The Caribbean Poet and Philosopher Everyone in the Art World is Obsessed With
Top curator Hans Ulrich Obrist prefers his morning coffee with at least one serving of Édouard Glissant.
Édouard Glissant on May 24, 1999 in Saint Malo, France. Photo by Ulf Andersen for Getty Images.
“Whenever I wake up in the morning the first thing I always do is read fifteen minutes of Édouard Glissant,” kingpin curator and assiduous globetrotter Hans Ulrich Obrist said. I felt like I’d heard him say this somewhere before. But this time, it was completely topical in the context of A Global Dialogue That Is Not Globalization: Learning from Édouard Glissant, the final panel in a fortnight of free talks, schooling, dance performances, and concerts from the likes of Azealia Banks, Abra, and Arca. The panel closed out a series of events serving as a preview for The Shed, a mammoth six-story visual and performing arts center due to open next year as part of the Hudson Yards redevelopment project.
But we were there, and I’m here, to discuss Glissant, the Martiniquais poet, novelist, playwright, and theorist. Obrist continued, “His thinking has to be applied to almost everything I do. Every exhibition, every project has to contribute to mondialité.” He means worldliness. Extrapolating later, he volunteered travelling exhibitions—the crate-to-white-cube-to-crate kind—as an example of the homogenizing influence of globalization, which we should work against. The talk eventually took on a more intimate, occasionally reverent timbre, with panelists—sculptor Melvin Edwards was particularly delightful—reminiscing about personal and textual encounters with Glissant. I was charmed by moderator Manthia Diawara’s refrain of “that’s beautiful” after an especially lovely quote from or anecdote about him, which seemed to keep time in a syncopated kind of way.
Despite being a literary giant of literature and post-colonial philosophy—contemporaries include Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze—not much of Glissant’s considerable oeuvre has been translated to English. Yet the denizens of the international contemporary art circuit can’t seem to get enough of him as of late, and I wondered why. Is it his acute meditations on the sea, a topic at the forefront of Europeans’ minds as the legacies of empire return to their shores via the horrors of refugees’ Mediterranean crossing? Or is it the global tide of surveillance that makes his concept of a soft, full opacity in living an especially attractive counter to the get-to-know-the-Other hobbyism of modern liberal societies? Or, could it simply be the HUO effect?
Diawara at one point described Glissant as “always looking for the poem that is buried somewhere, when your voice can be the echo of the world,” and I found myself thinking of that slogan “poetry is in the street,” beloved by student activists in France’s May 1968 protests. A rather perplexed audience member, unfamiliar with the man of the evening, asked during the Q&A what all the concepts our hosts discussed meant in concrete political terms, and what a Glissantian protest might look like; panelists seemed to struggle to directly answer. A half-century on from May ’68, perhaps the problem is that the poetry remains firmly on the page.