‘FORGING A NEW PERCEPTION OF ART AND ITS FUNCTION’ – JACK PERSEKIAN
By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Daily Star – Lebanon,
June 14 2007
Prolific curator of Sharjah Biennial argues for a more complex
engagement with state-funded event
INTERVIEW INSIDE ART
BEIRUT: The following interview is the second in a series for which
The Daily Star will periodically seek out and sit down with various
established cultural figures who work behind the scenes, provide a
vital link between artists and audiences and who are more often that
not the unsung heroes of their fields.
Jack Persekian is one of the hardest working curators in the Arab
world. Of Armenian descent, his family roots reach through generations
in East Jerusalem, where he was born and raised and where he is still,
to a certain extent, based. After studying in the United States and
a stint as an accountant, Persekian opened the Anadiel Gallery in
1992. In the wake of the Madrid conference, which suggested the
possibility of lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,
Persekian organized several exhibitions for artists working on either
side of one of the world’s most violent and protracted conflicts. Those
shows were "a conscious effort to find the means and ways to know ‘the
other’ and mitigate the effect of years of occupation and aggression,"
Persekian explains. The Anadiel Gallery also showed new works by such
internationally known artists as Jean-Marc Bustamante, Mona Hatoum,
Beat Streuli and Emily Jacir.
But when the peace process fell apart and the optimism of the early
1990s came to a quick and bitter end, the contemporary art scene in
East Jerusalem suffered along with everyone and everything else in
the region. Anadiel ceased to exist as a viable commercial entity.
Persekian turned his attention to the nonprofit sector and with
six others he set up the Al-Mamal Foundation for Contemporary Art
in 1998. Al-Mamal uses the old Anadiel space to host exhibitions,
film screenings, educational initiatives and workshops.
Persekian is also involved in a long-term project called CAMP
(for Contemporary Art Museum Palestine) that is building a permanent
collection of artworks for an as-yet unrealized institution. In theory,
CAMP will take up rotating residence in various museums throughout
the world until such a time when a permanent space for the museum
(presumably in some semblance of a permanent Palestinian state)
can be established.
But considering how confined and restricted his work in East Jerusalem
remains, Persekian is arguably better known for the exhibitions he
curates elsewhere, such as the "DisORIENTation" show at Berlin’s
House of World Cultures in 2003, and "Belonging," which fleshed out
the seventh edition of the Sharjah Biennial in 2005.
Over the past decade, international biennials have cropped up
everywhere. Critics as well as art-world insiders are beginning to
predict their imminent demise. With the global proliferation of more
lucrative art fairs, the biennial model is growing old and becoming
To some, the Sharjah Biennial is a joke, the ultimate example of an
exhibition as public relations strategy, of artworks as the gloss on a
crass brand identity campaign. To others, it is an offense to artistic
freedom, and the contradictions inherent in presenting contemporary
art in an autocratic country are simply too much to bear. (The fact
that the biennial is wholly funded by the state elicits reactions
from would-be participants that range from queasy to furious.) But
to others still, the Sharjah Biennial is no longer a biennial at all
but rather a much-needed think tank and laboratory where critical
art practices can be tested out and explored.
At the end of Sharjah 7, Persekian made the unusual decision to
sign on as artistic director for Sharjah 8, which tackled the theme
"Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change." Most likely, he
will stick around for Sharjah 9 as well. In the following interview,
conducted by email between numerous cities, Persekian discusses the
lessons he has learned and his plans for the future.
Q: Between the seventh and eighth editions of the Sharjah Biennial,
how have things changed?
A: The most important thing that changed was the time available to
prepare for the show. This allowed me to have an overall view of
the project – the exhibition, performances, production, symposium,
film program, publications, workshops – and to see all the elements
come together to serve the biennial’s goals. This also allowed
for a considerable increase in the number of commissioned works,
and special attention to artists from the Arab world. Compared to
the seventh edition, I had more time to fulfill several objectives,
such as going out of the two main exhibition venues to engage with
the city and reach out to the public.
Q:What lessons did you learn from Sharjah 7 that you were able to
apply to Sharjah 8?
A: I learned to network and collaborate with more institutions locally
and internationally. This has given the biennial a much larger base
and a wider scope. This has also enabled us to test our approach
to the theme not only within the boundaries of the art world but
with educational, cultural and governmental institutions as well as
the private sector. The biennial has been able to implicate several
entities in Sharjah … thus gradually digging its roots in society
and taking its place as a driving force for creativity, challenge
Q: How involved were you this time around and in what capacity?
A: I was partly involved in the selection and commissioning of artists,
especially artists from the Arab world. For the installation of works,
I was part of the team with three curators and an architect. Yet as
artistic director, I was always trying to make sure that there was
flow in the layout of the exhibition, and that works were visible
without infringing on others. I won’t deny that I interfered whenever
I saw a lack of representation in the selection of artists from a
certain region, particularly regions close to us, and I also won’t
deny that I interfered whenever I realized that there was too much
of the same approach in the artists’ proposals. I was looking for
varied perspectives on the theme. I was not trying to make a point
with the exhibition; I was interested in how all the different points
made up the bigger picture. Some interesting threads kind of weaved
certain patterns of thought and approach, bringing to the biennial
a colorful cohesion.
Q: How did you manage to pull off so many public projects this time,
when there were none last time?
A: It’s the time element that worked for me and for the biennial. I had
more time to engage the artists. Giving them the opportunity to visit
Sharjah and the site … facilitated a discussion and the articulation
and development of new ideas and propositions that materialized in
new commissions for the biennial. And if I’m around for the ninth
edition I will try to involve the artists over a longer period of
time with more resources dedicated to the production, less to the
number of commissions.
Q: Was there censorship? What areas or issues remain sensitive
A: Nudity has always been an issue, even though I could see some
artists pushing the limits. This is my second time around for the
biennial and I have never seen any official come around interfering
with what we present. But when the director, Hoor al-Qasimi, and I see
that there is something that might infringe on local sensitivities,
we have a discussion with the artist and leave it up to him or her
to decide how to deal with it.
Q: After working on two biennials in Sharjah, what role do you think
the event plays in the region?
A: The biennial is definitely forging a new perception of art and
its function, revisiting the artist’s place in society from being
relegated to the margins, the frill and the decorative to being
engaged with pressing issues and concerns and taking the position of
the intellectual, the critic and the avant-garde.
Q: In terms of the infrastructure for contemporary art in the Middle
East, what is still missing? People often say there are not enough
curators and not enough critics in the region. Do you agree? Has the
biennial been able to address any of these gaps, even if that falls
beyond the work of the biennial?
A: The problem, from my point of view, is that there aren’t sufficient
opportunities and resources in the Arab world for the production,
presentation and dissemination of art. Art in the Middle East is not
yet economically viable; hence at the current level of activity it
is not possible financially to sustain "enough curators" and "enough
critics." The infrastructure for art is being built gradually, and
there are more specialized people and supporting institutions than
there were 15 years ago when I started working in this field. The
biennial is one of these institutions doing just that.
Q: Will you be involved in Sharjah 9? What else are you working on now?
A: Most probably I will be involved. As for the other projects,
I’m working on "The Jerusalem Show" with Al-Mamal, an annual
exhibition that situates itself in the Old City of Jerusalem, and
two exhibitions in Sharjah, a group show for the participants in
the artist-in-residence program and the retrospective for Andreas
Gursky that is traveling to Sharjah from Munich. I am preparing two
exhibitions for 2008, one at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels
and the other a touring show in Spain.