Waiting for the Barbarians


In 1980, the South-African writer J.M. Coetzee published his novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. A story about a border town in an enormous empire. Officially, this border town functioned as the place where civilization stopped and where barbarism began. Beyond the gates of this town lived the barbarians. In reality however, the people in this town knew that the barbarians where peaceful beings which the town depended on. Weren’t it for the trade with the barbarians, the town wouldn’t have the necessary resources to sustain itself. Due to a misfortunate series of events, the empire decides to start a war with the barbarians. Although the army of the empire heavily outnumbers the strength of the barbarians, the war eventually starts to cause the decline of the empire because of its dependency on these barbarians.

A border determines what the inside is and what the outside is, but because a border ‘draws a line’ it also creates a relation of dependency: What is inside a border is inside because it isn’t outside, yet it does need this outside to claim a stable identity. The empire in Coetzee’s story needs the barbarians, not only to sustain itself economically, but also to think of itself as being civilized. We can see this phenomenon not only within literature but also within art. The framework of a famous artwork for example decides what should be considered as art and what should be considered as mere decoration or even as the museum wall. Of course, modern and contemporary art always plays with this frame. When an artist like Duchamp puts an urinal upside down in a gallery he automatically poses the questions: ‘what is art?’, ‘which boundaries are needed to define art?’, ‘are there boundaries needed to define art?’. This play with the boundary of what is included and what is excluded seems more relevant today than ever.

We live in the paradoxical situation that after the collapse of the long boundary which divided the world in two, the Iron Curtain, humanity has seen a rise in walls popping up all around the globe. While today’s economy seems more global and more interdependent than ever, people in Mexico, people in Palestine, even people at the borders of Europe are excluded because of a line which was drawn. The words and feelings that we use to separate people into different categories, the walls that we need to protect our sense of identity, the histories that haunt our prejudices on which we exclude people. These are all necessary topics to address if we want to understand these arbitrary lines in our landscape. So, although an upside-down urinal may have lost its originality, similar artistic gestures haven’t lost their relevance.

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