Documenting Visual Design at NYUAD

Documenting Visual Design at NYUAD

ART AND ART HISTORY

Documenting Visual Design at NYUAD

Goffredo Puccetti

September 2019

DESIGN WORKS was a show set in the Arts Center Project Space from January 9 to 23, 2019.

Curated by the students Diego Arias and Van Anh Bui, with the assistance of Erin Collins and Goffredo Puccetti, it presented an overview of all the visual design works carried on in-house, by students and faculty from 2012 to present. It served both as an archive and as a celebration.

Visual Design practice entered the curriculum of our university in January 2012 with the offering of an elective class named Designing Abu Dhabi. Since then, in-house graphic design has played a major role in assisting the establishment of NYUAD’s visual identity: student-driven design has not only supported the institution’s needs in outstanding ways, but also–perhaps more importantly–it has helped us to define our mission and vision. Students have assisted faculty and staff in making sure that the quality of everything we did was properly reflected in our designed material. They highlighted our strengths and even corrected our mishaps. To give but one, quite significant, example: we did not have an Arabic logotype in place until the students designed one!

Some of their work is now gone for good, and for several works, sadly there is little more left than a blurry photo taken with a smartphone camera. But many other designs are here. And they are here to stay: in the Arts Center, the corridors of the Theater and Music Departments display beautiful posters designed by students. Even the fire doors have been transformed by the students into memorable landmarks. And every time we welcome new students at Marhaba Week, every time we cheer for our Athletics teams, every time our seniors get to hold the silver Torch on Commencement day, the legacy of student-driven design is apparent. 

Moreover, the outreach of their work has gone way beyond the “Saadiyat bubble, with projects of national and international relevance such as the visual identity for the World Wildlife Federation in the UAE, or the ArabWIC organization, now present in more than 20 countries, just to name two. Following a request from the Office of the Provost, our alumna Harshini Karunaratne recorded video at the show and has captured its essence in the amazing eleven-minute documentary shown below.

Documentary by Harshini Karunaratne

Goffredo Puccetti is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Visual Arts at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Harshini Karunaratne graduated from NYUAD in 2018, with a double major in Film and New Media and in Theater. You can find more of her work at harshinijk.com.

 

FURTHER READING

Favorite Theorists: Pia Arke

Favorite Theorists: Pia Arke

FAVORITE THEORISTS

Pia Arke

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen

September 2018

Pia Arke (1958–2007) was a mixed-race Danish-Greenlandic artist and cultural theorist whose adult life was bookended by two momentous events in Danish-Greenlandic relations: the 1979 adoption of a home-rule system of governance in Greenland, which marked the first major push toward a Danish decolonization of Greenland, and the series of Greenlandic protests that culminated in the 2009 implementation of a self-rule system of governance, which saw Greenland win sovereignty from Denmark in most areas except foreign policy and criminal law.

I offer these details about Arke’s life upfront because Arke’s art and theory both insist that we consider the artist/theorist’s vantage points—positionalities, to use a phrase in vogue—to be central to and inextricable from her works. In Arke’s case, being split at the root lent her a complicated and complex perspective on the Danish-Greenlandic cultural dynamic.

Arke’s most noteworthy theoretical work is the manifesto Ethno-Aesthetics (1995, English translation 2010), which she submitted in place of a physical product to earn a degree from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Ethno-Aesthetics beams a flashlight into the psyches of Danes who travel to the North Atlantic to encounter their supposed Others, the “Eskimos” [sic], on whom they project fantasies of cultural purity and backwardness. She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage; an almost pitiable need to ignore signs of Danish-Greenlandic syncretism or of Greenlandic modernities to sustain their racial fantasies; and a pervasive obliviousness to the systematic construction and perpetuation of these reductive images of Greenland and Greenlanders.

Pia Arke

Source: Wikipedia

It seems tempting to frame Arke’s manifesto simply as a North Atlantic incarnation of Edward Saïd’s theories in Orientalism (1978) that the European construction of exotic others reveals less about those cultures than it does about the fragility of Europe’s self-perception and cultural coherence, but Arke goes further than Saïd. Not only does Arke equip critical observers with an intellectual apparatus for “watching them watching us,” i.e. for critiquing Denmark’s construction of Greenland as its other, but she also calls for direct and concerted action from Greenlandic persons to call out their Danish counterparts on their reductivism, and to double down on representing Greenlandic modernities instead of merely playing into essentialist Danish expectations of “what Greenlandic art is.” Arke implores her peers to reject the aesthetic paradigm that Danes tend to impose on Greenland and Greenlanders. Her underlying project, I suspect, is to rouse cognitive dissonance in Danish readers and consumers of Greenlandic culture, calling them out on their stereotyped and reductive visions of Greenland by presenting them with representations of Greenlandic life that diverge so brazenly from what they expect it to look like.

She ascribes to Danes who romanticize Greenland and Greenlanders a Rousseau-like fetishization of the Noble Savage.

Pia Arke ranks among my favorite theorists for numerous reasons: She lets her theory complement her artwork, evinced by the photography exhibit Arctic Hysteria’s dramatization of the violent European gaze on Inuit bodies. She flips the tables of ethnographic inquiry, returning the critical gaze that North Europeans have cast on Greenlanders for centuries. She admits to and even flaunts the anger that these repeated confrontations with Danish scientific racism rouse in her, viewing that frustration not as an unwelcome emotion that leaves her cognitively hamstrung but a feeling that emboldens and sharpens her acumen as a cultural critic. But most significantly, she owns up to and champions the political cause that underpins her theoretical and artistic works: to fight for better, rounder, more complex representations of Greenlanders by Greenlanders. Her dissection of the Danish ethno-aesthetic reduction of Greenlanders to a monolithic category of premodern Inuit sealers who live in igloos (a chimeric dwelling that no Greenlanders actually inhabit; the vast majority of Greenlanders live in apartments in cities and towns along the country’s—mostly ice-free—coastline) has a pointedness to it that lets it contribute directly to the avowedly political cause of decolonizing Greenlandic minds.

Shot while Arke was working on her book Scoresbysund historier, published by Borgens Forlag.

Source: YouTube.

Ethno-Aesthetics took the form of a dissertation in visual arts, yes, but the combination of Arke’s acerbic, satirical prose and her incisive dissection of Danish neocolonialism in Greenland slate it for wider circulation. Indeed, upon its trilingual republication in Greenlandic, Danish, and English in 2010, Ethno-Aesthetics has won scholarly attention even outside the Danish-Greenlandic context. The University of Chicago-based journal Afterall made Ethno-Aesthetics the centerpiece of its Autumn/Winter 2017 edition, using illustrations from Arke’s work on its cover page and devoting the three leading articles in the journal to Arke’s manifesto. Though popular interest in Arke’s theories of the European relation to its North Atlantic others has yet to swell, the freshness and daring of Arke’s work—theoretical and artistic—gives me hope that she may one day enjoy the posthumous recognition she merits.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

I have just started a five-year program at Stanford University. I find myself somehow at the edge of the Western world and near its nexus at the same time. Though I write from the perceived center of the Wallersteinian world-system that would place Arke squarely on a periphery, her words resound here.

Arke’s immediate theoretical contribution may have been a toolkit for better understanding and critiquing the Danish marginalization of Greenlanders, but the methodology of activist scholarship she perfects seems transferable to the context in which I find myself.

Rereading Ethno-Aesthetics, I cannot help but ask myself: Am I complicit in similar reductivist practices to the Danish stereotyping of Inuit Greenlanders?

Do I suffer from a similar ethnocentric myopia to the one that made a Danish missionary, whose poem Arke uses as an epigraph to her manifesto, feel somehow justified in lamenting the “too civilized” state of Greenlanders when he visited the country in the early twentieth century:

Sorrow and happiness wander together!’

We readily could appropriate these words

when we met the East Greenlanders.

We were happy to have reached them, yet,

undeniably, also saddened to see them;

for they did not appear as the unspoiled people

we had hoped to find! They were already ‘civilised’;

but what a civilisation! The year before, at Itivdlek,

we encountered a group of East Greenlanders

about whom we could say that, evidently,

these are ‘wild’ people. This year, at Angmagssalik,

we meet with East Greenlanders, one of which wears a top hat,

another knee breeches, stockings and shoes,

as if intent on going to a banquet at the emperor of Germany’s court.

One presents himself in a coat, another in a normal shirt! Etc. etc.!

I nearly burst into tears!

 

From the diary of C.P.F Rüttel, Missionary in East Greenland, 1894–1904

Arke’s manifesto seems apposite reading for scholars close to the center of the intellectual world-system who, like me, want to steer clear of ethnocentrism—of a reductive ethno-aesthetics—and show the requisite attunement to the experiences of persons whom we too easily fix in a position of subalternity and deny participation in contemporary cultural life.

Ethno-Aesthetics speaks with prophetic clarity and authority to protest and counter one of the most problematic intellectual tendencies of our moment.

It could, and should, be required reading for the burgeoning generation of thinkers striving for a more cogent, diverse, equal world.

FURTHER READING

Arke, Pia. Arctic Hysteria, 1996. Nuuk, Greenland. Film. 5:55 minutes, silent.

Arke, Pia. Ethno-Aesthetics. 1995. English and Greenlandic translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Arke, Pia and Stefan Jonsson. Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonisation and Mapping, 2003. English translation by Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Kuratorisk Aktio. Tupilakosaurus: An Incomplete(Able) Survey of Pia Arke’s Artistic Work and Research, 2012. Copenhagen, Denmark. Print.

Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi in 2018 with a B.A. in Literature and Creative Writing. His interests include contemporary culture, new conceptions of World Literature, and emerging strategies for literary studies. Contact him at nnielsen[at]stanford.edu

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

ART AND ART HISTORY

Rethinking Universality

Rethinking Universality

Reflections of a Louvre Abu Dhabi Student Ambassador

Rethinking Universality

Shamma Faisal Al Bastaki

November 2017

Imagine this. You walk into a gallery and see a Van Gogh landscape hanging on the wall. A few inches to its right hangs an eighteenth-century Japanese woodblock print. A film of confusion clouds your view as your head jerks towards the sign by the entrance, searching for clarity. “Is this the Impressionism gallery?” You think you’re asking the security guard, but you are really asking yourself. Your voice is too low for him to hear.

You turn back to the artwork. After a moment of contemplation, your furrowed brows straighten, and your forehead smoothes. You start to see how the delicate impressionistic swirls in the Van Gogh are curiously reciprocal of the fine, inky curves in the Japanese woodblock, and the same exact palette of vivid blues, jades, scarlets, and ochres could have been used to create both works. You notice the Japanoiserie essence swimming in Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, in the animation of the landscape, in the jagged edges of the tree-branches, in the subtle dancing of the leaves, in the simultaneously quiet movement of it all.

How could these two pieces exist independently in your mind after this? How – and why – does a nineteenth-century Dutch impressionist painting displayed next to a traditional Edo-era Japanese woodblock look, and seem, and feel so … right?

Now, I am no expert. I’ve conjured a hypothetical scene based on some details I know of art history. But this scenario is a flavor of what the Louvre Abu Dhabi is trying to achieve in “putting artworks in conversations with one another” – one of its core philosophies. I know Van Gogh was inspired by Japanese aesthetics, but many patrons may not.  What will happen, then, to the audience, to gallery spaces, to art historical narratives, and to the artworks themselves when these seemingly unrelated works from vastly different cultures, traditions, and time periods are displayed side by side?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi calls itself a “Universal Museum,” but other museums have described themselves in seemingly similar ways. The British Museum calls itself a “Museum of the World.” The Metropolitan Museum in New York City considers itself an “encyclopedic museum,” as does the original Louvre in Paris. What, then, will make Louvre Abu Dhabi different? What can it mean to be a museum that is “universal”? Some might argue that a universal museum is not too dissimilar from being an encyclopedic museum, or a “Museum of the World” for that matter, and they could be right. What I gradually began to discover, however, during my time as a student ambassador for the museum surprised me: what makes the Louvre Abu Dhabi unique is that it is not merely a universal museum, but rather a universal museum that rethinks universality, and does so in a most thoughtful and profound way.

Artist’s rendering from above.

Image © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

I entered the realm of the Louvre Abu Dhabi not really knowing what to expect. There was a call for application to a “Louvre Abu Dhabi Student Ambassador Programme” and as an arts enthusiast, naturally, I was intrigued. The application process was rigorous and competitive, and I was ecstatic when I got in, but there was still a feathery sense of discomfort tickling my happiness. I felt somewhat skeptical, perhaps even hypocritical. I remember thinking to myself, “how could one of the oldest, most prestigious “western” museums in the world, with eight hundred years of rich history, be replicated in the Middle East in less than a decade? How would a museum like this work within the cultural landscape of the UAE? What was the point of importing a western museum with a western name, a western architect, and possibly even a western audience? Was having an “Emirati Louvre” an attempt at franchising culture? The Louvre fit in France; it did not fit in Abu Dhabi. This idea seemed inorganic. Artificial. Superficial. Ridiculous.

When I joined the Louvre Student Ambassador Programme, I was shrouded by these doubts, but my skepticisms were soon dispelled, and I was amazed with what I discovered during my time as a student ambassador.

Without roof, showing gallery spaces.

Photo © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

On our very first programme orientation, one of the members made the mistake of referring to herself as a “Louvre Ambassador,” and our supervisor immediately corrected her: “Louvre Abu Dhabi. You are a Louvre Abu Dhabi ambassador, not a Louvre ambassador. We are not the Louvre.” And this correction lingered with all twenty-four of us from then onwards.

Our supervisor was right. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is, as I discovered after series of programme lectures, workshops, meetings, and conversations, most definitely not the Louvre. It may have the same name, draw from the latter’s expertise, and borrow a significant amount of artwork for its collection, but the mission of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi sits on a whole other spectrum.

One of the goals of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is to put histories, narratives, and civilizations in conversation, but more importantly, the museum seeks to put people in conversation. This museum does not want to lecture and educate as much as it desires to stimulate curiosity and re-questioning in its audience. Jean-Francois Charnier, the museum’s Scientific Director, once gave the ambassadors a talk on the museum’s curatorial philosophy and said something that really stuck with me: “Don’t give them the answer, give them the desire to know,” he said. “Make people actors in inventing the answer.”

What makes the Louvre Abu Dhabi unique is that it is not merely a universal museum, but rather a universal museum that rethinks universality, and does so in a most thoughtful and profound way.

According to Charnier, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s artworks will not be organized based on the conventional “departmentalization” of traditional museums; instead, beginning from pre-history and spanning millennia, the artwork on display will originate from civilizations across the globe, and these works will be displayed thematically rather than follow traditional categorization approaches, such as by geography or chronology. Approximately half of the artwork displayed will be from Louvre Abu Dhabi’s own growing collection, and the other half will be loans from thirteen major French cultural institutions. “The objects will explore universal themes with common influences highlighted,” explained Charnier, “to illustrate similarities, and exchanges arising from shared human experience transcending geography, nationality and history.” For example, a gallery titled “The Prince’s Court”  will explore the parallels of courtly culture and iconography around the world, with royal Chinese, Western, and Mughal portraits hung side by side, allowing the visitor to examine the way different cultures perceive the image of power. Other planned galleries include “Universal Religions,” “Eastern Roads of Exchanges,” and “Questioning Modernity.”

What I began to understand is that the originality of Louvre Abu Dhabi resides in the unique narratives it proposes in presenting these supposedly divergent civilizations in the same spaces, galleries, and cabinets, prompting the audience to ask whether these civilizations are really so different after all.

It would be naïve to assume that this kind of thematic organization is totally original, that it has not been attempted before. There are galleries and exhibitions that have, in the recent past, adopted a similar thematic presentation style. In 2015, for example, I visited the Brooklyn Museum, one of New York’s more daring museums, to see an exhibition of African Art called Double Take: African Innovations. Billed as an “experimental installation,” the show carefully grouped artworks into several “universal themes” – “Art of Power,” “Art of Innovation,” “Art of Satire,” “Art that Moves” and so on – that suggested unexpected links between two or more seemingly dissimilar objects. In a manner that anticipates the organizational scheme of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Brooklyn Museum exhibition dismissed the usual forms of classification based on chronology, region, or medium, choosing instead to link the works through the selected themes.

No matter how vast and diverse the African continent may be, the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition was nevertheless limited to one region; the Louvre Abu Dhabi is much more ambitious in its inclusivity. More importantly, the Brooklyn exhibition was precisely that: an exhibition. A part of a whole. Temporary. Transient. No museum has ever done what Louvre Abu Dhabi is doing: building a whole museum on the philosophy articulated by Charnier, namely defying expectations and giving the audience a “desire to know” as a way of rethinking the narrative of universality, an entire museum that transcends geographic, chronological, and historical boundaries. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is taking a revolutionary leap in the world of museology.

Because we live in a multipolar and multicultural world where references abound and where collective history is constantly being re-written, encyclopedic-style information is no longer possible.

“Universal” is a troublesome word, however. It may invoke colonial or imperialistic connotations. Critics might argue that “universalism” enforces a kind of flattening effect whereby diversity is neglected in the effort to find transcendent global patterns that prove our sameness. We also need to ask: who gets to decide? Who gets to set these narratives, and based on what assumptions? Isn’t the very suggestion of a narrative limiting, in some way? What if a work of art belongs to more than one “universal” category?

I have been wrestling with these thoughts for quite some time, and so I decided to ask Jean-Francois via email. In his written response, he emphasized that the Louvre Abu Dhabi proposes a new “vision” of the world. “Louvre Abu Dhabi is from its inception designed to be a universal museum in the Middle East. But “universal” here does not mean “unilateral,” Charnier explained, arguing that “the Louvre Abu Dhabi transfers the notion of universal, which originated in Europe’s Age of Enlightenment, to propose a new vision based on the idea of a deep human unity and a world enriched by the pluralistic nature of its history. Because we live in a multipolar and multicultural world where references abound and where collective history is constantly being re-written, encyclopedic-style information is no longer possible. That is why Louvre Abu Dhabi will go beyond habitual institutional boundaries, to contemplate the concomitance and correspondence of artistic expressions from different civilizations, and shed light on the commonalities of human history.” Moreover, Charnier mentioned that these categories are not static, but constantly evolving, along with the rotation of loans and acquisitions in the collection. It might be fair to speculate, based on Charnier’s explanation, that the Louvre Abu Dhabi perhaps presents a version of history and the evolution of cultures that is closest to the “truth.”

Artist’s rendering of interior view.

Image © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel.jpg

I was also interested in the question of why now? And why in Abu Dhabi? What is it about our unique historical moment that makes the opening of a museum like the Louvre Abu Dhabi not only significant, but necessary? According to Jean-Francois, Abu Dhabi is a multicultural city between Asia and the “Western world”, whose cosmopolitan dynamism is at the heart of the contemporary world. To him, the significance of a project like Louvre Abu Dhabi, on this size and scale, is the fact that it will play an important role as a catalyst for cultural interaction and offer visitors the opportunity to gain a new perspective on the histories of humankind. “It will be a place of education and reflection for all, connecting Abu Dhabi to the world and the world to Abu Dhabi. It will be a bridge to the future, offering generations to come the opportunity to become true global citizens, developing and learning regardless of cultural background,” he wrote.

I would also add to Jean-Francois’ statement the idea that, in the past decade and especially within the last few years, we have seen the rapid global spread of racism and xenophobia. Forces of migration, diaspora, and the concomitant fear of difference are driving nations, peoples and individuals further apart. Questions of belonging, identity, and openness are being challenged and reexamined. The Louvre Abu Dhabi functions on the opposite philosophy. The museum is operational on the very basis of difference, on allowing the audience to entertain those differences and find the threads that weave seemingly distant cultural chronicles together on the loom of human existence. It provides an alternative to violence, a remedy for hostility on the basis of disagreement, and may even suggest that it is our art that can save us from our prejudices. And perhaps, under the 7,850 star-shaped pieces of aluminum and steel of various sizes and angles that compose its very complex dome, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will provide a narrative that highlights that our differences are what unite us.

Shamma Faisal al Bastaki is a senior at NYU Abu Dhabi. The Louvre Abu Dhabi opens to the public on November 11, 2017. 

All images copyright TDIC and Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Used by permission.

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

PHOTOGRAPHY
SHORT STORY

January Term Sketches from New York

January Term Sketches from New York

ON LOCATION

January Term Sketches from
New York

April 2016

 

One day, I would like to call myself an artist. Here are some of my sketches from my January term, which I spent in New York this year.

It was a great experience, because New York has that strange, neo-romantic spirit of a post-modern megalopolis, which gets mixed with the still-alive spirit of twentieth-century USA, echoing jazz, hipsters, beatniks, hippies and a gazillion of other great and poetic (in its inner nature) things. This place represents the idea of diversity, though New York’s cosmopolitanism is different from the diversity I was exposed to back home (Russia).

I enjoyed every second I spent in this busy, technologically upgraded, story-filled city. This January marked my first time visiting the United States. I had some expectations of New York before going there, formed by pieces of popular media. Among them were: Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan, Friends’ New York, MoMA, Metropolitan, and Broadway. I tried to sketch everywhere, even while walking on the streets. Because I did not have a camera and this was my way to create nice memories.

We got kicked out of Grey Dog Coffee at rush hour; we hung out in Vapiano, with its fabulous interior and surprisingly affordable prices; we visited Rockefeller Center; I sketched magical creatures inspired by rats in the subway; beautiful strangers, my classmates, places of interest, reflections, dialogues, yellow cabs, dogs, the gorgeous Strand Bookstore (where we spent a fortune) – everything is  on the pages of my New York’s sketchbook.

Here is my first set of New York sketches. It features Rockefeller Center, where we saw the huge Christmas Tree and listened to the soundtrack from Home Alone, as well as some people I sketched in the subway and three versions of my roommate Helina.

All graphics by Anastasiia Zubareva.

Here are my classmates, a cartoon we watched while waiting to go to a museum, and my humbling-real-student-saving-money-for-Broadway-and-museums lunch (plain yoghurt and 150g veggies) grabbed from the grocery shop near by, recommended by our professor, Eliot Borenstein.

More subway sketches and the colorful portrait of smiling Ankita. That day we visited MoMA and I was melting from happiness, inspired and excited.

Midnight “breakfast” at IHOP with Ifadha and Ankita. I had my “Never Empty Coffee Pot.”

18 miles of books – Strand Books. The best place to go after Broadway and the museums. The $1 books were awesome! I struggled a lot at the end of J-term, though, because I had at least 7 kg of them.

I am in love with with this place. Want to live there… The Metropolitan Museum of Art! Modigliani’sWoman’s Head and one of the halls of the museum with the garden of sculptures.

Grand Central Terminal’s hall: Ifadha and I witnessed the sweetest moment of proposal there.

Here we are killing time before a performance of “Wicked” on Broadway that evening.

Grey Dog Coffee was a super cool and cosy, but since it was a rush hour they “politely” kicked us out. As the comment describes the waitress: “She was sad [to kick us out] but also impatient.”

Vapiano is an Italian restaurant with awesome food and interior design. Surprisingly, it was reasonably priced even for college students. New York dogs are super cute, as are cats. Their owners were pretty friendly. The weird creature in the right lower corner was inspired by huge and funny New York rats (especially those in the subway). And, yes, hold your bag tight unless you want to donate it to the stranger.

Anastasiia Zubareva is a member of the NYUAD Class of 2019.

Art and Home

Art and Home

Ninety-nine bird carcasses nailed to a ten-by-four feet plywood board by obscure Danish artist John Olsen. The adjacent room houses an exhibit of fetishism (nudism, infantilism, shamanism) in design but retains its infamy as the site of Marco Evaristti’s 2000 exhibit Helena (known colloquially as “the fish-in-blenders exhibit”) and an onlooker’s decision to liquidize a goldfish. Like its rival museums near Copenhagen and Aarhus, Trapholt built its reputation as one of Denmark’s finest contemporary art museums through its flirtation with scandal and contempt. But while its rivals all enjoy metropolitan audiences who would accept Olsen’s dead birds as art, Trapholt sits on the outskirts of Kolding, my hometown, with just under 70,000 inhabitants.

 

nielsen-trapholt-01

John Olsen’s Fuglekalligrafi (“Bird Calligraphy”), 2003. (Photo: Leif Bolding)

 

Koldingers have a two-dimensional take on art: if it has a frame, we call it “art,” and it the colors within that frame form a discernable motive, we call it “good art.” To us, cubism still seems like the products of artists who lacked the precision of skilled artists. If we knew what it meant, we might call ourselves a city of Stuckists. Conceptual artists must think of Kolding and its environs as a small-scale version of the Bermuda Triangle. Outside it lie several thriving museums that house radical conceptual arts exhibits; within it, only Trapholt has managed to stay afloat financially, a feat it could never have accomplished without the government’s generous endowment for the arts.

Given our disdain for what people from the capital call “conceptual art”, it makes sense that Koldingers have long preferred the city’s other museum: Koldinghus. Housed in a medieval castle complete with moats, watchtowers, and cannon-holed walls, Koldinghus displays the kind of art Koldingers want to see. Its permanent collection of Golden Age paintings, ceramics, and silverware has the immediacy we look for in art. We saw the three-hundred-year-old still life of a corn field in our high school textbooks on the Danish art canon, so we accept it as the ideal form of art. The velvet ropes that cordon off the exhibit housing Koldinghus’ most prized assets, viewable only by appointment and only by art historians, convinces us all the more that we are not just seeing artworks, but the very essence of Danish history.

Trapholt has no velvet ropes. They call it a museum policy, but Koldingers think the lack of security correlates to a lack of security-worthy art. Consider the comments of an elderly man whom I overheard asking a Trapholt receptionist “do you even have any paintings that are older than me?” when I visited this summer. His consternation when the receptionist replied that they do not have any conventional paintings at all shows the Kolding frame of mind – a frame which I shared until I left for high school.

 

nielsen-trapholt-02

Selection of chair postcards in Trapholt’s gift shop. (Photo: Hansen Ong).

nielsen-trapholt-03

Selection of chairs on display at Trapholt, summer 2014. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Koldingers’ two-dimensional conception of art must wane with distance, because when we leave the Triangle of Death, it seems we learn to appreciate conceptual art. On our trips to Copenhagen and abroad, my family would visit museums we would never have gone near if we had stayed within the Kolding area. On our 2003 trip to London, we went to the Design Museum, the Tate Modern, and even the Museum of Contemporary Art! Of course, we still frowned at Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project and questioned whether a big lamp really constitutes art (one does not go from philistine to all-accepting art lover overnight), but we had shown a willingness to experience, and perhaps even appreciate, non-framed art.

As a family, we made glacial progress toward acceptance of contemporary art in the decade that followed the London epiphany, but when I left home for a Dutch boarding school in my junior year of high school, my progress gathered pace. Outside the tri-city area, I met people who not only tolerated non-framed art, but who appreciated it and even produced it. I took part in my first flash mob, dabbled with three-dimensional visual art, and spent my holidays traveling to museums which housed what my fellow Koldingers might deem “radical art.” At the same time, I suffered the signature malaise of the expat, homesickness, and the combination of my growing interest in radical art and my longing for the city that scorns such art produced in me a change I had not foreseen.

When I went home for fall break after just three months outside the Triangle of Death, I visited Trapholt of my own volition for the first time. That visit opened my eyes more than any visit to a foreign museum could have done, because I discovered far from the elitist retreat I had imagined it as, Trapholt welcomed believers in non-framed art from all walks of life. I did not find a coterie of the petty-bourgeois but a mixture of secretaries, farmers, shop owners, and even my high school art teacher.

The greatest shock of my visit came not from the heterogeneity of the audience, but from the diversity of media Trapholt had on display. Sure, Trapholt houses its fair share of disfigured, abstract sculptures, but interspersed between these uninterpretable forms I encountered ornate works of contemporary ceramic art, a photographic chronicle of The Rolling Stones by two noted Danish photographers, and a special exhibit featuring upcoming Danish fashion designers. When I came back the following summer, that same exhibit housed Nick Cave’s sound suits, the first exhibit in Trapholt’s history to feature velvet ropes on the artist’s insistence.

But to my surprise, I did not find the exhibit that would become my favorite in Trapholt’s main building; instead, I found it on the lawn, in an old summer home designed entirely by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. While the cottage seems bland at first sight, every single object in the home is nothing less than a work of art. Jacobsen designed everything, from the six mobile cubes that comprise the summer home to the silverware and the cupboards that hold it, and each item has entered the history of Danish design as well as a majority of Denmark’s households. To this day, his Seven Chair from 1958 epitomizes Danish design in its simplicity and is featured around most of the nation’s kitchen tables (or, rather, the IKEA knock-off at a tenth of the price of Jacobsen’s original does).

I absorbed the tour guide’s anecdotes to such an extent that I inhabited and took pride in them. One such anecdote about Jacobsen’s Ant Chair has since become the story I use to justify why I take pride in Danish chairs. When Jacobsen released the three-legged chair in 1952, it resonated across Europe’s design scene for the way it rethought the very concept of a chair. What designers everywhere did not anticipate, however, was the wobbly nature of the chair and the ensuing injuries chair aficionados sustained from falling off the chair. Embroiled in grievance lawsuits, Jacobsen insisted that the Ant Chair remain in production and summarily fired anyone who dared to suggest producing a four-legged variant. Not until safety inspectors at Novo Nordisk declared the three hundred three-legged Ant Chairs in their canteen unsafe and threatened to back out of a million-kroner deal did Jacobsen agree to produce a four-legged mutant chair. He retained his artist’s pride, though; to this day, Jacobsen’s manufacturer delivers four-legged Ant Chairs with an explicit proscription against displaying them in galleries or commercial showrooms.

The pride Jacobsen took in his original product echoes the prides Danes take in their design heritage and in their chairs. I come from a chair-crazed culture, where vintage Jacobsens often sell for over $100,000 and where museum gift shops sell scale replicas of Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair, Swan Chair, Seven Chair, and (three-legged) Ant Chair. We might not recognize it from within, once we leave home, we realize that even in the country’s most philistine region, oases of art and chair fetishism remain.

 

nielsen-trapholt-04

The star of the show: Arne Jacobsen’s Myren (“Ant Chair”) (1952) (Photo: Trapholt)

Looking Toward NYUAD: Mirrors for Princes

Looking Toward NYUAD: Mirrors for Princes

Zulf

Zulf (blond), oak wood, hair, 30 x 70 x 30 cm,
and Zulf (brunette), oak wood, hair, 82 x 60 x 30 cm
2014

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH SLAVS AND TATARS, PART II

Slavs and Tatars is an art collective that deals with issues of language, identity, and culture in the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. As it engages with the region’s polemics, the collective works across disciplines and media. As artists-in-residence hosted by the NYUAD Art Gallery during Spring 2015, Slavs and Tatars will temporarily shift operations from Berlin to Abu Dhabi. Slavs and Tatars were able to set aside some time to chat in the collective’s studio to discuss its practice. In Part I of the interview, I spoke to the collective about its origins as well as the nature of its work and the conversations sparked by its installations. (I spoke to one member of the collective who speaks for the group; individual members of the collective do not give their names to the public.) Here, in Part II of the interview, we focus on the collective’s current work and its plans for the residency at the NYUAD Art Gallery.

Diana Gluck: What are you planning for your residency at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery this Spring?

Slavs and Tatars: When we do a residency, a lot of the research that we’ll do at the residency won’t result in work that you’ll see at the venue, it’ll be for the next chapter. With our research we generally work in a cycle of roughly 3 years. We do a couple years of bibliographic research bookended by field research. For this current project, Mirrors for Princes, we went to Xinjiang in western China, the Muslim region of China, [and then there was] about a year of production work to form or give shape to those ideas. Then the series of works that result from this research and production travels to different venues, adding new elements at each stop, by accretion. It was unveiled at the Kunsthalle Zurich, the next iteration will be at the GfZK Leipzig, and the iteration after that is in Abu Dhabi. In each iteration it will accumulate.

For the residency, we’ll have a seminar that will pursue the editorial direction of mirrors for princes by combining the macro and micro scales and registers of the millennial genre and its contemporary stakes by looking at self-presentation as a form of governance. Identifying the individual as a polity, the self as an assembly of multiples will allow for an effectively multidisciplinary research as well best leverage the expertise of the diverse faculty. It will be run like a salon, we’ll meet once every week or two, with three or four faculty members, four or five students — on a different component of these “mirrors for princes.”

DG: Can you talk more about the larger themes present in this current project, Mirrors for Princes?

ST: Essentially, mirrors for princes were guides for future rulers in the tenth to twelvth [sic] centuries. The most-famous one is Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was later of course and during the Renaissance, but actually, they first arrived in and most of them happened during medieval times. It was a first attempt by scholars to put statecraft on the same level as religious jurisprudence and theology, because until the tenth/eleventh century, most scholars either wrote about religion, or they didn’t write. It wasn’t considered worthy to talk about secular matters. Today, what’s interesting is that a thousand years later or a millennium later, we have a completely different situation. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, because now everybody and their grandma is a political pundit of some sort, and there’s very little intelligent writing about faith in the public realm. Basically if you’re an intellectual, you don’t talk about religion. You can talk about it sort of with gloves on and say something anthropologically, but religion is the kiss of death for an intellectual or professional person today.

So what we’re looking at is, in a way, the latter day version of mirrors for princes: self help books. Like, How to Lose 15 kilos in 10 Days or How to Marry a Millionaire

We’re thinking about how we can re-invest this genre that’s become sort of individually focused — self betterment — into the question of self-presentation, but as one would imagine oneself as a multitude or as a corpus of pluralities. So thinking of oneself as a nation of many. The different factions within yourself. Different belongings, different allegiances, different affinities. Take the example of one of our own — a Russophile from the United States who’s originally from Iran. Those are three areas or spheres of influence that are in complete conflict.

This negotiation of allegiances, of multiplicities, of identities, of behaviors, is a necessarily urgent practice — it’s quite relevant to what we found at NYU Abu Dhabi, from the student body to the curriculum itself. It was the first time we’ve  seen a school that has a truly global student body in the sense that diversity isn’t a token. [In one of our experiences] as an undergrad at Columbia, there were the international students, but then the bulk is American. If you’re at Sorbonne, the bulk is French; if you’re at Oxbridge, it’s British; if you’re in Heidelberg it’s German. And [at NYUAD] it’s … everybody’s from everywhere. And perversely, the tabula rasa that the [United Arab] Emirates is often misconstrued as, actually works to its benefit.

DG: So you’re looking to write the same sort of self-help mirror for princes texts but for the Emirates, or as individuals with multiple identities?

ST: The idea is to present the exhibition that would address these themes of self-presentation.

In the works from Zurich there are a lot of different elements about grooming. Grooming of course has a double meaning in English. How to present oneself, in terms of hair and hair-care, but also grooming in that you groom a child — not for paedophilic reasons — but more to prepare, to raise, to elevate, to guide. Hair in a sense is a perfect example of de-sacralization, because hair used to be, until 200 years ago, always a sacred, ritualistic thing, and today it’s purely aesthetic or at best tribal. The question is how to de-profanize or re-sacralize or reconsider these. One chapter is grooming, and in Abu Dhabi we’ll think about perhaps another chapter … possibly “reading’, as kind of sacred activity. Reading used to be a group activity. You didn’t have a book per person, you had a book for fifty people, a hundred people, a thousand people. Books were precious objects. So it can re-activate some of these ideas.

MirrorsforPrinces_Hirsute happily with hairless_web

Hirsute happily with hairless (white), dichroic glass, tinned copper, 25 x 10 x 8 cm, 2014
and Hirsute happily with hairless (green), dichroic glass, tinned copper, 25 x 10 x 8 cm, 2014
Courtesy Kraupa Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin

DG: Interesting – on that topic, the Qur’an is constantly recited over Sheikh Zayed’s tomb at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

ST: The reciting, the orality, of language is super interesting because the Muslim world came relatively late to print, actually, around the late nineteenth/early-twentieth century. Not because it didn’t have access to it — it was a decision that dates back to the fifteenth/sixteenth century. All religions were very suspicious about print because there’s a loss of authority with print, of interpretation.

And ironically our Not Moscow, Not Mecca [show / book] project looked at this idea of how normally people think that Islam needs to be “modern” or needs to be “modernized.” You hear it a lot, “Oh, Islam needs a reform movement and needs to be modernized” — which is actually quite islamophobic. In fact, it is counterintuitive – it was Islam’s modernization which contributed to its radicalism. Meaning that it’s only since print arrived in Islam that someone can decide who is Muslim, who is not or what Islam is or isn’t — because before, it was completely communitarian and largely ritual-based.

Each village, each town, would have its oral tradition of Islam, and few in Bukhara or Samarkand cared what someone in Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo said. There wasn’t this type of dialogue. So ironically, in Central Asia and the Soviet Union, they missed out on modernization — because print arrived during Communism and nothing could be printed that was religious — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — nothing. So they strangely maintained that ritualistic, oral approach to Islam, which has maintained quite a Sufi, almost more esoteric approach that’s been relatively resilient to things like Saudi attempts to radicalize or Wahhabi funding.

DG: In addition to thinking of a new chapter for Abu Dhabi, you mentioned that your work accumulates, and that some previous work from Zurich will be shown in the iteration for the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. So far, are there any pieces that are part of Mirrors for Princes that you will add to or somehow alter in Abu Dhabi?

ST: In particular there’s a large sound installation in Zurich that had an excerpt from a mirror for prince being read. You have a 4-channel video, and there is an excerpt from this mirror for prince from the eleventh century, and each time it’s presented in a different venue, there’s a new language added for that venue. So the original was Uighur, then it was shown in Turkey, so Turkish, and then Polish, German, and now it’ll be Arabic.

MirrorsforPrinces_Speculum linguarum view_web

Speculum linguarum (installation view), 4 channel sound installation (in Uighur, Turkish, Polish, and German),
16 mirrored plexiglass rahlé with speakers, each 30 x 30 x 50 cm, 2014
Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin

DG: Will it loop first in one language then in another language?

ST: It’s actually interesting; in Poland and Russia they have this phenomena of Gavrilov translation [which we utilize in this piece], which is basically, instead of dubbing where they would turn off the original and just dub, like in Germany or France, they would instead speak over the original voice. So this is Pulp Fiction [Plays excerpt from Pulp Fiction with Gavrilov translation, one voice dubbed over the original].

All one voice. It is an interesting phenomenon. One, that it’s maximalism of means, meaning that it’s cheaper obviously to do that — that’s the origin of the practice. But it’s also maximal in the sense that the audience gets to listen to the original and yet understand. So instead of canceling the original, which is normally done, where you don’t get to see the original acting — you just have some new person’s voice on top of it, you get the best of both worlds. But it’s schizophrenic, right? Where you have to split your brain basically.

What we like about it is that there’s a respect and disrespect of the material, meaning that you’re respecting the original source because you’re translating it, but you’re also disrespecting it because you’re speaking over it. If you’re reading poetry and I am tasked with translating, usually what happens is you read a line, a verse, and then I translate. And then you read. And then I translate. But here, you’re reading and I’m translating over your voice. So it’s a very strange push and pull of both [respect and disrespect].

DG: Under the umbrella of themes explored by Mirrors for Princes, in addition to the changing associations held with regards to grooming, the connection to modern day self-help books, and the mix of respect/disrepect present in Gavrilov translation, earlier you mentioned briefly the role of faith in law. What are you particularly interested in concerning the role of faith in law in the Emirates?

ST: From what we understand NYU has a status of being able to discuss anything. There’s a real freedom of discussion and expression within the university. The question is can it then be broadcast outwards to the larger community. For us it’s crucial to make the exhibition relevant not only to the student body and faculty but to the larger community. This exhibition is not really a commentary on the Emirates, just like it’s not a commentary on Swiss law. There’s just as much to object to with Swiss law as there is with Emirati law. Especially recently, whether it’s the prohibition on foreigners being able to work in Switzerland, or the ban on minarets being constructed.

Our work doesn’t really prescribe anything but it’s more a reflection that allows for other questions to bubble to the surface. We don’t take a singular position. For us, the real interesting moments happen when you work on a subject matter or exhibition for a couple of years, and you still don’t really know where you stand on it. That resistance to your own determination is interesting because it confounds you, and if it confounds you after so much time spent on it, then there’s a chance there that it has layers of complexity that can’t be reduced to a polemical statement.

Regarding the question of faith in government – we’re somewhat suspicious of this very modernist rhetoric or what Charles de Foucauld, a Catholic scholar and monk, called ‘secular rage’ which you see among elites in Western society. It’s the natural extension of Cartesian thought, of modernity, of homo modernicus, who has survived homo sovieticus. The idea, according to Marx, Weber or Durkheim, that there is a new man that no longer has tradition, that no longer has religion or faith, and that no longer has a need for these – because now the world is industrial, it’s secular, it’s rational. We’re suspicious of this break.

We don’t obviously believe in throwing one out or the other. We’re not suspicious of technology or rationalism, but we equally don’t ascribe to the philosophy of either one. Also we believe that … if you look at the most successful acts of civil disobedience over the past century, they’ve always been led by people for whom faith played an extremely important role. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Solidarność in Poland against Communism — the Catholic church played a huge role.

But now, we as intellectuals appropriate these people as secular individuals. We whitewash them of their religious role, we claim Martin Luther King as a civil rights leader, Gandhi as a human rights leader, but actually you can’t disassociate the role that faith played in any of these struggles — and it would go a long way towards creating a cohesive society. In Turkey, today in America, same thing – you have this partisanship of people yelling at each other but not listening at all to each other. It’s because, “We believe everybody who is religious is stupid” and they believe, “Anybody who is secular is godless and sinning.” We’re maximalists. We believe it’s a question of “and” and not a question of “or,” you know?

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