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The Curatorial Act-Essay

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The Curatorial Act: Organising the Second Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection Exhibition
Valerie Hillings

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection has the distinction of originating from the ground up—at inception there were no pre-existing holdings that served as a starting point—and therefore, it has developed according to a vision defined and continuously debated by a team of curators. Since 2009, more than 300 artworks produced since the 1960s by artists working around the world and in a range of mediums have been acquired. The commitment to offering multiple perspectives on the history of modern and contemporary art stands at the core of the curatorial vision. To that end, in selecting works for the collection the curators take into consideration distinctive histories and points of intersection, as well as the impact on art production of transcultural exchange and collaboration across time and place. Ongoing curatorial research and collaborative discussions with experts in a variety of fields have contributed to the evolution of the collection strategy, which can be summarised by the following guiding pillars: 1960s to the present; anchor artists; collecting in-depth (artists and art movements); a West Asian, North African, and South Asian focus; collection narratives; signature bodies of work; and commissions.

Identifying a series of collection narratives enabled the curatorial team to define common themes which serve as frameworks for the collection galleries in the future museum. When initiating work on the first Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection presentation, the curators decided to focus on a subtheme of the abstractions narrative devised to explore the myriad ways artists since the 1960s interrogate an abstract visual vocabulary using a variety of mediums: light. The exhibition, Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection (5 November 2014–26
March 2015), brought together paintings, sculptures, videos, and interactive installations by nineteen artists, which unfolded across five thematic sections: Activated, Celestial, Perceptual, Reflected, and Transcendent Light.1 Seeing Through Light offered the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team the opportunity to test the transcultural methodology and collection narratives, while at the same time facilitating feedback from visitors to inform future programming.

In conceiving the second collection exhibition, we decided to take a different approach by asking each member of the curatorial team to propose five artworks from the collection to be included in the exhibition rather than selecting an underlying theme at the outset.2 We were astounded to discover how many overlaps appeared among our choices. A set of anchor or cornerstone artists for the exhibition quickly emerged and provided a starting point for various sessions with small maquettes of the artworks in a model for Gallery 1 in Manarat Al Saadiyat, the venue for the exhibition. The majority of the selections emphasised personal and collective histories, and correspondingly, the concepts of time, duration, and place with many artists investigating these themes through the use of everyday and often found and impoverished materials. Over the course of several months of discussions, we determined the need to focus on performance both in the sense of live actions that constitute works in and of themselves and performative practices that result in drawings, paintings, sculptures, and videos. Much of this work implies or invites viewer participation, and based on our audience’s reaction to Yayoi Kusama’s (b. 1929, Matsumoto City, Japan; lives and works in Tokyo) Infinity Mirrored Room–Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011), on view during Seeing Through Light, we thought performative practice would be an exciting aspect of art since the 1960s to further explore in this exhibition.

From an initial checklist too large to fit in the exhibition space, we began to edit and shape our selections. Viewing works in storage helped us to refine our thinking about the subsections of the exhibition, as did numerous meetings with our exhibition designer Ghaith Mohammad. We agreed to highlight foundational chapters from the 1960s represented within the collection—the Gutai Art Association in Japan (Motonaga Sadamasa, Shiraga Kazuo, Tanaka Atsuko), Nouveau Réalisme (Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Jacques Villeglé) and the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (Julio Le Parc) in France, Zero (Günther Uecker) in Germany, and Minimal and Conceptual art in the United Kingdom (Rasheed Araeen)3—through both art and archival materials that shed light on the creative process and allow the opportunity to incorporate historic performances, which are an important part of the story. Hassan Sharif (b. 1951, Dubai; d. 2016, Dubai) offered a bridge between the sixties and the present. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection includes the full set of documentations of his 1980s performances, which he realised in both London and Dubai. His conceptual, experimental, and performative practice greatly influenced the subsequent generation of artists in the United Arab Emirates, such as Mohammed Kazem (b. 1969, Dubai; lives and works in Dubai) and Ebtisam Abdulaziz (b. 1975 Sharjah; lives and works in Washington, D.C.), who are among the artists working since 2000 to be featured in the exhibition. Their performances, the one in Sharjah and the other in the middle of the Arabian Sea off the emirate of Fujairah, testify to the continuous evolution of given places and the impact of where we live and travel on how we experience and understand the world and our time.

This is also true of a series of photographs by Tarek Al-Ghoussein (b. 1962, Kuwait City; lives and works in Abu Dhabi and New York) taken in Abu Dhabi from 2010 to 2011, which are part of a commission for the collection. In 2010, Al-Ghoussein was invited to develop a conceptual photographic project that would focus on the evolution of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum site from preconstruction to completion. The photographs on view constitute a work in progress. Installations by Susan Hefuna (b. 1962, Dresden, Germany; lives and works in Cairo, Düsseldorf, and New York) and Anri Sala (b. 1974, Tirana, Albania; lives and works in Berlin) also invoke specific times and places while using the performing arts—dance and music respectively— as points of departure for exploring the themes of process and interpretation.

Process emerged as another leading theme among the groups of works selected for the exhibition, with many revealing evidence of how they were made and a number of them transforming over time or in response to viewer interaction. While we wanted to emphasise human presence through the appearance of the artist or others and the visible traces of the physical acts undertaken to realise the given works, we recognised that inanimate objects could also be regarded as fundamentally performative. The curatorial team had identified Anish Kapoor’s (b. 1954, Bombay; lives and works in London) My Red Homeland (2003), a monumental sculptural installation composed of nearly twenty-five tonnes of red wax and occupying a large circular platform with a diameter of twelve metres, as a priority for the exhibition. A mechanical arm continuously builds up and erases form as it moves through the dense surface, thereby enacting the processes of creation and destruction before the viewer’s eyes.

We thought that it would be opportune to reinforce through the exhibition the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s commitment to supporting original work by living artists. For Seeing Through Light, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (b. 1967, Mexico City; lives and works in Montreal) was commissioned to create the interactive, site-specific public artwork Pulse Corniche (2014–15). Presented on the East Plaza of Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, Pulse Corniche invited participants to hold a computer-controlled sensor that would then convert the electrical activity of their hearts into unique lighting sequences projected into the night sky by robotic searchlights that were visible within a fifteen-kilometre radius.

For this exhibition, the curatorial team has invited Hesam Rahmanian (b. 1980, Knoxville, Tennessee; lives and works in Dubai), Ramin Haerizadeh (b. 1975, Tehran; lives and works in Dubai), and Rokni Haerizadeh (b. 1978, Tehran; lives and works in Dubai) to create an installation that will feature a combination of objects, individual artworks by them and from their collection, books, and live events. Initial conversations centred on the themes of performance, process, and presence; the role of the everyday as material and subject matter; and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection. Over time, the artists and curators refined the vision to focus on Fluxus, theatre, the simple gestures and body language of daily life, and strategies used to overcome barriers to communication. It was  greed as per their practice that various other contributors would participate in the realisation and enlivening of this immersive and interactive installation. Likely to be a work in progress during the run of the show, this commission will embody the very essence of The Creative Act.

The choice of the The Creative Act as the exhibition’s title was made late in our process.4 It reflects the curatorial team’s desire to celebrate the unique ability of artists and the potential we all have to be active participants in our own lives and to create something meaningful in the world.

1 Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, exh. cat. (Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, 2014).
2 Our curatorial team includes Sasha Kalter-Wasserman, Maisa Al Qassimi, Sarah Dwider, Munira Al Sayegh, and the author.
We would like to acknowledge our former colleagues Reem Fadda, Verena Formanek, and Fawz Kabra, who contributed to shaping the development of both the collection and this exhibition.
3 The members of the Gutai Art Association included in this exhibition are: Motonaga Sadamasa (b. 1922, Iga, Japan; d. 2011, Takarazuka, Japan), Shiraga Kazuo (b. 1924, Amagasaki, Japan; d. 2008, Amagasaki), and Tanaka Atsuko (b. 1932, Osaka; d. 2005, Nara, Japan). Artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme include Niki de Saint Phalle (b. 1930, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France; d. 2002, San Diego, California), Jean Tinguely (b. 1925, Fribourg, Switzerland; d. 1991 Bern, Switzerland), and Jacques Villeglé (b. 1926, Quimper, Brittany, France; lives and works in Paris). Also featured are Julio Le Parc (b. 1928, Mendoza, Argentina; lives and works in Cachan, France) of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel in France, Günther Uecker (b. 1930, Wendorf, Mecklenburg, Germany; lives and works in Düsseldorf) of Zero in Germany, and Rasheed Araeen (b. 1935, Karachi; lives and works in London), pioneer of Minimal and Conceptual art in the United Kingdom.
4 We are grateful to our colleague Rose Demir for suggesting this title, and to our colleague Faisal Al Dhahri for his collaboration on the subtitle.