The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Democratizing the art exhibition
‘Mashrou‘ Proletkult’ committee members discuss the ins and outs of their design
BEIRUT: Upon one of the temporary walls erected within AUBBBAG (the American University of Beirut Bank Byblos Art Gallery) is a stylized, portrait-shaped depiction of a donkey. Rendered in a style that might be reminiscent of abstract figuration, the beast’s discontinuous features – ears, eyes, snout – gaze into the space from a field of bright red.
The red hmar is among 140-odd paintings and sculptures that, as of Thursday, had been submitted for “Mashrou‘ Proletkult” (“proletarian culture project”), scheduled to open at AUBBBAG on Sept. 6.
This exhibition (and the AllArtist Congress scheduled 11 days hence) is unconventional by contemporary standards, insofar as the usual vetting and incentive procedures – curators, juries, prizes, fees – are absent.
Artists have been invited to submit one work of any medium, style or genre, to be installed on a first-come, first-serve basis. The only restriction – one that some submitting artists have gleefully ignored – is that the work “not exceed one meter.”
The project grounds itself in early Soviet cultural discourse, when the experimental art institution “proletarskaya kultura” sprang from the ferment of 1917. “Mashrou‘ Proletkult” is being administered by a committee comprised of AUB galleries’ Octavian Esanu, Raghad Hazzazi, Ziad Kiblawi, Nada Zanhour, Aya Allameddine, Lama Khatib and Natasha Gasparian.
Esanu says that, for himself, “Mashrou‘ Proletkult” is a reaction to recent institutional developments on Lebanon’s arts scene, which has seen the emergence of an everexpanding number of museums, galleries and art centers.
“Yet somehow the culture doesn’t change much,” Esanu muses. “These new art spaces just add to the circulation of the same artists. It increases the points through which art circulates rather than allow access to more artists to show their work.”
He places “Mashrou‘ Proletkult” within a tradition of art exhibitions that have sought to make a radical democratic break with rarefied exhibition practices – also evident in the Salons des Refuses (exhibition of rejects) that arose in the decades after the French revolution.
“In a way we know from history that these things are inevitable . ... Still, these ruptures, trying to abandon the jury, the selection process, still does something to the culture. It invigorates or changes the paradigm. It shifts something. It may not produce the expected result – ‘There will never be any more juries or curators’ – but something else.
“What is that something else? We don’t know.”
There are a number of delicious incongruities in “Mashrou‘ Proletkult.” While all the project’s committee members have some AUB affiliation, for instance, not all are of a generation for whom knowledge of Soviet cultural policy circa 1917 is second nature. It seems the Comintern flavor of the project’s language is a bit exotic for committee members who became self-aware in the 21st century.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exotic,” Kiblawi avers cautiously.
“It does resonate . ... I don’t think there’s a difference between the way Octavian sees it and young people do, as though they have some inherently different ways of engaging with cultural practices. This revolutionary language, I think, it does inform everyone.”
“I think it’s also significant that we haven’t lived through an emancipatory struggle,” Gasparian suggests. “We haven’t lived through the failings of that. There is definitely a sense of urgency – not exotic but something that’s not possible on the horizon, something that is nevertheless a demand, something that we can strive for.”
“While making this project, we asked ourselves whether we are simply exploiting the nice idea of Prolekult,” Esanu pauses. “We have an artist [the friend of a committee member] who’s working on a project about staging a Prolekult exhibition in a place called ‘Bank Byblos Gallery.’ She finds this hilarious, so she’s making a project about it.
“But the thing is, people in art history have been using Marxist terminology and political economy as a tool of analysis. Why can’t we use a Marxist culture policy in organizing an art exhibition?”
The number of submissions is expanding even as The Daily Star chats with “Mashrou‘ Proletkult” committee members. Based on the sample that’s been hung (and the dozens that await hanging) the radical democratic “selection” process shows in the sheer diversity of the works on show.
Esanu had hoped the exhibition would provide a precis of cultural production in Lebanon at this point in time. If he and the other committee members regret anything about the submissions, it’s the general absence of Lebanese contemporary artists – artists more likely to create installations, video or other “new media” work than to paint or sculpt.
A couple of established contemporary artists, Esanu says, have agreed to contribute pieces. One of these, Walid Sadek, is himself an AUB professor. Sadek trained as a painter but acquired a profound skepticism of art objects and abandoned the form in favor of a discursive, often imageless, practice.
Another facet of the selection is quality. Though the “Mashrou‘ Prolekult” call targeted professional artists, it’s clear that not all the 140odd works visible on Thursday have been rendered with equal professionalism. “It’s a lot to take in,” admits one committee member.
“For me,” says Gasparian, “this mix of amateur artists with [professionals] it’s less problematic ... because I think at the beginning we realized that that our criteria is relevance. I think having all these works together shows almost competing political views and aesthetic visions.” She turns to gesture to the work hung on the walls. “There’s that romantic depiction of the downtown, next to a [reproduction of a self-portrait of Gibran Khalil] Gibran. They’re going to fit uncomfortably with each other.
“There’s less of a filtering process. Having works that circulate on the contemporary art circuit alongside works that are definitely present but don’t make it out bring out a more complex picture of politics today.”
“It’s really painful to look at some of this work,” Esanu acknowledges, “but for this project we must abandon any sense of judgment or taste. ... We all know that judgment, taste, is a constructed faculty. If they’d been educated in the U.S. or in the U.K., these artists would have made maybe a different kind of art.
“In a way all this aesthetics and judgment – what is beautiful and what is ugly – it has very clear class and political connotations. This is also one of the objects of this project.
‘For this project we must abandon any sense of judgment or taste’
For more info see www.aub.edu.lb/art_galleries/current/Pages/mashrou-proletkult.aspx.