The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Democratiz­ing the art exhibition

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

- 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’

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

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