'Forging a new perception of art and its function' - Jack Persekian


BEIRUT: The following interview is the second in a series for which The Daily Star will periodically seek out and sit down with various established cultural figures who work behind the scenes, provide a vital link between artists and audiences and who are more often that not the unsung heroes of their fields.

Jack Persekian is one of the hardest working curators in the Arab world. Of Armenian descent, his family roots reach through generations in East Jerusalem, where he was born and raised and where he is still, to a certain extent, based. After studying in the United States and a stint as an accountant, Persekian opened the Anadiel Gallery in 1992. In the wake of the Madrid conference, which suggested the possibility of lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Persekian organized several exhibitions for artists working on either side of one of the world's most violent and protracted conflicts. Those shows were "a conscious effort to find the means and ways to know 'the other' and mitigate the effect of years of occupation and aggression," Persekian explains. The Anadiel Gallery also showed new works by such internationally known artists as Jean-Marc Bustamante, Mona Hatoum, Beat Streuli and Emily Jacir.

But when the peace process fell apart and the optimism of the early 1990s came to a quick and bitter end, the contemporary art scene in East Jerusalem suffered along with everyone and everything else in the region. Anadiel ceased to exist as a viable commercial entity. Persekian turned his attention to the nonprofit sector and with six others he set up the Al-Mamal Foundation for Contemporary Art in 1998. Al-Mamal uses the old Anadiel space to host exhibitions, film screenings, educational initiatives and workshops.

Persekian is also involved in a long-term project called CAMP (for Contemporary Art Museum Palestine) that is building a permanent collection of artworks for an as-yet unrealized institution. In theory, CAMP will take up rotating residence in various museums throughout the world until such a time when a permanent space for the museum (presumably in some semblance of a permanent Palestinian state) can be established.

But considering how confined and restricted his work in East Jerusalem remains, Persekian is arguably better known for the exhibitions he curates elsewhere, such as the "DisORIENTation" show at Berlin's House of World Cultures in 2003, and "Belonging," which fleshed out the seventh edition of the Sharjah Biennial in 2005.

Over the past decade, international biennials have cropped up everywhere. Critics as well as art-world insiders are beginning to predict their imminent demise. With the global proliferation of more lucrative art fairs, the biennial model is growing old and becoming redundant.

To some, the Sharjah Biennial is a joke, the ultimate example of an exhibition as public relations strategy, of artworks as the gloss on a crass brand identity campaign. To others, it is an offense to artistic freedom, and the contradictions inherent in presenting contemporary art in an autocratic country are simply too much to bear. (The fact that the biennial is wholly funded by the state elicits reactions from would-be participants that range from queasy to furious.) But to others still, the Sharjah Biennial is no longer a biennial at all but rather a much-needed think tank and laboratory where critical art practices can be tested out and explored.

At the end of Sharjah 7, Persekian made the unusual decision to sign on as artistic director for Sharjah 8, which tackled the theme "Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change." Most likely, he will stick around for Sharjah 9 as well. In the following interview, conducted by email between numerous cities, Persekian discusses the lessons he has learned and his plans for the future.

Q: Between the seventh and eighth editions of the Sharjah Biennial, how have things changed?

A: The most important thing that changed was the time available to prepare for the show. This allowed me to have an overall view of the project - the exhibition, performances, production, symposium, film program, publications, workshops - and to see all the elements come together to serve the biennial's goals. This also allowed for a considerable increase in the number of commissioned works, and special attention to artists from the Arab world. Compared to the seventh edition, I had more time to fulfill several objectives, such as going out of the two main exhibition venues to engage with the city and reach out to the public.

Q:What lessons did you learn from Sharjah 7 that you were able to apply to Sharjah 8?

A: I learned to network and collaborate with more institutions locally and internationally. This has given the biennial a much larger base and a wider scope. This has also enabled us to test our approach to the theme not only within the boundaries of the art world but with educational, cultural and governmental institutions as well as the private sector. The biennial has been able to implicate several entities in Sharjah ... thus gradually digging its roots in society and taking its place as a driving force for creativity, challenge and education.

Q: How involved were you this time around and in what capacity?

A: I was partly involved in the selection and commissioning of artists, especially artists from the Arab world. For the installation of works, I was part of the team with three curators and an architect. Yet as artistic director, I was always trying to make sure that there was flow in the layout of the exhibition, and that works were visible without infringing on others. I won't deny that I interfered whenever I saw a lack of representation in the selection of artists from a certain region, particularly regions close to us, and I also won't deny that I interfered whenever I realized that there was too much of the same approach in the artists' proposals. I was looking for varied perspectives on the theme. I was not trying to make a point with the exhibition; I was interested in how all the different points made up the bigger picture. Some interesting threads kind of weaved certain patterns of thought and approach, bringing to the biennial a colorful cohesion.

Q: How did you manage to pull off so many public projects this time, when there were none last time?

A: It's the time element that worked for me and for the biennial. I had more time to engage the artists. Giving them the opportunity to visit Sharjah and the site ... facilitated a discussion and the articulation and development of new ideas and propositions that materialized in new commissions for the biennial. And if I'm around for the ninth edition I will try to involve the artists over a longer period of time with more resources dedicated to the production, less to the number of commissions.

Q: Was there censorship? What areas or issues remain sensitive or taboo?

A: Nudity has always been an issue, even though I could see some artists pushing the limits. This is my second time around for the biennial and I have never seen any official come around interfering with what we present. But when the director, Hoor al-Qasimi, and I see that there is something that might infringe on local sensitivities, we have a discussion with the artist and leave it up to him or her to decide how to deal with it.

Q: After working on two biennials in Sharjah, what role do you think the event plays in the region?

A: The biennial is definitely forging a new perception of art and its function, revisiting the artist's place in society from being relegated to the margins, the frill and the decorative to being engaged with pressing issues and concerns and taking the position of the intellectual, the critic and the avant-garde.


Q: In terms of the infrastructure for contemporary art in the Middle East, what is still missing? People often say there are not enough curators and not enough critics in the region. Do you agree? Has the biennial been able to address any of these gaps, even if that falls beyond the work of the biennial?

A: The problem, from my point of view, is that there aren't sufficient opportunities and resources in the Arab world for the production, presentation and dissemination of art. Art in the Middle East is not yet economically viable; hence at the current level of activity it is not possible financially to sustain "enough curators" and "enough critics." The infrastructure for art is being built gradually, and there are more specialized people and supporting institutions than there were 15 years ago when I started working in this field. The biennial is one of these institutions doing just that.

Q: Will you be involved in Sharjah 9? What else are you working on now?

A: Most probably I will be involved. As for the other projects, I'm working on "The Jerusalem Show" with Al-Mamal, an annual exhibition that situates itself in the Old City of Jerusalem, and two exhibitions in Sharjah, a group show for the participants in the artist-in-residence program and the retrospective for Andreas Gursky that is traveling to Sharjah from Munich. I am preparing two exhibitions for 2008, one at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the other a touring show in Spain.





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