Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Waiting for Community

by Scott Wark

23 Mar 2011

The idea of community has touched a nerve with contemporary artists. It exerts a strong hold over our imaginations, promising to remedy the alienating effects of contemporary existence. Unable to find community at society's centre, contemporary art has turned to the margins for inspiration.

The result is works that search for strong social bonds amongst those made other by ethnicity or class difference. Western Sydney has proven particularly ripe for artists' explorations of this theme. Works that draw on this space have used artistic intervention to reassemble tenuous social bonds. The presumption is that the rudiments of community are preserved at the margins, in disadvantage.

To belong to a community is to share an unfolding history, to be part of relations that play out over time. Thought of this way, community is nothing more than the ties that exist between groups of people. This notion identifies a paradox in works that present disadvantage as a token of authentic community - a paradox that emerges from the link such works make between place andidentity.

This link is symptomatic of a deep cultural need for home, a need powerfully expressed by the Greek word autochthony. Combining the words ‘auto’, self, and 'chthon', earth or ground, autochthony refers to the bond between a people and a place, meaning ‘of the land itself’. The way this idea resonates with us is symptomatic of our reflex to equate belonging with dwelling. Recent community art is bound to this archetypal expression of communal being: it is driven to reconstruct a link it thinks is lost.

In our times, marked as they are by geographical dislocation and normalised crisis, the glorification of dwelling is an atavistic luxury. It is a part of the false nostalgia for mythic communities that Jean-Luc Nancy attributes to the Western psyche in The Inoperative Community. It also militates against any effective communitarian politics that might grow out of community art.

Paul Chan’s staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans exemplifies community art that avoids this trap. Chan's intervention into a space no longer recognisable as neighbourhood transforms Godot, a darkly humorous expression of futility, into a direct engagement with the difficulties of community organisation.

Closer to home, Edge of Elsewhere, a three-phase exhibition at Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A: Centre for contemporary art, identifies Western Sydney and Chinatown as spaces in flux. In this vein, Arahmaiani's installation in this exhibition, Home, uses interviews with marginalized community members as the inspiration for a work that questions the link between belonging and geography. Presented alongside her interviews, Arahmaiani's textiles-based work creates a space that is simultaneously comforting and indeterminate. Here, home - and by extension, community - is imagined as a feeling, a relation, rather than the property of a place.

Community art's power lies in the connections it identifies between politics and social being. Rather than trying to curate community, to graft it on to the outmoded idea of place, works such as Hometeach us about a mode of living together – of being-in-common – that is suited to our uncertain age.