Art as the politics of the impossible

Art scenes in the Arab world should reflect and anticipate the art that will emerge from these historical times.

Cai Guo-Qiang show in London
Cai Guo-Giang’s opening at Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha was impressive, but museums in Qatar should bring in artists fresh from the Arab Spring, says the author [Hamid Dabashi/ Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – If “politics is the art of the possible,” as Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) is reported to have once said, then one is tempted to retort that it is actually the politics of the impossible. 

The opening of Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art on December 4, 2011, in Doha, marked the prominent Chinese artist’s first solo exhibition in the Arab world and Mathaf’s first exhibition of a single artist. The exhibition was curated by Mathaf Director Wassan al-Khudhairi and her colleagues with impeccable taste, expansive precision and assured tenacity. The fact that the exhibition coincided with the first anniversary of the Arab Spring invites further reflection. 

Widely celebrated, exhibited and awarded around the world, Cai Guo-Qiang’s work ranges from drawing and installation to video and performance art. While living in Japan (1986-1995), he explored gunpowder as a regular feature of his work and eventually began to experiment with explosives on a massive and performative scale. In a vast open space near Mathaf on December 5, 2011, Cai Guo-Qiang staged a spectacular series of dynamite explosions marked with much noise to the delight of the few children in the audience and the bewilderment of their parents. VIP guests were offered earplugs. 

The staged site of colourful and amusing explosions in an Arab capital, far from the carnage in Libya or Syria, was uncanny. 

Exhibiting world-renowned artists like Cai Guo-Qiang with established names and repertoire is of course something that will go a long way in generating excitement and élan for the art scene of any country – but the question remains whether that is enough to fulfill art’s potential role in the Arab world’s historic moment.

Qatar, like all other Arab states in the Persian Gulf area, is sparsely populated and emotively distant from the rest of the Arab world. If you are in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Rabat or Casablanca, you feel the weight and presence of the entire Arab world.

If you are in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Rabat or Casablanca, you feel the weight and presence of the entire Arab world.

That is not true in Doha or Dubai. There is a clear disconnect and sense of vacuity in a place where power and wealth overwhelms the senses, and where foreign workers from Western Europe, North America, South Asia and South East Asia (with clearly racialised class hierarchy) decidedly mark the scene. But embedded in that vacuity is also a paradoxical sense of serenity and emotive dissonance that could perhaps inspire the rest of Arab world to find its bearing and measure its whereabouts. 

The fact that people in places like Doha or Dubai are conscious of their Arab heritage and connection is a clear indication that small countries like Qatar or UAE are well poised to perform a critical task for the rest of the Arab world. Even if Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad were the centres of art and creativity in the past, it does not mean they will continue to be in the future. That future might very well be now, and it might take place in Doha or Dubai. But how would we know? How can we measure this change? 

Plugging in to the Arab Spring

Doha is a remissive space; it is capitalism in a seashell. Because of its oil and natural gas revenues and its only 800,000 plus population (less than half of which have Qatari origins), Qatar is said to have the highest per capita income in the world. There is no sign of any revolt in the streets of Doha anytime soon. 

It is no mystery that art gravitates towards centres of power and wealth. What Cairo and Damascus today lack in resources, they make up for with the courage and imagination needed to lead the massive social uprisings that are turning the status quo of the region upside down – precisely the opposite of Dubai or Doha. While these new Arab capitals have resources, their evident wealth glosses over the trauma of change that is experienced in the Arab world.

Their vacuity is exacerbated by what is perhaps an inadvertent appealing to the globalised taste and preferences of the Western world that has successfully posited itself as “universal”, “global”, or “international”, even when the Arab world has become the ground zero of the world historic events and has begun transforming the moral map of our imagination. The ground is shifting under our feet; worlds are emerging with a heightened consciousness of what and where they are. 

Integrating the regional art scene into the global vernacular of established names that have assumed the status of a commodity is something entirely normative – but is it sufficient for a larger and more purposeful staging of contemporary Arab art? 

Art must respond to a renewed Arab consciousness that is aware of what is happening in the Arab World. Across the Western world, Tahrir Square has become a symbolic emblem of revolutionary uprising that these art scenes ought to reflect – and even anticipate – the art that will emerge from these revolutionary times. In order for this to happen, curatorial demeanours must place the Arab world in the historic contours of its encounters with European colonial modernity.     

Art must respond to a renewed Arab consciousness that is aware
of what is happening in the Arab World.

The challenge begins the day after the opening nights of art exhibitions, when the public outside the journalistic venue must emotionally compelled to attend these art events and then include them as extensions of their public space.

The question is whether these exhibits register enough with people for them to bring their families and friends for a visit when the cameras and the elite are off to the next show. These museums must be a public space, or else they will degenerate into paraphernalia of power and a mere extension of the royal court.

That public space is not just an idea – it is also a physical form. The great advantage of conceptual art lies in its thematic contemplation of form, which uses its performative disposition to challenge public consciousness and destabilise the received notions of time and space. 

A crucial curatorial task

Doha or Dubai might very well become what other great cities were to earlier generations of Arab art and culture in the 21st century. But that possibility can only be realised if these sites become more organically integrated with the rest of the Arab world where the world-historic struggles are taking place. While it is perfectly fine to bring a Chinese artist from New York to explore a new site for his art, it is at least as crucial to bring a young artist from Rabat, Tripoli, Cairo, Tunis or Damascus fresh from these historic battlefields. We need the curatorial courage and imagination not just to recognise greatness in established and celebrated artists, but also to embrace and nourish the daring imagination of still unknown artists. 

The Arab world has many wounds to heal and holes to fill in its collective memory. Monkith Saaid (1958-2008), the exquisite Iraqi sculptor who lived much of his life in exile and became one of the finest artists of his generation (but never known or celebrated as much as he deserved), is only one painful example of how the horrors of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship deeply brutalised a nation and its artistic heritage. That horrid memory now competes with the terror of the US-led invasion and occupation, both of which are yet to be remembered and forgotten in works of art that has yet to be conceived. 

The Arab world is now rising against domestic tyranny and globalised domination to restore its political dignity. This revolt is bound to have artistic manifestations for generations to come, although it may take years for that art to materialise in specific and enduring terms. But the cultivation of that eventuality has become the curatorial task of this generation.

While in Doha I met two generations of Arab intellectuals and artists; one of these is an ageing generation that lives in the memory of Nasserite socialism, and other is a younger generation deeply proud of their heritage and committed to disseminating the reality of their homelands onto a global scene. The transition from the substance of one generation to the form of the next is already taking place. 

A generation of Arab intellectuals frown upon and categorically dismiss “Khaliji” countries, citing the coagulation of massive wealth, reactionary politics and submission to US imperial domination embedded in its scattered military bases. But history is not just made by altering obstacles to a people’s destiny; it is also made by turning those obstacles against themselves – precisely what art does when left to its own devices. 

Doha or Dubai might very well become what other great cities were to earlier generations of Arab art and culture in the 21st century.

Visionary patrons of art, in tune with their own sense of the past and often the vibrations of their societies, can craft a public space where the represented past may have an unanticipated rendezvous with future. Somewhere in between, art, as the politics of the impossible, will happily meet politics as the art of the possible. Without enduring works of art, the Arab Spring will remain sterile on the political front. Without the Arab Spring, museums and exhibitions will scarcely be different from the Doha or Dubai international airport where humanity has become a gutted and shiny commercial advertisement. 

Finding the artists of the Arab Spring

Doha or Dubai might very well be to the 21st century what Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad were to earlier generations of Arab artists. But that possibility can only be realised if these new Arab capitals tune in to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. They must find the courage and the imagination to cast off Eurocentric modernity and dare to reconfigure a renewed conception of aesthetic interiority with its rooted intuition of transcendence.   

Younger generations of Arab and Muslim artists are emerging. They are deeply rooted in their lived experiences and committed to the worlds they have inherited in enduring and revolutionary terms. They need to be trusted with their emerging visions. Mathaf should not just remain in Doha and wait for artists to come; it must become peripatetic and travel to the place in which the artists are living among their people. Its magnificent collection, which displays the heritage of a world on the verge of self-transformation, must travel widely in the Arab world to reassure its visions and embolden it to tackle the future.

The whole world looks like an actual and potential military base to the US Pentagon. As it endeavours to reduce nations to military bases and camps, people need to sustain and consolidate renewed solidarity with their homelands and beyond. They need to uphold older forms of identity and solidarity and become sites of resistance to a predatory, amorphous and globalised capital. A nation’s artistic heritage must transform its anodyne realities into the aesthetic and metaphysical manifestation of their morals to reach a formal emancipation from tyranny and injustice. The freer artists are to fathom the terms of our liberation, the more open-ended the map of our revolts will be. 

If art’s role is to imagine the emancipatory politics of our impossibilities, then it must not follow but lead our revolutionary politics. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema was published by Verso in 2007. His forthcoming book, The Arab Spring: The End of Post-Colonialism, is scheduled for publication by Zed in April 2012. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.