In some contemporary artwork, the intended message can be so opaque that viewers walk away unmoved, wondering why they visited the gallery or museum at all. However, a recent series called Talking Art at Gallery One in the Emirates Palace aims to remedy that.
Hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, the series juxtaposed two British artists, Gary Hume and Louise Wilson, with two Emirati artists, Jalal Luqman and Ebtisam Abdul Aziz. As the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois once said, "A work of art doesn't have to be explained. If you do not have any feeling about this, I cannot explain it to you." By presenting their work at the lecture, Wilson, Hume, Abdul Aziz and Luqman appear to disagree.
Artists who fear that talking about their work takes the mystery out of it have been known to use the time-tested escape clause, "it is whatever you want it to be". But even the worst artwork conveys messages, though they may be weak or uninteresting. Talking ably about one's own art is difficult, but dialogue helps to create a conspiratorial bond between the artist and the audience. This was the last lecture in the Talking Art: The Royal Academy series, held in partnership with the Tourism Development and Investment Company and sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
The next round will be the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi series, beginning Saturday and featuring the artists Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor and Cai Guo Qiang, among others. All of the lectures are free and open to the public in order to encourage visitors and residents to engage in the wider artistic community. It was in this spirit that the four artists presented their portfolios to the audience and ruminated on the nature of their inspirations. They also took part in a round-table discussion about finding a voice in a global art world.
Hume and Wilson garnered attention as part of the Young British Artists movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which included other contemporary art world stars such as Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood. Many of the artists associated with the movement attended Goldsmiths College in London. Abdul Aziz is a Sharjah-based multimedia artist who incorporates installation and video into her work. Luqman, who makes digitally enhanced work inspired by science fiction, is also a co-owner of the Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi. Abdul Aziz and Luqman are both exhibited in the Emirati Expressions art show at Gallery One.
Their efforts put to rest the stereotype of the enigmatic artist. Instead, the artists' dialogue promoted the message that one doesn't have to be an expert in order enjoy or understand art, and put the viewers at ease with challenging work. The sheer banality of artistic inspiration is often shocking in itself. Revealing the source of the idea can shear off the layers of pretence that viewers and critics have lacquered on to it.
To introduce his work, Hume presented slides ranging from 2003's Back of a Snowman - which consists of two bulbous metal orbs stacked one on top of the other then covered in shiny white high gloss paint - through to his most recent paintings and sculptures. "The equivalent here would be making a sandcastle and then casting it," he said of Back of a Snowman, while the crowd of around 100 chuckled. "Really, I am a picture maker and I very much love making beautiful paintings."
Hume first received attention for his life-size paintings of doors that were included in the now-famous Goldsmiths student show Freeze, which was curated by Hirst. Since the mid-1990s, Hume has veered more towards figural art. Babies and mothers, snowmen and cheerleaders form the body of Hume's subjects, but the artist also takes inspiration from the 19th-century visionaries William Blake and Caspar David Friedrich, whom he referenced drolly throughout his talk.
More recent works like the paintings and sculptures in the American Tan series are based on the images of cheerleaders but, in Hume's hands, morph into something more violent and abstract. The sculptures, with legs and arms jointed together in unnatural ways that are beautiful in shape and creepy in their implications, recall the German surrealist Hans Bellmer. "I've taken my cheerleaders and made their arms into legs, which makes their heads subterraneous," he said. "And you have to give them pom-poms." Hearing Hume speak like this is akin to listening to a sleep-talker; we watch as he ambles about in his own mind.
Wilson, Abul Aziz and Luqman also explained their processes and the guiding ideas that lead them to create art. Wilson works exclusively with her twin sister, Jane Wilson, to make startling, stark video art and video-based installations. The duo are known for their interest in places that once had political or social importance but that have now become obsolete. (They will be showing Spiteful Dream, a multi-screen installation filmed at abandoned factories and a refugee processing centre in England, at the upcoming ninth Sharjah Biennial beginning on March 23.)
Wilson presented her body of work since the late 1990s, focusing on a few large-scale pieces. The Wilsons' art is an example of how today's viewers can become intimidated by the work and how easy it is to overlook the art's underlying principles. In Stasi City, a video installation that the Wilsons made while living in Berlin in the late 1990s, the picture seems to float through the former Stasi headquarters, where East Germany's secret police force worked. There are multiple views of empty interrogation chambers and prison facilities. Though the eerie mood is the overarching statement in Stasi City, hearing Wilson describing the locations' significance added a fresh potency to the video.
"We filmed in the interview rooms for the prisoners, who were political prisoners for ideological reasons," she said. "It was very important for us that the action happened within the limitations of the rooms." Once explained, the random file cabinets became glaring examples of control and fear. After their presentations, the four artists were asked how they find a voice in the international art world, something that is perhaps more of a problem for the Emirati artists since their contemporary art scene is still in its formative years.
All four had strong opinions about standing out in a worldwide marketplace. They discussed the ramifications of affiliating themselves with an artistic movement. They also debated the limitations of singling themselves out in today's globalised contemporary art scene. "It's absolutely important to make a group," said Hume. "It's a nuisance as an artist, being put in a group, but it's a necessary nuisance because you become visible." Working in a group, he said, makes it easier to to gain the respect and trust of the art world.
Luqman and Abdul Aziz said that they didn't want to necessarily be classified as Emirati artists only, though both say they are proud of their heritage and are proud to be recognised as such. "Art is an international language," said Luqman. "But I want to make a point that I am Emirati, I am an artist." Abdul Aziz was less rigid in her definitions. "It's not about the place but about the art," she said. "At the end of the day, we are all doing something related to art, and it's about the concept behind the work."
The discussion highlighted the similarities between contemporary art scenes all over the globe. The issues of trusting home-turf artists is always present: will the rest of the art world see the value in their creative output? With the success of the Emirati Expressions show as well as recent interest in the art of the region, exemplified by the recent hit show Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East at London's Saatchi Gallery, the answer is a resounding yes.
"I know at this point people are saying, 'Well, we are worried about presenting Middle Eastern art, defining Middle Eastern art'," Wilson said. "The reality is that all these works have been made and I think groupings will happen anyway - Ebtisam and Jalal already know each other - they are already in contact; it's already happening, really." The international art world will always have places for original voices, no matter the artist's nationality or in what medium they work. "It is just the art object that is important to me," Hume said. "It doesn't matter where it comes from."