Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 12, 2022
Irina Aristarkhova Arrested Welcome: Hospitality in Contemporary Art Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 248 pp.; 11 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9781517908973)

Arrested Welcome is a thematically organized set of case studies on the strategies of hospitality in contemporary artists’ projects. Aristarkhova defines “hospitality” as “the practice of welcoming others” (xv), with collective potential extending from individual encounters. According to Aristarkhova, acts and forms of hospitality are used by artists “to bring back its original promise of a democratic, indiscriminate, unconditional welcome” (65). At the same time, Aristarkhova is clear about the problems with extrapolating social change from individual artistic practices. She notes that “individual welcoming acts do not solve big structural problems” (xviii), remarks that “it is problematic to act out of the arrogant and presumptuous ‘white savior complex’” (xviii), and acknowledges that “fears and anxieties accompany hospitality situations” (xviii). Yet her study is motivated by a goal to envision some of the ways in which art models relations between people, in particular with what might be called aspirational goals (such as social justice) in mind.

Aristarkhova’s critical work in Arrested Welcome considers hospitality and welcome through a variety of artistic practices, described with a wealth of detail regarding context and with measured accounts of multiple narratives of reception. Ana Prvački’s The Greeting Committee Reports . . . (2012) involved etiquette training provided to staffers of the (d)OCUMENTA 13 exhibition. Faith Wilding’s Waiting (1972) and Wait-With (2007–8) were performances focused on the gendered ramifications of the subject position centered on receptivity. Lee Mingwei’s The Sleeping ProjectThe Dining Project, and The Living Room were structured around invitations extended to strangers to participate together with the artist in activities and spaces that usually take place between people already known to each other. Kathy High’s Embracing Animal was a multimedia project based on the artist caring for transgenic laboratory rats in her home. Mithu Sen’s It’s Good to Be Queen (2006) was an artist-facilitated event without the expected host’s presence. Pippa Bacca and Silvia Moro’s Brides on Tour (2008) was based on the artists hitchhiking from Italy to Israel wearing white garments that resembled wedding dresses. Ken Aptekar’s Nachbarn/Neighbours (2016) addressed the legacies and limits of hospitality in the context of the Holocaust. Most of these artists operate site-specifically, and Aristarkhova’s sustained critical attention to their work represents a meaningful expansion of the contemporary art discourse. 

Aristarkhova’s central concern in Arrested Welcome is art’s potential to transform the everyday practice of vernacular social relations. In her interpretation, the artist “creates new forms of sociality as a matter of fact, in the materiality of the work itself” (27). The artist also “helps her audiences . . . find a path to potential new forms of sociality” (27). These claims echo those made by many proponents of relational aesthetics. Although Aristarkhova notes some key references in the field, however, she does not engage extensively in theoretical debates. Indeed, her references to art history and criticism are cursory: describing art historian Michael Fried as a “theater critic” through a secondary source (40), for example, doesn’t encourage many connections to contemporary art history. References to her own previous related work in Hospitality of the Matrix: Philosophy, Biomedicine, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2012) are brief as well. Instead, Aristarkhova states that she "theorize[s] hospitality by learning from selected art projects” (xxvii). This clearly defined scope grants agency to the artistic practices in question, and leads Aristarkhova to anchor her overarching ideological goals to detailed analyses that include careful weighting of situational complexities, beyond slogans or mere paraphrasing of the artists’ signal approaches. 

The public face of “welcome,” in Aristarkhova’s discussion, is conceived as a set of strategies that structure the critical relations between a host and a guest, both of whom operate within acknowledged systems of preexisting rules and societal expectations. In her analysis, “[w]elcoming is a form of embodiment shared with others” (xxii, emphasis in original). Most of her case studies focus on the artist as the host, and thus foreground the ideological weight of the power invested in the host’s structural position. Aristarkhova’s analysis of High’s “hosting” of transgenic laboratory rats is particularly nuanced in this regard, engaging with the complexity of affect in human-animal relations outside conventional animals-as-pets paradigms. Arrested Welcome also includes one case study of a hosting situation (Sen’s It’s Good to Be Queen) that challenges the conventions of welcome and the cultural expectations associated with the host’s role.        

In general, Aristarkhova’s critical analyses take on the power dynamics associated with gender, race, and ethnicity. She notes that “hospitality is a matter of power and class” (71) and is “linked to gender in terms of expectations of femininity and masculinity as they relate to welcome” (71). Lee’s Sleeping Project, in which the Taiwanese-American cisgender male artist invites guests to sleep (nonsexually) with him in a New York art gallery, provides an opportunity to analyze the potential of confounding expectations of social norms connected to hospitality. Wilding’s performance Waiting, with its stationary female protagonist anticipating the arrival of guests, serves in Aristarkhova’s interpretation to demonstrate the crack in the edifice of agency conventionally invested in the position of the host, leading Aristarkhova to discuss “[t]he connection between hospitality and female passivity” (39). 

The one exception to Arrested Welcome’s focus on the artist-as-host is the chapter on Brides on Tour, by the Italian artists Bacca and Moro. In this project, the artists occupied the role of guests asking for hospitality as they sought to hitchhike from an art gallery in Milan, Italy, to a gallery in Tel Aviv, Israel. The project ended in Bacca’s rape and murder during her passage through Turkey. Aristarkhova’s discussion of the case thoughtfully engages with narratives extrapolated out of Bacca and Moro’s project, in particular Joël Curtz’s film La Mariée. While noting the complexity of the causal explanations frequently used for Bacca’s murder (from gendered expectations to cultural stereotyping), Aristarkhova concludes that the problem with Bacca and Moro’s Brides on Tour was a failure to realize that contradictions and inequalities are built into the ideal of hospitality (157). Yet she emphasizes the value of Brides on Tour as a work based on the ideal of universal hospitality that was built into Bacca and Moro’s process (159). However, because of existing social realities pertaining to the practice of hospitality, critically and tragically including those regarding gender in Brides on Tour, Aristarkhova argues that “welcome is arrested when hospitality fails to live up to its premise by being hostile to some groups [and] when it creates and maintains exclusions and hierarchies of entitlements” (160). 

Such “hierarchies of entitlement,” though, might also be considered in relation to the scenarios of reception in Arrested Welcome, which include accounts of Aristarkhova’s personal encounters with the artists. Her inclusion of this information is a rare and beneficial recognition of the writer’s positionality (and investment) in their critical account. But the fact that some of the information about the artworks is generated by Aristarkhova’s preexisting connections with the artists complicates her theorization of the “indiscriminate, unconditional” (65) hospitality in connection with some of the works. Having dinner with Prvački’s parents (24), hosting Wilding in her house (31, 43), sharing experiences with Sen about hospitality and welcome (113–19), or being asked by Aptekar to provide a language translation (164–65), for example, puts Aristarkhova in the position of a confidant, perhaps even a contributor, to the examined forms of hospitality. The privilege involved in this position forms a knot in the connection between the individual reception of the work, on the one hand, and the collective effect, on the other, because to extrapolate from the individual to the collective requires the position of the individual to be open to anyone, a premise that Aristarkhova embraces when she refers to the original promise of hospitality as “a democratic, indiscriminate, unconditional welcome” (65). While Aristarkhova’s relationships with the artists do not nullify her critical analyses, they do contribute to a parallel stream of interpretation, premised on meaningfully different terms of availability.

Ultimately, it is the terms of availability for welcome that Aristarkhova is interested in. In the conclusion to Arrested Welcome, she explores the question of what she calls the “systematic exclusion from the hospitality of those who are in power and in the majority” (164) in her discussion of Aptekar’s work Nachbarn/Neighbours. And this is where the notion of community becomes powerful, not quite as an “imagined community” (to quote Benedict Anderson’s famous description of the formation of national identity) but perhaps as an aspirational community of inclusion, involving the right to an expectation to be extended a welcome. Aristarkhova’s goal of producing a study that is accessible without requiring a high level of preexisting specialized knowledge of context fits with this approach, as does the fact that Arrested Welcome is available—very appropriately—as an open-access publication.

Kirsi Peltomäki
School of Visual, Performing and Design Arts, Oregon State University