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Confronting the Work in Progress: An Experiment on Engagement with Contemporary Art

by Kocabag, Gunes, MA

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ethics73. As the nanny is suffering from severe memory loss and does not have proper
mental functions, does this turn this piece into exploitation of someone unable to give
The final piece fff, which stands for Found Family Footage, was a ten screen installation
composed of home videos of an English family74 assembled together. Keeping in line with
the fact that the artist had no input in the production of these images, he contacted
Michael Nyman to ask for a musical composition which would have an equal degree of
autonomy as the images. Nyman composed the musical score on a simple children’s
piano without seeing the images and later recorded on a full size piano. In this case, the
footage and the music, both created separately, without the involvement of the artist, set
forth a dual narration in the work75, again leaving it to the audience to establish the links
through a process of mental editing. The piece can also be interpreted as an attempt by
Ataman to reconstruct and appropriate English culture as an outsider, reversing the usual
narrative of the reconstruction of Orient by the West. This work, being just at the exit of
the exhibition didn’t attract too much attention and most of the informants stated that
they found it very fragmented and could not relate to the work due to being foreign to
English culture. As with most other pieces, the response to this works was based on a
literal face value reading of the work, rather than looking into second levels of meanings,
ironies or metaphors. One informant76 even interpreted the work as a visualization of the
envy the artist felt towards the West, which was not the intention of the artist at all.


Cuneyt interview.


Ataman’s partner’s family.


Exhibition helper text.


Tansu interview.


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The results of this experiment will be discussed more in relation to the theoretical
arguments in the rest of this study. However, to sum up some general tendencies in the
audience response: there was a tendency to resist the works, a feeling of being
confronted by them...not knowing how to deal with them and an anxiety of being
interviewed and saying the right things. The audience got more involved with the work if
they could find some affinity at a personal level; they found extreme characters
disturbing but admitted that this added to the intensity of the work and the mark it left
on them; how the works were perceived were very much affected by the social, cultural
and psychological background of the audience; they tended to receive the work as a
documentation of real lives, and thus found the arrangements and characters confusing.
This, however, means that, though not always at a conscious level, Ataman’s work
succeeded in fulfilling its author’s intention, which was raising doubts on the “reality” of
the identities presented.


One drawback of my method was that I asked people to verbalize what they felt and
thought about the exhibition; however the notion of verbalization is a tricky one. Asking
people to express their sensuous experiences in language is bound to result in a certain
degree of loss in the information transferred as the mode of the information changes The
efficacy of verbalization when expressing a sensuous experience, has been problematized
by many scholars.77 In the field of anthropology, especially in Melanesian studies, the
concept of exegesis has been a recurring and problematic theme.


See Geerts (1973), Csordas (1990), et al.


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In his study of the Abelam art of the Sepik district of New Guinea, Anthony Forge78 argues
that art for the Abelam is not a representation of language or any other communication
system, but is a communication system on its own. It is a system based on intuitive,
subconscious understanding. There are signs in this system but these are not organised in
syntagmatic order and don't have fixed meanings. In his study Forge79 does give some
symbolic explanations but he takes the position that these meanings are not consciously
constructed but embedded in the cosmology.
…although a painting of a nggwalndu face will always be so identified, the
arabesque ‘legs of pork’…could equally be named as immature fern frond or a
swirl in the water of a flooded river; if the element means anything in terms of
words it probably means all three with all their connotations as well. But the
Abelam do not ask what a painting means. The design elements all have names
and they are assembled into harmonious compositions, which appear to act
directly on the beholder without having to be named.80
Forge’s discussion of the Tambaran cult, which is one of the two main cults constituting
the Abelam ritual, resonates with Gell’s proposal for an understanding of art as a system
of action rather than a system of representation. Gell81 suggested that we leave aside our
preconceived ideas of art and aesthetics, and focus on art’s role on social relations.
Anthropology as a discipline is interested in social relationships; thus it would only be


Anthony Forge, ‘Learning to see in New Guinea’ in Socialization: the approach from social anthropology, ed. P.Mayer,
Tavistock, 1970, pp.269-­‐290.


Forge, ‘Art and Environment in the Sepik’, in Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and
Ireland, 1965, pp. 23-­‐31.


Forge, Learning to See in New Guinea, pp.389-­‐90.


Alfred Gell, Art and Agency, (Oxford University Press, 1998).


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logical that an anthropological theory of art would take art objects as social agents within
these relationships. Gell uses four elements in his matrix of art nexus, namely artist, index,
prototype and recipient (patient). The term ‘index’ designates the ‘visible, physical thing’
through which a particular cognitive operation become possible, namely the ‘abduction of
agency’, or, to put it very simply, the inferring of the cause/intention behind the index.
‘Abduction of agency’ is the process through which ‘art like situations’ arise. In the case of
abduction ‘we find some very curious circumstances, which would be explained by the
supposition that it was a case of some general rule, and thereupon adopt that
supposition’.82 Thus, abduction implies a certain level of uncertainty when establishing
these cause-­‐effect relationships.
Gell uses the concept of abduction to designate a semiotic interference, but at the same
time he tries to avoid falling into an analogy with language. This is why he gives primacy
to the index, over the other two types of signs, namely symbol and icon. This, on Gell’s
side can be seen as an effort to keep his theory open; however the systematic matrix of
relationships he proposes between index and its recipient (the patient), his notion of a
prototype which can very simply be described as the “original” of what the index is
referring to, as well as his emphasis on the relational context in which the art object exists
makes the theory of agency more strictly bounded and closed than what its creator had
possibly intended to.
Forge’s analysis differs from Gell’s theory through its emphasis on the unconscious
communication embedded in cosmology which cannot be pinpointed either by the people
concerned, or by the anthropologist. The Tambaran cult through which boys are initiated,
takes around thirty years for a complete initiation cycle. During these thirty years the


Pearce cited in Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semantics, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 131.


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initiate is exposed to series of displays which he is told is the face of nggwalndu-­‐ the
spirits which are associated with the patrilineal clans. At each step the initiates are told
that the previous ceremony was a trick but this time they will really see it. This goes on
until the last ceremony in which they are actually shown the large figures which are
considered to be the real nggwalndu. During all these ceremonies there are no
instructions given to the initiates, no myths told. In fact, the Abelam know and tell
remarkably few myths. As Forge explains, in this society we cannot take myth as the
primary form and think of art as the representation of it. Art is communicating a function
of its own. In these ceremonies, the initiates do not know what is going to happen and
are shown paintings and carved objects under conditions of great tension. As such,
Forge83 suggests that the initiation system functions to teach young men to see art, not so
that they learn how to interpret it, but so that they are directly affected by it.
Diane Losche84 builds on Forge’s work and takes the lack of congruence between visual
design and verbal referent as her initial problem. She suggests ‘a model of iconography as
part of a system of transformation and production in which signs are assembled into a
spatial/verbal field which forms a specific kind of mimetic apparatus for
transformation’. 85 This system allows transformation and generativity. Returning to
Forge’s discussion on the arabesque designs forming the nggwalndu face, Losche asserts
that the leg of the pork, the fern frond or the swirl in the water may refer to the same
thing residing in the function of generativity, which makes their most appropriate


Forge, Learning to See in New Guinea, p. 290.


Diane Losche, ‘The Sepik Gaze: Iconographic Interpretation of Abelam Form’, in Social Analysis 38’, pp.47-­‐60,
(Berghahn Books, 1995).


Ibid, 53.


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representation to be the spiral design86. ‘The design represents a consistent gloss only if
we shift our attention away from the essence of objects to the nature of their functions,
and their ability to transform themselves’.87 Thus what matters is not so much the
individual forms but their generative, transformative functions which can find expression
in a multiplicity of forms.
Abelam art is so interesting for West because it problematizes the Kantian assumption
that aesthetics is a matter of interpretation rather than function. For a form to be
interpreted in the context of Western art, it needs to be separated from function;
whereas ‘interpretation does not exist in the Abelam context since it is not interpretation
but function that is communicable’.88Losche argues that forms in Abelam art are means
through which sentiments, feelings and emotions are structured. Adding to Forge’s
discussion of the Tambaran cult, she argues that the forms that are presented to the
initiates are a way to transform these men from attachment to women to attachment to
objects, as well as evoking an attachment to older men as a source of nurture and power.
Forge suggests that to ask what a sign means is irrelevant in Abelam art89. Losche asks
why it is irrelevant. Her answer is that what matters is not the meaning of these forms,
but their productive nature. ‘Asking the Abelam what this particular design means is akin
to asking “What does your refrigerator mean?”, or to reverse the issue “What does your
painting do?”90


This generativity associated with the spiral design brings to mind Benjamin (1931) speaking of Karl Blossfeldt’s
magnified plant photographs as revealing and affecting an optical unconscious.


Losche, 54.


Ibid, 59.


It should be noted on the other hand that Howard Morphy (1989), in this study on theYoulngu of Northern Australia,
shows that forms in Yolngu forms do have coded meanings in relation to ancestral past. However, he argues for a form
of aesthetic relativism in which the interpretation of aesthetic affects varies between cultures.


İbid, 59.


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Exegesis or Verbalization
O’Hanlon91 , points out a distinction that needs to be made between exegesis and
verbalization. In his analysis of the construction of a ceremonial wig in New Guinea
Highlands, he argues that the discourse among the makers and the people present at the
time of the making of the wig, though not being of exegetic quality, is a verbalisation of
social dynamics and thus still tells us something about the nature of the society.
The wig is made at the pig festival focused on the growth and fertility of a clan’s pigs. The
maternal kin and path people are expected to visit the wearer during wig construction,
and no one else. If the wig doesn’t turn out in the right form, this failure is attributed to
disputes and grievances in the maternal kin; and these tensions are expressed by the
people present at the making of the wig through revelations of interpersonal secrets.
Thus the wig becomes a means through which the effect of the maternal kin on the
creation of the person is realized and a means through which these social tensions are
released and revealed.
O’Hanlon argues that the Wahgi wig can be viewed as a second skin ‘whose construction
evokes contesting principles as to whether the person is constituted by clan or by
external sources’92 (i.e. maternal kin). However he has not heard any comments from the
Wahgi explicitly stating this analogy.
When asked about wigs Wahgi only make the kinds of explanation I have sketched:
they say that wigs are worn at pig festival time, that they are made in seclusion
and then emerge, that they are to do with growth, with making their wearers


Michael O’Hanlon, ‘Unstable Images and Second Skins: Artefacts, Exegesis and Assessments in the New Guinea
Highlands’, in Man, New Series, Vol. 27, No.3, (September, 1992), pp.587-­‐608.


Ibid, 604


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attractive. Wahgi make, in short, the kind of minimalist remarks which led Forge
(1979:29) to declare roundly that ‘verbalizing about art …is not a feature of New
Guinea cultures’.93
However, even through the kind of talk Wahgi talk is not a contextualizing exegetic one,
Wahgi do talk about their wigs and this talk is based on the assessment of the wig in
relation to social tensions, which, as O’Hanlon puts it, is the local form of exegesis in
Melanesia. He states that these assessments index an indigenous theory of significance,
in which outer forms are felt to monitor and authenticate otherwise concealed states and

Reflected Self-­‐Knowledge
In his study of the Barok of New Ireland, Roy Wagner95 argues that Barok images work at
a metaphorical level and verbalization of their meaning defies the multiplicity of possible
meanings these images contain. Exegesis restricts the image to one gloss among many,
none of which is the “real” gloss on its own. 96
Image, as a means of construing action, power or effectiveness is profoundly
different from verbal explanation: talk, the Barok say, is cheap. An image can and
must be witnessed or experienced, rather than merely described or summed up
verbally… An anthropologist who might set out to get the real gloss would be


Ibid, 604


Ibid, 605


Roy Wagner, Asiwinarong: Ethos, Image and Social Power Among the Usen Barok of New Ireland, (Princeton
University Press, 1986).


See Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (1967) for a discussion of interpretation as an impoverishment and
depletion of the world...turning possibilities into fixed meanings.


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horribly frustrated, because the cultural convention exists at the level of the
image, not at that of its verbalized gloss. 97
Wagner’s analysis intends to understand a particular type of image that is self-­‐referential.
Decoding the image within a context makes the context part of the meaning of the image,
and limits the perception to a constructed meaning within the context at hand; however
as Strathern98 states, a ‘perceptual image…condenses and collapses context into itself in
the sense that all points of reference are obviated or displaced by its single form’.
Strathern distinguishes between two types of events: ‘event taken as incidental
occurrences in nature, explained by being into its historical (cultural) context’ and ‘events
as performance known by its effect; understood in terms of what it contains, the forms
that it conceals or reveals, registered in actions of those who witness it’99. She argues that
Western thought explains events in reference to others whereas Melanesians understand
encounters in terms of their effects, as performances rather than incidental occurrences.
Strathern discusses the Melanesian first encounter with the white man and argues that
this first encounter presented the native Melanesians with a particular type of image that
was not located within any historical context, but that was perceived as a spectacle, as a
self-­‐referential image that did not require any contextualization. The problem with this
first encounter was not how to contextualize it but how to deal with its effects.
Strathern argues that, within the field of Anthropology the seclusion of material culture
studies has lead to a separation between artefacts and social events, however building on
Melanesian material, we should extend our concept of artefact to performance and to


Wagner, pp. xiv-­‐xv.


Marilyn Strathern, ‘Artefacts of History: Events and the Interpretation of Images’, Culture and History in the Pacific, in
ed. Jukka Siikala, pp. 24-­‐44. (Helsinki: The Finnish Anthropological Society, 1990) 34.


Ibid, 28-­‐9.


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event, as for the Melanesian culture the only meaningful reference for artefacts are their
effects. Thus in her analyses Strathern addresses events/performances as
artefacts/images and subjects them to a similar analysis as that would be appropriate for
A. Strathern (1971:xii) reports the words of an old man from Hagen who told how
his neighbours had reacted to the appearance of the administrative patrol in the
area. The white man was thought to be a pale-­‐skinned cannibal ogre, but “then he
gave us shell valuables in return for pigs, and we decided he was a human”. The
unspoken side of this statement might read: “Then we gave him pigs in return for
shell valuables, and we realised we were human still”.100
Thus Strathern argues that images are reflected self knowledge. The way in which a
person responds to a taboo or regulation shows that person to be the kind of kinsman or
kinswoman he/she is. However, Strathern agrees with Wagner and O’Hanlon that this
knowledge embedded in images is not one to be explained by referential coding, as
‘referential coding deprives the image of its power to elicit taken for granted

Contextualizing the Experience
Gilbert Lewis states in his discussion of magic in the rituals of the Gnau people of New
Guinea that: ‘Our understanding of other societies reflects the media by which we
learned of them. No medium reflects reality as we perceive it with all our senses. The
description must be partial.102 Forms of verbal description cannot be trusted to provide


Ibid, 4.


Ibid, 36.


Gilbert Lewis, ‘The Look of Magic’, in Man, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 3, (September, 1986), p.415.


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