Arie Amaya-Akkermans: Tell us how you arrived in Dubai.
Maria José Arjona: I was extended an invitation by Luiza Texeiras de Freitas to take part in Marker, the non-profit section of Art Dubai, this year with a focus in Latin America. She invited me to come up with something related to performance, and my final proposal, rather than just focusing on my work, was to establish a number of dialogues with Colombian artists mostly, but also with American artists and to re-enact a number of performances with local artists. I was interested on how instructions were followed in one part of the world or another, how the body is perceived in relation to specific situations and places.
AAA: What can you tell us about the performances re-enacted?
MJA: There were two re-enactments. The first performance was that of Balancing Stacks by American artist Cheryl Pope. I chose this work because it was a subtle approach to speak about equilibrium, the difficulty of equilibrium and preservation; it is something basically about negotiation. It is a very simple piece: A board is placed on a holder at the center, and there is a performer at each side of the board; it is like a table. Each one begins to place porcelain cups and plates on their side, and tension is obviously generated on whichever side the table is going to tilt towards and fall: right side, left side, center. We are dealing with the role of the body in everyday actions, things that happen at home, and the relationship of the female body to this sense of equilibrium. Originally it was enacted with another woman because Hope wanted to emphasize the difficulties of domestic labor and its relation to the outside world, but for Dubai I conceived it differently: I thought it would be interesting to formulate it as negotiation table, precisely because of the complex relationship between the Western and the Muslim world, with cultures unlike ours, and how we tend to be rather fanatical and patronizing about it. I was interested in showcasing the difficulties of that negotiation, how I encounter the ‘other’, and the different positions of male and female body. We put forth this proposal to the performers in Dubai, and each one brought along different elements that I hadn’t seen before, and it was even more interesting that the table didn’t fall; it remained in a state of balance and it could fall any moment, but it didn’t. This also sparked a controversy at the fair around it when the security guards cordoned it off because the work had become ‘dangerous’. Cordoning off obviously creates tension around a work.
The second performance was Permanence, a work of mine enacted first at the Watermill Center in 2008.Permanence establishes a peculiar relation between an object, the body and how the object becomes itself but also the struggle of the difference between the object and something organic, so that the notion of body becomes something more generic, the notion of all bodies in general. The difficulty of this process and that of establishing a territory where I begin to feel solid, or whether it is something merely sculptural. It was impossible to find a stone the size of the original piece because there are no large stones in Dubai, therefore we had to build a platform for the piece, and this platform, almost like a podium, acquired a more sculptural sense than I had initially conceived, where performers would always move around the object in different ways, simply because they were all very different from each other and so was their reading of the work. There was a peculiar engagement with beauty by the audience: When two of the performers were very beautiful young women, the reaction of the public was one of wonder and amazement. Other performers had a different type of beauty, something that wasn’t standard, and this was the confrontation with bodies that I don’t want to see, with bodies that are heavier. For me, it was absolutely magnificent to see someone with a heavier complexion being able to move across this gigantic pedestal, this opposition between weights and tension and the great presence of this artist. It seemed to me as if the artist was also confronting the audience with different bodies, beyond their expectations.
A possibility of dialogue opened through these re-enactments. It was an important experiment in regard to the curiosity we have towards one another. The possibility to engage directly with the public there as the performance took place, and to be able to penetrate certain realities based on what they think and not on what I think of them. Many of them did not know this was a performance but they were very curious: what is this? Who are these artists? Why are they doing this here?I suppose there is an established perception of what a body can do or not. The dynamic was interesting and complemented other works on show, establishing a clear connection to the title of the proposal: Subject – Object. What is an object and a subject at a point in time or another? In performance, this is always fluctuating.
AAA: What was your impression of Dubai?
MJA: At first I was very impressed; there is this incredible architecture. As you know, the itinerary in Dubai is tailored carefully between a hotel room and all these incredible architectural sites and the fair grounds. The infrastructure is impressive and the art fair is just incredible. The quality is far above what one imagined; the selection of participating galleries was wonderful. I was very curious about this day when the fair was open only for ladies, because of all the connotations it has for a Western women for an event in the art world only for women and when certain women arrive you can’t take any pictures, etc. We are taking pictures all the time and publish everything, there’s nothing private or intimate for us. The initiative to have a whole section devoted to art from Latin America is a fantastic opening for a dialogue between regions, and I think these works enabled various conversations, but after a few days I indeed began to find the place strange. A feeling of strangeness.
AAA: Can you elaborate on this feeling?
MJA: I felt that there was no history… When you arrive in Europe, you feel the history of sites and a legacy. In Dubai, or at least in the Dubai I could see, everything is new and there’s also this visible opulence, so much capital behind everything, but when this becomes so overwhelming it’s hard to feel at ease. We have different views. But I feel it’s a city that functions perfectly well, the incredible metro stations, the highways; none of the days we experienced in any challenges, unlike say Frieze New York, where there are a thousand logistic challenges before you have even reached the fair. A great deal of effort was put into making Dubai a fair like Basel or Frieze, and that is where they are heading. It is also not a gigantic fair and, therefore, it is still possible to see things.
But there were other faces of Dubai too, like when they made us stop the performance at a certain point, and that was just very uneasy. The question wasn’t only about whether the work is going to fall and hurt somebody or damage artwork, which is understandable, but also the nuance of, what are you trying to say with this act? I explained that I am speaking about equilibrium, the difficulty of maintaining equilibrium and negotiations of this type. It seems to me that this speaks volumes about the place, this whole caution about what I do not know and that I cannot control well, therefore I better isolate it. About sixteen security guards were summoned immediately and we obviously had to stop the performance. That was well… Interesting. The experience overall, however, was very positive, as it enabled conversations with many people and allowed me come closer to many issues, for example, the view of Muslim women that we have in the West.
AAA: When you look at the United Arab Emirates, more than being a new place, it is like Latin America at the margins of the Western world, at the gates but not inside. Coming from Latin America, how do you evaluate that situation of being at the periphery of the West?
MJA: Speaking specifically of Dubai, as I could see during my visit, being at the periphery isn’t the same in Dubai and in Latin America. It is something about the economic power, which is remarkable, it is so obvious. In Latin America, we live a totally different life. Beyond the cultural impediment that apparently there is between the Gulf and the West, well, economic power is always a connection. There’s a substantial different between a developing country that is poor and a developing country that is rich.
AAA: This federation known as the United Arab Emirates is very young, it is barely forty years old, formed out of tribal alliances that are relatively recent. In building this nation and its identity in the 1970s, you were faced with very different anxieties than if you were to create one at the end of the 19th century, what does it mean to be a new ‘country’? You need to operate within a corporate model.
MJA: They have copied this model very well, and I am sure they have also thought that the oil will not last forever, it will run out eventually, so that they are building a city where many people will come to see something that doesn’t exist elsewhere, and that’s a fundamentally Western gesture.
AAA: With the rise of Dubai there is a theme of popular culture. Years ago when you went to a great city outside New York, and you saw the financial districts in Europe or Latin America, people would tell you, this looks like New York. Now people often say, oh this looks in Dubai, all over the world. So there is a certain cultural migration of the corporate model of the city that was perfected in Dubai, and is now being imported to other countries where organic cities are becoming corporate entities.
MJA: I think the whole world is going in that direction. There is a number of questions that we should explore in the longer term: Can national identity be constructed and re-constructed in that hybrid mixture of Eastern culture and Western infrastructure? How one thing permeates the other? They will have to overlap, at some point, and influence each other. How can a new city and its architecture modify bodies in different cultures? Insofar as architecture evolves in a certain way, affectively, also the body changes in order to function accordingly. In Dubai, both the architecture and the functioning of the city are patterned on a Western model, so I believe that something will happen there in the future, a hybrid. Dubai is also the first gate open to gaze into that world wholly unknown to us, and that we do not really understand. We are so full of preconceptions. But it also works the other way around, how they look at and think about us. I think about the experience of women traveling alone. As I arrived at the airport the first question I was asked was whether I was coming with my husband, and the engagement of the immigration officer was immediately cut off. In my culture this looking away is a radical distance, a lack of interest. I felt this right away.
AAA: No question Dubai is strange place. It is not an Islamic city, which is a very particular architectural and social model, think of Baghdad, Damascus or Cairo, the traditional Islamic cities, built around certain squares and institutions. Dubai is built simply like Dubai, under a Western planning scheme, producing a certain verticality very different from that of the skyscraper in a European city. Historically speaking, especially in the Gulf region that was urbanized so late, urban living was horizontal rather than vertical. But the architectural hybridity of Dubai is articulating some changes in the structure of modernity, this ingenuous vision of modernity as buildings and physical structures, which interfere with the social texture and heretofore Dubai begins to amalgamate both physical structures and social texture into a new open-ended whole. This is about saying that there is not only one modernity, but many; there are many peripheral modernities in places such as India and Brazil. However comfortable, Dubai is still an absolute other in the eyes of the Western visitor.
MJA: Of course, because there is a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and ‘them’ is those who are arriving but also leaving. There’s no staying. It is clearly established that if you do not have a reason to be in Dubai, you cannot be there. How much money do you have, what are you doing to do and when are you leaving?
AAA: If you come from a poor country and want to visit, say Switzerland, it will not be any different. They will ask you about your destination, your budget, your departure. The difference of country is that in Switzerland the majority of the population is actually Swiss, unlike the Emirates where Emiratis are a small minority. This creates an imbalance, talking here about your performance Equilibrium and when the security guards were summoned. From this follows the obvious: Despite its great achievements, the UAE lives with a great anxiety about itself.
MJA: Of course, because it is a mixture. Trying to live in between two worlds, the best of the rest without abandoning tradition. Religion is clearly very important in the Gulf, and the Western world separated religion from state so long ago so we are not speaking the same language; this isn’t about politics but about belief and everything you believe has an impact on society and culture. This kind of society is unthinkable for us.
At the center of everything, there is only one opinion, and it is something unmovable. That is why it was so important for me rather than merely presenting my work in Dubai, it was to establish a dialogue between different artists where the body is presented in different forms and by means of this, establish another dialogue about different topics. The body is untouchable and belongs to the state and to religion. In this instance, I wanted to decentralize the dialogue about this and put it elsewhere. And at the same time to put yourself elsewhere, which is what is fair. If I am asking people in this region to engage with art from the Western world, we should make a step back too. There’s the necessity to place yourself in a space of understanding; to open it.
We are so different, but I am always amazed by difference and I don’t function in the capitalist dynamic that the other should be identical to me. I love the fact that the possibilities of the ‘other’ exist, and not the other that threatens me but the other that complements me. That is where there’s something interesting happening in the dialogue and a creative possibility; a position that affirms both positions, yours and mine and validates them. And this is what capitalism suppresses; wherever it arrives, it wants to create homogeneity on all levels.
AAA: The basic essence of capitalism is to say there is one world everywhere, it’s one and the same. Just recently I wrote about the Sharjah Biennial and said that in the moment where we stand now in contemporaneity, cultural differences are being eroded by class differences. Do you agree?
MJA: Yes, because it is a lot easier. Interesting possibilities emerge out of difference, but when you start to flatten out like that, it all becomes boring, which is what is happening now in contemporary art. People are saying this all the time, how boring everything has become. And everything is a fashion but fashion becomes boring after a while, and people think how boring everything is, yes, everything is boring when you stop looking at differences.