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Monthly Archives: October 2016

The beauty of art can counter Islamophobia

What kind of Islamic art has the power to open American hearts and minds, at a time when Donald Trump has relaunched his attempt to ban entry from several Muslim-majority nations?

In May, a new Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, set up by Qatar’s Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, will open in downtown Manhattan. The timing is not accidental. Al-Thani is trying to humanise Islam and broaden perceptions of it in the US. He hopes the institute will “not only showcase the breadth of art and culture from the Arab and Islamic worlds, but also challenge certain stereotypes and misconceptions that hinder cross-cultural understanding”, he told the Art Newspaper.

Some hope, you may say. The depth of prejudice flaunted by Trump (and apparently shared by many of his voters) is so aggressive in its refusal to engage with a complex world that it seems unlikely to be healed by a bit of Islamic art in New York. Surely that’s the wrong location, anyway – the hearts and minds that need opening are hardly those of Manhattanites who voted Hillary.

Yet that’s too pessimistic. If there is one thing that can communicate across every border and cultural gap it is art. Where words define and definitions divide us, visual art is open, ambiguous and allows imaginations to wander in time and space. Looking at Islamic art allows non-Muslims to feel the inner beauty of beliefs and traditions we do not share, to look with “another heart / And other pulses”.

Islamic art beckons me with its beauty. The Alhambra in Granada is the most enrapturing place in the world, a palace of dreams where ethereal intricacy of design, and craftsmanship of quiet genius, turn brightly lit rooms into caverns of delight. Crystalline ceilings and harmonious tiles glitter everywhere you look, illuminated by windows filled with the Andalusian sky. It is truly like being on a cloud halfway between heaven and Earth.

Of course, it is not possible to put this medieval building in an art gallery. It is very difficult to capture the wonder of any Islamic art in a gallery. The rich, subtle weave of decorative patterns and textures that makes the Alhambra so seductive is, in fact, typical of many of the greatest Islamic artistic achievements. All-embracing abstract design, rather than the iconic “masterpiece” tradition of western art, is what gives Islamic marvels from Isfahan to Cordoba their magic. The best advice is to go to these places. A couple of days in Marrakech would do wonders for any Islamophobe – visit the gorgeous Ben Youssef madrasa and feel the warmth and gentleness of the city that surrounds it.

So the task of an Islamic art gallery is not so much to display masterpieces as to find a way to connect them in a living flow of colour and pattern that gets across the multidisciplinary ecstasy of these places. One place that does this very well is the V&A in London, which uses low lighting and aesthetically harmonious arrangements to unify ceramics, rugs, architectural fragments and calligraphy in a serene, entrancing installation. Islamic art is emotional; it changes your relationship with space and time. To open American minds, the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art needs to replicate that sublime psychological effect. It should be like wandering into the old part of an Arab city: less a museum than a medina.

Some Islamic art is more effective than others. If I was creating a dream collection, I would concentrate on the medieval caliphate of north Africa and Spain, where art reached the sumptuous yet reserved heights of delicate beauty that can still be savoured in Morocco and Andalusia. For instance, the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech is identical to the former minaret that is Seville’s cathedral bell tower. They were both built by the 12th-century Almohads. The abstract glory of north African and Andalusian art can still be savoured in portable works, though. A wooden minbar – or pulpit – carved in the medieval Moorish style would be the most enchanting object this new gallery could show.

Art being made today shares the liberating effects of medieval Islamic creations. It has been rumoured – although the IAIA says it has not yet announced its future collaborations – work may be shown by Mona Hatoum that dramatises global tensions. But is her work likely to change how Americans see Islam? I would recommend it display the much more utopian, visionary art of Waqas Khan. His huge and intricate abstract drawings share the ethereal freedom of the greatest Islamic art. Here is an artist to change your mind, your soul.

Then again, America has never lacked cultural curiosity. In the 19th century, Washington Irving wrote Tales of the Alhambra and Edgar Allan Poe raved about the intoxication of “arabesques”. Khan’s work not only evokes medieval Islam but American minimalism, too – for there are close affinities between the American feel for abstract art, from Jackson Pollock to Donald Judd, and the Islamic world, where art always has been largely abstract.

So we come back to the basic problem. The US already has great museums full of liberal good intentions. The problem is that Trump has appealed to the worse angels of our nature, and they have howled acclaim. How can beauty help when voters have shown they prefer the beast?

Damien Hirst’s Planned Venice Exhibition Targeted by Animal Rights Group

 Damien Hirst’s hotly anticipated exhibition in Venice—slated to open to the public on April 9—has been hyped by many as the YBA’s triumphant return to the limelight following several years of market and critical decline. Indeed, three weeks ahead of the opening, the artist is making headlines once again but for all the wrong reasons.

On the night of March 6, some 40 kilograms of animal dung were dumped at the doors of one of the exhibition’s venues, the Palazzo Grassi, along with a banner that read “Damien Hirst Go Home! Check Out This Work of Art! 100% Animalisti.”

Dung and banner outside the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, in protest of Damien Hirst’s upcoming exhition. Courtesy 100% Animalisti.

On its website, 100% Animalisti, the animal rights group behind the action, explained that Hirst “is one of those fake artists (like Hermann Nitsch andMaurizio Cattelan, whom we have already taken care of) who build their ephemeral fortunes on the use of animals—stuffed, quartered, often killed for the occasion—as the ‘material’ of their performances.”

Hirst’s exhibition, titled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” will be staged between the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, the two Venice venues of the François Pinault Foundation.

It’s Hirst’s first major solo show in Italy since his 2004 retrospective at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.

The ambitious project—10 years in the making according to press materials—doesn’t feature any dead sharks or other animals floating in formaldehyde, although it does entail a return to oceanic themes.

In a few images and video teasers for the show, a group of sunken sculptures covered in algae and surrounded by shoals of fish can be seen, dramatically illuminated, at the bottom of the sea.

According to iNews, a spokesman for Palazzo Grassi said that no animals would be involved in the exhibition.

But for the animal rights group, when it comes to Hirst, the damage is already done. In their statement, translated by artnet News, they said:

Hirst is famous for exhibiting slain animals […] and for the use of thousands of butterflies whose wings are torn and glued on various objects. Death and the taste of the macabre serve to attract attention. Then wealthy collectors such as Saatchi and even the prestigious Sotheby’s artificially inflate the prices of Hirst’s junk. It’s a squalid commercial operation based on death and contempt for living and sentient beings.

[Hirst’s exhibition in Venice] is a further insult to a city of Art, of REAL Art. 100% Animalisti is against the commercial use of the life of our animal siblings.

artnet News has reached out to Hirst’s studio with a request for comment, and the article will be updated accordingly

Herzog & de Meuron to Overhaul Abandoned Brooklyn ‘Bat Cave’ Into Art Center

 The Gowanus Batcave, a graffiti landmark and one of the last remaining holdouts of Brooklyn’s cycle of gentrification, will be transformed into a manufacturing center for the arts by Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architectsHerzog & de Meuron.

Commissioned by the non-profit Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation, the renovation will overhaul the 113-year-old building. Originally built as a power station, the property has fallen into disrepair since its abandonment in the 1950s. In the subsequent decades, the building has gone through several iterations as a punk hangout, rave venue, a squat for drifters and the homeless, and a graffiti temple.

Acquiring the building in a $7 million deal in 2012, the foundation has long considered what to do with it. According to the New York Times, initial designs for turning the building into artist studios were discarded in favor of creating workshops for Brooklyn’s expanding creative economy. Under the current plans, the space will house facilities for metal and woodwork, ceramics, textiles, and printing, in addition to spaces for exhibitions and events.

According to DeZeen, Herzog & de Meuron will refurbish the large turbine hall, and reconstruct the boiler house that was demolished following the building’s decommissioning.

“By preserving, restoring and reconstructing essential elements of the original Power Station, some still intact and some long-ago demolished, this design strengthens its relationship to the immediate urban context,” Ascan Mergenthaler, senior partner at the firm said in a statement. “The aim is to demonstrate sensitivity to the program by integrating existing layers seamlessly into a functional, modern manufacturing facility.”

The foundation and the architects plan to break ground on the ambitious project before the end of the year. The work is expected to take three years, with doors opening in 2020.

Katie Dixon, the foundation’s executive director said in a statement that “Herzog & de Meuron’s design approach celebrates the existing iconic Turbine Hall and maximizes the potential of the property to ensure its long-term industrial viability.”

Of course, this is the same firm that transformed London’s Bankside power station into the world renowned Tate Modern museum in 2000, and later designed the switch house expansion, which opened last year.

Scientists Decode the Mysterious ‘Mona Lisa’ Smile

 The world has long been captivated by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the subject’s enigmatic expression. Part of the famous painting’s widespread appeal is said to be its ambiguity, but participants in a new scientific study almost universally agreed that the portrait’s subject is unequivocally happy.

The study, conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Freiburg, paired a black-and-white version of the Mona Lisa with eight manipulated versions of the image in which the angle of the mouth had been adjusted so that four looked sadder and the others happier. The nine copies were shown to participants in random order 30 times, and the original painting was judged to be happy no less than 97 percent of the time.

“We really were astonished,” study co-author Juergen Kornmeier toldAgence France Presse. “There may be some ambiguity in another aspect … but not ambiguity in the sense of happy versus sad.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time that scientists have claimed to crack the da Vinci code, so to speak, when it comes to the painting’s subtle expression. In 2015, scientists from the UK’s Sheffield Hallam University claimed that Leonardo had developed a technique for an “uncatchable smile” that is visible only from certain angles, and almost seems to disappear when one looks too closely.

While the general consensus is that the Mona Lisa depicts Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant, her true identity is still subject to debate. One possibility is that the portrait is based on Salai, a young man who was Leonardo’s apprentice—and maybe even his lover. Even more out there is the notion that the artist was depicting his own mother, and that she was a Chinese slave.

There are other theories swirling around the Renaissance masterpiece as well. Just last month, for instance, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian posited that the model might have has syphilis, and that the greenish tint to her skin reflects her sickness.