De­moc­ra­tiz­ing the art ex­hi­bi­tion

‘Mashrou‘ Pro­letkult’ com­mit­tee mem­bers dis­cuss the ins and outs of their de­sign

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Jim Quilty

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.

Prolekult Com­mit­tee mem­bers Khatib, Al­lamed­dine, Zan­hour, Gas­par­ian, Ki­blawi, Haz­zazi pose at AUBBBAG.

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