November 16, 2011
Interview: James Holloway

Emily Burke interviews James Holloway, director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in preparation for the grand re-opening.

Having been closed for refurbishments since 2009, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery may be a distant memory for some, maybe even never experienced by others. However, it is a definite must-see for all once it re-opens on 30 November.

‘Portrait of the Nation’, the project that has taken over the gallery, aims to “restore and reveal much more of the building than ever before; to show many more works of art by introducing a new, regularly changing display programme; and to create first-class education and visitor services”. This project has completely transformed the space and aims of the gallery, catapulting it to an entirely new level.

However, it has been an uphill struggle to get to this stage. Having been threatened 16 years ago with closure and the removal of its Scottish collection, it’s no wonder that James Holloway, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, is proud of their achievements. “It’s what I dreamt of, but I really never thought it would happen. To be honest, it’s exceeded my wildest dreams, and we’re just completely thrilled with how the building looks and how the collection looks in it.” And why wouldn’t he be proud? For 120 years, the original Robert Rowan Anderson building has only been used to half its original intention, with only three galleries in operation and the rest of the space taken over by offices.

Through this extensive renovation, the Portrait Gallery has now acquired an additional seven gallery spaces, along with a digital media area, a sumptuous Victorian library– now open to the public– and a spectacular glass lift that provides a view onto every level. “It’s going to be very unlike the old gallery” stated Holloway as we walked around the new gallery spaces. Though this is evidently true, it is pleasing to see that the integrity of the original building remains firmly intact.

With this new expanse of space, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery now has the great opportunity to display more of its extensive collection than was ever previously possible. Portraits that have never been exhibited in the gallery before will now hang proudly, including a portrait of the Earl of Wharton and his family from the 1740s, and an Allan Ramsay portrait of the King and Queen.

However, the focus of the gallery will not specifically be on Scottish art, instead being threaded through the exhibitions as a sort of narrative. “To be honest, so much of Scottish painting until about 1820 was portraiture, and still was actually until the end of the 19th century, so a gallery like this does tell the first chapters of the history of Scottish art.” This will allow more room for photography and landscape, genres that were touched on in previous exhibitions, but will come to the fore in the new exhibition spaces. Highlights of future exhibitions will include Imagining Power: The Visual Culture of the Jacobite CauseOut of the Shadow: Women of 19th Century ScotlandMigration Stories: Pakistan and War at Sea.

As a national institution, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is ‘the people’s gallery’, which has been emphasised through the ‘Portrait of the Nation’ fundraising scheme, allowing us to feel engaged and part of the gallery’s journey. Although their visitor profile has always been more Scottish based, Holloway hopes that more tourists will now enter through its doors, and so increase its attendance ratings by 50 per cent. However, with a £17 million investment in the gallery, it seems in no doubt that they will achieve this conservative goal.

Just walking through the gallery space, still a month and half away from completion, the buzz around it is electrifying. With a collection that spans from the mid-16th Century to the present day, it’s a daunting task for any director, but Holloway seems to be taking it in his stride, envisaging the gallery as “a big party, where you meet lots of different people and different characters - a great party is the variety of people that you meet.” And that truly is what the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery is – a celebration of an artistic nation, with many new faces to encounter.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery re-opens on 30 November 2011.

Originally published and printed in The Journal, 19/10/11

November 16, 2011
Reviews at Venice Biennale 2011: United Kingdom

United Kingdom: I, Impostor

Mike Nelson

An Unexpected Impostor 

As the largest of its kind, the Venice Biennale presents one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary, international artwork. It would therefore be expected that each artist, either individually at the IllumiNATIONS exhibition or whilst representing their country at a pavilion, would aim to bring something new to the artistic palette. This year’s exhibition at the British Pavilion, I, Impostor by Mike Nelson, offers something far greater than that. Though the work that Nelson is exhibiting seems to have no obvious link to Great Britain, with the dark, dusty rooms and ever-continuing passageways evoking a traditional Istanbul house instead of the British tearoom-like building the pavilion once was, his work offers two things: Firstly, the chance for three very distinct cultures, Great Britain, Venice and Istanbul, to mix and intertwine through contemporary art, demonstrating the multiculturalism of our modern British society. Secondly, the opportunity for both artist and audience to see that in the contemporaneous climate, national identity and the ‘traditional’ Biennale idea of representing ones country is not straightforward or specific anymore.

Through his particular art practice, Nelson constructs site-specific, large-scale installations that represent a period of living and working in a particular location. His immersive works are intriguing and atmospheric, submerging the viewer into an unfolding narrative that develops through a sequence of meticulously placed articles and spatial structures. Throughout his career, Nelson has constantly returned and re-examined territories that he has already visited and experienced within his own art practice. Here, we can see this again, with the piece for the British Pavilion revisiting the work he created for the 8th International Istanbul Biennale in 2003, entitled Magazin: Büyük Valide Han. More often than not, the specific worlds that Nelson creates are deeply personal. He states that “in relation to the work in Venice, both cities have played a pivotal role in my life.  Istanbul especially has acted as a meter silently occupying a part of my psyche since 1987. Each time I return it has changed, as have I, and yet there is a history, a felt history.  In coming to make a work for Venice what I wanted to attempt to do was to make sense of the last 10 years that had elapsed since my last time there in 2001. Somehow I wanted to talk about how I perceive the shift in the world since then but to articulate these histories in such a way that they touch upon my own.”

Mike Nelson’s art has often been described as being only implicit in its cultural, social or political standpoints, with a certain amount of attention and imagination being required on the viewer’s part. Nelson’s work is also unrestricted by the stereotypical British point of view one may expect; instead it roams over many cultural territories and combines them to create a far more substantial art practice. Despite being selected to represent his country, Nelson produces a work that seems only to speak of a detachment from it. However, this is clearly the aim of his work for the Venice exhibition.

The work begs the question: do artists exhibiting at the Venice Biennale have a social responsibility to represent their country as a nation? Or is this view defunct, leaving the artists with only a responsibility to themselves? If we cling to the former, what was once an opportunity for countries around the world to present themselves on an artistic level has now turned into a form of artistic Olympics, where those with the biggest financial backing and greatest egos strive for gold, or in the Biennale’s case, the Golden Lion.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, the U.S. Pavilion’s chosen artists, are two of the main runners in this artistic battle, with their exhibition Gloria.  Their work puts forward a stereotypical view of America, one of joviality and over compensation through an excess of funding. Combining sculpture, performance, video and sound elements, the works use poetic shock and unexpected juxtaposition to reflect on competitive enterprises, ranging from the Olympic Games to international commerce to the military industrial complex. The title, Gloria, has the ability to reference military, religious, Olympic, economic and cultural grandeur, allowing this exhibition to cover all bases, but never really pinpointing on something solid.

The design of the exhibition is poor considering the funding that would have presumably been provided, and yet on another level – perhaps more likely for two conceptually rigorous artists - Allora and Calzadilla are playing up to this stereotypical view that many other cultures hold of America. In a society that has so many misconceptions as to what that specific culture truly is, this buoyant and almost self-critical viewpoint is refreshing, if a little over the top. 

Though the U.S. and the U.K. representatives hold completely contradictory standpoints on the idea of national representation, both pavilions emphasise the fact that it is no longer possible in the globalised age, to portray a nation as a unified body without falling into cliché.  The U.S demonstrate this, the UK abstains – opting for the alternative.

It can be seen in Mike Nelson’s work that the weaving of fact and fiction are fundamental, and his constructs are steeped in both historic and literary references, whilst drawing upon the specific cultural context and geography of the location. Here in I, Impostor, Nelson has created a building within a building using cheap materials found in junkyards and skips in Venice and Istanbul. “I planned, and ultimately did, give the building two exteriors; one the neo- classical exterior of a bastardised tea house, an anglicised Italian building - the pavilion. Whilst the other was based on that of a courtyard in an Istanbul Han, a seventeenth century Caranavaserai remodelled and re-built in concrete, re-sited in the centre of the existing building by the removal of the roof.  The Han in question was the site of my 2003 work for the Istanbul biennale:  Magazin: Büyük Valide Han.  2011’s work references back to two previous works to make sense of two cities, their historical relationships to one another and their relevance to me and my own subjective history.”

Nelson continues: “My aims firstly were not nationalistic, they were like any other work to make the most interesting use of the context possible at that point in time, both on a conceptual or narrative level and on a structural or sculptural level.  Of course to deny an interest in the building’s identity and history would be disingenuous, and perhaps the gesture of removing the roof, letting the air in (and whatever out) whilst replacing the building with another building within, with an eastern identity is all part of that.” The ever-present multicultural aspect of Nelson’s work is the defining idea that emphasises the apparent demise of a stereotypical, national identity at the Venice Biennale. Paradoxically however, through his work Nelson has captured a very contemporaneous stance. After all Britain is no longer a tearoom-like society, both in culture and in art. In turning away from a nationalistic agenda and ignoring well-worn clichés, Nelson has avoided replaying the past and perhaps come closer to representing modern Britain than we may initially think.

Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog and printed in Line Magazine: The Illuminated Artist edition.

November 16, 2011
Interview: Alessandro Librio and Margherita Berloni (Director of EB&Flow)

Palermo in Venice, Alessandro Librio

The project consists of a sound landscape adorning the city of Venice as if it were a dress that the city wears. The installation will bring to the city the only element that is present in all of the cities of the world except for Venice: traffic.

Presented by EB&Flow

Emily Burke interviews Alessandro Librio and Margherita Berloni (Director of EB&Flow)

Emily Burke: From a very young age you began playing musical instruments, and you have acknowledged that your encounter with Giovanni Sollima was fundamental in your development as a musician. He was born in Palermo, near to your birthplace, which also links to the title of your Venice Biennale project, ‘Palermo in Venice’. Is this coincidence, or an acknowledgement of his influence in your work?

Alessandro Librio: No, I chose Palermo because I lived there for 6 years and it deeply touched me as a place. Palermo is the most visually interesting city and an acoustic melting pot, where diverse cultures co-exist. Whilst Giovanni Sollima has influenced some of my work he did not really influence “Palermo in Venice” in any way.

EB: Has the traditional music from your home of Sicily influenced your work, which has since branched out to electronic and more modern forms of music?

AL: Through out time Sicily has had many conquerors (Greek, Romans, Arabs, Normans, etc…) and it’s evident that Sicilians have absorbed these cultures even involuntarily. They are part of our essence and have definitely influenced my work. Luciano Berio, even though isn’t Sicilian, has profoundly studied the areas music and Karlheinz Stockhausen has worked for long in Palermo along with Giacinto Scelsi and many others.

EB: Your work focuses on the link between art, music and video.  What are your views on the interaction between these three mediums? Do you feel that together they create a higher form of art practice?

AL: I don’t think that the bond between art, music and video is necessarily a ‘superior’ form of working. I have simply decided to work with everything that has movement or ‘curve.’ My work is based around energy and curve and movement are energy. I can create a video or move a sound-scape from one city to another but ultimately, at the base of everything is movement, the only proof that man isn’t dead and we are all alive and moving.

EB: How important is the practice of improvisation in your work?

AL: It is of vital importance. Improvisation cannot be separated from man. I believe, composition is the organization of material improvised mentally.

EB: Could you elaborate more on your concept of creating a soundscape using buildings, and the link between your performances and the different stages of a building’s renovation?

AL: I am extremely fascinated by places and in particular by their sounds. I have recorded sounds (through internal sounds) of architecture in construction, documenting the sounds of the different phases of these works and utilizing these different building stages for sound-video installations in which it is possible to hear the diverse acoustics of the place. 

EB: By bringing the traffic of Palermo to Venice, you are not only bringing the sounds of a different part of Italy, but also a different aspect of its culture – since Venice has no traffic and Palermo has the most in Italy, this must be an incredibly large part of the fabric of these cities. How important is it for you to combine these two very different cities by an aspect that differentiates them so clearly?

AL: Both Palermo and Venice are cities that vary extremely culturally however this is the reality of most places in Italy. In fact each region is characterized by specific traditions, culture and dialect. They are almost like individual countries. Palermo in Venice is an attempt to unite or at least introduce both cities to each other almost as if Italy has collapsed on itself.

EB: Do you feel the artist has a certain responsibility to widen a culture? Is this what you are trying to achieve by linking Palermo and Venice?

AL: This is a really great question. Yes, I truly believe artists have a responsibility to widen and distribute culture. I don’t know if my installation has managed to do that, but I know that Venetians after those 24 hours of me taking possession of their city started to listen to their surroundings in a different way.

EB: Do you think that through sound art you will be able to reach a wider spectrum of people, especially by broadcasting it across a vast city such as Venice? Do you have any plans to take this project on a more global level?

AL: Yes I would hope so especially as the installation was in a really public place; St Marks Square.  It would be amazing to eventually to apply the concept of this project to New York and India for another 24 hour installation.

EB: Music and art connect people from all cultures. Is this your aim by having the speakers throughout the city of Venice, the sound and video streamed back to Palermo, and it being simultaneously transmitted live to London?

AL: Yes I think one of the aims was definitely to connect people through my art.

EB: Do you see the city of Venice as a ‘building under renovation’?

AL: Cities continuously evolve, maybe Venice more slowly than others and renovation is a part of this.

EB: Will you be using ‘Palermo in Venice’ to inspire other projects while you are in Venice?

AL: I am working on a project on Palazzo Marcello but I’m not yet sure if it will be possible to complete it.

EB: How important do you feel it is to bring back the work of ‘Palermo in Venice’ to the gallery in London?

Margherita Berloni: I think it is very important as it completes the piece for only by seeing it in it’s entirety and especially from a different perspective (neither in Venice or Palermo) you give it validity and the spectator understands it’s full meaning.

EB: Do you feel that this project could have an effect in London, especially with it being a city with a high amount of traffic itself?

MB: This project obviously can not be transported into the city of London, meaning Palermo in London has no meaning of existing. However some specific sound installations could work. For example if you were to put up speakers in Borough Market of a traditional Sicilian market (for example the famous Vucciria) now that could create disturbance and displacement and vice versa. 

EB: By forming a long-term relationship with Alessandro Librio, do you intend to take his work on a much more global level? Or do you believe that will take away the specific cultural link of Italy that can be felt in his work?

MB: Yes I think the Italian essence of Alessandro’s work needs to be preserved therefore, as far as this particular project goes I would like to keep it local. However this doesn’t mean that his future works couldn’t work on a global level. All his works have roots into Italian culture and it would be great (being a proud Italian) to diffuse our strong culture on a global scale.

EB: Do you share a special link with this project, and indeed the Venice Biennale, with yourself being Italian?

MB: It has always been one of my dreams to do a project for the Biennale and thanks to Alessandro Librio this has been possible. 

EB: EB&Flow is a relatively new gallery, with one of your aims being to provide a platform for young artists. Do you feel it is a curator’s responsibility in this current financial climate to provide artists with this much support?

MB: Yes I would like to think so. I really don’t know much about the role of a curator as I feel I try to encompass all the roles offered in the art world. I have just embarked on a new journey with EB&Flow, my partner Nathan Engelbrecht and all my artists and I will do everything I can to make it a successful and prosperous one.

(Image provided by EB&Flow)

Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog

November 14, 2011
Interview: Hsieh Chun-te

Le Festin de Chun-te

Hsieh Chun-te

Emily Burke interviews Hsieh Chun-te

Emily Burke: As the largest Biennale, and one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary international artwork, do you think that the Biennale participants have a social obligation to represent their various countries in a certain way?

Hsieh Chun-te: From the aspect of astronomy, we all know how to calculate the age and the distance of the universe. The farthest planet is 15 billion light years away from the earth. However, the universe without light doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist because its light doesn’t reach the earth yet. This implies to the limitation of human beings. When we stand on the ground, we are unable to the see the world beyond horizon. In brief, what we can not see doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Through the eyes of artists and their representations, we have multiple aspects to understand that the lives of the people from different areas. Therefore, the Venice Biennale of Art becomes the platform that we could realise what those artists from different countries have observed, and tried to say. With no doubt, I am one of them because I also expect that we could be seen and have the chance to communicate with the people around the world.

EB: How important do you feel it is to present the work of Taiwanese artists on an international stage?

HC: In order to answer this question, I would like to provide one example from the novel “The General in his Labyrinth “ by Gabriel García Márquez. When the general met the British officer who helped him constantly, he said, “Sir, although we walk side by side now, you have to know the cultural difference between us at least for two or three hundred years. In this moment, we are forced to walk together, but the cultural difference still exists.”

EB: Are there particular aspects of Taiwan culture that you feel need to be expressed through art?

HC: For many years, there was only one major political party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT). Until the day that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the election in 2000, President Chen Shui-bian invited one famous American economist to visit Taiwan for one week. When he finished his journey, he gave ten suggestions to Taiwan government and I want to underline two of them.

Firstly, Taiwanese society should regard the creativity as the social property. Secondly, we should encourage the young generation to bravely try and fail. The value system in Taiwan has changed a lot in recently years. All the medias, educational institutions, everything is talking about how to be successful, including how to succeed in love relationships, how to have successful business, how to succeed in the stock market. Nobody teaches the young generation how to face the failures. People forget that most of the successes are based on the accumulation of frustrations and failures.  This is the problem in Taiwan because our value system has been changed. That is the reason why our former president is in the prison because of the corruption sentences.

We have to solve this essential question: what is the value of human existence? In the recent twenty or thirty years, Taiwan is so called “the island of economy miracle”, or “the island of technology OEM”. I try to express what I have observed in order to provide a caution and a reflection.

EB: Do you think that artists in general have a certain social responsibility to represent their country, or in the modern culture that we live in do individual art practices take precedent over ties to our culture?

HC: My personality is to seek for those unseen, or to speak out for those unspoken. During those years when there was only one major political party (the Kuomintang, KMT) in Taiwan, I have participated in the opposition party and join the demonstrations in the street. At that time, we aimed to voice for the civilians in these activities. I hope to change the society. For an artist, I believe that he/she should express the dissatisfactions and precede the improvements for this world. Consequently, I make use of the tools that I am good at to express my opinions.

EB: How do you expect the audience at the Venice Biennale, being such a wide and diverse range of people from all areas of the world, to react to your work? 

HC: The series of photos “Raw” is a project that commenced in 1987 and finished in 2011.

In the summer of 1987, I closed the workshop in Taipei city and moved to Sanchong city, which is located on the other side of Tamsui River. Most of the residents of Sanchong city are from the central or the southern part of Taiwan. Before they stepped into Taipei city, they stopped by the suburban city and waited for chances. Therefore, they had a processing factory of hardware on the first floor of their apartment. You might ask them, “Where do you come from?” Although they have lived here for around 20 years, they would still answer that they are from Changhua, Chiayi or Kaohsiung. (Note: Those are the name of the cities in central and southern Taiwan.)

I asked him, “Why don’t you say that you are the people coming from Sanchong?” They said, “Here is dirty and messy. I don’t want to be someone coming from here.”

Yes, each residence here was locked up. If you go to the streets and alleys, you would see trash everywhere.

Those residents in Sanchong city didn’t regard it as their hometown so they were not willing to devote themselves to this city. As for the place where they were born, it becomes the nostalgia in their minds. Therefore, I moved to Sanchong in order to hide the primitive desire in people’s dark inner minds so I started everything by myself.

Hopefully, I could make more people know our living circumstances in Taiwan since home is the most important thing in the world.

EB: Could you give us an insight into the work that is being presented?

HC: I would like to provide one particular point of view. About 20 years ago, there was TV news report that two policemen caught a stowaway from China. The policemen asked him the reason why to be a stowaway. He said to the camera, “I just arrived in this land later than you did!”

It is the universal problem for all the countries. The nationalism is to occupy the land first and announce their legal ownership. But, we all say that the civilians have the right to migrate. However, the fact is that you could move out, but nobody allows you to move in. So, how about the ownership of the earth? If we believe that land should not be regarded as private property, how could we tolerate the government to occupy the land from other people? How do we face this problem? At the same time, how to find an insight into my works?

If you take off the coloured glasses, I believe that you would see my works insightfully

EB: How integral is performance to your work?

HC: In the very beginning, I didn’t consider how to integrate the performance to my photography works. I believe that any art work should not be limited in any fixed space. It could be everywhere and anywhere. If so, space is supposed to be open to all kinds of art creations. Therefore, I attempted to put a performing artwork, such as my Cooking Theatre, in a still space. If you are willing to do so, the integration will come out naturally. 

EB: Do you aim to bring artist and audience closer together through food?

HC: Enjoy the performance, by being part of it!

When food becomes part of the art, the dish is not the only performer, and the dining table is not the only stage. There is no differentiation between audience and performer. Everyone will join and be part of the performance, and in the end, finish the act by eating it!

All the sensations towards this performance will occur instantly, and no one can ever predict the ending of each performance. When the scene of a food banquet is concluded, it will be a calling, a touching, a journey of true art.

EB: Some of the images you are displaying are quite harrowing. What is the aim of these photographs?

HC: The aim of these photographs is certainly not to scare anyone. There are two purposes in my works. From my experiences in stage and theatre photography over the years, I have learned that when I take a picture, the photograph itself becomes dissociated from the original space and process, and transforms into a different stage of images, engaged with the stage in a dialogue.

So when I express my childhood dreamscapes and growing-up experiences as photographs, using Sanchong as the stage on which they are acted out, these photos in themselves are no longer manifestations, of either reality or imagination, but opinions on the environment in which I live.

EB: Is there a story throughout your images?

HC: It is a story about the homecoming of the prodigal son.

EB: What is the link between the images you are exhibiting in the Raw exhibition, and the live cooking performance?

HC: I plan to present one sacrifice ceremony through Cooking Theatre. I saw a documentary where Eskimos would grab some snow and melt it in their mouths and pray for when they are going to eat small seals. Also, I have even been to the boundary between Russia and China in order to interview Oronchon people who are also called the last hunters in the world. They led me to the hunt and they also repent after they shoot animals. In brief, for the natural lives which are sacrificed to become human food, the aboriginal people often treat them with the feelings of appreciation and apology.

Let’s think about your own situation. It is the same that rice, vegetable, chicken, duck, beef and lamb are scarified for human food. How about us? This is what we should think about carefully. Now we are facing the crisis of lacking water resource and food. Through Cooking Theatre, I want to express my point of view that we should return to the beginning of everything to do the serious introspection.

Through the link between the images in the Raw exhibition and the live cooking performance, I hope to “explore” these question.

Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog

November 14, 2011
Interview: Shadia and Raja Alem

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The Black Arch

Shadia Alem and Raja Alem

Emily Burke in conversation with Shadia and Raja Alem:

Emily Burke: How long have you been working together? How do each of your practices influence your work collaboratively and individually?

Shadia: If you mean art, we are not working together, Raja is the writer and I am the artist, but, there is always this open arch separating our working spaces, we work with our backs to each other, we never discuss our works while producing them, but when the work is done, I am her first critic and she is my first spectator.

Raja: We feed on each other’s energy, when I am tired and run out of inspiration there is Shadia always charging our imagination with her discoveries, and when I am in trance following the plot of a book Shadia connects to my energy and collects signals from that world, then she invents new projects of art.

It is like having someone always ahead of you on the road, and that keeps you going, sometimes this figure in the dark takes a sudden turn and opens you up onto a completely new sphere. We depend on our sudden shifts of imagination or destinations or missions.

Shadia: but, notice, we are a total different people - we share a similar taste, but after all each has her special personality. Our nearness doesn’t makes one disappears in the other; I am the relaxed one, and Raja is always tense, maybe because she always carries the difficult responsibilities. I owe her this, her advanced planning, and manoeuvring engineering skills always save us! Why to worry?! I let things happen, and it happens good and smooth. Numbers, mathematics, time and appointments are not on my schedule, Raja deals with them all.

Raja: She doesn’t follow directions, maps or restrictions, while I carry an inner navigation system, a mathematical organized mind, which do all the measurements and plans. That’s why we drive each other crazy 

EB: As an artist and writer, individually you must see the world in two very different lights. How have you brought these different vantage points together in your work?

Raja: You can see that when we come into a place, in a flash Shadia scans it, and picks what she wants.

Shadia: While Raja perceives a wider range of surrounding directions and locations, she pays a look back, to map where from we came, and how we return safely back. As if we are walking each in a totally different scene while we are walking on the same pavement.

Raja: Therefore, when we reach a new city I just let Shadia lead, she wanders aimlessly while I switch off all my manoeuvring systems, and we inevitably get lost, and consequently discover unexpected wonders. Then when we get tired and want to go back home, I turn on my sense of direction and lead back. I am so much more interested in nature and insects and the discoveries in space, while she loves music and visual art, fashion and … shopping! She laughs at me: when we go out she says ‘Raja, no more nature idolizing, look in people’s faces…’

Shadia: And all that was channelled in the ‘Black Arch’. We were fuelled and did great research, we crossed challenging disagreements and agreements, and came out with this Black Arch,

Raja: It has the physical and metaphysical, the calculation of my mind and the wildness of Shadia’s instinct of joy and the abundance. I helped build the concept and she brought it to life physically in a concrete artwork and then she added the audio visual part which turned the work into an experience like those of the 0 art, to reflect sounds and light of mosaic images from the two cities Mecca and Venice.

Shadia: I remember the moment when this piece came to full despair, and then existence.

Raja: It was at dawn, we were working for days and nights, the spheres where there, the whole concept was there, but there was something missing,

Shadia: the X factor .. the leap ..

Raja:  it was a moment where we reached a dead end. I remember turning to Shadia, and without saying, she heard it  “I think it is useless, no way .” She looked at me, with large eyes, and turned to the computer,

Shadia: and suddenly, easily - as usual -  all fragments came together, the puzzle pieces fell into their unique places.

Raja: the cube emerged and stands on its axle, the smaller cube cut its dark cavity within the larger one. Shadia, to finalize the plot, held up the coaster from under her cup and said:“This is the vertical sphere”.  I pushed it back a couple of degrees and added: “It must stands straight, a 90 degree.”

Shadia:  It was a unique moment of creation, an arrival of real inspiration, which happened in a matter of seconds.

EB: As sisters there must be a spiritual link or bond between you. How do you represent your family link in your work?

Shadia: It’s rather a spiritual link, developed through years of searching together.

Raja: I used to believe that I write to connect with my universal tribe, and this is our case in general; we believe that cultures and the creative works in general links you to those who have the same positive energy. And it happened that we came from an ancient spiritual city, Mecca, which along the ages attracted the scholars who came seeking the energy of the place. We call them neighbours of God. It is this nearness to the absolute, the centre which sucks 1/5 of the world’s population to face it and pray for it, aiming their purest energy, five times a day. Prayer is a form of focusing the human energy,

Shadia: exactly like in the act of creativity. So we are definitely moulded and shaped by growing up in this centre and watching millions filling the city every season, coming with their cultures and customs, it is not an ordinary crowd,

Raja: it is like a magma of human bodies and energies and hopes.

Shadia: so Raja in her novels and I in my artworks are always bringing to manifestation this invisible energy, these hidden links between the humans, which in the essence makes them one whole family of being.   

EB: Would you say that your family’s acceptance of pilgrims into your home during the Hadj every year sparked an interest into cultures and civilisations different to your own? Does your family continue to influence your work?

Shadia: It is not the family but the mosaic of cultures. Our family itself is a mosaic, from my mother’s side coming from Bukhara, where the sun rises from earth, and from my father side coming from Morocco and Iraq, where sun sets in water, we carry this mosaic in our blood and it appears in all our forms of expressions.

Raja: In our work there are no family ties as much as the energy ties to the world. Imagine yourself growing experiencing all kind of traditional customs from East and West, getting accustomed to tastes, hearing all kind of languages and feasting on all colours, you no more feel alien anywhere, you feel the world as part of your place of birth. That’s why the concept of the 54th Venice Biennale is not alien to us, illumination between nations, this is us, the formula of our souls and characters, this eternal exchange of illumination with the world’s cultures.

Shadia: The first figures I painted where a mixture of cultures, and my work “Djinnyat Lar ” is an embodiment of that family, they are sort of creatures in their wholeness, and Raja emphasize that with a philosophical text .

EB: How do you see the city of Venice in relation to your home city of Mecca?

Raja: Many times we visited Venice biennale, something in the architecture reminds me remotely of Mecca, but we were not really aware of the extent of that link, until the curators Mona Khazindar and Robin Start invited us among five Saudi artists to visit Venice and get inspired by the Arsenale, to produce an artwork of which to choose one or two suitable for the biennale. It was 15 November 2010, we were in the airport waiting for our delayed flight back home, when we suddenly realized it is the pilgrimage season and the millions from all over the worlds were gathered in our home city of Mecca, while we were in Venice pilgrims for art!

Shadia: Venice is like Mecca, a unique place in a way; a spot sought by thousands; pilgrims seeking spirituality and art. This incidental timing brought to focus the fact that Mecca and Venice represent the peak of human exchange, through commerce, religion and culture, they are both built on that dynamic triangle. Both are a unique pot where nations and cultures mix, and build on that mixture, they both are sort of eternal by means of that mixture.

EB: Through your involvement in the Venice Biennale, do you wish to bridge the gap between these two cosmopolitan cities? Is this what is implied by your exhibition title, The Black Arch?

Shadia: Arch or arc is the journey we take to cross to the other nations, in the present and back in time.

Raja: The Black Arch moves on 3457 spheres, each sphere represents a nation or a culture, all are actively exchanging illuminations, and all are reflected on and reflecting our first city which is Mecca.

Shadia: The audiovisual part of the work brings to visibility only two cities, both imply rich cultures of multi nations, which crossed its land and left their signs. The projection of those authentic signs brings them whole and visible to the spectators. The mosaic of St. Marco and Mecca’s people are only two spheres, while there are 3457 waiting to be released as the work moves in other cities.

Raja: All kind of cultures will appear in dialogue with our city. It is a sample of what is going on inside our heads, my head, Shadia’s head and your head, as human beings moving in the world and unconsciously absorbing cultures. Each one of us is a moving cluster of cultures eternally exchanging illumination and ceaselessly transforming us.

EB: Through your work at this year’s Venice Biennale, you wish to project the collective memory and physical representation of Black. This colour is obviously significant in your culture. How do you intend to portray this significance to an audience who perhaps see it from a stereotypical stance?

Shadia: The black is the failure of perceptions when its deluded by prohibitions and preconceptions. Whether we admit it or not, every one of us carries his archive of black, with some it’s visible and with some it is invisible.

The work itself is the statement against this failure, against these stereotypes. I wrote a quote about the black arch, which I like to bring here: The flat is a hidden depth, the black is the condensed all; what we see and what our perceptions fail to sense. I am this black.

Raja: On the other hand, and while working on the black arch, we discovered that we carry a built-in memory of the Black, around which our whole work was revolving. The first memory of black was the black cloth of Al-Ka’ba, or God’s home. Imagine this black silk curtain with its band of gold - embroidered calligraphy with Qur’anic texts. Imagine this rich black, which attracts the millions to touch it, when you touch it you feel those hands vibrating there, thickening the soft texture.

Shadia:  I am sensitive to scents, and that black texture is loaded with whiffs of perfume, ancient Asian perfumes, which penetrates to your deepest core and senses. Your imagination is triggered to reach what is behind. You see, that black is a condensed physical medium which carries unseen sweat, smells and texture which accentuates our senses and links us to the metaphysical and the unknown, and urges us to discover and explore.

Raja: The second encounter with black came so early in our life, when our mothers used to take us to the holy mosque every Friday, and bring us to the black stone, believed to be brought by the angels from Paradise, and placed at the corner of Al-Kaaba, to mark the beginning of the circumambulation. My mother would push our heads in the stone’s cavity and urge us, “kiss it to sharpen your memory and learning abilities!” Once your lips touch it you feel the shock of the sweat of millions of lips and hands kissing it along the ages, you travel back and forth, recalling all nations touching this stone.  You feel oneness with the human longings, could I say that was inspiring?

Shadia: The stereotype black is assimilated with the black cloth protecting the precious and covering the holy, it was raised there to urge you to pay extra effort to cross to it.

Raja: Black formed a nagging question mark in our head triggering our imagination. It is an invitation to explore the unknown.

Shadia: some of my work emerged from this black: Negative No MoreThe Black Mirror and I Am Black.

Raja: And, here, in the Black Arch we placed the black physical, huge, to face the spectators when they first come into the exhibiting space, this black is the trigger of the journey. And it is for the comer to go beyond or allow the black to block his vision and drive him out of the place.

Shadia: for me the whole work is in this black, it could stand alone as a whole work of art, or a question mark.

EB: What do you intend to portray with the second part of your installation, the mirror image?

Shadia: Its up to the viewer to portray what he feels at that moment of exchange. But for me, it is the inner self, the mind, and soul, the lagoons of one’s being, and the medium, which carries one’s arc to the other side of enlightenment and salvation.

Raja: You could say it is a vertical water, open to reflect all; the spheres plus spectators. This vertical domain reminds me of water, what gives life to Venice and what sprang in Mecca desert at that ancient time, and what invited the human imagination to build God’s home around it, as second heaven on earth, heaven is nothing but going back to the whole, the essence of all cultures.

Each of us, humans, go around in the world unaware of the eternal exchange of illumination going between him and every single sign and culture passing by. This vertical formation is to enhance the feel of the magnitude of that unconscious exchange. 

EB: This will be the first time that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Surely it must be extremely important that two female artists have been chosen to represent this nation especially when, from a Western point of view, women are seen as repressed in your culture?

Raja: First it was the artwork that determined the choice. Because originally there were five artists invited to submit their artworks in a competition, for the curators to choose the most suitable to represent the concept of the54 biennale (illume-nation)+to represent Saudi Arabia’s spirit, to address the art world by mean of its culture.

Shadia: As I joined the competition I was never intimidated by the four male artists, I knew it is the work not the gender that will determine the representative to both concept and country. And I am glad to be chosen. “No one but Shadia and Raja are more qualified to be the spirit of exchanged illumination, growing in Mecca the centre which accepts all nations, not only because both born and raised on its generous values and aesthetics, but also that can be measured by our long accumulating of original art and literature.” All our work is drawn from the spirit of the Arabian Peninsula, and its mixture of cultures.

Raja: This show is the answer to the preconceptions about the Saudi females. The Black Arch came from a long history, a creation of a serious research and hard work. Nowadays, and then, we struggled to reach to be productive in this moving world. And we came to believe that there is no way to suppress an individual, suppression is an individual choice, especially now, with this technology of communication. All forms of knowledge are available. The concept of a cold iron wall no more exists, and it is for the individual efforts to break through barriers no matter what gender or where and when this individual happened to be born.   

EB: Has Western female art influenced your art practice?

Shadia: It is not the gender of the artists; mainly the daring, changing work is what influences me, not the artist.

Raja: maybe Virginia Wolf is one female that influenced me among the male writers, but your question made me think of her as female for the first time, as Shadia said, it is not about gender but about the creation itself, the energy it conveys. Even in our works you cannot tell our gender from the work, for example when I submitted my first manuscript to the publisher he sent me a letter back saying: “Dear Mr. Alem, we are happy to publish your work.”

Shadia: You might be surprised to know that, it is not a female artist but a writer that somehow influenced me as a teenager, the American novelist Ayn Rand, in her novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ 1957, which says when Atlas, the Titan giant carrying the world on his shoulders, shrugs in carelessness the world collapses, so we cannot take a careless attitude to the world. In ‘Atlas Shrugged’ leading innovators, ranging from industrialists to artists disappear led by John Galt. Galt describes the strike as “stopping the motor of the world” by withdrawing the “minds” that drive society’s growth and productivity, they refuse to be exploited by society.

Raja: we grew up considering ourselves of those “people of the mind”. 

EB: In our contemporary culture, how do you go about encouraging creativity in the women of Saudi Arabia?

Raja: I think every artist and creator works as if walking in his sleep, he follows a thread that appears to him and leads to discoveries. And at the end his discoveries are destined to influence people and trigger their imaginations. And the Saudi individual male or female have access to the world creations, either by mean of travel or through the internet, and that’s the trigger, the exchange of illumination which will create more cultural phenomena, and ensure the continuity of the build up of the human creations.

Shadia: While working in a kindergarten, we found that the best way to encourage creativity is through free play. You supply children with all kind of mediums, and encourage freedom to use them, allow them to go wild, to explore and do the mess. At the same time you provide the exposure to nature and to the outer world. I think this can be applied to the adult world of creativity - we are all children and later when we want to be more serious let us get some academic learning, and find channels to exhibit and exchange.

In ‘Atlas Shrugged’ the people “of the mind” demonstrate that, a world in which individual is not free to create is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where people are slaves to society and government or rigid academic teaching. 

Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog

November 14, 2011
Interview: Fiona Bradley

Emily Burke in conversation with FIona Bradley, curator of the Karla Black exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2011

Emily Burke: How important do you feel it is to present the work of Scottish artists on an international stage?

Fiona Bradley: Very important.  Presenting the work of Scottish artists abroad not only celebrates and promotes Scotland as a place to live and make work, but acts as a retention strategy – artists might be more likely to stay here if there are such opportunities for international presentation. This makes for a healthy art world that benefits us all – artists and audiences. As a curator, I am proud of the artists we have here in Scotland, and I want to see their work in the context of other great work, in Venice, where you expect to encounter the best.

EB: As the largest Biennale, and one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary international artwork, do you think that the Biennale participants have a social obligation to represent their various countries in a certain way?

FB: No I don’t. Artists have an obligation only to themselves to present the best work they can. Curators have an obligation to help the artist present their work in such a way that it has the best chance of communicating with an audience.  Karla Black is representing Scotland in that she lives and works here, is part of the artistic community and her work contributes to the culture and therefore to the collective life. This is all part of who she is – in my view, representing Scotland is more about this than what she might make in the context of the Biennale.

EB: Are there particular aspects of the Scottish culture that you feel need to be expressed through art?

FB: Art provides a context in which to think about and understand ourselves and our place in the world.  Artists working in Scotland necessarily filter aspects of Scottish culture,  but I don’t think it is something to be prescriptive about.

EB: Do you think that artists in general have a certain social responsibility to represent their country, or in the modern culture that we live in do individual art practices take precedent over ties to our culture?

FB: As I say, for me Art exists to help us comprehend life in all its ramifications.  Art is by definition socially engaged, and some art (that of Willie Doherty, for example) deals very specifically with a national situation about which the artist has thought deeply. But I don’t think that artists ‘should’ make work about their country or indeed about anything else. It may be that they are well placed to do so, or they feel (as in Willie Doherty’s case, again) that they can’t not. But that has to come from them.

EB: How do you expect the audience at the Venice Biennale, being such a wide and diverse range of people from all areas of the world, to react to Karla Black’s work?

FB: I hope they will find something in it that speaks to them. Karla’s work tends to engage people through its beauty – its colour, its form, its materials. Once engaged and entranced, the audience may find that the work connects with their own concerns.

EB: How has the atmosphere and architecture of Venice influenced the work that she will be exhibiting there?

FB: Karla thought very carefully about the light and dominant colours of Venice.  This particularly influenced the way in which she wanted the audience to approach the work – the blue paintings with clouds, squares and stripes that she used as posters for the exhibition.

EB: Karla Black has stated that her work is not site-specific, with each work being destroyed or packed away at the end of the exhibition. Surely some of the works such as the hanging and powder pieces must change in accordance to the different architectural spaces they are being presented in?

FB: Yes. But in a predominantly practical way – how to hang them, how far they can extend into the space.

EB: The space Karla’s work is occupying at the Venice Biennale is such a vast space. Her works seem to hover between energy and mass. As curator of her exhibition do you intend to completely overwhelm the exhibition space?

FB: The intentions are Karla’s rather than mine. And yes, she has spoken of a desire to create a dense visual experience in parts of the exhibition, with other rooms being more measured and visually calmer.

EB: How integral are the titles of the pieces to the work? Do you feel they add another layer to already multi-faceted works?

FB: Karla’s titles are very important. They address an audience directly, and serve to begin a conversation, often by making an assertion that an audience can agree or disagree with – ‘brains are really everything’.

EB: Karla has described the works that she will be exhibiting at the Venice Biennale as being “caught between thoughtless gestures and seriously obsessive attempts at beauty”. Do you feel that focus on material items is changing our culture in a negative way?

FB: I’m not sure Karla’s work necessarily engages with this. The materials she uses are materials in the sense of being materials with which to make art rather than in the sense of being materialistic.  There is no social critique in the work as I see it.

EB: Karla reacts very negatively to her work being labelled as feminine, and yet many of the materials she uses are associated directly with women. Do you feel that this association between women and certain colours, materials or smells is a very stereotypical stance that has evolved in Western society?

FB: I think there is a difference between feminine and feminist.  Karla is a woman, and a feminist. But her work is about neither of those things. She uses colours and materials that speak to her. And yes, of course to associate pink with femininity is a stereotype and an artificial construct. But Karla is not, I don’t think, taking this on – she uses pink because she wants to, like Philip Guston did.

EB: Karla’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale will be the first solo show by a female artist representing Scotland. Surely then she would be happy to have her work labelled as feminine? Or is her objection to this labelling to do with the word ‘feminine’, and the fact that she wants her work to be regarded equally to work done by male artists, an equality in society that women have fought for for so long?

FB: I imagine Karla is proud to have been selected to represent Scotland. I imagine she is proud to be the first woman to be selected to do so with a solo exhibition. Certainly for me, though we did not choose Karla ‘because’ she is a woman, it was good to be able to present the work of a great artist who also happens to be a woman. But the quality of the work must come first.  I’m sure anyone would have difficulty with their work being labelled primarily by gender – Martin Boyce was the first male artist to be selected to make a solo exhibition for Scotland in Venice, but I am sure, while he would acknowledge the truth of that, just as Karla acknowledges the truth that she is a female artist, he would not like to see his work discussed as being ‘male’. He is male, the work isn’t. It is the same for Karla.

Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog

November 14, 2011
Reviews at Venice Biennale 2011: Hungary

Emily Burke in conversation with Hajnal Németh

Hungary: Crash - Passive Interview

Hajnal Németh

Hajnal Németh Interview:

Emily Burke: Have you felt any pressure representing Hungary at the most important international contemporary art festival in the world?

Hajnal Németh: No, on the contrary, I have found this opportunity an exciting challenge and I haven’t felt the pressure of national representation, especially not during work. As for the communication segment of representation, that wasn’t really my job – at least that’s what I think. I was only interested in creative work.

EB: As the largest Biennale, and one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary international artwork, do you think that the Biennale participants have a social obligation to represent their various countries in a certain way?

HJ: I don’t think that in case of the Biennale or any other occasion, the artists would have social obligations, just as art cannot have social obligations when we’re speaking of nations and representation.

Dedication is also a kind of obligation, but it operates according to a special system of values and measures. I think art is free, and probably most artists like to socialize.

EB: Did you feel you had to monitor or change your approach to devising your own work in order to reflect this?

HJ: No, never.

EB: Are there particular aspects of the Hungarian culture that you feel need to be expressed through art? Or do you disregard these?

HJ: I don’t think that anything “needs” to be expressed in art, only “can” be expressed. Even if someone is inspired by the culture of their immediate environment, and perhaps they express this in their work, that doesn’t mean they can’t pursue a general, overall, universal meaning.

Speaking specifically of Hungary, I, for one, don’t take it as a point of departure – regarding my work – as I’ve been living in Berlin for 10 years now. Of course this doesn’t mean that my works express German culture. This is not a question of nationality.

EB: Do you think that artists in general have a certain social responsibility to represent their country, or in the modern culture that we live in do individual art practices take precedent over ties to our culture?

HJ: Social responsibility is a friendlier expression than social obligation, but I still don’t think this is country related. I think most “modern people” feel at home in, or by, similar people, especially with regard to the spirit. The spirit of a country can’t be identical to the spirit of an individual, as the former is an abstract notion of political (cultural political) and economic positions, and the other inherently stands for free will.

In this sense, art obviously belongs to the spirit of the individual, but individual art practice is still not capable of carrying through modern projects without assistance. In most cases, voluminous and complex installations such as mine require teamwork.

EB: How do you expect your audience at the Venice Biennale, being such a wide and diverse range of people from all areas of the world, to react to your work here?

HJ: I expect them to react in a wide and diverse way. (But I hope they all like it.)

EB: How important is audience participation in your work, and are you influenced depending on where your work is exhibited?

HJ: Without an audience these works don’t even exist in some sense, since they are (re)born through the audience, so their presence is very important. The sounds, colours, narratives, etc. adapt not to the expected audience, but rather to such physical characteristics as the space, the lighting, the duration of the exhibition; these factors have stronger influence on the presentation of the work.

EB: In an age that is so dominated by that of the socially networked Internet, how influential are the genres and forms of popular culture in your art practice?

HJ: To me, the Internet is just a communicational base, it doesn’t inspire me. It is too narrow. It can’t replace real experience.

EB: Could you give us an insight into your work here at the Hungarian Pavilion? What are your aims here in Venice whilst representing Hungary at the Biennale?

HJ: The installation is practically made up of a found object – as it happens, a totalled car wreck –, opera dialogues recorded in video and audio formats, plus their librettos. Another important element is the strong red light flooding the wreck – basically natural light from outside, coming through coloured windows.

Despite all appearances, this work is first of all not about the car crash: rather, it poses questions about chance and its validity, about the possibility of determination, via the example of the car crash. In fact, it literally poses questions, as the librettos sung and also printed for reading are built on yes-no questions. Most of the librettos contain detailed stories of car crashes, based on stories related by the survivors. In this respect, the work considers the temporality of memory prevalent instead of real time.

EB: Do you have any relation to the car-crash victims in your videos that you will be exhibiting in your work?

HJ: The videos feature opera singers performing the dialogues.

The – almost – victims of the car crashes, the sources of the stories, are my friends and acquaintances, with most of whom I have an informal personal relationship. However, their representation is completely impersonal – they are displayed at the exhibition in a black and white photo series, with their backs to the camera.

EB: In your work the viewer experiences music transcending its own role as music, becoming visualized as an integrated part of the expression. Do you feel that music as an art form is stronger than visual art? Do you think that music is more appealing to the general viewer than certain forms of visual art?

HJ: I don’t think that any art form would be stronger or weaker than the other, and so their comparison doesn’t make sense to me. I think these forms of expression can be characterized, or assessed, in terms of similar features. A still or moving image has rhythm just as a sound can have colour or a sequence of notes can have form. Visual and audio pieces can be similarly abstract or difficult to interpret, or easy to apperceive and thus popular. Additionally, I think that these forms of expression don’t exist without one another, and I especially like the play and tension in the way they complement one another.

As regards the viewer, it can never be general, and I think that art intends to communicate rather than appeal.

EB: Crash, the work that you will be showing at the Venice Biennale, from what I understand is the manifestation of a frozen moment when the car was deformed into a wreck. When approaching this piece, do you aim to shock the viewer by the car’s displacement in a new ‘reality’?

HJ: To shock? This is not my aim. The possibility of death is manifested in the work, but it is present in all of our lives. What does indeed shock us is the fact of our own death, which we spend our lives trying to prevent.

EB: Do you see the car crash as a form of political statement?

HJ: Perhaps. The possibility of crash is inherent in everything. Perhaps this is “destiny”.

EB: Surely the content of this piece has changed due to the different setting at the Hungarian pavilion? Did you change the piece in any way because of this new setting? Do you think this will be detrimental to the message of the piece?

HJ: Crash was exhibited previously, at the Municipal Picture Gallery of Budapest, at the Kunsthalle Budapest and in Modem also. At the Hungarian pavilion I added a new element, a video featuring opera dialogues about car crashes recorded on the “stage of life”. So there is the wreck in red light, the sound, the librettos on music stands and the video. In fact, this is the most ideal setting for this installation so far. Not only has it not deteriorated, but it has reached completeness - both in terms of form and content (or message).

EB: What relation do the three spaces of your exhibition have to each other? And what is the significance of colour in your work, specifically black, white and red?

HJ: Perhaps the best description would be that the components presented in different spaces are linked as a chain. During the design stage, I thought that it could be approached from anywhere, that we could start the tour in any room as the components are of equal significance, without any hierarchy. However, even if there is no hierarchy, a narrative does exist, and later I realized that the most ideal strategy is to first catch sight of the car wreck bathing in red light – here we can already hear the singing of the dialogues – and crossing the passage we can skim the stories on the music stands – silent witnesses – and finally in the video room we get an insight into the recordings of the opera performances.

Colours are always significant, but their task is very easy: red is intended to highlight; black and white represent minimum and maximum contrast.

Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog

November 13, 2011
Interview: Alfredo Jaar

Emily Burke: The majority of your practice is dedicated to activity outside the traditional ‘art world’ and entails public interventions, workshops and teaching. How do you feel your installations provoke and disarm our voyeuristic gaze, which so often inhibits our full engagement with the spectacle of atrocities?

Alfredo Jaar: I have worked in the public realm for 30 years; perhaps because I consider myself an architect making art it was natural for me to get out of our small, insular “art world”. I feel that working outside of the “white cube” keeps me grounded in the real world. Teaching has also been a fundamental activity as I find it important to share my experience with the new generations of artists and in doing so, I also learn enormously from them, they give me a real sense of the zeitgeist. This does not mean I dismiss the world of art galleries and museums as I think it is equally important to engage that audience as well. But I need to move in all three worlds to feel complete.

We undoubtedly live in the society of the spectacle that Debord so brilliantly analysed in the sixties, perhaps today’s reality has become even worse than what he predicted. And atrocities, unfortunately, have become part of the spectacle and most of the media unashamedly victimises, exploits and humiliates the victims again and again. I always felt that we have to search for new strategies of representation, and this is what I have tried to do with my work. In my practice I have argued that there must be a way to dignify the victims instead of victimising them again. At least this is what I have tried to accomplish.

EB: You try and stay as up-to-date as possible with everything that is happening in the world. How can artists respond to the world in the state that it is? Can art make a difference, especially when a lot of the public will happily ignore what is going on outside their comfort zone?

AJ: We live in dark times. We are surrounded by information that most of us would rather ignore. For those of us trying to deal with the reality of the world it is a real challenge to work from this depressing reality. Hopefully there are strategies of communication that can we can use to engage our audience in a meaningful dialogue. We must insist that art makes a huge difference in our lives; it was Nietzsche who said that “without music life would be a mistake”, just imagine for a second life without art, dance, theatre, literature, it would be unliveable. Art is precisely a way to understand the world, to make sense of it, and to act in it. We must find ways to engage our audience and offer them the tools necessary to enter the world of culture, they will then discover that in fact, it is a space of resistance in difficult times, and is, ultimately,  a space of hope.

EB: With the amount of media that allows us to stay upfront with the world, is it possible to live a screened existence?

AJ: In this era of unlimited, unparalleled access to information, apathy and indifference are our biggest enemies. Most people live a screened existence because it is not so much the extraordinary amount of media surrounding us that matters, but the quality of the information they convey to us, and the way it is delivered to us. The important news is most of the time decontextualised and drowned in a sea of consumption. A responsible media should not only inform us but also encourage us to understand the bigger picture and where do we stand. A responsible media would illuminate us and move us to action. Unfortunately today most of the media treats the news like any other business, and delivering news has become part of a larger enterprise that also delivers entertainment and advertising. The news is treated today like any other for entertainment. It sounds depressing but it is unfortunately true: just stop a few people in the street and ask them a couple of simple questions about, say, Afghanistan, and see the kind of answers you get. I used to do this exercise all the time and the results were so depressing I had to stop.

EB: In your work how do you differentiate between educated information and reality, especially with the many different perceptions and receptions by the viewer in an age of globalisation?

AJ: We artists cannot represent reality, we can only create new realities, and they are generally a poor reflection of reality. Because, as Godard said, “art is not only a reflection of reality, it is also the reality of that reflection.” We create new realities that are, in a way, models of thinking the world, models that will help us understand the world. These models translate our lived experience and create representations of the world. Some of these models have the potential to educate, yes, but I am interested in going much beyond educating my audience, I want to inform her, I want to touch her, I want to illuminate her, I want to move her, and invite her to act. It is perhaps very demanding to ask all this from a work of art, but we should aspire to nothing less.

EB: Are your works an education in themselves? Surely you must learn from them when they perhaps do not go as planned?

AJ: I learn from every work and perhaps even more when they fail, which unfortunately happens very frequently.

EB: You describe yourself as a “project artist”, and not a “studio artist.” Does your training in architecture influence this? What are your views on traditional art education in the contemporary artistic climate?

AJ: All my works are based on real life events, they are conceived as projects in response to specific events or situations. I have never created a single work out of my imagination only. My imagination is triggered by an event or a place and I react, creatively. I have always described myself as an architect making art, basically because that is what I studied and I apply the methodology of architecture to develop my projects. I studied film as well, so it is also a major influence in the way I work.  I feel completely free as an artist precisely because I never studied art in a formal way, and if I do not follow any “artistic” rules it is simply because I ignore them. In my working with art students, I have noticed a struggle to create beyond existing rules, a realisation perhaps that these times demand going much beyond existing formulas.

EB: How informative and educative was the Marx Lounge that you exhibited at the Liverpool Biennale?

AJ: The Marx Lounge was born out of despair. Like everywhere else in the UK, I found Liverpool near bankruptcy and about to breakdown financially and socially. The city centre was full of empty stores. In the face of funding, particularly in education, I decided to create a work that would offer a space of resistance, a space that could possibly contain all the knowledge, all the revolutionary ideas created in the last 50 years. This is how I created a reading room with approximately a thousand books from Marx to Gramsci, from Hall to Bourdieu, from Mouffe to Ranciere, from Butler to Zizek and from Fanon to Badiou. I did not expect people to read the books at all, as in Biennials, people rush around works, stressed out, trying to see everything and dedicating 3 seconds to each work. But the idea of offering all that knowledge in a single table fascinated me.

It was an ephemeral work and the books were given away at the end of the exhibition to poor, underfunded libraries and struggling radical bookstores. It was a surprise to receive invitations from other European venues to re-create the Lounge and incorporating more books by local authors.

Originally printed in Line magazine: Alternative Strategies edition