Ignorance is not innocence:

'There’s a lot of unpleasantness that comes with the reality of how things get to your plate'

Issue no5
Oct / Nov 2017
REMIX

Abigail Winograd is an art historian, first and foremost. She obtained her Phd from the University of Texas and centers her research around pre-Columbian, modern and contemporary Latin American Art. But for the transhistorical fellowship at Frans Hals I de Hallen, she is willing to look beyond the borders of space and time so she can mess with all the preconceived notions you might have been taught about food (and stuff). 17th century food, to be more accurate. We walked and talked while she was busy installing the show, which will open this Friday at both Frans Hals and de Hallen.

Alix de Massiac: Was your interest in the transhistorical awakened through this fellowship or is it something you have already focused on earlier in your career?

Abigail Winograd: During my studies, I was able to learn from people who work across centuries. To be able to study classic Maya art and architecture and then study modern Mexican art is an interesting way to understand how the past influences the present. It gives you a better sense of how you get from point A to point B, but it’s also just nice to be able to not necessarily have to focus so narrowly and have access to a wide range of disciplines and art historians. Different kind of art histories require different kind of work.

What kind of work do you mean?

It is a very different way of working with artists who can’t speak to you because their work is a few centuries old as opposed to working with artists who are alive and have something to say about what they do. And it informs the way I think about both kinds of art, to have had to study both. I think it’s been beneficial to my academic work, but also to my curatorial practice.

At the first conference about transhistorical curating in 2015, the artist Pablo Bronstein spoke about the difficulties he had as a contemporary artist working alongside an institution which saw his work as a mere embellishment of their collection. What is your take on this particular issue which seems to arise time and again when it comes to transhistorical curating?

I didn’t see the first conference, so I couldn’t comment on that directly. I think in some ways we already live in a transhistorical time. We don’t walk down the street or live in a moment in which everything comes from exactly the same time. And certainly any kind of museum that houses objects from different times is already transhistorical, it’s just a matter of how you put these things in conversation with one another, instead of sticking to a strict chronology. The history we’re talking about isn’t static. These things have a ripple effect across time and space, and they continue to be received by people. Of course we see art and objects with our own perspective, through 21st century eyes. But in order to really understand it you have to see it from both a historical perspective and a contemporary perspective.

Tell me about the show’s concept, and how you ally these two perspectives?

Essentially we’re looking at 17th century still life paintings, Dutch and Flemish, in a way that seeks to unsettle the way we look at it; not just moral or religious injunctions, scenes of domestic bliss or as decorative objects, but as something that has a story to tell, as documents of history, and colonial history in particular. A silver salt cellar has a story to tell. A pile of salt on the table is not just that, it tells us something not only about the local European history, but also the history of global commerce and the transatlantic slave trade. In the 17th century, salt was very important and it wasn’t easily obtained. It had to be gathered from across the world. The giant salt piles might be an indication of the fact that people knew that this was a valuable commodity, it wasn’t necessarily painted to represent abstinence and aestheticism, but rather the accumulation of wealth.

In what way does the focus, in this case on salt, address slave trade?

The contemporary artists in this show are asking similar questions that I’m asking people to ask about 17th century painting. If you look at it from the perspective of a Surinamese artist, like Patricia Kaersenhout, whose installation will be shown in de Hallen, you see something in a different way than what you and I see. This show hopefully puts the contemporary in dialogue with the 17th century in a way that enriches the histories of both, creates new kinds of knowledge and complicates your understanding of both. But it also takes historical paintings out of the past and makes them very present. The realities of trade continue to be complicated. When you sit down to have coffee in the morning, there is a history of how that coffee went from Ethiopia to the Middle East and was then spirited away from Yemen and grown in Europe. Every time you pick up your iPhone, you’re complicit in the mining in Africa, the building and manufacturing of your phone in China and the shipping of that object from Asia straight to your hand. We continue to ignore this web of relationships that’s really interconnected. This isn’t just a 17th century issue, it’s a contemporary issue.

The fact that we don’t know where our food comes from or how our objects are produced, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the ability to know. We choose not to be aware of that or we choose not to care enough about it to do something about it. The establishment of this global trading network happened in the early modern period and we’re still dealing with the ramifications of what was done in the 16th and 17th century, and the inequities of power relationships that were set up in those moments continue to be realities to this day. Hopefully the contemporary art can make that visible in ways that making an exhibition with just 17th century artworks wouldn’t.

Has the way you think about how to tackle the issues presented in this exhibition changed while making it? Did it always have food as a portal to address contemporary matters?

Food is a gateway, it’s something that’s universally consumed. Everybody eats. But food has also become a very zeitgeisty thing in the past twenty years, that people are thinking and talking about. It is a good way to engage people. Questions of organic food and local production have become a real part of the conversation. Those are great questions, and you can ask those questions across time.

What would Dutch art be without sunflowers and potatoes? But those things are foreign transplants. The story that undergirds this history of accumulation of wealth across European empires is exploitation to feed markets that pop up out of nowhere. There’s a lot of unpleasantness that comes with the reality of how things get to your plate. It’s a good way to broach that subject without immediately raising a defensive posture from somebody. Paintings which displayed things like guinea pigs and monkeys, tulips from Turkey and Persian rugs are only possible because the Netherlands was a gateway for all this stuff that flooded the European market. But the exhibition also shows how a bouquet in a still life could not have been picked in the fields, but is an imaginary accumulation of flowers. The paintings are about power and pride in commercial prowess.

But to answer your question, obviously since my first pitch, this issue has become more relevant than I anticipated it being. It is not my job as a curator to impose my perspective, but I try to show people there are different perspectives to any issue. Also in a literal sense, since the 17th century part of the show consists largely, if not entirely, of white male painters. When we include contemporary voice you can give other voices a chance to respond to that perspective.

This growing awareness of the mere existence of different perspectives has recently had some effect, as can be demonstrated by the name change of what was formerly known as Witte de With, but also the (planned) demolition of many Confederate monuments in the US.

I don’t think it’s my place to comment on the recent turn of events in Rotterdam, but I think that’s one of the things that is unique about art, the way it can express historical and cultural arguments in a much more compelling way than any talking about it can. No matter how we handle this, some people will be offended by the exhibition. With regards to slave trade, people will say it was a different time, that it was illegal to own slaves in the Netherlands and that before the WIC got involved in the slave trade there was a debate about the moral ramifications of it. To default into the position of ‘we can’t judge the past by the present’ or to think this is a 17th century issue and we don’t need to rehash it in the present, is a very weak stance, and the contemporary works in this exhibition are a counterargument to that. The history of that moment continues to be present, it’s not an issue that’s settled. There is no way to understand the existence of coffee or sugar without acknowledging that it was African slaves or indigenous populations who were forced into producing these commodities. And you can’t ignore that away. We’re all complicit in this exchange, regardless of what you choose to do with it. Ignorance is not innocence.

A GLOBAL TABLE - Tentoonstelling in kader van Fellowship Transhistorical Curating, Frans Hals | de Hallen, 23.09.2017 - 07.01.2018. 

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2017