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Notes towards an essay on identity

or The Sources of Our Happiness


With thanks to Lubaina Himid for her contribution and conversation, without which this piece would not have been possible.

This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.

The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois


Re-departure: the pain and the frustration of having to live a difference that has no name and too many names already. Who names? Whose fringes? An elsewhere that does not merely lie outside the centre but radically striates it.

Cotton and Iron, Trinh T. Minh-ha


Because civilisations are finite, in the life of each of them comes a moment when centres cease to hold. What keeps them at such times from disintegration is not legions but languages. Such was the case with Rome, and before that, with Hellenic Greece… Contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends – they are precisely where it unravels. That affects a language no less than an eye.

The Sound of the Tide, Joseph Brodsky


Because the city / beyond the shore is no longer / where we left it.

Telemachus, Ocean Vuong


N.B. This is anything but a coherent argument. They are notes: disjointed and unwilfuly bewildered.

I.    The ‘I’

At this moment, I cannot see how it all will resist senselessness. There’s a harsh and unnerving relentlessness to the contemporary collective experience. Narrative has become fragile; there is only so much that one word can be shaken before it falls apart, before its centre will not hold. What you hope will still work to sew together the fragmented self is the essayistic ‘I’. What you hope is that it will thread through these cultural lineages, of second comings and slouches towards Bethlehem, positioning them as the knotting points of a lattice. How would our essayists approach this moment, how would they make written their thoughts? What you ultimately hope is that you could do what has been done before and make certainty coalesce in expression from all the unbounded elements of an identity. But I am uncertain that I can make this the case.

It has always been hard to conceive of the world as you were taught to see it.  What was once a strident march can easily start to resemble something much more like an erratic limp; I have recently found it difficult to register and index any of the delights that should accompany progression. Didion once found herself adrift in a list of news clippings and now I turn to these essays in the hope that they can be of some help in the reconciliation of experience with the news, the reconciliation of social forays and creative endeavours with the now even more accelerated digestion of headlines and think-pieces. I read, unconscious of my place, of a royal wedding and the shouting of “surprise” before a school shooting in Texas, of a Hungarian boy accidentally killing a meerkat in a zoo and the death threats he received on social media. There was a day on which I scrolled through the headlines and a reported acid-attack sat side-by-side with the news that Childish Gambino had released This is America.

II.    Congestion

The rug is being pulled from under; old structures are being violently shaken and are proving not sound enough to stay standing. The innovation of new frameworks is nothing novel, but these new systems are being generated at a rate so fast as to be overwhelming. These are the headlines we have. Last year, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported that the number of displaced people is at its highest ever, surpassing even the aftermath of World War II. The failure of deregulated banks and the sudden exposure to vast numbers of refugees has sent two party systems buckling all across Europe and the European project is cracking under pressure, the neglected margins are pushing in towards the centre. The promise of individual freedom means dispersal is rapidly becoming the new status quo: currency is decentralising, professions are unstable and multinationals are evading democratic legislation. These democratic structures are proving to be easily distracted and effortlessly manipulated. The old strongholds are being hacked into and away at and information is leaking out—citizenship is undergoing subsumption by consumership leaving a vacancy of meaning. The points at which these destabilisations intersect are so many as to be unfathomable, and so each intersection becomes equally shocking and significant and equally banal. The agenda is congested, you can feel a mounting pressure and there’s something distinctly ripe about the moment.

III.    The ‘We’

In this globalised present, where travel is easy and cheap and the idea of nationhood feels farcical, it seems we turn inwards, towards our own identity. It can provide a semblance of stability and a point to rally around. Unifying differences to combat a larger majority is necessary and instrumental in the dismantling of larger inherencies. We are not all born the same in these structures and concessions must be made; equal treatment supposes that everyone’s chances are equal at the moment they come into the world, which can only be believed by blinding oneself into a wilful unawareness. There’s a stark realness to the statistics and the reports, or lack there of. The framework of white supremacy is inherent in nearly all of our institutional structures and is filling seats of power throughout the West. The denial of time given to British Imperialism in my education was shocking in retrospect, so too the consequent ethnicity pay-gap in the UK. It is buried deep beneath our consciousness and is detrimental to all. Ocean Vuong, in conversation with Max Porter at the LRB Bookshop, describes the inherency of white-supremacist thinking as a cataleptic modes of thought, ‘not located in a single body’ but rather ‘as Baldwin reminds us, a systematic framework’. The unconscious (or conscious) privileging of one culture above another, rather than allowing for multiple points on a single plane of regard, means existing only to maintain oneself.

It’s complicated though, to become apart of something as a form of resistance without losing your own ‘I’ – it’s hard work that shouldn’t have to be done. Nuance and individual experience can often be forsaken in the name of a collective unification. As Zadie Smith argues in relation to an essay on the recent Whitney Biennial controversy for Harper’s, the simple predetermination of racial genealogy abandons Fanon’s existential notion that identity is formed from experience; that one exists first before they are defined.

IV.    ‘Identity’

Language and thought are tightly entwined and closely related. Therefore, to allow thinking to expand to encompass the many gradations of contemporary social life, time needs to be given, and willing to be taken, for language to also expand. Easily polemicised rhetoric holds the fore, as it always has done, and is a disservice to the complexity of experience. There is much space in this method of debate for idiocy and a need for ‘rightness’ to prevail can take prominence over construction. It is crucial that the degradation of language is combatted and there is an allowance made for it to grow to embrace the many gradations of existence. For example, Stuart Hall’s 1996 essay Cultural Identity and Diaspora successfully expands, and successfully relieves the present exhaustion of, the word ‘identity’:

Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.

His first position is that of one’s shared identity, an identity generated from common factors such as ancestry and mutual histories. His second position, and the one with which we may ‘properly understand the traumatic character of “the colonial experience”’ is conscious that although there are ‘many points of similarity’, there are further ‘critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute “what we really are”; or rather—since history has intervened—“what we have become”.’ This method of thinking involves evoking W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘double-consciousness’, that he describes in The Souls of Black Folk as a:

peculiar sensation… this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

It’s estranging, although much of contemporary life is. In one way or another, figuring out how to be both, or many, has always been a requisite of life. It perhaps plays on the mind more when the thing you think might provide some stability, through familial, lingual and cultural heritage, is something you can never hope to have access to. When it is something you have not experienced, will not and cannot fully; a shared experience of the people and the colloquialisms that your mother grew up around, or a deep understanding of who she is, the jokes she tells and the charm she has, when she is speaking the language she is most comfortable in.

You don’t have a home until you leave it, and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.
(Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin)

The strength to keep the duality of the self together is evidently held in writing, in the essayistic ‘I’. It provides a brief moment of stability but there is only so much that text can hold before it buckles, as all narratives will do.

V.     Hong Kong and Ireland

On the day I was born, the hospital television was showing coverage of the handover of Hong Kong to China after 135 years of British colonial rule, recorded in Prince Charles’s journal as a sigh that expressed ‘the end of Empire’, ‘the Great Chinese Takeaway’. Since the ‘perpetual’ cession of Hong Kong from Qing China after the First Opium War, Hong Kong has always been in British hands, apart from a brief occupation by the Empire of Japan during the Second World War. My Pau Pau came over from the South of China, settled in Hong Kong and raised a family in the infamous Choi Hong (Rainbow) Estate. These concrete blocks were given relief, and their name, by the painting of eight different colours across their tiered flats. Built under the supervision of then British Governor Sir Robert Brown Black as a social housing endeavour, they would end up providing homes for 43,000 people. The decision was made in response to the influx of refugees from mainland China to the indigenous village of Ngau Chi Wan in the 1950s, an arrival that caused the settlement to bloat, breaking past its borders. To provide the inhabitants of the Choi Hung Estate transport across Kowloon Bay and Hong Kong Island, an MTR station was built and decorated with rainbow tiles that wove like thread through the underground. In its construction around half of the buildings of Ngau Chi Wan were razed and the population rehoused in the newly built estate.

I tell you this, I suppose, as a means of catharsis, to ascertain for myself, as much as it is for anyone else, that these histories are evidently full of moral contradictions and not easily solved. To continue, I have heritage too from Ireland, from a protestant family in the Republic. I cannot find from how far back this stretches, but it imparts a sense of guilt. I think many of us must face this hypocrisy of culpable heritage and the desire to justify the present scale. That need for ‘rightness’ that I spoke of earlier inhabited me many times when I have thought about the colonial histories of these pasts and the wide and deep lacuna in our education system that these topics should be occupying. I felt a certain heritage gave my arguments validity and I could claim a certain indignation, I could talk about certain topics and what comfort these narratives would bring.

The truth is, I cannot speak for the experience of those in Ireland or Hong Kong, or of the times at which they were occupied. In fact, when I speak to my mother or her side of immediate family, the notion of Empire barely ever crossed their minds, so busy as they were in building a life for themselves, in advancing their prospects and taking as their preoccupation one of the truest and most influential factors for all people, class and capital.

VI.    Class and Capital

When we speak of identity, it seems less fashionable at the present moment to talk of money. Of historical examples of oppression such as Ireland’s famine, Colm Tóibín suggests that racial and religious arguments should take their seat, but it would be unjust to deny the responsibility of both class and capital as complicit.

Catholic society in Ireland in the 1840s was graded and complex, that to suggest that it was merely England or Irish landlords who stood by while Ireland starved is to miss the point… An entire class of Irish Catholics survived the Famine; many, indeed, improved their prospects as a result of it, and this legacy may be more difficult for us to deal with in Ireland now than the legacy of those who died or emigrated.

To invoke Zadie Smith once again, she has spoken often of being this curious figurehead that the relatively recent hotness of ‘identity’ has created, a vessel which issues of race are expected to fill. In a talk I attended that was held by the Southbank Centre on publication of her most recent novel Swing Time, I remember her saying that she believed, perhaps naively, that when she set out to write White Teeth she was writing from an experience that had encountered both the estate in North West London where she grew up and the historic bastion of privilege that is Cambridge University. She understood class to be one of the most principal divides that is chalked out. Writing from within the locale of the Glasgow School of Art, the consideration of class is perhaps the least visible but most present and widely affective factors of the school’s cultural output, of who is making art and who is seen to be making art. We all know, to varying degrees, that it is a vocation that denies any semblance of financial stability or reliability and it is easy to question what a practice can actually do apart from take time and resources away from more tangibly beneficial causes. Luckily, there are institutions in Glasgow that do not just have a faux concern with the ‘social-turn’ but are actively resisting the expectation of professionalised object-making and commercialisation (four of these that come to mind, the immediacy of my awareness perhaps due to the interest ARG’s contributors have shown in them, are Transmission, Glasgow Open Dance School, Yon Afro and the Glasgow Women’s Library). Visibility of these institutions that are willing to be inclusive and instructive are a great hope for those that cannot see how to map themselves onto the art structures that exist or see any possibility in creating a pathway through it, especially those that live far from the cosmopolitan centres, as I did. I think many of us first-generation Britons from émigré families are terribly aware that the prospects offered in the UK can be many and fruitful and of the wastefulness in not utilising what one’s grandparents could not.

VII.    Kelvingrove Museum & Breaking in

Down the road from where I currently live stands Kelvingrove Museum. Its stalwartness is patently appealing despite its conceitedness, despite the way it presses its style upon all its surroundings. It is reassuringly beautiful in its arrogance and as such inflicts a nagging sense of complicity, being, as it is, a trophy of imperial Glasgow, ‘the second city of the Empire’. But then aren’t the most plentiful sources of our happiness always the least sustainable?

‘The second city of the Empire’ is how Glasgow chose to brand itself when Kelvingrove Museum opened to the public for the Glasgow International Exposition of 1901. In archived drawings of a survey of the 73 acres that the exposition would cover in Kelvingrove park, a key is given for the index of colour codes used in the map: light blue for ‘Indian and colonial’ pavilions; yellow for ‘foreign’; dark blue for ‘British Exhibits (Industrial)’; and, for the largest of all the exhibits residing in what is now Kelvin Hall, red for ‘Machinery’. As the catalogue states, this specific exhibit was meant to celebrate those machines ‘that will produce extraordinary changes in the history of mankind, and make the problems of life weigh heavily on the minds of future generations.’

It now holds the work of Lubaina Himid, Breaking in, Breaking out, Breaking up, Breaking down, that was installed for the Glasgow International of 2018. The piece takes the form of a wagon that stretches across the great hall in the museum in front of, but not blocking, the great organ that sits above it. It is emblazoned with two dragons that are in the style of the sort that we would decorate our home with at every arrival of the Chinese New Year, concertinaing out their paper bodies so that they could stretch across our doorway.

VIII.    Lubaina Himid

Martha and I held a very brief interview with Himid, grateful that she could spare what time she had to speak to me about this piece. Of her character, even the willingness to share her time reveals a deep belief in the pedagogical, something also evident across her work. Himid’s work has always been generous and generative; her expanded practice is host to various collaborative and curatorial projects such as Making Histories Visible, that interrogate museums’ collections while unearthing and conserving artists’ practices that may have been hidden due to their marginal social status, and essays such as Mapping: A Decade of Black Women Artists 1980-1990, that Tiffany Boyle used in her essay for the last issue of ARG to point to how Himid has been consistently revealing and educating on ‘the matrix of factors – funding, arts education, art history, gallery programming, and art world bias – which have been colluding to make near-impossible working conditions for artists of colour for decades.’ She has consistently exacted an awareness of what Hannah Black calls ‘the cyclical nature of the art world’s discovery, forgetting and rediscovery of Black artists.’

The criticisms that I have heard around Glasgow of Breaking in, Breaking out, Breaking up, Breaking down usually centre around the very pinnacle of its intent. To say that the work is anti-climatic presupposes that art should impose, or press itself arrogantly upon its surroundings (as the museum it sits in does). I think much of this must stem from the wider problems that are at large with awards such as the Turner Prize. It inflicts an unwieldy amount of expectation and a sudden and exhausting exposure. When we spoke, Himid mentioned that she could imagine that Richard Parry expected a remaking of Naming the Money, that powerful assemblage of cut-out figures, emancipated from the White context of historical paintings that they inhabited. Naming is important, visibility is crucial; the figures have reclaimed their individuality and, in doing so, are stating that their contribution is valuable despite it being, in the words Himid used to describe Swallow Hard, so ‘invisible and disregarded in the cultural, political or economic record of history.’ The ‘forgetting and rediscovery’ of Black histories in our educational structures makes it is easy to lose faith; the deep entrenchment of certain narratives and the inability for narrative to hold the complexities it needs to seem like truths that will not be overturned. But then again, Himid never has lost this faith.

IX.    The Commercialisation of ‘Identity’

Perhaps in a formally aesthetic sense, for those solely interested in the spatial and visual properties of a work, Himid’s piece is unsuccessful. However, it would be reductive and limiting to deny the reading of Breaking in, Breaking out, Breaking up, Breaking down its social and political force. Biennials such as Glasgow International are large and ungainly and its growing reputation can tie it more and more firmly to the capitalist framework that we all abide by to some degree or another. Its intentions are murky and, although this is based on anecdotal experience, this last iteration seemed to privilege the larger entity of the festival over the individual artists and the work they were presenting. It seems that when these large curatorial and managerial strategies are having to be applied, artists and their work can be used as fillers to fulfil the festival’s certain needs. Fully utilising the space that was given to her, Himid has created a piece that resists these ego-centric notions of practice and the commercial utilisation of ‘identity’. It does not try to consume attention or starve the other objects it sits beside in the museum of importance and, this being perhaps most central to sustaining a richness in art, the artist has not simplified experience to expectation. Additionally, ever aware that it is actual people who make up an ‘audience’, Himid mentioned that if she had installed Naming the Money, the logistics for regular museum-goers would be a nightmare! It would end up being an obstacle for people getting on with their lives: milling about, sitting in the cafe, kaeeping an eye on the kids. The things that make up the miscellanea of the everyday.

X.    Threading Together

The White Pube visited Glasgow International and I remember watching their Instagram story. There was a quick mention of the ‘problematic-ness’ of Himid’s use of dragons before they moved on to lunch in Finnieston (or was it before?). It’s a point to be made; on a quick reading of the work, you could assume that the conceptual reasoning behind the work’s subjects is partly ill-placed and partly unsatisfying. In the ever underdeveloped language of the wall-text, we are told that these dragons are taken from the architecture of the building and that the wagon alludes to migration and an exchange of ideas, that the foundation of Kelvingrove Museum’s collection was a bequest from Archibald McLellan who was successful in the 19th Century coachbuilding industry. These texts that bind aesthetic choices to conceptual reasoning so firmly are hugely detrimental and I appreciate that, in passing, would encourage initial conjectures about who can use this sort of imagery to crop up. However, what Himid did for me was to question what we mean when we speak of appropriation and the subtleties within its definition. It brought to me an immense satisfaction to see life breathed into these figures, appropriated as they were from the building’s architecture, that have existed so long in paralysis. It is an engagement in the histories that affect all of us at different intersections who live in this globalised society and this environment that is so pervaded by imperialisms.

XI.    Through-other

This method is thoroughly through-other, a colloquial Northern Irish phrase meaning ‘physically untidy’ that Heaney explores in an essay on the poet W.R. Rodgers. It is used in this context to describe Rodgers’ view of the messy inheritance he had received: a father from ‘indigenous Irish stock’, a mother from Scottish planter ancestry. To complicate things further, he had lived and worked in London most of his life but Heaney argues that this only served to grace Rodgers with the view that no one part of this inheritance was other to a privileged centre, or rather, that they were all thoroughly othered to each other. Heaney uses it to describe his own endeavour in translating Beowulf, an act that he thinks could be viewed as typical of the submissive colonial subject. Instead, he says, let Beowulf now be ‘a book from Ireland’, let it be, as it is, about ‘facing up to the silent things accumulated in a consciousness’, and let this be about Ulster.

I’d like to draw similarities with the texts written on the back of the cut-out figures in Naming the Money and how they form a lyrical soundtrack that is peppered with music of a diverse array of origins (Irish, Jewish, Cuban, African—although these definitions cast a wide net, I could not find any descriptions that were more specific). Himid’s piece at Kelvingrove Museum continues in this tradition and enacts that which is a fundament of artistic practice:  to take W.S. Merwin’s metaphor, Himid pushes a thread through all these wholly different social subjects (acknowledging them, but not claiming them as hers to speak for) as though she were pushing her thread through these fabrics. This constellation she creates associates all the points of paraphernalia that lies in-between the public and the private so that everything is tightly brought together at the moment of utterance and everything is laced through with the colour of her thread.

XII.    A Crowded Forum

At these moments, the sheer much-ness of information can become too apparent and the multitude of opinions can be overwhelming; the forum is crowded and noisy, full of shouting and commotion. As these notes will attest to, I have not been able to write a narrative as I hoped I might. I cannot find one way to engage with what we have and what I am, with how to be. The deep necessity of narrative has been dragged back, as ever, by its deep insufficiency. The way I can describe it is through this metaphor (deeply necessary, deeply insufficient): when I was born I was given a loop of jade so that if I fell as a baby it would shatter instead of me.

Perhaps the thing I can write a conclusion about is my faith in writing; that its requirement of constantly redressing and readdressing the definition of its material, words, is also a way to be in the world. Here is a simple definition that has been made clear to me in this process: to know and to understand are not interchangeable, they are as different as claiming and empathising. One you do only for yourself, and the other you do for everything.

When you live ‘a difference that has no name and too many names already’, style can be your only sanity. A continued artistic vigour can, in just its attempt, stave off all of our exhausted perceptions. To riff off of Heaney, the content may show that we must endure but the act will show how we must.

Colm Guo-Lin Peare edits Art Review Glasgow.

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