‘A Guest Without a Host is a Ghost’

At the May 6 opening of the exhibition at Beirut, the power was cut but she felt, in the gentle glow of candles, the remains of anxiety around artworks just hung. A whiff of small relief that it came together just before the audience arrived. But also a shiftiness in a few sets of eyes like maybe it’s not all just right quite yet.

She sat to listen to an introduction by the organizers.

“A Guest Without a Host is a Ghost,” organized by Beirut, brought 30 artworks from the Paris and San Francisco-based Kadist collection to Cairo for a nine-month residency. For the first month, an exhibition was held simultaneously across three Cairo institutions: Beirut, Contemporary Image Collective and Townhouse.

She’s been thinking, since, about the source of her feeling of being short-changed.

There had been expectation. Most probably because of the simple fact of the arrival of contemporary artworks deemed of unique value. The idea of artworks in their original form suddenly became something to get excited about. Thirty carefully selected from 900 for a uniquely curated collection. A private collecting institution not only convinced to lend works, but get artists’ permissions, bring works out of storage, pack them and find means of their coming into Cairo to be displayed humbly in local institutions. 

Such a collaboration, the building of trust between Kadist and a young art space that can offer little by way of security, gave the impression of being an impressive feat. Co-curating and sharing the artworks between several Cairo institutions seemed another achievement, an honorable attempt to distribute their educational and cultural value. To open them up to these different audiences was a smart idea, naturally.

She imagined a respect for art, a mutual belief that artworks should be shared, allowed to grow, take on new meanings and situations. She expected that the works, the space and the context would support each other and the audience, that it would be something beautiful to enter the presence of that precise thing that she wants from art: Works living again, vulnerable and open, about to become a part of a different discourse.

She did think the artworks were a fine selection that stood strong individually, alone. This review is about her trying to understand what happens when an exhibition loses sight of the fact that it is an experience in a space.

“The project speaks to the absence of collections and museums dedicated to contemporary art in Egypt,” the press release said.

At the talk on the opening night, she thought there were missed opportunities. There was much more to say around, for example, why collections are important, particularly here and now. Why hold a collection — for developing a market, for a more sustainable economy for artists, for recognition, or for history making? What about this particular collection, and this selection, would open a bridge to talk about things in Cairo that would have been otherwise difficult to address — such as patronage? Bits of these points were addressed but not delved into. And she felt the audience was mostly left unsatisfied. They felt the details didn’t matter, would pass unnoticed, and by extension, that they didn’t matter, though they had come with respect and trust to experience a good show and thoughtful conversation.

Indeed, the main problem she found with the exhibition was a lack of respect for space and an overemphasis on narrative (even if the latter also fell flat at the talk).

A few days later a 2004 essay by critic Boris Groys popped up on her computer from a clutter of unclosed tabs. The title was interesting and she decided to read it: “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Art Work to Art Documentation.” It spoke directly to the problems she seemed to have with “A Guest.”

Points of access

In the exhibition there were many appropriated artworks and documentations — of a past or potential event. These are complex to appreciate, especially in a show thinking through collections and patronage. Often they point to a particular time and space, and reduce constellations of meaning to minor formal gestures that even in their original contexts can be difficult to read. A background of shared understandings (of moments in art history) may be needed. And when they are out of their context this becomes more difficult. Further, if also subtly beautiful, such works are often of mundane materials and appearance. So out of their original art world, there needs to be a sensitive curatorial hand, a desire to make them live in their new space and time, create points of access. In a show emphasizing the importance of the presence of original art, documentation art seemed a daring choice, particularly when accompanied by (in most cases) modest installation conditions.

Though normally quite taken by documentation as art, she was disappointed.

She was disappointed by Jiri Kovanda’s photocopies that detail in writing an action or thought along with a black-and-white photograph (“Jiri Kovanda vs. rest of world. A solo show”), irregularly pinned in a corner at Townhouse and crowded by another work of his: “Untitled” (1992), three photographic film boxes atop each other in a glass case on a plinth. The room was dedicated to Kovanda, yet she felt the works were truncated. Their low and apparently arbitrary positioning, as well as the lighting, made them difficult to read. She found Ryan Gander’s nearby video, “Things that mean things and things that look like they mean things” (2008), installed at an uncomfortable height, uninviting, impermeable almost.

At Beirut, she encountered the Atlas Group’s seminal inkjet print Missing Wars; File: AGA_Fakhouri; Date: 1975-1991/1999 on its own at the top of the stairs, isolated from the other works below, placed as if a poster from an old show at Beirut. Equally severed was Carey Young’s “Report of the legal subcommittee” (2010), a lush blue-and-white print of a map of stars and a typed transcript of a United Nations meeting to devise a legal definition for outer space. It was on the ground floor, near but doing little for the Propeller Group + Superflex’s documentary, projected low on a shipping crate, on how some Southeast Asian porcelain came to be part of a historical museum collection in Holland (“FADE IN: EXT. STORAGE – CU CHI – DAY,” 2010).

Maybe it was a lack of logic or rhyming between the works to move her from one to another. And that the works’ awkward installation killed her ability to imagine their relationships because she was too hung up on the difficulty of entering them individually.

But at CIC, Hans-Peter Feldman’s found hat and photograph (“Hat with photograph,” 2007), stood poetically between Akram Zaatari’s “Objects of Study/The Archive of Studio Shahrazade/Hashem El Madani/Studio Practice” (2006), photographs taken in 1948 of people acting out fantasies of being cowboys or dancers, acquired by Zaatari through the Arab Image Fountain. Aurelien Froment’s nearby “Theatre de poche” (2008) was an exuberant video of a magician against a black background presenting an archive of images of archaic objects to a playful soundtrack that echoed through CIC’s rooms. These three very different works clearly played off each other and the context. Perhaps the familiarity of Zaatari’s images made it easier to read them all. Perhaps it was the better lighting and installation, or a more straightforward line of thought between the works.

She tried to pinpoint why, overall, she felt expelled by the spaces. The feeling that either they’re dead, she’s dead, or the work is dead. There seemed to be a lot of value given to these works, and she’s told they are important. Did she not understand them? Or, and this is what she has come to believe, was thoughtless curating the problem?

She searched the booklet for a note on the thread between the shows, or on how artworks were selected for each institution, but couldn’t find anything. She later questioned a Beirut curator and learnt that each show was thematic in relation to its institutional context. The works at Beirut, by dealing with collaboration and the endless bureaucracy to register things impossible to register, echoed Beirut’s role in this cross-institutional exhibition as the provider of infrastructure. At Townhouse, given its history of exhibition making and location, the works questioned what’s real, and the status of art and artistic practice. At CIC, an institution concerned with the photographic and moving image, they dealt with the role of images and of the artist in relation to them: as interventionist, as magician, as archivist.

She wondered why this was not shared with the audience. It would have been generous, an access point, because theoretically it made sense. Knowing this information, she returned to the exhibition to see if it made a difference to her reception of the works. She found it did not.

Out-arting the art with artful narrative

“The soul of the artwork is not in its body; rather, the body of the artwork is always found in its aura, in its soul,” says Groys, citing Walter Benjamin. “The aura is the relationship of the artwork to the site in which it is found — the relationship to the external context.”

“This space is not abstract or neutral but is itself a form of life,” he says, specifically of art documentation. “The siting of documentation in an installation as the act of inscription in a particular space is thus not a neutral act of showing but an act that achieves at the level of space what narrative achieves at the level of time: the inscription in life.”

In other words, aura is situated in space and time, in a relationship to context. Achieving aura requires time spent with art in space. An original artwork on show is not enough to experience something special about it. The space has to host it, ground it, give it its soul, inscribe it in time and place, in a new history.

The premise of “A Guest” was based on the inability often to go see art elsewhere. And, as outlined in the talk, artworks gain value as they travel, because they get thicker, layered with more meaning, sedimenting over time. The accumulation as a work gets situated in new contexts is something that happens through good hosting. That is to say, through really re-territorializing a work outside its original location of making.

But in “A Guest,” if anything, she felt the artworks were losing value because they were not re-territorialized. Time was clearly not spent with the works in space, so they felt ahistorical and mostly lifeless. They did not point to each other or the context apart from theoretically. They kept to themselves, were difficult to enter. They did not settle into shared reference.

This was a disservice to the works and to the audience.

She came to believe the root of the problem was a heavy reliance on narrative — an inscription in time able to make something artificial appear real, or dead appear living. And she believes this was possible because much of Beirut’s audience is de-territorialized, or at least the way they experience its space is offsite, and purely in time (online, for example). Not the kind of time in space with things, letting them settle in. She found this discomfiting in a show about artworks’ materiality and hosting, thus the experience of them onsite. It was for the present, not the absent audience.

In Cairo people or art institutions often tell her they have run themselves ragged working day and night in the lead up to an event and that even though it’s not perfect it’s the best they could do. Although she knows that’s true — it is hard to put up shows here and there is overwork and exhaustion — she feels that too often this overwork wards off critical debate. And, to echo what a friend told her lately, when you don’t give something the time it needs and expect it to finish with lesser attention than it deserves, it’s not overworking, it’s laziness. 

Things become experimental trials or copies, to learn from, of the real things that happen elsewhere, or the best we could do in the time we had. That means nothing feels real or valuable. But there’s too much at stake in expelling people from exhibition-going; every visitor’s physical presence must be dealt with preciously, supported, because Cairo’s is a small art scene bordering on extinction. And support here is a simple act of time and care. So perhaps a first step to a debate around collections, patronage and art is to be more accountable in how one sets up an exhibition in space, to make it the best you can, not in one’s imagination, but experientially, to make sure it resonates, to have enough to share with your audience. She thinks it’s possible. And with these artworks, given time.

This also made her wonder: Beirut is being acknowledged as a collecting institution, and it’s given exceptions for the educational nature of its trials and errors. A sister space across the Nile, Nile Sunset Annex, is also open to trial and error in artworks shown and in itself as an institution. NSA has a collection of local contemporary art, shown in an exhibition one month before, and is thus a local collecting institution. Why did Beirut fail to acknowledge NSA at both the talk and later conversations? Is NSA delegitimized because of its heightened experimental nature? Is it a difference of legal status or in the tenor of how it considers itself as an institution? What is the difference, besides narrative?

But entering “A Guest Without a Host is a Ghost,” she felt, narrative doesn’t cut it — the value, the appreciation of an art object comes from knowing how to make it live in space. Out-arting the art with artful narrative does not, ultimately, do anything for the actual artwork in space. The power and politics of space and the body and how it senses and knows must be respected. And sadly, maybe with the exception of CIC, the artworks, spaces and viewers did not get that. Too much felt ghostly still. But there is still a chance to try again, if the audience will allow it. 

Malak Helmy 

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