by Maria Antonella Pelizzari
"The man [the woman] who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect." I am borrowing this challenging quotation from Tzvetan Todorov's masterful essay The Conquest of America: the Question of the Other1 while trying to reflect on the contemporary dilemma between cultural exile and multi-culturalism, between displacement and cosmopolitanism. This reflection rises from my personal questioning about the relationship to a country that is not as "sweet" as the original one I left, that is not "my own" yet, and that is still far from being "the whole world." Like most immigrants/exiles in the United States, I have my own niche: I am a critical observer, a passionate participant, and an enigmatic voyeur of a foreign life. Photography relates to the immigrant's experience in an exceptional way: it functions as a documentary means, as a diaristic notepad, and as a secret relic of the immigrant's cultural past.
Three major institutions of photography in the American West—the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and The Friends of Photography in San Francisco—have brought these issues to the fore with the orchestration of three exhibitions titled "Points of Entry."2 The exhibitions study the binomial of photography and immigration in their relationship to the United States. The choice made by the three institutions is very meaningful, and quite unique. Indeed, the United States represent a model for the assemblage of ethnic groups throughout the centuries. Furthermore, they have carefully kept and archived the records of this process. Photography has been—and still is—an indispensable index to point out specific patterns inside the American pluralist cultural magma.
The individual curators have confronted a huge amount of work, and they have made their own selections— chronologically and thematically. I applauded the project, I enjoyed the vast range of work exhibited, but I remained somewhat puzzled, and not fully satisfied, by the conceptual premises, and the conclusions, offered to the theme of photography and immigration. I wonder whether we can really speak of "entries" in a new country. How are their deep manifestations revealed? What are the most poignant photographic indexes for this process? And what are the organizers' "points," or individual agendas, in exhibiting specific indexes?
Chronologically, the exhibition "A Nation of Strangers" takes the first position in this discussion. Arthur Oilman and Vicky Goldberg co-curated the exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts: they assembled more than two hundred pictures—mostly photographs, but also a few engravings, magazines, and advertisements—which illustrate the immigrants' strenuous passage to the United States, from the nineteenth-century to the twentieth-century. Terry Pitts' exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography, "Re-framing America," surveyed the work of European photographers landed in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s; Andy Grundberg's exhibition at The Friends of Photography, "Tracing Cultures," focused on the subjective vision of contemporary naturalized American artists, dwelling between their imaginary homeland and their visual construct of the new country.
The chronological order of the exhibitions does not help to trace a linear pattern inside the complex montage of immigration. The three exhibitions frequently overlap and create their own montages, while the curators formulate their individual credos concerning the large theme. Oilman-Goldberg's exhibition proclaims with pride the beautiful cultural complexity of the United States. This “nation of strangers” has some overtones of an earlier “nation” in the American 1950s, in specific, of the disenfranchised “family of man.” The American nation contains a universal oneness: as Ollmann writes, it holds “the tale of all of us together.”3 “Stranger is good”: it’s America’s strength. But is it, really? Terry Pitts overcomes the question. He does not proclaim: he admires and enjoys the foreigners’ “new vision.” The work on display seems to suggest that we can learn something from the strangers’ “innocent eye”: they “see” things we (natives) cannot see anymore. Estrangement helps us "see" better. But, I wonder, what is the prize for the loss of our original roots and our innocence? Andy Grundberg raises these questions, yet he does not fully answer to them: he chooses to give them voice through subjective and autobiographical work. Curiously enough, the spokesman of postmodernism in photography traces back a subjective vision, and values the strangers' "true" experiences. Todorov's notions of "perfection," "strength," and "sweetness" are all contained in these "points of entry." But let's have some glimpses.
From its first page, the cover-jacket of the catalogue, Oilman-Goldberg's "family of man" exhibits photographs of children: Oilman points out that the face of Pok Chi Lau's newborn baby is American, rather than Asian. Naturalization is not such a malleable and sweet process; yet the serial display of Lewis Hine's photographs at Ellis Island insists on the young immigrants' beauty, innocence, and expectation. Sweetness and kindness are part of the "American enterprise" which aims at perfection. Grim poverty certainly goes with it, as one is reminded by Jacob Riis' "other halves." In Oilman-Goldberg's exhibition photography works as a proof, as a statement, and as a social inquiry: a chronological thread links these documents, and builds up a tension that goes beyond the objective record. As Duane Michals would remind us here, "there are many things not seen in these photographs."
One 1874 photograph made in Utica Township, Dane County, Wisconsin, reveals the slow process of European acculturation: a family of Norwegian newcomers is portrayed having a cup of tea in front of their new house, while a man stands precariously on the roof, spreading the fetish of their belonging, the Norwegian flag. Against this symbolic background, the Norwegian sitters look like characters in a play by Samuel Beckett, their thoughts traveling back and forth from the old to the new world. We can only imagine what took place before and after the picture was taken, and thus reconstruct our personal narrative about this Norwegian family. The photograph does not reveal the shiver of the departure and the arrival; the endless moments of waiting on the steerage; the pride of sending this picture to the relatives remained in who Norway; and the overall process of staging a dream (the American dream, of course). The process of acculturation is not instantaneous, and photography can only do so much to retrieve its memory. One snapshot from the turn of the century shows the thrill of the passage from the old to the new world: it captures the immigrants' dance on the steerage of the S.S.Patricia, just before the ship arrives at the "promised land." This anonymous Equivalent suggests the sense of wonderful suspension, the excitement and fear, which all foreigners have experienced. The dream of a "perfect country" is fixed inside the invisible leap of these dancers on the steerage, and in their tension to connect to the unknown territory.
A sample of other photographs in the show reveal the foreigners' attempt to penetrate through the American borders, both East and West, North and South. Don Bartletti documented the Latin Americans sleeping above the California highway, or dangerously running through the highway, and crossing the border. David McNew documented Chinese people trying to touch the American coast, seeking bread and freedom. A series of color photographs by James Newberry and Audrey Gottlieb illustrates the immigrants inside their local working and religious communities: they have settled like the nineteenth century Norwegian family, and they have attempted to recreate their original country within foreign walls.
But which type of "family" is this really?
A family of outsiders, spies, and voyeurs. Trinh T. Minh-Ha reminds me that "in principle a foreigner is already a spy," and that, as a foreigner, "you have to. know how to compose yourself to be admitted in the heart of the system."4 If you learn that lesson, you may succeed in "Reframing America." The issue is complex, neither black nor white. The photographers selected by Terry Pitts succeeded in making America their own country: their vision became composed by the new territory, while their individual drives helped them find specific visual strategies. The process is reversed when naturalized Americans look at these photographs: they become the voyeurs "learning" from a foreign vision. Nobody here is "innocent." In one way or the other, Alexander Alland, Robert Frank, John Gutmann, Otto Hagel, Hansel Mieth, Marion Palfi, Lisette Model (and many others not included here), were all "spies," or intruders, who embraced a certain dream of America, and became part of the dream. Robert Frank is the quintessential case for this story, soon transformed into a romantic fairy-tale. America was his Utopia and became his country, the place which he needed to depict: this need gave him the impulse to see with "fresh eyes," or rather, with the spontaneous force of his gut feelings. Frank became the unobtrusive observer of his beloved country. A spy and a lover.
Many foreign European eyes encountered the United States during the time span chosen by this exhibition. Lisette Model, another "lover" (of the snapshot, as she said), re-composed her vision when she arrived in New York, in 1938: overwhelmed by the city's vitality, she reflected her excitement and unease into the surfaces of store windows. Once again, the American territory acted on her as an impulse to find visual strategies, and orient herself. All photographers grouped in "Reframing America" are apprentices to the new world, as they are all searching for particular signs to interpret the unfamiliar culture. They are involved in a slow process of apprenticeship and in the translation from a foreign language. As Gilles Deleuze has explained, "every act of learning is an interpretation of signs or hieroglyphs."5 Thus, a variety of signs and visual patterns of orientation become contextualized inside this show: the flag, Frank's cipher for multiracial "America," recurs, together with the portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, in many other pictures. Otto Hagel, escaped from fascist Germany to San Francisco in 1928, framed the portrait of Washington between the American and Nazi flag, during a meeting of the German-American Bund, in 1938. The father of the American nation is once again the silent witness whose portrait is hanging on the wall of a classroom of Turkish -American high school kids photographed by Alexander Alland in 1942. The blackboard shows Turkish sentences, while the kids raise their hands and strain their attention towards their instructor. We don't see the instructor, but the portrait of Washington functions like a visual trait-d'union between the Turkish and the American language. This image raises further questions related to the complexity involved into the cultural translation. Which role does language play in the mutual understanding of cultures? Obviously an essential one.
A new language is like a new body, a new physiognomy, and a new facial expression: the immigrant experiences this dichotomy, "bearing within [himself/herself] like a secret vault, or like an handicapped child—cherished and useless—that language of the past that withers without ever leaving [him/ her]."6 Julia Kristeva's psychoanalitical reading of the stranger's experience can help in deciphering the work of Gutmann, Palfi, and Alland: they all seem to find a cultural orientation in the language of the American vernacular. Their pictures remind one of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and most FSA photographers from the 1930s: one can trace a similar sharpness in their vision, and the indication of a difficult social condition. Yet, the immigrant adopts the verbal language with a deep awareness of his/her own interpretation. Oftentimes the written text grounds a context which the foreigner cannot interpret otherwise: the photograph becomes the ultimate sign of this process of semiosis. Marion Palfi in particular anchors her vision to both verbal and visual signs, as she tries to point to social contradictions. As one of her books' titles indicates, Signs of Discriminations [1946-49] are written on the back of a car, in public buses, and in the streets of Washington, DC. One finds similar "signs of discrimination" in Palfi's visits of the streets of Washington. In one image from Suffer Little Children [1946-49], she photographed black kids in the foreground, and the State Capitol in the distance: the kids stopped playing, and looked suspiciously towards the camera, indicating, through their gaze, a contextual ambiguity.
Ambiguity, displacement, and search for one's own identity are the leitmotifs of "Tracing Cultures." The twelve artists grouped in the show create a kaleidoscopic and attractive montage: the resulting effect does not necessarily trace anybody's culture, but rather a subjective state of mind. This show is about the traumatic experience of cultural dislocation. The fragments of one's culture are collected by a way of nostalgia or humor: Albert Chong, from Chinese and African descent, creates autobiographical reliquaries of an irretrievable cultural past, framing family snapshots and ancestral imagery inside large copper mats, onto which he writes short stories about his father and mother. Another artist, I.T.O. (Shigeki Ito), uses food as a sign to retrieve his cultural memory. In his mixed-media installation from the series "Interculturism," 1990-95 a series of fake sushi avenge themselves against the American infrastructure by rotating in front of appropriated nineteenth century portraits of American generals.
The cultural signs cover a larger span in this exhibition: almost in a Proustian vein, taste becomes part of someone's memory trace. Sound too. The sound is not physically incorporated into the room, but it becomes tangible in the work of Carrie Mae Weems. In her series "Africa,"1993 I can hear the violent drumming of millions of Africans shipped from Goree Island to the United States. Congo Ibo Mandingo Togo creates a rhythmic sound, while architectural details photographed in the same island become symbolic fragments of African bodies. Once again, cultural signs are stretched into larger visual metaphors.
Sound and silence are evoked inside this exhibition. In a piece by Kim Yasuda, two drawers are decontextual-ized from her original installation "Hereditary Memories," 1991. When one opens the drawers one reads two words: "innate and appropriate". In this minimal (or post-minimal) installation Yasuda reflects on that "fluid" state of a cultural identity which is "(n)either/(n)or." Her piece his highly autobiographical, and deals with the absence of her own family, and her sense of adoption. The piece becomes recontextualized in the exhibition's larger theme of cultural retrieval. Yasuda's existential condition of living in-between two families—one absent but innate, the other one present but appropriated—is shared by all photographers in the show: Ruben Ortiz Torres, a Mexican living in Los Angeles, Maria Martinez-Canas, a Cuban living in Florida, Komar & Melamid, two Russians living in New York City, Young Kim, a Korean living in San Francisco. These artists, and a few more (the American Lewis De Soto, Gavin Lee, and the Vietnamese Dinh Q.Le), cherish the richness of their multi-cultural origins. While the goal of the early immigrant to the United States was to be "assimilated," and accepted by the natives, the experience of the contemporary immigrant elicits creative potential for its fluid state in-between two cultures. Yasuda is aware of this potential when she writes that the foreigner "without an allegiance to known origins [has] the privilege of embracing a temporal heritage, one that is in a constant state of redefinition.'"'
Can we then consider the contemporary state in-between as close to "perfection?" After all, these artists seem to share the entire world, while distancing themselves from their ancestors. Or maybe they have not quite settled in the new world: they are suspended in its distant regions, while they are looking back at their own past, and they are searching for an imaginary space where they can belong. As Kristeva's essay may suggest one more time, these foreigners are "ready to flee", as they are seeking "that invisible and promised territory, that country that does not exist but that [they] bear in [their] dreams, and that must indeed be called a beyond." '
Young Kim's narrative installation poetically illustrates what Kristcva calls the stranger's "beyond". Kim built her narrative with the sequence of twelve pieces. Each piece consists of a large plywood frame containing a small family snapshot and Kim's personal writing inscribed on the plywood. The installation is titled Distances ,1992. The last picture of this installation shows the Ocean. This unpretentious snapshot is cherished like a personal relic, encased into a warm plywood frame. Beneath this picture Kim inscribes: "Leaving my country was not a simple task. I now realize that I never really left nor really arrived."
These words suggest that the history of immigration is like an endless loop: starting from the immigrants' early settlements and their acquired sense of
pride, the story flows into the subjective experience of modern photographers, and it reaches the personal recollection of contemporary artists. At the end of this process, the immigrants look back at their original "points of entry." Thus, the "entries" become the exits to the immigrants' memories, and the "points" become the infinite parts of a continuous line. This line of exile can ultimately hold "the whole world," as indicated by Todorov. The whole story is extremely rich, but we are still far from "perfection" in witnessing it. •
Maria Antonella Pelizzari is a writer based in Tuscon, Arizona.
1. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America-, the Question of the Other (1982), New York, Harper & Row, 1984, p.250 [I am borrowing this quotation from Todorov, a Bulgarian livng in France, who himself borrowed it from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in the United States, who found it in Erich Auerbach, a German exiled in Turkey].
2. The exhibitions' major sponsor is the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The traveling schedule in 1996-97 is the following: George Eastman House, Rochester, April 1996; National African American Museum, Smithsonian Institution, August 1996; High Museum of Art, Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, February 1997; Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, September 1997.
3. Arthur Oilman, "A Nation of Strangers", exhibition catalogue, University of New Mexico Press, 1995, p.9.
4. Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Framer Framed, Routledge Press, 1992, p.51.
5. Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs (1964), Braziller, 1972, p.4.
6. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, Columbia University Press, 1991, p.15.
7. Kim Yasuda, Artist's statement in "Tracing Cultures," exhibition catalogue, University of New Mexico Press, 1995, p.74.
8. J.Kristeva, Strangers, cit, p.5.