“Ways of Seeing,” the new exhibit at the New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery (NYU AD), is concerned less with expanding your visual understanding than it is with reminding you of the complexity of perception. Certainly, some of the 41 playfully curated artworks do challenge your eyes. Some, perhaps literally do that, like Dali’s Les Yeux Surréalistes. The bronze sculpture sits in an alcove embraced by soft golden light, looking like the decorative figurines – “furniture art” some might say – that you find in the lobby of upscale hotels. That is, until you notice those blue enamel dots are not decorative lacquer, but 27 expressive eyes, their gazes judging you. So, who’s the artwork here? Who is the object of the gaze?
Dali is not the only major artist that curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath have gathered for the exhibition. Walking through the transformed gallery space you discover the works of several genre-defining artists. For instance, there is James Turrell. An exactly 5 by 5-meter room was constructed to house Alta (pink), his light sculpture. Around the corner from this intangible structure hangs a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman, rendered in the style of an American presidential portrait. If you are unfamiliar with these names, don’t worry; this exhibit is still for you.
The exhibit “Ways of Seeing” borrows its title from writer and art critic John Berger’s famed BBC series and companion text, where he makes the argument that art becomes stilted when it is solely the province of the elite. Taking a page from Walter Benjamin, the philosopher who was part of the Frankfurt School movement of 20th century critical theory, Berger argues that reproducing an artwork, changing its context, or placing it next to art depicting new ideas creates new avenues for interpretation.
Berger’s ideas are present in the trajectory of Bardaouil and Fellrath’s exhibition. The show was commissioned by Arter – Space for Art, in Istanbul. It then travelled to Brussels to the Boghossian Foundation, finally making its way to the NYUAD Art Gallery. Indeed, one might see in its journey a form of shifting contexts.
But not only does the exhibit’s national and cultural context change with each move, the arrangement of the artworks itself changes with every new location. Maya Allison, NYUAD Art Gallery’s chief curator, explained the math: 30 percent of the artwork changes with every gallery move. Fellrath noted when the exhibit was in Brussels, it included pieces involving TinTin, the famed cartoon adventurer. In Abu Dhabi, we have a Hassan Sharif piece, Knots, placed almost as a calm-inducing safety measure, in case the piercingly loud James Webb audio installation next to it startles you off balance.
Alas, although those knots in Sharif’s installation look inviting, they’re not meant to be touched. Well, maybe. There is no sign explicitly warning fingers away from the enticingly supple and tactile rope installation. But we all know we’re not allowed to touch art, right? Of course, the question is whether art sits unchanged or is meant to interact with the viewer, with each encounter meant to create a different reaction.
Hans-Peter Feldman’s One on One (Milky Way) raises that very question. The provoking installation is tucked in a corner of the gallery, easily missed. Once in the space, you are confronted by an open box of Milky Way chocolate candy resting on a tall platform, looking very out of place. It’s only the bronze notice plate with a bold “NO” guarding the box that signals it’s a work of art. And of course, the context of its presence in a gallery, which is the exact notion Feldman’s piece is challenging.
Knowing that I was engaging with a work of art did not make my experience of it any clearer. Was the “NO” supposed to mean: no, don’t touch this chocolate; no, don’t eat chocolate; or just no, with no object attached to it? If the former, is this commentary inciting me to engage with the chocolate? Or would that then alter the piece, my human impulse ruining the work for all? I’d like to think Feldman would be pleased with my subject-object dilemma, and I certainly left reexamining the constructs I too readily take for granted.
With a lot of current conceptual artwork being reduced to #instagramcool, it’s heartening to see an exhibit curated with works that question you. Make sure you question the works as well; all of them demand a second look. “Ways of Seeing” almost demands that you visit over and over again, to allow the minute and subtle alterations in your personal circumstance each day to change how you perceive the pieces.
Alexa Mena is a multidisciplinary artist and media editor for livehealthy.ae. When she's not writing for livehealthy, she's thinking about design and how it shapes the human experience.