VIKTOR VOROBYEV and YELENA VOROBYEVA. Photo for Memory. If a Mountain Doesn’t Go to Mahomet . . . #1. 2002, C-print, 60 × 90 cm. Courtesy the artist.

No-Mad-Ness in No Man’s Land

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once proposed “nomadology” as an alternative to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s concept of history, which had held sway since the Enlightenment. For Deleuze, history was not a rational process by which mankind progressed to a more perfect state—it instead followed natural or “nomadic” principles, ebbing and flowing with no fixed destination. Deleuze also saw nomads as being in opposition to the physical impositions of the State (walls, streets, national borders) and viewed nomadism as a point of potential resistance against rigid institutions. His shadow lingered over the exhibition “No-Mad-Ness in No Man’s Land” like an uneasy ghost. Held at Taipei’s Eslite Gallery, with a large proportion of Central Asian artists, the show could not make up its mind on whether to take nomadism literally (as an expression of cultural identity) or figuratively (as a vague “observation on how artists are producing art these days”). 

Who today has the right to be called a nomad? Even Deleuze would find this a slippery question, as modernity has chased the traditional nomad to near extinction. None of the artists who were in the exhibition could be considered as such—most live in international metropolises and none sleep in yurts or ride donkeys across the Central Asian steppe. Several, however, do live in or trace their roots to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and their works frequently describe Western metropolitan cultures invariably forcing their way into isolated traditionalist cultures. In Korpeshe-Flags (2009–11), Uzbek artist Said Atabekov creates quilted blanket-mattresses that Central Asian nomads use in their tents, but with the traditional arabesque textiles overlain with the national flags of various countries. In their series “Photo for Memory. If a Mountain Doesn’t Go to Mahomet” (2002), Viktor Vorobyev and Yelena Vorobyeva present photos of rural Kazakhs posing against backdrops of iconic landmarks in Paris, New York and Moscow. Though clever, these works are mostly one-liners on hybrid identity. But are nomads just another population that has seen its traditional culture subsumed by the West? 

Other works go further, viewing nomads as victims. Collage works on paper by Reena Saini Kallat are rubber-stamped with names of real people who have been denied visas. The implication here is that the villain is aggressive, global capitalism. Though this work is mostly just cheerleading for the New Left, the exhibition at least hinted at a new development in “nomadism.” Nomads have always occupied the territorial fringes of civilizations, but now that the world is entirely partitioned, nomadism is less a condition of physical territory. Instead, nomads inhabit new interstices—war zones, slums and other margins beyond the control of modern economies and governments. These zones constitute the “no man’s land” of the exhibition title. 

There was only one work that really allowed us to perceive this powerful idea, and it was also the strongest in the exhibition. Address: Project Another Country (2008), by expatriated Filipino artists Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan, consists of old clothing, outdated computers, puzzles, stuffed animals and other ragged possessions bundled into 50-centimeter cubes, like contents of invisible cardboard boxes. One hundred and forty such cubes were stacked to make a small private room. If you have ever been to an international airport, you may have seen economic migrants from Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia carrying such unwieldy bundles. There is always a pathos to these scenes, because these people seem to be carrying all they have, and it is a meager sum. 

Deleuze differentiates between migrants, who move from one governed territory to another, and nomads, who wander in a permanent condition of statelessness. Are not Overseas Filipino Workers the ultimate nomads of global capitalism? The largest export of the Philippines is in fact its own people, with an estimated 10 percent of the national population living abroad and a similar percentage of the country’s GDP resulting from the earnings they remit home. Many will work abroad for several years before immigration laws force them to move on. If the yurts of the Asian steppe are gone, they now have an equivalent in the bundled luggage of the migrant laborer. Wherever these objects go, they become the nomadic markers of “home.”