x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Urban edge

A new book predicts that as the structure of the art world changes, 12 cities outside the traditional creative centres will emerge as avant-garde hubs, writes Shirine Saad

Graffiti on the walls of a building under construction in Beirut, Lebanon.  Joseph Eid / AFP
Graffiti on the walls of a building under construction in Beirut, Lebanon. Joseph Eid / AFP

Throughout history, the production and display of art has been concentrated in artistic capitals such as Florence, Paris or New York, often coinciding with the intersection of wealth and power. Likewise, today the art market mostly revolves around cities such as New York, Basel or London, where artists, curators, critics and institutions flock to cater to the rich and influential.

But in the past decades, as the art market suffers from excessive commodification and institutionalisation, the heavy reign of galleries such as Larry Gagosian and lurid speculation, alternative narratives are emerging from otherwise overlooked regions. Some astute curators are listening.

Last year at the New Museum in New York, the triennial The Ungovernables displayed works by about 50 artists, most of whom were under 30 and from cities such as Johannesburg, Bogota, Beirut and Cairo. Subjects ranged from the overtly political to the intimate, from eroticism to militarism.

And now, London-based publishing house Phaidon’s new boldly titled book, Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant Gardes, predicts that 12 cities outside traditional art centres are bound to become important avant-garde hubs. Beirut, Istanbul, Lagos, Bogota, San Juan and Cluj are among the creative cities where curators and critics have each chosen eight promising artists or collectives, from established names to talented up-and-comers.

The book claims that the structure of the art world needs to open up beyond traditional capitals, allowing more voices to emerge from cities where the institutional structures are perhaps less solid but where the discourse is sometimes more thought-provoking than in market-driven capitals.

Recently, thriving art scenes have emerged in China, India, Latin America and the Middle East, with biennials flourishing and critical practices developing. Many of the artists in those regions are reacting to post-colonial realities and seeking an identity that is both rooted in local histories and global practices. Now the editors of the book want to tell us where to look next.

“We really tried to avoid setting up a dichotomy between margin and centre,” explains Kari Rittenbach, who edited the book. “In the 90s, it was easy to talk about the art market and mean only New York or Western Europe.”

Now, things are fluctuating. Borders are collapsing, ideas are circulating more freely, and artists are more mobile than ever, congregating, among other places, at biennials and prestigious art schools.

“The fact that globalisation has caused individual artists and artistic phenomenon to appear on the periphery – later to be ‘mined’ by the market at the centre of the art world,” says Rittenbach, “made us want to look at more sustainable practices and art ecosystems that were developing, not necessarily in opposition to the contemporary art mainstream but rather, on their own terms. These art ‘cities’ are producing their own feedback loops and cycles whether or not the mainstream takes note; this is very exciting.”

While some critics have wondered why the selection of cities included San Juan, Vancouver and Beirut rather than, for example, Warsaw or Shanghai, the editors claim that they followed specific criteria, assessing, for example, a thriving art scene, a serious critical environment, active institutions and an important reach beyond the country’s borders.

“We wanted a certain geographical spread, and we wanted to find cities where artists were committed to living and cultivating the cultural scene; not simply trying to sell out and move to a major capital,” says Rittenbach.

The critic claims that the chosen cities feature a mixture of non-profit and commercial galleries, a local art market and an economy of cultural criticism. Each city’s art historical narrative varies, as does its size and the scale of its resources.

“Each city serves as a draw within its own region,” she continues. “Exciting initiatives are being proposed and realised there in ways that the mainstream is not always paying attention to. It’s important to note that the book is not trying to argue that these cities will ‘take over’ or eventually supplant the major capitals, but rather it proposes another narrative that is ongoing, and which garners less attention in the spotlight.”

Many of the artists featured in the book engage with their sociopolitical reality, a choice the editor claims was not intended, but points out to the emergence of radical new perspectives. Hence the subtitle of the book. Avant-garde, the term used by several critics to refer to cultural movements that rejected their social and artistic context and created a new form of expression – such as the Constructivists in Russia, the Dadaists in Paris and the Abstract Expressionists in New York – points out to new artistic practices revolutionising history.

The subtitle confers to the project a political agenda undermining the reign of traditional art centres and their institutions – mostly run by white males, few of whom question the narrow standards of the contemporary art world, which is still dominated by bombastic artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Julian Schnabel.

But one wonders how the book so confidently labels 12 relatively unknown art cities avant-garde, a term that has been considered obsolete in the past decades. Are the chosen artists truly creating novel art forms, starting from an artistic tabula rasa? Are they creating radically new artistic movements and theories? Are they influencing artists in other regions?

Furthermore, aren’t these artists working with the international language of contemporary art, mostly studying at western art schools and active within major international institutions? And isn’t Phaidon, a London-based publishing house, deciding upon what matters and what doesn’t, thus perpetuating the place of western institutions as the ultimate arbiters of art history?

Still, aside from its overambitious premise and the flaws in the argument, the book offers interesting insights into cities that deserve to be explored to understand some of the questions that artists are grappling with in the new century – such as post-apartheid life, urban poverty and homosexuality.

For example, Beirut, a city struggling to come to terms with its haunting past and paralysed in its efforts to look at the future, is described by critic Kaelen Wilson Goldie as “utterly and totally obsessed with itself”. It is an insightful observation that allows her to frame the city’s art scene, highlighting the work of Ziad Antar, Marwa Arsanios, Ali Cherri, Rabih Mroué, Mounira Al Solh, Rayyane Tabet, Raed Yassine and Akram Zaatari. In her introduction, the critic notes the importance of precursors such as writer and artist Etel Adnan, gallerist Nadine Beghdache and photographic archive The Arab Image Foundation, and explains the place of Beirut in the Arab region.

“Countless political thinkers and policy analysts have likened Lebanon to a laboratory for democracy (and its failures) in the region,” she writes. “Beirut, however, self-absorbed as ever, is something else.”

Wilson Goldie quotes Samir Kassir to evoke the city’s self-destructive instinct: “Beirut was, and is, a very real place, whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness. [Its] value must ultimately be weighed in relation to its place in the history of mentalities and in the history of ideas. For Beirut stands out among the cities of its age not only for having helped to formulate the history of Arab modernity, but also, and still more importantly, for having helped make it a living thing – even if, in doing so, Beirut lured itself into a dead end.”

Wilson-Goldie particularly sought out artists actively engaging with these essential questions. “It was important that each artist was based in Beirut and was using the city in some way in their work, whether as subject, material, or metaphor,” she says. Most of the artists chosen use multiple media, reacting to their unstable environment with subtle, conceptual work. For Akram Zaatari, perhaps the best-known Beirut artist, creates videos on the impossibility of gay love and builds archives that uncover hidden narratives of Lebanon’s history. Ziad Antar, one of the city’s most promising artists, makes deadpan films that combine touching narratives of everyday life with subtle social commentary; his photographs of buildings on the Emirati coastline are diffused with an eerie beauty that mirrors his unease with the frenzied constructions throughout the region. And Mounira Al Solh’s series are a whimsical, personal take on the political turmoil and infrastructural debacles of the city.

Their work is both a passionate, immediate reaction to the world around them and the thoughtful articulation of a solid art practice.

“The great subtlety of a book like this,” says the critic, “is that it shows very delicately how much a city like New York can learn from a city like Beirut. In New York, museums and other art institutions are settled, established, at risk of becoming both stagnant and immovable.”

She says it is precisely Beirut’s instability that allows artists to be creative, seeking a voice of their own despite weak institutional support.

“In Beirut, those institutions, such as they exist, are all still in formation and in flux and very often under threat, as well. In both cities, we have to ask, constantly, what those institutions are supposed to do, and who they are for. In Beirut, there is a rawness to the answers to those questions that is instructive, I think, for other places, including New York.”

Shirine Saad is a New York-based editor and writer.