The Superfine Art Exhibition: Institutionalization and Audience

The Superfine Art Exhibition: Institutionalization and Audience

September 26, 2017

“Tafaddal al marad…kul qatta dinaren aw akthar” (come to the exhibition…each piece is for 2 JDs or more). A group of young artists sat on the front steps of the national gallery, jokingly repeating“tafaddal al marad”a refrain commonly heard in Amman’s downtown markets, and used by sellers to invite passersby into a store or showroom. The artists played on the slippage in meaning of the word “marad,” which denotes either a gallery or a showroom.

The occasion was the Superfine Art exhibition, a presentation of work completed by participants in the 2017 edition of the Spring Sessions, the experimental, alternative-MFA arts training program which has run annually in Amman for the last 4 years. During the exhibition, the artists occupied the National Gallery for a continuous 48-hours of exhibits, performances, workshops, and talks, with the exhibition open during the whole time, and artists even sleeping on a specially made 7-person bed on the gallery floor.

From the beginning, the exhibition challenged the ways viewers have been trained to interact with a museum exhibit. The chants of “tafaddal al marad” greeted passersby in the street as if this were not a museum (in the dignified, stand-offish sense that we have come to expect a museum), but rather a part of the downtown souq. The chant invited us to wonder what relates the museum to the souq. How might these spaces be alike?

The scene, with a crowd of artists loitering on the museum steps, also challenged the stereotypical image of a museum, which we expect to be walled off and distant. Here again, the artists reached out into public space, forming a bridge between the museum and everyday life, using the steps as a kind of living room where they relaxed frequently to snack, smoke, chat, and dance.

While such activities were playful, their subversion of the museum was not accidental. The Superfine Art exhibition was deliberately presented as a challenge to the idea of the museum in which it was located. A critical discussion on the topic, “what is a museum?” was the exhibition’s closing event. The discussion, led by Abdullah Awad, director of Amman’s Institute for Critical Thought, critiqued the institutional structure and history of museums. Participants argued that the nature of a museum is to cut art off from the ordinary life of society, rendering the art inside “dead.” Once cut off from social life, this art is marked as a historical artifact, something which has happened in the past, but which is no longer meaningful in the present. In what ways, they asked, can the structure of a museum be undermined so that the art inside is allowed to breathe?

Artist Hanna Al Taher led a “fluid bodies” movement workshop in the sculpture garden across the street from the gallery. The workshop drew a large crowd of spectators from the families that picnic and play in the garden. A few of these spectators chose to join in, including a young breakdancer who had been practicing in the park, as workshop participants experimented with ways of moving around one another, mirroring each other’s actions, and conversing through movement. When the workshop ended, the large crowd of gathered spectators applauded the dancers. Several of these observers then curiously followed the artists back into the gallery and began to look around the art.

Inside, artists Batool El Hennawy and Adam Chad Brody gathered a group together to lead a tour that involved moving from one art piece to the next, singing a song to each piece in the exhibition. Their tour playfully mocked the more-serious (or pretentious) museum tours art-viewers have come to expect. The spectators, who had followed the artists into the exhibition after the movement workshop were invited to join in, and several neighborhood kids joined the singing.

Such activities forged an important connection between the gallery space and the community at large. Throughout the weekend, the neighborhood kids who had been engaged in these activities could be seen wandering through the gallery, examining the art, talking to the artists, and, at times, trying to explain their favorite pieces to each other. In a city like Amman, where people frequently complain that art exhibitions are intimidating or distant, it is a major accomplishment for Spring Sessions to have been so open, accessible, and welcoming.

Yet, at the same time, it would be a mistake to overstate the degree to which the exhibit exceeded the bounds of the museum. In many ways, the exhibition conformed to what is expected in a gallery show. For the most part, the art was displayed in a comfortably familiar way: flat media hanging on the walls with accompanying descriptions and 3-D objects spotlighted in recesses or on pedestals. The Spring Sessions’ expert curation brought all of these artworks together into a coherent, visually appealing whole, which comfortably seemed to belong together. The exhibition opened with a standard opening event, with the awkward sociality of in-crowd small talk over snacks and drinks. Even as participants expressed discomfort with this social norm, the opening remained a dominant format through which many visitors encountered the art.

As one alumnus noted, this exhibition looked strikingly different from what Spring Sessions has attempted in the past, when the presentation of workshop results was set in public space in ways less obviously tied to any artistic institution. This was especially the case last year, when the presentation of results included a set of interventions at different locations between Jabal al Luweibdeh and Shmeisani. Last year’s display included Razan Mbaideen‘s orchestration of a mock political campaign along Culture Street, and Firas Hamdan’s broadcasting of sound collages across city streets.

Over the years,  Spring Sessions has become known for its radical engagement with Amman’s urban fabric. Its first year program was organized at the King Ghazi hotel in the heart of downtown, and ended with performances and artworks emanating out of that space, culminating in an orchestral performance from the hotel balcony. Second year programming was organized around a set of explorations of Prince Mohammad St., downtown, and the third year, as mentioned, involved interventions spread out across the city. Educational programming over the years has also pushed an aggressive encounter with urban space. On one occasion, participants joined in a political protest organized by street vendors. On another occasion, they spent 48 continuous hours wandering the city.

In light of such a history, it is possible to read the turn to the museum (and to Luweibdeh) as a kind of retreat. In addition to the exhibit, this year’s educational program also seemed to back away from the city. After initially planning to hold workshops in Jabal Hussein or at satellite locations across the city, Spring Sessions ultimately elected to work out of its headquarters, in the building formerly known as Makan, in Jabal Luweibdeh. Some participants celebrated this move as giving them a quiet space, away from the rest of Amman, where they could focus on artwork.

“(Makan) is a very familiar space, and of course, Luweibdeh was very familiar,” said Noura al Khasawneh who co-founded Spring Sessions together with Toleen Touq and co-curated this year’s edition with Yvonne Bucheim. “So this year was more introspective. It was very intimate.”

So how to reconcile this seeming inward turn with the program’s radical ambitions and history? How does Spring Sessions square its calls to undermine the museum with the concern, expressed by some friends of the program, that the museum may actually be exerting a taming influence on Spring Sessions?

For her part, Khasawneh is familiar with these concerns and herself wonders how to avoid institutionalizing pressures. When Spring Sessions started, she says, it was planned as a one-off event, and not initially intended to become an annual program. Yet Spring Sessions persisted because there seemed to be a continued need for it. Now, in the program’s fourth year, Khasawneh wonders how long it should continue. How will she know when it has run its course?

And yet, she takes issue with the idea that this edition of Spring Sessions is somehow at odds with past practice. She insists that the program’s moves into Luweibdeh and the Museum do not break with the program’s mission but are rather logical extensions of a long practice of exploration.

“Over the years, we have been mapping the existing infrastructure that is available to artists in Amman,” she says, “and collaborating with different individuals, institutions, and spaces, from the small carpenter workshop across the street to the municipality’s gallery space in culture street, negotiating our position within those institutions…Our position from the beginning was to work on building connections and help develop a more collaborative community.”

Also, the program’s urban engagement has always been part of a deliberate and careful exploration of the artists’ place in the city, both with regards to institutions and with regards to a broader public. Activities have aimed to build conversation and collaboration in ways that connect artists, many of whom often feel alienated from broader Amman, into the urban fabric.

Working towards such goals can lead artists to question which strategies are most effective for building such connections. When is it useful to be aggressive, and when is it more effective to work from within the system?

“If an artist just forces his message on the people, they aren’t going to accept it,” said Spring Sessions participant Mohammad Tayyeb in a workshop last fall, arguing that, in order to connect with the public, artists need to be willing to listen and build through conversation, “so that nobody is forcing anybody.”

Khasawneh likewise cautions that being too aggressive can be counterproductive. She describes Spring Sessions as a kind of “trickster” which “tests the limits” of what it is possible to do within a “grey area” on the edge of social and institutional constraints. “You can do more than you think,” she says.

There is a prominent debate in the theory of contemporary art, which questions how artists can best promote social change. Should artists attempt to confront and shock their audience, to jolt the audience into accepting new worldviews (what is known as “dissensus”)? Or should they attempt to work with their audience, collaboratively building new meanings (a process of “consensus”)? Tayyeb’s comments articulate a consensus model. Khasawneh suggests that Spring Sessions could tread a middle ground. Is it possible to be unusual in ways that provoke conversation rather than confrontation? Is it possible to make something radical while working within existing structures?

The artwork in this year’s Spring Sessions exhibition addressed themes of place and belonging, social connection, gender identity, and selfhood. Such themes highlight the extent to which the program targets a particular type of artist: young creatives slightly uncomfortable with their fit into society at large, who often try to use art to figure out what it would mean to belong.

Mohammad Tayyeb’s audio/video installation piece spoke about gender duality, describing how his pregnant mother had not known if he would be born male or female: “We hid our sex between our legs.” So she bought him both pink and blue baby outfits, sometimes dressing him in the pink when the blue was being washed. The installation describes how even after that, the speaker remained plural, male-female. His installation expands on this to describe a universe of ambiguities which seem to disappear as the world takes shape.

Yazan Ashqar’s artistic book and performance “How to Leave,” presented a poignant meditation on what it means to belong in a place. Ostensibly a manual for preparing to leave a place, the book guides its readers to confront the fact of their absence: to walk outside their house, turn around and stare back at the door; to make lists of the sounds and tastes which they will leave behind; to think of the books that they acquired but never read; to immerse in final sensations of friends, furniture, and hobbies, to become deeply aware of what they will never see again. Ultimately such a guide creates a deep experience of one’s presence in a place, and a deep sadness at the prospect of one’s absence.

Nour Mujahed used semi-architectural drawings to comment on the oppressiveness of the built environment. Tala Abdulhadi inscribed memories onto photographs of her grandmother’s house. Magda Magdy’s video piece discussed feeling like a stranger to both your country and yourself. Ameer Masoud sorted the items from his mother’s silverware drawer, trying to find a spot where his complex personality fit within the order she had cultivated. Both Fadi Zumot and Ahmad Salameh explored the (im)possibilities of coexisting with others, Zumot with a five-person outfit which required all wearers to coordinate their actions, Salameh by inviting people to spend the night together in a seven-person bed, complete with group-pajama, which he set up on the gallery floor.

While some notable pieces do not fit easily into these themes,  many of these artworks expressly grapple with what it means to belong, or with how to find one’s place in society today. Such works seek an engagement. They need to open to an audience, to invite contemplation and conversation about what Jordan is and how people fit in.

Such an engagement is not easily generated. Within the museum walls, the artworks could easily appear cut off and lifeless, distant from the society which they seek to address. But to push such difficult themes forward too aggressively could result in straightforward rejection, rendering the artwork meaningless. The playful outreach which permeated this exhibition may have hit a sweet spot, offering a warm invitation to join in, without being overbearing.

Late on the second day, a DJ performance of sampled sounds by Adam Chad Brody and Ahmad Barakat turned into an impromptu Spring Sessions dance party in the gallery entrance. Passing cars slowed down to peer into the gallery and see what was going on. One participant, watching from across the street, commented on how happy the sight made him, “these museums, although they are public, or government owned, always feel so cold. I never felt like I had a claim to them, or a right to them, until now.”

As the artists hung out on the museum stairs late into the night, they waved at passing cars and attempted to draw in new visitors. At about four in the morning, a car full of young men drove past several times, checking out the spectacle, before deciding to park their car and accept the invitation into the museum. They walked around the exhibit, carefully looking at each piece before joining the artists on the museum steps, where they sat and talked for another 2 hours. These visitors shared their reactions to the artwork. They were especially struck by Mohammad Tayyeb’s piece and the questions which it raised.

With Superfine Art, Spring Sessions attempted to tread a line that worked between defying the museum and affirming it. After the exhibition, this boundary remains ambiguous, but is highlighted as productive terrain for engagement.