Look again: Ways of Seeing
This story was commissioned and originally as a preview by Shawati’ Magazine
At almost four metres high, the cascading tower of suspended knotted rope is imposing as well as absorbing. As a viewer, standing next to the artwork you are forced to ponder this everyday material in a way that you most probably had not done before. And that is exactly the point. It is a piece by the late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, who changed the face of contemporary art in his home nation by asking audiences to reconsider the definition of art. He was a genius in re-appropriating quotidian materials to create assemblages of cheap, mass-produced items as a searing commentary on the kind of disposable capitalist culture that was consuming his nation. He died in 2016 after a short battle with lung cancer and during last decade of his life, Sharif reached international recognition with his status continuing to grow as his work is shown in exhibitions and biennials all over the world. The piece in question, Knots (2012-2016) is on show at The Art Gallery in New York University, Abu Dhabi, where the touring exhibition Ways of Seeing opened on September 3, 2018.
Curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, the exhibition takes its title from the seminal 1972 text of the same name by art critic John Berger. Berger wanted to demystify the world of contemporary art and make it accessible to the common man. His text and accompanying UK television series helped audiences to understand art and its importance without over simplifying it. This exhibition chooses pieces that alter our ways of seeing either by blurring boundaries between the artwork and the space in which it is displayed, by changing the context of the object on show or even by showing people in the act of looking to make us think about how narratives are constructed. An example of this comes in the work of another Emirati Lateefa Bint Maktoum whose work Oral Tradition shows two figures, wearing traditional Emirati dress sat in a piece of elevated desert scrub land gazing down at the iconic Dubai skyline, with the Burj Khalifa at the centre – the very symbol of all the wealth and glamour that Dubai has become associated with.
These artists have been added to the exhibition’s roster for the Abu Dhabi edition of the exhibition, which first opened at ARTER – Space for Art in Istanbul last summer. The curators then reconfigured the exhibition for its second venue, the Boghossian Foundation – Villa Empain in Brussels last winter, also bringing in a number of new artists and artworks. The third iteration of the exhibition in Abu Dhabi has been adapted to include new works by these two prominent Emiratis as well as several others including Mona Hatoum, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Thomas Struth.
Struth is a German photographer whose image in this exhibition depicts crowds of people in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The act of looking at his art, which is composed of other people looking at art has a kind of mise-en-abyme effect that cleverly places the viewer as subject and as object.
“Struth came on board upon our invitation with a number of woks form his Museum series,” explains Bardaouil. “They provide a timely comment on the act of seeing within a museum context, which seems very relevant to the UAE at the moment.”
Andreas Gursky, another German photographer, is included with his image of Dubai World – the abandoned artificial island development project off Dubai’s coastline. This addition was part of the reconfiguration of the show to make it relevant to the context in which it is being presented. Although taken in 2007, the piece is still appropriate here because it directly references the impact of capitalism and globalization on contemporary life and in this way it also draws parallels with Sharif’s work.
Bringing together 26 artists and artist collectives with 41 works, the exhibition spans a variety of media from painting, sculpture, and photography to sound, film, and installation. Perhaps one of the most popular artworks, at least for today’s Instagram culture, will be Fred Sandback’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Twenty-two-part Vertical Construction) (1991-2016). Made of red and black yarn stretched to specific points creating geometric forms, this minimalist sculpture draws to mind architectural structures and the built environment despite being almost intangible. It also makes for a great selfie.
Another important work is David Claerbout’s The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment. A single channel video made from selected photographs on a small soccer field on a rooftop in Algiers, where a man stops a football game to feed a bird. It is a distilled moment in time shown from several angles to ask the viewer to consider what we see and how we interpret it depends on what viewpoint.
“This exhibition it represents multiple viewpoints across media, cultures, and time periods,” explains Maya Allison, Founding Director and Chief Curator of NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. “Each object is different from the one next to it, either in terms of how it represents the world, how it presents itself as art, or the medium in which it is made. The curatorial premise emphasises both how our perspective shifts depending on who we are and how the artwork can direct a viewer to see it.”