SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
BRENDA: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome back after lunch for the second half of the day and our symposium address. It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you today and to have with us today and for the symposium, Dr. Charles Merewether.
Charles Merewether is an art historian and a curator, as most of us know. We've been having a chance to chat with him over the past day and a half. He's currently a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru university in New Delhi. In 2007, 2008, he was the Deputy Director of the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island for the tourism development and investment company in Abu Dhabi. And previously Arts and Culture Consultant for the Emirates Foundation in the UAE.
He is also a Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Hong Kong International Art Fair. Charles is the Artistic Director and Curator of the Biennale of Sydney in 2006, the Collections Curator at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and the Inaugural Curator of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey in Mexico.
He has taught at the University of Sydney, the Universidad Autonoma Barcelona, the Iberoamericana Americana in Mexico City, and the University of Southern California. He has been the recipient of various fellowships from institutions, including Yale University and senior research fellow at the Center for cross-cultural research, Australian National University, from 2004 to 2007.
Merewether is published widely on modernism and contemporary art in Europe and the Americas, Australia, and East Asia. His most recent books are Ai Weiwei, under construction. He was the editor and contributor to Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art; Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan from 1950 to 1970. And he was the editor of The Archive in 2006. He is currently writing a book on the cultural history of looting and today will be giving a talk on art history in the public sphere. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Charles Merewether.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Thank you very much, Brenda, for a kind introduction. And thank you both Brenda and Benita for having me here today. It's a pleasure to be here these two days. I think, especially in your company, because one begins to see the outline, if not the liniments of a new art history, ways of thinking about a subject which often is very familiar to us but remains to be challenged in terms of certain orthodoxies.
And it occurred to me that in giving a presentation today, well, two things occurred to me. The first was the relationship of what you're practicing as art historians and the-- if I may say-- the wider public sphere, in terms of your place within the public sphere. We often think of the practice of art history with the academy, and of course there are those beyond us who call us just academician, or there in the university as a way of discounting them. Discounting their point of view, or in a way, curtailing their influence.
For me, trained-- well, having done my doctorate in art history, there's no easy way to put in my resume that art history is the basis on which, really, I worked and moved towards the museum, as distinct from remaining within the university. But I think for a long time, it struck me that it was terribly important to bring what we knew and what we were wishing to learn and convey to an audience and to a wider public that which we'd learned.
How do we translate that in a manner that goes beyond the confines, if I may say, the confines of ourselves? And for that reason, I have chosen and sought to choose over the past several years, to alternate between the academy and the museum as different places, but linked, necessarily, I think, and importantly, linked terms of our practice.
So today I was going to speak-- and I confess, I think that in some ways, I was going to give another lecture. But at the same time, I also thought that there may be some value-- I hope there will be-- some value of relating my experience of having worked in Abu Dhabi. My experience of having worked in Abu Dhabi-- and I say this by way of reference to what I've just said as an art historian-- my museum experience, certainly, I brought to bear. But I think fundamentally, in terms of the sorts of approaches that I carried with me and my concerns, it was as an art historian. And it may well be, although I could almost say it was also my undoing, in so far as deciding to resign.
So I thought that this is not meant to be a lecture as a kind of moral tale, but nonetheless, there is a kind of tale to be told here, I think, about the constraints of historians working in the public sphere, which makes me all the more adamant that it's necessary. So I'm going to speak about that experience of working on Saadiyat Island, which is in Abu Dhabi, which is the capital-- for those who don't know-- the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates are made up of seven Emirates states, and they formed into a nation in 1971. So very recent.
And let me-- what am I looking for? Oh, this. Let me-- oh. Oh. I'm sorry, it's a little small. But you'll get the gist of it for our undertaking this afternoon, which is the United Arab Emirates are here. Saudi immediately to the left, and in fact, if it wasn't for the British, I must say, if it wasn't for the British and the determination of the British in collaboration with some of the leaders of the different Emirates in this period of '69 to '71, this would now be Saudi Arabia.
But the seven Emirates [INAUDIBLE] very small here. And here you see the Gulf. And then down here, you to into Oman, et cetera. Up here is Iran, up here is Kuwait, and Iraq, and then the Middle East. I show to you, and it will become, I think, important as we move on through the lecture. Now, just to bring us closer, here's Dubai, as you probably all know, Abu Dhabi is here, and Saudi, over there is Qatar, which also has a very strong museum culture developing there.
And then just to get further, this is Saadiyat Island, here, as marked. This is a narrow stretch of water here, and bridges are being built over here and across here. And this is the main city, here. But there's a lot of it you can see, reclaimed land going on. Well, yes. OK.
This is Saadiyat Island as it was about a year ago, before they brought in about-- I'm trying to remember the exact figure. It's tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani workers who were brought in to level the ground and begin to place the infrastructure in for the building of the island and of the cultural district.
This is what you've just seen, two slide-- here we are. And here, the cultural district is here. And you will see, and we'll get closer to it. But this is an early rendering of the principal sites, if you will, museum sites, and this is-- here, in the Guggenheim, here, this is the [INAUDIBLE] Abu Dhabi. This is Zaha Hadid's Performing Arts Space, et cetera.
All of this over here will be developed in terms of hotels and resort area. Here's a wet lands area, and here's urban development, and here's further urban development. And now, quite recently, New York University is going to have a campus, which is still under debate as to its location, but they will be in this residential area, rather than the cultural district.
Here's a better map. And you can see, this is an initial idea or placement for the museums. And we can talk about that. So let me begin. I'll leave that on for the moment.
The plans for the cultural district encompassed a series of stages that would unfold over the course of several years, beginning with the opening of the Sheikh Zayed National Museum in 2012, designed by Foster and Partners, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Sorry. This map, since then, since this map, which is about two and a half years old. The National Museum will be placed here, directly opposite the foreshore. This may be moved for reasons of competitiveness, frankly. And this will become a kind of promenade down from the Sheikh Zayed.
So the Sheikh Zayed National Museum takes over as the founder of the nation, the-- will become an axis which opens up in the different directions. These museums, the Louvre, Guggenheim, and Sheikh Zayed National Museum, were the initial centerpieces of the cultural district and part of a larger master plan for Saadiyat Island, composed of beach resorts, golf links, existing wetland, and residential area.
The cultural district would contain noncommercial and commercial cultural institutions, residencies, communities, schools, and a commercial business sector to service the district. Opening gradually, the cultural district was seen as a series of stages that also included other museums, as I noted before, but also more recently, prior to my departure, a science and technology museum, a maritime museum and possibly a military museum.
My optimistic dream for the cultural district of Saadiyat Island was to contribute in developing an environment in which the creative arts could be fostered and given a home. This home would be a place where the creative arts were critically appreciated and serve as a platform for valuing the cultural heritage of a country and people alongside an intercultural dialogue with others.
Such a dialogue would provide a means of sharing knowledge and appreciation for one another's cultures and the often shared histories, as well as differences they embody. I saw this as a model for what globalization could possibly offer in so far as encouraging countries, institutions, and individuals to exchange, collaborate, and share their cultural and intellectual wealth as much as their knowledge and expertise.
With all of that said, I believe this could be viewed as a worthy aspiration, especially in the light of decreasing resources for the arts and humanities, as well as the sharing of riches of some cultures whose institutions have built extraordinary collections and bodies of expertise, but fail in terms of their funding to be able to support it sufficiently well for its public.
And here in particular I'm referring to places like Egypt and the great museum collections there. For me, the project represented in concept the development of a civic space that provided the means by which communities of the UAE could experience and engage with the cultural and artistic histories, both from the region and internationally. In a society where there's tremendous economic growth and initiative, the opportunity of the Saadiyat project was to foster creativity and appreciation of the arts and the humanities without being determined by the market forces and interests.
Such projects would then, I hoped, encourage and promote the development of a non-governmental sector in the arts that belongs to the public sphere and was economically sustainable. This would be, in our own terms, a civic society in which the public intellectual and those committed to education, creativity, and experimentation in the arts and culture find a sense of belonging within a collective present and place in which to contribute to its well-being and future.
So then one has to ask, with all this passion for the introduction and development of a globalized Abu Dhabi, where does nationalism lie? There's no doubt that this is also a national-- a nation building project concerning the sustainability of the country. But the Saadiyat project and that of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which is to build a planned, carbon-neutral environment, and the development of renewable energy resource, are principal examples of nation building endeavors.
Such projects serve to demonstrate the state as strong, with a clear vision and ability to implement that vision. Sustainability means, in this context, the need for massive investment in generating projects that enhance production, wealth, and workforce in the future, as well as protect the environment and peoples.
And it's around this point that it becomes more complex. Because on the one hand, there's a felt need to protect a heritage and Muslim values, while on the other hand, to enable the UAE to have access to become part of a larger global information technology economy and culture. This, indeed, is a delicate balancing act, requiring a high degree of tolerance, respect, and understanding. But it also means scrutinizing what is meant by cultural heritage. That is not something something fixed in the past or to the past or an object per se, but rather alive, evolving with time and generations, for if the heritage is to be found between peoples, it may be of different ethnicities and races, countries and epochs.
What seems critical to this recognition is the internal dynamic of its articulation, in which issues concerning the values of cultural heritage or tradition or of modernism and the metropolitan or global technologies are critical terms of ongoing debate and articulation by forces of both resistance and change. At the same time, what became equally clear was the sense of the West being haunted, if not possessed, by the legacy of its political and cultural history; i.e. colonialism, as much as its ongoing aspiration to sustain itself as a global power.
Hence the continuing use of terms such as international, universal, even global, or similarly, the other Oriental local. And the model, as I will demonstrate, the model of the tabula rasa, in which there was no culture to be found, massing a sustained hegemonic position as regards Western cultural centers. Where's my tea? Sorry.
Within these terms, these issues can be seen as played out by certain producers, who by internalizing Western perspectives, aestheticized, if not exoticised, local traditions, and hence revalorized the conditions of marginalization or colonial otherness. The most obvious example has been the contemporary relation to the complex history and heritage of orientalism. Complex because reclaiming the work in the sense of control of the way they themselves were portrayed.
In the introduction to a small catalog called Orientalism, a Tribute to Arabia, which was produced in London by the Mathaf Gallery. The author argues for a benign innocence about the subject; about empire, legacy, in the Orient. And I quote, "rather about this catalog and the work that is being shown, is about how the work provides access to the cultural past of the Emirati, as distinct from full of stereotypes of the Oriental as a type, the sexualized image of women." In other words, what's being argued in such brevity, in a sense, is that the orientalist work, in fact, provides information, if not knowledge, to the local Emirati about themselves and about a history which they are suggesting has been lost otherwise.
On the other hand, responses by Western institutions and media to the Saadiyat project reveals a deeply held concept of progress, as conceived in the Age of Enlightenment and modernization. What they exposed was that historically inherited fault lines and contemporary fracture within the European project of self-definition, as evident in, for example, even most recently, in the reformation of the European Union. And as such, the dynamics and dominant tropes of modernity, through which racism and the construction of otherness is produced, continues to be produced.
What is at work in such marketing is a selling back of exoticism, now concealed by virtue of an appeal to the formal aesthetic of the orientalist work and the notion of a shared history and a Universalist idea of a shared humanity. Similarly, these debates recognize too the way in which the Western cultural producers seek to accommodate the local by incorporating motifs or forms that they perceive to stand in for the cultural traditions and values, deferring to what they perceive as their values.
Both these positions serve only to produce a culture in stasis, as opposed to one open and defined within a dynamic of change and continuity. Alternatively, Jean Clair, who is a critic and former director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, responded to the Abu Dhabi project as being predominantly concerned with the nouveau riche and the use of wealth to buy cultural capital.
From this perspective, the Louvre and the Western museums should not be for sale, argued Clair. Art is not merchandise. It is not a consumer good to be bought and sold. This is a long article that he wrote in Limon, called "Museum is Not for Sale," which has been subsequently made into a book devoted to a critique of the Abu Dhabi project.
The view of Clair and other authors who have collaborated with him is that such projects were only about petrodollars and military relations, and the Emiratis won't be able to take care of the fragile work, let alone come to look at it. They will instead want to be playing golf and lying on the beach.
The former president of the Sorbonne, Jean-Robert Pitte, was cited in Newsweek as remarking, and I quote, "can we really bring culture to camel riders and carpet sellers? They want the Louvre, the Sorbonne, and the Guggenheim like their ladies want handbags from Christian Dior." The crudity of this racist perspective or accusation of the emirates as a tabula rasa by Western and other commentators, is made out of a willful ignorance exacerbated by those in the emirates who espouse heritage talk without a willingness to engage or to critically engage with their own history.
A more benign though equally problematic response was captured in an address to the Abu Dhabi leadership and to the international press by the president of New York University, who had trained as a theologian. So you understand his remark when he said that it was the time now, in this century of the other, to give back. The vision of the leadership that brought me on board was their expressed belief in providing Abu Dhabi with a world-class range of cultural and educational facilities that would benefit the Emirati and the people of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.
Hence, while it can be seen as a tremendous accomplishment to have secured and made possible the iconic architectural buildings of Nouvel, Foster, and Gehry, it's quite another matter to develop the conceptual framework and substance of what will go inside and around them. And let me show you now-- and you would have seen. Ah. Well, maybe I'll come back to that.
This is the Performing Arts Center by Zaha Hadid, as designed by her. Very quickly, we raised issues concerning how on earth this will be-- work acoustically, given it was a performing arts center. And I suspect that this will be the last you'll see of her in Abu Dhabi. I think that probably, certainly at the time I was leaving, it was mooted that there would be another architectural firm brought on.
This is the Maritime Museum, designed by Tadao Ando. And in fact, it extends down. You can go beneath the water, and then it becomes-- it's completely glass on one side, and you're able to, in fact, see the marine life. It's actually a very beautiful and economic design. This is also a path that you can walk out on.
Bad slide, sorry. This is the Giri. Oh. It probably looks better in blue. But I won't say it. I don't make any judgments.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: But this is Giri. It is a kind of signature style. Gone a little bit--
CHARLES MEREWETHER: A little bit wild In his later life, throwing everything together. It represents about 30 plus thousand square meters, so it's enormous. But technically, very problematic. In part because there's an awful lot of space in between to be able to make these different sort of forms work together.
This is the Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. And this, underneath, as you can see, really is the infrastructure in terms of the interior building for the different exhibition spaces. I think there's a side one here.
And this bad side of the interior. This is the effect of the roof. I don't have a lot of images. I really want to attend to the subject at hand rather than the architecture.
In developing these museums, certainly these first three, and at the time, there wasn't a model that I could take a photo of the National Museum. So you'll have to bear with that absence of. The leadership understood the need for a means by which to train and professionalize, in particular, the Emirati workforce and culture and the arts education.
This was seen as part of a long-term plan, providing an essential component in the growth of a knowledge-based economy, a term that was much used a few years ago, particularly in terms of that region. And in developing an advanced research opportunity for future generations of the Emirati in particular. Hence the ability of the country to provide cultural and educational institutions of an international standard of excellence became a symbol of the country's progress and security in delivering services and investment opportunities. And hence, also an ability to participate at the global level. And that's the result of which is something like New York and the Sorbonne participating in the Abu Dhabi project.
At one time, Yale University came, and it seemed as if Yale would assume the mantle of offering courses in a range of seven disciplines, but that fell through for a number of reasons, and New York University took its place. However, what remained a huge challenge was in planning a cultural district that had not organically developed over a long period of time, as we're so used to.
For a while, one can argue against an organicist cultural notion an implicit idea of progress that underwrites it. One has to ask what is an alternative model? How would it work? How can one put the process of perception and learning on fast track? And if so, what steps need to be taken? What goes first in order for it to be achieved? This, indeed, was one of the principal challenges that we had to face.
Furthermore, what is the point of view that sufficiently allows for recognition of different cultures to embody distinct, if not opposing beliefs, as much as shared values and aspirations, hence, forms of exchange. Does the shock of the new work best? Perhaps not. But then does one present other histories in their own right or rethink them into culturally, or from a perspective the claims a universalism, let alone globalism.
Yet even Universalism has a point of view disguised as it might be otherwise, and I'll come back to that in relation to the Louvre. So it means returning to the local is the perspective from which to begin or to serve as a point of reference by virtue of pertaining to the local audience.
What precisely is the local then, in this instance of the UAE? And moreover, is it only the Emirati, or is it not now, today, multilayered, multiethnic, multicultural, though distinguished by racial discrimination and economic sustainability with different levels of education and degrees that access knowledge and open engagement with other cultures.
Perhaps Islamic culture could be taken as a starting point-- and I say perhaps there-- by which to build a program or museum that like a [? Suk, ?] has a central spine along which the story can be told, but it has two passages and alleyways branching off that provide the connections, exchanges, and in turn lead to other points of access with their own branches, et cetera.
A maze or labyrinth, indeed, but who has such collections, and what does one do with fields of interpretive dispute, such as the period of the Crusades, or when the origin of a work lies precisely within the field of exchange, such as those of fetish objects, that as referred to, emerged in the trade between Portuguese and West Africans, or even the uneven development of modernism.
Moreover, is not the field of creativity far more serendipitous and less about the story of influences than the aesthetic achievement that embodies a complex set of values? How does one approach the building of a historically nuanced program that both enables people to appreciate the critical importance of aesthetic experimentation and innovation, while at the same time providing a historical framework for its reception? And how does one develop such perspective within a short span of time, when there is an absence of preparation on the ground?
Both the Louvre and the Guggenheim projects have come under considerable scrutiny and sweeping criticism, as we saw from those remarks of Clair. But there is some point to it, in part because they are seen as motivated by the need to support their own public institutions, or as forms of government, of soft power, in regard to geopolitical relations. At the same time, this dream has been roundly criticized by some of the Western world's most respected museum leaders, such as Montebello, formerly and most recently, of course, of the Metropolitan.
And his complaint was "sending art to countries where the heritage makes no sense, and where to lend into the emptiness becomes an abuse of art." End of quote. However, I did believe the potential of each constituted a significant step from any previous historical model, whether during the period of imperial and colonial expansion, or under the aegis of Western modernity.
What differed about each was that on the one hand, the Louvre project involved a consortium of different French museums and collections, as well as a dedicated organization to help develop the project. And on the other hand, a Guggenheim Museum was only part of a larger complex of cultural institutions, that is, unlike the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Not only should they be seen as a step in recognition of mutual needs, but a fundamental belief in the value of public culture and of public cultural institutions that serve in the movement towards cultural emancipation. Ironically, contrary to the criticism of the endeavors taking place in the Emirates, these projects reaffirm the continuing value of the museum as a public and relatively autonomous sphere, as this sphere, when faced by the diminishing support of government funding, becomes increasingly important to support.
From within this context, it seems to me too, however delicate it may be, that there's an extraordinary opportunity for Abu Dhabi and the Emirates to establish a framework that enables and shapes a critical relation too, but it's still entwined with that of the Middle East and its region, in terms of history and contemporary culture. By region, I would especially refer also to the subcontinent and its long historical role in the development of the Gulf states.
Not that one would recognize it now. In fact, the subcontinent was tremendously instrumental in making the Emirates what it is today, but now is seen very much in terms of simply providing a kind of workforce, an itinerant if not short-term workforce. Equally important is the recognition of the extraordinary wealth that characterizes the cultural histories and contemporary practices of the Middle East. That while radically distinct from the Gulf-- and this is very important-- are nonetheless imperative to address.
And there are often people who would talk about the Gulf in terms of the being the Middle East. But let me say, if you've been to both, you'll understand how radically different they are in every sense of the word. In short, one must acknowledge that the kind of radically different historical trajectories these countries have taken, especially over the past 100 years or so, with the end of colonialism and the different forms and stages of modernization and taken and accomplished.
There's no unifying thread here. The cultural practices that characterize each of these countries within the larger sphere have taken on their own particular character and significance as well as differing relations between themselves and [INAUDIBLE] the Western world. And yet none of this should be sufficient to deny that the opportunity is here to be taken, most especially given the Emirates population is composed also of large communities from the Arab world and from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
This raises the issue of creating audiences across a hugely diverse public and providing educational opportunities in such a way as to benefit all of them and the country in which they live. This, of course, is yet to be obtained. In fact, it's barely gotten to step one. Recently, the ambassador for Pakistan to the UAE spoke out, severely criticizing the government for its failure to be able to provide anything more than simply work and a place to sleep for the Pakistani community. And I would imagine that's been likewise supported by the governments of India and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh.
Moreover, this perspective is also due to the long history of entwinement that I mentioned with the Gulf states, especially when understood more broadly in terms of the Persian or Arab Gulf. And here I mean, of course, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Amman, and the UAE. But precisely because also of the current climate in which there's an increasing crisis over the Western military presence, armed conflict, and foreign occupation, energy resources, nuclear armament, the rise of radical Islam, and the destruction of cultures and their histories, as well as the ongoing displacement of peoples from their homeland and the enduring refugee crisis.
To this end then, it can be argued that the tremendous potential to be found in the kind of platform the Emirates could provide to the Middle East and the region, as much as for themselves, a sense of cooperation and mutual recognition would also assist in overcoming the prejudices and ofttimes racism that exists between these countries and communities, in fact. The opportunity then is not simply one of identifying or serving diverse audiences, but of collaboratively exploring together with them their distinct and shared cultural histories and the overcoming of these social distinctions that currently prevailed across and between the Emirates.
At an institutional level, the cultural fabric that exists in Abu Dhabi is important here to mention. We have there in Abu Dhabi the cultural foundation, which offers a tremendous program of events, as well as hosted by government agencies, such as the British Council, the [INAUDIBLE] Society, Alyons Francaise, as much as Zayed University, and now the Sorbonne. There are other organizations too in such events as the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, and most recently, the arrival of an independent newspaper, The National, which is based, really, on The New York Times, seeking to offer a serious cultural section in its daily.
You've got to remember that in fact, until The National, there was no real dedicated space to culture, neither in a historical sense or a contemporary sense. There were middle pages which were about how to spend the weekend with your kids doing art and the occasional exhibition review somewhere near the sports page. But over and above that, neither in Arabic nor in English, was there any critical platform or review platform for the activities that were taking place, however minuscule they may have been.
All of these organizations and initiatives are, to a lesser or greater degree, ones which offer also a degree of quality in terms of they provide a basis and a platform for critical exchange of the creative arts. But then the question of what counts. What's quality, really, insofar as it matters? Who decides, and on what basis can benchmarks be established? Questions that remain to be thought through and answered.
It's neither enough to say, leave it to the Westerners, but nor is it enough to simply say, leave it to the locals to decide. The critical issue that confronts us today is knowledge of one another, of what's being offered and why.
Now, the first two shows, as an example, that were shown in Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace, which is, in fact, frankly, a glorified hotel. An exclusive hotel, extremely expensive one, which only really caters to a small community of people. The first two shows were shown there for lack of any other space. And so we transformed part of it, offered part of it, transformed it into an exhibition-style space to show the first exhibition, which was the Khalili Collection.
Khalili had formed this massive collection of several thousand pieces pertaining to the cultural history of Islam. And we showed it. It was well received and certainly well viewed, in terms of the audience. But one could sense that while some of the material that was shown indeed demonstrate the intercultural relationship, particularly between parts of Islamic communities in Pakistan and in India and in other parts of the world, it showed this exchange and dialogue, and a very fertile one at that.
The limit, in terms of the audience, was tremendous. So that no one really, who didn't look the part, would be able to go there and go and see the exhibition. Nor did the greater community of those who work in Abu Dhabi, in terms of labor force, nor did they ever think of going. I mean, this was not an area that they ever thought of going to. It just was not their-- not their area.
It was a place where they worked as a taxi driver. They would drop someone off. And of course, the majority of those who've been there though, you'll know immediately the majority of taxi drivers are, in fact, from Kerala. And Kerala has proffered an enormous community of people working throughout the Emirates.
But it was not-- the Emirates' palace was not-- or Emirates' hotel was not a place that they felt easy about going to. And so this rich cultural heritage and exchange which provided through looking, viewing the Khalili collection was, in fact, only available to a small sector of the public.
And one feared, in a sense, that this was perhaps the beginning of something that was going to continue. And certainly, my own experience of working there, that was something that was not on the agenda. It was something that may come up later, but the principal agenda, really, was to get the buildings built. Don't worry too much about who's going to go and see it. The presumption being, of course, that the wealthy middle and upper class Emiratis would be the principal audience.
There was then a Picasso show-- and the other thing too, of course, was even more closely tuned, would be that the Khalili collection and Khalili himself, I think, making the determination, downplayed the importance of Persian culture, in terms of the sort of cultural heritage, cultural richness that had contributed to Islamic culture.
The second exhibition was a retrospective of Picasso which was drawn from the Picasso Museum. And it was extremely interesting to see. It was about 150, 160 works drawn from-- actually, from a show that went to the Reina Sofia last year in May, of some 380 works, I think. And it was chosen by the curator of the Picasso Museum in Paris in consultation with a cultural advisor and a person from the leadership.
Neither of them knew too much about Picasso except that there were nudes. And so they went to Madrid and walked through and made a selection in which some rather tame nudes, if you will, were permitted in, and they arrived at this figure of 160, 150 odd. I later, when-- this was just prior to my departure, and in a small sense, confirmed my worst fears. I went later, having seen the Abu Dhabi show, to realize that they had chosen a second-rate show.
But their hands were tied, and we paid some 6 million, I think, to take the show. I guess any Picasso show is better than none, but I wasn't of that opinion. One might add, of course, here too, whether, in fact, Picasso was the right choice in the context of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.
Is it personality that counts? Because marketing has become a more powerful tool than the understanding of the history of art. Perhaps Manet, Cezanne, Duchamp, even Melevich, would have taught us more, not only about the great art of the Western modern era, but equally in how each of these artists were innovative exponents of modern art at different moments during the course of its development.
In the context of a building program schedule and deadline, these kinds of questions can be swiftly consigned as being overly academic or peripheral to the immediate tasks to be done, and therefore, given neither time nor place in which they may be conducted. This is precisely the challenge of such a timetable, that is determined by the end date of delivery, indeed, only five years away.
Institutions such as the British Museum, the Metropolitan, or those of Dusseldorf and Berlin, amongst others, do not have such pressure and have great collections and a staff of immense learning and competence with which to begin these sorts of projects. This involves a complex of perspectives representing very different cultural values and interests, and hence collaboration that should lie at the very heart of the project.
Few Western cultural institutions with which Abu Dhabi or the Arab world could work have been faced with these kinds of questions insofar as their programming in order to curate their own audiences. To address these issues for a local audience is in a different and radically new enterprise. Moreover, by producing exhibitions and programming, even on the modern and contemporary, will not ease the burden.
There are few scholars there who have done the kind of homework that is needed to be able to provide the basis of a framework. The deconstruction and re-elaboration of modernity is still in its infancy, as regards to these countries. There are beginnings from the West in looking at the influence of the larger Mediterranean, such as North Africa, on Western artists, but this is still far from the Gulf. And yet again, this is only one side of a story to be told.
So let me just conclude by returning back to the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Because one of my jobs was, in fact, to address, not only in terms of the building structure and the greater cultural district and how it would look-- whether this should be a narrow road, or a wide road, whether this should be placed here or in association with that museum, or that center, was also to talk about the programs of each.
And what was striking was that the Louvre, on the one hand, had made the proposal to build-- and this is maybe three and 1/2 years ago-- had made the proposal to build a classical museum. And over the course of its development, in terms of this, and for a number of reasons which I think were larger than just cultural, because we know now, of course, the ambitions of the French to have a base there, a military base there. That they began to see themselves and the Louvre as being, certainly, a government cultural institution.
They began to see themselves in broader and larger strategic terms and proposed a universal museum, which was extremely interesting. In so far, of course, the Louvre itself was founded on this notion of a universal museum in the period really following the Enlightenment or of the time of the Enlightenment. And to propose it again in the 21st century was indeed an intellectual challenge.
To think that one country had the resources in its various collections throughout, in this case, of course, France, had the collection to be able to provide and even be able to offer some kind of reading which is universal. I think it's something that we talk about the global, and I think there are lots of reasons why now we need to, but it doesn't make the task any easier in terms of what we mean by writing a global history.
How do we begin to develop a comparative basis on which to construct that history? How even do we start to talk about history? And of course, culture historians, anthropologists and others have tackled this for some years, and art history is still, I think, very much at the front entrance, if you will, of trying to address this.
The Guggenheim, on the other hand, proposed an international collection and exhibition program. And it's no secret to tell you that we gave them, initially, $600 million to build an initial collection. And it was interesting to see it.
I'll never forget when I received the document, Document M, or Document 21, which was the list of works that Tom Krens, in fact-- to say Guggenheim would be too generous-- Tom Krens wanted to buy. And it spoke loud and clear as to the agenda. What was the-- there was no preface. There was no introduction, there was no conclusion, there was no narrative except that which was between, if you will, the listing of the work.
So that you would go from, I guess, Sol Lewitt to Carl Andre. And we all know what that-- that there is the beginnings of a sort of narrative. And you add Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, and you begin to understand very clearly the narrative there.
And it began in that way. Artists, American artists from the '50s and '60s, and then ended up in, I think, about five pages, fairly bold type, 14 point, ended up with some artists from the Middle East. No artists from the Gulf, artists from the Middle East. You know, Shirin Neshat and other names that we know of that have done, I must say, very well in the West, and it's good to see, but they're included in the last six pages. But suddenly, the sense of a narrative and of a logic, in terms of the aesthetics, in terms of the how in which we might begin, even, to write an art history was, I think, certainly lost on me and lost on those who at all were interested.
But this was the international. And international is a term, of course, which was used in the '60s, I think, to great, great effect in so far as international was used as a way of signifying the kind of extraordinary artistic exchange that happened throughout the world in a manner that I think often contemporary commentators forget. That we've already been around the block once on this.
But their international-- or Tom Krens' notion of the international-- was simply a way, descriptive manner of saying, there would be artists from different parts of the world. But there was no, let's say, art historical understanding, no proposition here in terms of breaking an orthodox or dominant model, in terms of the way we can look at, let's say that the history of the present. The history the present, if you will, going from World War II. So international, actually veiled, it seemed to me, veiled, a very strong ideological position, which for those of us who have followed the franchise of Guggenheim understand very well.
So this, in fact, became-- in many of the meetings, we have these absurd meetings in which we'd fly to Paris for one day and fly back and go back to work. And it sounds exotic, but it honestly is not exotic at all. Let me assure you.
And we'd sit in these meetings, and there would be maybe two of us, and there would be 20 of them. And they would put forth their propositions. But eventually, the sorts of discussions that we wanted to have about, well, how do you-- yes, OK. We're going to build these museums, and we have these stars, and they're going to attract an audience. But let's-- OK. That's stage one. We all accept that, and that's underway. Contracts have been signed, et cetera.
But stage two, which should overlap with stage one is but how are you going to build the infrastructure of a museum with which to tell another story about the history of art? And who knows this history of art? Do you people there at this meeting know this? And what are you proposing?
Hence my example. If you take any particular moment in the history of art, and as I suggested, if you even take the Crusades, how is the story of the Crusades, through the work of art, going to be told in a way which breaks the traditional, dominant reading of the Crusades? What work are you going to bring? What work from any one of your collections in France are going to break that? Are going to offer another way of viewing it.
And why, even worse, of course, how-- I'm sorry. How, in fact, are you going to be able to develop an art history which accommodates, if I say, naturally accommodates for the kind of work that's going on now in the UAE? I'm on the jury of the Victoria and Albert Museum for a prize to a contemporary artist whose work in some way demonstrates the traditions of Islamic calligraphy.
And it's extremely interesting to see that of course half the artists are breaking with it. It's not to say that there's not a point of reference, but they're breaking with it. And it's interesting to follow and understand their way of working their relationship to such a strong tradition and they list an orthodox practice.
But these sorts of issues, issues which I think art historians are best equipped to be able to address, were the sorts of issues that finally, at the end of the day, were put on the back burner. And it's these sorts of issues, I think, that are terribly important for all of us to address. And I think too, and hence, in a sense, my title. And I've given you some sort of description of what it means to be confronted by a number of worlds which really are not understanding and appreciating one another.
Just to close, we have to remind ourselves that many of these projects have developed, in a sense, commercially. They're developed by architects, construction companies, and generally by people working in the field of construction. They have no interest in art history.
And the Louvre wants to demonstrate its power and its global power, global reach as part of the general French national effort to assume a role within this region and using the Emirates as a sort of point slightly outside of the Middle East, a strategic point, as much as the Guggenheim, in terms of its franchise.
So it was a very complex situation. And as I say, as an art historian, an absolutely fascinating if not overwhelming challenge, which unfortunately I had to leave because in a sense, it seemed to me that what was at stake was the survival within that particular moment and microcosm, the survival of the practice of art history. So thank you.
BRENDA: I guess we could open the floor for some questions, if there are any, and I'm sure there are. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: I'll ask a question. This was fascinating. How can you rewrite this art history? I'm wondering--
CHARLES MEREWETHER: I'm sorry. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: You asked the question, how can we rewrite this art history and locate it-- like, for instance, the Crusades. A perfect example. How do we do this? And I'm wondering, you're working on a project now on the politics of looting, I understand?
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Well, supposedly, it's a cultural history of looting.
AUDIENCE: The cultural history of looting.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Is that a mode of getting at some of these issues, as you see it?
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Yes. It is a mode.
AUDIENCE: And is that-- yeah. I would imagine it is. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: I wish I could. I have struggled with even this project which I have set myself. Yeah. It's really, I think, partly-- and it it pertains, really, to your point. It's another way to getting to the issue of value. And it happened-- it partly happened-- It didn't happen-- it actually-- what had happened because of the first US invasion to Iraq-- [INAUDIBLE] note which one.
And I was working on China in the-- the early photography in China at the same time and around 1816 and the period in which the Summer Palace was stormed and put under fire and destroyed. And a great deal of objects, precious objects were lost or looted.
And that was the initial. And it struck me that there was a larger story to be told. Different. Different instances, but different values at work. And how did value transmigrate, for example? And what was lost? And even what was lost in certain values and what was gained, what was seen, comes back to this idea of this Universalist.
And of course, the great claims made by museums across the world, and especially in the US, I think, but not only. But the great claims made by museums, of course, that even if it was looted, it was better off in their museums, because they could look after it, and more people could see it. And there was something fundamentally wrong about that. I understood it, and I understood the logic in a certain sense. But there was also something deeply troubling about it.
And so I launched into this ridiculous idea of this book. But then, to make matters worse, really, was that I began to feel that you couldn't simply talk about works of art. So that to take an example, on one day-- of course, regardless of how many Iraqis were dying-- on one day, you'd see some archaic pot being carried off. But on the next day, you're on page seven. You'd see someone carrying a refrigerator.
That was of more value to them. In the immediate sense, they needed the refrigerator. And what were they going to do, just get into trouble. Just too complex to be taking off this urn, hoping that they could get enough money, then they'd have to buy a fridge. Just loot the fridge. You know.
So also this issue of value became, I think, interwoven with larger issues about commodities and about not only who values what, but what's valued by whom at those particular moments of crisis, in which looting, of course, often happens.
But the book-- to be frank, the book has kind of washed ashore a couple of times. Because I remember ending up in the library, but ending up somewhere trying to-- well, I was staring at Sanskrit written in the 10th century, thinking to myself, I've made a wrong turn here. Because I honestly don't intend to learn Sanskrit now.
And I couldn't just tap on someone's shoulder and say, you're a Sanskrit scholar, can you translate this to me. And so the idea of the historical became a challenge, because I've been working on-- particularly on India, beginning with the partition, in which loot was always, of course, associated with rape and with pillage, as it was called, and burning, destruction. But that had taken me back into earlier Indian histories.
So at the moment, I'm writing a series of chapters which really are about the contemporary. And I just read a chapter, a rough chapter on Somalia to try and make sense of what was going on in Somalia. Of course, touching with the immediate story of the boats and ships, but then moving into a larger history of value and a history of looting. So I'm in the throes of it. Not all books are like that. Thankfully. But this one, it seems to be.
AUDIENCE: It seems to suggest that we need to begin to think in working in art history in more collaborative ways. Because certainly, the looting in Southeast Asia, in order to look at that within a cultural perspective really requires collaboration between countries.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: And so looking at the politics of that. And it's not an easy thing to write.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: No. And yeah. I mean, it's a perfect case in point, because Thailand-- looting--
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Yeah. That, but also at one point, looting was acceptable. Something that you did as a practice, and I think anthropologists know this well. There was something accepted.
You looted from a tribe, and often, in fact, a shrine was made of a looted object which was seen as of great value and significance, and you paid homage to that. So this issue of prestige, this issue of it symbolically, in a sense, signifying a relationship between two groups or two communities was very powerful. I don't want to be a pro-looter, but I do think that historically, looting needs to be seen in a number of different ways.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] considered having a shrine in Indonesia. A shrine to looting. With a god. Who would the god be?
CHARLES MEREWETHER: [LAUGHS] One of you.
AUDIENCE: I have a question. You were mentioning a public or organizations like, for example, the [INAUDIBLE] Institute, and many others which were [INAUDIBLE]. And this in relation to the public-- [INAUDIBLE] to say, sorry. In relation to the audience, which is living there but doesn't enter in the museum. How do you think [INAUDIBLE] do these organizations serve the purpose of the artists or the public there to educate these people, or do these institutions?
CHARLES MEREWETHER: How do I see it happening?
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Well, quite simply, I do think that you make a massive educational program in which these exhibitions are embedded, particularly in an environment such as Abu Dhabi or anywhere in the UAE, which because they haven't had any encounter, any experience of this kind of work, the majority of them. A handful may have. But so I do think that there are lots of different ways of doing it, whether you do it through educational programs in the university, or whether you do it through outreach in terms of community centers.
There are clubs, there ladies clubs, for example, in which you have someone, a woman, obviously, going to speak to that particular community. You find ways of being able to do it. You spread it in that way. And I think it's traditionally done like that.
They have reading groups there. And 10 years ago, about 10 years ago, Emirati women began reading groups, and there was about 10 that started, with let's say, seven or eight participating in each. Now there's over 800.
And they read novels. They'll read the most sophisticated and the most challenging, in terms of the sorts of values and issues and subjects addressed. They'll read together. And I think it's a different form. We don't have many-- well, we do have reading groups, but we tend to end up reading Ranciere, and we're not reading novels together. I don't know. Maybe some of you do.
Anyway, it's been absolutely, I think, extraordinary in terms of opening these communities up to a wider body of knowledge and understanding and appreciation. And I think you do it the same. In the same sort of manner, in terms of this project. And you organize groups, groups of children to come, see the exhibition, to be taken through the exhibition.
And to appreciate-- more than anything to be able to appreciate visual language and understand that visual language tells you something about the world that no other language does. And this is why we devote our lives to study the history of art. Because I think all of us implicitly believe in the power of the visual to convey things that otherwise--
And that itself, what constitutes the domain of the visual. I had this-- briefly-- historian, which I went to London to see whether to convince or to actually find an art school that may be best suited to try and set up a branch in Abu Dhabi, because I thought it was very important to do it.
And one of the art schools, which will remain unnamed, said to me, absolutely cold faced, said, well, we won't change our curriculum. It will be the curriculum-- they want to be there partly because of the empowerment, but also financially.
And I said, but you have to change your curriculum. These are Muslim. Days They can't be all going off to life classes for a start. And the history of art couldn't be just Western, and I'm sure you're just teaching Western.
And they said, well, it would be very difficult for us to change. And I said well, thank you. You know. So that's the sort of area that-- and again, I think it's the sort of area that art historians collectively can begin to intervene on and provide the sort of expertise that you have.
BRENDA: So we have the final two questions. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: Charles, thank you so much for the talk. It was very enlightening, as usual. Well, if I understood you correctly, basically, just like this idea of big institutions and museums in particular, like the Louvre and the Guggenheim, going into a place like Abu Dhabi, with all the specificities of that place. And be putting into consideration the fact that these are museums that were built at a point where there was definitely a colonial heritage to their actual manifestation.
And if you want this whole national, let's say, pivotal making of the defining moment of those national institutions. And they're being transported, in a way, into another place and in a different context. And if I understood you correctly, I think you were, in a way, trying to decolonize them.
And there was an attempt, if that's how I read you correctly, to also invite them to not just revisit, but also flip it over and use that as a pretext or as an opportunity to be able to do that. And I find it quite fascinating that you're saying that there was no, basically, even locally, there was no impetus to actually see that opportunity, if I understood you correctly.
Even locally within Abu Dhabi, you're saying that there was no initiative that could actually foster that, let's say, claim or attempt to be able to do that. And also coming from the Louvre and Guggenheim, there was also no initiative, in that kind of direction. I mean-- and I have another question. In the other side. Why not--
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Do you want me to answer that one first, or?
AUDIENCE: No, no. [INAUDIBLE].
So organically, I mean, that's an interesting opportunity, right? But why not also just the usual organic sort of growth within a country that has already-- really needs a natural process to be able to also create something for its own.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are exploding with buildings that are just the projects with 90 tower buildings, skyscrapers, you know, the rifting of land. The fact that they just built up in less than 10 years of time. I mean, they didn't-- wouldn't it have been more natural to actually let's say, preach more organic growth of institutions there that have their own character and--
CHARLES MEREWETHER: Yeah. Well, I agree in principle. But rich Emiratis drive down the freeway at about 180. And so they have no time to spend, as far as they're concerned. They want to be a part of the club quickly.
They have a sense of imperative. I mean, aside from that. But they have a sense of imperative which I think is driven-- prior to a few moments ago-- imperative to be able to actually use their wealth and diversify in terms of investment. And as we know, they've invested a lot here in the States.
But that surplus, particularly in terms of two or three families, has also been seen as an opportunity to invest in the cultural. And they don't--
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. I'm thinking of [INAUDIBLE] as a-- if you want [INAUDIBLE] in particular, and the fact that it took them like eight years. But in a way, it was-- it took them a process, but they did try to build something that was articulate for their own space. And it did take a form that is international, per se, but--
CHARLES MEREWETHER: No, I agree with you. But remember also that Abu Dhabi sees itself as the capital. Those families that rule Abu Dhabi see themselves and want to be seen as the capital. So they don't want to do just something like [INAUDIBLE]. They don't want that sort of model. Venice has a Biennale, whatever Biennales are, as far as they're concerned.
And Dubai is Dubai. Commercial center, galleries, very good, et cetera. But Abu Dhabi does see itself as the capital. But at the same time, when I came on board-- and it was very subtle, but it's very clear that it happened. When I came on board, principally, the cultural district of [? Saria ?] was seen as a tourist resort. As an adjunct to the hotel development and the golf course and leisure and recreation, da, da, da.
So it was just seen as an adjunct there or as an additional part of recreational leisure. And also, when I came, there was just this wonderful chart-- I wish I had it still-- which showed that under this development company that was set up by the government, it showed noncommercial-- in terms of the overall budget-- noncommercial use, land use and expenditure was 10% of the overall for [? Saria. ?]
And that expanded-- I mean, that-- last year, we were spending a million a day. And so it just completely changed in terms of the kind of economics that were involved in building this. But in such a way that in a sense, it rose in symbolic value. As it rose in economic cost, it rose also in symbolic value.
This is the amount that we need to pay to do this. Obviously, symbolic value, therefore, is greater. But it doesn't quite-- I guess that doesn't quite answer your question. But I do think that they seize it as an opportunity with which to promote Abu Dhabi symbolically as the capital of the UAE, if not of the region, in terms of the Gulf.
The other question, the earlier question, is I wasn't quite saying that they're not aware. I think that they're very aware. I think the efforts on the part of the French, of the people involved, I think for some of them it is a genuine effort to go beyond colonial, push colonial, to establish a different kind of relation. But it's a government organization, and you or me or anyone here may believe that and work in good faith towards that and be able to accomplish something, but I actually think that the leadership think slightly differently.
And that it becomes part of the French state, of the project of the French state in the region. And I think Sarkozy is all about that. Hence he's meddling with whatever issues, in terms of his leadership of the EU.
So I think that it's possible to be able to say, yes, some of the curators are actually working in good faith to be able to be beyond this, but they don't quite know how. And I understand. I think it's very complex. And so they grasp at something. And I think, unfortunately, this idea of a universal museum is something that is kind of appealing and is sufficient, has become sufficient, but highly problematic.
And the sorts of discussions that I thought we should have were ones that discussions that were constantly curtailed by the exigencies of what had to be done. So I don't know whether it answers sufficiently. I just don't-- I don't think it was ever-- I must say, I don't think it was ever thought by the Abu Dhabi leadership of the slow process. It's just not how they-- it's just not in their blood.
BRENDA: Well, hopefully, some of the discussions will continue over here. And I think this is a good point. Thank you so much.
CHARLES MEREWETHER: My pleasure.
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Art historian and curator Dr. Charles Merewether discusses the need for the creation of a public sphere for art in the regions of Asia and the Pacific, as part of a two-day graduate student symposium at Cornell, titled "Imag(in)ing Asia and the Pacific: Emerging Visualities and Art Perspectives."
Merewether, currently a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, reflected on his experiences as an art historian on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The Imag(in)ing Asia and the Pacific symposium, held Feb. 20-21, 2009 at Cornell's A.D. White House, explored emerging visualities in the light of the complex, and changing socio-political and economic issues that affect countries, peoples, institutions and practice in Asia and the Pacific. The event was sponsored by the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies.