Culture

Another show of modern Arab art

VENICE: With 89 national pavilions, 37 collateral events and a blockbuster exhibition of 83 international artists, the 2011 Venice Biennale, which opened around the city last weekend, is in many ways an exercise in excess and exhaustion. Amid so much art competing for attention, the organizers of a single, modest exhibition entitled “The Future of a Promise” deserve credit for generating a level of buzz that is entirely disproportionate to the size and scope of their show.

Installed in an old dockside salt depot in the neighborhood of Dorsoduro, “The Future of a Promise” is surprisingly magisterial. Sculptures by Ziad Abillama and Abulnasser Gharem – of a streamlined signpost and an oversized stamp, respectively – stand outside the entrance. Abillama’s untitled piece, pointing to “Arabes” in all directions, fulfills a very different function here than it did when it was first shown during the “Nafas” exhibition at Espace SD five years ago.

There, it evoked fear, suspicion, division and a relentless picking apart of political identities and sectarian privileges. Here, it really is a signpost alerting visitors: “The Arabs are this way.”

Inside the exhibition space, a cavernous hall of exposed brick is filled with bold paintings by Ayman Baalbaki and Abdelkader Benchamma; conceptually clever photographs by Ziad Antar and Taysir Batniji; arresting videos by Yto Barrada and Jananne al-Ani; and elegant sculptures by Emily Jacir and Nadia Kaabi-Linke, among others.

Only one work – Mona Hatoum’s “Drowning Sorrows (Gran Centenario),” made of glass and dated 2002 – has been withheld from public view until later this month. It was deemed too delicate and potentially dangerous for the opening hordes.

The exhibition covers such a range of aesthetics and critical strategies that taken together, the works make little sense of the exhibition’s title, which reads like a nugget of artspeak.

According to curator Lina Lazaar, “The Future of a Promise” is about “the manifestation of an intention to act,” about “the way in which an idea is made manifest in a formal, visual context,” and about the capacity of visual culture to “respond to both recent events and the future implied in those events.”

In other words, the exhibition addresses the future of the promise of the Arab Spring – except that it doesn’t. Reconstituting Mounir Fatmi’s installation of flags and broomsticks (which was, depending who you ask, either altered or censored during this year’s Art Dubai) hardly passes for a meaningful engagement with a tumultuous and historic moment.

Featuring the work of 22 artists from eight countries, “The Future of a Promise” bills itself as the Venice Biennale’s first pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art, a claim that echoes with the sound of hair-splitting. In terms of the international exhibition, historically the Venice Biennale’s main event, there hasn’t been a single show without the participation of Arab artists in a decade.

In 2003, curator Catherine David’s contribution was a solid presentation of her long-term Contemporary Arab Representations project, featuring work on or about Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq. Twenty-two artists are in attendance here, but they do not correspond to the 22 states of the Arab League. Libya, Jordan, Syria and Bahrain are absent, as is the rest of the Gulf except for Saudi Arabia (“The Future of a Promise” was produced by Edge of Arabia, an independent project focusing on the promotion of contemporary Saudi art).

The problem with exhibitions inspired by the representational politics of identity and geography is that they can never escape the tallying of numbers or the testing of balances. Regional spread aside, what do we make of a show with seven women to 15 men, with no artists under 30 in a region nearly half are under 25, with works from the past 10 years, some of which have been seen many times before at Art Dubai or the Sharjah Biennial or the Abraj Capital Art Prize’s annual award show?

And if the organizers can indeed be credited with the Venice Biennale’s first pan-Arab show ever, so what? Should the Lebanese, for example, be proud of having three or four artists in “The Future of a Promise” when plans to organize a national pavilion ended in contemptible, eye-rolling failure? Is the sectarian distribution among them accidental or intentional? Is this an exhibition about works or quotas?

If much of this year’s biennale contends with the anachronism of national representation, with several initiatives posing thoughtful alternatives, what accounts for the strange longing evident in “The Future of a Promise” – a longing somehow absent from another, not entirely dissimilar, show around the corner, “The Mediterranean Approach”?

The beauty of Venice this year is artistic director Bice Curiger’s precise and well-paced articulation of ideas in the international exhibition, “Illuminations,” which seems to peel back and expose what Susan Sontag once called “the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are.” Although perfectly competent as an exhibition, “The Future of a Promise” seems to trust the art less.

Regional exhibitions about art from the Arab world and the Middle East are neither better nor worse than they were a decade ago. The problem is that they forever subordinate the work of art and the labor of artists to their placement, like thumbtacks, on maps.

They also appear to be getting less interesting and less critical. This may be the effect of an emerging market. Curated by a Sotheby’s specialist and sponsored by a private equity firm, “The Future of a Promise” scans more like a portfolio of investment pieces than an exertion of curatorial thought.

“The recent turmoil in the Middle East bestows this efflorescence with particular poignancy and power,” writes Rachel Spence in a review of the show in The Financial Times.

Maybe, but what poignancy and power is generated by the works themselves – by Jacir’s eerie luggage conveyor belt that spins in a small circle corresponding to the artist’s height, by Taysir Batniji’s rueful real-estate ads for wrecked properties, by Ani’s haunting and cerebral study of desert landscapes?

In another exhibition, Ani’s video, entitled “Shadow Sites II,” would stand on its own as a complex, multifaceted work delving into the thorny, interrelated histories of photography, war, technology, flight and the sublime. Here it ticks a few boxes, but it doesn’t really have the space or context it deserves, and the black polyester shag rug it shares a room with isn’t helping.

The opening of “The Future of a Promise” corresponded with the launching of Ibraaz, a new publishing initiative that produced the exhibition’s catalogue, replete with responses to a question that epitomizes the dimness of thinking behind the entire enterprise of regional group shows (a category distinctly apart from more generative projects like Home Works, Photo Cairo, the Jerusalem Show or Meeting Points).

“What do we need to know about the MENA region today?” Ibraaz asks.

“Who is this ‘we’ mentioned in the question?” counters artist and architect Tony Chakar. “Why does this ‘we’ feel compelled to know anything?

“As for the Middle East – the middle of what East? The East of what? The East of the West? The East of Europe? The Europe of the ‘Western democratic values’? The same Europe who was worried about the influx of ‘illegal immigrants’ while in Egypt the protesters were re-using slogans from the French Revolution? What happened to that Europe and when will this Europe get over itself?

“Finally, why this sense of false urgency? Why ‘today’? What about yesterday or tomorrow? Not good enough? Does this ‘we’ feel the urge to know more because of what’s happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria? Is that it?

“So, NOW we’re interesting?”

“The Future of a Promise: Contemporary Art from the Arab World,” curated by Lina Lazaar, remains on view through Nov. 20. www.thefutureofapromise.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 11, 2011, on page 16.

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