Global Containers: Containing Visual Arts in the Age of Globalisation

Venka Purushothaman Translated by Handy

DOI: 10.33671/ISS03PUR

Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.

Italo Calvino

This triggers the tooltip Calvino’s fictive imagination paints a dark possibility as to the way history has framed the world today, which uncannily seems to reinvent itself within the discourse of globalisation. To think of the world in distinct and quantitative cultural composites to be venerated and celebrated and yet waiting to be exploited, re-interpreted and curricularised (as Calvino’s Kublai Khan does) into an international idiom of globalisation is, indeed, odd though true. In this essay, I seek to opine on the adage globalisation and foreground it as an instrument of control, study the manner in which it devours art and find apt responses to these two conundrums in the art of Atta Kim.


“Go global” is a commonplace maxim. Cross-border exchange of commerce, ideas, peoples, and even disease and terror to any part of the world is at best liquid capital. It is a new world where concepts of time and space narrows with the advent of speedier modes of transport and communications like the Internet. Colonialism exorcised, modernity debunked, there has been increasing pressure on newly industrialising and modernising societies and communities to become viable sites of liberal democratic capitalism.

Globalisation has its roots in seventeenth century industrialisation and became manifestly commandant during the project of colonialism and its attendant, modernism. The establishment of the English language as lingua franca of the world was the first globalised attempt at mono-culturalism (especially for trade, law and education) amidst highly diverse and distinct communities and civilisations. While English remains today the preferred link language of commerce, it carries with it the remains of colonial ideology and continues to be unraveled in emerging socio-cultural discourses and criticism. As modern cities and environments become experiences that cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology, the English language unites humankind by organising people into citizens of the world. Perhaps globalisation and modernism are a paradoxical unity of disunity. As Marshal Berman notes, a unity of disunity: “it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish”. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air” (1982: 15) Marx’s pronouncement rings true today only to be encapsulated by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which chillingly proposes cloning the human at literal and metaphorical levels, and collectivism as a means of enabling a global workforce. In this collectivism, there is no kinship nor reciprocity, only stark human capital.

In this starkness of human capital is there a sense of self? Globalisation erases the volatility of human life and experience through the reduction of geographical distance for shared cross border socio-economic-political exchange, thereby producing a culture of similarity or sameness. Where then is the sense of self? A feature of modernism was that it proposed a calming of this volatility to find a sense of self. Globalisation risks a claim on this, too, where conflicts between class and ideological forces, emotional and physical forces and individual and social forces are mystified and veneered to reflect a language of uniformity and indifference. Old structures of value systems are subsumed within a framework of free trade marked by mergers and acquisitions. Insidiously, globalisation suppresses the human self and creates a mythic self – one, which is structured on the principles of an exchange-value: A mythic self that congregates at the doorsteps of a global village. The global village (Marshall McLuhan) is nothing more than a utopia of sameness, of dogmatic orthodoxies only to find its allegory in T.S Eliot’s cultural despair of seeing modern life being “spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table,” (1998: 3) “uniformly hollow, sterile, flat, one-dimensional, empty of human possibilities”, and which is reliving itself in the global. “Anything that looks like freedom or beauty is really only a screen for more profound enslavement and horror” (Berman 1982: 169-170).

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