The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi – now well established as an essential part of the UAE’s art ecosystem – opens its fall 2018 exhibition on 3 September. Under the somewhat provocative title Ways of Seeing, it’s a group exhibition curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of the multi-disciplinary curatorial platform Art Reoriented.
A version of the exhibition has already been seen in Istanbul a year ago. It was reconfigured for its second venue, the Boghossian Foundation in Brussels during the winter; and it now features a number of new artists and artworks for the third iteration that premieres in Abu Dhabi.
The exhibition references John Berger’s seminal 1972 text on visual culture, Ways of Seeing, in which he consciously shifted the language and practice of art criticism away from the conventional European concept of the art expert. The book and the BBC TV series on which it was based were was intended as a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, an important survey of world art but one which took a very traditional and Western view of aesthetics and cultural values.
Berger by contrast invites us to look at art and the world with a different perspective: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” he wrote, emphasising that there are usually hidden ideologies in the visual images. As Indian academic Rashmi Doraiswamy put it, “Berger’s theoretical legacy is in situating the look in the context of political otherness”. Looking is a political act; where and when we see something will affect what we see.
In taking its cue from Berger’s groundbreaking argument, the Bardaouil/Fellrath project invites the viewer to actively engage with the artwork, and to explore the ways by which artists assign forms and concepts that seem familiar with renewed appearances and meanings. Till Fellrath wants visitors to be active participants rather than passive consumers in the way they approach the works. “There is no one ‘correct’ way to look at art, and our wish is that our audiences should both be aware of and embrace their individual reactions and points of view, as these are borne of unique personal experiences.”
Maya Allison, Founding Director and Chief Curator of NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, put it like this: “The curators depart from traditional exhibition narratives and put the artworks into dialogue in a unique way that draws out how these artworks invite the viewer to see them”.
Bringing together 26 artists and artist collectives with 41 artworks, the exhibition has been adapted to include new works by Andreas Gursky, Mona Hatoum, Lateefa bint Maktoum, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Hassan Sharif, Cindy Sherman, and Thomans Struth, among others. There’s a variety of media – painting and sculpture, but also photography, sound, film, and installation.
“We bring our own many ways of seeing to this exhibition …
The curatorial selection is key, of course. “Artists use form and technique to express something about themselves and the world,” said Sam Bardaouil. “Each of the artworks on display beckons us to take a second look, upon which the contours of a new reality begin to emerge.”
Works by Salvador Dali, Mona Hatoum, Alicja Kwade, or Hassan Sharif change our perception of familiar objects by altering their function. Several artists in the exhibition, such as James Turrell, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and Fred Sandback, blur the boundaries between the artwork and the space in which it is displayed. Others, such as James Webb, Vik Muniz, and Gustav Metzger, offer the viewer new ways of accessing the artwork. A few, like Shana Moulton, James Casebere, and Andreas Gursky, push the technical and formal possibilities of their genre. And Thomas Struth and Lateefa bint Maktoum offer images of people actually engaged in the act of looking: narratives are constructed through what we see.
All in all, Ways of Seeing sounds like a great show. It’s also a good one for the NYUAD Art Gallery: Maya Allison points out that the gallery has an academic mission in the study of art and culture as it interacts with varied audiences, and given the cultural diversity of NYUAD specifically and the UAE generally it makes sense to provide the option for alternative views. “We, as this diverse audience, bring our own many ways of seeing to this exhibition, that, in turn, offers us a kaleidoscopic journey through ways of seeing.”
Ways of Seeing will be accompanied by a programme of public events, including talks, workshops, and “family-friendly activities” as well as an illustrated bilingual catalogue edited by Bardaouil and Fellrath. The exhibition runs 3 September to 17 November.
Above: Jojakim Cortis & Adrian Sonderegger, Making of “The last photo of the Titanic afloat” (by Francis Browne, 1912); digital C print, 2016. Below: Salvador Dali, Les yeux surréalistes; bronze, 1980