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The Theme of Displacement in Contemporary Art



This essay considers images and ideas of displacement in recent works of art. The theme of displacement is examined in the context of the globalist aspect of contemporary art, itself a reflection of globalisation. Influential theoretical texts informing curatorial practice and the discourse of contemporary art theory are discussed, including the writings of Girogio Agamben, Nicolas Bourriaud and Rex Butler. The theme of displacement in contemporary art is analysed with regard to the work of many artists, including Francis Alÿs, Bill Fontana, Allan Sekula, Chen Chieh-jen, Ai Wei Wei, Rosemary Laing, Mike Parr, Santiago Sierra, Rebecca Belmore and Tracey Moffatt.

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1This 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.

5Francis Alÿs, who was born in Belgium but lives and works in Mexico, typifies the creative negotiation of geographical displacement endorsed by Bourriaud as a principal feature of contemporary art. As the curator and art theorist Wayne Tunnicliffe has noted, “moving through cities and between countries and locations has often been the nexus of Alÿs’ art” (170). In some of his art works, this nomadic aspect, expressed as the act of walking through urban spaces, is documented and becomes the central focus of the work. The 2004 video work Railings depicts the artist walking through the streets of London, tapping with a wooden drumstick the front railings of the properties he passes. His path through London is a musical one, with music made “from the fences that define the boundaries between public and private spaces.” (Tunnicliffe 170) Other Alÿs performance events, documented in video, photography and other media, have involved him pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico until it melted (Paradox of Praxis 1, 1997), and enlisting 500 volunteers in Peru to move a sand dune a few inches by shovel (When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002). Alÿs regards these arts events as “interventions”, fragments “of the city that I am mapping.” These interventions are often inspired by the process of walking through a city: “As an artist, my position is akin to that of a passer-by constantly trying to situate myself in a moving environment.” (Alÿs quoted in Tunnicliffe 170).

6The role of translation assumes a central importance for Bourriaud’s envisaged cultural condition of an “altermodernity”, succeeding that of postmodern identity politics and the postcolonial emphasis on alterity. He argues that “one might define contemporary art in terms of a criterion of translatability, that is, according to the nature of the contents it transcodes…and inserts them into a signifying chain.” (132) The various instances of transfer and translation practised in contemporary art constitute “a practice of displacement”, involving “the passage of signs from one format to another.” (138) Bourriaud offers as examples of this practice the work of Korean artist Kim Soo-ja, combining a Tao-inspired vision with Minimal art and ancestral motifs; the Thai artist Surasi Kusolwong fusing Thai folk and popular culture with Minimal and Conceptual art; and Indian artist Navin Rawanchakai installing the aesthetic of the Bollywood movie poster alongside Hollywood science fiction within a narrative epic in the style of Conceptual art. These works have in common a focus on translation: “elements belonging to a local visual or philosophical culture are transferred from a traditional universe in which they are strictly codified and fixed to one in which they are set in motion and placed beneath the gaze of a critical reading.” (140) Displacement of cultural material, from one location or context to another, is thus a central component of Bourriaud’s analysis of “altermodernity” as the contemporary cultural condition.

The Global Aspect of Contemporary Art

7The art milieu has become, especially over the last decade, a global network. Apart from the exhibitions held in major museums and art galleries of the urban centres, the international biennales, triennales and other recurring shows have established themselves as defining events of contemporary art. Of the world’s art Biennales, Venice, Sao Paolo and Sydney are the oldest, while many other world cities have expanded the circuit of international art events by founding biennales. One feature of globalist art, as Butler has observed, is that it is “defined not by artists and art works but by curators and exhibitions.” (Butler 58) Large-scale exhibitions such as Documenta or the Venice Biennale are conceptualised by curators along loosely binding themes, with international artists chosen to respond to these themes with new works, or with relevant existing works.

8The curatorial concepts are often politically urgent and informed by critical theory, political theory, radical continental philosophy, and other academic disciplines including cultural geography and anthropology, as well as art history and theory. As an example, Documenta - the world’s premier art event, held every five years in Kassel, Germany - was curated in 2007 by Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, who posed three questions to which artists were invited to respond: Is Modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done? The second two questions, inspired by Giorgio Agamben and Lenin, provoked responses in photographic and video works documenting refugees, detention camps, the aftermath of war, and social inequality. Many of the recent artworks shown at biennales and other global art events favour digital photography and video, as well as other forms including installation and performance, in documenting social and political realities.

9The best international art, however, transcends mere propaganda, or the meagre illustration of theory. Artists are explorers within the networks of global images. In the word coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, the artist is a “semionaut”, navigating the virtual seas of global images, producing “original pathways through signs” (Bourriaud 2002: 19). The most striking art works probe the fault-lines and fissures of contemporary meaning. They play with contradiction, or expose the processes of meaning-making, national identity formation, willful acts of cultural forgetting, or the consequences of migration or forced displacement. The best art works evoke ambiguity of meaning while resonating with emotional power. They may be intellectual feats and visceral emotional statements at the same time.

Images of Displacement

10Because the contemporary artist-semionauts are operating within a globalised regime, many current works have a geopolitical aspect. Contemporary art should be understood in relation to the widespread perception that humans have altered their orientation in space-time.  The previous orientation in space and time has been “dis-placed”, it is widely assumed, by “the great liberal utopia of globalisation, an ordering of the earth and its beings which claims to do away with our orientation.” (Dean 20) The processes of globalisation – commonly understood as an intensified flow of capital, information, and people – function on many levels. Migration, within and across national borders, is a significant factor, not least with regard to the trauma of displacement. Digitised images are also part of this global flow, as is the capital invested in the global financial system and international art market. As Mitchell Dean observes, “the rationality of globalisation portends an overcoming of space and time in a great frictionless circulation of things, information and people.” (20) Much recent art has been concerned with refuting this liberal-utopian vision, or at least with exposing some of the friction within the mechanism of world order.

11Sound artists have played with the disorientation, or spatial re-orientation, provoked by global connection and movement. The American sound artist Bill Fontana, for example, has built “harmonic bridges” between cities, including San Francisco, Cologne, Kyoto and Sydney. Fontana uses recordings of the urban environment as the basis for musical information. He has written of his sonic displacements: “the relocation of ambient sounds to urban public spaces is a radical attempt to redefine the meaning of the acoustical context in which the sound sculpture is experienced” (1)

12Fontana’s relocation of sounds has involved the “acoustic haunting” of ruined urban sites by the audio of the present, as achieved in his work Distant Trains (1984), in which the sounds of Germany’s busiest train station, Cologne, were played at the site of a ruined former station in Berlin. Other works displace the sounds of natural environments into urban spaces. Fontana is best known, however, for his “satellite ear bridges”, in which the live sounds of one metropolis are broadcast in another, far distant city. In one work, he recorded the urban soundscape of San Francisco, including its harbour, and broadcast this aural city-scape over loudspeakers in the city of Sydney. The sound-map of one harbour city was super-imposed on another, creating a confusing, yet agreeable, aural displacement and layering. In other works, such as the ear bridge Cologne-Kyoto (1993), the ambient sounds of the two urban environments are mixed and broadcast to both cities, allowing an audio fusion of the two cities to emerge from the sonic displacement.

13More typically, however, contemporary artists express ideas of displacement through visual images. Objects and places are given visual representation and left to resonate within circuits of knowledge and patterns of local and global orientation.

Allan Sekula, Panorama, Mid-Atlantic, 1993

Allan Sekula, Panorama, Mid-Atlantic, 1993. Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery.

14The photographic work Panorama, Mid-Atlantic by American artist Allan Sekula focuses on the objects and movement of global trade. The containers on the ship deck in Sekula’s Panorama are densely packed, forming a geometrical barrier to the horizon’s natural play of light. We do not know the nature of the freight within the shipping containers; we do not know the destination of the ship, except that it is poised mid-Atlantic. Sekula has frozen this cargo mid-way on its journey. He has exposed an aspect of global trade that is normally kept hidden from view: the long, unglamorous journey of goods from point of manufacture to markets, where they will be bought and consumed.

15Sekula’s documentary photographic practice pursues a Marxist aesthetic strategy. His critical realism is a kind of “making-visible”, an attempt to “make apparent the underlying forces of society, the invisible base that allows its visible superstructure.” (Butler 63) In his many works on international marine transport, Sekula aims to disclose the unseen labour, organisation, apparatus and processes that work, behind the scenes, to provide our consumer goods. He demystifies the modern secular magic of the global commodity. We also glean from this image that beneath the constant whirl of commodities, signs, images and information, is the much slower, often arduous, passage of international trade.

16Artists are often fascinated by the underside of globalisation – by the failures, the victims, the unseen casualties of the shining new networks of communication and trade. In the video work Bade Area (2005), Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen explores an abandoned factory site. This derelict space is typical of industrial sites that once represented Taiwan’s “economic miracle”, now forgotten since the departure of industry to new territories offering cheaper production and labour costs. This ruthless economic logic, central to the globalised economy, has left the artist “enraged” (Wang 96). For the Bade Area video work, he asked laid-off employees to revisit their former workplace – but in this context the ex-workers are adrift like ghosts haunting their former abode. They are displaced in both time and space, “like spectres in mourning, reminiscing their past life but lost in the present, not knowing where their future lies.” (Wang 96).

17In the office, a globe on the desk is broken, while a map of the world is torn and frayed. There is a still connected antique computer. These symbols of a previous information system and world order consign the factory to derelict, pitiful status. Elsewhere in the video, workers attempt to set up a Karaoke machine on a roof, while a tired and battered sign heralds “The Majestic Town”. The Bade Area is revealed as a non-place, an ex-place. It offers a “parable of globalisation” (Wang 96), standing for all the sites of production that have been superseded and abandoned, that have had to make way, that have been left to crumble as unloved and forgotten former zones of activity.

Chen Chieh-jen, Bade Area, 2005 (production still)

Chen Chieh-jen, Bade Area, 2005. Production still. Courtesy of the artist and Main Trend Gallery, Taipei.

A Fairy Tale of Displacement

18At the 2007 Documenta exhibition, Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei offered an ingenious comment on the theme of mass migration in the globalised age. His work Fairytale involved the transport of 1001 Chinese citizens to Documenta in five stages. Awaiting their arrival were 1001 wooden chairs from the Quing dynasty, spread throughout the four main venues of Documenta. These antique chairs attested both to the Chinese past and to the contemporary Chinese citizens they would serve. The artwork to a large extent comprised the act of migration – the feat of physically moving 1001 Chinese citizens, who had not previously left China – to Kassel in Germany.

19This conceptual work was at once a global fable – the title Fairytale referred to the Brothers Grimm, former residents of Kassel, and to the 1001 nights of the Scheherazade story– and a provocative act in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s sensitivity to travel and international relations. The art theorist Terry Smith considers Fairytale “a delicious parody of the restrictions to travel that characterized China during the Mao years.” (Smith 58). The welcoming chairs, arranged in clusters, fostered informal and lively discussions amongst the Chinese once they arrived, enabling expression of “civil society in microcosmic form – exactly the kind of formation most threatening to Communist Party centralists” (Smith 58).

20Ai Wei Wei has been able to exploit his standing as a major international artist while maintaining a dissident stance within China. Fairytale exposed the contradictions in the Party’s partial embrace of globalisation and the market while attempting to retain authoritarian control over its citizens. The 1001 Chinese participants in Fairytale experienced life outside China for the first time: for one month they were free to engage in the cultural and political pursuits available in a European city. Within China, however, such freedoms may be abruptly curtailed. Despite his international status, Ai’s role as figurehead of dissent has earned him severe attention from Party officials: he was detained for 81 days in 2011.

21Ai Wei Wei is also an outspoken critic of the remorseless surge of modernisation undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party.  Progress is pursued in China today as pitilessly and unquestioningly as it was once advocated in the West by Henry Ford or F. T. Marinetti in the early years of the twentieth century. Another work by Ai Wei Wei at Documenta 2007 was a huge sculpture made from discarded Chinese antique doors. Entitled Template, this gigantic work opens to the past. It evokes the discarded past in its very substance. Template, like many of Ai Wei Wei’s works, uses as its material the relics of the past jettisoned by the implacable Chinese drive to progress. These materials carry previous time and place into the stuff of the art work. The sculpture is a contemporary form made from temporal displacement. It is a testament to a former time, former places, an earlier culture – all swept aside by the onward march of the state.

Displaced Persons

22In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), Giorgio Agamben revived the distinction made in classical Greek thought between zoē  (bare life) and bios (life of the polis – the political or good life). For Agamben, sovereign power, including that of the modern state, has always entailed the attempt to control and regulate bare life; this biopolitical impulse is nowhere more evident than in those “states of exception” where sovereign power has been most evident. In this context, Agamben regards the camp as the “hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity”. (Agamben 123) The camp is “the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space” because it is “founded solely on the state of exception” (123); it is “the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.” (168-169) This formulation is true not only of the concentration camps of World War Two, but also of the contemporary camps set up for refugees and political prisoners. For Agamben, the camp is “the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living.” (166)

23Agamben’s treatise on bare life and the figure of the camp as “biopolitical paradigm of the modern” (117) has been extremely influential in critical thought and curatorial practice. Agamben has built on the theorising of the biopolitical – the intersection of power and the body - developed by Michel Foucault, fusing it with a discourse on political theory and the state inaugurated by Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt and other theorists. Agamben’s conception of the camp and bare life has gained great purchase in the contemporary context of globalisation, in which the movements of refugees, asylum seekers, prisoners of war, and migrant workers are political realities.

24The impact of Agamben’s thought on contemporary art – as reflected in the enshrining of the question “What is bare life?” as a central premise of the 2007 Documenta – may be attributed in part to his crystallisation of a complex argument in the concrete figure of the camp. Contemporary images of displaced persons held in prisoner of war or refugee camps are familiar to a mass audience due to their circulation in the media. It is readily apparent that sovereign states including liberal-democracies operate spatial exclusion and enclosure such as found in the detention camps for refugees, or those for “unlawful enemy combatants” held at Guantánamo Bay and other locations. As Mitchell Dean has remarked, these camps represent the “spatialisation of the state of exception”, as a place where anything is possible, “beyond the language of law and right, a kind of territorialisation beyond law, an orientation without order.” (Dean 32)

25Agamben has provided a critical reading of globalisation, focusing on the techniques “designed to impose non-localised forms of order on specific locations in the world, as and when needed.” (Murphie and Potts 171) The camp is for Agamben the emblem of this “dislocating localization”, which embodies displacement and disjunction in its functions. The camp, and its contemporary “metamorphoses” such as waiting areas at airports, constitutes “the fourth, inseparable element that has now added itself to – and so broken – the old trinity composed of the state, the nation (birth), and land.” (Agamben 175-176)

26The theme emanating from many contemporary artworks, including those exhibited at the most recent Venice Biennale and Documenta, is violence: of war, occupation, displacement, hatred. This violence is seen to emanate in and across states unable to control internal hostilities, unable to deal with the flow of refugees, immigrants or victims of war across their borders. A related theme concerns the barriers erected in hostile and fearful times: at detention camps, refugee camps, within brutalised or paranoid states. Detention camps erected in liberal-democratic states, troubled by the influx of refugees, also feature in contemporary art works.

27Australian artist Rosemary Laing’s large colour photograph of the Woomera detention centre in Australia is a stark testament to the force of barriers. The title of the work, Welcome to Australia (2004) is brutally ironic – but the physical reality of the detention centre in the desert is still more brutal. Laing has photographed the exterior of the camp as a severe construction of barbed wire fencing and search lights. It is a zone of exclusion mounted in the desert, with no sign of humanity or any living thing. Erected during the years of the conservative Howard government, these detention centres were devised to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers while they were - to use the terminology of the official Government rhetoric – “processed”. These detention centres exemplify the political state of exception constituted by the camp, as articulated by Agamben. The goal of these buildings, like the aim of the Government directives that enabled them, is dehumanisation. The asylum seekers are to be locked up and kept out of view of the Australian populace, while they are “processed” – like objects or pieces of paper – by the government bureaucracy.

28Laing has conveyed the iron will of the Government’s refugee policy through this stark image of its creation in the desert. This is the face of Fortress Australia. The forbidding boundary fence, the barbed wire, the searchlights, the prison-like buildings, the harsh surrounding landscape, all conspire to send the message: “Keep out”. The Howard government gained great political capital with its unyielding immigration policy, playing to fears of refugee hordes and terrorists in sections of the electorate. But this political advantage could only be sustained by a constant repression. The faces of asylum seekers were resolutely kept from view, lest a glimmer of their humanity was glimpsed by the Australian people. Hence the camp is only visible to observers from the outside: it is protected and defined by its exclusionary walls. The dehumanisation of refugees was enforced behind these fortress walls, in this modern-day camp and state of exception, deep in the interior heartland of a wealthy liberal-democratic nation.

29Another Australian artist, Mike Parr, has confronted the political issue of refugees and camps in a series of performance art works. These works, including Close the Concentration Camps (2002), Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi (Democratic Torture) (2003) and Kingdom Come And/or Punch Holes in the Body Politic (2005), involved physical ordeal and the endurance of pain on the part of the artist. In Close the Concentration Camps and Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Parr’s face was sewn with stitches through the skin and lips. In Kingdom Come, Parr, dressed in an orange suit resembling those worn by the inmates of Guantánamo Bay, received an electric shock every time a member of the audience ventured past a point marked by sensors.

30These performance works function on several levels, beyond a simple political protest against Government policies concerning asylum seekers and the “war on terror”. As the performance art theorist Edward Scheer has remarked, Parr’s acts of physical ordeal, including violence enacted on his own body, were an attempt to embody the brutality of those policies condoning torture and the detention of displaced persons. This brutality had produced “a similarly monstrous distortion in the image of Australian identity”; Parr’s pain-riddled performances were “a symbolic response to a reconfiguring of the symbolic order in Australia towards violence and paternalism.” (Scheer 129)

Oscar Munoz, Proyecto para un Memorial, 2007

Oscar Munoz, Proyecto para un memorial. Video projection (detail).

31A more subtle piece on the effect of political violence is by Colombian artist Oscar Munoz, whose video installation Proyecto para un Memorial (2007) has on its five screens drawings of faces being traced with a brush then slowly fading. It seems that digital manipulation must be involved, until the viewer realizes that the faces are painted with water on a footpath: they vanish through evaporation. The work is a simple and elegant evocation of the “disappeared” in Latin America.

32The Spanish artist Santiago Sierra has concerned himself, in a series of works, with the “bare life” experienced by individuals within the darker recesses of globalisation. In the work 250 cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People (1999), Sierra paid six unemployed men from Havana US $30 each to stand in line with a collective line tattooed across their backs. In another version of this work the following year, four Brazilian prostitutes were paid in heroin for agreeing to the inscription of the tattoo across their backs. In other works, Chechen refugees consented to remain sealed inside cardboard boxes for the duration of an exhibition, and workers were paid low wages to perform meaningless tasks such as moving a slab of concrete back and forth.

33Sierra’s art practice foregrounds those individuals normally invisible in the global economy: the underclass, the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the lowest paid menial workers, prostitutes, unemployed, refugees. These individuals are the raw material of Sierra’s conceptual artworks; they also represent the economic and political realities addressed by these works. Sierra’s intention is to “draw attention to racial and economic inequities by replaying them” in his artworks (Butler 58). Sierra highlights the degradation experienced by labourers or the underclass by incorporating their indignity into his art: the unemployed or lowly paid receive small amounts of remuneration to perform pointless or insulting tasks; refugees – often the unwanted, unseen or illegal workers in the globalised economy – are paid to hide inside cardboard boxes.

34The global reach of the capitalist system, with its manifold inequities and exploitations, is Sierra’s primary target; yet he himself has frequently been accused of exploiting the poor and underprivileged in his art works. Sierra’s response to such accusations has been to focus on the contradictions and hypocrisies within the art world. Like the globalised economic order of production, the art world is an international enterprise involving exploitation and inequity in its production system. It is enjoyed in developed nations by affluent individuals whose liberal or progressive attitudes extend only to a certain point. Sierra’s interventions into the processes of the global economy also aim to agitate the complacency of the art world. His role, he has stated, is “to press my finger on sore places and create uncomfortable situations for people who want to have fun in the gallery.” (Spiegler 1)      

Colonial Displacement

35The violence of displacement has been all too apparent, centuries before the current movements across the globe, to indigenous peoples.

Rebecca Belmore, Torch, 2006

Rebecca Belmore, Torch, 2006 (digital photograph). Courtesy of the artist and Pari Nadimi Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Donna F. Hagerman.

36Torch, by the indigenous Canadian artist Rebecca, addresses the implications of colonialism as forced displacement of indigenous peoples.  The arm of Liberty, bound by the Stars and Stripes, is inverted and holds uprooted long black hair.  This image connects liberty with discipline in the inverted bound arm, and “replaces the torch of enlightenment with the darkness of uprooted hair.” The Age of Reason oversaw the appropriation of land, the violent dispossession or uprooting of indigenes, and their “binding within the nation-state and its very symbols of liberty.” (Dean 28) Colonialism meant uprooting in many dimensions at once: physical, emotional, spiritual, political.  

37Tracey Moffatt, a member of the Aboriginal “Stolen Generations” - when Australian Government policy was to remove certain Aboriginal children from their parents and place them in state care - has played out narratives of dislocation and identity within her art. In the short film Night Cries (1990), an Aboriginal woman cares for her dying invalid white mother. Moffatt, who was raised by white parents after being taken from her Aboriginal mother by state authorities, treats the relationship with a degree of ambivalence. Feelings of resentment and guilt are overlaid upon the mixed-race parental relationship. The heightened artifice of the studio setting, with its lurid colours and non-naturalistic background, invites a symbolic reading – or readings – of the unfolding narrative. The death-throws of the mother provoke both grief and liberation for the distressed child, who has assumed the role of carer.

38Yet Moffatt, who rejects the nomination of “Aboriginal artist” because of the strait-jacketing connotations and expectations imposed by such a term, produces work of rich complexity, art that resists simplistic post-colonial interpretation. The daughter in this film displays love and obligation as well as resentment towards her mother. A child of the stolen generation of necessity experiences a displaced emotional bond with substitute parents approved by the state. Yet this displaced bond is also a genuine emotional relationship. Moffatt’s series of digital images, shot, like Night Cries, to highlight artifice rather than naturalism, present complex layers of race, identity, emotional attachment and shards of story-telling. The series Something More (1989), for example, depicts broken elements of an outback story involving mixed race, sex, violence, road journey and escape. The narrative suggested by these pictorial shards is enigmatic, yet clearly includes a dynamic element of movement across the land, alongside various racial and gender elements of identity cross-fertilised in unspecified combinations.


39The theme of displacement is addressed in contemporary art in a diversity of ways. This may entail a direct engagement with the political reality of persons displaced as a result of war, persecution or Government policy; such an engagement is evident in those art works concerned with the plight of refugees, asylum-seekers or political prisoners. The curatorial theme adopted by the directors of major international art events may also address this concern directly, as was the case with Documenta 2007 and its curatorial reference to Agamben’s conception of “bare life”.

40More often, however, the idea of displacement is treated obliquely by contemporary artists. This may involve an emphasis within art works on the nomadic, or the combination of disparate cultural elements. It may entail the deliberate dislocation of images or sound from one geographical context to another. All these engagements with the theme of displacement occur within the increasingly globalised dimension of contemporary art, which may itself be situated in the intensified movement of information, goods or people, commonly known as globalisation.

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AGAMBEN, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

BAUDELAIRE, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon, 1964.

BOURRIAUD, Nicolas. Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002.

BOURRIAUD, Nicolas. The Radicant, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2009.

BUTLER, Rex. “The World is Not Enough” in Charles Merewether and John Potts (eds). After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010.

DEAN, Mitchell.  “Land and Sea: ‘In the Beginning all the World was America’”, in Charles Merewether and John Potts (eds). After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History, Manchester: Manchester University Press 2010.

FONTANA, Bill. “The Environment as a Musical Resource” (2000) at Accessed 10 June 2011

MEREWETHER, Charles and POTTS, John (eds). After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010.

MURPHIE, Andrew and POTTS, John. Culture and Technology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

SCHEER, Edward. The Infinity Machine: Mike Parr’s Performance Art 1971-2005, Melbourne: Schwartz City, 2009.

SMITH, Terry. “Art of Dissent” in The Monthly, June 2011.

SPIEGLER, Mark. “When Human Beings Are the Canvas” in Artnews June 2003, at Accessed 6 June 2011.

TUNNICLIFFE, Wayne. “Francis Alÿs” in Wayne Tunnicliffe (ed). John Kaldor Family Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney: Art Gallery of NSW, 2011.

WANG, Chia Chi Jason. “Chen Chieh-jen” in Charles Merewether (ed). Zones of Contact: 2006 Biennale of Sydney Catalogue, Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 2006.

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Electronic reference

John POTTS, “The Theme of Displacement in Contemporary Art”e-Rea [Online], 9.2 | 2012, Online since 15 March 2012, connection on 24 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


Macquarie University, Sydney
John Potts is Associate Professor in Media at Macquarie University, Sydney. He was Visiting Professor in the Department of Anglophone Studies, University of Provence, in 2010. He has published five books, including A History of Charisma (Palgrave 2009) and After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History (co-edited with Charles Merewether, Manchester University Press 2010).

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