The Guggenheim Is Going Global. Kind Of.
Credit Agaton strom for The New York Time
Last spring, the Guggenheim’s board of trustees abruptly severed contact with the Gulf Labor Coalition, an international watchdog group monitoring the living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, where the Guggenheim Foundation is building a new Frank Gehry-designed museum. The move, and the protests that followed, happened to coincide with the third and last of the museum’s UBS Map Global Art Initiative group exhibitions in New York, this one called “But a Storm Is Blowing From Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa.”
Ten of the 20 participating artists promptly issued a statement disapproving of the action taken by their host institution. But the show itself, like its two predecessors one a sampling of new art from South and Southeast Asia, the other from Latin America already existed under something of a political cloud.
Sponsored by the Swiss wealth-management company UBS, the exhibitions have been promoted as significant expansions of the museum’s non-Western collection base, though that growth comes across as limited and halfhearted. One-off events covering huge geocultural swaths, the shows have been assembled by short-term curators who chose mainly market-vetted work. As a project, the initiative has felt inorganic, even opportunistic, a packaged way for a lagging-behind museum to become “global” fast.
At the same time, there is “a damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dimension. Obviously, it’s better for the Guggenheim to diversify its holdings, however it does that. And while the exhibitions themselves haven’t been sparklers, excellent artists and works have come in through them. The current show, organized by the British curator Sara Raza, is more of a piece than its predecessors, though in ways that don’t shine through right away. At first glance, a lot of it feels blandly quasi-Minimalist, an impression reinforced by Ms. Raza’s stated premise that the exercise of logic, as embodied in geometry, is meant to bind the work.
This is a tricky proposition. Logic has a positive ring in a Western context, where it is often assumed to be a measure of cultural superiority, one that’s not shared by less developed parts of the world and is imposed, improvingly, by colonialism. It takes some concentration to see that, as represented in this show, logic is an unstable force: interrupted, breaking down, confused.
The Lebanese artist Ali Cherri marks aerial view prints of his home city, Beirut, not with locations of monuments but with sites of random earthquakes. In photographs and a video, Ahmed Mater, who is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, surveys the holy city of Mecca from a similar angel’s-eye height, though there’s nothing celestial about the perspective. His tilting, vertiginous pictures are taken from the cockpit of an army helicopter hunting alien visitors to the city.
Susan Hefuna, who works in Cairo, New York and Düsseldorf, draws linear maps of Manhattan’s gridded streets on tracing paper, then layers the drawings to produce wobbly, unraveling webs. Ala Younis, born in 1974 in Kuwait City, documents a project, based on utopian rationality, that barely got off the ground. In her installation “Plan for Greater Baghdad,” she illustrates in a timeline how the efforts of three Western starchitects Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier to create a modern dream city in Iraq foundered on the vagaries of ego and politics.
Credit Agaton Strom for The New York Times
And, in one of the show’s largest pieces, Kader Attia constructs a rangy model of the Algerian desert city of Ghardaia, notable for geometric packed-earth buildings that have earned it a Unesco World Heritage designation. Simone de Beauvoir once likened the place to “a Cubist painting beautifully constructed,” though few cross-cultural comparisons have gone in the other direction. French architects like Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon owed a profound debt to Ghardaia design, but didn’t acknowledge it. (Le Corbusier went out of his way to hide the connection.) Mr. Attia’s sculpture is very much about the West’s devouring of non-Western sources: It is molded entirely from couscous.
Mr. Attia, a Parisian of Algerian descent, has done extremely sharp and subtle work, particularly with archival material, about colonialism and its consequences. But I have problems with this piece, which feels too much like an overproduced, audience-pleasing ethnic joke. To Ms. Raza’s credit, much of the rest of what’s in the show doesn’t have this effect, even things on a monumental scale like Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s suspended, semi-abstract “Flying Carpets,” made from hundreds of vertically suspended steel rods.
The title refers to something the artist saw on a visit to Venice: Middle Eastern street peddlers, many of them illegal immigrants, selling goods spread on rugs that could quickly be bundled up in the event of police harassment. I made out an image of carpets from the shadows the piece cast on the gallery walls and floor, but saw other images, too: a punishing rain of needles, and prison cells descending from on high.
Most of the stronger work is multivalent this way. That’s true of Abbas Akhavan’s bronze casts of plant life from around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Laid out on a shroudlike white sheet, the plants look nuked or oil-drenched, and frozen like fossils. Paintings by Rokni Haerizadeh an Iranian artist in exile in Dubai yield a lot, too. Fantastic little Boschian things made from paint-doctored internet photographs, they make the news of the world look even scarier than it is. And they also give the show its title, which has origins in an essay by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who in 1940, to evade capture by the Nazis, tried to flee to the United States but committed suicide when he thought his escape would fail.
His text is essentially about the inseparable fragility and resilience of history, which is the subject of a two-part 2010 video by Zineb Sedira, a Paris-born artist of Algerian descent. Titled “Gardiennes d’images” (“Image Keepers”), the piece is an extended interview with Safia Kouaci, widow of Mohamed Kouaci (1929-1996), who was, Ms. Sedira believes, the only Algerian photographer to document thoroughly the war of independence from France.
Despite his vital role in his country’s history, Mr. Kouaci is now largely forgotten, and his widow has been the sole guardian of his thousands of negatives and prints. Ms. Sedira and the Algerian artist Amina Menia have been working to help her preserve the archive, and the videos are a byproduct of that effort: an attempt, you could say, to preserve the image of the preserver herself, as she revisits her husband’s work and speaks of their life together.
She is a marvelous subject, and “Image Keepers” is the beating heart of a too often visually underpowered and conceptually opaque show. The video has another benefit: It lets us see Mr. Kouaci’s work. He photographed the political celebrities of his explosive time: Frantz Fanon; Patrice Lumumba; and Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumediene, the first and second leaders of a free Algeria. But he also filmed everyday people: women in marketplaces, refugees, children, laborers building cities, all participants in a dream of a new world order.
Thanks to him, and to Ms. Kouaci, Ms. Sedira and Ms. Menia, the photographs of these people, many of whom probably never went inside a museum, have entered the collection of this one, and those images, and the spirits they represent, are as important as anything in it. The Guggenheim should pay attention to that fact. And we should pay attention to whether, and how, this museum’s global collecting continues, and to how its moral role as an institution on a global stage develops.