Whoever comes into the world, builds a new house his own;
He passes, leaves it to a second,
Who fits it as the builder never reckoned,
And no one lays the topmost stone.
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Early 2014 while visiting ARCO Madrid for the first time, dealer Sabrina Amrani invited me to visit the studio of Brazilian artist Marlon de Azambuja, who had recently returned from Dubai, where he worked on his extended project Gran Fachada (Great Façade, 2014), photographing architectural landmarks of the city, and I kept thinking about de Azambuja’s interest in cities and how they could come together in an informed commentary about Dubai.Prior to Art Dubai 2015, I was lucky to see the mockups of de Azambuja’s new project Edictos (2015) – again related to architecture but far more abstract, embedded in a speculative narrative, about the relationship between language and architecture, later exhibited at the fair. Meanwhile, the fair’s curated, not-for-profit section, The Marker, generally devoted to regions on the periphery, came with the unexpected focus on Latin America and its connections to the Arab world through hundred years of immigration.This raised up important questions about two parts of the world,assumed to be unrelated at first but definitely tied through a new global structure: Financialization comes with both decentralization and liquefaction of capital, and hence the rise of new centers of power, both imagined and otherwise.
Departing from de Azambuja’s work, in this Summer issue of ArteZine, we propose to examine artistic practices – with a particular interest in architecture across the Arab region and Latin America, but not necessarily with the desire to establish a synchronic and quantitative view about how the ‘contemporary’ has developed in two specific geographies. The contemporary, insofar as it denies its historical birth, and art history as a compact wholeness, it does not admit to be spoken about in terms of regions or points in time. Our approach is diachronic and qualitative: What is historical change, and how could historical change apply to the study of the future? Comparative discussions about artistic practices ‘over there’, meaning, outside the major centers of artistic production, namely metropolitan cities in the West, are restricted to how they contrast with dominant practices ‘in here’, in a more or less complementary fashion. Our comparative approach attempts to let emerging regions that matter not only in art but also in geopolitics and economy, speak to each other in order to extract new algorithms for the global compass. Can these cities/regions, in anyway, influence the global project through injecting new variables in other, more complex and less adaptive modernities?
The lyrical poem of Goethe quoted above, from the “Book of Maxims” in West-Eastern Diwan (1819), inspired by the orientalist Joseph von Hammer’s translation of Hafez, contains a reference to construction that lies both within and beyond architecture[i]. At the height of the Romantic Movement, Goethe attempted there to bring together the Orient and the Occident not only as traditions but also as cultural forms, ‘construction’ of thought in plurality and contingency. The architectural metaphor is in stark contrast with the pre-modern notion of the ancestral home coined in the ancient world with its ontological securities at the heart of the real, to paraphrase John Berger[ii]. The open-endedness of the unfinished house or structure is not only an analysis of the future of cities but also of the fragmentation that would come with urban life. We are not talking here about the medieval city with its spatial hierarchies built around a central square, but of the abstraction of life and urban form that we would encounter in the modern age, when cities became pure spaces– conceived almost mathematically – where human agency is mediated by systems of monetary exchange alone. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, pure spaces make a reference to space that is not lived or experienced but produced as a site of value abstraction.[iii]
It is hardly surprising then that architecture occupies such a prominent place in contemporary art. In classical art this is somewhat obvious, for since Aristotle art and architecture have shared a place in aesthetics because of their durability: We are born and later we die; we are only temporary visitors. But buildings and artworks stay behind; they constitute the structure of the world insofar as their permanence invests the human artifice with durability and stability.[iv]Since the Middle Ages, scientific innovations – both technical and intellectual– were shared, and buildings were considered to be as important as artworks. Today we are ‘the world’, and with the dislocations and mutations between public and private, subject and object, place and space, the relationship is, of course, less clear, but the obsession is overarching to the extent that the boundaries between architecture as construction of (physical) structures and art as the production of (mental) structures are no longer fixed. Cities themselves, with their complex set of processes between concrete structures and abstract symbols have become primary fields of inquiry for both urban research and artistic practices. Architectures are no longer isolated physical structures but living organisms that mutate with social change and even condition it.
The question of what is abstract and what is concrete,[v] the investigations on the nature of space/place and the rise to power of capitalist realism – the idea that capitalism is irreplaceable – are all intertwined and linked to a larger question at the heart of contemporary culture: What happened to the future? With the hyper-acceleration of lived time propelled by technology, mass media and the financialization of the world, we seem to have already arrived at the future, and rather disappointed with our destination, we are constantly wondering, where can we go from here. The second decade of the 21stcentury is, in many ways, identical to the second decade of the 20thcentury: The promise of being at the gates of a new world but yet in crisis. This momentum of unmatched ‘progress’ is paired also, as it was then, with the largest refugee crises in history (both related to the Middle East), financial meltdowns all over the world, the threat of an impending war and a certain air of nihilism in popular culture; this brings up the question of whether what we are witnessing is a crisis of culture or a culture of crisis. We set out here to investigate the future of cities in this convoluted era, in two regions outside the so-called Western world, central to the promise of globalization.
Marlon de Azambuja‘s monologue, entitled “Fragments” is a discussion on different stages of his work, not chronologically but methodologically: Starting with his large-scale installation Brutalism (2014), dealing with the material nature of the architectural symbol and cities/structures as organisms. In Gran Fachada, de Azambuja details the beginning of his intervention in Dubai with the production of drawn spaces based on photography, and goes on to discuss existing and projected works that provide the framework of his central question: Can solids produce notions of solidarity between us? For him, spaces create human relationships and in fact, the notion of space is anchored in social bonds. In Edictos, the conversation is centered around the possibility of otherness represented by the language of architecture. The conclusion is a reflection on this concept of solidarity sought for in this work, between new cities such as Sao Paulo and Dubai, articulating the transformative effect of new urban models, together with the disillusionment with certain phenomena. New conceptual forms and life forms begin to migrate from the periphery towards the center, and the future of cities, though open, remains unpredictable.
Sound artists Fari Bradley and Chris Weaver, largely experienced with the soundscapes of their home city London, branch out to both Dubai and Bogota over almost-a-decade, between 2008 and 2015, producing various commissions, including radio programs to records, sonic sculptures, investigations into material culture and performances. In their contribution “Variations in Place: Lines of Communication, from London to Bogotá to Dubai,” they examine two interventions: Their radio broadcast in and from Bogota staging an imagined city through sounds ofLondon for a Bogota audience and those of Bogota for a London audience, and the ongoing sound/performance project Variations for a Space and its History (2015), the last iteration of which took place at Art Dubai 2015, highlighting the potential of sound as a container of historical data and archaeological marker, questioning how sound shapes architectural space, and thus living social spaces.
In his “Beirut, Buenos Aires, Antarctica: Three Photographic Essays,” Lebanese-French photographer Christian Carle-Catafago shows work from the last decade, drawn out of his journeys to three different geographies.Beirut Walls (2002-2004) is a delicate study of political posters in different areas of Beirut after the civil war and of how they have reflected the political quicksand of the country, while the Buenos Aires Walls series (2007-2009) presents a sort of contemporary calligraphy related to electoral discourse; both series however are tied through the art historical eye of the artist that connects this practice with something bigger than itself; for Carle-Catafago, these images produce pictorial fields that are akin to modern painting. The opening part of these photographic essays accompanied by personal commentary, is part of the series Monumentos a la Deriva (Adrift Monuments, 2013-2014), on view recently in Argentina and that uses techniques from analog photography to tabular icebergs in the Antarctica, an important element for the Argentinean psyche, for whom these structures of ice represent not only aesthetic compositions but also embedded consciousness of the current climate of uncertainty in the country and the world.
Through an interview recorded in Bogota, Colombian performance artist Maria Jose Arjona finally offers a variety of thoughts and ideas about her artistic experience in Dubai during this year’s Marker at Art Dubai and an articulation of the dissolution of the Western-centric view of the female body and the body, in general, which is taking place in our times, but which for Arjona is largely connected to new economic structures and the rise of the Islamic world in the global project. In “The Difficulty of Equilibrium” the artistfocuses on two performances re-enacted in Dubai, Cheryl Pope’s Balancing Stacks(2011) and Arjona’s own work Permanence (2008), dealing with balance, equilibrium and the sculptural relation between subjects and objects, dislocating both works from their original format and intentions, handing them over to local performers and creating new contexts. In the interview, Arjona reflects on the controversial place of social and private bodies in the Arab world, and attempts to open up new discursive possibilities towards otherness, unmediated by capitalism and re-examining the meaning of personal freedoms in both the Arab world and her native Latin America.
It is noteworthy in these preliminary observations, the absence of a voice living in the Arab world proper, and the emphasis placed on Latin American artists working on contexts that are less specific and more heterogeneous. This gives us information about the degree of self-reference present in artistic practices in the Arab world that are concerned with architecture, history, urbanism and politics, no less than a poorly documented architectural historiography. One of my unfulfilled ambitions in this summer issue was to relate the rise of architectural Brutalism in Brazil – later abandoned because of economic recession and unrest – to the rise of the Dubai ‘aesthetic’, decades later, creating a urban model based on verticality and inequality. The view was highly speculative, but it was an attempt to survey architectural history and its derivatives outside the established canon of imitation, something today very consistent with the unearthing in recent years of modern art histories from all over the non-Western world, from Latin America to Turkey to the Arab world to West Africa. But surprisingly, a different question borrowed from Ronald Beiner’s reading of Hannah Arendt emerged instead: Can architecture redeem an impoverished political and public domain?[vi]
The answer is obviously negative, but the question becomes more relevant as we begin to approach cities, these architectural horizons of the social world, as autonomous political entities shaping the essence of what lived space means for us, and with it, our modes of temporality. National and regional struggles over global questions have been largely defined by cities, as we have seen in the protest movements all over the Middle East, as it was in Latin America in the previous generation. The conclusion of the most recent uprisings is that both the radical impetus and the revolutionary imagination of the previous century lie now depleted, and with this depletion we have lost the capability to imagine innovative social and economic models to walk us into the future. Precisely because those struggles have been circumscribed by cities, architecture has become a defining factor in social engineering and new political discourses have emerged in the recent years, associated with the defense of public space, in both political and architectural dimensions. On the other hand, with on-going gentrification and conurbation, architecture is also a powerful tool of inequality and oppression. To think of the urban, for the contributing artists in “From Solid to Solidarity: Art and Architecture in New Cities” is to deal with a social and economic reality that they have not accepted as timeless or unchangeable. This alone will not solve our current crisis, but it will provide us with new analytical models to understand our times.
Goethe’s house in construction continues to be a metaphor for historicity, not as a specific direction towards progress or salvation, but a gesture of opening towards multi-directionality, conceiving of our political and urban history as a multi-sourced ensemble of fragments. With the current economic model becoming more and more fractured, and accordingly, new polities and body politics emerging all over the world, it seems that we will never return to the solid securities of the modern past, built in aluminum and concrete. For us, from Sao Paulo to Dubai to New York to Bogota, this new liquid world presents us with an unmatched opportunity to develop forms of thought that call for solidarity rather than for metaphysical security, which when translated onto the political, can only mean constraints on freedom grounded on nostalgia for a safer past. The question of history in cities and art histories, wherever they might be, should no longer be that of foundation or origins, but one of common futures;those are always risky and unpredictable.