Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Hans Haacke at the Reina Sofia

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Madrid is a late-night city. You’ve probably heard that the Spanish are notorious for eating late, but you might not know that the museums are open late too. During a short trip to Madrid for the ARCO art fair, I found myself at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia until 9 p.m. most nights, waiting for dinner to start and trying to keep my feet steady walking through the museum’s endless rooms. The first night, jet-lagged but art-hungry, I attended the opening of an exhibition of the work of Hans Haacke, the German-born American artist known primarily for his institutional critiques bordering on investigative journalism. If you wade through Hans Haacke’s long exhibition history, you find a shortlist of the most important art exhibitions of the last 45 years: Earth Art (1969); Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969); Documenta 5 (1972); Magiciens de la terre (1989); Image World: Art and Media Culture (1989); Documenta X (1997); and Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form 1940s–1970s (2004), not to mention the Venice Biennales. I realized that outside of gallery presentations, I had never seen a major show of Haacke’s in the U.S., and that’s because there hasn’t been one. Recognizing my good fortune, I switched shoes, forgot about dinner, and dug in.

Dakar, Sénégal. Condition Report: Symposium on building art institutions in Africa

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

One of the reasons I went to Dakar was to follow the “Symposium on building art institutions in Africa”, organized by Koyo Kouoh, the founder of Raw Material Company. Established in Dakar since 2008, Raw Material Company is “a center for art, knowledge and society.” With the self-confident claim that “The art scene in Africa is growing mainly on impetus of independent initiatives,” the symposium brought together some of Africa’s most important independent art spaces and initiatives as well as a series of exemplary projects from other continents. I learned a great deal about how the colonial past continues to provoke questions and polemics (while countries like China are buying up Africa’s agricultural land). It also became clear that a young generation of African curators, intellectuals, and artists are willing to change things and to build up meaningful projects while the ruling class and the politicians in power are envious, passive, or are attached to old concepts and privileges. Within the range of initiatives, I felt particularly drawn to artist-run projects like:

Dakar, Sénégal

Monday, January 16th, 2012

I arrived at Dakar airport around 2 a.m. on Monday, January 9, and was welcomed by hundreds of taxi drivers ready to drive me to town. Although I knew how much I should pay (or shouldn’t pay), I was very glad to see Antoine holding up my name and bringing me to Magic Land, the amusement park where my hotel was, situated just next door to the Supreme Court of Senegal. All this was a perfect start to immersing myself into Dakar. Next to Magic Land was a small bay where, at night, informal BBQs offered fish and salad. The following day, on that same beach, I discovered and visited local artist Cissé’s house and sculpture park made out of garbage. His built environment may be the world of an outcast, but it includes poetry and a good dose of contempt towards the empty discourses of officials and politicians. Cissé had realized his public art without being asked, and to me it looked more appealing than the other sculptures lined up at the seaside… (well, there was some surreal quality there too—see below).

Beirut and the Arab Image Foundation

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

In March 2011, I traveled with a colleague of mine from SFMOMA to Beirut and then onto Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. This was during what we now know as the Arab Spring and it was my first trip to the Middle East. I tried to calm my nerves as I was picked up at the airport by George Awde, a Lebanese-American photographer and friend living and teaching in Beirut. I immediately fell in love with Beirut. It reminded me of New York in its frenetic energy and I quickly found that with that came scrumptious meals and a close-knit community of artists that reminded me of my former city. It was chaotic, decrepit, and maddening at times, but I quickly found myself feeding off of that energy. Power outages 3 hours per day were common. Lebanon, I was told, was known for the slowest internet in the world, yet Beirut was teaming with coffee shops crowded with young people borrowing free Wi-Fi. With real estate spiking on the one hand (rent is not cheap), and still bombed-out shells of buildings riddled with bullet holes on the other, Beirut revealed itself as a place of contradiction.

The artists I met were well-informed, and they all seemed to be in dialogue with one another.  A few had regular opportunities to exhibit their work in parts of Europe and the Middle East. I realized how little of their work I had seen in the US, however. The recent stories of war in Lebanon often creeped  into conversation, and with the Arab Spring erupting in neighboring regions, there was a palatable sense of unease. Beirutis describe this as the waiting, waiting for the other shoe to fall. It’s at the foundation of a lot of work I saw. Other themes being: those who “disappeared” due to crimes of war, issues of nationhood and the rebuilding of Beirut, the war with Israel, and the Palestinian refugee situation (there are over 200,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon and most cannot become citizens). An artist described the Middle Eastern situation to me as a triangle: you push against one thing and two other things arise.

One of my most memorable visits in Beirut was to the Arab Image Foundation, a non-profit founded in 1997 dedicated to the collection and study of photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. Started by a group of artists including Walid Ra’ad and Akram Zaatari, the AIF (or FAI) assembles around a group of photographic archives by mostly unknown studio photographers from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, etc. We snooped around their cold storage with a guide, and roamed their database. The collection housed vernacular photography mostly, portraiture meant as keepsakes for individuals and their families at a time when cameras were not so widespread. I ogled over the strikingly beautiful (mostly) black-and-white pictures that were like nothing I had seen before.

Music and Design from Beirut and beyond

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Over one especially memorable meal of delicious Armenian food in Beirut, I met the front men for Mashrou’ Leila, a lively 6-member indie band/orchestra that is a mix of traditional Arab music and rock. Driving home from dinner, we listened to their newly released album through the car stereo. Before I knew it, I was humming along. They play often in Beirut where they are very popular, but have never toured the US.

To see and hear more, watch this! 

Although I couldn’t translate most of the political posters and billboards littering the sides of buildings and buses, after driving around Beirut for a few hours, I quickly found that Middle Eastern graphic design is looking pretty fresh right now. My instincts proved true when I discovered that indeed it was a budding creative outlet for young artists and designers, especially amid the political fervor of the Arab Spring. Graphic identity and typography negotiates the balance of the old, calligraphic tradition, with the new—an apt metaphor for the dilemmas of the ongoing revolutions in the region.  I found this well-illustrated book (in English) featuring a number of new designers, including Persian designers as well. The editors have already released a second volume.