Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: The Act Of An Artist

BY Anna Brady / Mar 22 2017 / 17:04 PM

A taster of its transcultural collection, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi looks at performance, process and human presence in its ambitious second exhibition, The Creative Act

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: The Act Of An Artist
Courtesy of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Atsuko Tanaka. Painting, 1960. Vinyl paint on canvas. 131.5 x 97.5cm.

The theme for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s second exhibition, The Creative Act: Performance. Process. Presence, was born quite organically, almost by accident.

Curators Valerie Hillings, Manager, Curatorial Affairs, Abu Dhabi Project, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and Maisa Al-Qassimi, Programmes Manager for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi at TCA Abu Dhabi, asked their staff to choose five works from the collection of the fledgling museum that they would include in their dream exhibition.

Their selection was remarkably similar and a handful of work came up repeatedly, including Hassan Sharif, Susan Hefuna, Rasheed Araeen and Berlin-based Albanian artist Anri Sala. What was striking about all of the works was that the process and performative element was particularly palpable, whatever the medium, and the artists seemingly present in the work. 

Mohammed Kazem. Directions 2002. Video installation with chromogenic prints, stickers, and acrylic on panel paintings. Varible dimensions. Courtesy of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi   

The resultant exhibition, opening in March, spans the 1960s to the present day, bringing together 25 works by 19 artists of different nationalities and generations, working in variety of media including installation, painting, photography, sculpture, video, and the humble, enduring work on paper.

“Consistent with the curatorial vision for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, The Creative Act exhibition will highlight interconnections among contemporary artists, revealing common sources of inspiration, lines of influence and distinctive contributions,” says Al-Qassimi, “Through the selection of these works from the future museum’s collection, The Creative Act exhibition will also explore various manifestations of specific artistic approaches, often reflecting personal and collective experience and history, through works in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection.”

“What it reminds us of is how much humanity has in common over time and place"

Anish Kapoor. My Red Homeland. 2003. Wax, oil-based paint, motor and steel. Diameter: 1200cm. (Edition one of one plus one Artist’s Proof). Courtesy of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi   

In recent years, performance art has been in vogue, whether in its literal interpretation of the artist physically carrying out a piece in front of an audience, or evidence of performance behind the scenes, see the action painting of the 1960s Japanese Gutai Group where the physicality of its creation is still palpable in the thick impasto. The interactive room scale installation has also been particularly prominent this century, accommodated by the ever increasing number of vast, warehouse proportioned galleries.

The performative element runs through all our lives today; the sharing of images has never been so easy, and social media means anyone can be a performer, take on myriad personas. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is a museum in the making, “so we’re thinking a lot about process ourselves,” says Hillings. There has also, she observes, been a willingness over the past century or so to allow the artistic process to become visible, in contrast to the old belief that the messy business of creation should be concealed, the very artistic labour that is now celebrated. 

Susan Hefuna. Notations. 2011. Ink and graphite on paper. Variable dimensions. Courtesy of  Guggenheim Abu Dhabi  

Jean Tinguely.  Baluba No. 5. 1961. Mixed media. 147 x 60cm. Courtesy of  Guggenheim Abu Dhabi  

The exhibition follows Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s first exhibition, Seeing Through Light, in 2014 which welcomed over 90,000 visitors. That focused on the use of light in art and both exhibitions are intended as teasers of the curatorial vision and collection of the completed museum before it opens. “It’s an amazing opportunity for a dress rehearsal,” says Hillings. “We learnt a lot from the reaction to the last show about how people interact with the space and the works.” 

Despite the vastness of its theme and desire to show a truly international selection of artists, for reasons of space The Creative Act includes only 25 works. But it won’t feel like a small show as the grandiose proportions of some works, such as Anish Kapoor’s 12 metre diameter My Red Homeland, command an entire room. Reflecting the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s future collection strategy, the three themes of will run concurrently throughout this transcultural show, rather than separated out and the curators have done away with chronology too, mixing works of different periods.

Anri Sala. Ravel Ravel. 2013. Video installation. Varibale dimensions. (Edition four of six plus three Artists’ Proofs). Courtesy of  Guggenheim Abu Dhabi  

“What it reminds us of is how much humanity has in common over time and place,” says Hillings of the decision. “We’re really interested in being transcultural but we didn’t want to lose specificity. When looking at the works certain, let’s call it chronological, chapters started to appear. We’d say “hey, look what was happening in the 60s.” What would be normal in these exhibitions would be to, say, split up the Japanese from the European artists. But actually the team said why do that, why not put them together? So that’s what we’ve done.”

Stressing the breadth of the show, she highlights “a great selection of Nouveau Réalisme from France, an amazing group of Japanese Gutai paintings, performance artists, some of whom are based in the UAE, and installation art. When you get into our century we really emphasise installation work and as people move from room to room that’s something they will encounter.” A handful of Emirati artists feature, including a series of photographs from 1983 by the late Hassan Sharif, depicting the performances of this pioneer of conceptual and experimental art. Also under Performance is Mohammed Kazem’s installation Directions, 2002, a video accompanied by photographs and wooden panels depicting a performance by the artist at sea, then expanded into the resultant series Walking on Water shown Venice Biennale in 2013.

The Process section will emphasise the act of creation through using photographs, films, videos, and other archival material to bring to life “the methodology, inspiration, and innovation” of artists that prize the act of making over the completed object. These works, says the Guggenheim, “reveal how they were made, forefront materiality, transformation over time or in response to viewer interaction.” Included are experimental 1960s pioneers such as Niki de Saint Phalle and Günther Uecker, who used destructive techniques and everyday materials in their work to vent their views on the world around them. 

Also here is a group of paintings by the Japanese Gutai Art Association (1954-1972), namely by Shiraga Kazuo and Tanaka Atsuko. Shiraga would be suspended above his canvas then paint his vital, visceral abstracts with his feet, swinging from a rope. 

To illustrate, Guggenheim will show documentary footage of the Gutai artists at work alongside these works.

Niki de Saint Phalle. Pirodactyl over New York. 1962. Paint, plaster, and various objects on panels. 250 x 310cm. Courtesy of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi  

The third theme Presence looks at human presence, “manifested by the appearance of the artist or others in the works as well as visible traces of the physical acts undertaken to realise them.” 

It centres on two installations, one by German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna, known for her focus on process. Using works on paper, video installations and documentations of another related performance, she looks at the similarities between dance choreography and how we navigate through our everyday lives. 

Another Happy Day

Niki de Saint Phalle. Pirodactyl over New York. 1962. Paint, plaster, and various objects on panels. 250 x 310cm. Courtesy of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi  

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team stress that the new museum has two missions; obviously, to explore and celebrate the art of the past, but also to nurture and support artists working today, specifically those in the Middle East. 

It was in this spirit that the TCA Abu Dhabi commissioned three Dubai-based artists, Hesam Rahmanian, born in Tennessee, and Iranians Ramin Haerizadeh and Rokni Haerizadeh, to create an immersive installation inspired by The Creative Act.

Titled Another Happy Day (2016-17), the finished multi-room installation examines the power of representation from the 1930s to today. Echoing the artworks in the rest of the exhibition, this collaborative commission, says Valerie Hillings, “will highlight the simple gestures and body language of everyday life, and the strategies used to overcome barriers to communication through creative practices.”

The central, timely issues explored are iconoclasm and the refugee crisis, through site-specific paintings, videos, and artworks by other artists including Nargess Hashemi and Laleh Khorramian, both made for this exhibition and from the artists’ art collection. 

“We were sitting with the artists one night over the dinner table and they were talking about how much Fluxus artists interest them,” says Hillings of how the project began, “They also were saying how much Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht influence their work, with ideas of estrangement and unfamiliarity, and time and place.”

Beckett and Brecht were the starting point, specifically Brecht’s play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and video recordings of their plays will be shown as part of the installation alongside a performance of John Cage’s experimental music. 

There’s also a table of low-cost objects by artists associated with Fluxus, a 1960s and 1970s network of artists who blurred the boundary between art and life. The hope is that visitors should interact and participate in this installation, but picking up the objects and taking down books from a library of books on the histories of the theatre and performance art. Alongside are recent videos and “moving paintings” made collaboratively by the Haerizadehs and Rahmanian.

“What is great about this collaboration is that you become one body with multiple, critical eyes — critique not in a sense of diminishing but in a sense of seeing it in another way” say the artists of the process.

“The most important message here is the importance of solidarity among humanity,” says Hillings, “We want people to go on a journey and think about how they live in the world, how they represent themselves through images, or words or the way they act, but most importantly how they engage with each other.”