Interview with Aric Chen, curator of the exhibition X is Not a Small Country – Unravelling the Post-Global Era, at MAAT

X Is Not A Small Country – Unravelling the Post-Global Era is an exhibition curated by Aric Chen together with Martina Muzi, at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon. The exhibition explores the post-global condition we live in and the phenomena of ‘de-globalisation’ and geopolitical realignment we observe. These processes have been accelerated during the current pandemic. We talked with Aric Chen about these themes.


Joana Duarte – The title of the exhibition X Is Not A Small Country refers to the map Portugal não é um país pequeno, designed by Henrique Galvão in the 1930s, which showed the surface of the Portuguese empire superimposed, thus comparing it to those of the main European nations. Tell us about this analogy in a post-colonial era, which was the exhibition’s starting point.

Aric Chen – My intention is always to find topics that are interesting to me and that relate in some way to the place where the exhibition takes place.

I’m an American who has lived in China for thirteen years, so I have often thought about issues related to post-globalization or the advancement of globalization as we know it in the last thirty years. These themes have also been equated by many designers, artists and architects.

When I was in Portugal, I was attracted by how the post-colonial discussion was or perhaps was not happening. Upon returning to Shanghai, I stumbled upon the notion of pluricontinentalism advocated by the Estado Novo in the 1930s, evident in this iconic poster. This idea fascinated me and gave me a local historical basis for thinking about deeply contemporary issues.

The idea that the notion of the nation-state was being radically redefined, or at least was trying to be radically redefined by the government of the time, related to how some of those colonial relationships have changed, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, seemed to me to be an excellent starting point for exploring a wider topic.

JD – Speaking of that broader field, we have seen processes of ‘de-globalisation’ and geopolitical realignment that mark a post-global era. What is the post-global condition and its processes?

AC – The name “post-global” came about because we don’t know what it really is. And when we don’t know what something is, we simply add the prefix “post”.

JD – It’s something that comes up later.

AC – Exactly. And does it mean what comes after? What is that? Many people of my generation, since the 1990s, see globalisation as a kind of inexorable path to ever greater interconnectedness and openness. This has been the reality for the last 30 years but is now falling apart. This does not mean that we are facing a phenomenon of de-globalisation. What is fascinating is that we now see simultaneous processes, which often follow contradictory logic. Things are closing down at the same time as other channels are opening up. Channels that, unlike in the past, do not follow ideologies, value systems or even great power rivalries. We are witnessing the simultaneous implementation of a kind of micro-strategies that sometimes clash. We must start familiarising ourselves and getting used to this world composed of multiple logics, which are unfolding at the same time. Everyone says that the world is getting more complex and that is exactly what we mean when we say complexity.

JD – Twelve years after the global financial crisis, a period in which the globalisation process slowed down, we have seen phenomena that indicate a kind of progressive “closing” of the world – trade wars, refugee crisis, a growing nationalism, the Brexit, among others. How do these phenomena affect the “transnational flow” of people, ideas and resources?

AC – Yes, that is what we are trying to address now, collectively. And that is what is explored by some artists, designers and architects that participate in this exhibition. I must stress that, just as some things close, others open. The project by Brick Lab, an architecture studio based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, looks at the implications of the opening up of that country, previously known to be an extremely harsh religious conservative regime, in light of the legalisation of cinema venues. I think it’s common knowledge that, for a long time, cinemas were banned in Saudi Arabia as part of the wider crackdown on modernisation, westernisation and liberalisation that began in the 1980s. Very recently, cinemas have been legalised, as have many other actions. Before the pandemic, I was in Jeddah and I probably saw more people playing music and dancing in the street than in Chicago, where I grew up. So that openness is real.

At the same time Brexit sets in, as populism grows across Europe after we’ve been through the Trump years in the US, there are authoritarian states, like Saudi Arabia, that represent a new kind of openness.

Recently, China has tried to convince the world that it is the standard-bearer of free trade and transnationalism through the Belt and Road Initiative. Last year, while we were working on this exhibition, Israel re-established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Once again, the world is not just closing in, it is also opening up. But what is causing these fluctuations is the interesting part.

JD – Faced with the contradictory and simultaneous phenomena of closing and opening, where do you think we are heading? Perhaps the phenomenon that best proves a closure is one of the most recent ones – the pandemic –, which has somehow accelerated this dramatically. Globalisation, by promoting a global connection of people and goods, allowed the rapid worldwide spread of the disease, is the one ultimately affected by this virus, which has interrupted the free movement of people and closed borders. What could be the consequences of this process? Will we return to a fragmented world composed of nation-states? Or, on the contrary, will we cultivate the plural world that globalisation has provided and that has somehow become more evident in the current situation, through the alliances to fight the pandemic between governments, ideologies, companies and citizens?

AC – The 2008 financial crisis and the current pandemic have shown the weaknesses of globalisation. Not only about the dependence we have on supply chains and geopolitical frictions, but also inequalities, etc.

The optimistic scenario is, as you say, we cultivate a more plural world and find a way for these contradictions to co-exist so that we can discover a balance and a productive co-existence of difference. This is the ideal scenario. We don’t know if it will happen. After all, we are experiencing a hybrid situation, where we look inwards relying on looking outwards. If this situation works well, it could be very constructive. If not, it could be extremely dangerous.

In China, the government is now proposing a concept known as dual circulation. It is an economic concept applicable to geopolitics. Basically, it translates to putting the focus on internal technological and economic development and consumption in the name of self-sufficiency, while at the same time the borders remain open for external trade and engagement.

I think that this direction is being followed by everyone and is perhaps another framing of the local-global or “Glocal” idea referred to in recent decades.

This is something exceedingly difficult to balance because we are programmed to think in binaries – black or white, right or wrong. Therefore, we see all kinds of discourses moving towards extremes, through cycles of reaction and resistance. And that’s where things get dangerous. If we can allow those binaries to co-exist and find a way for them to work together, that would be the best outcome. But I’m not so sure we can achieve that.

JD – How do you think we can find a balance between totally opposite things?

AC – It’s not just black or white or grey. We need to explore greys but, in addition to grey tones, we can also explore the coexistence of black and white.

JD – And how can art be an expression of this critical thinking?

AC – I think the answer is in your question. Art, design, architecture and culture help us to give meaning and articulate ideas when tackling highly complex, sometimes abstract and seemingly intangible issues and challenges. In helping us understand this, I don’t mean that culture will save the world. But at least it offers us a basis to have constructive discussions.

JD – Regarding the nine projects in this exhibition, presented by designers, architects and artists from different latitudes, they are critical reflections about the themes we have just mentioned. Tell us about some of these projects and the associated views.

AC – With this exhibition, we wanted to create a kind of post-global landscape in an almost literal way. This idea was wonderfully expressed and articulated by the exhibition designers Bureau and the graphic designer Joana Pestana.

The exhibition departs from a universe that is as “real” and immediate as possible to a more speculative one. As we walk down the ramp of MAAT’s oval gallery, we immediately see on the wall a series of pro-EU posters that Wolfgang Tillmans has been creating and disseminating since the Brexit referendum in 2016. This is something that comes from the real world, which visitors can identify and relate to, as they have lived through many of the episodes mentioned in the posters.

This route is split by the Teeter-Totter Wall, a recreation of Ronald Rael & Virginia San Fratello’s 2019 intervention on the US-Mexico border wall. By literally cutting the gallery in half, it is also a very real project.

In a more speculative dimension, Jing He, a Chinese designer living in the Netherlands, has created three scenarios where the typology of the triumphal arch takes on new forms and meanings in North Korea, in Kunming (her hometown) and Cambodia.

On the other hand, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen developed a project investigating the upcoming New London Casino in Macau. It is a casino built by the Sands Corporation, whose founder was a major political donor to Trump and Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.

This exhibition focuses on the rapidly changing and highly unpredictable global situation. During the exhibition, Sands’ founder Sheldon Adelson died, Trump was not re-elected, the US-Mexico border situation and US immigration policy changed. Things continue to be changed. In this case, for the better, thankfully. It has been fascinating to see things happening in real-time as we investigate them through this exhibition.

JD – I pose one last question that I think is appropriate to conclude many of the issues in this interview. There is another kind of globalisation of the world, a globalisation made through digital media. Right now, we are seeing each other and talking, but we are in different parts of the world. The worldwide interconnectivity provided by the internet, which allows us to be in permanent contact with any part of the world, is increasingly used, particularly in the face of all the phenomena we have mentioned. What will be the impact of this post-global era in the digital world?

AC – Excellent question. You have hit the nail on the head because the emergence of the digital world is both a cause and a consequence of the exact processes we have been talking about. On the one hand, it is uniting us as we never thought possible, on the other hand, it is also fragmenting us.

You have probably ended up asking the main question, which I can’t answer conclusively. Going back to what I said before: it’s not just black and white, it’s not just grey, but it’s black and white at the same time. What we need to improve is to negotiate those opposites or binaries, or whatever they are, at the same time, right? And those binaries include the digital and the physical and also how they interact with each other.


X Is Not A Small Country – Unravelling the Post-Global Era curated by Aric Chen with Martina Muzi is an exhibition whose visit is essential to reflect on today’s world. Until September 6 at MAAT.

Joana Duarte (Lisbon, 1988), architect and curator, lives and works in Lisbon. She concluded her master in architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura of Universidade de Lisboa in 2011, she attended the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and did her professional internship in Shanghai, China. She collaborated with several national and international architects and artists developing a practice between architecture and art. In 2018 she founds her own studio, concludes the postgraduate degree in curatorial studies at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of Universidade Nova de Lisboa and starts collaborating with Umbigo magazine.

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