In Real Time: art as process

Installation view of Take a poiesis capsule with a glass of shadow on an empty stomach (2024) by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian with contributions from, Julie Becton Gillum, Kiori Kawai, Pirouz Taji, Mohammed Rahis Mollah, Bhakta Gaha. Commissioned by the NYUAD Art Gallery. Photo: John Varghese

Most art exhibitions are by their nature static; the curator decides a theme, the artist(s) create work or supply existing pieces that fit the theme, they’re placed in an exhibition space, we go to see them there. The dynamic elements happen right up to the point where the show opens, with everyone involved participating in their own way – curators, artists, technicians, lighting designers, marketing people. And then it all stops: the visitors are the active participants, the exhibition itself is static.

That’s not the case with In Real Time, the Spring exhibition at the NYUAD Art Gallery now approaching the last few days of its three-months run. Some of the art didn’t exist at all when the show opened. Some of the artists joined during the run. Some of the art was performative, featuring music and dance. Some of the works were amended and accreted during the run, in a couple of cases with the audience’s involvement.

Maya Allison, the gallery’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, had long been thinking about an exhibition which would be more dynamic than the norm – one in which the process of making the works themselves is also visible to the audience. The process is as much part of the art as the end result.

Allison was originally thinking about murals for the Art Gallery’s Spring show. In street art, for instance, the creation is often a public act – seeing the work emerge from a blank background, seeing the wall change and become something else, is part of the experience.

But that idea expanded to include other works that might take shape in the space itself. “I realised that what I really liked about the idea was not so much the murals themselves, but the idea that the artist was in the space and that we got to be a part of the birth of the artwork. So even if we see it after it’s finished, you can feel that the artist was only recently there …”

Duygu Demir, appointed the Gallery’s curator in September last year, got involved in the planning discussions, and suggested including a specifically performative element. “A recent project I had undertaken in Istanbul had me thinking about this,” Demir told us, “and I suggested it should be included in the exhibition. Gözde İlkin’s Entrusted Ground is an installation work that was adapted from her solo exhibition in 2022, where the work doubles as a stage for sound and movement.”

Installation view: Gözde İlkin, Entrusted Ground (2022-ongoing). Dyed and stitched fabrics, fibre filling, stones, twigs, video, 3-channel sound, performance. Photo: John Varghese

There were three public performances which activated this installation, collaborations between İlkin, choreographer Aslı Öztürk, musician Berke Can Özcan, and three dancers. The performance and the installation revolves around the classical elements of fire, air, earth, and water; Öztürk’s choreography carries the imagery of İlkin’s two-dimensional textile works into the three-dimensional space, matching movement to the artist’s soft sculptures to create moving landscapes.

Demir notes “there was real synergy when Gözde was installing her work – Julie Bectom was performing in the space at the same time as Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian installed their work, and Chafa [Gaddar] was working on her fresco mural”.

Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian also collaborated with dancers – but then, production is always performance in their art-making. Their installation Take a poiesis capsule with a glass of shadow on an empty stomach is a sprawl of wall paintings, videos and sculpted vessels; a video montage shows Butoh dancer Julie Becton Gillum making the sculptures by shaping clay over her eyes, between her toes and with her teeth during a performance at the exhibition opening.

Chafa Gaddar is the artist whose practice is probably closest to Allison’s original vision, incidentally; she typically makes site-specific and public artworks, often created in public, often murals.

Chafa Ghaddar, Breathing Grounds (2024). Commissioned by the NYUAD Art Gallery. Photo: John Varghese

Sol LeWitt is another starting point for the idea of dynamic art. His Wall Drawing 797 is an invitation for visitors to draw irregular lines in four colours following LeWitt’s instructions.

In fact In Real Time wasn’t didactic: the work on show didn’t necessarily have to be dynamic. Says Allison: “I said to the artists, ‘if you want to install before the opening day, that’s ok. And if not, that’s ok too.’ Like, you can install whenever seems right – and you can keep installing if you want. All I wanted from them was a letter of intent to say what they might do”

In the event, most of the eight artists originally invited did install something prior to the opening; but some artists kept adding all the way through the run, and others were invited to take part actually during the run.

“There were some artists I invited who felt that it wasn’t a fit for what they were doing at the time, or they weren’t in the right headspace for it, or they were just too busy. But I think it was resoundingly positive that some people were willing to take a leap of faith on the project.”

There’s an element of dynamism even in works that were created prior to the exhibition. Cristiana de Marchi’s two paired works – The Echo of the Void (2021) and Black Square (2022), hand-knitted wool squares with the dimensions of the smallest known prison cells – were already made, but they do invite you to reflect on your own body in the spaces she created. So instead of it being about the artist having been present in the space, it becomes about you noticing your own physical presence in this space. “You’re confronted with the actual reality of that size in relationship to your own body,” says Allison.

Cristiana de Marchi, The Echo of the Void (2021, left); Black Square (2022, right). Photo: John Varghese

So how did the exhibition work out? Curator Duygu Demir said it was hard work for the gallery team, but that there were some practical positives – not least because “the programming and the exhibition were one whole, not two separate aspects”.

She adds, “I also thought the artists really got a feel for each other’s practices if they were present in the space at the same time.”

The audience was harder to read. “I am glad some professors used the spaces for classes and workshops,” says Demir. “The works by Nujoom Alghanem and Sol LeWitt both relied completely on participation and were met with great interest, which tells me again that there was two-way communication.

Demir’s conclusion: “I do think real physical presence in the space accounts for a lot, which this project illustrates well.”

And would Maya Allison do it again? She smiles. “This is the sort of thing you only do once, I think. If I were to do it again, it would be a different kind of exhibition.” She says In Real Time was very specific to the moment, the way she was thinking at the time, and that is exactly how the curatorial mind should be working – asking questions and posing possibilities rather than looking for answers and laying down rules.

“What it did do was help loosen up the form of the exhibition in my mind, give it a little more breathing room. The idea that it begins as one thing and it changes over time was very liberating. So it might affect how I think about future iterations of exhibitions, it might help shake off some of the static feel of most exhibitions.”

Nujoom Alghanem, Geography in Transformation (2022-ongoing). Nails, cotton string, burlap, sound, and audience participation

“Art is always a trace of a moment where the artist is creating something. The story that I tell as a curator about how a work was made becomes part of the work. And that moment where we imagine the artist making the work might be something that I dig deeper into in my future.

“I loved it that there was a moment when a label on a blank wall said ‘there will be a work by Sol LeWitt here’. That was sort of a nice way of having the exhibition exist first in your imagination.”

That’s an attractive goal for a curator: “there’s a way that art lives in your imagination that I think is so compelling. I’m kind of interested in how a gallery exhibition might be able to engage some of that quality of imagination”.

In Real Time shows at The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi to 9 June, midday to 8pm (closed Mondays). Admission is free and open to all.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply