Shanghai Biennale

Taken from a presentation at the Shanghai Biennale, 2008:

Cross-cultural issues of Trans Local Motion in American Art

By Keith Morrison

The theme of the Shanghai Biennale is “Trans local motion. This is not a theme particularly common in American art, so I shall try to make an interpretation of the theme relevant to a variety of ideas that may be found in some of the best American art today. However, we should be mindful that this is a broad interpretation for the term does not strictly apply.

In a general and perhaps global sense, independent of the art, Trans local motion may be interpreted to mean cross-cultural exchange among diverse people from different parts of the world. One of the more recent uses of the term “trans local” came from young Pakistani students in Scotland who sought to identify their across-cultural identity as immigrants with values rooted in different cultures. There is no similar term commonly used in the US to my knowledge. The term “cultural diversity,” which is used in the US comes close to that meaning. And of course, cultural diversity is at the core of US society. Another term used in the US is “Diaspora.” African-Americans use this Greek word, Diaspora, which means cultural scattering, to describe their own immigration over several continents. However, African-Americans took the word Diaspora from it use by European Jews in the Nineteenth Century who used it to describe their own scattered migration across the world. The phenomenon of art that identifies cross-cultural issues, whether called trans local by some, cultural diversity or Diaspora by others, is timely because artists all over the world are being influenced by one another more than ever before. Today we are creating a true global art for the first time in history.

"Three Flags" Jasper Johns

“Three Flags”
Jasper Johns

If we accept a global interpretation of the phrase, “Trans Local Motion” in American art may be seen in some of the ways in which artists in America define themselves, communicate across cultural boundaries and around the world. Of course, trans local motion may also be about technological motion in art or, about kinetics, or art in cyberspace, which are all very important. However, I have chosen to focus my talk on an interpretation of images of American art through examples of intra-cultural images. That is to say, images that are about cross-cultural perceptions, and as such could be interpreted to fit a concept of Trans Local Motion. We will look at examples of the American image, of community art, urban art, landscape art and design, street art, Hip Hop, Performance Art and art with comedy. And we will explore some of the ways in which they overlap as examples of trans local concepts in American art today.

I begin with the concept of identity in American art. And I will show interpretations of the meaning of the American flag by different artists to portray a common national identity. The American flag is of course a symbol of American pride, liberty and the right to agree or descent. Nowhere is that right to agree or to descent more pronounced than in the American art world today. Artists sometimes use the flag to express their agreement or disagreement with cultural and with trans local issues. I begin with the seminal painting of the American flag by Jasper Johns, which was done in the mid-Nineteen Fifties. Johns saw the flag as the most identifiable and most commonly acceptable image of America at that time. He recognized the image of the flag as a symbol that represented all Americans equally. At that time American art was much more monolithic than it is now and, Johns’ painting of the flag implied national agreement by all artists on the meaning of the flag. John’s “Flag is not what I would call cross-cultural. Rather, it is a reinterpretation of a cultural norm.

African-American flag David Hammons

African-American flag
David Hammons

However, two decades later David Hammons created a different kind of painting about the American flag. His version protests the assumption that the flag represents all Americans. David Hammons, who is African-American, created a version of the flag not with red-white-and-blue, but with green and black, the colors that some African-Americans believe represent their participation in America more specifically than does the traditional colors. Hammons intends his version of the flag to be no less patriotic than that of Johns. Rather, his expression underscores the presence of racial diversity that he believes a more traditional version of the flag overshadows. By creating this work David Hammons expands the concept of the American flag beyond a local understanding of it and makes the concept “Trans Local” and expressive of the flag a more nationally inclusive of ethnic groups and others who are sometimes absent from the national consciousness.

Born on the Fourth of July Anne Leibowitz

Born on the Fourth of July
Anne Leibowitz

another version of the American flag, with cross-cultural reference is by photographer Annie Leibowitz is of the singer Bruce Springsteen in front of the American flag singing his signature song, “Born on the Fourth of July.” Her idea is to express the passion of the Bruce Springsteen song and the vitality of his performance on stage through a photograph. At the same time the photograph expresses the concept of the importance of the celebration of the American flag by the common American worker that is embedded in the music and personality of Bruce Springsteen. Like David Hammonds’ “Flag,” Anne Leibowitz photograph implies that the American flag by itself may not be sufficient to represent all of America and need a reference to give it meaning to some groups.

Flag Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson

Photographer Bruce Davidson used the flag to represent the right to vote by those who at that time were denied it. We see two African-American youth with their faces decorated similar to people in West African rites who nevertheless affirm their right as citizens to vote in spite of their different cultural perspective. Note the decorated faces, which we will see later used by other artist to express other cultural concerns.

This is a poster by Native American Indian artist, Edgar Heap of Birds. He uses the flag as a basis for descent. He juxtaposes images of death and the American Indian being stalked by the predatory Bald Eagle, which is the national bird. His statement “God Bless America” is sarcastic, suggesting that this common American motto, often invoked along with the flag, has been often used to suppress the Native American Indian. Edgar Heap of Birds has made an image that represents the American right and freedom to descent. It is a radically different cultural perspective of the meaning of the American flag.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles Jeff Koons

Michael Jackson and Bubbles
Jeff Koons

Of course, imagery other than the flag can be perceived as cross-cultural reference in America art, such as images of world- famous American people. In such a case cultural identity is substituted for the flag as a symbol as a meaningful all-American image. In the work by Jeff Coons, the concept of cultural identity is realized through a portrait of Michael Jackson. Coons ‘work expresses concepts of glamour, and materialism in the iconic figure of the pop star. The image identifies the external trappings which have made Michael Jackson an idol more than it expresses his internal being. The popular identity is a stereotype rather than an intimate portrait. One of the qualities of Michael Jackson that Coons captures is that of androgyny or sexual ambiguity, It is an idea we will see used by other artists as well.

Tammy Ben-Tor

Tammy Ben-Tor

Tammy Ben-Tor is an Israeli-born artist who lives and exhibits in the US. This image is a variation on a photograph of Grace Jones. Ben-Tor elaborates satirically on the sexy yet endogenous image of the pop icon as archetype of the mysterious and physically powerful woman. This too is an alternative image to the flag portraying an iconic image of how some Americans perceive themselves.


Mannequin Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson

In his installation called “Mannequin” Fred Wilson expresses the idea   of cultural anonymity. His installation is of museum guards who, in the US, are most often people who are ignored by visitors to museums. The visitors to museums tend to see the guards as anonymous uniforms not as human beings. Wilson’s images are icons of the forgotten Americans. The work is about the national importance of those who are forgotten. But the question of who or what is the spectacle versus the spectator can be interesting. Depicting the viewer as more the spectacle than what he is looking at is expressed in a witty work by performance /video artist Tamy Ben-Tor, whose work we saw earlier. In this work by Tamy Ben-Tor is the anonymous museum guard who Is studying the museum viewer.

Lizzie Fritch and Ryan Trecartin

Lizzie Fritch and
Ryan Trecartin

Through comedy, Performance artists Ryan-Trecatin and Liz Fritch also explore the idea of the viewer as spectacle – and subject of humor – rather than the art object he is looking at on the wall. This is a photograph from a performance.

Latino performance artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena put themselves in a cage as Native Americans. In this work they satirize the 19th century concept of the Indian as a savage to be seen as a circus entertainment. They are expressing the idea that, at least on a subconscious level, the perception that Indians and others are outsiders affects the way many Americans categorized them.

Community art is an idea that has spread across the US, especially in the last two decades. Community art seeks to identify cultural differences among groups of people, especially within urban. Perhaps on one in the US today explores aspects of community art more convincingly than Pepon Osorio. Born in Puerto Rico, Osorio has lived in New York and Philadelphia for many years. His art is developed through his recruitment of youth and volunteers from within local Hispanic communities. This is work by Pepon Osorio is a detail from his installation called “Badge of Honor” in which images of a father in prison is contrasted with that of his son, suggesting lessons learned from faults of the past along with cultural qualities that are maintained in spite of tragedy. This detail is entry way to the installation. In another work by Pepon Osorio, we see a shop or store decorated with the ornaments and instruments of work and the memorabilia of the cultural legacy of those who have lived and worked there. The whole becomes a cultural shrine. An important factor in Osorio’s work is its relationship not only to its local origin, but to the character of a civilization, in this case Hispanic history, religion, and aesthetics, which are shared by people from many countries and many period of time. His art is truly Trans Local. In yet anther work, Osorio recreates a room as a shrine, as a source of spirituality, respect and history. Here we see a bed embellished to become like a sacred place. Osorio may do the same project in different communities, different cities or different countries. The project changes character according to its interpretation by different people.

Martin Puryear

Cross-cultural or trans local art and design may also be seen in artists’ use of different concept and material. Sculptor Martin Puryear studied woodwork in West Africa and craftsmanship in Scandinavia before completing an MFA at Yale University. His cross cultural and international art education mirrors the character of his aesthetics. Puryear skillfully use of several materials to create this monument. What is equally interesting is its harmonious relationship to its natural environment in a manner that blends ancient visual l forms with contemporary materials in large part due to his use of natural materials.

Sculptor Ann Hamilton made an installation of bundled materials in the form of a cultivated landscape. The whole becomes a geometric monument to the landscape, not unlike many ancient mysterious landscape structures found

Landscape architect/artist Robert Irwin created a garden for the Getty Museum in LA. Included it are plants he chose from around the world.

Kirsten Jones and Andrew Ginzel have done installations around the world. This one is on the Metronome in New York City. Whereas urban art, such as “the Wall of Respect,” address community art, many artists such as Jones and Ginzel, create urban art that addresses issues of the cosmos through celebration of new technology and materials.

Another approach to community art has been the urban mural movement in America. It began in the late Nineteen Sixties when African-American artists made murals in celebration of their heroes. This work is called “The Wall of Respect.” It was the first such mural. It was done by many local artists and volunteers on the South side of Chicago in 1968. It celebrated African-American heroes such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mohammad Ali, Jazz musician Charlie Parker, and others. This form of Community art was developed as protest against racial oppression. These murals spread all over the country in urban areas. “The Wall of Respect” came about spontaneously and was meant as a street protest to inspire neighborhood pride in face of crumbling buildings and poor services, as indicated in the photograph. Within a year, “The Wall of Respect” inspired other groups of African-Americans and Latinos to create similar murals in many cities of the US.

This is again a different kind of community art. Whereas the Wall of Respect was done as protest, works such as this by an organization called Philadelphia Mural Arts are done to beautify communities and augment education. Over the last two decades, Philadelphia Mural Arts has served that city to beautify many of its poorer neighborhoods. It is a program which is funded by the City of Philadelphia and other groups. In Philadelphia artists have worked with neighborhood youth groups to create over 1800 murals in the City.

An example of trans Local expression in the popular culture of the US is Hip-Hop art. Although primarily music, Hip Hop is explored by legions of visual young artists. A major factor in Hip Hop is the spinning of vinyl records on turntables. This is called DJ or Disc Jockey. This idea was developed in Jamaica in the 1950’s where Disk Jockey’s called DJ’s were the only source of popular music and functioned at concerts as entertainment. I myself worked in Jamaica with DJ’s spinning music recordings when I was in my teens, although I do not do Hip Hop art. The concept of DJ was recaptured by American youth in the 1990’s. when music came to be the medium of urban conversation and poetry. Hip Hop mural

Hip-Hop proliferated among youth who drew cartoons for their own pleasure. Perhaps there is no greater example of trans Local expression in the popular culture of the US than Hip-Hop. Although primarily music, Hip Hop is explored by legions of visual young artists. Here is an example of a Hip Hop mural in Los Angeles. However, long before graffiti was adopted as the visual expression of hip-hop culture in the 1980s, Chicano gang members in East Los Angeles had been developing stylized calligraphy and writing on walls. Mestizo (mixed race) Latin American Indian Cholo scripts became the first distinctive letter forms of graffiti. Many early characters painted on walls were reused because they were effective. Styles were reused as much as they are in popular Japanese Manga titles.

This is an example of Hip-Hop art on the internet. This is a work by an artist named Clyde Smith. Like hundreds of thousands of youth he puts his drawings on a self-created website, sometimes to sell, but often simply for international communication and personal expression. Hip Hop came from art of the street and subways. Perhaps there is no greater example of trans Local expression in the popular culture of the US than Hip-Hop.

 The artist called Nuisha also draws ideas from comic books, popular cartoons and Japanese drawings. Hip Hop artists merge many cultural forms and are often individually indistinguishable. Hip Hop art communicates by the web, cel phones, and email and do so often in anonymity. Hip Hop art is generally unconcerned with formal art or museums or sales and makes no distinction between art and entertainment.

This witty work by Hip Hop artist Jeff Soto is called “Art Birthday. Typically his art communicates visions and fears, with themes of love, lust, and hope. Jeff Soto claims to be inspired by childhood toys, the colorful lifestyle of skateboarding and graffiti, hip-hop music and popular culture.

 The Visual Arts Company is an arts organization in New York dedicated to exploring performance art. Artists who work through the visual Arts Company are often inspired by stand-up or sketch comedy. Comic performance artists may work on stage or make films. They may present their work to audiences as large as thousands or of less than ten. A few of the more popular venues for Performance Art in the US are the Kitchen, Video Archives the Whitney Museum, Park American Armory, the Studio Museum, PS!, the Getty Museum, and Community Space, SF.

Of course, big business is among the most respected occupations in the world. Artists who call themselves the Blue Nose Group satirize business management, showing it to be a cultural variant, with its own foibles. This is a poster for a performance by them.

Performance artist /video maker Carmelita Tropicana, a Cuban born American self-proclaimed Lesbian and drag artist, made a video of a farcical prison break by Latino women with a variety of skin colors. Many artists, such as Carmelita Tropicana, believe the best way to respond to racial stereotypes is to claim them and to re-express them in a manner that is uncomfortable to those who created them.

Harriet Dodge & Stanley Kahn are originally San Francisco artists who work there and in Los Angeles. Some of the works by Dodge and Kahn, such as this one, are about the schizophrenia of young middle class life. The dysfunctional group living in limited space which create anxiety and where there is neither consensus nor inter-personal communication.

kalup_linzy-sweetberryOne of the more popular performing artists today is Kalub Lanzy who makes films of his performances. This is a photo of Kalub Lanzy as himself. He is therefore an artist who bridges the gap between filmmaking and photography. Using himself centrally in a cast of characters, Kalub Lanzy has created witty films about a fictional dysfunctional family. A part of his wit is cross-dressing and mixed sexual roles of the cast of characters. In this still photo from a film he dresses as a woman.

 This is Japanese-American artist Mokoto Aida who decorates her body as a part of a satirical performance. Her satire is about the objectification of women, especially Asian women in her case.

Five Day Forecast 1991 Lorna Simpson born 1960 Purchased with funds provided by the 2010 Outset / Frieze Art Fair Fund to benefit the Tate Collection 2010

Five Day Forecast 1991 Lorna Simpson born 1960 Purchased with funds provided by the 2010 Outset / Frieze Art Fair Fund to benefit the Tate Collection 2010

In this photograph Lorna Simpson makes a montage of lips as symbols of identity. Issues of culture, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race and religions are prominently explored in contemporary American art. In this is a photograph Lorna Simpson teases us with differences and similarities among people.

This work by Ryan Trecartin and Liz Fritch is a carnival –like mobile sculpture. The masks are significant symbols as they are in many of the works shown before, including the video by Lawrence Graham-Brown. This sculpture alludes to the idea that human beings interact and communicate behind psychological masks that hide their true identity.

This is a still from a film by Sadie Benning in which children in Halloween masks are like parody of the psychological mask worn in adult civilization. Although Benning and others may not be referencing history, it is interesting to note that the image of the psychological mask in US art goes back at least to the 1837 story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The Minister’s Black Veil “in which the preacher wore a black veil to remind society that all people ar Bruce Davidson in his many photographs that include the American flag.


Ebony Patterson is a Jamaican-born artist who lives in the US. Her imagery involves a wide range of  issues, including femininity, sexuality, masculine ironies, gang identity, camouflage, and cultural identity, and reclaiming the West African tradition of skin bleaching and skin painting for ceremonial use by Afro-Caribbean youth. Beginning from local Jamaican concerns, Patterson’s paintings and installations expand into arresting imagery of universal importance..


This is artist Keith Herring decorating Grace Jones in the style of an African pattern, which is also like the skin markings by African-American and Caribbean youth.


Imagining the Past Albert Chong Jamaica

Imagining the Past
Albert Chong

Albert Chong lives and works in the US. He was born in Jamaica of African and Chinese parentage. With his racially and culturally mixed perspective Chong explores ethnic diversity enhancing the whole with tattoos, which become a metaphor for trans-racial and trans-cultural imagery.

This is my own painting called “Tombstones, done about 15 years ago. It is about evolution of West African masks into African-American street gangs. It is also about skin markings and scarrations and the culture of urban crime.

This last image is of another American flag and is appropriately also of a mask. This is a photograph from a film by performance artist Coco Fusco. She uses the flag to portray the private turmoil, conflict and opinion of war by the American woman. The right to serve as fighting soldiers in the American army is a fairly recent occurrence. Coco Fusco’s performance drama shows a masked woman, suggesting her mystery and privacy, even as she serves as a patriot.

These and innumerable other examples reveal the wide breath of ideas about cultural diversity and trans local imagery in art and design in America today.


— Keith Morrison