Why have some artists turned to anthropology in their practice
and how has this turn been interpreted and critiqued?



The incorporation of cultural differences into art has a long history where artists have used the data of ethnography as source material for their work. The examples from early modernism are well known, Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Gauguin, appropriated forms from African and other ‘exotic’ cultures to include in their art practice. “Primitivism profoundly influenced the relationship between art and anthropology” (Schneider 2006:29). But more recently connections and appropriations between the disciplines of anthropology and art have increased as artists use certain anthropological methodologies in their practice and anthropologists turn increasingly to visual media in their study of other peoples and with the establishment of the sub disciplines of Anthropology of Art and Visual Anthropology.

In this essay I will focus on the ‘ethnographic-turn’ in contemporary art. I shall investigate the way artists approach concerns similar to those of anthropologists, such as representing other realities and of social change? Ethnography, in it’s most general terms has been described as, “simply diverse ways of thinking and writing about culture from the standpoint of participant observation” (Clifford 1988: 9). How has such a definition and methodology been critiqued and expanded for use within and outside the discipline of anthropology since it was developed in the 1920s by Bronislaw Malinowski? I shall discuss how contemporary artists have thought about and made use of various ethnographic methodologies in their practice and how these relate to artistic creativity, to the exhibiting of their work and to its reception. To what extent do both disciplines share certain practices and concerns and how have they influenced each other? Do they critique each other’s methods and how do their definitions and uses of ethnography differ? I shall discuss ethnographic authority and artistic authorship and ask if contemporary fine art practice challenges anthropology’s claim as the main academic discipline representing other people’s cultures? Or do artists provide a valid alternative perspective? In this report I will include the work and views of an artist named Uriel Orlow whom I interviewed for this report.

The Ethnographic -Turn in Art

By adopting James Clifford’s generalized definition of ethnography above we could all be called ethnographers (Miwon Kwon 2000). But Clifford also explains, “Modern ethnography appears in several forms, traditional and innovative. As an academic practice it cannot be separated from anthropology”(Clifford 1988:9). But he also claims that ethnography differs from anthropology in that,

-----------'A modern “ethnography” of conjunctures, constantly moving between cultures, does not, like its Western alter ego “anthropology,” aspire to survey the full range of human diversity or development. It is perpetually displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form both of dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less and less distinct'. (Clifford 1988: 9)

Miwon Kwon says that recently ethnography is no longer concerned with research based on fieldwork in far away exotic places and cultures and suggests that perhaps ethnography has resonated so strongly with artists, writer and critics throughout the twentieth century due to the “correspondence between the pervasive conditions of cultural displacement and ethnography’s partial mode of operation” (Kwon 2000:74). Ethnography is seen as a methodological paradigm suited to working and responding to today’s fragmented and chaotic world and is central to contemporary art practice. Miwon Kwon (2000) explains that in debates within the disciplines of anthropology and art there has been a growing criticism of ethnographic authority and artistic authorship. Although some artists critique authorship and have found it problematic to assert the self as author, other artists have turned to ethnography because experience (participation) and interpretation (observation) within the practice of ‘participant observation’ still remain tied together (even if the emphasis of the site of interest has changed from experience more toward interpretation). In other words fieldwork is used to reconcile practice and theory. The actual experience giving, “legitimacy of a subject’s authority as the unique witness/author of a certain cultural knowledge, one that belongs to no one else” (Kwon 2000:76-7). Here Miwon Kwon suggests (in her footnotes) the work of Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tilmans.

It is also currently acknowledged that participant observation reflects the ethnographer’s subjective experience so their work says as much about the artist/ethnographer as it does the about the subject of the fieldwork and the site. Within the discipline of anthropology, the acknowledgement of the subject (the reflexive turn) and the challenge to the anthropological monograph as text prepared the way for a “belated anthropological concern with modern and contemporary art practices” (Schneider and Wright 2006:17). Susan Hiller has said “…….practices claiming objectivity and detachment are less able to give clear indications of what they are doing than practices like art, that stress interiority and subjectivity” (Hiller 1996:36).

But how do anthropological methodologies used by contemporary artists compare to those used conventionally by anthropologists? Schneider (1996), in his discussion of artists as fieldworkers, says that through fieldwork–like stays, artists’ practices of appropriation make their work relevant to anthropology. He says,

------------ 'In anthropology the term fieldwork usually refers to a prolonged stay of the anthropologist in a particular culture, in order to gather first hand material based on ’participant observation’ and primary sources, subsequently to be written up for publication. Fieldwork involves (at least in its traditional form) both elements of cultural distancing or ‘othering’ … well as appropriation and partial assimilation (or emulation) of the host culture (in its most romanticised forms termed ‘going native’ (Schneider 1996:192).

Schneider and Wright (2006) say that “anthropology has no monopoly on fieldwork” and that artists use “anthropological tools to produce a wide range of works” (Schneider and Wright 2006:16). They give examples of artists that use these methods including, Lothar Baumgarten who spent a year and a half, between 1978 and 1980, among the Yanomami people of Venezuela and produced a ‘book work’ of images showing a broad view of the peoples lives, this piece was shown at the Documenta X exhibition in 1997. Also Renée Green’s Project Unité (1993) which was a commission of forty or so installations for the Unite d’Habitation in Firminy in France, and the artist Gillian Wearing, whose video work Drunk (1997 – 9), shows South London street drinkers that she had spent time with and filmed over a two year period. As Schneider and Wright explain, works by such artists relies on “similar guarantees of duration and intimacy to those that continue to underwrite anthropological fieldwork” (Schneider and Wright 2006:15-16). Although these artists use methods of fieldwork like anthropologists the authors explain that “….their site of display marks them as art” (Schneider and Wright 2006:15). Their work is aimed at and shown in an art gallery, site-specific space or museum unlike that of most anthropologists.

In his 1996 essay ‘The Artist as Ethnographer”, Hal Foster chastises artists for acting as anthropologists and using some of their methodologies. He identifies an ethnographic turn in contemporary art and in his discussion of Renée Green’s “Project Unité” he is critical of the artist as ethnographer who works inside and outside the institutions as he says, “few principles of the ethnographic participant-observer are observed, let alone critiqued, and only limited engagement of the community is effected” (Foster 1996:196). Also in his discussion of the dangers of self-othering in ethnographic surrealism he says that, “For then as now self-othering can flip into self absorption, in which the project of an “ethnographic self-fashioning” becomes the practice of narcissistic self-refurbishing. He goes on to say that,

----------------….reflexivity can disturb automatic assumptions about subject-positions, but can also promote a masquerade of this disturbance: a vogue for traumatic confessional in theory that is sometimes sensibility criticism come again, or a vogue for pseudo-ethnographic reports in art that are sometimes disguised travelogues from the world art market. Who in the academy or the art world has not witnessed these testimonies of the new empathetic intellectual or these flâneries of the new nomadic artists? (Foster 1996:180).

Here he is referencing Renée Green’s World Tour, a series of installations in different sites and her promotional ‘World Tour’ T-shirts which reference those from rock concerts. Foster claims that, unlike professional anthropologists, the artists’ objective is self-promotion rather than social awareness or change. Miwon Kwon (2002) says that in Fosters view,

----------------….the artist is typically an outsider who has the institutionally sanctioned authority to engage the locals in the production of their (self-) representation. The key concern for Foster is not only the easy conversion of materials and experiences of local everyday life into an anthropological exhibit…..but the ways in which the authority of the artist goes unquestioned. (Kwon 2002:138)

What interests Foster in his ‘artist as ethnographer’ paradigm is the politics of the other, first projected then appropriated. He says that from a poststructuralist’s perspective this paradigm retains the notion of the subject in history, defines this position in terms of truth and locates this truth in terms of alterity (Foster 1996: 174). He explains that this realist position of truth is often compounded by a primitivist fantasy – of “the other, usually of colour who has special access to primary psychic and social processes from which the white subject is blocked” (Foster 1996: 175). In contemporary art these notion are sometimes used critically to “disturb the dominant culture that depends on strict stereotypes, stable lines of authority and humanist reanimations and museological resurrections of many sorts” (Foster 1996:199). As in the work of Mark Dion, Fred Wilson, and Hans Haake and could be read into my example of Uriel Orlow’s work below.

In this essay Foster discusses interventions in relations between artistic authority and cultural politics by extending Walter Benjamin’s model of “Author as Producer” from 1934 and suggests a new paradigm or model of realism which has “emerged in advanced art on the left: the artist as ethnographer” (Foster 1996: 172). Following Benjamin’s model relating to modernity, Foster says the “object of contestation remains in large part the bourgeois-capitalist institution of art (the museum, the academy, the market and the media), its exclusionary definitions of art and artist, identity and community” (Foster 1996:173). He claims that the artist must resolve the artist/producer contradiction and explains that in this new artist as ethnographer paradigm the subject has now changed from the subject in Benjamin’s essay to one defined in terms of cultural identity (cultural and/or ethnic other) rather than in terms of economic relations. Therefore displacing the social with the cultural or the anthropological. He goes onto explain how art passed “into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey”, by developments “within the minimalist genealogy of art over the last thirty-five years” (Foster 1996:184). He says that these developments created a shift in siting of contemporary art from the “surface of the medium to the space of the museum, from institutional frames to discursive networks, to……conditions like desire, disease, AIDS or homelessness, as sites for art” (Foster 1996:184). The homeless, the migrants, and those rejected by the system have taken the place of the proletariat in Benjamin’s model.

James Clifford writing in the 1980s prompted a fascination with ethnography in art practice by re-defining the parameters of what constitutes fieldwork and participant/observation. In conversation with Alex Coles (2000), Clifford was asked if the methodologies of ethnography were infinitely expandable and he responded by saying that all methodologies are partial translations and “ethnography, whether in a strict anthropological or expanded cultural-critical sense, is no exception: it involves recognition and mis-recognition” (Clifford 2000:56). He criticises Hal Foster for reacting against ‘ethnographys’, sometimes uncritical, popularity in art practice of the early 1990s, by cutting ethnography down to size. He says “… I would caution readers of Hal’s several pages (in Return of the Real) on ‘the new anthropology’ that he provides a very truncated account” (Clifford 2000:56). Hal Foster limits his discussion to a couple of Clifford’s essays from the early 1980s and “in a common dismissive move, the new anthropology is reduced to textualism and hyper reflexivity. This freezes a particular moment of what has been a complex, ongoing critique and decentering of cultural representations and relations of power” (Clifford 2000:57). He also criticises Hal Foster for seeing his chapter “On Ethnographic Authority” (in The Predicament of Culture 1988) as reducing everything to text or discourse as this “slides over the essay’s central proposal that anthropology’s former ‘informants’ be thought of as ‘writers’ which argues that the “space of cultural representations is populated by differently situated authorities, producers, not simply conduits, of self-reflexive ‘cultural’ knowledge” (Clifford 2000:57). In other words Clifford was questioning modes of authority, as by the late 1980s “anthropological fieldwork would never again be a matter of an outside scholar interrogating insider natives and emerging with neutral, authoritative knowledge” (Clifford 2000:58). Schneider and Wright’s confirm this statement when they claim that, “Neither artist nor anthropologist can now unproblematically claim a privileged position in regard to representing others or even their own cultures” (Schneider and Wright 2006:20).

James Clifford (2000) also says that the appeal of ethnography occurred as the ‘spacio-temporal centrality of modernism’ became fragmented, with many different arts and cultures, some marginal and others more centered. In his view “ones task as an ethnographer (defined, predominantly, as cultural critic, a defamiliariser and juxtaposer ) ……was to probe the cracks, search for the emergent…….this disposition allowed the “luxury to explore one’s own coming apart, to work with fragments” (Clifford 2000:55). The work of Susan Hiller, Mark Dion and Christain Boltanski are examples of artists who work with fragments within and between cultures and are interested in taxonomy and collecting, which are also tools used in ethnographic practice for archiving and presenting work. Clifford criticises Hal Foster as he reduces the ethnographic way of working in contemporary art to creating a negative stereotype of ‘postmodern’ relativity and self-absorption.

By contrast another model of realism in current critical writing on art is Nicolas Bourriaud’s more recent work concerning ‘operational realism’ in Relational Aesthetics (2002) in which he tries to characterise artistic practice of the 1990s and locate it in culture at large. Bourriard defines Relational Art as, “A set of practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than independent private space” (Bourriard 2002:113). So relational art to him seeks “to establish intersubjective encounters (be these literal or potential) in which meaning is elaborated collectively” (Bishop 2004:54). I think this model could also be used to define the ‘cracks’ or relationships that appear by juxtaposing different types of people in an art work such as that of Tino Sehgal at the ICA, London where he let children play with strangers. Bishop explains that Bourriard is keen to distance contemporary art from that of previous periods as he says due to the;

'-------------shift in attitude to social change: instead of a “utopian” agenda, today’s artists seek only to find provisional solutions in the here and now; instead of trying to change their environment, artists today are simply “learning to inhabit the world in a better way”; instead of looking forward to a future utopia, this art sets up a functioning “microtopias” in the present (Relational Aesthics, p 13)'. (Bishop 2004: 54)

Influenced by Guy Debord he sees this emphasis on external relations as “part of an eclectic culture where the artwork stands up to the mill of the “Society of the Spectacle”. Where modernist, “Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies” (Bourriaud 2002:31). This type of art opens up different spaces in which the artists are no longer interested in the permanence of the work “…contemporary art is often marked by non-availability, by being viewable only at a specific time” (Bourriaud 2002:29). For example Tino Sehgal did not record the encounters he set up between children and adults at the ICA and the important thing for Rirkrit Tiravanija is the encounter between people attending the gallery/museum while he cooks them curry, not the pile of things left at the end of the performance. In this way he tries to erode the distinction between institutional and social space and between the audience and the artist.

Bourriaud’s model of realism differs from the ethnographic/psychoanalytical framing of realism proposed by Hal Foster by claiming that artists are creating social situations and encounters. I am not convinced about Bourriaud’s claim as I believe all art creates relationships and is open to different interpretations. Bourriaud says, “a work may operate like a relational device containing a certain degree of randomness, or as a machine provoking and managing individual and group encounters” (Bourriaud 2002:30), which I think could cover most art. I will compare his discussion of Sophie Calle’s work as an example of relational art with that of Susanne Kuchlers’ who describes Calle’s work as ‘art of ethnography turned artwork’ or “witty and candid visual explorations of the ethnographic in contemporary culture” (Kuchler 2000:94).

Sophie Calle’s œuvre consists largely in describing her meetings with strangers and with other social relations. Bourriad says, “Whether she is following a passer-by, rummaging through hotel rooms after being employed as a chambermaid, or asking blind people what their definition of beauty is, she formalises, after a fact, a biographical experience which leads her to “collaborate” with the people she meets” (Bourriaud 2002:30). This collaborative nature of her work and its temporary nature distinguishes it as relational art. He says that critical theory (especially the Frankfurt School) is now “an ineffectual toy”. That “the subversive and critical function of contemporary art is now achieved in the invention of individual and collective vanishing lines, in those temporary and nomadic constructions whereby the artist models and disseminates disconcerting situations” (Bourriaud 2002:31).

Susanne Kuchler says that Sophie Calle, in her collaboration with Paul Auster, is “concerned with how the social space, surrounding people, frames them. In particular they highlight the dependency of the subject upon the construction of an object, which alternately, turns persons into objects and objects into person” (Kuchler 2000:95). Kuchler touches on the Gell’s anthropological theory of art here. Installations of Calle’s many projects, “document a process of observation and data gathering which uses strategies of surveillance, reportage and documentation that are represented in the form of photographs, lists and obsessive texts” (Kuchler 2000:95). Kuchler cites Calle’s early projects (pre 1992) such as Suite Venitienne in which she describes herself meeting a man and then following him to Venice, the resulting experience was recorded in book form. Another project was L’Homme au Carnet. In both these pieces she makes work out of other peoples lives and Kuchler says,
------------Calle’s use of the ethnographic present tense and also her staging and manipulation of self/other relations draws heavily on the ethnographic model, in which fieldwork is used in order to reconcile theory and practice and to reinforce the basic principles of the participant/observer tradition. (Kuchler 2000:95)

Kuchler endorses Miwon Kwon ideas above (p.2) where she discusses fieldwork being used to reconcile practice and theory. She is also using the ethnographic model rather than a relational one of Bourriaud in describing the practice of the same artist.

Kuchler explains that in Calle’ early work she used photography as a method of ethnography but later (post-1992) in works like Double Games (1999) and Birthday Ceremony (1998), she “shifts to a concern with the person-like qualities of artwork which become the nexus of social relations” (Kuchler 2000:97). Even here Kuchler does not use a relational model to discuss this work but says, “ethnography thus emerges as a method of making art out of others’ lives, but as a site of commemoration which frames social relations..…Calle’s trademark is a self-styled ethnographer of the everyday” (Kuchler 2000:97). In Double Games Calle takes on the persona of a fictional character in New York, gives cigarettes to strangers and lists the amount of smiles and conversations that occurred, the most important part of the subsequent installation being these lists which suggest the “primacy of the indexical in the fashioning of the social” (Kuchler 2000:99). Kuchler says these list say as much about the artist as they do about the site and subject of the fieldwork and that this recording in lists turns ethnographic experience into an artwork. Her account of the work of Sophie Calle explains how the artist has used methodologies from ethnography in recording the outcome of her relations with others. Calle’s art is found in implied social relations in the spaces between the lists and collections of objects situated in gallery installations. In this account Kuchler highlights the relationship to ethnography and anthropology in Calle’s working methodology.

I will now discuss a work by Uriel Orlow, a Swiss artist currently living and practicing in London, in relation to the issues raised throughout this essay. The Benin Project (2007 fig 1-5. p10.) centres on the Benin Bronzes that were, “famously looted by the British in 1897 and now housed in over 500 museums and collections worldwide” (Orlow 2007: website), was first shown at the Fri-Art Centre d’Art Contemporain, Kunsthalle, Switzerland in 2007. Consisting of a multiple screen video installation, etchings, a wall drawing, film and accompanied by a catalogue the various elements of the installation can be divided into five separate works. The first, called The Visitor (fig 2.), is a video piece consisting of a photo-essay of the artist’s audience with Oba Erediauwa, the current king of Benin, and his court of chiefs. The visit and the exchanges between the cast of people center on the “Benin Bronzes,….collective memory and the demand for restitution” (Orlow 2007:website). This work shows how communication was “somewhat elusive, slipping in and out of gaps of cultural and historical difference” (Orlow 2007:website).

Lost Wax (fig. 1), a seven channel video installation shows sculptors using the traditional lost wax technique in Benin today. Orlow say, “The visual and auditory constellation of the spread-out monitors mirrors the shared labour and simultaneity of the different processes and stages of production” (Orlow 2007:website). Worldwide Benin (fig. 3) is a single channel video and wall drawing. The video shows a roll call of 500 museums and collectors holding the Benin Bronzes around the world and in history. A Very Fine Cast (110 years) (fig.5.) consists of twenty-eight block engravings on paper and shown as an archive in grid format. The words on these engravings are taken from museum display plaques used to describe the bronzes and appear as a catalogue of racist and colonial narratives that still surround the bronzes today. Orlow does not show the images of the bronzes these plaques describe.

Uriel Orlow The Benin Project 2007

The last element of this installation is the film The Naked Palace (fig4.) showing Orlow on a guided tour of the Ogiamen’s palace in Benin City to ‘see for himself’ where the bronzes would have been housed. This palace was constructed in the 12th century, survived the British punitive expedition of 1897 and the Ogiamen’s family live in it to this day. Orlow says to the Oba and chiefs that he is “interested in the relationship between the artefacts [the Bronzes] and the architecture, the spaces which used to house them” (Orlow 2007:14). The palace appears disused and derelict in many shots as the guide explain the different parts as if they are still as in their former glory. Orlow says that, “The portrait of the palace remains fragmentary and ruptures between seeing and understanding, [the difference] between a historical imaginary and the contemporary condition becomes palpable” (Orlow 2007:website).

On a superficial level this work appears to fit an ethnographic model of realism but on closer reading some aspects of it do not and the work remains very much in the domain of art as Orlow intended. It could be argued that by starting with an object in a museum and tracing the relationships it creates through time and space this project could be more suited to Gell’s theory of art in which objects become persons. Orlow does not show images of the looted bronzes in his installation as he wanted to, “avoid that problematic seduction of them and the exoticisation that you just can’t avoid” (Orlow 2008 ). But could Orlow be following Miwon Kwon argument (p2) in turning to ethnographic methodologies of fieldwork and collecting evidence to reconcile practice and theory? He spent six months undertaking historical research for this project at the Ethnography Library in the British Museum before he went to Nigeria. Does this count as fieldwork? Or is it only the two weeks he spent in Benin? Can he call himself an anthropologist, a traveller, or a tourist? But the site of his work is ultimately an art gallery and referring to Scheinder and Wright (p 3) this marks his work as art and him an artist. So is the methodology used an important issue to discuss at all? Does it matter what methodology the artist uses as long as the finished work conveys the artists intention to the viewer?

In The Visitor ( Fig. 2.), Orlow, via the female narrator, tells the viewer the historical events surrounding the bronzes. In this video Orlow mixes the empirical footage of his visit to Benin and historical facts together with the fictional device of the third-person female voice as a narrator by casting himself as if in a play with the character he meets. I asked Orlow why he used the third-person and he replied that he was interested in employing the speaking voice or the looking person which is invisible. He said,
------------What I tried to do in The Visitor is to employ that [invisibility] and to acknowledge the subjectivity of the gaze, of an encounter with a culture, a history, with anything but in a sense to distance that subjectivity and to look at it from the third person. So that rather than making it about me speaking and looking, when in a sense I have agency still, and the other person hasn’t got agency, I want to become a player, or a protagonist in the same way that everyone else is in the piece (Orlow 2008 unpublished interview).

Orlow acknowledges his own position as author in the work but wants to move “on from that first person documentary, to question that first person” (Orlow 2008). This relates to the issues of authorship above (p.2) and the positionality of the artist doing fieldwork by subverting the tradition of first person documentary by questioning his first person status but Orlow is still, unlike classical third person documentary, showing images of himself in the work. I asked him to comment on Foster’s critique of the artist’s authority going unquestioned because they have ‘done the work’ and he replied, “I think there is what is called artistic licence, I suppose, that allows artists to operate in a way without questioning much the ethics of what they do, the politics of what they do than if you do something under the banner of science like anthropology. Obviously some people are critical but you can get away with much more” (Orlow 2008 ibid). The extended periods of time that an anthropologist spends doing fieldwork also allows him/her to produce monographs with unquestioned authority but recently anthropologists too have begun to question this authority with the ‘reflexive turn’ in the discipline.

Following Foster and others comments that to be a working artist today is to be constantly on the move Orlow answered that although some artists may operate mainly from their studios, his is a culturally engaged practice and says, “if you are trying to engage with the world and the world is a kind of globalizing place where ideas and cultural artefacts and people and economies are extremely mobile. I think that mobility will become part of making work” (Orlow 2008 ibid). He is interested in thinking about politics and all issues around travel even though his work is not about travel per se. And he admits this is an autobiographical aspect to how he perceives his cultural heritage which is one of moving around and not settled or at home in one culture himself (Orlow 2008). So as an artist Orlow is able to express this subjectivity in his work. He also adds on a more practical level that, “the growth of artistic travel is even more recent than postmodernism, it’s got a lot to do with cheap airlines”. In defence of Hal Foster’s critique of ‘these flâneries of the new nomadic artist’ (p4) Orlow says each of his journeys is “proceeded by quite a lot of research and engagement with the place and specifics of its history and what I am interested in” (Orlow 2008 ibid). This is opposed to the chance encounter of the everyday that the word flâneries has come to imply since modernist times. I would not fit the Benin Project into a relational art model either as this project is “more considered” and not so much about chance meetings or engagement between the subject or an audience and an artist.

In his text Orlow questions whether he was on a fieldtrip to Nigeria like an ethnographer so I asked if this was still an open question for him. He said that the question is to engage with the relationship. That there are similarities with all those things [fieldtrip, ethnography and anthropology] and he tries to crate a relationship as a question, to those modes of engagements but he admits he was not as rigorous as an anthropologist would claim to be as part of their profession (Orlow 2008 ibid). He explained that staying longer than two weeks would have changed his project’s outcome and allowed him to participate more even though he had done much research before going. But he was filming there for production reasons and making work at that stage in the project, and I would suggest here, that he was unlike an anthropologist who does his research mainly in the field. Orlow says, it is a given in contemporary practice that the choice is available to collaborate with other disciplines [such as anthropology and science] and other modes of production in art practice but he says his work is first and foremost art and he doesn’t want it to become anthropologised. He “wants it to stand on its own as art”. This echoes Schneider and Wright’s claim that anthropology has no monopoly on fieldwork (p.3), it can be used as a method by artist in their work too.

Anthropology is generally concerned with all aspects of a given culture but Orlow’s project is a more narrowly defined interest on a particular aspect of Benin culture regarding the bronzes. How the lack of the bronzes affected people’s collective memory, how the bronzes would have related to the architectural remnants of the palace from which they were looted and on the colonial descriptions of them in museums. But ethnography as a methodology defined by Clifford (p.2), is closer to the artist’s fragmented approach, as an “ethnography” of conjunctures, constantly moving between cultures” (in this case Nigeria in relation to the world via the bronzes) rather Kuchler’s ‘ethnographer of the everyday’ (p. 9) used to discuss Calle’s work.

Orlow explained that the most interesting part of his time in Benin was to discover that the bronzes are still being made today, depicting the same histories as the looted ones. So that ‘the memory’ he was searching for was contained more in the contemporary practice of casting than in the missing bronzes. He filmed the lost wax process and showed these films on a seven channel video installation Lost Wax (fig. 1). This part of the Benin Project appears to be the most anthropological but Tawadros says in the catalogue that, “Avoiding the medium shot of the anthropologist’s gaze, Orlow’s camera lingers on the hands of the sculptor’s moulding, shaping and sculpting their raw materials into contemporary artworks” (Tawadros 2007:43). So even here Orlow is defying the anthropological mode of viewing and does not allow us to situate these workers in a broader cultural context. Also unlike anthropologists, Orlow says he would not necessarily return to the same geographical place but rather to the same underlying issues he is interested in – in his case issues of collective memory.


I have shown that art is open to different interpretations depending on the model used. Although some artists spend long periods ‘in the field’ (Schneider p.3 above) I argue that artists generally spend less time than anthropologists and feel less committed to the people they study. Anthropologists are more likely to specialize in a particular region of the world, learn the native language and frequently return. They focus on wider aspects of a given society and attempt cross cultural comparisons, but artists usually focus on a single concern such as absence, loss, memory, marginality or a political or social issue in a given group of people where ethnography is suited due to its ‘partial mode of operation’ (p.2. above) as a research method today. Having made, shown and sometimes sold the resulting visual piece the artist moves to another project that may never involve the same group of people again. This can be due to available funding but also to the artist wish to produce a varied portfolio of work that can enhance the artist’s career and interest the viewer. I have shown how Foster accuses artists of ‘self-promotion’ but anthropologist could have this accusation laid against them . They too need to keep a profile within their discipline and retain scarce university jobs. I also question if the prolonged fieldwork undertaken by anthropologists really does mean ‘going native’ or do they always remain an ‘outside other’ like artists who spend less time doing ethnographic research? Artists can be highly selective in their reference to anthropological methodologies and some can be biased or ignorant in their definitions of what anthropology actually is. Others, like Orlow, are careful how they reference anthropology and insist on remaining in the domain of art even if using quasi-ethnographic methods to make work out of other people’s lives and cultural heritage. I think artists have a right to use any methodology but need to be careful how they define these methodologies and not use references to anthropology just for theoretical clout. The work of artists using more limited ethnographic methodologies than anthropologists can compliment and be viewed in addition to the anthropological representation of aspects other people’s cultures by using visual means.


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