'Poignant, tragic and somehow also marvelous'


BEIRUT: The following interview is the first 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 are more often that not the unsung heroes of their fields.

The point of this series is, first, to shed light on the work these people do - from art curators and film festival organizers to independent music producers and literary translators - and, second, to explore the way they talk about their work, the discourse they build around their artistic disciplines and the strategies they develop to bring greater attention to - and more meaningful critical engagement with - artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers in the Middle East and the Arab world.

From the region's old cosmopolitan centers in Beirut and Cairo to its new cultural hubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, serious slips of understanding frequently occur in conversations about the arts. They may stem from generational differences, class divisions or disagreements about the value of history, criticism, globalization or its discontents. Is the role of art to decorate or disrupt? These interviews - which will endeavor to dig inside art, cinema, music, literature and more - are an attempt to bridge those gaps, answer those questions and pose a few challenges along the way.

Curator Suzanne Cotter organized a major exhibition titled "Out of Beirut," which opened at the British art space Modern Art Oxford a year ago this month. Last month, she put the finishing touches on a follow-up publication, "Public Time: A Symposium," which collects a series of discussions on traveling and translation held in conjunction with the exhibition. "Out of Beirut" wasn't the first - and certainly won't be the last - exhibition to be based on a geographic location in the Middle East. But it raises a number of key questions about how art from the region is packaged and exported.

Q: When did you first travel to Beirut and how did the idea for "Out of Beirut" develop?

A: I first traveled to Beirut in April 2005 with nine other curators and gallery directors as part of a research trip organized by Arts Council England. That was the trigger to what become an elaborate weaving together of people, knowledge and networks in Beirut, the Middle East and Europe. The development of the project came out of many conversations; in the first instance, with the artists and thinkers I met on that initial trip. The process of interrogating the possibility of creating such a project in a way that was meaningful was crucial to its subsequent development. Consultation with others living outside of Beirut but knowledgeable of the scene there and its context was also invaluable. I relied on the assistance of Christine Tohme at Ashkal Alwan in introducing me to artists and writers in Beirut. Intersecting as well as concentric rings of contacts continued to develop and took me to Paris, Berlin and New York. Ultimately, it was the artists, writers, curators and academics who contributed to the exhibition, the book, the symposium, the film screenings and talks who allowed this to happen. I would maintain that the conversations we have had, and that are reflected in the project, are ongoing.

Q: What previous knowledge of Beirut did you have before that first trip in April 2005? What did you know about the art scene here and how did you know it?

A: My knowledge of Beirut prior to my first visit was very little. I would say I was largely ignorant of anything relating to its contemporary reality. I knew there had been a terrible civil war; I knew that the city was once considered a glamorous Mediterranean destination but not much else.

Q: Did Beirut in general and the art scene in particular conform to your expectations or did it surprise you?

A: I came with no preconceived ideas. And yet, it was as it should be, certainly physically - the sea, the light, the mountains. But the complexity of the city's political and social configuration compelled me and made me conscious of how little I knew. The artistic scene excited me tremendously - the intelligence of the people I met, the cross-disciplinary approach to the work people were doing, their engagement with making something happen, or creating a space for different forms of expression within the city. This was exciting and opened up a whole new perspective from which to think about the way art is being made not only in Beirut but also in the UK and the international art world.

Q: How and why did you decide to use Beirut as a curatorial framework?

A: Beirut became the matrix that structured the project.

This, however, was in direct response to the work I was encountering. All of the work in the show deals with the city, its geography, its past, its present and its future in very particular ways. The city was also the source of this coming together and emergence of so many remarkable and eloquent voices, even if a number of them are now living between Beirut and other cities internationally.

Q: What was your criteria for selecting work?

A: A sense of structure was fundamental to the show. The most obvious criterion was that the work speak for itself, without explanation. There needed to be a sufficiently visual and conceptual underpinning to it. The structure of the show was suggested by the work I was seeing, and the texts by artists and others I was reading. I think the sense of shared and intersecting or overlapping concerns was also important to bring across what at first glance might appear to be a diverse range of expression. I was also keen on encouraging artists to make new work. A number of pieces were unknown to me until just before the show. However, I was confident that they would work based on what the artists told me. So there was rigor but also a great deal of trust and intuition. This applied as much to the artists involved as to me.

Q: There is a catch 22 for curators working internationally today - if a curator visits a city and selects artworks for a thematic show, the curator is often accused of shopping for art. At the same time, if a curator visits a city and curates a show of that city, the curator is often accused of over-playing regionalism. How did you navigate these issues while putting together this exhibition?

A: It's a big and extremely important question. I certainly did not go to Beirut with the intention of creating a show. In some ways, the show chose me. It's true that when I was there for the first time and I found myself thinking about possible exhibitions, I initially thought of how one might contextualize the work of artists from the city within a broader international context. I realized, however, that this was a flawed approach from the outset in that such "pan-global" contextualizing would efface the very distinctiveness of the people, the attitudes and the work I was encountering and that I so wanted to highlight. It's important to remember that the large international survey exhibition such as the biennial can obscure as much as it can reveal.

Q: Is there something particular about Beirut that lends it to being an object of study - be it an exhibition, a book or a project? If so, what do you think that is?

A: Beirut has obviously lent itself as a major object of study judging by the many books I have seen written about it, mainly by people from Beirut and the region, it is true. Of course it's fascinating, but it's also unbelievably complex to an outsider. I think Beirut somehow distills and offers a focus for so many of the contradictions, misunderstandings, inequalities and uncertainties that we are aware of and experience in the world. It's poignant, tragic and somehow also marvelous.

Q: What did you learn from the work you've put into this show, or what surprised you most? Did the works, the artists or their practices alter your perspective, either on contemporary art or on Beirut, Lebanon and the Arab world?

A: I've learned a huge amount from this show and the artists with whom I have had the pleasure of working. It has absolutely altered my view of contemporary art and, I must say, the world. Everything is larger at a time when the world seems to be increasingly shrinking. This is a good thing. Suddenly all sorts of lives, societies and realities exist for me in a way they didn't before. I feel privileged to have had this period of intense contact with so many people and intellects. I certainly can't look at contemporary art in the way I used to since doing this project. For that, I'm hugely grateful.





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