THE TAINTED TRAVELLER: ARTISTIC JOURNEYS INTO HISTORY

2017-10-04T22:48:34Z (GMT) by Shelley Anne McSpedden
This thesis examines a diverse range of contemporary artworks inspired by historical Western travel narratives, in which a contemporary journey is staged in response to a historically significant expedition, voyage or route. It surveys works by ten prominent international practitioners working in this field; Francis Alÿs (Belgium/ Mexico), Matthew Buckingham (USA), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (Canada), Tacita Dean (England), Joachim Koester (Denmark), Nicholas Mangan (Australia), Tom Nicholson (Australia), Simon Starling (England) and Michael Stevenson (New Zealand). It addresses works produced in the opening fifteen years of the century, when historiographic research emerged as a dominant genre of contemporary art. In examining these case studies I argue that the journey is used as a leitmotif to guide the artists’ own historiographic methodologies, as they attempt to foster a form of history writing that is generative, porous and open-ended. Collectively, the practices addressed are characterised by extensive and in-depth historiographic research and field work. They exhibit a pronounced desire to unearth historical truths as they work to uncover repressed or forgotten information. Yet, the structure that each work adopts expressly refuses narrative resolution. History is given spatial dimensions and the artists adopt the heroic individualism of the classic adventurer to chart a non-linear path through it; generating speculative connections between nonsynchronous people, objects and narratives. I argue that these artworks also foreground the embodied mobility of a contemporary subject – the artist and/or participant – to make evident how our understanding of the past is shaped by our unique situatedness in the present. The artworks addressed attempt to reckon with intercultural conflicts and injustices perpetrated in previous eras, while probing the politics of locality and mobility in our contemporary context. I argue that through the contrasts between the historical and contemporary journeys evoked we are invited to confront a pronounced ambivalence towards the accelerating processes of globalisation and their deterritorialising effects, and the political matrix which dictates access to power and mobility in the ‘global’ age. I argue that these practices can thereby be seen to grapple with the challenges and complexities thrown up by a form of cosmopolitanism that aims to assert our ethical responsibility to all peoples by resisting essentialist notions of geographically bounded communities, while recognising our historical and cultural differences.