Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Tangier/Casablanca with Mohamed Arejdal, a Studio Visit on Track.

Posted in Reviews by berenicesaliou on November 12, 2009

It’s about 9am at Tangier train station. Mohamed and I got in the crowded and already overheated train. Direction: Casablanca. We find an empty square of seats and sit down. We start talking about insignificant things. The travel is about to start. 7 hours, at least…

My phone rings. The TV is about to arrive at the exhibition. They want me to explain the project. “Why didn’t they warn us?” I ask Mohamed.
“Oh you know, the TV….” he says.
Alright, at least the artist is there. I phone him. “Mohamed – his name is Mohamed, too – the TV is on its way. They want to see the exhibition. They will interview you, ok?”
– “Oh, that’s nice, he says, but I don’t want to be on TV you know!”
I throw a desperate gaze at the other Mohamed, the one in front of me, who is actually the artist’s friend. He laughs. “Of course, he says, I knew he would refuse!”

The travel continues, as slowly as I calm down. Outside, the monotonous barren landscape unfolds, sometimes punctuated by characteristic small villages. “You want to see something?” Mohamed asks, probably feeling that I need some distraction. “Sure!” I say.  He takes a catalogue in his bag. I recognize the catalogue he submitted for his final graduation from Tetuan’s National Fine Art School. I remember his viva and especially one video, particularly insightful. I also remember his focused and charismatic attitude and the inadequacy of the teachers’ comments. “We can’t tell about your videos because we don’t know anything about video. We want to see some paintings.” they said. I remember how I so wished I spoke Arabic…

Mohamed starts turning the pages from the right to the left and translates the summary, from Arabic to French. I think to myself: “I should take a pen…this is going to be interesting” but I just cannot. I feel like it would break the casualty of this quite intimate moment. Things in Morocco never happen the way you have planned then, nor when you have planned them. They just happen.

Mohamed explains to me that art is for him a tool that helps him to go toward people; it is also a way for knowing himself better. He shows me several works following the unfolding of the book. One of them – or rather the way he talks about it – catches my attention. One day, he decided to ask the first person he met on the street to draw the way to the nearest pharmacy. The first man he crossed explained to him how to go there but did not take the pen. The conversation went on and on for about two hours. The old man had never had a pen in his hand. Finally he gave up and rather angrily drew a line and a dot. Mohamed followed the drawing of the man and stopped at a place he assumed was matching with the end of the line. There he asked the same question to the next person he met and followed the indications of the improvised “map”. The whole action lasted 3 weeks. At the end of the process Mohamed had met all sorts of people, persons who insulted him, who took him to the place he wanted to go, who could perfectly draw the way, some who are still friends with him today. He also possessed an incredibly wide range of drawings he started to organise and connect as to create a new map of the city.

Mohamed doesn’t really show works. He tells stories. Stories about himself, stories about his life, about his doubts, his hesitations and his joys. He told me how the sensation of being schizophrenic led him to create this strange bifid portrait where his left side shows a shaved scalp and a beard whereas his right side is beardless but with hairs. He told me how he went out like that, how he met the amazed gaze of people and listened to the ironic commentaries of his friends and of his family. He also explained to me the context within which he created the video I noticed the first time I met him. And I realised that my understanding of this particular work was really far away from his original intentions. I told him how this video evoked to me a critique of the religion’s omnipotence in Muslim countries and we discussed about the different interpretations one can have of a work depending on culture, sexual identity and experiences. We kept talking until he went out of the compartment for a cigarette. I relaxed on the seat. We had been talking for about four hours and we still had plenty to say. This is when the slow and repetitive rhythm of the train enveloped me and my eyes closed softly…

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Serra at Gagosian Gallery (London)

Posted in Reviews by berenicesaliou on February 9, 2009

Wow! is the first comment used usually about Richard Serra’ sculptures. In fact, no matter who and how into arts the viewers are, these four massive metal sculptures literally assault them when they enter into the Gagosian Gallery.
Two huge and red-corrugated pieces like cargo ship bows occupy the space of the main room. Both strangely tilted on a parallel axis, their sizes leave the viewer breathless. Despite the strength which emanates from them, the two sculptures paradoxically seem about to collapse. Inviting the viewer to penetrate into the area their shapes delimits, they are welcoming and scaring at the same time.
The third sculpture in the room looks like a curved black metal wall. But this wall reveals itself to be a narrow and never ending dark corridor in an almost elliptical shape. Once inside, the viewer half anticipates encountering the Minatory and ends up wondering if he will manage to escape from this oppressive and claustrophobic space.
In the second room, there is nothing else but a simple piece of metal displayed horizontally in the middle of the space. But what a piece! It measures an astonishing 10 metres long, 2 metres wide and 10 cm thick that goes beyond the boundaries of reason. Not surprisingly, everyone in the room asks: “How did they get this sculpture in here?”
The question underpins the main concern of the artist. Because “To remove the work is to destroy the work” argued Serra in his defence to the opponents of his “Tilted arc”, finally removed from the Federal Plaza in Washington.

Regarding the specific engagement of Serra on site-specific projects we can assume that he created the sculptures especially for the Gagosian Gallery. The relationship between the sculptures and the space dramatically reinforces the impact of the artworks. The sculptures, which almost touch the ceiling and the walls, absolutely invade the room and the field of the spectator’s vision. They absorb the spectators and leave them with a curious sensation of dizziness. This feeling undoubtedly comes from a matter of scale, because the sculptures do not fit into the room; they are too massive and the space is too tiny. There is something wrong…
In fact, it is this “something wrong” that makes the show a success. Because the sculptures reveal the space whilst the space is simultaneously revealed by the sculptures. With this extremely physical and powerful exhibition, Serra created a dialectical and almost magical process and a very impressive tour de force.

Sirkus at Frieze…

Posted in Reviews by berenicesaliou on October 22, 2008

The third week of October is probably one of the busiest in the British contemporary art world calendar. Frieze Art Fair, Zoo Art Fair and Scope take place in London, not to mention a dozen of other attractive events that give to the contemporary art aficionado an irrepressible impression of ‘missing something’…
Between hundreds of interesting artworks and a few glasses of champagne, one of Frieze Curatorial Program Projects is worth a special attention. It is the unexpected project by the Icelandic gallery Kling & Bang (K&B).

Those who in the past had the occasion to spend some time in Reykjavik would think they are victim of a hallucination as they wander within the fair’s lanes.
In front of them is Sirkus.
For most of the visitors, Sirkus is just a colourful and noisy café located at a corner of the fair. Even though they will notice that the place is crowed with outgoing people talking, or rather, shouting with a pronounced Icelandic accent, nothing can really let them know what the place really is.
Because for the visitors who know Iceland, this is the tiny crazy bar where they have been partying, drinking and dancing. This is the quite unique place where they have met outstanding people during one of those odd Icelandic sunny nights. This is Sirkus, the most famous bar in the whole country, the symbol of the underground music and art scene of Iceland.
But despite this background and the offended screams of thousand of desperate clubbers, Sirkus closed last January in order to make space for more profitable real estate investments.

In Frieze, Kling and Bang’s artists decided to recreate the bar to the last detail, from the sticky floor to the small graffiti on the wall, not to forget this baroque mix of posters, postcards and kitsch souvenirs.
By doing this, they created a spatial and temporal displacement and a very bizarre experience specifically designed for the privileged viewer who used to know the place. But the project, also and rather unexpectedly, highlight the disappearance of a cultural landmark at a very specific moment in the life of Iceland and in its political relationships with the UK.
In fact, the 9th of October, that is to say just one week before Frieze, the country lived the darkest hours of its economic life.  Three of its most important banks collapsed leaving the island (whose currency has lost 60 percent of its value in less than a year) totally dazed.
And as several UK citizens couldn’t access the money they had invested in the banks in question, the UK government immediately decided to protect British depositors by freezing the assets of collapsed Icelandic banks. Then, Britain also threatened to sue Iceland to recover the lost deposits of Britons who hold accounts with the online arm of one of the collapsed banks.

This paradox is quite relevant.
Iceland, a country emblematic of ultra-liberal politics is on the verge of going bankrupt.
Meanwhile, the ghost of its cultural landmark has been rebuilt for a few hours in the place of a lost friend, where millions and millions of pounds are at stake.

Brighton Photo Biennal 2008 : Memory of Fire, the war of images and images of war

Posted in Reviews by berenicesaliou on October 13, 2008

The third Brighton Photo Biennal consists of 10 exhibitions spread across the South East. The event invites the spectator to discover the photography of international conflicts, which have been generated over the twentieth century. The pictures presented are supposed to give various glimpses on the topic: from the photojournalistic style to historical and artistic approaches. However, a walk through Brighton’s exhibitions gives the tone of the biennal: it is mainly about documenting war and its effects and the photojournalistic style seems to occupy the front of the stage.
The keynote exhibition is called “Iraq trough the lens of Vietnam”. Images of recent events in Iraq are put into perspective with those of the Vietnam War, highlighting how the role of the photojournalist has evolved in the last decades, from an independent position to the almost compulsory place of an embedded photographer, twisting the notion of objectivity considered as inherent in the field.
The exhibition also introduces the viewer to the latest changes that have occurred in our relationships with images and the media. The Serie of snapshots taken by torturers at Abu Ghraib are set up on a massive panel, interrogating the ambiguity of photography. In fact, the torturers themselves took and released these pictures. They literally condemned themselves because they didn’t expect the unrelenting international circulation of their dreadful war trophies. But the whole panel in itself is quite relevant as illustrating the ambiguity of looking.  In fact, pictures on the back of the panel were taken by US army soldiers. They show Iraqi civilians thanking US troops, US soldiers playing with Iraqi children, and we can note down that here, the light is much brighter than on every other picture presented in the exhibition. These pictures, which strangely look like commercials for joining the US Army, are just another aspect on what we call “reality”.

The Fabrica hosts a work called “The incommensurable banner” by artist Thomas Hirschorn. When entering into the exhibition space, people are asked if they came on purpose to see the artwork. Quite a strange question, we might think. But the reason for such a question is explained, as soon as the viewer’s eye encounter the “incommensurable banner”. Eighteen metres of intolerable war images spread on the wall. Human guts mix with burned bodies while bloody corpses enter into dialog with disfigured childrens faces. Thomas Hirschorn forces us to encounter what we do not see on TV, what the news and newspaper never show. Because, as one of the explanatory boards rightly says, “people want to know, but people don’t want to see”. And the viewer hesitates to look at the work, feeling paradoxically attracted by such repulsive images.

The Lighthouse exhibition is undoubtedly the most interesting one in Brighton. Dutch photojournalist Geert Van Kesteren presents two of his works, “Why, mister, Why?” and “Bagdad calling”, which are confronted for the first time in a single presentation process. Geert Van Kesteren is one of those rare photojournalist who worked as “unilateral” amongst the Iraqis, that is to say, without any troop protection. The topic of his images differs absolutely from the one by embedded photographers. Here, we can see the everyday life and traumas of Iraqi civilians and the fighters’ resistance. But Van Kesteren doesn’t only show pictures. In the Fabrica, he truly establishes a particularly efficient scenographic device. Pictures are presented in three series on a single wall. Colours, forms and motives circulate from one picture to another, demonstrating the artist incredible compositional skills. Spaces are left free in order to give the viewer the power to invent his own narratives and interpretation of pictures which, however, remain images of real facts. But such an aesthetic treatment of war images also leads to an interrogation regarding the viewer’s responsibility. In fact, what happens when the viewer concentrates more on aesthetics proprieties of an image than on the image itself, which shows all the cruel effects of international conflicts on human beings? Can topics such as war be treated in an artistic manner? Is it ethically possible? This is what Susan Sontag argues when she writes: “Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems aesthetic, that is, too much like art”.
The exhibition “The sublime images of destruction” at the De la Warr Pavillion in Bexhill deals with this very acute topic. However, one would have expected other works than those exhibited, which quite fail to represent the paradoxes carried out by the notion of the sublime and the aesthetisation of war. Sophie Riestlhueber for example, remains strangely absent.
Thus, if one can regret the fact that the Biennal deals more with photojournalistic images than with artworks, we can maybe understand this as a choice of the curator, Julian Stallabrass. Representing the inhuman aesthetically is maybe more subversive and intolerable than just presenting the inhuman.

Why mister why? © Geert Van Kesteren

Why mister why? © Geert Van Kesteren