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After Leaving, Before Arriving: An interview with the curators of the 12th Kaunas Biennial

For its 12th edition, the Kaunas Biennial considers the journey as a metaphor in the context of the burgeoning cultural identity of a city with a complex past. Over the course of recent history, Kaunas has been caught in a state of political flux, transitioning from one regime to the next.

Even during its prosperous twenty-year phase as capital city after the Polish annexation of Vilnius between 1919 and 1940, Kaunas remained in waiting, set to regain its status as second city after the liberation of the former capital. What followed, however, was occupation by the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, reoccupation by the Soviets, and finally the declaration of Lithuanian independence in 1990, with the country becoming a member state of the European Union in 2004. This chain of events restored not only Lithuanian national sovereignty but also the status of Kaunas as second city with the stubborn moniker “temporary capital.” This perpetual change has shrouded the city in a collective amnesia fueled by discrepant lived experiences across generations. Now, looking forward to its tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2022, Kaunas seeks to carve out a unified path to the future on its own terms, mythologizing its troubled past in order to write new narratives for the present.

Claudio Santoro: What are some recurring themes among the works and artists selected to participate in this edition of the Kaunas Biennial?

“After Leaving | Before Arriving” takes the story of Kaunas as its point of departure to examine broader notions of passage, transition, reorientation, and repair in the context of individual experience and intergenerational structures. The exhibition reflects upon how the feeling of disorientation underlying contemporary existence globally intertwines with the specific sociopolitical realities of nation-building in the New East, where alternative European alliances are unfurling from the knots of past regimes. 

As is to be expected from an exhibition with such a title, a number of works in the show address the topic of displacement and migration. Against the backdrop of the European migrant crisis, the works of the biennial engage with the local context, looking at the specificities of the movement of people and natural resources within the former Eastern Bloc. Some artists look at this topic from a historical perspective, whereas others address issues that continue to shape the contemporary moment, focusing on the social and political fallout of the collapse of the former Second World. These stories of displacement are often connected with shifting territorial boundaries and questions of national identity and self-understanding. The works on display expose the apparatuses of power that underpin these political and ideological constructs, while also highlighting their absurdity.

A second important strand of the exhibition is the notion of progress and development. In the lead-up to the city’s tenure as European Capital of Culture, the exhibition looks back to the turbulent political past of Kaunas. After its appointment to capital city after the annexation of Vilnius in 1919, Kaunas developed rapidly according to modernist principles of design, architecture, and social structure. A number of works in the show engage with the formal and social paradigms of modernist projects from across the globe in order to trace their common social ambitions but also their ultimate failings. The exhibition also pays attention to how such concepts of progress need to be tempered or realigned in this time of political and ecological instability.

CS: How is Kaunas transitioning toward becoming a healthier place for artists based on its precarious social history?

In 2017 Kaunas was awarded the European Capital of Culture project. In 2022 the city will become a thriving environment for culture and arts. In the run-up to Kaunas 2022, not only cultural organizations and institutions but also independent arts organizations and individual artists are invited to create and participate in the program. This provides opportunities for collaboration between local artists together with organizations on the national and international level. Also, in 2017 the Kaunas Biennial together with twelve other European cultural organizations launched a four-year Creative Europe platform called MagiC Carpets. The platform unites emerging curators, emerging artists, and local communities across Europe. Such initiatives create opportunities for artists to live and work in Kaunas and also allow the public to become acquainted with and more open to contemporary art practices.

CS: What are the most important galleries in Lithuania in terms of fostering an emergent local art scene?

Lithuania is open to emerging artists through different projects and residencies. The best examples for residencies are Rupert, Nida Art Colony, Kaunas Artists’ House, and MagiC Carpets. There are also institutions in Lithuania that organize and promote emerging artist practices, including the National Gallery of Art, Contemporary Art Centre, Galerija Vartai, Titanikas at the Vilnius Academy of Art, Meno Parkas, POST, Vytautas Magnus University’s Gallery 101, and the Klaipėda Culture Communication Centre. Support for local artists is also provided by the Lithuanian Council for Culture in the form of grants to realize projects in Lithuania and abroad.

These answers were provided by curators Elisabeth Del Prete, Daniel Milnes, Lýdia Pribišová, Neringa Stoškutė, and Alessandra Troncone; and the director of the Kaunas Biennial, Kotryna Žemaitytė. For more information on the 12th Kaunas Biennial visit

Claudio Santoro

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The Reopening of the Swiss Institute / New York

After successfully raising 3.5 million of a five-million-dollar capital campaign goal, the Swiss-born, New York–based nonprofit Swiss Institute (SI) announced plans in March to move out of their now-former Wooster Street space in SoHo into a permanent location in the East Village at 38 St. Marks Place. The conversion of a compact, four-floor complex — formerly a Chase Bank branch — was designed and overseen to completion by Selldorf Architects, an architectural firm with a history of art institutional and ivy-league university clientele.

SI inaugurated its eastward leap with a celebratory, filled-to-the-brim group show titled “READYMADES BELONG TO EVERYONE,” curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, co-directors of exhibitions at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at ETH Zurich. Featuring roughly fifty artists, architects, and collectives from sixteen different countries, the exhibition aims to track a history of exchange between artists and architects who employ found objects associated with urban space. It is scheduled to run through August 19.

Alain Clairet, Untitled, 1987
Alain Clairet, Untitled, 1987. Courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York.

The “readymade” as a term and perhaps a strategy as set forth by Marcel Duchamp via his urinal-cum-Fountain (1917) — the performance of an authored gesture placed on display — has had a lasting imprint on art’s discourse, causing a myriad of fractalized courses of influence stemming from this necessarily singular gesture. Each tangential journey leads one down a path closer to success in the form of an exhaustion of all options — a goal that may have led to the curatorial logic so playfully demonstrated here.

Crowning the accessible roof area, artist Valentin Carron’s built Vecchio Cuore (2018), or “Old Heart,” is a purple heart-shaped platform made from painted wooden planks that stands as a casual stage or platform. Crowds naturally congregated here during this first weekend of private preview events, proving it a natural gravitational center for social bodies.

This piece by Carron, along with a selection of other commissions, is conceived as an architecturally site-dependent work, but still manages to find dialogue with the works on view as part of Fischli and Olsen’s curated group show. The commissioned works are the first of more to come as part of the newly launched SI ONSITE program. This ongoing initiative will continue to present special projects as a series of semi-permanent, continually unfolding installations that meaningfully activate aspects of the building’s non-gallery sections and sub-spaces — the reception area, reading room, stairways, hallways, roof, and elevators.

Swiss Institute Reading Room
Interior view of the Swiss Institute’s Reading Room, where Hans Haacke’s Swiss Institute Visitors Poll, 2018 is set up for users to interface with.

Hans Haacke’s Swiss Institute Visitors Poll (2018), also an SI ONSITE commission, surveys attendees and lets the resulting demographic information speak for itself. Visitors navigate the prompts of an iPad as they would a standardized test, and upon completion of the questionnaire are encouraged to suggest a question they would have liked to see included. The participants who have successfully filled in and submitted surveys are counted in real time, and the corresponding statistical results are continuously updated on-screen.

In response to questions regarding the expedited changes that jolts of cultural prestige may impose on a neighborhood, SI’s director, Simon Castets, offered a two-fold explanation of why he considers the institution’s presence to be roundly positive. Noting the unarguable reality that the Institute has physically replaced what had always been a bank since the building was erected in 1954, Castets explained how certain shifts in programming — for example, the introduction of SI ONSITE in addition to new educational initiatives that acknowledge a perhaps broader audience than before — are being formulated in close conjunction with participating artists, in keeping with the Institute’s remit as “a space for artists, by artists.” Transparency is the intended effect here. As Castets explained, “SI’s artist-led education programs take place in a dedicated Education & Public Programs space, and provide opportunities for families with children, teenagers, university students, and seniors. These education programs are unique in that artists — either in current, past, or forthcoming exhibitions — are at the center of the workshops, directly driving forward dialogue and experiences in art-making together with a core group of teaching artists.” SI’s inaugural education partners include GO Project, Little Missionary’s Sara Curry Preschool, Sirovich Center for Balanced Living, and School of the Future. Free admission is also a major aspect of this effort to accommodate a wider public.

Swiss Institute, 38 St Marks Pl, North View
Swiss Institute, 38 St Marks Pl, North View. Courtesy of Selldorf Architects.

The East Village has been an active site of cultural production and presentation since its heyday in the 1980s. While there are surely identifiable distinctions between the stark appearance of a multi-million dollar building and the outcrop of small hubs of commercial galleries, the picture does begin to change when not only higher-end galleries proliferate, but also museums and prestigious nonprofits with dedicated, large-scale donors. This shift may be described as a reconfigured network, equally as dense as before, but whose main players are no longer the artists. Patrons and executive-level staff are the substantive forces present and at work.

Connecting back to the readymade as an inaugural exhibition theme — and as a potential ideological marker of the institution’s intended long-term ethos — there is a trickiness to navigating this conceptual foundation relative to what art can accomplish within society. Those who are not especially steeped in visual art can tend to be alienated by such work, which they see as fundamentally elevated in an exclusionary way. But this irresolvable dilemma has been at least acknowledged by Fischli and Olsen’s title for the show, which is something of a readymade itself. A footnote as footprint of the mysteriously self-disavowing French artist Philippe Thomas’s fictional public relations agency readymades belong to everyone®, active from 1987 until his death in 1995, the title as slogan speaks a simple yet contradictory truth.

Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, Technical Taxi, 2007
Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, Technical Taxi, 2007. Courtesy of Shane Akeroyd Collection, London.

An excerpt from the accompanying text for Project Native Informant’s 2016 exhibition “Philippe Thomas with Interventions by Bernadette Corporation, DIS and Emily Segal” reads as an expanded homage to the artist: “The reason why readymades belong to everyone is certainly not because everyone can become a collector, but because everyone can make themselves sensitive to the potential, to the possibility harbored by every vulgar mass-manufactured object to be or not to be a work of art. Everything can become a readymade, anyone can be an artist; it is enough just to develop the sensibility that allows one to unmask, behind social classes, the almost physiological universality of the ‘whatever-singularity,’ which in our societies only appears in debased form in total institutions, in the form of naked life.”

Thomas had created the agency as a bureaucratic entity through which the rights of authorship would pass, dissolve, then rematerialize as credited to another person entirely, namely its buyer. Housed in Cable Gallery in New York (also on Wooster Street during its days of operation), visitors would encounter Thomas sitting behind a desk surrounded by plants — evoking the atmosphere of a 1980s office suite or a Marcel Broodthaers décor — as well as advertisements for the agency and works waiting anonymously for their prospective authors.

by Chris Viaggio

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“nice walk” (1,739 reviews): A Reinvention of an Allan Kaprow Activity Hauser & Wirth, The High Line / New York

On Saturday afternoon, two figures in ceil-blue medical scrubs got down on all fours and proceeded to make random ink marks on the High Line park’s elevated footpath, only to quickly wash them away.

The activity took place on the occasion of the final day of Hauser & Wirth’s most recent exhibition uptown, “ALLAN KAPROW. PAINTINGS NEW YORK.” The show surveyed works spanning the breadth of Kaprow’s materially archival output, aiming to trace an evolution of his ideas as they migrated toward a threshold of particular interest to him: the ever-elusive boundary between “art” and “life” that he sought to blur, dissolve, and eliminate altogether.

With the gallery’s East 69th Street location already bearing historical significance in connection to Kaprow’s legacy (his seminal environment piece Yard was shown in its first manifestation there in 1961), the recently presented work in drawing and painting offered plenty of nuanced clues indicating where or in what direction his progressively deconstructive line of critical inquiry would lead him.

In a 1958 essay titled “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Kaprow ruminates on the nature and degree of Pollock’s art-historical impact just two years after his death, describing a certain enlargement of space between artist and working substrate due to Pollock’s approach to gesture, the body, and performance in relation to painting. This viscerally solidified the ground beneath Kaprow’s feet and suggested an infinite expanse of quotidian possibilities to explore. In one line of this text in particular, he introduces the concept of a Happening, which he would come to explore in much greater depth over the course of his life: “Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents.”

In essence, the eulogistic text on Pollock conveys a sense of how his painting practice eventually transcended the limitations it had come to him imbued with, calling for a total collapse in distinction between the arenas of “art” and “life” that Kaprow had so deeply considered.

“Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists.”

It is at this atomizing brink that the practice of artist Puppies Puppies may be situated, somewhat similarly pursuing a profound confusion of “art” and “life” as diametrically opposed terms.

On the High Line this weekend, behind the surgical masks were artists India Menuez and Ser Serpas, who in collaboration with Puppies Puppies realized this “Reinvention of an Activity by Kaprow,” which called for “one person to draw a line on the street with chalk, while a second person followed it and erased it with a rubber eraser.”

To fulfill this realization, both Menuez and Serpas came uniformed and well equipped, in not only scrubs but with latex gloves, booties, and sponges with special handles fashioned to deliver a steady flow of either ink or solvent for its user, as well as other small necessities for maintaining optimum cleanliness.

Both of their tops cropped, the pair of costumes designed by Puppies Puppies comedically feigned exposure of the wearer’s midriff by extending a layer of black fabric downward, which featured screen-printed illustrations of organs accurately placed and diagrammatically labeled on either side. Dressed the part, they had split up and assigned to one another the tasks of making marks (Serpas) and of scrubbing them away (Menuez) as per the parameters of the Activity’s score. Lasting around forty minutes, the Reinvention was something of a heartfelt exercise in futility and negation.

“nice walk” (1,739 reviews): A Reinvention of an Allan Kaprow Activity @ The High Line, New York. Courtesy of Puppies Puppies.

That Menuez and Serpa played the specific role of hygiene/custodial workers in this scenario undoubtedly ties into Puppies Puppies’s intricate, quietly drawn out mythology as told by the artist over the past few years — an aspect of this being the experience of surviving a life-threatening brain tumor. While the fragmented story has been presented in the public sphere under the guise of performance, there is always a direct correlation to the extremely intimate interior life that drives the work.

Similar to the recurring use of horseshoe crabs throughout Puppies Puppies’ work — having been fascinated by the creature’s baby-blue blood and ultimately the “supernatural” ability to detect even the slightest presence of bacteria via the Limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL, test commonly used in the medical field — it is likely that part of the inspiration behind Saturday’s Reinvention can be sourced from the substantial amount of time the artist has spent in hospitals.

As the artist statement provided by Hauser & Wirth, who commissioned the piece, concludes, “We are all vulnerable to becoming or making the mess that needs to be cleaned up, falling into disorganization, and needing to be re-organized, broken, and then fixed.”

by Chris Viaggio

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P.A.I.N. Sackler’s ‘Die-In’ Demonstration / Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing

Artists, activists, and addicts congregated just after 4 p.m. on Saturday inside Gallery 131 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing, directly in front of the Temple of Dendur, for a public “die-in” during which roughly seventy participants lay on the floor as mock casualties of the unrelenting opioid epidemic in the United States that currently claims close to 150 lives per day.

The Egyptian temple erected under Roman rule around 15 B.C. — which would enter the U.S. as a gift from Egypt in 1965 — was awarded to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967, and eventually installed in the Sackler Wing in 1978. P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) demonstrators targeted the temple as their protest site because of its high profile in the art world (many fundraisers and dinners are held here), positioning it as a prime example of the Sackler family’s sterilized reputation as art patrons rather than owners of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which is responsible for introducing OxyContin to the market in 1995 and recklessly downplaying its abuse potential by way of misleading marketing strategies.

Two black banners stenciled with white lettering were embedded within the crowd and legible throughout the demonstration, one reading “SHAME ON SACKLER” and another insisting that the Sacklers “FUND REHAB” as part of a suite of reparations owed to the American public.

Photo by Michael Quinn
Photo by Michael Quinn

“I went from the darkness and ran full speed into The World,” begins Nan Goldin’s confessional call-to-arms based on her own three-year experience with opiate addiction, which started in 2014 and spanned 2017. “I was isolated, but I realized I wasn’t alone.” Goldin’s essay is one of seven contributions to a January 2018 Artforum feature titled “The Uses of Power.” Using this theme as a prompt, artists and writers were asked to “picture our current life and imagine possible lives otherwise,” as well as to “consider how we can and should use power.”

Goldin’s text is accompanied by a portfolio of eleven images, some of which shed light on her darkened interior life as an addict — self-portraits and captured tableaus of her drug and its related paraphernalia that would often populate the artist’s floors, desks, and countertops. Other images, cropped and arranged by Goldin in grid formations, show a selection of institutional plaques of philanthropic honor that can be seen above doorways and on the walls of many of the world’s most highly regarded art and academic institutions. Polished surfaces bear engraved homages and respectful recognition of one or more facets of the Sackler family’s multipronged empire.

The solution-driven bottom line of Goldin’s response: “I’ve started a group, P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), to hold them accountable. To get their ear we will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world. We demand that the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma use their fortune to fund addiction treatment and education. There is no time to waste.”

Photo by Jean-Christian Bourcart
Photo by Jean-Christian Bourcart

A petition — launched alongside Goldin’s Artforum statement released in January — is one among a few budding courses of action through which Goldin plans to apply an increasing amount of collective pressure to hold the Sacklers accountable for the crisis. The petition, addressed to such entities as Purdue Pharma, The Sackler Family, The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation Inc., and the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Foundation, has so far accumulated nearly 33,000 of its 35,000-signature goal.

One hundred pill bottles, “prescribed to you by the Sackler family, major donors of the Met,” were tossed like coins into the moat during the twenty-minute rally. Listed at the very bottom of each of the small floating canisters was a startling statistic: “RX# 200,000 dead.”

Noemi Bonazzi, a stylist, set designer, and close friend of Goldin’s, recalls the artist’s early resolve to start the P.A.I.N. group and carry out a series of direct actions after reading and discussing a number in-depth exposés of the Sackler Family’s connection to the opiate epidemic in publications including The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Guardian.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers, and it was Goldin’s use of a near-deadly mixture of heroin and fentanyl — which she had sought out as a cheaper alternative to her waning supply of OxyContin — that led to an overdose and subsequent admission into a rehabilitation treatment center in January of 2017.

Photo by Thomas Pavia
Photo by Thomas Pavia

Saturday’s demonstration was a prime example of meaning being injected into objects and sites in concentrated bursts and in the name of resistance. Bonazzi spoke of the choreographed timing and planned visual effect of the water-logged pill bottles, which came to fill the temple’s surrounding moat — “the action of going into one’s pocket or bag” — as a powerful way to bring a very real problem out into the public sphere.

“Goldin’s addiction is also our epidemic, and the forces she holds responsible include a family, not as private as they used to be, that has profited directly from the unspeakable pain of others,” writes David Velasco in his Editor’s Letter in Artforum’s January 2018 issue.

Goldin’s familiarity with the art of turning the personal, or private, into the political will continue to be a force to be reckoned with as she and fellow organizers prepare for more awareness campaigning and direct action down the line.

by Chris Viaggio

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Getulio Alviani has left us (5 September 1939 – 24 February 2018)

Getulio Alviani – our long time friend and designer of the helvetica Flash Art logo in the late ‘60s – has left us on the 24th of February, 2018, after a long battle with an insidious sickness he was unable to overcome.

One of the most important kinetic artists of our time, he also touched the design and fashion industries with essential originality (celebrating his kinetic clothes with Germana Marucelli, renowned ‘60s stylist and aunt of Paolo Scheggi).

Getulio fought arduously in sustaining his fellow contemporaries (Morellet, Le Parc, Massironi, Munari, etc.) with exhibitions and articles which appeared on the pages of this very magazine. For Getulio, the movement of Kinetic and Programmed Art came before his own work. A circumstantial tribute will appear on the forthcoming print issue of Flash Art Italia.

Farewell, dear friend.

With Enrico Castellani and François Morellet, suddenly some night, you will give us a sign with a kinetic and starry sky.

by Giancarlo Politi

Translated from Italian by Claudio Santoro

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The Opening of Louvre / Abu Dhabi

Long heralded, regularly maligned and largely misunderstood, the Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened its doors to the public on November 11, 2017. Nestled on the shores of Saadiyat (Happiness) Island in the United Arab Emirates’ capital city, the fledgling institution is the first of a bevy of starchitect-built museums that will, one day, dot this luxury tourism/cultural island destination.

For the moment, though, Jean Nouvel’s “city within the city” stands supreme, its latticed mashrabiya-like dome crouched practically to the level of the Gulf waters, which lap away at the blazing white buildings splayed below the vaulted 180-meter-diameter disc. As the broiling sun sifts through the emblematic dome (the museum’s logo is in fact abstracted in the canopy’s porous intricacies), the open-air passages and mini-agoras are dappled with what the Pritzker Prize-winning architect calls, rather prosaically, a “rain of light.” The building deftly sidesteps the predictable pastiches of arabesque motifs, the tiresome tropes of medina-as-warren. It seems of here, yet not from here: it is a re-creation of a local visual patrimony, rather than a reproduction of one. Everyone agrees: it is a wonder.

Step inside, however, and opinions start to divide. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is touted as the first “universalist” museum of the twenty-first century, and certainly the only one of its ilk in the Arab world. Universalism, in the minds of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s reigning regents, stands in contrast to the encyclopedic ethos that has driven the monstres sacrés of the West, the Musée du Louvre on the banks of the Seine and London’s British Museum being the standard bearers of the genre. Where encyclopedism is in-depth, exhaustive, specialized and, ultimately, compartmentalized (think of the Paris Louvre’s physical split into departments), universalism is a cultural mix. Its vocation is to connect diverse works (archaeological, decorative, “fine art”) to an extremely long timespan across world cultures. A walk through its galleries is an encounter with a sort of manifold universal memory. A twelfth-century lion sculpture from Muslim-ruled Spain “dialogues” with a Chinese dragon sculpture of the same era that had meandered into the collection of the Stoclet Palace in Brussels (provenance is critical for the Louvre Abu Dhabi); a red sandstone Buddha head from Northern India in the fifth century is paired with a white marble Qi dynasty Buddha bust from nearly the same time; Marcel Duchamp’s Porte-bouteilles (1913) rubs shoulders with a wood and metal “magic statue” from the Batsangui culture in Gabon (1900–30), the readymade-meets-totem ricochet conjuring all manner of questions.

Simply put, this is the story of mankind — from the first settlements through the rise of world religions and trade routes, to the princely court, modernism and our contemporary moment. The vicissitudes of this saga are told through the museum’s own burgeoning collection, the fruit of an acquisition spree that began in 2009 with the purchase of Mondrian’s Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black (1922) from the Yves Saint-Laurent/Pierre Bergé estate (provenance, again). The works now total around 650. Complementing this bedrock are some three hundred pieces on loan from the consortium of French lending institutions known as Agence France-Muséums, created at the time of the intergovernmental accord between France and the UAE that sealed the deal in 2007, granting the Emiratis use of the Louvre name for thirty years (only twenty remain).

Local intelligentsia, while smitten by the sudden array of treasures permanently displayed at arm’s reach, remain skeptical: has the Louvre Abu Dhabi decentralized the implicit Western-centric cultural viewpoint as successfully as it has dismantled the rigid encyclopedic methodology, itself the fruit of Enlightenment idealism and imperial opportunism? While some works on loan from the Musée Guimet and the Musée de la Quai Branly (providing Oriental and Asian, African and Oceanic artworks, respectively) amplify the Global South feel, critics bemoan an underrepresentation of Arab modernists, manifested by a token Saloua Raouda Choucair sculpture.

Alongside this threadbare modernism is a willful nationalist narrative. As expected, we find the soft power innuendo that frames the country as a tolerant, enlightened, cultural bridge-builder: the side-by-side Quran-Bible-Torah display; instances of nudity (Bellini’s 1480–85 Madonna and Child, bronze dancers by Degas) nimbly foiling foreign journalists’ finger-pointing to puritanism and censorship.

The UAE seems to have taken the opportunity of the universalist vitrine to write itself, meaningfully, into global history. Neolithic pottery hailing from Mesopotamia yet unearthed on nearby Marawah Island, for example, lends credence both to the land’s ancientness and its role as a fulcrum of early maritime trade. Emirati artist Abdullah al-Saadi gets pride of place, as his Naked Sweet Potato (2000–10) sculpture and single-channel video are the final pieces in the contemporary gallery. Even Giuseppe Penone’s commissioned work, Germination (2016), a single line spiraling across Sèvres-manufactured porcelain tiles, holds at its center the thumbprint of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, founding father of the nation.

Jenny Holzer’s monumental texts, another commission with a mission, seem carved into the very flesh of the building, as if they had somehow always been there. They include a creation myth written in Acadian and Sumerian, an excerpt on self-determination from sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, and a passage from thirteenth-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, which neatly casts the universalist conceit as homegrown.

For such a young museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi already has a rocky history: accusations of laborer exploitation, a succession of false-alarm opening dates, and persistently fuzzy local understanding of its affiliation to the Louvre mère. To be clear: this is an autonomous Emirati institution. It is not an off-the-shelf franchise deal, nor is it the by-product of the Paris Louvre sniffing out juicy emerging markets. Agence France-Muséums will not only spearhead temporary exhibitions, it is contractually bound to lend an average of three hundred works per year until 2026, regularly rotated. The Louvre Abu Dhabi relies on the technical, curatorial and educative guidance of its French partners but, at one point, it should attain self-sufficiency. After all, in only twenty years, the right to the Louvre name will vanish.

What that self-sufficiency might look like is hard to imagine today. The stakeholders believe hard and fast in education. So much so, they have even concocted a “Children’s Museum” — a museum-in-the-museum with actual artworks displayed at kid’s-eye level and mediators galore. But after the euphoria of opening week settles, the hard work of promotion begins, with one burning question: How do we keep people coming back?

by Kevin Jones

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