Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

Museum ‘must redefine’ art

Jean-Hubert Martin has played a key role in bringing the Louvre to Abu Dhabi and believes the museum can take a lead in reshaping culture and art. The curator thinks the opportunity could represent a ‘revolution’, writes Nick Leech.
At Manarat Al Saadiyat this evening, Jean-Hubert Martin will discuss the impact of globalisation on museums and what this could mean for Louvre Abu Dhabi. Peter Mathew
At Manarat Al Saadiyat this evening, Jean-Hubert Martin will discuss the impact of globalisation on museums and what this could mean for Louvre Abu Dhabi. Peter Mathew

Given his CV, you might expect Jean-Hubert Martin to be a pillar of the establishment, and in many ways he is.

But that will not prevent him from calling for a cultural revolution this evening, during Art as a Witness of Globalisation, the latest Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

“The permanent collections of museums have to be displayed in another way,” the curator says.

“Things move so much faster now and contact between cultures is becoming part of daily reality, but the real challenge is to reflect this in permanent collections that will allow people to understand things in a way that reflects today’s global reality.”

Mr Martin will be joined on stage by Saied Binkrad, a professor of semiology of art at Rabat University, to discuss the impact of globalisation on museums and what this might mean for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

When it comes to museums and the view of culture that will apparently define Abu Dhabi’s new museum, Mr Martin knows what he is talking about.

Until two years ago the 70-year-old Frenchman was part of an advisory committee to Agence France-Museums, the body responsible for delivering Louvre Abu Dhabi, and was also a key member of the negotiating party that drew up the agreement for the museum between the governments of the UAE and France.

Mr Martin embarked on his curatorial career in 1971 at the Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris, and six years later was part of the team that established the Centre Georges Pompidou.

After serving as the director of the Kunsthalle Bern in the early 1980s, he returned to the Pompidou as director of the Musee National d’Art Moderne, before moving to the Musee National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris and the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf.

It was in 1989, however, with Magicians of the World, a show widely considered to be the first truly global exhibition of contemporary art, that Mr Martin’s name became linked with a challenging approach to culture that constantly calls traditional western values into question.

The show sought to address the problem of “100 per cent of exhibitions ignoring 80 per cent of the Earth” by including equal numbers of western and non-western artists and treating the work in exactly the same way, while moving beyond the more traditional approaches to non-western cultures that defined colonialism, Primitivism and Modernism.

“Who decides what is and is not art? Who decides what is and is not in the mainstream? Who decides what can enter the market and what not? The purpose behind Magicians was to raise this very set of questions. I think there is still much to be understood and discovered in what we usually classify in special fields like anthropology or ethnology,” Mr Martin recently told Art IT’s Andrew Maerkle.

“The real challenge is to have scholars from very different cultures working together to build new narratives and stories about globalisation and what is happening in the world,” he says. “Of course this is political, but it’s also profoundly cultural.”

Fresh from curating Contemporary Morocco, an exhibition of 400 works by 80 Moroccan artists held at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Mr Martin is planning another show, Unexpected Affinities, to open at the Grand Palais in Paris, in March next year.

One of the defining features of the show will be the display and comparison of objects from different countries and historical periods, in an environment free of traditional interpretation panels and curatorial explanations.

Mr Martin describes the experience as one in which visitors will be encouraged to draw their own conclusions at leisure.

“There is a tendency in western museums now to start with knowledge and only then move to the objects for written explanations that become enormous and consider the visitor as a pupil who does not know anything and who has to be taught the history of art, from a western point of view, before he can understand what he is seeing,” Mr Martin says.

“I am absolutely against this type of idea. You don’t go to a concert to learn about the history of music. You go to a concert to listen, to have feelings, to let the music change your appreciation of the world. Afterwards you might be interested in the biography of Mozart, but you should not start with that.

“I am not against knowledge, but the museum should not be a place where you read. It should be a place where you look and make contact with objects and, if they have a certain strength and visual impact, then the viewer will see and interpret that.

“Whether he’s right or not is absolutely not important.”

Mr Martin describes his approach as more anthropological than art history, which simultaneously looks forward while also looking back to an earlier revolutionary period in France, when museums were organised by artists and before curators became kings.

“It was only at the end of the 19th century that the history of art became a science, curators all became art historians and it became a sort of rule that you had to see objects through the eyes of art history,” he says.

“When you say art history, what you say today is an art history that has been written by the West, and considers the whole art of the world from a Eurocentric point of view. But there are much freer ways to see art than through this eternal narration.”

That freedom, to look at history of art and culture from an international – an uninhibited – point of view is an opportunity that Mr Martin believes can and should be taken by Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum that aims to redefine the concept of universalism for the 21st century.

“What they are trying to do in Abu Dhabi is something that could not be done in Paris,” Mr Martin admits.

“It would be a sort of revolution that they could not achieve right now. The major museums are always the most difficult to move, but I don’t expect the Louvre in Paris to move from its system of geographical regions and schools.”

While Jean Francois Charnier, the curatorial director of Agence France-Museums, who has been helping shape Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection, agrees with the opportunity identified by Mr Martin, he begs to differ when it comes to curatorial detail and museological technique.

“We have to rethink what universalism is now, because the universalism that is proposed for Louvre Abu Dhabi cannot repeat the narratives of the West,” Mr Charnier says.

“We do not want to recreate a European museum as it was defined in the 18th century, that is not possible now. But what Louvre Abu Dhabi tries to think about is the place of the museum in the 21st century, and to understand the time we are living in.”

One of the key ways in which the curators of Louvre Abu Dhabi hope to achieve this difference has already been seen, ironically, at Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Birth of a Museum exhibition, which was held at the Louvre in Paris.

The show exhibited objects chronologically but compared artefacts from different cultures: second century Roman statues where displayed alongside figures of the Buddha from Pakistan, and figurines of Bactrian princesses were displayed alongside Bronze Age idols.

“Our point of view at Louvre Abu Dhabi is that we want to show that civilisations and societies share common roots, and we believe it is possible to show this through art,” Mr Charnier says.

“Putting artwork from different cultures together in a permanent collection is to talk about the way cultures and civilisations build their identities, and art can show how societies want to be different but also what they share. In our time, we have to believe it is stronger to make something together than it is to be divided.”


Updated: May 27, 2015 04:00 AM

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