Of Etel Adnan and superstring theory

DOHA: Hans-Ulrich Obrist seems a man whose attention is always partly someplace else. Whether sitting through a panel presentation or a one-on-one interview, he may find a piece of paper and begin to pen impressions upon it, as though to release the kinetic energy that accumulates during spells of listening.

The Swiss-born curator and author has done a lot of listening.

Though his focus is emerging artists, Obrist’s work has been likened to that of an archivist or archaeologist. This found expression in “The Interview Project,” which has seen him record thousands of hours of conversations with artists and intellectuals.

An archivist’s traces are evident in “Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions,” the major retrospective of work by the Lebanese-American artist he’s curated at Doha’s Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art.

“I’ve known Etel for four or five years and we’ve done many different projects together,” Obrist says. “Performances, readings. She’s been involved in several of my [speaking and performance] marathons. We did ‘Edgware Road,’ a Middle East project at [London’s] Serpentine, various group shows, almost everything but a big survey.

“With the present focus on great pioneering artists from the Middle East, I felt now is the moment to celebrate Etel’s practices, to go into depth in a dignified way.

“The idea from the beginning was not only to make a big exhibition here but to make a big book, of almost 600 pages, a kind of Etel Bible, with lots of different essays ... and several interviews we’ve done over the years. The idea is to gather these many different dimensions.”

“Dimensions” includes samples of Adnan’s paintings, drawings and experiments with super-8mm film, as well as the Otolith Group’s homage to the artist, “I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another.”

There are also many of the artist’s books on show. For Obrist, her leporellos – concertina books that gradually drifted from text-centered to ever-more figurative objects – were the show’s essential starting point.

“These were the first work I saw of hers,” he recalls, “and I always thought that’s where it all came together. These works are very small: they can go on any bookshelf. They’re also fairly monumental when you start to unfold them, so it’s important that the vitrine situation doesn’t kill them ...

“I also wanted her books and texts to be present,” Obrist continues. “As Anthony Powell says, books do furnish a room. I’ve read all Etel’s books, something I haven’t done since childhood, reading everything an author’s written ... I like having these books in the exhibition, encyclopedically, and then of course carpets and paintings.”

Obrist sees his show as a follow-up to Kassel’s twice-a-decade art spectacular Documenta 13, which hosted an Etel Adnan exhibition in 2012.

“We wanted to have a celebration of her practice. Then I wanted a really big room of all the recent work, because I feel that what she’s doing now, all these recent paintings, is among the best work she’s ever done, so fresh, like that of a very young artist.”

Throughout her career, Adnan has expressed herself in diverse media – poetry, essay, a novel, paint, pen-and-ink, film and, most recently, sculpture. When describing the range of her oeuvre, Obrist has invoked physics’ Superstring Theory – an effort to explain all of the particles and fundamental forces of nature in one theory.

The curator feels that her wide travels – geographically and artistically – has made boundaries inapplicable to her.

“She is of course a Lebanese artist,” he says, “but she is also a French artist, an American artist. She’s a global artist. She’s lived her life between geographies. There’s nothing wrong with describing her as a Lebanese artist because she’s an amazing treasure, the most important Lebanese person alive, without any doubt.

“But her work has an impact today all over the world. If you look at this triangle between Sausalito, Paris and Beirut” – his pen scratches a rough triangle on the page before him – “places she’s lived and her other journeys ... her way clearly went beyond national identities.

“She has, as [French Marxist philosopher] Etienne Balibar says, become a borderline, being and living between geographies rather than belonging to one geography.

“I think the idea of imprisoning her within a national identity seems impossible ... Her whole work goes beyond boundaries, not only of geographies but disciplines.

“It’s extremely rare that someone makes a contribution to all the fields [she’s worked in]. It’s already difficult to be a great visual artist and a great poet. You’ve got 20th-century figures who have done both. Kurt Schwitters [1887–1948], a great poet and visual artist of collage, comes to mind. In this respect Etel’s a bit like the early Dadaists.

“You know, a poet’s painting is often not as relevant as his poetry. In Etel’s case, her contribution to the novel, to poetry, to painting ... is absolutely eminent. Then in addition she’s got her other aspects, like crafts and film.

“It’s very rare that an artist can be celebrated at Documenta and at the same time be a candidate [in 2013] for the Nobel Prize.”

Asked whether Adnan’s formal restlessness might stem from the fact that artists of her generation felt less pressure to specialize, Obrist replies that he has always been impressed by her courage, the fearlessness of her explorations.

“It’s about never growing old,” he says. “Like Baudelaire said, it’s all about beginnings.”

“Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions” is up at Doha’s Mathaf until July 6. For more info, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2014, on page 16.




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