The Marrakech Biennale’s Radical Decontextualization of International Artworks Raises Cultural, and Curatorial, Conflicts

Art Info
The Marrakech Biennale’s Radical Decontextualization of International Artworks Raises Cultural, and Curatorial, Conflicts

by Tess Edmonson – Two rows of large-scale posters with Arabic text frame the columned portico of the Théâtre Royal, the entrance to the main venue for “Higher Atlas,” the visual arts section of the Marrakech Biennale. A collective of unnamed artists, identifying themselves only as jamaat, Arabic for “group,” had selected phrases from the festival’s bilingual French-English reader, Higher Atlas: The Marrakech Biennial in Context, and posted their Arabic translations. Ostensibly created to appeal to the local public, the posters also hint at the difficulties in commissioning site-specific work from more than 35 artists who, for the most part, don’t speak Arabic—an act of performance publishing that underscores the alien presence of the posters’ authors. The text was pulled from the curatorial statement written by Berlin-based Carson Chan, one of the exhibition’s curators (along with Nadim Samman), who acknowledged that even he couldn’t read it. Whereas the Marrakech Biennale’s model of production proposes possibilities for a shared experience across heterogeneous demographics, the group’s work calls attention to certain pragmatic impossibilities inherent in such an attempt. Once inside a tiled foyer—the only area of the partially abandoned Théâtre Royal constructed to completion—visitors are confronted by Eva Grubinger’s Crowd, 2007/2012, a number of airport-style, labyrinthine belt barriers redirecting visitors’ access to the main exhibition space by forcing them to follow its circuitous design. These two pieces bookend two major curatorial conflicts that arise from bringing a Western tradition of exhibition-making to a country that lacks the cultural infrastructure to participate in it: Who to engage, and how? Beyond facile metaphors about translation, the question of access is omnipresent in the show. The curators’ decision to display the works without accompanying wall text, not even labels for the purpose of identification, made literal the radical and purposeful decontextualization of the work of mostly young European artists in an unfinished Moroccan opera house. King Hassan II commissioned the Théâtre Royal in the 1960s, after visiting the theaters of Paris. The monarch hoped for the erection of a similar institution at home, but the project was abandoned due to the lack of an audience, the fact that there was no local opera company, and the discovery that the half-completed balcony seating did not actually afford views of the stage. What remained was a cavernous concrete amphitheater whose many wings now exhibit large-scale, site-specific installations for the biennale. The parable of the failed theater provides an attractive and slightly cynical backdrop for some of the works. Andrew Ranville’s Seven Summits, 2011–12, for example, consists of seven wooden pyramids set at a scale of 1:1,000 and positioned against the highest mountains of the Atlas range, visible in the distance from this rooftop installation. Topping each pyramid is a stone that the artist retrieved after climbing the summit of each mountain and that he will return to its rightful place after the exhibition’s close. This information about the artist’s trek is mentioned online rather than on-site. Not unlike the balcony from which the stage wasn’t visible, the laborious performative gesture that makes Ranville’s piece compelling is unavailable to exhibition-goers. And just as the Théâtre Royal failed to produce an opera-seeking audience, “Higher Atlas” begs the question: For whom is this work being made?

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Posted on May 28, 2012, in Morocco News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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