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Social Text 22.4 (2004) 113-139

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Alice Attie showed me her photographs of Harlem. The images haunted me and interpellated me as a New Yorker. A month before this, twenty-one photographs of the base of the eleventh-century Brihadiswara temple in Thanjavur, taken in 1858 by a captain in the British army, had beckoned. What was that interpellation? I have not come to grips with that one yet, but it launched me for a while on the question of photographs and evidence of identity. Harlem moved on to a big map.

In Dublin I could juxtapose the Harlem images with allochthonic Europe. What is it to be a Dubliner? Romanian, Somali, Algerian, Bosnian Dubliners? What is it to be a high-tech Asian Dubliner, recipient of the 40 percent of official work permits? Diversity is class differentiated. How does the anti-immigration platform "Return Ireland to the Irish" relate to the ferocious dominant-sector culturalism that is reconstituting Harlem today? A class argument subsumed under this culturalism, pronouncing received antiglobalization or pro-working-class pieties, will nicely displace the question. This became part of my argument.

In Brazil's Bahia, I learned what the movimento negro owed to African America in the United States.1 In Hong Kong in 2001, I saw that the word identity attached to the name of a place such as Hong Kong indicated yet another species of collectivity: postcolonial. Between Great Britain and China, the Hong Kong cultural worker staged a loss of identity. If the quick sketch of Dublin foregrounds the class division in diversity, the staging of Hong Kong makes visible the fault lines within what is called "decolonization."2

In 1996 the Taiwanese artist Tsong Pu thought of his work Map (figs. 1a-1b) as marking a contradiction between "lucid Chinese names and maps, and [the] ambiguous concept[s] of China and [its] names," questioning precise identities, as set down by names and maps.3 He was perhaps inserting Hong Kong, via repatriation, into the confusion of the question of two Chinas, of one country two systems. Nineteen ninety-seven was the official repatriation, the promise of a release. The artist could be conceptualizing this as a frozen series of bilateralities—no more than two chairs, a small rectangular table, rather emphatically not round. Hong Kong and the PRC, Hong Kong and Britain, UK and PRC: bilateralities. [End Page 113] 113The rough concrete block, commemorating the promised release, in fact imprisons the two unequal partners. (Only one chair back has something like headphones attached.) Rough concrete blocks weigh down bodies that must drown without trace. The chairs are empty, no bodies warm them, they cannot be used. The figure "1997" is engraved on one side of the block and embossed on the other. To what concept might this refer? To the strength of the piercing of that date into the history of the city-state as it displaces itself? To the fact of piercing out, but not through? The power of conceptual art is that, as the visual pushes toward the verbal, questions like these cannot be definitively answered.

Click for larger view
Figure 1a
Map (mixed media), Tsong Pu (1996). Exhibition catalog, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Click for larger view
Figure 1b
Map (detail), Tsong Pu (1996). Exhibition catalog,Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Culture as the site of explanations is always shifting. The cultural worker's conceptualization of identity becomes part of the historical record that restrains the speed of that run. It feeds the souls of those in charge of cultural explanations, who visit museums and exhibitions. The British critic Raymond Williams would call this restraining effect the "residual" pulling back the cultural process.

I spent five months in Hong Kong. I never saw anyone looking at Map. Culture had run away elsewhere.

The photograph of Ethernet delegates (fig. 2) is a dynamic mark of identity, sharing in the instantaneous timing of virtual reality. The "Ethernet" [End Page 114] band can be put away tomorrow but is always available round the corner. Conceptuality moves on a...


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pp. 113-139
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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