Since the 1990s, there has been much discussion about the impact of globalization upon the production, circulation and exchange of art. Somewhat inverting this line of inquiry, Marcus Verhagen’s Flows and Counterflows looks instead at how artists have engaged with these social processes through their works. Verhagen’s interest lies not in simple representations or illustrations of globalization—‘rote symbols of displacement or exchange’—but rather in works that contribute new ways of thinking about it. If attempts to represent these processes take us—as Fredric Jameson and T. J. Demos have argued—to the limits of our signifying systems, then artists need to re-consider their modes of representation. Verhagen is attentive to the ways in which artistic practice has been able to articulate a critique of its own globalized condition by developing new ‘conceptual and affective parameters’, drawing out the tensions and contradictions that lurk within familiar discourses and revealing the ideological stakes involved. Flows and Counterflows is thus first and foremost an examination of the political-aesthetic operations of the artwork—an analysis of the ways in which art practice has been able to offer critical perspectives on globalized conditions.

Born in Belgium, Verhagen studied art history at Cambridge and completed a dissertation at Berkeley on fin-de-siècle French painting before switching to contemporary art, which he currently teaches at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly, where some of these essays first appeared. The method is comparative: Verhagen examines the ways in which five or six artists have treated a particular theme—travel and the ‘artist-nomad’, tourism, border controls, translation, global cities, biennales and site-specificity, with an ‘interlude’ on slow art. Each section begins by briefly engaging with critical theorizations of its topic: Zygmunt Bauman on travel, Hans Magnus Enzensberger on tourism, Edward Thompson and Sylviane Agacinski on time, Sarat Maharaj on translation, Étienne Balibar on borders, Saskia Sassen on the global city, Manuel Castells on the network, and so on. In this context, Verhagen’s close readings of a wide range of contemporary artworks distinguish three broad modes of response. The first might be described as ‘flattering’: artistic celebrations of the ‘frictionless flow’ of global networks, in the manner of Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’ or Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. The second response is a retreat—Romantic or escapist—back into a projected nostalgic space of the ‘pre-global’ or ‘local’. Against both of these, Verhagen values above all a third response: critical forms of art that problematize the processes of globalization, rendering visible the obstacles and ‘counterflows’ that emerge from these same tendencies, held in some kind of dialectical tension.

An example of the first mode of response would be the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, the highly cosmopolitan Thai artist—born in Buenos Aires, trained in the us and Canada—whose installations and performance pieces often take the form of shared meals and socializing. In Untitled 1994, (from barajas to paracuellos de jarama to torrejon de ardoz to san fernando or coslada to reina sofia), Tiravanija wheeled a bicycle from Madrid Airport to the Museo Reina Sofia, attached to which were a folding table and cooking utensils to prepare meals for himself and for passers-by along the way. During his deliberately slow journey, Tiravanija is supposedly left open to ‘immediacy, authenticity and chance’, navigating a series of random social encounters. Tiravanija’s work is typically discussed through the framework of Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of ‘relational art’, with its assumptions that art is literally productive of—not a model of—utopian forms of sociability, unconstrained by capitalist relations. This position, along with Tiravanija’s work, has been sharply criticized by Claire Bishop and Stewart Martin.

Flows and Counterflows doesn’t directly align itself with these thinkers, but takes an equally critical approach. Verhagen understands Tiravanija’s wish to restore the figure of the nomad as romantic outsider, but concludes that Untitled 1994 does little more than reflect the ‘life choices of the new professionals’ under Bauman’s trope of liquid modernity. He sees the work as aspiring towards the anthropologist Victor Turner’s image of pilgrimage, a journey of open-ended sociability that points to sacred forms of communitas, which in turn heal and renew the individual. Untitled 1994 romanticizes travel as generative of such a sociability; of experiences of heightened immediacy for the individual, and as a transformative social catalyst. Yet lacking any critical reflection, Tiravanija’s narrative of ‘easy passage’ merely reflects the neoliberal ideal of the open market, in which ‘flows of goods, people, capital and information are unimpeded by trade barriers or cultural difference’. While Tiravanija neither simply celebrates globalization, nor valorizes localism, Verhagen thinks his work is essentially ‘frictionless’, and ultimately incapable of addressing the violence of the economic imbalances of global exchange, of borders, barriers, mass dislocations and consequent deaths.

Verhagen contrasts Tiravanija’s celebration of the contemporary artist’s travels with a reading of Walead Beshty’s FedEx Boxes (2007). The work is composed of laminated and mirrored glass cubes, which are shipped in FedEx boxes between exhibitions, where the boxes are transformed into their pedestals. On top of the boxes are waybills and custom notes, symbolizing the ‘elaborate machinery of modern border controls’. In these material forms, Beshty highlights not only the volume of handling and shipping that contemporary artworks undergo, but also the associated knocks and blows. The cracked surfaces of the glass cubes reveal the institutional processes of their exhibition—‘the more they travel, the more damaged they are.’ For Verhagen, the cracked glass evokes structures damaged in violent conflicts, and hence points to other travellers: peacekeepers and refugees. On an aesthetic level, Verhagen sees this work as breaking with traditional assumptions of artworks as timeless objects that require careful conservation. Though this assumption has obviously been under attack for almost a century now, alongside complex and ambiguous expressions of the ‘homelessness’ of art, Verhagen reads this piece as articulating the specific nature of travel today, showing increased movement in conditions of globalization to be heavily associated with ‘risk and degradation’.

The second mode, what one might call the ‘Romantic/escapist’ strategy, is examined in works by Darren Almond, Wolfgang Staehle and Kimsooja. Here Verhagen provides an incisive critique of art practices that respond to the social processes of globalization by returning to nature, aestheticism or localism. For his Fullmoon series (1988–ongoing), Almond has taken photographs at night using very long exposure in remote tourist destinations—the island of Rugen, the Huangshan mountains—which Verhagen likens to the sublime scenes of Caspar David Friedrich or Turner. Almond carefully frames the scenes to exclude all recognizable signs of tourism—paths, cable cars, beach huts, viewing platforms, roads and tourists themselves. For Verhagen, Almond is simplistically trying to recover certain private experiences that have been made impossible by tourism. His work fails to examine critically the historical relation between tourism and Romanticism, or to acknowledge that the longing for more ‘authentic’ travel is constantly internalized and repackaged by the tourism industry.

In his 1996 essay, ‘A Theory of Tourism’, Enzensberger noted that tourism advanced in step with industrial capitalism, as an expanding urban bourgeoisie took advantage of new means of transport to escape from increasingly congested cities. But as tourists’ experiences are entirely shaped by the forces they wish to break away from, their radical taste for new freedoms is inevitably frustrated. Tourism is thus ‘always outrun by its refutation’. This dialectic is the driving force of tourism’s development, and it ‘redoubles its efforts after each defeat’. For Verhagen, Enzensberger’s point retains its relevance today, the rise of global trade and the development of budget travel going hand-in-hand since the 1960s, both shaping tourism into a ‘potent instance in the expansion in global trade and a catalyst for other forms of social exchange’, as well as a tangible mode for insertion into global circuits. Verhagen contrasts Almond’s work to the direct engagement with mass tourism in Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Visible World (1986–2001), an installation of 3,000 tourist photos displayed on light-boxes. More jarring is Turista (1994) by Francis Alÿs, an important artist for Verhagen. In this performance piece, documented in photographs, Alÿs stands beside the plumbers, carpenters and electricians offering their services on the Zócalo in Mexico City, his own sign reading ‘Turista’. As Verhagen comments, ‘In Alÿs’s action, the inappropriateness of his appearance among the job seekers illuminates his privilege and, by extension, the structural economic imbalances that underlie it.’