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Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi: Is this the first time the UAE is participating in the Venice Biennale with its own pavilion? What are the benefits of limiting participation to one artist?
Mohammed Kazam: Yes, this is the first time, and making a successful bid for a pavilion in the Venice Biennale is a very important initiative on the part of the UAE. As for the individual exhibit format, many countries all over the world opt for one or two artists due to the limited space available at the Biennale; this approach makes it possible to focus on one person in particular and offer them the space they need to present their ideas to a Western audience in a thorough and nuanced manner.
The work that will be part of this exhibit, Directions 2005, is basically a re-production of the final part of the project Directions, which took five years to complete. I had presented the first part of the work, Directions 2002, at the Sharjah Biennial 2003, and I also exhibited the work in its entirety at the Singapore Biennial, under the title Directions 2002-2005.
For the Venice Biennale I am showing a project that delineates a political, social, and human discourse that transcends all geographic boundaries. Ms. Reem Fadda will be the general curator for the exhibit, and will oversee all its artistic aspects in close cooperation with me, of course.
SSQ: You’ve participated in the Singapore and Sharjah Biennials before?
MK: That coincided with the commencement of my work on the project Directions in 2002 and its completion in 2005. This project selected for the Venice Biennale is an expanded embodiment of a reduced model I had presented in 2006. In it the receiver finds himself hypothetically inside a spacious room that allows him to enter into the work and interact with it on a physical level, through still images and video motion. A specialized company will implement the project, while I will supervise the general production. And I must point out here that artists can’t produce such works by themselves; they need the support of the cultural institutions and general actors involved in the selection of the works to be included in the international biennials.
SSQ: What can we expect to see in the work and how is it related to the rest of your oeuvre?
MK: I have designed the work so that its visual exhibition unfolds within a 360 degree perspective. At the same time, I try to make use of artistic elements and methods that I’ve interacted with in the past: for more than 15 years I’ve worked with canvasses, light, color, form, and motion. Later on, I deployed these elements in experimental installations and video works, benefiting from them concretely, and I have been working on evolving them since. Continually, I present my artworks within the context of a larger project, one that sometimes takes me a year, two, or five to complete; during that time I also work on smaller projects, using the means I have at my disposal to gain support from factories, companies, and specialists.
SSQ: Will Directions 2005 remain as it was when you exhibited it in Asia, or will it undergo some changes?
MK: During production, a work may change as new ideas arise, and this is always true for me. Walking on Water is a work I produced in 2008 during my stay in the German city of Chemnitz, and I drew inspiration for it from walks I would take in the city, moving from one point to another while linking the geographical coordinates of the points I stopped at. And when I encountered the river, I asked myself, how would it be possible for me to walk on the river? I went back to all the geographical coordinates I had preserved via GPS, and I performed a type of calculation: How many ones do I have? How many zeros? How many degrees? I set up a workshop for children in this city and we went together to an area with many leaves, and on these leaves we drew the coordinate numbers, then we threw the leaves into the river and let them swim. To be sure, we were dealing with an impossible scenario, but the idea behind this type of work is to raise one’s mode of thought as an important topic in its own right, and I always want viewers to visually discern a potential mode of thought and examine it. It’s impossible for someone to walk on water, but how can we make that possible conceptually?
SSQ: What’s the hidden significance of the national borders that you address in Directions 2005? Are these borders more than an expression of the separation between one region and another or between one human being and another?
MK: The purpose is to shatter the dominant perception imposed by these artificial borders and to enable human beings to see horizons that lie beyond their confined milieus, where they fight each other without justification over things that are worthless, in my opinion. If it’s within the power of this art piece to break out and swim freely everywhere, why can’t human beings find a suitable way to dissolve borders, to find a permanent solution to their perpetual strife? This work expresses this idea.
SSQ: Have we been thoroughly dominated by borders established by foreign political powers, or is our imagination in the UAE and the larger region greater than these artificial borders?
MK: Well, we are certainly engaging with these borders. I try in this work to present the general scene in front of me, which extends beyond the borders of our region. There is a problem related to the potential role of the artist as one who generates solutions for unresolved issues and offers ready solution for dissolving borders. Some artists think their role is to arrive at hypotheses—hypotheses that assume a subjective character. Others artists say: “We aren’t concerned with offering any solutions. Why should art bear the responsibility of offering these hypotheses to begin with?”
SSQ: Despite your youth, you are among the pioneering artists in the UAE. Could you describe how this came about?
MK: The first generation of visual artists in the UAE emerged between 1969 and the mid-‘70s. Some artists headed abroad to study in Egypt, Iraq, Europe, and other areas. When they returned in the early ‘80s, they established the Emirates Fine Arts Society, whose membership included Hassan Sharif and Abd al-Rahim Salim, among others, and a handful of Arab artists such as Yasser Dweik and the late Sudanese artist Farouq Khadir.
I joined them in 1984, when I was 14 years old. The society would organize special courses in theories of representation and convene daily meetings at the al-Muraija studio, which would be attended by many visual artists and poets, including Adel Khozam, Ahmad Rashid, Khalid Badr, and Nujoum al-Ghanim. I came from the second generation, which lived in this incredibly exciting milieu; my peers and I owe our growth as artists to this exceptional environment. I was influenced not only by the visual artists but also by the literati such as Adel Khozam, who would discuss culture in a general context along with poetry and music. I avidly pursued the study of music during that period and started learning the oud, but I didn’t continue.
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi
Emirati writer. Founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE.
National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates for the 55th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia
Walking on Water
Artwork: Directions 2005/2013
1 June - 24 November, 2013
Sale d’Armi, Arsenale, Venice
Commissioner: Dr Lamees Hamdan
Curator: Reem Fadda
The complete interview can be read in the accompanying monograph:
Editor: Reem Fadda
Published by Damiani
Bologna, Italy, 2013