Sunday, 26 October 2008

Land, Art and the Environment

Last week I was lucky enough to be involved in a panel discussion and exhibition at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority of Culture and Heritage and the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region, the exhibition runs until November 1st.

The panel was chaired by Konstantin Schreiber of Deutsche Welle TV and featured artists who work in some way with environmental issues. The main artist, German photographer Petra Petrick exhibited a series of photographs called ‘German Desert’. The images are desolate, barren and beautiful just like real deserts but actually taken at the abandoned sites of former open cast coalmines in Germany.

Khorfakkan artist Abdullah al Saadi exhibited a wall length panoramic scroll of the Khorfakkan coastline created while in a boat looking back at the coast. His work monitors the change in the landscape as new buildings, especially hotels, arise and aspects of the natural landscape are removed. In some cases this includes parts of mountains.

Muna al Ali arranges potted plants in various stages of growth to comment on the inevitable cycles of life and decay to which we are all subject. The first time I saw this installation called ‘Dialogue with Nature’ was in the Creek Art fair last March. At that time all the plants were very healthy looking but now the dialogue is communicating something much less optimistic.

My work consisted of three ‘Towers of Trash’ which also featured in the Creek Art fair last year, and two ‘Artificial Landscapes’. These are painted on recycled board and depict landscapes but in a totally artificial way using unnatural colours, perspectives and materials.

Mohammed Kazem had several photographs in the exhibition illustrating the rapid urbanisation of the landscape around Dubai and more abstracted work using details of the urban emnvironment.

In the panel discussion itself the artists talked about how their work relates to changes in the environment around them and reflects and interprets these changes. Petra Petrick’s haunting photographs are testament to industrially devastated landscapes and Abdullah al Saadi is chronicling contemporary landscape loss. My work tries to address the fact that there are long-term consequences of having one of the highest amounts of waste per capita and Muna al Ali reminds us of the inevitable!

While the undeniable benefits of development are visible, the negatives, particularly in relation to the environment, tend to be invisible in the short term so are easy to ignore. However, none of this work is meant as an unambiguous criticism of development or Dubai but is more a mechanism to raise questions about issues of land use, environmental sustainability and even public health. Ultimately the environment is the great leveller. We are all equally dependent on it for our survival not only as individuals but also as a species. From a creative point of view it has been the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest art, greatest music and greatest poetry. If it changes we change with it and as Muna’s work suggests, a dialogue with nature is probably easier while it still seems relatively healthy!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Critiquing Art at the DIFC

The first of four panel discussions arranged to coincide with the photographic exhibition ‘To the Holy Lands’ was held last week at DIFC. Entitled 'Critiquing Art: factors in critiquing art within the Modern Middle East' the panel explored some of the cultural dynamics associated with art criticism in this region.

One comment made about the purpose of the forum was to bring like-minded people together to begin a dialogue that underpins the UAEs current art boom and ultimately contributes to its sustainability. This is a noble aim but I don’t get out as much as I probably should so unfortunately didn’t recognise most of the people in the room! It would have been very useful if there had been a participant list available especially one with affiliations so that we all know who the interested parties are.

Another aim was to explore the difficulties of critique in a media environment that tends to cut and paste the press release and where public criticism of any kind is considered negative. There is a rather large gap between this context and the occidental view of criticism as a separate discipline necessary for creative and intellectual development.

One question raised by panellist Stephanie Sykes,
Communications Manager of Art Dubai, was ‘Who makes the best art critic?’ Another panellist, artist, critic and curator Talal Mualla seemed to think that artists themselves were in the best position to be critics. In his view, the way in which artists relate to wider cultural, political and historical contexts enables them to situate and interpret the work more accurately.

This may be true but it does not necessarily mean that artists are the best critics. They have a vested interest in promoting their own craft and their understanding and respect for the creative process itself can reduce their critical judgment of the final product. However, this approach probably makes them ideal critics in the environment under discussion!

It’s a shame that this issue wasn’t explored further but it got me thinking about the definition of art critic. To paraphrase from my new favourite book ‘Art Criticism – a User’s Guide’ there are several types of critic:

The Advocate – promotes artists he or she admires and compares others unfavourably
The Theoretician – interprets the context of each work rather than its form or content

The Progressive – welcomes and promotes innovation and new forms
The Ideologue – interprets through a structure of political or social commitment
The Traditionalist – reviews what is new in terms of its relationship to the past

Related to this my book also says there are several types of criticism - thematic, geographical, technical, chronological and theoretical – none of which sound particularly nasty to me. In fact all of the above just seem to be flexible structures or at least starting points for forming an opinion. Despite its name art criticism is not automatically 'critical'.

Given the creative mergers and acquisitions of globalism and technology over recent years it is tempting to think that approaches to criticism must also shift but maintaining some structural consistency amid often chaotic change is probably more useful. That said there is too much happening to be covered by traditional means anyway and changes in the nature of communication enable artists, or anybody else, to say essentially what they like. However, this is most often small groups of people talking amongst themselves so issues of quality control are probably moot. Ultimately, established and traditional authorities of art criticism are likely to prevail until new ones emerge strongly enough from new global settings to challenge them. This relates to the other big unexplored question for me which was ‘Who is it for?

The panel was essentially about Middle Eastern art and while it is always worthwhile to get good information out there in any language, most of it is in English. If the dialogue is about developing and sustaining creativity in the Middle East where are the Arabic commentators? There are loads of Arabic blogs and forums out there so surely some of them must be about art and culture in the region. If anyone knows please tell me. I won’t be able to read them but I know people who can and it would be good just to know they are there!

The other discussion are as follows:

October 15th - 'Digitally Restoring Photographs: practical techniques
October 22nd - 'The History of Photography and Contemporary Photography in the Gulf Region'
October 28th - 'How to run an exhibition: Art Management'

Monday, 13 October 2008

'Let's Talk' Grey Noise at the Jam Jar

For me the most interesting thing at Art Dubai last year was the Pakistan Pavilion. The work seemed very fresh and was generally brain engaging in a way that much other contemporary work there was not. Because of this experience I was looking forward to seeing the collaboration between five young Pakistani artists from the Grey Noise Gallery in Lahore and the Jam Jar in Dubai.

'Let’s Talk’ came about after a meeting between Hetal Pawani of the Jam Jar and Umer Butt of Grey Noise. The exhibition represents a dialogue between the five artists and the work is linked as if it were a conversation. The central pillar of the whole concept is a small catalogue containing actual email dialogue and images the five artists exchanged when the show was in the planning stage. It is essential to read this catalogue, not only to help you understand what you see, but also because it creates a strong sense of personal involvement in the show.

The catalogue provides a basic structure of the conversation being had in the work. After that it is up to you to work out exactly where and how the different layers of the conversation intersect. This is challenging in itself because it is not always obvious. Just like a real conversation there are things that are unsaid, slight tangents and unresolved points. However, when juxtaposing the conversation being had by the work with the emailed exchanges between the artists, the show becomes a complete and cohesive entity. Silences in one and omissions in the other also become comprehensible.

The strongest conversational thread in the work is music or sound. The show starts with Lala Rukh’s sound collage containing elements of nature, politics and traditional music. Following on from this is Ayesha Jatoi’s line of sound words running the length of the opposite wall ending in the word ‘boom’. A full stop is provided by a very simple abstract red and white print entitled ‘Where is my God’? Turning the corner you see six small white graves each containing a different book. The interesting mix of titles spans a time frame of more than 10 years but the most recent is the biography of Benazir Bhutto. The creator of these works, Ayaz Jokhio, is strangely absent from the catalogue discussion.

Next is one of Mehreen Murtaza’s large prints evoking sci-fi, technology, creation and myth, an image that does not seem to relate directly to the conversation but is understood when placed in the context of the email exchanges. Her other print relates more directly to the sound motif but also explores faith and technology as instruments of control.

Around the next corner ‘Echo’ and ‘Sleeper’ by Fahd Burki are not what you expect to see having read the email exchanges and this intensifies the feeling that you have established an intimate relationship with the artists. The connection to the conversation in terms of sound is obvious but there are other more subtle undercurrents that can also be divined from the information you have been given.

It’s difficult to elaborate further because the presence of the catalogue is so central to the experience. It becomes like a puzzle, which you have to solve and the more effort you put into it the more rewarding it is. It is a nice redefinition of interactive - one in which exclusively mental rather than physical processes become the ones interacting with the work. What is perhaps most amazing is that you get all this from only eight pieces of work and a rather diminutive catalogue! So the show may be small but it is perfectly formed.

That said you do leave wanting more. Although you can keep reflecting on the concept and the different ways in which the conversation works, you want it to develop. Perhaps into another room, with another catalogue, different artists and a counter argument! However, this would be a different show and it probably needs to remain small because another thing I found was that it was hard to see the individual pieces in their own right. They became secondary to the larger concept and it was that, and the mental challenges associated with this show, which remained rather than the work itself. Nevertheless, Pakistan is still up there on my ‘to do further’ list!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sharjah on my mind

After a few weeks of frantic scrabbling around for new gainful employment in Dubai I have come to some conclusions. First is that I may have done it from scratch once but I really don't have the energy to do it all over again. After what happened with my previous job I don't have the motivation either.... and it is this which presents the biggest problem.

I have also found that my previous job was done in such a vacuum it doesn't seem to translate to anything outside of it. So my year of working on a pioneering culture and arts project in Dubai is irrelevant because I cannot use the knowledge gained to get another job. This is very disturbing. If the experience is irrelevant here, what possible use can it be elsewhere? There is a metaphor in here somewhere but I haven't worked out what it is yet.

Another thing is that there is some confusion about what 'freelance' means! The reaction I got from my employers when informed that my job had disappeared was 'but it's ok, you're freelance right?' When you start a project with an end date in spring 2009 you don't expect it to disappear in Autumn 2008! In this scenario 'freelance' just seems to mean an employee who is effortlessly and guiltlessly disposable (tho' the G word is probably redundant in this context!).

Anyway I have thrown in the Dubai towel, given notice on the flat and am relocating to Sharjah. Spouse has already made this move to a new job with rent paid. We figured that we could keep the flat on in Dubai and he could come for weekends but now I am not earning that is impossible so Sharjah here I come. Who knows we may even recoup some of the financial losses incurred by Dubai!

I am sure that things would have been different if we had been a) luckier and b) 10 years younger! The people I have met who seem happiest here are generally under 35, have a car and have no property or other financial commitments elsewhere unlike us. In some ways they remind me of myself in Japan in the mid 80s. Tokyo was a boom town, the money was flowing, my income was highly disposable and it was absolutely fantastic!

Aaahhh.... the good old days...