Creative Politics in the White Cube?

The young girl in the black, full-length veil pushes the button on the tape recorder, Britney Spears’ hit song, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” is heard, and the girl starts dancing. At first you might think that the idea is that she’s pretending to be one of the veiled belly dancers in high heels who perform in the tacky bars in downtown Cairo, but this notion is vanquished as soon as she starts singing into her “microphone”: a plastic automatic rifle. She sings with a fragile, uncertain voice that can hardly be heard over the tape recorder, but her intonation is tough. The young girl is exhibiting the performance piece as an artist from the UK at the 9th international Biennial of Cairo, December 2003. She was educated in Bristol, and according to rumor, has dual citizenship, as so many other Egyptians do, and she received a special invitation to the biennial. Next to her is an additional work she was exhibiting: a “Rescue Kit” from the United Nations in which she put different American icons, like a hamburger bag from McDonalds, and so on. She sent a replica of the work to Kofi Annan, asking him what he thought of it. The work was presented at the Biennial with a copy of the poorly spelled letter. One can argue about the artistic quality of her work, but she is undeniably pissed off and politically engaged.

The very same day that I arrive at this Third World country, having been transported by a limo to my suite at the five star hotel in Cairo I’ll be staying at, I can see on CNN that the resolution was passed by the UN against the wall that Israel is building against the Palestinians. The next feature is about the increase of anti-Arabism in the USA, and in another part of the town peace talks among the Palestinian factions ended without any agreements. It is obvious how every truth is colored. Against this backdrop, a large art biennial will open in Cairo, and I’m invited as an international representative in the jury who will decide who of a total of 220 artists from 55 countries deserve prizes. The invited “art experts” are from Italy, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Nigeria, Sweden, and there are two representatives from Egypt. There are two representatives and not one from Egypt because the Nigerian participant, who was in fact supposed to act as the president of the jury didn’t show up, and is replaced by an Egyptian. Egypt thus has two votes, but if there is a tie, the president’s vote counts double, meaning that in the event of a tie Egypt has three votes. The day before the opening Saddam is captured.

To have grown up in a safe country like Sweden whose foreign policy has always been one of “understanding,” “mediation” and “benevolence,” with a government whose catchwords have been “vård, skola, omsorg” (approximately: “care, education, concern”) in which we have been the “best in the world,” has created a distance in the minds of Swedes, including myself, towards the though reality of others, but also towards our own reality, the reality of our not always having been the “best in the world” which we certainly have not been, especially not now. It has created a distance towards war, poverty and all other sorts of bad things that haven’t been in our backyard for quite some time. We live in an exclusive bubble of political correctness – and this is no doubt a fantastic privilege, but perhaps it is not always so useful for us. Our naiveté, coupled with some sort of self-conceitedness, makes us the perfect target for the kind of childish rhetoric that the Israeli ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, gave expression to at the opening of the exhibition Making Differences at the Museum of History in Stockholm, where he deliberately vandalized a piece of art. Whether or not he was carrying out a mission from his government – merely a piece on an international game at the highest level - can only be speculated on, but one thing is however clear: he regarded the piece as something fundamentally political. When he not only ceded to himself the authoritative voice of interpretation of the piece, but also took the liberty to ruin it, he was indeed acting with the political intent that he judged the situation to require. In this political act, he also was conceited enough to censure the piece, indeed, to diminish freedom of expression, all in the name of the Israeli state. 

In our naïve world, there are certain things we think of as self-evident, such as freedom of expression, the various ways, mass media and others, available to us to be critical of the governing forces through mass media, and that our opininons will be heard and treated with respect. That Sweden is one of the best places to perform this sandbox critique, to try to point out in a serious form of anti-Semitism in oe of the most “tolerant and benevolent” countries like Sweden is easy to understand from this perspective. Speaking of “reconciliation,” “mediation” and “understanding” – trying to be everyone’s buddy – becomes a declaration of war since “you’re either with us, or against us,” to use Bush’s rhetoric. 

The exhibition sites for the Cairo Biennial are stuffed with art, the temporary walls of the exhibition are askew, and the art is crooked and in som cases has been broken during transport yet not been repaired. The overall theme for the Biennial, or its “manifesto,” as they say there, is very political and is a protest against the madness of war. It is about hope that art, and the power of mythology can help in the opposition to war, an to the globalization that tries to manipulate the world’s imagination with the help of science and the power of computers (!). It is also a desire to prevent the manipulation of the human body. To quote from the manifesto: “We want to rescue wombs from the onslaught of stored sperms.” Most of the participating artists come from the Middle East, but according to the regulations of the Biennial, an occupying country cannot participate and therefore Israel is not represented. Gien this, it might seem a bit odd that Paul Pfeiffer from USA nonetheless can participate. However Pfeiffer’s videos are definitely among the best installed and well presented “pavilions” at the Biennial, and his videos are really slick. It is very easy to favor Pfeiffer since nothing else really resembles the kind of art I am normally engaged in – the kind of art that is widely circulated in museums, kunsthalles and galleries in the Western World. Or rather, if I may correct myself, a lot of the art from the Middle East does have great similarities to Western Art, but more like the type of expressionist, impressionist or abstract painting and sculpture that are no longer really within the art styles that interests me. 

Portugal, Brazil, Bosnia, Mexico, Italy, Belarus, Qatar, Denmark, Mauritius… A lot of countries from the “periphery” are represented in Cairo, and there are few names that I’ve seen before – to tell you the truth, it is only the art of Pfeiffer that I’ve seen before and remembered. With the whole debate of globalization and how the art world has managed to include even the most peripheral spots within the system of arts with axes like London, New York and Paris in the back of the head, it is easy to say that most of this discourse is only politically correct prattle, it may be wishful thinking, but all the same it is just prattle. To pretend to be an “art expert” in this context feels rather silly, and I’m a bit embarrassed about my background and lack of knowledge. Being attended to the degree I was by representatives from the Ministry of Culture feels also somewhat importunate, and they soon get to know me as a bit obstinate and headstrong when I insist on not always accompanying them on the events they arranged for us long before. I “escape” to meet people from the “other” art world and to attend the openings of the private galleries’ joint venture, “Photo Cairo.” The Ministry of Culture has managed to arrange the award ceremony and the dinner for all of the artists participating in the biennial at the very same time as the openings of “Photo Cairo,” as if by accident.

The great rift between the official art world of the state and the private one have been written about before, in Site #6, but in short: the governmental represents an older and nationalistic point of view on what art is and how it should be presented while the private scene is opening up towards that which is “globalized,” and to the world outside, as well as the smaller world close by.

In this context, “private” does not necessarily mean “commercial” in the traditional sense, although the private galleries are of course selling the art that they display. For example Townhouse is run with help from different funding sources, for instance the Swedish government, via SIDA. The state often accuses the private galleries of being lead by the nose by the U.S. or alternatively by Israel, and the private galleries accuse the state-run galleries of being corrupt and exclusive. Numerous rumors flourish about different actors’ backgrounds or hidden agendas, and, at first, one rejects them out of hand as paranoid conspiracy theories, but astonishingly many prove true, even after their sources are criticized. Few, if anyone, manages to go between the two different worlds, since one would almost get labeled as anti-Egyptian and traitorous to be exhibiting in some of the private galleries. The members of the jury are never informed about what is happening in the “other” art world, of course. At the Townhouse I feel at “home” – Hassan Khan is performing the tabla dubb in the garage just behind the gallery, and after attending some other openings we all end up at the Jagz club drinking beer. None of the younger artists can live off their art, but some are starting to win increased attention in Europe. For instance, there were three younger Egyptian artists represented in the Arsenale of the Venice Biennial in 2003. 

No artists represented at the cairo Biennial or other representatives from the official art world come to Townhouse or join the bar-hopping afterwards, and none of the artists in the Townhouse crowd could imagine exhibiting at the Cairo Biennial. There is a sharp line between the two worlds. I might be imagining things, but I feel like I am under suspicion by my friends of having crossed the line and entered “the other side” and being on the payroll of the state. I believe, however, that, as an “independent and headstrong Nordic curator” who could be “unbribable” (or at least look like unbribable), I am a kind of ace up the state’s sleeve. 

But it isn’t it simply that it is I who am fooling myself when I “rule out” the art at the Biennial? Am I not only hopelessly entangled in my own preconceptions and flagrant prejudices when I cannot find more than just a few interesting pieces of art among the selection of more than 200 exhibited at the biennial? Isn’t it that my “feeling of coming home” at the Townhouse is all about ignorance of the “Other?” Yes, that is exactly how it is, and I know it. Regardless, I am invited simply because I come from the Nordic region, and that is also the reason why I am placed in a political game and I must walk this walk. I do not know if some of the works have been censored, I don’t know how many have been rejected an on what grounds. But I do know that it does indeed occur often In various state contexts. That the minister of culture is an artist himself does not seem to be of help – quite the contrary. When the minister opens the Biennial he arrives with an entourage of no less than 17 armed guards and a swarm of TV cameras. He is very interested and the cameramen follow him close in every step he makes. Art enjoys a very high status and is worshipped in a way to which we in the North are not accustomed, and at the same time it is censored. The salons for the art are also very much reserved for the cultural elite. How does all this fit together?

The visual arts, the only real meta-structure that we have for the reality in which we live, reflect, interpret, screen and problematize that reality. We have, to put it bluntly, the art that we deserve. Sometimes the art pieces might come “too close” to reality to be able to function as a meta-structure, and the artistic result could get too explicit or uninteresting, such at the exhibition at the Museum of History in Stockholm with the artwork Snow White and the Madness of Truth that got trashed by Mazel, or at the Cairo Biennial. But incidents as the one at the museum of History prove one thing: that art has an inherent ability to make a difference that all too often is forgotten. Art that does not leave space enough for different interpretations could easily be reduced to just one opinion, one expression, and sometimes propaganda, and on the other hand, art that really does not say anything at all, and has been reduced to some sort of recreation, says more about the society in which it is being conceived than anything else. 

Slowly, very slowly, we are about to wake up even in the Nordic region from a kind of slumber, and we are starting to realize that there exists a world outside as well. The reason our bubble will burst is that we are not as prosperous as we once were, the future for Sweden for instance is not as bright as it used to be just some 20 years ago. That censorship is an abuse of power, that propaganda is dangerous stuff is not news to us, but the relatively large breathing-space in which we have been spared these things in this part of the world has made us numb, anaesthetized by our own excellence and splendor. Now, when our economic and social achievements starting to slow down, we have not really yet noticed how censorship and propaganda have already started to be used beneath the flag of democracy, or should one say “veil of ignorance?” Hyper-reality is starting catch up with us, plain and simple. It is the really reality that we are starting to experience, not only the one filtered through mass media. Could it be that after a time of hyper-hyper-reality will be created? Who knows?

To be able to problematize Hanadi Jaradat's suicidal bombing within a piece of art, a text or an installation in order to conjure up reactions, reflections and dialogue is a matter of course. When a terrible tragedy happens it has to be ventilated over and over again to be intelligible and to be prevented in the future. But it is not so self-explanatory in, for instance, the Middle East where censorship and dictatorship prevails. That Zvi Mazel believes that a government in a democratic country like Sweden has the right to interfere against an independent show in a museum “when a certain line has been crossed” and remove the installation is not really that surprising, although one would think that an official diplomat would know better. The agenda of the official art world in Egypt can be seen as equal to the actions of the Israeli diplomat. What should be noted here is how it is no longer a matter of course that this could not possibly happen in Sweden, where representatives from Christian Democrats who never actually saw the installation in question that was ruined by the Israeli diplomat, asked for the removal of the art piece, citing “ethical” reasons. 

The actions of Mazel show us very clearly how important the meta-structure called free art is, and how easily “freedom of art” can be interpreted as “freedom of expression.” The act brings matters to a head, and it is seldom seen in our backyard. That the same Israeli ambassador, when working in Cairo, visited a Swedish-Egyptian workshop and exhibition (at the Townhouse) claiming to be the U.S. ambassador, and closed off a block to traffic with armed guards is hardly much of a coincidence. He looked very closely at every piece and asked a lot of questions before disappearing, this time without destroying anything. On the other hand one could say that the piece of art at the Museum of History got its “finishing touch” by the violent Israeli attack against a representation of reality, fully sanctioned by Sharon the very next day. It feels a little bit like in the film, Seven, where the sinner’s opponent is action out the last sin that completes the piece of art, only the other way around. 

The “Britney” of the Biennial got several votes by different members of the jury, but it never received any award. Not so surprising, at least in Egypt, two Egyptians were competing for the “Grand Prize of the Biennale” after the first votes were counted. Cowardly enough I refused to vote for either of them and handed in my vote in protest.