SO MUCH CONVERSATION here in Sydney and on the internet in the shadow of this pandemic is about imagining a future marked by lodestones from the past. Europe as an idea has remained real for many in my circle. Farid from Indonesia’s contemporary art collective RuangRupa is wondering how he’ll stage documenta 15 in Kassel in the German summer of 2022. For Arab-Danish curator Khaled, such European encounters with the rest of the world, from his Levantine past to his Danish present, are also staged and performed in the modern spectacle of Europe’s summer festivals.
It’s remained real, too, because we’ve grown our own modernist ideals in these postcolonial societies from a once-universal, European-derived human rights idea – where there was room for individual liberties in inclusive societies that celebrated diversity, and where there was rule of law rather than rule by law. For us, to be modern has long been about savouring freedom of expression. Freedom from racism, bigotry and the banal was never an abstraction. It was modernism writ large.
Khaled and I talk online today as we did in person fifteen years ago, when we met at a Danish festival (‘Images of the Middle East’) that celebrated the arts and culture of the Arab world. Back then I was writing about the astonishing work of Arab artists Emily Jacir, Sharif Waked and Lara Baladi, so hot with humanity and warm in universal embrace against the wintry squall outside Nyhavn. That festival was held after the 2003 Iraq War, but before the Danish cartoons saga blew up in 2011. Today’s hot-button political topics, as Khaled wryly notes, focus on revising urban life – remaking modern Copenhagen by breaking up established migrant enclaves such as Mjølnerparken to be sold off as posh inner-city housing – while cancelling more provocative plans to move undesirable aliens onto desolate Lindholm island, which would have made apparent how migrants were classified and contained in a modern Denmark unsure of its cultural diversity.
To be modern was to be universal and inclusive, Khaled and I thought back then in 2005, and the contemporary arts festival around us reinforced that view. To be modern was to find comfort in a Thai-Dane’s tasty espresso bar in inner-city Vesterbro, or to hear the details of a Muslim-Dane’s damp summer disappointments in faraway Jutland at a school summer camp where modernity was framed by inclusive menus of Danish pork, yet excluded the pre-modern of halal options. It was the challenge of Palestinian artist Sharif Waked’s work Chic Point– a stylishly lit Milanesque catwalk show that saw a stream of handsome young men line up with torsos bared, thanks to holes tailored in their shirts to allow easier body searches at Israeli checkpoints. It was in the pounding soundtrack to this work, reinforcing its modern sense of alienation, the ‘exclusion clauses’ around this contemporary Arab/Israeli border challenge, exceptions to the rules that were supposed to be universally applied. It was in the indignities this creative work raised about insiders and outsiders at that very modern carve-up of borders. Also speaking from a Palestinian perspective was Emily Jacir’s endless airport luggage loop – so stark, without bags – adding poignancy to the dilemma of what made nation-states whole, divided or vanished. And that was modernity too.
Travelling across Denmark later that year with a British-Malaysian collaborator to ‘make some television about Asia here [in Denmark]’, we marvelled at Denmark’s ingenuity and efficiencies. At a typical family-owned pig farm, we learnt how two-and-a-half workers grew several hundred piglets to maturity through several one-way indoor pens, where the peak science of sensors and chipped pigs’ ears met the demands of a burgeoning export market. The pens signified progress, the farmer explained proudly, as we clattered across the slatted raised floor. The doors were like valves, and underneath was the slab collecting pig waste that was regularly washed out to the fertilising pond outside. Everything was modern and clean, rational and efficient, with daily results logged in the computer, in time for the farm workers’ consumption of fragrant roasted Arabica coffee from Nicaragua.
A few days later, we’d wondered if our microphone socks still reeked with the odour of that farm’s warm indoor pens – if not that coffee – as we entered the spectacular angles of Lego’s Billund headquarters. From pig pens under grey skies to the bright primary colours of Lego’s playpens, we were outsiders keen on fitting in, to feel how hygge (a fraternal Danish cosiness) worked. And that was modernity too.
But it was our morning spent with a pair of twins that linked up so many questions about Danish and European inclusion. These were questions I’d long grappled with as a Malaysian living in Australia, and I still do today. Questions about postcolonial belonging and contested multiculturalism, about modernity’s ubiquity, foregrounded in an Australian context with the new nativism debuting at that time in Canberra and Cronulla.
These twins were girls adopted from a once-poor South Korea by a Danish couple, who in the newly globalising 1970s had joined many of their generation in welcoming the world beyond Scandinavia and Europe into their lives and homes. One twin grew up with teen anger over how she was framed as a passive doll, assuaging it by diving into the works of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. The other found she could shape the expectations of her Danish teachers and adopted family to her advantage by excelling in Danish literature: she was included like a modern Dane for her Danish turn of phrase, yet excluded on sight. One sister could be inside and the other outside. Together they learnt to time these rhythms like a revolving door, to maintain cosy (indeed, hygge) horizons. Outside their trusted family circle, it seemed too hard for them to talk about modern human rights that were always assumed for the majority, but almost never defended for those who’d been contained as minorities.
IS EUROPEAN MODERNISM any different to what we’ve inherited in Australia and made our own? In our own rush to be a modern nation, did we also forget to learn its exclusion clauses, without those special exceptions to the rules that mostly applied? Can modernity only work with such exclusions, manifest as inconvenient guest workers in one place, refugees and Muslims in another, Indigenous peoples in most places once colonisation has landed? Our messy multicultures – and their connections with globalised capitalism and prosperity – haven’t ever been defended and explained. They’ve been used instead to divide and rule. This is what seeded the nationalist populism in Australia two decades ago, and perhaps everywhere is now undermining the so-called liberal, rules-based order that globalists have banked on for so long.
At the turn of the millennium, Denmark’s approach to immigration and culture was ahead of a subsequent curve in the West. Danish society made peace with its far right, and triangulated its own exclusion clauses with its social democracy. Anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy agendas somehow became part of how a modern society could be constructed and sustained. Defending and reaffirming the welfare state seemed intrinsic to Danish identity, and conservative governments took power with far-right support. The ‘people’s price’ for keeping their welfare state was conformity around excluding the alien – the ‘auslander’.
The division between aliens, the auslanders, and the rest was all around us when my child was born in Berlin. We lived on the edge of what was once the communist East Berlin. So we drank too much Turkish coffee and mint tea across the streets around Maybachufer in Kreuzberg, the Turkish-Berliners usually happy to entertain my toddler as I shopped for groceries at the Türkischer Markt. On a warm summer’s day, with a slight breeze up the Landwehrkanal, there seemed much that was right about this pocket of auslander Berlin. And modernity in this inclusive, universal form is still celebrated in Berlin today – but also endangered by large, shadowy and rapacious property developers, wiping out decades of history a few blocks of Moabit to Marzahn at a time, pockmarks of bullet holes all plastered over long ago. Safe spaces nurtured after the war, gone again. Maybe this was modernity too?
Late twentieth-century Australian ideas about multiculturalism still felt warm to me in cold Europe across the past decade, as I travelled and spent time living in Berlin. Europe was a continent trying to transcend the worst of its own histories with the fraternalism of Europe and its EU. As English-American historian Tony Judt once wrote, Europe ‘was the insecure child of anxiety. Shadowed by history, its leaders implemented social reforms and built new institutions as a prophylactic, to keep the past at bay.’ It was muddling through the legacy of the post-World War II economic boom in the West, built by former ‘guest workers’ from elsewhere – this was now firing up national conversations about who truly was European, when ‘home’ was just past the Paris Périphérique, the ringroad encircling the tourist metropolis with its banlieue in flames, suburbia’s troubles no longer a jetset life away. These modern democracies of Europe famously celebrated equality of opportunity and were against racism and bigotry. Yet their ruling classes were shocked enough by the disruption to their preferred order to enable a far-right politics to take hold. Their modernity was exposed as contingent; its modernity as not universal; its promise of equality before the law as not immune to tribal demagogues. What would happen if auslanders started defining their own modern cultures, with their families – and demanded civil rights in the process? What if they demanded the end of exclusion?
AND WHAT OF Australia – its own modernity, demogogues, auslanders, exclusions? We’ve learnt to understand ourselves here as much in relation to Asia as Europe. In 2012, RuangRupa created a work called The Kuda for Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial, subtitled The Untold Story of Indonesian Underground Music in the 70s. Through fictitious band the Kuda and its mythical heyday, we learnt much about where we in Australia located ourselves, and how our modernity offered us the ability to remake our past to better suit our imagined future. With its rock culture memorabilia of a stylised Vespa (a nod there to 1960s English mods), sleeveless logo jackets (a nod here to something Cold Chisel might’ve worn), and a huge mural that could’ve been AC/DC’s, it was the teen freedom Brisbane’s the Saints would’ve immediately understood. We could transcend tradition and even warp our nature to suit – these modern freedoms were found in democratic Brisbane, but not feudal Batavia.
In today’s pandemic uncertainties, RuangRupa’s collective of ten artists is plotting its next project of enabling ‘equality, sharing, solidarity, friendship and togetherness’. Sharing his thoughts on his forthcoming documenta 15 curation, Farid says that another future is possible: ‘It’s not a question of “Europe”, not this scale and ambition of documenta every five years and over 100 days... We need to communicate; we need to connect. Before it was about exhibition spaces, but now we’re changing our documenta to be about residency spaces, or maybe even a factory to manufacture hazmat suits. Would that work; do we have art?’
Is it this practice, or praxis, that we’re yearning for amid the pandemic’s uncertainty? Whether that’s about creating the modern moment of the Kuda in Brisbane, or framing what makes a European art show in a post-pandemic world, is this particular freedom the only sliver of being modern that still makes sense? Or do we remain hostages to our history of exclusion clauses – when so much now can also be about reshaping this shock of the new?
Years after Australia’s so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ and amid our current radical revising of relations with China, there’s much laughter and forgetting – as the title of Czech writer Milan Kundera’s great novel from 1979 goes. Maybe Kundera’s modern protagonist wasn’t looking for answers in his horoscope; maybe instead the novel’s stories merely remind us that we can write our own history. People laugh now at the current US President in our Asia-Pacific region, and many also forget the postcolonial order that was built after World War II on the back of uniquely modern liberation struggles. Australia played distinctive roles in those liberations, but we seem to have lost those modern ideals – ideals that included refugees and excluded the White Australia policy.
TO BE MODERN again seemed a good idea, as Farid and Khaled suggested to me, our hopes of progress promised by modernity merely stalled by a pandemic. To (re)make and sustain more inclusive democracies was informed by a European wariness about repeating history and an Australian laconicism about trying too hard. Maybe our fates are ours to make, in a modern time no longer determined by feudal lords or written in the stars of Kundera’s novel.