arts, first through “primitivism” and later in the challenges of post-colonialism. The exposure to works like the nkisi nkondi first changed western art, and then our understandings of what constituted the category of art. That we continue to ask these questions, and that their answers remain illusive — just as they do to erudite scholars like Morphy and Gell — suggests that the question “what is art?” may itself be charged with a certain cognitive stickiness whose very indecipherability lends this conversation such power.

[1] Wyatt MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, eds. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 228-229.

[2] See for instance, Zdenka Volavkova, “Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo,” African Arts 2 (Winter 1972): 52, Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen, “Nkisi Figures of the Bakongo,” African Arts 7 (Spring 1974): 88 and Wyatt MacGaffey, Art and Healing of the Bakongo (Stockholm: Folkens museum-ethnographiska, 1991), 121.

[3] Wyatt MacGaffey, Art and Healing of the Bakongo, 121.

[4]  “Nkisi Nkondi (Nail Figure), Carnegie Museum of Art website, accessed 10 April 2012: [ http://www.cmoa.org/searchcollections/details.aspx?item=1019277 ]

[5] See for instance, Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59-62, Cesare Poppy, “Wonders taken for Signs” in Presence: The Inherence of the Prototype with Images and Other Objects, eds. Robert Maniura and Rupert Shepherd, (London: Ashgate, 2006), 235, Bart Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 38:4 (Winter, 2004), 1-2, Robert Farris Thompson, “Kongo Power Figure,” in Perspectives: Angles on African Art (New York: The Centre for African Art, 1987), 180-181, MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 230-234, and Wyatt MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 39 (Spring 2001), 137-150.

[6] See for instance, James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), Sally Price, Primitive Art in Civilized Places (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), Shelly Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998) and Susan Hiller ed. The Myth of Primtivism: Perspectives on Art (London: Routledge, 1991).

[7] Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” in The Anthropology of Art: A Reader, eds. Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 7-8.

[8] Johanne Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[9] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” in The Scramble for Art in Central Africa, eds. Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 21-25.

[10] Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim, “Objects and Agendas: Re-collecting the Congo,” 21-25.

[11] Zdenka Volavkova, “Nkisi Figures of the Lower Congo,” African Arts 2 (Winter 1972): 52.

[12] Wyatt MacGaffey and John Janzen, “Nkisi Figures of the Bakongo,” African Arts 7 (Spring 1974): 88. It is worth noting that MacGaffey and Janzen draw on the same historical source as Volavkova in making this claim (Olfred Dapper’s 1670 account of his travels in Africa), but come to different conclusions as to the historical veracity of some of the claims made in Dapper’s text.

[13] Kasja Ekholm Friedman and Jonathan Friedman, Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization (Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press, 2008), 29-85. See also Dunja Hersak, “There are many Kongo Worlds: Particularities of Magico-Religious Beliefs among the Vili and Yombe of Congo-Brazzaville, Africa: Journal of International African Institute, 71 (4: 2001): 614-640.

[14] Kasja Ekholm Friedman and Jonathan Friedman, Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization, 29-85.

[15] Jean Comaroff, Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Post-Colonial Africa, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993).

[16] MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 221

[17] MacGaffey, ‘Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 139.

[18] Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[19] R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938).

[20] MacGaffey, “‘Magic, or as we Usually Say, Art’: A Framework for Comparing European and African Art,” 230-233.

[21] Gell, quoted in MacGaffey

[22] Gell, Art and Agency, 7.

[23] Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61 (19, October 1964): 571-584.

[24] Gell, Art and Agency, 5.

[25] Gell, Art and Agency, 7.

[26] Gell, Art and Agency, 66

[27] Gell, Art and Agency, 9-10.

[28] Robert Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” Journal of the Royal Anthroplogical Institute 9 (2003): 449.

[29] See for example, Howard Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” Journal of Material Culture 14 (1): 5-27, Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” Oceania 80 (2, July 2010): 129-142, and Robert Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” 447-464.

[30] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12.

[31] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 6.

[32] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 17.

[33] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12.

[34] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 13.

[35] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 12, 15.

[36] Layton, “Art and Agency: A Reassessment,” 452.

[37] Nicole Boivan, Material Cultures, Material Minds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). It is worth noting that Boivan discusses both Gell and Morphy’s work at some length in her book.

[38] Morphy and Perkins, “The Anthropology of Art: A Reflection on its History and Contemporary Practice,” 13-14.

[39] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 8.

[40] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 8.

[41] Gell, Art and Agency, 22, see also MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.

[42] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 10.

[43] Robert Sharf, “The Buddha’s Fingerbones at Famensi and the Art of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism,” The Art Bulletin 93 (1: March 2011), 38-57.

[44] Gell, Art and Agency, 20-23.

[45] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 145-146.

[46] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 145

[47] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.

[48] MacGaffey, “Astonishment and Stickiness in Kongo Art: A Theoretical Advance,” 141.Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” 133-135.

[49] Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini, “The Theory of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Theory: the Art of Alfred Gell,” 133-135.

[50] Gell, Art and Agency, 76.

[51] Gell, Art and Agency, 76.

[52] Morphy, “Art as a Mode of Action: Some Problems with Gell’s Art and Agency,” 22.

[53] Marsha Meskinnon, Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination (London: Routledge, 2011), 6.

[54] Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,”7.

[55] Collingwood, Principles of Art, 324.

[56] Roy Sieber and Roslyn Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1987).

[57] Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, 219.

[58] W.T.J. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986),

[59] Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 309.

[60] Vandenabeele, “‘New’ Media, Art, and Intercultural Communication,” 2.

[61] Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 309.

Comments Off on Objects of Power and the Power of Objects

Filed under Uncategorized