Love Letters No. 3
woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2013
AN INTERVIEW WITH SLAVS AND TATARS, PART I
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. The following interview sheds light on the collective’s origins as well as the nature of its work and the conversations sparked by its installations. I spoke with one member of the collective who speaks for the group; individual members of the collective do not give their names to the public. Part II of the interview focuses on the collective’s current work and their plans for their residency at the NYUAD Art Gallery.
Diana Gluck: I read that you started out as a book club, could you tell me more about that?
Slavs and Tatars: Yes, we basically just started by translating small pamphlets, 10, 20 page things, into English that had not been translated before, or republishing things that had been out of print. We’d do editions of 10, of 50, 100, and we’d pass them around to our friends and charge nothing — perhaps ten bucks for an edition, most often gratis. We never expected to be artists. We thought — we’re going to continue to publish, maybe 1-2 books a year.
It’s a testament to the elasticity of art as a discipline. It’s really the only discipline we know of that is questioning its own boundaries all the time. It took a risk. They [the art world] basically said, “Okay, these guys can do interesting printed matter, let’s see if they can do an exhibition in three dimensions in space.”
Publishing remains so central to the practice, because it’s a reversal of normal hierarchy. Often the book in art is a type of documentation. A catalog. After the fact. You ask somebody to take pictures; you ask somebody to write about you. For us, the book must always be a beginning, never an end.
Pages from Naughty Nasals (book)
DG: Right, the book itself is not the artwork.
ST: Exactly. The other extreme is that it becomes an art book, where it costs a lot of money [and you have to] wear gloves. It’s a book as a piece. And for us, it’s actually, all the kind of sculptures in these installations that you see, they’re ways to bring people back to the book. For us, the book is the work.
And that kind of goes to our questions on knowledge production, which is why we got involved in this. We’re ultimately interested not in art as an end in itself, but how art can be a platform for asking certain types of questions, certain kinds of behaviors, certain kinds of affectivities or affinities.
DG: So you didn’t foresee a career in the art world at the beginning. You mentioned in a previous interview that you worked in different mediums because doing so allows the work to maintain a notion of indistinguishability and perhaps be present in places where it is not expected. Even though you work in a lot of mediums, they are all still presented in a gallery or art space context. Have you ever thought of placing work outside of this context to reach a different audience?
ST: There’s a great quote about art from an interview in The New Yorker — a profile of the Iranian artist Siah Armajani by Calvin Tomkins. He says that it’s very important to rescue the term populism, as populism for many people means the lowest common denominator, but actually, he says, populism can mean making the highest achievements possible for the largest amount of people. And he distinguishes, interestingly enough, between two terms. He says it’s important to distinguish between availability and accessibility. Making your work available for everybody is important — accessible depends on the person’s investment into the work. It’s available for everybody — it’s accessible if the person puts an effort into it — like anything in life, the more you put into it the more you take out. I think we ascribe to that.
The most rewarding lectures that we do are actually not in art departments at Yale or NYU or University of Texas, but actually the Middle Eastern Studies Department, or the Eastern European Studies Department, first of all because there’s more of a sense of dialogue. There’s too often this assumption that because we’re talking about a region that very few people know about that we’re somehow experts on the region. And we’re really not. You can’t be an expert on a region that big, as you know. It’s ridiculous, right? 340 ethnicities and I don’t know how many languages. So when it’s an art audience it [our work] often just sort of flies over everybody’s head. So there’s less of an understanding about maybe the performativity – not how we’re performing when we’re giving a lecture — but the research performativity; how we perform across the material. How we can play with the material.
DG: You don’t know when the performativity starts and when what you started with, the raw material, ends.
ST: Yes. And to be honest we’re very proud of the feedback from the Dallas show [more press here]. It was overwhelming, especially from the “layperson” – the non-art professional. They just gave incredible feedback to the guards, the invigilators, the curators, and online. This is important for us because there’s a risk we run … when art … when any kind of medium … attains a critical mass, enough so that it can delude itself into believing that it’s big enough to speak to itself. Then you can think that “Okay, it’s big enough to be self-sufficient” and that you don’t need to speak to outside your own discipline because it’s so big now. What was maybe 5,000 people ten years ago is now 50,000 people. But that’s still not enough.
We always think about the layperson because we ourselves go to many exhibitions and read the texts and don’t understand anything. And we think to ourselves, well if we don’t understand anything then how does … your uncle? … who is an educated person, not necessarily interested in art, but you know.
It was either Nick Serota or Chris Dercon (from the Tate) who said that museums today occupy the role that libraries did in the nineteenth century. They are places where people go for education and entertainment. That’s super important, but the third element that is perhaps the elusive one for all of us is the question of transcendence. How does it affect or spark a questioning that can lead to a different way of being as opposed to just thinking about something [the viewer] didn’t think about before. That’s why for us the most rewarding venues are places where there isn’t a critical mass of art, actually. It’s not necessarily New York or London but it’s Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Bialystok in eastern Poland. You know, those are the places that for us give the most rewarding feedback.
Love Letters No. 7
woolen yarn, 2014
DG: Places where you are creating these dialogues where they might not otherwise be happening. How might your practice relate to that of a scholarly institution?
ST: There is that kind of transversal, cross-disciplinary investigation. It’s something that is obviously central to our practice. Our books — you can see it’s not journalism. There are journalistic elements, but it’s not journalism. There are scholarly elements but it’s not academic, it’s not purely analytical and objective and as rigorous of research as let’s say an academic publication would be. It’s intimate but it’s not a memoir, because it’s not about our lives. So there’s this kind of in-betweenness. Much as our region. Our region is in between. It’s not the Middle East, it’s not China, it’s not Russia, it’s in between these regions. And this sort of in-betweenness is an interesting, if difficult, space to straddle and I think that in parallel institutions of higher education, all kind of lay claim to that holy grail of interdisciplinarity. They all say that they’re interdisciplinary, but the ones who are able to implement it are … I haven’t seen many, if any. Because there are so many entrenched interests. It boggles the mind. There should be almost like a Hippocratic oath of scholars. How could you be a linguist if you don’t study religion, psychology, and history? The history department won’t give you tenure if you want to spend three years studying faith in language politics, because they’ll say go do that in the religion department or literature department. It’s the collateral damage of specialization in some sense, which is fine — which is important, but there’s obviously negatives to the positives as well.
DG: You’ve mentioned the interdisciplinary nature of your practice. In one article on the recent Lichtgrenze installation commemorating 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, I found the following quote: “Unlike a history textbook or an article on Wikipedia, art has the inherent benefit of showing, not telling.” I thought this was an interesting statement in dialogue with your work because your pieces often involve text alongside visuals. So in a way your work is another grey zone in that it’s showing and it’s telling. Or, it’s manipulating the showing of that telling.
ST: That’s a good point. It’s something that we ourselves sort of struggle with. We do show and tell, but you’re right, we don’t tell what we’re showing. A lot of times there are reading spaces with our shows and as you’ll see, our books don’t actually explain the work at all. We never talk about our work in the lectures. They’re investigations of our research. So [our work] disrupts this question of what it means to have text near a work, what it means to read near a work. We use the example of a bazaar in the sense that in a bazaar there’s something for everybody. Some people want to read, some people want more formal elements, some people want the performative elements, some people want some kind of text. This runs counter to this very precious, solemn, self-important tradition we have in art. A sort of notion that fine-art is, “I put one thing here [motions with cup on table] and then it’s up to you to kind of understand or … or not.” We try to create many levels of entry to the pieces. There’s not one. If somebody comes into one of our installations and just takes a nap, it’s just as valid and legitimate as someone who has read everything and knows the entire discourse around it. There’s no hierarchy of access to the work.
Go to Part II of the interview.
[Images courtesy of Slavs and Tartars]
All photography by Jack Dickson.
When I walked into the NYUAD Project Space to meet Julie Stopper for a tour of her exhibition Night Light, I saw a group of students sprawled on the floor, huddled around a computer, giggling at the screen. Stopper was sitting pretzel-legged amongst them. “We’re watching Harry Potter fan fiction,” one of them explained, inviting me into their circle.
“I strive to contradict gallery etiquette,” Stopper, a self-proclaimed “millennial interdisciplinary installation artist,” told me on a walk-through of the exhibition.
What is gallery etiquette? I pondered as I walked throughout the space. After the walk-through, I was shocked to learn that a Google search of “gallery etiquette” yields 12,500,000 results. I had assumed that “gallery etiquette” described a mystical, unsaid set of expectations that circulated amongst art professionals and art-loving socialites, not a set of rules written for the whole world to see. One website lists “Behavioral Blunders for Artists” and “Behavioral Blunders for Everyone,” like talking to the artist for too long, wearing a backpack, or touching the art. Seeing individuals canonize what is not welcome at art events made me realize just how unfriendly “art” and art spaces can be for the public.
Night Light‘s installation rejects the white cube as a sterile template for art exhibition. The space felt immediately comfortable and inviting. Warmly lit by lamps resting directly on the floor, their bases wrapped with floral-patterned clothing, what is usually functional in exhibitions became sculptural forms with personality. “I hope for my work to be intriguing and accessible to a wide audience,” Stopper said to me, her voice conveying absolute sincerity.
Night Light was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote about creating dynamic characters, “Ah, to be both light and dark. There was something to be done,” which Stopper cites in her artist statement for the show. Beyond her exploration of literal light and dark space in the gallery, Stopper also writes that “what is truly beneath the skin of the exhibition is the exploration of a light and dark mental state.” Her interpretation of the show as an inner-body experience that sinks beyond the skin is intriguing: her works attempt to lure audience members’ focus away from surface level fixations and into another state or place. The vernacular of the exhibition– a mattress, torn bed sheets, a bed frame, women’s clothing– indicate the topics of sexuality and femininity, in a narrative not immediately obvious but necessitating a careful look.
Stopper walks me to an ironing board in the corner of the room and introduces “the wall text.” In reality, this is a cloth with the names of all of her collaborators — among sound artist João Menezes, contemporary dancer Nella Turkki, lighting designer Brooks Fowler, and curatorial director Cleo Smits, Stopper continues to list anyone “who had a hand in the installation process,” from the video technician to the poet-in-residence — handwritten in black ink. Stopper cites Pablo Neruda’s quote from his essay Poets of the People to explain her embrace of every collaborator as an artist: “I have always preferred a poetry where the fingerprints show.” (Stopper is a walking repository of artists’ quotes, and she peppered our conversation with inspiring words from visual artists, authors, and rappers with equal ease and conviction.) “What would happen to the art world if every single person involved in every exhibition got their name up on the wall?” she asked me. She did not wait for my answer, but her question was not rhetorical.
With this exhibition, Stopper addresses a simultaneous “claim and reclaim.” What is generally a universal commonplace material — the bedsheet — she claims as a material language in order to speak about issues of sexual violence and processes of trauma recovery. Along with this gesture of bringing this conversation into the commonplace, Stopper reclaims this material not as a language of “stain” in relation to “victims,” but rather a language of beauty and strength in relation to survivors.
Reminiscent of a domestic setting, the exhibition is broken up into three implied rooms. We moved from the ironing board to an upright bed frame, part of a piece entitled “a bedsheet used as a rag displayed as a work of art.” Stripped of its accouterments which make it immediately recognizable, this bed frame is also flipped from a passive, horizontal position to an active, upright stance. A twine web is woven into its ribs, its shadow looming clearly behind the standing frame. At the heart of the web’s shadow is a black blotch, seemingly the victim of a hungry spider. Looking at the sculptural form, I see that this dark patch is actually a white cloth, which dangles in front of the web rather freely. Torn from a bed sheet, the cloth is smudged with pink-red stains that recall blood. Stopper explains that this piece is where the material transformation of the bed sheet begins. It is the moment of trauma or “stain.” I immediately see references to Desdemona’s white handkerchief, spotted with red strawberries: a piece of cloth whose symbolic weight is constantly transformed by individuals’ imaginations.
a bedsheet used as a rag displayed as a work of art
Next to the bedframe are pink-red sheets hanging from a pipe in the ceiling. These cloths are reminiscent both of ballerinas and aerial silk dancers, but more ominously, as hanged figures. Stopper pointed out that, in pop culture, ripped up bed sheets provide an escape for little girls who use their domestic tools to climb out of their windows. Walking through these cloths is like “escaping from the constricting cage of one’s past, to shed a layer of skin like a snake is to leave this superficial ‘stain’ of trauma behind.”
The space after this permeable wall represents Purgatory, Stopper says, “a room of healing.” Two spider sculptures, wrapped with bed sheets, sprawl their bandaged legs out. I was struck not only by their remedial appearance but also by their vulnerability and fragility. While their shadows, cast on the wall, appear ominous, seeing their actual sculpture evokes feelings of empathy. I can literally stand inside these spiders; somehow, I felt protected inside their gentleness. Their ability to show vulnerability was strengthening. Stopper explains that the stain we see on the rag in the first work is only surface level; in this space, we are invited “to recognize the ‘stain’ as a result of a wound, which when cared for properly will transform into a scar — a sign of survival, power, pride.”
These spiders are clear homages to Louise Bourgeois’ spiders, symbols of motherhood as well as protectors against evil in her oeuvre. Rather than bronze, Stopper’s sculptures are made of wire, wood, her own floral dresses, and wrapped in Stopper’s transformative vocabulary of the bed sheet. The motif of the spider, Stopper is discovering, is prevalent throughout cultures and times. Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani points out in her foreword of Louise Bourgeois’ retrospective Conscious and Unconscious “In the Muslim world, you cannot look at the spider without thinking about the story of the spider in the Holy Qur’an and how it protected the Prophet Mohammed.” I suggest the spider as a nurturing, wise character in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a cultural reference that saturates childhood in the United States. Using the spider is not a project in redefining the emblem as much as unearthing its history.
The last implied space is the biggest and most comfortable. One piece is entitled “a bedsheet used as ribbon displayed as work of art.” Stopper explains that the ribbon is a symbol of beauty, referring to her background of working in clay and her fascination with the Japanese ritual of repairing pottery with gold lacquer in order to emphasize the cracks and celebrate the piece for having been broken and put back together. For Stopper, a scar is a “beauty mark.”
a bedsheet used as ribbon displayed as work of art
One of the most striking pieces in the show is also in this space: a mattress on the ground, white bed sheets thrown atop, and a tubular stitched duvet that looks like a shed snake skin to me but which Stopper explains is a siren, referring both to the mythological reference and to the literal meaning of an “alarm”. One of Stopper’s favorite moments from her show’s opening night was the execution of a performance piece by one of her collaborators who sat on the mattress and curled up with the siren, using it as a comforter. Not only does Stopper embrace this defiance of “proper,” timid gallery interaction, but she also felt this interaction further transformed the bed from a place of fear to a place of protection.
As I traveled through the space, I realized that Stopper is ingeniously expanding the vocabulary of the mattress: by deconstructing its parts and focusing on each individually, using the bed frame, sheets, and pillowcases. The mattress piece immediately brings to mind Young British Artist Tracey Emin’s My Bed and Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight senior thesis project and national campaign against sexual assault. Given NYU Abu Dhabi’s participation in the Carry That Weight campaign in October, in which students carried a mattress together across the High Line and around campus, the reference to Sulkowicz is well-known in our community. But this exhibition is part of a global conversation, Stopper says, and she has been working directly with the theme of empowerment through vulnerability and the conquering of fear since she began collaborating with Sofia Mish, contemporary poet, eleven months ago, well before she arrived as a Visual Arts Fellow on campus.
The grand goal of Stopper’s Night Light is to become exactly that — a night light. To illuminate the darkness with a glimmer of hope. To abolish the fear of the ominous monsters in our bedrooms. She hopes to fulfill Mary Karr’s notion of bringing the viewer or reader “into a community of like sufferers” through art. “There’s healing in that,” writes Karr, which gives the community “the conviction to live” their lives. The exhibition touches upon sexuality and trauma, but so much more than that: individual empowerment to live the lives we intend to lead. “Art is always about a community experience,” Stopper says, “and this shared experience is an empowering experience.” This statement applies to every aspect of the show: each collaborator joins a recognized artistic community, and the viewers enter a community dialogue about what, at its essence, is the human condition, for isn’t sleeping in a bed at night a universal human experience?
Night Light has also acted as a tool for her to meet new individuals in the community. “Art, for me, is abstract oxygen. Everyone breathes it whether they realize it or not. The art experience then becomes a meeting place, like the eye of the storm, a safe space for everyone to go,” Stopper says. For instance, through her exhibition, she entered conversations with the students planning Headspace: A Reading, a community-based performance about gender issues, sexuality, and women’s health in the NYUAD community that will be held on December 13.
If there’s one thing Stopper wants viewers to take away from the exhibition, she says, it is Mish’s poetry, which is literally available to take in a basket on the way out of the gallery. Small squares of paper say:
my beautiful little darlings,
Fear is an immobilizer.
We must not stand still.
bear hugs & butterfly kisses,
Taking one last look around the exhibition before I leave, I noticed how prevalent the motifs of bed sheets and spiders are to Stopper’s work. Stopper claims what some interpret as symbols of fear or nightmare and reasserts them as emancipating icons. What strikes me is how much Stopper herself embodies the wise, maternal spider. She creates a homely, safe space in an otherwise unwelcoming or intimidating white cube; she weaves a story and spins a web that connects her to students on campus, in New York, artists passed away, and new collaborators, like Sofia Mish.
Night Light: an exploration of light and dark
NYUAD Project Gallery
November 20-December 2
December 1 Hours: 10am-3pm, 5pm-6pm
December 2 Hours: 10am-4pm
We asked community members who had traveled during the 2014 Eid al-Adha holiday to submit photos from their trips that would make good postcards. Here are our top submissions. Scroll down to find our winning three postcards:
Aiman Khurram, Those Who Don’t Jump.
“Those who don’t jump will never fly.”- Leena Ahmad Almashat
Arabian Adventures- Overnight Safari.
Feline Paula Lange, Not the Occidental Way or The Three Graces. Saadiyat Public Beach, Abu Dhabi.
Jack Dickson, A Secret Retreat.
A secret retreat behind the concrete facade. Sofia, Bulgaria.
Khadija Toor, Bastakiya, Dubai.
Sam Ridgeway, Ocean View from the Corniche.
It’s funny, there’s a part of me that wishes I wasn’t here right now looking at this view, that I could be thousands of miles away next to you. Yet I also imagine you being here to see for yourself what I can only now capture with a broken iPhone.
The sun is setting over the Corniche and I’m knee deep in water. If you get low enough, the orange glow flows from the horizon and appears to kiss the crests of water. The sea is so calm; the only noise is of the water washing around my feet and children calling to their parents for attention. The sun seems to refuse to set and my mind wonders about how you are.
I wish you could see this right now.
Congratulations to Feline Lange, Harshini Karunaratne, and Sam Ridgeway for submitting the top three postcard photos and messages, below, which will appear in the January print issue of Electra Street.
Feline Paula Lange, Moon Landing. Abu Dhabi Desert.
Harshini Karunaratne, Oryxes Seen in Ras al Khaima.
Sam Ridgeway, NYUAD Saadiyat Campus.
It’s been difficult getting to know you. I know you have everything I need but I still hope for something more. You don’t feel like home for me yet and I think you’re a bit ugly on the outside. Yet, through my friends I see the beauty in you, Saadiyat. Whether it’s the peace one can find sitting at the amphitheater or the reflections from the glass creating a grandeur that I did not notice before.
Hopefully I will get to know you better and appreciate you fully.
I should warn you, art has never really been my thing. I have never felt comfortable contemplating art pieces, analyzing them or describing what I feel when I look at them — partly because I feel nothing. As you might imagine, then, attending the Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series was a novel experience for me. The Talking Art Series is an ongoing series of discussions — usually conducted under different contexts and diverse methods of presentation — that examine the development of museums and cultural life in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the future of the Saadiyat Cultural District.
Organized by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Agency France-Muséums and the École du Louvre, the Talking Art Series, was introduced in 2011. The panel discussions are leading towards the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, slated for November 2015. The series examines some of the ideas that go into creating a museum collection, such as universality, discovery, education, cross-cultural engagement, rituals, faith and religion, issues that the museum also includes in its mission statement. Exhibitions and discussions are organized with the idea of raising the awareness of people on such issues. The collection will explore the aesthetic beauty of ancient and contemporary art pieces created by artists from all over the world. The Louvre’s placement in Abu Dhabi specifically is significant as it is built in one of the most cosmopolitan and international cities in the Middle East. In a way, the museum will create a linkage between different cultures, an idea that was emphasized at the beginning of this panel.
Vincent Pomarède, former Director of the Painting Department at the Louvre Museum in Paris and current Director of Mediation and Cultural Programming, spoke about some of these ideas. In very fast-paced French, he eloquently described the life and career of Leonardo da Vinci, along with a discussion of one of Da Vinci’s paintings, La Belle Ferronnière, which will be presented at the opening of the Louvre in 2015. The speaker dove into the history of Ferronnière, its placement in Abu Dhabi, and its significance as one of Da Vinci’s works, along with an explanation of the process of its restoration.
What struck me as I listened was the discovery of how little I knew about Da Vinci. Pomarède defines Da Vinci as a sculptor, an architect, and an engineer, as well as many Renaissance qualities. He also explained that the intricate details of Da Vinci’s paintings exemplify the artist’s rich and versatile talents. Da Vinci is considered, by Pomarède (and perhaps a large portion of the art world), the embodiment of creativity, whose innovative artistic techniques signify that he was not easily intimidated by the possibility of failure. Pomarède even states that one of Da Vinci’s most famous works, The Last Supper, was considered a failure at the time. Though I’ll admit I had no idea that The Last Supper was even a piece by Da Vinci, what Pomarède mentioned so casually shocked me, given the modern view of the greatness of the piece and its representation of religion in a different and, to some people, spiritual way. Da Vinci is also famous for his realistic conveying of beautiful women in works such as the Portrait De Ginevra De’ Benci or the Portrait of Beatrice D’Este.
This brings us to La Belle Ferronnière, the portrait of an unknown woman, with soft facial features and a beautiful design. In Pomarède’s words, the painting presents emotions and sensuality in Da Vinci’s unique yet realistic way. Pomarède hypothesized that the piece exemplifies details of Da Vinci’s personal life, perhaps inspired by the quest of his artistic self, in terms of how he wanted to create art and with what methods. Pomarède explained that art historians still do not understand the woman behind the painting, though they have (according to Pomarède) misinterpreted the artwork several times, trying to compare the woman to Da Vinci’s previous and future portraits but failing to find evidence that she is the same woman from any other portrait.
La Belle Ferronnière (1490–1496)
Oil on wood; 24 in. × 17 in.; The Louvre, Paris
Image source: Wikipedia
The portrait, which has recently undergone restoration in Paris, will be part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening collection, which currently consists of over 300 objects. Looking at La Belle Ferronière, I felt the magnificence of the women behind the portrait. Many people consider Leonardo da Vinci to be a master of art, and I believe that a master is defined by the look of people upon his work and their perceptions of it. That is, in the end, what Da Vinci is trying to achieve in La Belle Ferronnière and in the rest of his work, which is I think what Pomarède was trying to convey. In the famous artist’s words, quoted by Pomaréde, “I am seeking that my works vibrate like musical tones in the eyes of the viewers.”
[Photo credit: Hadeel Marzouq]
I first discovered Abdullah al Mutairi, an artist from Kuwait but studying in NYC, online on an art competition hosted by 89+ and DIS magazine, called DIScrit. Dubbing its contestants #YoungerThanRihanna, the contest aimed to promote work from artists born in and after 1989 and expose their work to critics, curators, and other young artists. True to its intent, I discovered a community of artists from the competition, including Abdullah, who were interested in concepts and mediums that were generally ignored by the greater art world. Abdullah’s work especially touched on issues and representations that were generally not acknowledged by the art world in the Gulf but were part of the reality of the culture.
Throughout the summer, I had the opportunity of e-mailing Abdullah and talking to him about his work. By this time, we had swapped places across the globe. I sat in a small apartment in East Williamsburg typing away at questions, while he was back home in Kuwait City capturing shots on his instagram. The GCC, an artists collective of which he is a member, had just opened a show in March at the MoMA PS1, and in mid-July they brought the aesthetic environment of the Emirates Palace to the New Museum for the show, Here and Elsewhere.
Now, his work travels across the globe again. GCC: Achievements In Retrospective is on view at Sharjah Art Foundation from October 11 to December 10.
Screenshot from dismagazine.com
Emily Wang: You’ve been featured on DIS magazine, a “post-Internet lifestyle magazine,” and your video work certainly is familiar to the digital art form. When you think about your contemporaries in the art world, do you see yourself aligned more with Arab artists or with other digital art/video-focused artists? Is there much crossover?
Abdullah al-Mutairi: There really isn’t much crossover, but given our tech entrenched environment in the Gulf you’d think there would be. The main problem I have with art in the Gulf, or what is considered “serious art” here, is that it seems a big percentage of it is produced for and to appease a western influenced audience, heritage pop art calligraphy and the like. I’m proud of my lineage but that doesn’t mean I have to produce neon sedu or easily digestible “local” work informed by an insidious orientalist agenda. I feel that the Gulf mutation of the Internet for me was a porthole to the underbelly of the Gulf I knew, an extremely creative side that I felt was rarely taken seriously because it didn’t follow either mainstream or “indie” western forms that would distinguish it as “art.” It’s not that I believe that technology and the internet are innately superior or interesting but they reflect the current status quo of existence in the Gulf.
EW: What are you working on now and what direction are you moving towards?
AM: Previously I was more focused on personal parts of identity, such as gender and sexuality, and the impact of technology and the internet on the development of liminal identities.
Recently, especially since meeting the other members of GCC, I’ve been interested in the effect of external influences on identity development — in particular the impact of corporate branding and nationalistic propaganda on the Gulf individual and group selves.
Screenshot from AD3 by Abdullah al Mutairi for Global Art Forum_7
EW: When talking about liminal identities, I end up thinking about the advent of the internet age and a rise of new values, especially when you see older generations criticizing the “soullessness” or social ineptitude of the our generation. One artist I look up to called the Internet the new “Wild Wild West,” where basically there are no established rules yet.
AM: I don’t think the Internet is necessarily free of ritual, but it’s definitely opened us up to a global public space. I don’t know of an area elsewhere in the world where the communication capabilities of the internet have been stretched farther than in the Gulf — you have a large percentage of people with one two three or more different emails phones profiles and identities separated for either family members friends or other. This sort of segmentation of personality could be interpreted as “inauthenticity,” but I think that’s bullshit. This type of fluid existence undermines the old western ideal of the “true self” — we’re past that. Why be one person when you can be all people?
EW: You also talk about the effect of external influences on identity development, especially corporate branding and nationalistic branding.
AM: These types of branding … tend to rely on heartstring tugging to get you to align yourself with an idea/lifestyle/group. … I’ve been interested in Gulf nationalistic anthems aimed at children and how pop music video clichés, catchy tunes nonsensical repetitive lyrics etc, are used to reinforce pride in being born in one of the Gulf states.
On the other hand you have corporate entities subtly reinforcing this link between them and deep parts of identity such as religion. We all notice the sudden shift in pious commercials come Ramadan, but then you have things like prayer stools with corporate logos given out to all mesjids in the area. It’s reminiscent of the popular political position of aligning oneself with a higher power to be “allowed” to push an agenda while at the same time being able to denounce any resistance as apostasy.
Photo of recent work, courtesy of Abdullah al-Mutairi
EW: My background is pretty multicultural — I was born in North America to Chinese immigrants — and now I’m living in Abu Dhabi. I’m certainly not rich enough nor old enough nor “white” enough to fit into the adult expat community, which can be very isolated from these efforts of nationalistic branding and completely separated from other groups. Expat life vs. migrant life vs. Gulf life, they all seem to have huge gaps in between each other. Living abroad and part of the creative class, if I may call you so, how do you fit into this new fragmented culture in the Gulf states?
AW: Class and representation are important here. There’s so much that goes unquestioned in the formulation of what we perceive to be normal or business-as-usual to us, particularly when it involves cultures outside or on the fringe of globalized western culture. I wouldn’t describe Gulf culture as fragmented, though I could understand how it would be perceived that way. In a sense it’s as if groups exist in parallel universes that occupy the same space — you need to know someone in a particular universe to see how that faction lives.
I come from a biracial/bicultural background as well — white New Englander mom and dad with Gulf tribal background, and up until I met the other members of GCC I had barely known anything about the upper or creative classes of Kuwait. My thoughts were a mix of Arabic and English and I found it hard to relate to other kids who for the most part thought in only one language. Even those kids from biracial backgrounds seemed to always have “modern” dads — a biting term used to [differentiate] the lineage of “city dwellers” from the “Bedouins.” It’s likely these early feelings of “not-fitting-in” have fueled my eventual distrust/interest in those who strongly identify with a label.
Why be one person when you can be all people?
EW: Do you think going to public school has influenced your work in any way? From what I understand, Kuwait has one of the most private schools per capita in the world.
AM: In hindsight going to public school was probably my most formative experience to date. I resented being in public school while going through it but I’m extremely grateful for that experience now. It’s allowed me to relate to and identify with margins of society that I probably wouldn’t have been able to otherwise as an English school outsider.
I don’t think I’ve met anyone who went to a private school whose knee jerk reaction wasn’t: “Oh you went to PUBLIC school? How was THAT?” It makes me wonder what type of sheltered bubble existence it takes to be so disconnected from local reality. It’s typically those types who sneer at things like public health hospitals, co-op grocery stores, etc., but love orientalist shit like Rick Owens or his Gulf protege Thamanya. If you wouldn’t be caught dead in local wear why would you drape yourself in outsider imitations? That’s a major problem for me — this perception that anything local isn’t really valuable until a western institution points it out and serves it to you.
EW: Considering your answer about the audience for your work, creating work that validates the non-binary existence, how is it different having an exhibit in NYC, like PS1 and New Museum in comparison to in Kuwait and the Emirates? Do you or the GCC prioritize having work shown in the gulf?
EW: Of course we’d all rather be physically showing in the Gulf, but it’s not that easy … There are only a few galleries interested and only so much they can do on their own to support us.
But that’s where the internet comes in for me — it’s not really about me directly confronting an audience but uploading things and letting people discover things that have been circulating and mutating … online. There’s one particular image I created years ago — one of my best friends in a niqab made out of shima’3 material, and I love randomly happening upon a mutation of the image on some Saudi blog or other — I’ve seen it a few times on Gulf comedy insta[gram]s with different hilarious captions.. I feel that’s more validating — finding/altering something you think relates to you instead of being spoon fed someone else’s perspective.
EW: This “finding something that relates to you,” I think, is perhaps the entire basis of an internet community, why Tumblr can be so important.
AM: As a platform I think tumblr is powerful. Sure, it can be very superficial but it’s crazy to me to see Gulf kids on there reblogging kids in the US using terms like cisgender and preferred gender pronouns — it can be very empowering.
But the lack of diversity in this sort of global-teen-citizen sphere is noticeable — especially a few years ago when the “burka” aka 3abbah/niqab/7jaab became very trendy — you see the difference between those who can actually relate that to real life experiences and beliefs and those who see it as another kitschy trend that’s “sort of hilarious.” The ability to relate doesn’t flow both ways. But that’s who I’m trying to address: the Gulf kids who acknowledge but aren’t fully acknowledged.
That’s a major problem for me — this perception that anything local isn’t really valuable until a western institution points it out and serves it to you.
EW: What was the first moment you decided you were going to be an artist?
AM: I never really had that Oprah a-ha moment, but I think that’s important to admit. The label of “artist” is pretty archaic to begin with — who really is just “an artist”? does anybody have enough time to be that indulgent?! probably — but I can’t relate to that. I don’t remember a time I wasn’t thinking about liminality, even without having the knowledge of terms — I grew up using a computer and that’s what made sense for me to continue using. I did have a period where I wished I painted but then I thought … lol why?
I do remember one moment where I really felt validated and excited — 2011, while watching the premiere of “How Can I Resist U” during Fatima’s “Genre-Specific Xperience” release party at the New Museum: the double whammy of Sophia Al-Maria’s visuals and Fatima Al Qadiri’s music had me teary! I think I’ve had that song on repeat almost every time I’ve been to the avenues mall.
EW: Do you have any advice for people who want to devote their life to making art, following their ideas and going through with it?
AM: I wish I had advice to give! I’m still trying to figure out if I can live off it myself. I’m privileged to be able to currently work on my own stuff while studying on a governmental scholarship, but once that’s up it’s time to face reality. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to live that artistes lifestyle you imagine in your head to be able to produce work — it’s pretty delusional and very westernized anyway. I think as long as you have something to convey you’ll find a way — there’s no one way to “success.”
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
Approximately one year ago, at the beginning of my freshman year at college, I was required to attend an NYUAD Institute talk about coral reefs made out of crochet. In all honesty, I wasn’t entirely keen – I felt typical teenage angst at “being forced to attend an event by an authority figure” and I complained about my forced attendance throughout the bus ride to the Intercontinental Hotel auditorium. Much to my surprise, all of my complaining was ultimately overpowered. The flawless combination of mathematical and artistic calculations that Margaret Wertheim, one of the two sister artists, presented in a slideshow captivated me. I had never encountered such an elegant and creative approach to cold, raw science.
The Crochet Coral Reef project started nine years ago, when the Wertheim sisters were watching television and experimenting with various forms of crochet. Margaret claims that her sister Christin said, “we could crochet a whole coral reef.” The rest is, as they say, history. This community project, guided by the Wertheim’s Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring, has spread to over thirty cities in attempts to create consciousness about what’s happening to coral reefs. Global warming, pollution, and general neglect has created an environmental tragedy that puts the fragile ecosystems of coral reefs all over the world under increasing strain. Over seven thousand people have crocheted their own coral reefs to support the project. Many of these individuals may have been intimidated by the scientific goals of the project, but the creative nature of the Crochet Coral Reef project has involved people from all walks of life.
For the past year, the NYUAD Institute, guided by Pamela Mandich, coordinated crochet workshops that taught people from NYUAD and elsewhere about hyperbolic geometry (an alternative to the more standard Euclidian geometry taught in schools), crochet, and coral reefs, under the tutelage of Margaret and her sister. Once individuals learned the basic crochet stitch, their imaginations were the only limit.
An entire year of crocheting and imagining has culminated in the grand opening of the exhibition in the university’s new Saadiyat island campus. The Satellite Reef features a beautiful and intricate system of seven standalone islands created by members of the wider Abu Dhabi community, complemented in the exhibition by some of the Wertheim sisters’ own work. This satellite coral reef is the first in the Gulf region and it uniquely assimilates and reflects its host country’s culture. For one, the seven islands each represent a separate emirate, and Emiratis, expats, adults, children, residents and visitors alike have collaborated to create them. Curiously, the process to create our satellite reef has been similar to the biological phenomenon that forms natural coral reefs. Most significantly, each island’s understructure is made out of traditional hand-crafted Emirati fishing pots. Amongst turtles, corals and starfish, the NYU Abu Dhabi satellite reef boasts the region-specific gleam– glistening threads in flashy metallic tones, lively color choices and knitted wildlife join together to form a surprising, and beautiful, piece of art.
During the grand opening of the exhibition, Abu Dhabi’s dynamic and diverse community joined together to celebrate their communal accomplishment. Faculty, staff and students of the university and members of the wider Abu Dhabi community mingled amongst coral-themed accessory choices – crochet coral pins and crochet head-dresses, amongst others – and admired the community’s work. Both Christine and Margaret were present at the opening, chatting with the various contributors to the project and talking about their own pieces at the exhibition.
Finally being able to see the product of what started off as a course-mandatory institute event, I was thrilled to see not only the art itself, but also the mixture of people who were part of the process. The halls of the university’s Arts and Humanities building were buzzing with life during the event, as contributors from all sections of Abu Dhabi gleamed at the outcome of their work. One reef at a time, we begin to stitch together a community in our new and permanent home.
The exhibition will continue through December in New York University Abu Dhabi’s Arts and Humanities building and is free for anyone to visit.
For more information about the project, you can access the University’s page on the satellite reef here and the Wertheim sisters’ Crochet Coral Reef project here.