Since its conception, Bidoun has aimed to be an open space for visual artists, writers, and the occasional armchair commentator to ponder questions that they might otherwise not be able to, to express themselves in the particular and even peculiar context of a glossy arts and culture magazine that floats about the Middle East and beyond.
Given that tradition, our Fall issue is filled with the words, thoughts, and images of fourteen artists/collectives under the wide open rubric of Project. From the beginning, we found the many definitions of the word “project” — supple, elusive, and promising as it is — especially relevant to the work at hand. Project: A task, a scheme, a public undertaking, public housing, to throw or cast, to jut out, to gauge or estimate, to make oneself heard clearly, and also to mistake one’s subjective view for reality, to make an image appear on the surface.
As ever, Bidoun aims to be a repository for original, relevant, and idiosyncratic expression.
48 Ballet Classes
Galerie Kamel Mennour
September 6–29, 2007
In her European solo debut at Galerie Kamel Mennour, Doa Aly presents two works that, each in their own way, broach questions of the body — its exalted, projected, and devastatingly real image. In the video 48 Ballet Classes, the artist, playing herself, takes strenuous ballet classes over the course of three months, taught by a renowned Cairo-based ballet doyenne named Dame Sonia Sarkis. While endearing, the artist’s effort bears the unmistakably awkward markings of the beginner, raising questions as to the space between perfection and the imaginary, the manufactured body and the banality of failure. This work extends Aly’s ruminations from her 2003 work, also featured, Puppet Fashion Show — a video work that subtly juxtaposes the worlds of puppetry and fashion.
Barcelona Bahman Jalali Fundació Antoni Tàpies September 28–December 9, 2007
This fall, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, in a show curated by Catherine David, will host Iranian photographer Bahman Jalali, one of a number of seminal Iranian photographers who came of age covering the grueling Iran-Iraq war. In this exhibition, David presents a selection of his past works — from the revolution, the war, from the city of Tehran, from the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr — and also introduces us to a new series of small-format montages drawing upon Iranian photographic archives. Jalali is something of a legend in Iran, not only as a photographer, but also as a teacher, curator, and an aficionado of the country’s photographic history. With fellow photographer Rana Javadi, he’s on the editorial board of Aksnameh, a bimonthly journal of phtography, and he also co-founded Iran’s first photographic museum.
London imagine art after Tate Britain October 5, 2007–January 6, 2008
‘Imagine art after’ began life in 2005 as an online project on the Guardian Unlimited site, pairing artists who’d emigrated to the UK with others who’d stayed in their home countries — in this case, Afghanistan, Albania, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Serbia. Through the artists’ online dialogues, curator Breda Beban aimed to explore the tensions inherent in migration, and the social and geographical sense of the local.
The project has now morphed into an exhibition at Tate Britain of work by six artists that developed from the dialogues. While most of the commissioned artists have opted to work alone, Albanian duo Denku Hyka (who’s been living in London since 1997) and Violana Murataj (based in Tirana) have collaborated on a video installation and book, both by the name of Finding Grandma’s Garden, that engage with “the archaeology of memory and the social and psychological impact of the movement of people.”
Other work ranges from the intensely personal — such as Estabrak’s Self-portrait with Aunt and Rebecca, a two-screen film about the Iraqi artist’s coming-out — to the more decorative, including Addisalem Bizowork’s series of textand image-based oil paintings of life in Addis Ababa, and Londoner Senayt Samuel’s photographs taken on a trip back to Ethiopia.
Self-taught photographer Olumuyiwa Osifuye, based in Lagos, Nigeria, may emerge the star of the exhibition. Osifuye’s Kaabiyesi: Courts of Influence is a series of six diptychs that explore the role of traditional (“divine”) rulers within the context of current governmental practices in Yoruban Africa.
London Shirana Shahbazi The Curve Barbican Art Gallery October 4, 2007–January 20, 2008
In October, Shirana Shahbazi follows Tomas Saraceno and Richard Wilson, among others, in creating new work for The Curve, the Barbican’s exhibition space that wraps around the back of its concert hall. Working with Tehrani billboard painters, Shahbazi is painting a mural directly onto the eighty-meter-long wall of the gallery. The new work derives from and refers to an accompanying series of about thirty color and black-and-white photographs, displayed in typical salon-style, of portraits of young women, landscapes, and still lifes, in varying scales. The show is accompanied by the launch of a new book on Shahbazi’s work, published by JRP Ringier, with essays by the Barbican’s Kate Bush and Gianni Jetzer of the Swiss Institute, and including an interview with the artist by Cay Sophie Rabinowitz.
London Collected Memories: New Trends in Iranian Painting ArtSpace Galleries October 9–27, 2007
‘Collected Memories’ brings together more than one hundred paintings by twenty-seven young Iranian painters. Taking a renewed vigor in contemporary Iranian painting as its point of departure, the exhibition celebrates an exciting moment in the arts, one that is both intimately tied to the past and rigorously contemporary — born of a particular time, but not oppressed or limited by that context. Artists within the exhibition range from the increasingly blue-chip to the largely unknown, and include Golnaz Afraz, Maryam Amini, Ali Chitsaz, Ali Ghaemi, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Reza Lavasani, Alireza Masoumi and Hossein Soltani. With an ambitious UK debut, the show is bound to, at the very least, provide a taste of the diversity of expression coming out of Iran today. ‘Collected Memories’ is a co-production between 12+1 Art Associates in Tehran and the London-based Cultural Consultancy Candlestar Ltd.
Dubai Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian The Third Line October 18–November 7, 2007
Veteran New York–based artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian has her first show in Dubai courtesy of The Third Line. Besides a selection of her well-known large-scale mirror-and-glass tile works that reference motifs within Islamic architecture, the show includes Heartache, a series of miniature boxes, created from an elaborate yet compelling mix of mirrored tiles, textiles, and so on, and featuring installations of figures and animals. In addition, the gallery has commissioned the eighty-six-year-old artist to create a wall installation for the exhibition.
New York Carey Young: Body Techniques Paula Cooper Gallery Late October onwards
Carey Young’s solo show in New York features documentation of performative actions that she staged in the UAE in late spring. Reworking classic performance works by artists including Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Richard Long, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Valie Export, and Ulrich Ruckriem, Young positioned herself amid the urban works-in-progress (what she calls “ruins in reverse”) that make up building and industrial sites in Dubai and Sharjah. “My actions aim to relate the partially realized architecture to the idea of a partially realized corporate subject [the ‘becoming corporate’],” she says.
Commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial residency program, Young’s project is part of a body of work emerging from local and international artists concerned with the non-place/commercial utopia/anonymous virtuality of the Gulf landscape. Still, hers is typically complex and relates as much to art history and the place of the artist as to the post-post-modern city. The title of the exhibition refers to the concept of “body techniques” developed by Marcel Mauss, then renamed “habitus” by Pierre Bourdieu.
Amsterdam Khatt Kufi Kaffiya: Symposium on Arabic Visual Culture El Hema exhibition Amsterdam Public Library and Mediamatic Foundation Through November 3
Over the past two years, a team of Arab and Dutch graphic designers has been developing a series of new, matching Arabic and Latin fonts. In the somewhat neglected area of Arabic graphic design, this — and the publication this autumn of Typographic Matchmaking, a book by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares documenting the process — is a major event.
To mark the occasion, Amsterdam hosted a symposium in August on visual culture and graphic design, organized by the Khatt Foundation, and also launched a design exhibition, ‘El Hema,’ and accompanying product design competition. Contributors to the project include Zeina Maasri, on political posters; Malu Halasa, on the complexities of publishing, with Rana Salam, her forthcoming book, The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie; and Brody Neuenschwander, British filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s calligrapher.
Exhibition organizers Mediamatic are attempting, for better or worse, to imagine a future Arab Netherlands: The title relates to Hema, a Dutch design shop that, say the organizers, is “the most public manifestation of Dutch culture, a living monument of practical colorful clearness with value for your money.” The company was predictably up in arms over the “confusion” that could be caused by Mediamatic’s proposed exploration of Dutchness and Arab-Dutch cultural exchange, and the exhibition title had, at the time of writing, yet to be resolved.
Palestine Second Riwaq Biennale Birzeit University and other venues Symposium October 21–24 Exhibitions, projects 2007-8
The constant battle against biennial fatigue shifts into a new gear in Palestine in October with the staging of a year-long series of workshops, projects, and architectural interventions aimed at bringing together international and local practitioners and circumventing boundaries within Palestine. Directed by artist-curator Khalil Rabah, with Charles Esche heading up the curatorial team, this biennale begins with a series of craft and restoration projects involving contemporary artists working with Riwaq, Ramallah’s center for architectural conservation.
Rabah and Esche are planning a gathering of international and local artists, writers, and cultural actors before the October symposium begins, aimed at focusing discussion around ideas such as “restoration” and “constriction.” These tours and sessions are being held in conjunction with the International Academy of Arts in Palestine, which launched in September, and alongside projects staged by ArtSchool Palestine.
Featured speakers in the arts symposium, which takes Riwaq’s work and the metaphor of desired travel as its starting point, include Platform Garanti director and master-chairman Vasif Kortun, artist-curator Kodwo Eshun, Afghan artist Lida Abdul, and the UK’s Douglas Gordon. The architectural activities feature similarly smart thinkers: Coordinated by architect and writer Stefano Boeri, the discussions include interventions by American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and sociologist Saskia Sassen and aim to create “one city” between Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Ramallah.
Considering its locale, and the nature of biennials in general, the organizers have an unusually long-term view—their intention is to use the symposia to set in motion projects that will be realized through 2008 and beyond, to the third Riwaq Biennale in 2009.
Bethlehem On Kawara: Pure Consciousness International Centre October 23–30, 2007
Bethlehem is the latest stop of an ongoing tour of On Kawara’s Pure Consciousness date paintings. A series of stark canvases, painted on seven consecutive days at the beginning of 1997, the paintings have toured kindergartens and schools in Madagascar, Sydney, Bhutan, Abidjan, Istanbul, Shanghai, Reykjavik, and beyond. Curated by Jonathan Watkins of the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK, the exhibition, deliberately presented in a non-art context, is organized by ArtSchool Palestine as part of a series of shows by international artists in Palestine.
“The simple statement of a date constitutes confirmation of the artist’s continued existence, touching on mortality without melodrama or sentimentality,” Watkins writes. The show’s title refers to the direct way in which young children interpret new experiences and phenomena; Kawara’s in-depth practice is in part an exploration of whether this novelty of experience is retrievable later in life.
Istanbul Mladen Stilinovic’: Subtracting of Zeroes Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center September 6–November 23, 2007
As part of its commitment to showcasing art from the Balkans, Platform follows the brouhaha of the Istanbul Biennial with a solo show by Zagreb-based conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović, a member of the Group of Six, a Croatian artists’ collective from the 1970s known for its polemical films and street performances. More recent work has explored the absorption of post-Socialist art into the international art market.
This exhibition at Platform includes recent installation and video work that focuses on the economy, referencing specifically Platform’s previous life as a bank. A selection of Stilinovic’s artist’s books, dating from the 1970s to today, is shown in the library space and is accompanied by a new publication that charts his practice in this area. The show tours to the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, in early 2008.
Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Ramallah, Alexandria, Cairo, El Minia, Tunis, Rabat MP5 Meeting Points: A Festival of Contemporary Arts November 1–30, 2007
November sees the launch of the long-awaited fifth edition of Meeting Points, a multidisciplinary contemporary arts festival held in nine cities in the Middle East and North Africa. In what promises to be a seminal breakthrough, this year’s Meeting Points comes amidst some major structural transitions. Formerly an annual event, whose past four editions had all been curated by the Young Arab Theater Fund’s Tarek Abu El Fotouh, Meeting Points will from now on be held biannually. Each future edition will be organized by a different team. This transitional moment is also marked by an inclusive curatorial policy: For the first time, participation is open to non-Arab artists.
At the helm for this round is Kunsten Festival founder and veteran director Frie Leysen, who brings many years of experience and a strong personal vision to a project that has often been lackluster and arbitrary. Assistant Curator Maha Maamoun, an artist and one of the team behind Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective, brings through a highly collaborative process a series of projects focusing on structural concerns. MP5 also has invited a local curator from each of the nine cities to propose a project specific to their city and runs in tandem to the larger traveling show. On the local scale, Bassam El-Baroni, founder and co-director of the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum, will install a corporate-style office for the dissemination of art to a wider audience, provoking radical questions about contemporary art and its invisible public.
A selection from MP5 will also be presented in the Hebbel Theater (Berlin) from November 21–December 2, 2007 and in the KVS Theatre (Brussels) January 10–20, 2008.
Participating artists include: Yto Barrada (Visual Arts), Nejib Belkadi (Film), Bruno Beltrao (Dance), Bikya (Music), Stefan Kaegi (Theatre), Anne Theresa De Keersmaeker (Dance), Aiham Dib (Visual Arts), Emily Jacir (Visual Arts), Kamilya Joubran (Music), Amal Kenawy (Performance), Salma & Soufian Ouissi (Dance), Rabih Mroue (performance/Theatre), Bouchra Ouizguen (Dance), Walid Raad (Performance), Khalil Rabah (Visual Arts), Mahmoud Refat (Music), Rami Sabbagh (Video), Roy Samaha (Video), Wael Shawky (Visual Arts), TG Stan (Theatre), Hiroaki Umeda (Dance), and many others.
New York CinemaEast Film Festival 2007 November 8–15, 2007
CinemaEast’s fall program will include auteur, art house, and increasingly mainstream films showcasing the talents of Faouzi Bensaïdi, Moncef Dhouib, and Egyptian filmmaker Mohammad Khan, among others. A groundbreaking retrospective of Beur cinema, a burgeoning trend in French cinema reflecting upon the legacy of colonialism and the difficult issues of integration and assimilation among “immigrant” populations, will also be on show. Rounding out the diverse program are special presentations by the Iraqi Film School and the Arab Institute for Film. The CinemaEast Film Festival is a presentation of ArteEast and features collaborations with the Alliance Française, the Margaret Mead Film Festival, the American-Moroccan Institute, the American University in Cairo, and others.
Beirut Communities and Territories: Beirut American University of Beirut, Haret Hreik Library, Beirut November 17–22, 2007
Milan cultural organization aMAZElab/Museo di Arte Sociale e Territoriale, has collaborated with the Beirut <Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation to launch an edition of its ongoing Communities and Territories project in Beirut, November 2007. A seminar and series of workshops will explore the “multi-faceted and unexpected ways in which public sphere may be exploited, documenting transformations, safeguarding the minimum levels of social interaction, and enacting artistic and cultural practices that interface with the city and its inhabitants.” Material produced in the AUB sessions will then tour to Bachoura (in the west of Beirut), Geitawi (east) and Haret Hreik (south) via Beirut’s mobile public libraries. The project, which aims to create a public archive of images, video, texts, drawings, and maps on “concepts of public and private space,” culminates with a presentation and public debate at the Haret Hreik Library. Panellists include writer/artist Bilal Khbeiz, architect George Arbid, architecture and graphic design professor Mona Harb, sociologist Giorgio Agamben, urbanist Stefano Boeri, and artist Vito Acconci. aMAZE aims to publish a book in spring 2008 based on the discussions.
Abu Dhabi Art Paris Abu Dhabi Emirates Palace Hotel November 26–29, 2007
Abu Dhabi has traditionally made do with its dusty Cultural Foundation and annual book fair, way behind both Sharjah, with its museums and commitment to contemporary art, and commercial Dubai, in the local league table of cultural enterprise. But the past two years have seen a plethora of announcements—from the planned outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim, via the launch of the Middle East International Film Festival (October 14 – 19), to Abu Dhabi’s own version of the French modern and contemporary fair Art Paris.
The Abu Dhabi fair appears to be more conservative in approach than Dubai’s Gulf Art Fair (March 18 – 22, 2008), with the emphasis on modern (twentieth-century) art as well as contemporary practitioners. Besides a contingent of French galleries, regional dealers are well represented (Beirut’s Agial and Janine Rubeiz, Syria’s Ayyam, and Tehran’s Silk Road, alongside several Gulf-based galleries). Accompanying activities include ‘Sign and Calligraphy,’ an exhibition curated by Amal Traboulsi that includes such auctioneers’ favorites as Dia Al-Azzawi, Nja Mahdaoui, and Rachid Koraichi and a series of lectures organized by the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi.
June 15–July 28, 2007
These days, it’s considered almost socialist even to utter the word “capitalism”—to assert that the system exists as something with edges and boundaries. What was once a tension between ideologies has now become a question of how and to what degree one chooses to interact with the world at all.
In “New Economy,” which showed recently at Artists Space, curator João Ribas set out to assess the nature of artistic practice in a so-called post-Fordist economy through works by nineteen artists that attempted to trace the contours of capitalism’s most recent, “frictionless” stage. Post-Fordism connotes a renewed capitalism in full bloom, finally free to finish the work begun by the assembly line, with newer forms, better tradeoffs, lighter alloys, and flexible work schedules to inspire widespread creativity and entrepreneurship. Ribas hoped to ask questions regarding the artist’s role in this paradigm — whether artistic practice can function as a localized form of resistance to other dematerialized forms of production and circulation, whether artists maintain a degree of political agency given their high visibility and/or marginal status. Works in the show ranged from those that engaged an economic system directly (exploring and exposing its structure) to those that functioned autonomously under its radar.
Milica Tomic’s Reading Capital merged the two approaches, finding an eerie negative space somewhere in the doldrums between ideology and autonomy. The ten-minute video loop shows various Texans reading excerpts from Marx’s Capital, each in a setting chosen by the subject. Their vacant stares, mechanical recitations, and bourgeois backdrops gave the impression of a bad soap opera. Reading Capital testified to the death of ideology by parading its corpse, and the droning voices of its subjects suggested that it may have taken autonomy with it.
Kader Attia’s Hallal Sweatshop was one of these greedy “human installation” pieces: Three women sat in a room working at their sewing machines as if in a real sweatshop. Attia the artist impersonated the class enemy: the factory boss with harebrained schemes whose mundane details are left to the workers to figure out. He played the part but failed to create the resoundingly exploitative artwork that Santiago Sierra managed to with an inverse economy of means.
The documentation of Sierra’s piece played in a small frame on the wall. In 586 Horas de Trabajo, workers spent 586 combined hours erecting a four-meter black concrete cube. The enormous cube served the sole function of honoring the amount of time spent on its construction, with the words “586 Horas de Trabajo” written in large letters across one side. As a big black box, and as a monument to its own creation, the piece appeared to be a wry comment on minimalism, which to some extent it was. But through a kind of loophole — by translating a formal concern expressed in material (the closed system) into a social one expressed in labor — he actually reached back and drew from minimalism’s own primordial drive. If 586 Horas de Trabajo played a joke on minimalism, the joke was only directed at its metaphysical aspirations. Beyond that, Sierra’s work passionately reaffirmed minimalism’s materialist core.
Other works in the show featured more ambiguous questions concerning labor and the distinction between the mass-produced object and the artisanal gesture. Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel’s Handcrafted BMX Frames and their Handmade Deck, Truck and Wheels are both lovingly handcrafted versions of mass-produced objects. But bike frames and skateboards, however mass-produced, are most often assembled by human hands. Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel’s slyly redundant gesture suggested the gap between the artisan and the assembly line to be an emotional distinction, not necessarily a material one.
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s elegant Untitled 1991 (Artificial Flavor) featured two suitcases lying front and center on the floor of the exhibition space, flipped open as if at an airport security checkpoint to expose the contents within: dozens of small bags of potato chips, more useless than the suitcases that carried them. It was a strangely potent image of the new economy, in which inverted laws of supply and demand allow improvised peer-to-peer relationships built around the most ridiculous possible common interests. If “New Economy” asked questions about the artist’s role in the changing economy, Tiravanija’s work stood as perhaps the show’s the most triumphal response, offering little in terms of usable content while still shimmering with an undeniable, enigmatic presence.
The center of the show for me, though, was Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory, a meditation on the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (made in 1895, it’s considered to be the first film ever made). Farocki took the subject and title of the Lumière brothers’ forty-five-second film literally, and in his own expansion of the original, he gathered as many variations on film as possible of workers leaving factories. At one point, the voiceover described the explosion of joyous energy leaving the factory at the end of the day “as if [the workers were] impelled by force… as if something were drawing them away.” In the context of the exhibition, I couldn’t help but imagine the latent magnetic pull away from the factory as the embryo of a post-Fordian economy, and the escape into air and possibility as the only natural reaction to the droning repetition of the assembly line.
As might be expected, a number of works in “New Economy” did suffer from being flat parodies of either antiquated ideological declarations or the banal operations of the internet economy. Heath Bunting’s Skint The Internet Beggar was just that—a kind of e-hobo taking pocket change via credit card on a website. Oliver Ressler’s vinyl banner Alternative Economies, Alternative Societies, invited viewers to IMAGINE THAT CAPITALIST RELATIONS ARE OVERCOME BY LOCAL ECONOMIC FEDERATIONS OF GRASS-ROOTS GROUPS THAT PRODUCE ACCORDING TO REGIONAL DEMAND, while Carolina Caycedo’s Day to Day documented a series of barter transactions. Though these works strove to emphasize an autonomous position for the artist, they also ran the risk of hiding from the true complexity of the economy through mockery or romanticism.
Overall, however, Ribas’s curatorial vision did manage to keep the show topically focused, and “New Economy” held together, with a number of solid works attempting to give form to an economy whose highest priority is to transcend boundaries, mirror, and morph.
Contemporary Art Platform
June 22–September 7, 2007
Predrag Pajdic is rapidly becoming something of a Hans Ulrich Obrist of Middle Eastern art. In the past two years, he’s curated three sprawling shows in the United Kingdom, dedicated to work of and about the Middle East region. These shows have unabashedly recycled artists and been accompanied by a veritable maelstrom of information, from interminable websites to catalogues, interviews, and so on.
It’s difficult to decide whether Pajdic’s efforts are totally admirable, or whether they unforgivably perpetuate a number of problems involving the way in which Middle Eastern art is generally presented in the United Kingdom. His stated intention to provide a platform for Middle Eastern artists and others who defy stereotypes in their representation of the region is certainly worthwhile. ME artists are underrepresented on our self-absorbed island, and on the rare occasions when they have been represented, they’ve more often than not been fetishized and politicized beyond the possibility of being taken seriously as anything other than Others. But the tide is now gradually turning, as demonstrated by exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Tate, and Pajdic has played a role in raising the profiles of artists from the Middle East.
At the same time, this curator, who hails from the former Yugoslavia, seems to have a problem with the essential process of curating a show: that is, selecting it, editing it, and bringing it together in some sort of coherent, logical fashion while at the same time giving each work sufficient breathing space, allowing it to maintain its aesthetic and political integrity, distinct from the group. Much of what was on view in ‘Recognise’ was substandard. Nada Prlja’s 2007 posters, which read “Bin Laden is Dead,” seemed to do little more than replicate the classier variety of graffiti circa 2001; while Sagi Groner’s Jenin Journal (2005), an account of watching the Israel Defense Forces’ destruction of the Jenin camp from Amsterdam, had potential for interest but was underdeveloped. (The finer aspects of the documentary trend in Middle Eastern art have been debated previously and were thoroughly presented in Modern Art Oxford’s 2006 compendium ‘Out of Beirut’—one longed here for a bit more of the thought that went into that exhibition.) Some of the work was just plain old, such as Wael Shawky’s The Cave, admittedly brilliant but on rotation at every gallery near you since 2005.
The sheer quantity of mediocre offerings was a pity (the ‘Recognise’ press release trumpeted more than forty artists; other sources put the number at sixty-six), tending to drown out, in some cases literally, works of greater quality. The sound on Lisa K Blatt’s video Marco Polo (2003), a three-minute loop of some old-age pensioners playing Marco Polo in a swimming pool in the nether regions of the United States, with the words “Osama Bin Laden” substituted for the standard call and response, was turned too high. Mildly amusing as it was the first time around (in a YouTube sort of way), the OAP’s shouts didn’t take long to grate and seemed to provide a metaphor for the bombardment that spoiled the show.
To avoid giving a wholly negative impression of the gathered works, a few that stood out should be mentioned. Ayman Ramadan’s excellent Iftar (2006) presented a staged set of men breaking their Ramadan fast on a street in downtown Cairo, with food supplied by the street’s mechanic. Standing at the table in the dark, dressed in dusty clothes, eating and talking, they strangely resembled the disciples of The Last Supper—an implication made consciously on Ramadan’s part, yet one that he didn’t overplay; the men still retained an identity beyond the allusion.
On the floor in the second room, Tarek Al-Ghoussein displayed images from his Self-Portrait series. In these photographs he wore a keffiyeh, with his face hidden from view, and stood against various backdrops: an airplane on a tarmac; a docked, rusted ship; a lake—all strangely neutral in their colors and locations. The images’ impressively clean composition and production made up for any lapse in subtlety caused by the purportedly incongruous juxtaposition of “Arab” and “neutrality.” Yasmeen Alawadi’s photographs of construction work in Dubai (from Grid Work Series, Dubai, 2007) were also well composed and presented, hung from a scaffold at the exhibition’s entry. In one, a single red work glove was placed on a railing against a steel grid; in another, a blue-suited construction worker with a white scarf wrapped around his head and mouth walked by a sea of grids. The point wasn’t labored, but the images brought to mind the shocking conditions for workers in the booming city.
The exhibition also presented an old hit by Emily Jacir (her 2003 circular baggage carousel embrace) and Mahmoud Hojeij’s disturbing video Shameless transmission of desired transformations per day (2002), in which single Beiruti women recount their sexual encounters under harsh spotlights, segments intercut with the sexist ramblings of a greengrocer.
So it wasn’t all bad, and Pajdic does deserve special commendation for his indefatigability and his presumably bulging Rolodex. But perhaps now that the groundwork for Middle Eastern art has been indisputably laid, future exhibitions can move on from such indiscriminate barrages of art from an underrepresented region and start being a little more discerning in their selections.
Oraib Toukan: Counting Memories
Darat al Funun
May 8–July 22, 2007
The act of remembering — that is, the act of trying to recall a thing past, and memory itself, namely, the mnemonic imprint and narrative of recalled events — seem to operate on slightly different planes, though they’re inextricably linked. In “Counting Memories,” Oraib Toukan investigated the tension between the process and residue of memory, a tension that exists especially when that memory, whether collective or individual, resists settling effortlessly into the annals of history.
Toukan insistently highlighted the fragility of memory and forgetfulness, tracing how they’re inscribed within a sociopolitical consciousness. The “body” of work here—all produced between 2006 and 2007 — brought memory back into the realm of the corporeal and the material, where it could be breathed, ingested, printed, and even written on the body. With the title “Counting Memories,” however, Toukan seemed to suggest that even if we could transform our memories into quantifiables and do away with their residual aura, we still could barely grasp a sense of truth.
The friction between meaningful amnesia and vacuous memory was enacted obsessively in the three video works Trying to count memories without laughter’s disruption (2006), Remind me to remember to forget (2006), and One donkey and three phrases (2007). Each of these works could be perceived as a momentary snapshot trying to contain history, a history burdened with the Sisyphean task of remembering itself ad infinitum until it could finally make sense.
All three works made strategic use of textual repetition, wherein phrases were written and rewritten at different paces and even in reverse. Past, present, and future blurred into each other, scrambling temporality and rendering time indefinite. This was especially vivid in the looped three-channel video installation One donkey and three phrases, three mirrored boxes each showing footage of a donkey munching away at the phrases “I perceived a past,” “I remembered a present,” and “I witnessed a future.” Standing a few feet away, the audience saw the one image of the donkey eating the phrase, yet a closer look inside the box showed the kaleidoscopic diffraction of the image, splintering the time-space continuum. Whereas a linear reading of each phrase carried a particular historical weight and momentum, the multiplication of the mirrored images contested that. We were invited to be voyeurs to the prism of history.
Memory inscribed on the body was the subject of the series of photographs Man with tattoo (2007). Four photographs depicted a man’s back with a large tattoo comprised of a hand holding a dagger in the shape of Palestine, a pair of eagle wings in the Palestinian national colors, and the Palestinian flag. The word “Palestine” was written in Arabic vertically on the man’s spine, as if subtitling the tattoo and underlining the significance of its symbolism. National pride, the desire for a Palestinian homeland, and a resistance to occupation were literally grafted onto the skin, transforming it into a live site commemorating the situation of the Palestinian people. This plight was a collective one, as emphasized by the anonymity of the photograph’s subject: he was faceless. As the series of photographs progressed, dark shadows fell over the man’s body, obscuring his arms, clipping the wings of the tattoo, so that eventually the only thing we could discern was a tiny Palestinian flag floating in a black void. Functioning as a trope for fading memory and the forgetfulness of the world regarding the Palestinian trauma, the series also correlated the gradual disembodiment and dismemberment of its subject to the gradual territorial loss of Palestinian land.
In The New(er) Middle East, Toukan offered a wry and playful critique in the form of an interactive puzzle in which viewers could reorganize the map of the current Middle East. We reshuffled our maps with humor and lightness, since our moves appeared to be inconsequential, yet with every gesture we created an alternative vision and geopolitical blueprint of the Middle East, which in reality remains umbilically linked to its political history. The installation reminded viewers that the topography of our decisions is never innocent, just as no map is ever neutral.
Far less playful and much more solemn, if not monumental, in tone was the installation Good Morning Beirut (2006), which viscerally evoked how history repeats itself. For many who lived through the experience of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon conjured up painful memories and imagery.
Here, Toukan simultaneously chronicled the mediation of war (she collected the personal email she received during the first few weeks of the war) and re-mediated what she’d archived, reprinting the messages on a paper roll, fixing the communication in time and preventing its redistribution. In other words, it was as if Toukan wanted to capture the residual memory of 1982 and its 2006 iteration and solidify it in the hope that history might not repeat itself again but instead find closure. For the version at Darat al Funun, almost a year after the war, she grossly exaggerated the paper roll, making it impossible for viewers to consult further messages, and draped its pages across the floor and wall, making the text at times illegible, begging a “reading between the lines” at multiple levels. The aesthetics and the object value of the installation have changed as time has progressed. The object-document of her private correspondence has become part of the public domain, as a sculptural memorial that finds its strength in unwritten pages and histories. The seemingly infinite roll of paper that Toukan lay before us hinted that many rooms and walls still need to be draped if we want to catch a glimpse of the lived experience of war.
July 16–September 23, 2007
When Roger M Buergel, the artistic director of Documenta 12, first released the three leitmotifs in February 2006 that would “correspond, overlap, or disintegrate — like a musical score” in the exhibition, I was struck with wonder. “Is modernity our antiquity?” “What is bare life?” “What is to be done [with education]?” These questions seemed provocatively elusive, strangely scattered, and perhaps just a bit too (academically) trendy. When he and the curator of the exhibition, Ruth Noack, failed to release the hotly anticipated list of Documenta artists — a list that functions more for marketing and social-climbing than anything else — I was even more intrigued. And in January of this year, when Buergel participated in a New Museum “Hot Button!” panel at Cooper Union and delivered an impromptu meditation on, among other things, a photo of the shipping containers used as “Art Positions” galleries at Art Basel Miami (“an allegory of an aesthetic of death”), I was in love.
While walking through the exhibition, my high hopes shifted into mixed reactions: dissatisfaction flipping into infatuation; awe that quickly wore thin and then ballooned into tears; and, in the aftermath, heated arguments about why it’s “good” that the fantasy of building a Crystal Palace to house the curatorial paradigm of the twenty-first century ended up as such an ostentatious aberration. Yes, I even thought the screwed-up engineering that allowed this summer’s climate-change torrential storms to seep water into the Aue-Pavillon added to an aesthetic of disarticulation. And when Ai Weiwei’s neo-imperial “Template,” a twelve-meter-high temple of wooden windows and doors salvaged from “all over China,” was knocked down by strong winds, even better. What, you might ask, could possibly be so interesting about one of the most important international art exhibitions in the former West becoming such a mess?
In some ways, Documenta 12 was an attempt to revisit the improvisatory spirit of Documenta before it became such a major institution. Originally enacted in tandem with the German Federal Garden Show of 1955, the “first” Documenta (whose organizers were unaware of its position as the first of many) was meant to serve multiple postwar governmental and cultural aims, from pragmatically redirecting tourism to the marginalized, war-torn city of Kassel to emblematizing the potential for the recovery of a shattered civilization. Literally, roses grew out of piles of rubble, and art was displayed in the “scantily renovated” ruins of the Enlightenment-era Museum Fridericianum. It goes without saying that much has happened since 1955, but Documenta 12 pulled from the original a Shubertian sensibility, the melancholy beauty of high hopes in the void. Documenta 11 (2002), whose thematics gained electrifying legitimacy as fatigued academic discourses shifted into popular overdrive post–September 11, was a massive and sometimes tiresome overview of art and architecture related to the curatorial team’s ideas about globalization. Documenta 12, on the other hand, found its five-year cycle smack in the middle of the current global situation: the banality of apocalypse. Rather than attempting to give an overview of responses, or preaching about current events, Buergel and Noack took the more old-school position of curator-as-dilettante-nerd — in the sexiest sense of that accusation. They tried out too many ideas, mostly only halfway; they tracked down obscure, rarified artists and decorative objects, many previously “unknown in the West”; they used the site for experiments in weirdness, digression, fantasy, and play; and they gave the proceedings a quaintly retro, early nineties sense of sexual transgression. But what could it mean to recover the subjectivity of an intellectual upper class after so many challenges to and reconfigurations of the notion of curator as wayward aristocrat?
Noack and Buergel — but especially Buergel — can be accused of flinging out some pretty bizarre provocations. (When asked in a German news conference about the perceived failure of the “Crystal Palace,” Buergel responded that “in order to raise money, I endorsed it as a Crystal Palace. Now it’s a favela.”) But whatever can be said about their public statements and sometimes flippant treatment of individual artists included in the exhibition (complaints on this front circulated wildly in the art world), I found the curating to be radically lyrical — with a particular generosity to openness in the spectator’s imagination. This went against the grain of the now orthodox practice of treating artworks, particularly “political” artworks, as having meaning or meanings determined by various contexts, with the explanation of these contexts determining what connections are made and what is “learned” by the spectator. What was strikingly new about Documenta 12 was that a no-explanations-needed, “high” art curatorial approach — one that usually aligns with a more conservative idealist aesthetic of beauty or speculative aesthetic of marketing — met a taste for third world, sociological, queer, Eastern, diasporic, feminist, and other disruptive aesthetics. Indeed, the most political aspect of this show lay not in giving visibility to outsiders, as some have argued, but in an arrangement of artworks that caused spectators to confront and question multiple, perhaps previously unrecognized, subjectivities as complex, artistic, and politically implicated.
It’s not that there weren’t aspects of the exhibition design and individual artworks that I didn’t like; but not liking became an additional element in a complex blend of emotions, sensations, passing thoughts, and reconsiderations. In “best of” survey exhibitions, I often feel like I’m flipping channels between individual art careers, forgetting one as soon as I pass to the next; with Documenta 12, it was passages, mazes, gardens, back alleys — intense encounters mixed with a detailed accumulation of memory. Emblematic of this was a passage of artworks inserted in a sort of void space behind an exhibition of Dutch paintings, Of the Aristocracy of Painting: Holland Around 1700, on view in the Old Masters Portrait Gallery of the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. I made my way through.
Where is the Documenta part? Oh, behind this wall — a video projection (Danica Dakic, “El Dorado,” 2006–2007). A black teenage boy, standing in a museum, speaks in piercing, broken English about some terrifying experience in the Frankfurt airport: strange rooms, a chasm of waiting, confounded non-communication. Another “ausländisch” teenager kickboxes with a bucolic wallpaper in the background. The story in voiceover starts to cohere: the dissociated experiential details of seeking asylum in Germany. Cut to the director of Kassel’s Wallpaper Museum, lecturing in crisp High German about a nineteenth century wallpaper called El Dorado: a panoramic view, from Africa to peacocks to South America, mixed with mosques, Chinoiserie, and tropical foliage — in the countryside of Europe? The boy’s voiceover starts again, while other teenagers do repetitive activities throughout the museum, one running in place, some performing less coherent movements: “Will try everything to reach my goal. Because now I am alone and I must work hard to survive. I must start a new life. Yes, a new life. Life doesn’t stop.” It reminds me of late nineties Nike ads — but what could “just do it” mean to a refugee in Germany, where nationality is still defined predominantly by blood, and an entire life can be passed under the legal status of “guest”?
Another dark room with little spots of light illuminating individual artworks, like floating thoughts awaiting nexus. The blur of tears makes Mira Schendel’s notebooks look like diagrams of what happens to language and mathematical logic during acts of torture, during the “unmaking of the world” (Scarry) at the nucleus of “bare life.” What do you get when you add AE/, with a tiny arrow pointing into the E, + 000(wxyz), with an arrow pointing straight up like a comma between the x and y, hovering in warped, folded, shattered planes with similar marks and symbols reaching for descriptive clarity as the body receives another blow? An anonymous drawing from Calcutta (circa 1900) of a courtesan dressing her hair starts to reverberate Matisse, while in a sketch by John McCracken a cartoon bolt of lightning strikes one of his emptied, alien slabs; Hokusai’s drafts for the ornamentation of artisan craftswork start to prefigure minimalism — how does this recrumple the stories of the wrapping-paper dialogue between Imperial Japan and colonial Europe? Extraordinary Mogul Indian Miniatures from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries by Haddschi Maqsud At-Tabrizi, Mihr Chand, and others left unidentified, rip apart the connecting seams: several museums are nested one inside the other, and these crystallizations of narrative, emblem, history — Persian calligraphy, Hindu iconography, Chinese styling — start throbbing.
Through another passageway, a video projection — what the fuck is going on here? (Dias & Riedweg, “Funk Staden,” 2007) Big, sexy sausages on the grill, booty dancing, a circular array of camcorders atop a wooden rod spinning around by a bonfire, sixteenth-century colonialist illustrations of encounters with “wild cannibals” in Brazil, two sweaty guys humping a blow-up doll, funk music…
In this passage, the three leitmotifs of Documenta 12 incited a crisscrossing of formal, emotional and intellectual elements — and set the spectator’s self-reflexive imagination on fire. But it wasn’t simply an open-ended fantasia: what emerged as a ligature connecting the leitmotifs was a questioning of what to do with the concept of otherness that has grounded European paradigms of identity since New World encounters spawned the “noble savage” at the core of “know thyself.” This is not a new line of questioning, but one that seemed particularly relevant given recent reterritorializations of otherness as essential and functional. Documenta 12 suggested that there is a picture of reality more interesting than what is produced by a society coordinated by networks of “in” and “out” groups; to see that reality, however, demands dealing with the feeling of one’s smug, stable, Western self-losing coherence.
Berlin / Tehran
Reloading Images: Berlin-Tehran / Work in Progress 2007
Berlin-Tehran / Work in Progress 2007 is a cooperative endeavor between Reloading Images — an initiative of the Berlin-based art association NewYorkRioTokyo — and the independently-run Parkingallery in Tehran.
The first leg of this two-part project was held in Iran this past summer and featured 24 artists drawn from Berlin and Tehran. According to organizers, the workshop’s aim was not the production of art work per se, but rather, the creation of a novel platform to discuss, debate, and cooperate across these two unlikely sister cities. Several lecturers were invited to provide some context on pressing infrastructural issues in the arts across both cities. Photographer Bahman Jalali, for example, introduced the history of Tehran through the lens of its topography in the public and private spheres. Katherina Sieverding and Wolfgang Knapp from Germany, as well as Reza Abedini and Hamid Severi from Tehran, were also among the program’s lecturers.
Ambitious in its aspirations, the exchange project also aimed to interrogate hackneyed divisions such as East/West, Orient/Occident and Self/Other. It also strove to challenge the mainstream media’s presentation of the Middle East (shock!). The workshop program itself was divided into the abovementioned thematics as well as some others, including public space/private space and body image. Participating artists were divided into groups to respond to these themes. Toward the end of the program, participants came together at Azad Gallery to show their works in progress and to share ideas with other contributors. On August 7th, the Turkish DJ/VJ Serhat Köksal presented a live video and sound performance not-so-obliquely titled NO Gasionalism NO Pipeline Bridge NO Biennial NO Exotic NO Ethnic Market NO Goethe NO Hafez. He used a mix of kitsch contemporary political images with Turkish 60s melodramas and action movies as pictorial resources combined with samples of Turk and Iranian pop music with electronic sounds moving toward a rhythm and then venturing off the beat again. Köksal is plainly critical of the commercialization and banalization of the art world. Where there is a pipeline, he says, a biennale will follow.
In the end, it is hard to criticize an exchange initiative of this variety. After all, putting people from different cultures in the same room is inevitably productive, if not enlightening. But still, by enforcing such rigid — and dare I say — lofty and romantic thematics, the program’s organizers may have stifled the participants’ freedom to wander outside of the oppressively dominant paradigm of overcoming the cliché. Isn’t that as bad as reinforcing its spectral presence? There is no dearth of such workshops these days, and one is left to wonder if they could have a life independent of their particular hand-holding cultural politics. Designer and participant Reza Abedini may have put it best when he pondered, “Does exchange primarily take place because of the Iranian interest towards the West or because of the interest of the West toward us?” Let’s hope that participants can forget the hand-holding and the provision of pretty platforms during the Berlin stage of this ongoing project. What ever happened to just hanging out?
The Berlin leg of the project is coordinated by Azin Feizabadi and Kaya Behkalam, with the help of Sanna Miericke, Jeannette Gaussi, Alia Rayyan, Ashkan Sepahvand, and Natasha Sadr-Haghighian in cooperation with the University of the Arts Berlin, Interflugs and Freie Klasse. The Tehran side of the project is coordinated by Parkingallery and arseh.org (Amirali Ghasemi and Martin Ebbing), with the help of Katayoun Arian.
July 8-21, 2007
Vol I: Buridan’s Society, July 8-14
Vol II: U-Turn, July 15-21
The only maxim of contemporary art is not to be imperial, says Alain Badiou. “Empire no longer censures anything,” he writes in his fourteenth of Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, and we should simply overcome “the pitiless censors of ourselves.” This is a nice idea in principle, but a New Yorker rushing to his office on Wall Street clutching his coffee in hand may have a vastly different perception of the Empire than a Tehrani strolling to work. These days, the latter may be worried about getting caught by the morals police in downtown’s Vanak Square for wearing a short-sleeve shirt, or simply having slightly too much gel in his hair.
In this picture, Tehran-based artist Homayoun Askari Sirizi is not holding the scissors by any means. In his recent two leg [volume] “Ain’t we having fun here” Volume I, the artist takes on the iconic paradox of ‘Buridan’s Ass,’ (named after the 14th-century philosopher) in which a donkey, equally thirsty as hungry, dies because he cannot choose between two equidistant and equally tempting means of satiating himself: a pile of hay and a bucket of water.
Entitled “Buridian Society,” the installation’s centerpiece is a 2*1 photograph of a donkey. Along the donkey’s left side lie 20 buckets of hay and on the right is 20 buckets of water. On the left wall hangs a picture of traditional Iranian bread and on the opposite wall a picture of a bookshelf within a bookstore. Stepping into the gallery space, the chic Tehrani art-goer finds himself in the place of the donkey, or the ass, as it were. In a second part of the exhibition, entitled U-Turn, a luminescent donkey-shoe is encircled by seven traffic signs taken from various Tehran U-turn sites. The signs were placed into blue barrels, a new urban icon that had been introduced to the city back when the current president was still the mayor of Tehran. On the signs, the original format and text is kept intact, but the translations are slightly modified; Nobonyad Square, for example, becomes Neo-Fundamentalism Square.
In the end, Sirizi didn’t create a byzantine maze of meaning here. He employed simple semiotics and pared-down logic, and he avoided wrapping his ideas in exotica or belaboring it with traditional metaphor. It was a refreshingly simple exhibition and a refreshingly simple idea. After all, it is a U-turn from Happiness Street to Islamic Revolution Square, from Badiou to Buridan, from the twenty-first century to the fourteenth.
July 2-28, 2007
Nature Morte’s summer show featured new work by Samit Das, Seher Shah, Anita Dube, and Raqs Media Collective: a group of diverse artists linked only by their various investigations of the relationship between technology and art. Das works in the “old media” of painting and collage. His compositions were strongly evocative of the harsh shadows and steeply angled light of factories and 24-hour sweatshops, of tired labourers and thirsty afternoons. The few figures he included were blurred and faceless and the technological masqueraded as the natural: a pencil sketch of what looked like a twig with a flat bud at its end turned out to be a dish antenna trailing a long cable (Untitled V). The tones of Das’s palette are sweat and burnt grease, chronic fatigue and umber resignation.
Shah’s archival-giclée prints, by contrast, feature a more detached, nuanced visual vocabulary. An architect by training, she uses pen-and-ink line-work as decorative accents alongside images of, for instance, a child’s intensely gazing face or the phantom outlines of a floor plan in blueprint. The over-refined quality of Shah’s computer-aided graphics, lacey webs of fine, drawn lines with rigid architectural detail, was offset by her subject matter.
In the Jihad Pop series, for instance, Shah coiled wreaths of calligraphy around the austere stone silhouette of the Kaaba; in Black Star, she created clusters of “opened cubes,” flattened out into six faces, taking the shape of a crucifix, hovering above cube-shaped representations of the Kaaba. Karbala Sessions 1 is particularly complex: a patch of delicate filigree — is it a mushroom cloud or a thought-bubble? — contrasts with dense blackness.
Anita Dube’s poster-sized, monochrome photographic prints are hypnotic. They depict pairs of hands covered in oval, eye-shaped tiles–traditionally used in the manufacture of idols. The images were simple, yet hauntingly evocative: disconnected from their natural setting, sleepless and unblinking, the inch-long, black-and-white tiles lend the photos a curious liveliness.
Raqs Media Collective was represented by fragmented stills from two extensive video-installations, Index to KD Vyas Correspondence and There Has Been a Change of Plans. While these were highly truncated versions of the complete installations, they succeeded in evoking the same uneasy humor that characterizes all of the collective’s work. The images were defined by enigmatic captions: “The Letter of Things Lost and Found,” “The Letter Found in the Dead Letter Office,” “The Letter Incriminating the Leader,” “The Letter of Verification and Authenticity.”
Raqs, comprising Jeebesh Bagchi, Suddhabrata Sengupta, and Monica Narula, scavenges its subjects from the flood of information and gibberish—the multimedia messages, impromptu enactments, neon extravaganzas, slogans and tickets, nightmares and epiphanies—that defines public space in India. In this show, their photos focus on excerpts from urban ephemera, replaying minutiae to the viewer, and forcing us to take in the torrent of unrecorded incidents that define the everyday. Walking out of the gallery, I realized that everywhere I looked, I could see Raqs’ pictures, unframed and captionless all around me.
Memorial to the Iraq War
Institute of Contemporary Arts
May 23–June 27, 2007
Inviting twenty-five artists to propose memorials to the Iraq war, the ICA attempted to remember tragedies that continue to unfold on a daily basis. The exhibition guide gave a comprehensive timeline of the events in Iraq, starting from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It was clear that the ever-expanding death toll of today’s conflict was the main focus of this exhibition.
Intriguingly, the opening of “Memorial to the Iraq War” coincided with Tony Blair’s departure from office. Media pundits have tended to define the war as the former prime minister’s most significant legacy, and the exhibition appeared to test contemporary art’s capacity to explore catastrophic contemporary geo-political issues.
The exhibition set out to present works that were memorials (commemorative, sorrowful entities), rather than monuments (commonly more celebratory), but this distinction was not always clearly differentiated. To some artists, this may have been mere semantics, but those who made the distinction seemed more directly engaged with the exhibition’s premise.
Mark Bijl’s Iraqi Stars (proposal for a monument), was one of the more reflexive contributions to the exhibition. Comprising three large, crudely and cheaply made stars balanced in a simple configuration — one green, one white, and one red and black — it was one of a handful of more monumental works in the show.
Bijl intended the work to operate on a simple, symbolic level. For him, the green represents Iraq, the white the US and coalition forces, and the red and black, anarchy. For the viewer, the colors could have other meanings — red for blood or black for oil, for example. Given their appearance on the American flag and the flags of many Islamic countries, Bijl’s use of stars appears to provide an easy East vs. West dichotomy. But the strength of the work lay in its suggestion that monuments provide highly accessible visual routes into symbolic gestures.
Memorial, by Christoph Büchel is an impressively slick installation that reconstructs the interior of a room where narcotics can be administered in a safe, clinical environment. Büchel adapts this setting (such rooms are typical in Switzerland) with a twist: in his clinic a new drug mixture, combining powdered narcotics and the ashes of dead bodies from the Iraq war, would be available for visitors. The installation was divided into three sections: a space for taking the narcotic mixture, a waiting room dominated by a television tuned to CNN, and a final room, a white gallery space where users would go to experience the full effects of the “drug.”
The work investigates our consumption of death, both the physical consumption of cadavers and the visual consumption of war and tragedy through the media. The empty white cube seemed fitting, acting as a reminder that the exhibition was ultimately bound by the hermetic nature of the art institution.
The memorial attempts of some artists seemed stifled by the confines of the gallery. Collier Schorr’s Memorial to Lost Limbs, which featured framed collages of human limbs taken from magazines; and Vahid Sharifian’s Bush Distance Family, which showed smiling portraits of George W. Bush’s relatives taken from the Internet, appeared to be works made for the walls of a gallery, rather than memorials as such.
The show explicitly highlighted the left-leaning, politically liberal posture of the contemporary art world, after all, pro-war art was unlikely to make an appearance. Given the ICA’s audience, Memorial to the Iraq War preaches to the converted. But the project is made more pertinent by its afterlife: the institution aims to realize some of the proposed memorials and present them in public.
Though “Memorial to the Iraq War” was voguish in format, following the recent proliferation of exhibitions inviting a group of artists to respond to a given theme, it still felt like a strong and worthwhile exercise. “Memorial to the Iraq War” bore more than a passing resemblance to the exhibition “Monuments for the USA” presented at the the CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, in 2005. The latter again invited a large number of artists to develop proposals for monuments that they believed the people of America “need or deserve.” The more engrossing works didn’t question the role of politically motivated art and looked instead to memorialize a complex and ongoing phenomenon.
This was an attempt at curating a genuine engagement with politics, which is more than can be said for many recent exhibitions that strike political postures. Yet, it ended up scratching at the surface of its own idea. The potential energy of the project is yet to be released: it will be interesting to see which memorials are selected for a life outside the gallery, and how they fare in the public realm.
“Basically, tourism is the chance to go and see what has been made trite.” If his radical idealism has aged somewhat, Guy Debord’s snappier quotes hold up pretty well. But Debord’s specter of “human relations as something to be consumed — tourism” is as strong today as it ever was. ‘detourism,’ a recent exhibition at New York’s Orchard gallery, takes on the historic dilemmas of the Situationist legacy yet again, but, in place of tourism, it considers new and productive ways of getting lost.
The curators, Carly Busta and Luke Cohen, have taken the model of “topology” as their blueprint, setting up the gallery to illustrate art historical re-readings of postminimalist, process-based practices and post-Situationist urban critiques: strategies that aim to unmoor the subject from proscribed ways of navigating social space. Ever faithful to methodology, the audience, too, is set adrift among the works, left to make sense of them as they would.
The academic tone is set by Christian Philipp Müller’s Carl Theodor’s Garden in Düsseldorf-Hellerdorf (1986/1995). The framed map, photographs, and texts document the artist’s tours of the unrealized eighteenth-century royal gardens in Düsseldorf. The work includes its own explanatory label, which situates Müller as a flaneur of the present — projecting his voice onto sites of historical loss and cultural dysfunction — while also explaining the work’s relevance: “Reification occurs when the alienation process escalates into the alienation of the subject from its own subjectivity. This happened under Capitalist-Industrial society of which the roads were paved exactly at the time when Schloss Benrath was built.” The clunky Frankfurt School phrasing suggests that when dealing with work that is eager to elaborate upon its own subject position, a curator is wise to withhold further explanation.
At the opposite end of the didactic spectrum (and across the gallery) is a display of books by Stanley Brouwn, among them sketches from This Way Brouwn (1964). The initiated (or those who do their background reading) will realize that the puzzling squiggles are maps, drawn in response to Brouwn asking strangers on the street for directions. The work has come to signify Brouwn’s interest in movement and measurement, or the removal of those criteria from social relations — the artist as a link between points, rather than a stationary node. For artists in the 60s coming to terms with the power structures defining their activities, this sort of play provided a way out of modernist rigidity. In this context, Müller’s tours, performed two decades later, become an explicitly site-specific exploration of the same boundaries.
Many of the artists in “detourism,” similarly examine the codified intersections of people, places, and histories. This show presents a comparison of the strategies themselves, through a careful thematic grouping that comments on the theme with a sharp sense of social and historical awareness. But that commentary is aided in no small part by accompanying literature. Besides Müller’s map-intervention is a bookshelf that houses the gallery’s permanent “bookstore.” And every bookstore needs a reading room, here metonymically indicated by a chair and a low table, upon which we find the exhibition’s two foundational texts: Eric de Bruyn’s 2006 “Topological Pathways of Postminimalism,” and Dan Graham’s seminal 1969 “Subject Matter.” Clearly, we’re in for some homework.
“Subject Matter” is Graham’s critique of minimalism and his discussion of what came after. Looking beyond the minimalist focus on the perceptual encounter between spectator and artwork, Graham discusses works that posit a framework of “constantly shifting” relations. It would follow that Graham’s contribution to exhibition comes in the form of his original notes for the essay. More than a voyeuristic thrill for the art theory insider, the inclusion of Graham’s writing presents his prose as yet another fluid medium, for as de Bruyn notes, Graham’s syntax replicates the experience of seeing a Richard Serra sculpture or a Bruce Nauman performance: “… shifting time of performance shifting — shifting the time of collective relations.”
Graham is a familiar presence in exhibitions at Orchard, a Lower East Side gallery that has dedicated itself to the juxtaposition of the old and new vanguard of institutional critique. That the “new” generation has largely been represented by the gallery’s twelve directors has not detracted from the range and seriousness of the events. Orchard — equal parts artist project, corporate enterprise, and research proposal — itself constitutes a reassessment of how artists are navigating the social field. That terrain is referenced by Corporate Mentality, Jason Schmidt’s 2001 photograph of an elaborate flower arrangement in a boardroom, seen against a shockingly close view of the Twin Towers; the photograph was originally the cover image of a 2003 book of the same name, a compendium of practices located at the intersection of art and business. If we are to examine past and present ways of operating within the topologies of the day, we’ll need to take its transformations into consideration. The book, naturally, is on sale at Orchard’s “bookstore.”
The photograph brings the questions first posed in the 1960s into the present, and examines them further afield, with the inclusion of Artur Barrio’s actions in Brazil and Keller Easterling’s reproduction of North Korean tour packages (which will apparently get you an actual guided tour of the peninsula, complete with “sightseeing the Special Tourism Zone”). “What critical relevance,” de Bruyn asks, “does this history of the topological pathways of postminimalism yield for us today?” If anything, that there are still intelligent ways of taking those pathways that the Lonely Planet age hasn’t quite ruled out.