The Theme of Displacement in Contemporary Art


This essay discusses images and ideas of displacement in recent works of art. The theme of displacement is considered in the context of the globalist aspect of contemporary art, itself a reflection of globalisation. The intensified movement of goods, information, capital, images – and people – around the world provides the setting for contemporary artists’ treatment of displacement in a wide range of contexts.

Theorising Global Art

2Contemporary art has increasingly been conceived as global art. Art theorists and art historians searching for a successor term to modernism and postmodernism have proposed, among other terms, network culture and globalism, as cultural conditions reflected by contemporary art. The critic and theorist Rex Butler has suggested that the “new style or movement of art that comes after postmodernism” should be called globalism (Butler 58), incorporating both the impact of globalisation on the concerns and content of contemporary art, and the international circuit of major art events at which the most recent artworks are showcased. 

3The art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud proposes as the successor to postmodernism an “altermodernity” comprising a “translation-oriented modernity” (Bourriaud 2007: 43). For Bourriaud such a conception of contemporary culture corresponds to the globalised world order, a modernity “born of global and decentralized negotiations, of multiple discussions among participants from different cultures” (43). Such a culture must be “polyglot”, because “the immigrant, the exile, the tourist, and the urban wanderer are the dominant figures of contemporary culture.” (51) Altermodernity for Bourriaud embraces the styles and techniques of modernity as “one phenomenon among others”, to be explored in a “globalised culture busy with new syntheses.” (186) The global network becomes a space of exchange, of diverse representations of the world, in which translation of ideas and representations places a crucial role in “discussions that will give rise to a new common intelligibility.” (188)

4Bourriaud cites as exemplary artists in this regard Gabriel Orozco, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jason Rhoades and Francis Alÿs, all of whom express the wandering aspect of modern urban life first defined in Baudelaire’s figure of the flâneur. This artist-figure becomes “one flesh” with “the multitude, among the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite”; such an artist is “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness” (Baudelaire 6-12, cited in Bourriaud 2007: 92). The nomadic function celebrated by Baudelaire is intensified in the global age, as artists wander not just through cities but across continents.

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