Interview Catherine David, the artistic director behind Adach's Platform for Venice, discusses one of two artistic enterprises which the UAE will showcase at the 53rd Venice Biennale.
Projections of culture
Catherine David prefers not to use the word "exhibition" when talking about her latest commission. She uses the words "project" or "event" to describe the contribution to the Venice Biennale that she is currently putting together on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage. Her appointment, together with the announcement last week that the UAE will make a double debut at the world's most prestigious display of international contemporary art, marks another milestone in the global establishment of the country's cultural identity. A national UAE pavilion and Abu Dhabi's Adach Platform for Venice will go on show at the 53rd biennale.
The elegant Frenchwoman describes herself as the artistic director of Adach's contribution rather than the curator. David's formidable reputation as an art historian and international curator, her diplomacy and charm makes her perhaps the perfect choice to steer what is still in its conceptual stage through to completion. "It's very important to know the region and not to be paternalistic or patronising, or come here like the big expert from Paris. I certainly don't consider that I am part of the jet set of curators," she says.
She says it's too early to be specific about the event itself, apart from describing it as "a highly designed meeting point of artistic productions and encounters, and as a survey of contemporary visual arts and culture from the perspective of Abu Dhabi and beyond." This week she is cramming in as many meetings and visits to art galleries as her tightly packed schedule will allow. "It's no good sitting at a desk in an office. You have to get out and meet people and talk to them."
When asked what the Adach contribution to Venice will be, David describes a visual and intellectual experience interpreted by photographers, artists and film-makers from all over the region. "When you go to see the paintings of Picasso, that is an exhibition. This is something different and I always tell my staff they should think of it as an event or a project," she says. She concedes that there may be slide shows, still photography and projected images, along with video and film projections including interviews and reflective works. The work of selected artists may be presented "in dialogue with the architecture of the exhibition design" and there might also be contributions from artists from the Arab world at large. Quite clearly, no single artist or indeed organiser, will be able to spend the whole six months in Venice, so the Adach contribution needs to be organic and fluid. What is entirely possible is that the event put together in time for the June opening might be conspicuously different from that which closes the show in November.
As always with the work of David, the art will have a strong connection to modern life in the area with all its urban, sociological and cultural perspectives. She speaks about "articulating and sharing with people who are not sociologists and who think in images". "It could be still or moving images, sound projections, different speeds, maps, but no sculpture or ceramics. It's not going to be an exhibition of pictures and things on the wall."
David is uniquely qualified in that respect, having worked since 2003 on the touring project Contemporary Arab Representation in her exhibitions at the Witte de With centre for contemporary art in Rotterdam, where she was the director. Part of that project was called The Iraqi Equation, which David describes as "an articulation of a very specific moment". Unable to develop this project in Iraq itself, she travelled to Amman, Jordan, to do it.
"I really wanted to articulate a certain number of cultural paradigms. Even the notion of contemporary art in Europe is something that is more of a specialised category of cultural consumerism. I went to North Africa, which is supposed to be closer to France but is much more complex. There are many layers. I began to speak to people in Beirut and Cairo and Alexandria and started to develop one big project."
Born in Paris in 1954, David studied linguistics and history of art at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre. She became the curator of the French national museum of modern art, Centre Georges Pompidou in 1982, a position she held for eight years and was later the curator of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume. She was the artistic director for documenta X in Kassel, Germany, for three years in the Nineties and became the director of the Witte de With in the Netherlands in 2002, followed by an appointment in 2005 as fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. This year she received the 2008 Bard Award for curatorial excellence.
She says that her work, which involves extensive travelling, has left little time for other interests. The closest she gets to leisure activity is reading South American literature in its original language on a plane (she speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish). "I will also occasionally look at women's magazines," she says quickly, almost apologising for her erudition. From now until early May, she will be focusing primarily on content for the event, although she must also find time to plan the Lyons Biennale, which will take place in November next year, of which she is the director. In the next few weeks, she will learn exactly how much space she has to play with and will be involved in discussions with the Argentinian architect Juan Lucas Young, who has collaborated with her previously.
"In the end, we will all be working with a big rectangle of space and we will all have the same sorts of problems such as access, fire precautions and accommodating large numbers of people and where the rubbish is collected. I have already been working with pictures, but I don't want to make final decisions before actually seeing the space and having conversations with the architects." Building cannot begin until the second half of May. In the meantime, artists must be commissioned and encouraged to stick to deadlines in order to make time to edit and translate videos and produce brochures and other literature.
"Of course, we have a road map in our heads. In the region at the moment there's a kind of avalanche of announcements. The question is, what are we doing before announcing? We have to build up a perspective and think about the context. This is giving visibility to a certain number of projects being developed by Adach. We have to be not simplistic, but precise. There's a lot to see in Venice. People get tired and we don't want to confuse them with five different ideas."
While it won't be an exhibition of pretty pictures that might encourage tourists to visit, David says it will be "interesting to motivate people to come here." Her job is to give them a more subtle understanding of UAE culture and art as part of a bigger plan. The idea is that the project will showcase scenarios that will define the future of art within Abu Dhabi's cultural development. David likens it to viewing a painting of a landscape with well-defined trees in the front, yet other trees in softer relief in the background representing the Middle East as a whole. She talks about concentric circles embracing the world that are all connected to the urban and socio-political development of the nation. Culture is not static, which is why we are unlikely to see representations of traditional Arabic art such as calligraphy or ceramics in this project.
"We are not interested in framing the cultural mystifications. Culture by definition is changing," she says. David believes Abu Dhabi can become a 21st-century model of the Middle Eastern cultural hub similar to the nahda, or the Arab enlightenment or awakening of the second half of the 19th century. "It was a moment of big expectations and I understand that people now are a little cautious. Perhaps it will upset some intellectuals to think that the label may be used again in the [Gulf] region, where it is a very different story. That is why it is very important to know the region and collaborate with people.
"I don't mean a hub in the sense of people passing through, but more as an area with many different layers. History doesn't repeat itself when we try to repeat it; often it doesn't happen. Nevertheless, the Arab moment is very strong."
The 2009 Venice Biennale opens on June 7 2009 and runs through to Nov 22 2009. For more information visit @email:www.labiennale.org/en