Curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented speak to Art Radar about their practice.
Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath are the co-founders of Art Reoriented – an independent curatorial platform based in Munich and New York. The duo tells Art Radar about their unique curatorial practice focusing on individual artists that challenges exhibitions based on conventional classifications of art history.
Bardaouil and Fellrath are known for their groundbreaking approach to curating exhibitions that re-examine the classification system in art through creative new ways of understanding and connecting artworks. They have curated exhibitions internationally, including “Tea with Nefertiti” (2013) and Mona Hatoum’s “Turbulence” (2014) at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar; “Songs of Loss and Songs of Love: Oum Kulthoum and Lee Nan-Young” (2014) at Gwangju Museum in Korea; Akram Zaatari at the Lebanese Pavilion (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale; and the comprehensive retrospective “Paul Guiragossian: The Human Condition” at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
You have very diverse cultural and academic backgrounds. Could you talk a bit about your respective backgrounds and what inspired you to become a curator?
Sam Bardaouil (SB): I was born in Lebanon during the civil war. For the first fifteen years of my life, I experienced the war on a daily basis. This experience obviously shapes who you are, and gives you a certain insistence on wanting to contribute to change or positivity in the world. I’ve always thought of the arts as a way to express oneself, a way to better understand the world and open up certain questions. I studied art history and theatre, and worked in theatre for a while as a director, writer and performer. I became more immersed in art history, art criticism and teaching art at university. My theatre background was very informative in helping me understand how to approach exhibition-making in a spatial kind of way.
I was teaching at several universities prior to teaching at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. Till and I met, and we discussed several ideas and projects and worked on a few exhibitions together in 2008 and 2009. We realised that there was something very interesting about our different backgrounds. We decided to start working independently and founded Art Reoriented in order to have the freedom to work without being affiliated or constrained by one institution.
Till Fellrath (TF): I was born in Geneva, I went to school in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. My background is in Economics, and I taught economics in London and then in Singapore, and was in Singapore management. So, I have quite a teaching background. I was also a consultant at the time for nonprofit organisations and museums. Personally, art was always my passion, and I always loved going to museums and reading everything about it. In 2004, I took a gap year and went to Parson’s School of Arts. I then started working in the art field full-time, began making exhibitions, ran a museum in Chelsea, and then met Sam and decided to work with him on curating exhibitions.
Actually, coming to the point we are at right now, curating is not something that one can really study or should really study. I think curation is such a complex field that it’s very important to be able to draw from other disciplines. Whether it’s economics or politics, or you’ve travelled, you’ve lived and experienced things and have seen a lot of art, and so on. I think it’s a blurry kind of a profession that doesn’t really have a particular track to study it. I think there’s also curatorial talent, and there are so many things that you have to incorporate in order to understand the art and the artists. I think it’s quite good to come from different disciplines and merge them.
Art Reoriented was formed in 2009. Has your curatorial vision changed over the years?
TF: I’m hoping that every project that we do builds on the previous ones, so in a sense, the way of putting the exhibitions together every time gets more complex, more comprehensive and more informed because you don’t curate 100 shows a year. It takes so much time to do it. Every time you are going through an exercise of putting a large group show together, you really grow a lot. You give it your best. You give everything you have, all your ideas, everything that you’ve seen comes together. Inevitably, the more you do it, it becomes more comprehensive, and the arguments become more developed over time.
SB: I think more than how your vision changes or grows, it’s about how you become more articulate in making your vision easily communicable and accessible to the audience. It’s like any other art form in a sense. We believe that curation is an art form in storytelling. As you grow in your field and grow in your practice, your vocabulary expands, your terminology expands, and so does your ability to construct sentences. I’m using the metaphor of storytelling to work with narratives, to work with dialogue, to work with characters. If you think of artworks and artists as the tools through which you construct certain narratives, you develop the sensitivity of maintaining the integrity of the identity of those tools. Not by coercing the artists or artworks into narratives, since this takes away from what the individual intended through their works, but by building on that and developing a more complex narrative where both the individual and also the collective questions you are trying to raise or story you are trying to tell are clearly evident.
TF: We are independent curators, and we are lucky enough to be able to do projects all over the world. We are seeing roughly about 200 shows a year, whether Biennales, whether it’s large museum shows, so I think we are in a very unique and special position. We have a pretty good overview of what the scope of curatorial practice is, and what is out there — what we like and what we don’t like. So, I think we are developing more and more clearly what we advocate, and what we stand for. What Sam is saying is that the vision was always there but we feel more strongly about it – to really give artists a true platform for their own sake, to really go back to the basics, that an artist has a vision and has a mission and often gets contrived by political images, by cultural stereotypes, by art history classifications. Whether that’s over time, centuries, I think it’s important to look at the artist’s work, what that stands for, then go broader rather than go the other way around which is often the case.
It sounds like there’s a lot of research involved in curating your exhibitions.
TF: Absolutely, there’s no way around that. I think curation is sort of becoming a fashion – and I really don’t understand the fascination for so many people to become curators – it’s really hard work and not particularly well paid. It’s also really complicated and no matter how good the show is, a tonne of people are going to be upset with you because you didn’t put this and that and whatever. It’s really quite tricky and it takes a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of seeing art, and that is simply not something you can get around. You really need to develop over years.
SB: I think it’s also very important because we tend to see it as two things. First, it’s important to do research because it offers you the context or the framework. So, whatever exhibition you are showing exists in temporal, regional, artistic, art historical, geographical, political, theoretical, philosophical contexts – and this is where the research comes in. The other thing about research is negative – I think when you are putting art in an exhibition, there are so many layers and so many positions, and what we don’t necessarily like to do is when you see a show, and there is only one layer. You go to see the show, and that’s it. I think the more research you do, the more layers you can create. There’s the first layer which is what you see at first sight, then, you discover more when you start looking at more juxtaposed works and reading some of the texts, and then you realise that there are so many layers with which you can appreciate it and understand what you are looking at. That is very important, and it takes a lot of time and work.
TF: To give you an example, there was a relatively small show we did at the Alexander Gray gallery in New York on the Korean Dansaekhwa movement – the artists that work in the monochrome style. There were 20 artworks on view. To understand these artists, you simply had to go to where the artists were working and talk to them and their families. We had friends who we worked with to access primary literature, and we went to a lot of these artists’ studios or estates. If you don’t see the works, and you don’t understand the struggle of the people, economically, politically, and the conditions in which they were working in at the time, you don’t understand the socio-economic context. And then if you don’t actually see those canvases and understand the sort of violence with which artists were treating the canvases and constructing these abstract works, you are simply missing the point of how they were done and why they were done. You just see it as some sort of American abstract expressionism or something when it really had nothing to do with that whatsoever. There isn’t the slightest bit of formalistic or other connection really. I think you end up misreading these from some sort of a perspective of some Asian zen, when it has nothing to do with it. It’s quite the opposite of that.
There is a lot of research, whether academically, talking and travelling. I think all of this somehow filters into how you present any artwork by the way you write the press release, by the way you arrange the objects, and by the way you talk about these works. I think for art history’s sake, it is really a big responsibility to do the research properly and not come to easy conclusions because once it’s out there, it ends up becoming the truth, even though it’s not the truth.
Do you feel that your curatorial approach is very different from what is currently happening internationally?
TF: I would say, yes. I think we are probably a minority in terms of doing it so vigilantly. It’s hard to criticise other people, and it’s hard to summarise what people are doing globally since there are a lot of museums. But I do think that curating has become a fashion where people easily put up a few things and have extremely complicated concepts in there which don’t really come through in an exhibition or when they write about something. I think we are probably more cautious, and we take more time before we put something together.
The second thing that we like doing that we don’t often see is clarity. You really want to have a clear visual walk-through so you actually feel something, and it’s a beautiful show, and it’s clear, especially in larger exhibitions. Why you are where you are in the narrative so you don’t lose yourself in the show, so you always understand what’s going on. You are being taken on a journey, and you leave with a lot of questions, which is great. You feel somehow enriched when leaving the show rather than feeling like you were bombarded with objects.
Could you describe how you arrive at this clarity? And what is the process behind creating this clarity?
SB: To follow from what Till was saying, obviously, there are many types of curators, many methodologies. For us, it’s about commitment in a sense. You commit to a certain way of doing things. You have a very clear position as to where you stand, what you’d like to show, how you’d like to show in exhibitions, parameters you’d like to work with. So, if we choose to work in a certain way, other curators choose to work in different ways and you know, they will stand for what their commitment is, and we will stand for what our commitment is.
What I think is very important for us in talking about this clarity, is in a sense, we know what we want to say. I think that most of the time, it’s not about saying something that’s close-ended. It’s not about making a final statement. If anything, we’d like to open up a series of questions. I think an exhibition is about questions, and the text is about articulating those questions in a more concrete way or proposing certain answers. There is a very different way in which we approach text and exhibitions. I think they both complement each other.
The clarity for us is first for us to know what is it that we are trying to say. What are the questions we’d like to ask through this particular project or exercise, be it exhibition or the text that it comes with? For this to happen, you have to do your research, we go back to this idea. There is something that we say all the time: if you can’t say it in two or three lines then you have nothing to say.
TF: We were both in academia for several years, and I think when you really don’t understand the abstract of a paper, then there probably is nothing in that paper. I think another thing that’s very important is that for many curators – and you hear it often in discussions – it’s often so much about the curators themselves, their own egos and maybe it’s about their artists. Often, the thing that’s missing is the audience.
At the end of the day, you make a show for the people who come to see it. I think that’s the key element that’s in our projects. We don’t know whether we are always successful but we really strive for people to come to a show and feel something, and to adapt them to a local context, and make sure that they can make an emotional and intellectual connection, of varying degrees, of course, in every show.
I think you can test this out when you go to shows. Can you follow this? Is there a structure? Do you take something away that’s a convoluted mess of objects thrown together? Is there a connection, or is there none? At the end of the day, it’s often forgotten – art is something quite magical, in a simple, guttural way. Great art can do something, and we don’t really know what that is, and I think there is another tendency, the viewers and curators are often almost afraid of that. You have to over-interpret, over-analyse, verbalise and explain everything, and sometimes you cannot and I think that’s something that would be great to embrace. Let’s push that magic, in a sense, and embrace it. Art can do wonders, instead of overkilling it.
There’s an interesting aspect of fiction and history in both your exhibitions, “Tea with Nefertiti” and “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”. How did you come up with the narrative themes of these exhibitions? And how do you select the artists for these exhibitions?
SB: These are very different types of shows, there are two different story approaches. I think with “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”, it was very important for us to find a way of entering into the local audience. We’ve been travelling in Asia for many years, visiting different places, and we were specifically in Seoul and Gwangju in South Korea. Gwangju Museum of Art asked us to do this exhibition there, and it was very important for us to find a way of connecting to the audience, and we also did not want to do the obvious or the expected, to talk about the uprising in Gwangju in 1980s.
Since the museum was interested in us doing a show of artists that are mostly from the Middle East and the Arab world, we were also equally conscious that we wanted to present the artworks in a framework that preserves the individuality of each artist and does not reduce them to just another way of the expected rhetorical politics vein, the Islam and calligraphy, the images we usually think of when we talk about the East. We spent a lot of time talking to people to find an interesting point that could be the starting point for the show.
We came across this amazing singer from South Korea, Lee Nan-Young (1916-1967). She had this beautiful, heartbreaking song from the 1930s called “The Tears of Mokpo”. Mokpo is very close to Gwangju and also in the south where the Japanese, during the colonial rule, use to take the men to work in plantations and camps in Japan, so the women would stand at the port and cry as they saw their men go away. Over the years, after the war, the song became very emblematic of this kind of identity or connection to home. This was a very strong thing for us. If we were to think of a figure or a song that is from the Arab world that can be the counterpoint of Lee Nan-Young, who would that be? Of course, for us, that is Oum Kulthoum (1904-1975), a very famous Egyptian singer who became emblematic of the whole period in the Arab world where there was a search for national identity. And she has a story similar to Lee Nan-Young. They both start from a very poor, humble background and they both became very famous.
In 1967, they were both in Paris and that was the starting point. What would have happened if the two had met? How would they have collaborated or worked on something together? It was about cultures meeting, artists meeting, and what happens because of that encounter. So the exhibition itself became a fulfilment to a promise that we proposed – Lee Nan-Young and Oum Kulthoum’s promise to each other, to meet and work together. But they had both died and couldn’t fulfil that promise. The artists coming from that world from Oum Kulthoum became a fulfilment to Lee Nan-Young.
All the works were related to the themes of two songs that we chose. “Tears of Mokpo” by Lee Nan-Young, and “Ruins” for Oum Kulthoum. Sound was very important for the exhibition, the music was very important. As you walked around, you could hear different pieces, and they all had a different sound quality, and it was a very poetic exhibition. The people connected, and they thought it really happened, and then realised that it was fiction.
TF: The research elements were all there, with the layering of information, to play with this duality in a sense. You have these two cultural backgrounds, two time periods (when they were to have met, and the present time) and then we basically came up with these two chapters, “Songs of Loss” and “Songs of Love”, because in a sense there are two sections, they are two sides of one coin. You lose a lover, you can’t experience one without the other in a sense, and we are playing with that.
The underlying elements you have in there since both of them come from these cities with the ocean, many of the works we chose have a notion of travel in them. And finally, there’s the notion of sound and music, concepts on which many people can connect on in the city of Gwangju. These are probably more interesting departure points than going for the obvious, the Arab Spring with the uprising in Gwangju which is probably beaten to death, and there’s almost something patronising when national people come to the city of Gwangju, and we are trying to teach them their own history. I think it’s a bit ridiculous. I think it’s quite nice to go for something universally relevant, and maybe touches on the history of the city, but they don’t need an international curator to go there and explain it to the locals. I think they are quite educated and aware of where they come from.
How was the exhibition received by the local audience?
TF: It seems to have done really well. We were there for the first few days, and we were just back in Gwangju for the Gwangju Biennale opening, and a lot of people were talking about the show from various corners so it seemed to have really resonated and succeeded in terms of connecting people to a group of artists that they weren’t familiar with.
Could you talk a bit about your exhibition for the Lebanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013? What was your curatorial vision for the pavilion? And how was it curating for a national pavilion as opposed to a museum?
TF: It is different for many reasons. For a museum, you are bound by spaces, mission, collection. It’s a very different kind of audience so it’s much more of a local context. When you curate a show for Venice, you pretty much have all the variables open to you. There isn’t anyone telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. Even the space, we found the space. As for the audience, it’s a very specific audience, a demanding audience – very experienced, savvy art-goers, so to speak, and of course there’s the local audience. But I think the Venice Biennale is quite particular in that it actually attracts an international art audience, as very few other events do.
In curating for a national pavilion, our vision was driven by the space, by the location, by the events, to find one artist that was very dear to us from the beginning. Aside from finding the right artists, we tried to find the right project that maybe talks about something that is very important in Lebanese society at the moment. I think it helps that Sam is Lebanese, and I’m not Lebanese so we have this two perspectives that come together, which is exactly what you have in Venice in terms of the audience. The idea of one strong artistic project was very clear for us, and hope that the audience would come, engage and spend a lot of time at the pavilion since there is simply so much to see there.
SB: I think that our knowledge of different artists from Lebanon, both living and in and out was not something that started when we were asked to curate the pavilion. We had been doing research for a long time but then several months before, we chose to work with Akram Zaatari. We investigated a lot of artists living in Beirut and Lebanon, but also abroad, and looked at many projects. When Akram proposed this project, we felt that it was the right one because it was very poignant and relevant. The project somehow raised certain questions that could be critical of certain perceptions or political strands within the country, and within the parameters of a national pavilion. In a sense, to inverse the actual equation and use the national pavilion to critique certain national attitudes which was a great opportunity.
It was also great that we could do this through a national pavilion and not an independent project. The commissioner of the pavilion, APEAL – Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon, were great. There was no censorship, no attempt at curbing any choices that we made as curators, and the artist was doing the work we commissioned him to do.
TF: One important thing to add is that Akram is an artist we had worked with previously on a big commission for the opening of the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. We had known him for many years, and this project came up, and we had him in the back of our minds and despite all the research we did, found that that is the ideal project for this context.
Venice has this strange thing of these national pavilions, which comes from a time of world fairs where you exhibit other cultures in these international fairs. It’s really from that thinking and it has actually lasted till today in Venice. It’s a very interesting platform in a sense because a lot of artists, and people don’t want to represent a country and you don’t want an artist to tell you everything about a country. On the other hand, in this particular forum, it has this interesting opportunity to enter an international artistic community with something that would be important in the society. So instead of shying away from that, it may also be interesting to go heads on. You choose a project that’s actually talks about the nation, and it does make a statement of sorts. So the choice of Akram is also one of working with an artist that has always been in Lebanon, and has not made his career outside, someone who has contributed to the infrastructure of the country and helped build institutions and make Lebanon and Beirut a great place for artistic production.
SB: And that would in turn send a message to artists based in Beirut, who are not living abroad, that you could have an international career and be recognised in important exhibitions while still being based and practising inside and not so called bigger centres like Paris or New York.
TF: These are considerations that you would not necessarily think about if you were to curate a museum show.
In a previous interview for ArtAsiaPacific in 2012, you’ve spoken about museums and art spaces still putting on shows entitled “Contemporary Chinese Art” or “Japan Now” or “New from the Middle East.” Could you talk about how you approach your curatorial practice to shift away from these exhibitions with a regional focus, and curate shows focused on individual artists?
SB: I think there are so many ways you can evade reducing a project into these geo-political frameworks. We can give you different examples. One example is the naming of the exhibition, the title. “Tea with Nefertiti” was a show that takes the history of collecting Egyptian art in big museums from the 19th century onwards as a case study, and is an example of how museums can use artworks and artists to create images of other cultures.
When we were looking at naming this exhibition, the first thing we decided was not to use the word ‘Egypt’ in the title, because the moment you put the word Egypt, people will think that it’s a survey show of contemporary Egyptian artists associated with Tahrir Square, the Arab Spring or with the mummies and pyramids. So, it was very important to find a way of connecting the example or core example that we are using to illustrate very important point through this exhibition without reducing it into geographical focus. With Nefertiti, you understand that there’s a connection to Egypt, but then it’s not about Egypt, it’s about the artwork. And “Tea with Nefertiti“ is like sitting and talking to Nefertiti and listening to her point of view, what she has encountered and what she has to say while being taken around the world, since it was excavated, so on and so forth. So that’s one example of the way we try. And the first thing you read is the title of the exhibition.
TF: Even when you think about the audience – how does it come across? What do you want people to take away from the show? And that often should be one of the starting points. Another way of doing it is when curators look at artists for a show on contemporary Asian artists. If that is your primary way of choosing artists, that becomes problematic and becomes ethnicising [sic]. Even if you do want to present contemporary artists from China, there needs to be another layer, you still need to have another formalistic element.
In “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”, these works connect very strongly in a very visceral way because of what they talk about, rather than artists coming from a very blurry defined region which is the Middle East. I think, whatever project you are working on, it’s important to look at the artists, look at the works, understand and feel the works, and connect them in a strong way. Even if there is an ethnic commonality, this is not what actually pops to the foreground in an exhibition. It’s the same, in fact, when you meet people from all over the world: you remember the person for who they are because they are funny or angry not because of x, y and z. This is the way we are approaching art exhibitions, going away from this East/West thing, and kind of going back to the roots and basics in a sense.
Why do you think this categorising of artists into regions is so prevalent in the arts?
TF: I think there are several reasons. Art history as such is a domain where it’s all about classifying and seeing what has happened. There’s much more of a rigid classification than in music, of schools, places, art styles etc., and you have that in musicology. Secondly, nowadays, there is often a market-driven approach where you sell artworks, and it’s much easier to say “oh we have the new hot Turkish artist” than going a little more in depth and marketing that. And I think people love politics. Somehow, there is a mix of politics and art, where one artist has to explain the whole politics and history of the particular country. This is always impossible, but there is an underlying expectation that when you have an artist from Egypt, they will explain to you how their country works.
SB: I think, in the wake of post-colonial studies, a lot of European museums, institutions and curators that do not come from colonised countries felt it was important to show the places that are not from the canon. Let’s show artists from Seoul, Beirut etc., that’s the lens from which they were initially framed, and the artists jumped at it as this was the only way to show their works. This is how it started.
For us, historically speaking at large, and maybe in the wake of the last century, like in Cairo or Beirut, there was this exchange of ideas and styles that was happening, and people don’t realise that it was happening before and think that this is happening for the first time now since the New Museum is showing it. So for us, it’s important to dig deeper, and excavate historical frameworks and how they can be presented.
How do you see the curatorial practice around the world evolving in the next five years, or how would you like it to evolve?
SB: For us, one of the things we hope to keep on doing and maybe other institutions and curators would do is to distinguish between a curator of contemporary art and a contemporary curator of art. We’d like to think we are contemporary curators of art. There is a big difference between the two. In our exhibitions, we would like to look at artists and artworks from different time periods through a contemporary perspective, and try to find new links and new connections, both formalistically, philosophically, intellectually, socially and so on and not limit ourselves to only look at living artists today.
We are not specialists in every field and every period, and we would like to expand the discussion and include other experts in our research and have interesting dialogue and exchanges that inform our vision and would allow us to present contemporary art within the framework that make references to art historical materials and periods, juxtapositioning works from different times to break these classifications. This is something we are interested in pursuing further in our works.
TF: I think it applies to many disciplines, and in the arts, there is an over-specialisation in many areas. I think you need to have people who really know things in-depth, but you also need more people who are connectors. Within art history, it’s amazing how few branch out. How many curators that specialise in a particular geographic area actually branch out and see works outside their area. You have to see everything and you can make wonderful connections. When you just go against everything and see how people think, how does it connect, and I think it’s far more exciting than looking at a certain document.
It’s quite radical in a sense to throw away all these specifications and working with Islamic art scholars, and urban planners and what not, to really understand a lot of background for a particular show. And then, we also went on connect it to different collections. I hope this kind of exchange is something that happens more in the future.
There is a tendency to have single artist shows, and there is also this tendency to think about visitors and ticket revenues – that is all important. But it’s also important to really try to advance the discipline by asking radically new questions about how you look at and interpret a work of art.
Are there any new projects that you are currently working on?
TF: When we were doing all the research for the Lebanese Pavilion, we identified a younger group of Lebanese artists that are connected to Beirut: a new generation of younger artists who are more individualistic rather than working with collective narratives of the war and so on. A new wave of artists. So we are representing them in a show in several European locations starting from next year.
SB: And the show is titled, “I spy with my little eye”.
TF: We are working on an exhibition that’s about Surrealism in Egypt. We just finished a book on conversation with artists that have a connection with the Middle East, and the book goes against the stereotype, and we really go into everything, their childhoods and very extensive conversations that really show the personality of artists, and why they do what they do.
SB: To give you a little background on the book, it came about while thinking about how Arab artists go about engaging with this Arab Spring. We knew these artists before, and we’ve been talking about how the artists as individuals were responding differently to what’s happening during this particular moment, and their respective backgrounds, trajectories and their personal stories. The book is called Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring: Conversation with Artists from the Arab World, and will be released by SKIRA at the end of 2014.
For 2015, Art Reoriented are preparing an exhibition on young Lebanese artists that will premiere at Mataderos in Madrid and travel to various European cities.
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