- Terms of RevisionContemporary Complicities and the Art of Collaboration
My first encounter with Luke Parnell’s artwork took place on the hard-wood floor of a white cube gallery.1 Forty-eight carved figures encased in acrylic cases were arranged in regulated rows across the blonde wood, their individual features—smiles, grimaces, teeth—visible at a crouching distance. The identical cases resembled vitrines, while the title of the work, Phantom Limbs (figs. 1 and 2), suggested boxes for human remains, and the containment of something missing but not gone. Lines of connection were being drawn in the space of the gallery, and their points of origin were specific: forty-eight ancestors recently returned to Haida Gwaii from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For Parnell, a Haida/Nisga’a artist, these connections were visceral, evoking a history of stolen ancestors lodged in the body. Phantom Limbs was colonial theft re-membered, registered through the multiple channels of the Northwest Coast First Nations art market; the figures’ features registered authenticity, the visual currency of Northwest Coast connoisseurship, as they evoked many routes and ethics of care.
As a witness to this re-membering, and a graduate student beginning ethnographic research on contemporary Northwest Coast art, I was struck by the force and complexity of Parnell’s work and its capacity to contain all these narratives and networks in a way that my writing simply could not. Phantom Limbs evinced a reflexivity of the processes of knowledge production with which contemporary anthropology continues to tussle. The specific location and imaginaries of the Northwest Coast, out of which many anthropological theories of exchange and “primitive art” have come, is scrutinized in Parnell’s practice. His aesthetics [End Page 180]
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recall both the highly elaborated formal visual markers of quality in connoisseurship—a language of formlines and ovoids—and more intimate knowledges and meanings of place. This duality is not new. Since the late nineteenth century, First Nations artists have deployed and performed the category of “Northwest Coast art” in ways that hold different meanings for different publics, including the formation of anthropological knowledge about art (Glass 2011: 8). Art has served as a key site of intercultural social relations and negotiations, both on the market and beyond it. Based on local anthropological accounts of repatriation projects that emphasize the networks and meanings they enable (e.g., Kramer 2004; Hennessy 2010), such projects and the ethics of care that they enact might also be understood as a relatively recent iteration of these relations between persons and things, activating multiple contemporary ties as much as they draw upon the entanglements of the past.
Acknowledging such discursive linkages as meaningful, however, is more recent. In George Marcus’s terms, what could be regarded as my initial “scene of encounter” (2010: 263)—an artist’s practice, grounded in a specific act of repatriation and its deep historical roots, mediated by a gallery space at the intersection of multiple art world currents, the conditions of which formed the ground of my research questions—is typical of the contemporary moment in (and for) anthropology. In this scene of encounter, “reflexive subjects” (Marcus 2010: 268) are implicated as collaborators in the production of knowledge, as their needs and networks define the boundaries of research. Marcus describes this new scene as a “found imaginary” (2010: 268), deliberately invoking the aesthetic terms of the found object to emphasize the contemporary affinities between art and anthropology.
This metaphor of finding implies that these contemporary relations are emergent rather than premeditated. Indeed, such a notion of collaboration is tied to contemporary ethical debates in politically charged fieldwork settings, in which “collaboration defines relations” (Marcus 2010: 268).2 Considered in relation...