The Venice Questionnaires #26 – Hammad Nasar

Rock, paper, scissors – the curator of the UAE Pavilion on engaging with 'play'

Mohamed Yousif, Al Shawahid, 1981 (refabricated 2017), handmade aluminum spoons, wood, mirror, plaster, emulsion paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE Nujoom Alghanem, Between Heaven & Earth, the Body I Borrowed, 1994, text, documentary photographs of performance, sound (rerecorded 2017). Courtesy the artist Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, Untitled (detail), 2017, ink, collage, binder, gouache, watercolour and gesso on printed paper, A 30-page series, 23 x 34 cm (each). Courtesy National Pavilion UAE Vikram Divecha, Degenerative Disarrangement, 2013, interlocking pavement bricks; dimensions variable. Relocated from Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, Dubai, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai Lantian Xie, Hassan's Ashtray, 2014, ashtray, ashes, cigarette butts, lighter. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening (13 May – 26 November). 

Hammad Nasar is the curator of the United Arab Emirates Pavilion. The pavilion is in the Arsenale, Sale d'Armi.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

This year’s UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is titled Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play and will explore a strand of artistic practice in the UAE through the analogy of ‘play’. It is organised in three parts:

An exhibition as a conversation between multiple art practices spanning three decades. It will spill out into Venice with things that happen and could happen at different times in different places. Nujoom Alghanem, Sara Al Haddad, Vikram Divecha, Lantian Xie and Dr. Mohamed Yousif will create new work, reimagine lost works and develop previous projects.

A publication as an additional site of the exhibition, presents three new commissioned artistic projects by: Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rahmanian; Deepak Unnikrishnan; and WTD. And venture beyond regimented definitions of art – seeping into cricket, music, folklore, heritage and social clubs.

The programme as an invitation to institutions to develop strands of activities that reflect their own interests but also extend the ideas explored in the exhibition. The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi, and Central Saint Martins (CSM), University of Arts, London are the first to develop programme proposals. Others will follow, including the final commission of the UAE Pavilion – a programme stream devised by artist Hind Mezaina to take place in the UAE during the run of the exhibition.

So across the three ‘sites’ you will see nine artists who work through paradox, analogy, appropriation, repetition, symmetry, rhyme, rhythm, and, occasionally, even reason. They make artistic gestures that are whimsical, imaginative, follow arbitrary rules, and are open to chance. They use ‘play’ in the business of living a life; of making a home.

How is making a show for the Venice Biennale different to preparing a ‘normal’ exhibition? Or another biennial?

The expectations and challenges of making an exhibition at Venice are unique. First challenge: to deal productively with the idea of ‘representation’. Second, the logistics and site of Venice make it an ‘extreme sport’ version of exhibition making.

Finally, and lets make no bones about it, there is a lot at stake – all those involved (the artists, curator, designers…) are keen to make a good fist of it.

There are a huge number of biennial exhibitions across the world nowadays. Do you think the Venice Biennale still has a special status, and why?

While there are hundreds of biennales around the world, Venice retains a distinctive position in the artworld’s imagination. It remains a touchstone – where artists and practices can be shared with new audiences literally coming from all corners of the world – something that the presence of national pavilions encourages; everyone comes to cheer ‘their side’.

In this context, the opportunity offered by the Venice Biennale is different for the UAE, a young nation with a developing art scene, than it would be for say France or Germany – countries with well-developed art ecologies with a dense network of institutions that can tell complicated stories through the vehicle of the visual arts.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or is it problematic?

I am honoured to be curating the UAE’s Pavilion at Venice. But I am not a UAE citizen, and I don’t live there, so your question doesn’t carry the same charge for me personally. Given the current global debates on immigration and the rising sense of nationalism, I do think the question of representation and who can ‘represent’ the nation remains loaded. There are artists in my project that are not UAE nationals, but have made it their home. Making their stories and practices visible, as part of an expanded ‘nationalilty’ is, in my opinion, timely and necessary.

The Venice audience is a diverse group. Who is most important to you? The artist peers, the gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening, or the general public which visits in the months that follow?

I am interested in the reactions of the curious – wherever they may live: within or outside the artworld.

Did you visit the last Venice Biennale? What’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

I did visit the last biennale. My experience of the Armenian Pavilion – the journey, the site, the work – is still vivid. As is Mika Rottenberg’s wonderful NoNoseKnows in the Arsenale. As part of a site visit in preparation for the upcoming exhibition, I saw the 2016 edition of the Architecture Biennale (my first) and was quite moved by how generous it was in its conception. It felt like a giant distributed toolkit for inhabiting the earth. I was inspired.

How does a having a pavilion in Venice make a difference to the art scene in your home country?

In my studio visits and conversations with artists, critics, curators and supporters in the Emirates, I noted that even those who have never been to Venice had a detailed knowledge of the UAE’s previous pavilions through publications and discussions. This suggests to me that the UAE’s presentation at Venice is of great importance to the Emirates’ artistic community as a vital contribution to their collective conversation.

Participating at the Venice Biennale is also an opportunity for the UAE to engage in a dialogue with the world, focused on artistic practices emerging from its uniquely multicultural scene.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

Despite the mayhem, I always enjoy Venice and see as much as I can. Beyond the usual delights of the Arsenale and the Giardini, I am intrigued by the plans for the Iraq pavilion, titled ArchaicPaolo Colombo and Tamara Chalabi are presenting eight modern and contemporary artists in conversation with 40 artefacts from the Iraq Museum.

Click here to read all the Venice Questionnaires so far

5 May 2017