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Interview with Tarek Abou El Fetouh

By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Tarek Abou El Fetouh

Binder & Haupt: Why did you choose to span a conceptual arch from the 11th century to the present, anchoring your curatorial approach on ideas from Ibn al-Haytham's "Book of Optics"?

Tarek Abou El Fetouh: The project's context formed the basis for the conceptual framework and curatorial narrative. The first factor was the general theme of Expo 2020 "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future." It triggered the exploration of how complex the connections among humans are in the world of today and the major role of perception. It is an important subject and there is an urgency to explore human commonality while understanding cultural particulars.

I was reading the book "Ethics of Identity" of the cosmopolitanism philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, in which some passages highlight the power of imagination as the common human ability that allows us to grasp stories, however strange they are.

These passages reminded me of the "Book of Optics," that I read long time ago, a book that elaborates on how the perception works in a scientific approach and at the same time carries the philosophical tradition of Basra and Baghdad. In this book, Ibn Al Haytham states that the cognition of the full picture is formed in the imagination (the imaginal world).

I started to re-read the book as well as essays that explore the philosophical aspect of this seminal work of Ibn Al Haytham that connected science, art, aesthetics, and philosophy.

There are many more layers in play, it is important to note that the literal translation of the Arabic title of this work is "Book of Sceneries". It is also important to look at the history of the arts and its complex and rich connection with science and philosophy in this region during the historical peak of trade and intercultural relations, which might assist us in re-thinking concepts and ideas that are pertinent to explore in the world today.

Additionally, re-visiting "The Book of Optics (Sceneries)" inspires us to think about the universe, to look at the sky, see the planets and the stars, to understand the relation between the imagined and the perceived.

B. & H.: When looking at the artworks we can recognize different curatorial threads, such as the "astronomical", the "environmental", the "social/aestetical," questioning the role of monuments or their relation to memory and culture. Did you have these in mind from the very beginning or did they appear through the conversations and proposals of the artists?

T. A.E.F.: Some threads were clear from the beginning such as astronomical and the question of perception but most of them were developed with the artists when they started to visit the site, discussing, and reacting to the conceptual framework.

It was an exciting long journey with the artists. It was amazing how these great artists surprised us with diverse concepts, and to see how this framework triggered many ideas, forms, and aesthetics.

B. & H.: Since the artworks were especially commissioned, we can imagine that they are the result of a long-winded curatorial, production and installation process. Can you tell us about this process, and share some of the experiences along the way?

T. A.E.F.: The first step in this project was to select the main locations for the artworks. It was important to create a rhythm across the site and positions that are visible and easy for the audience to recognize.

The artists worked on very precise and specific locations, there were many factors to take into consideration including the urban design of the site, the landscape design, the buildings around the chosen location. We started with research visits for the artists, checking possible locations for the artworks, studying the architecture drawings, followed by multiple discussions with engineers working on the site.

Most artworks are substantial, and all of them will stay permanently in the same locations after Expo 2020’s event ends. Although they are located within the grounds of Expo 2020 now, but in the future, they are legally in public spaces, squares, and streets. We had to work with the municipality of Dubai South and get the approval for each artwork, its structure and its base underground.

From the early stages of the project, there was an important curatorial decision to spread the artworks across the site rather than having them in one place like a sculpture park. They are literally interwoven within the urban fabric of this future neighborhood. They are all connected through the curatorial narrative and each one of them is precisely located in connection to the surrounding urban and landscape elements.

B. & H.: In a gallery or museum exhibition, the audience consciously enters a special context in a mode of perception that allows them to recognize that what is seen is a "work of art," which is not the case when coming across a work of art on the street. How did you face the challenges of curating an array of artworks in the public space? And did you also have in mind the "public space" of the future, when the Expo grounds become a new neighborhood where people will live and work?

T. A.E.F.: We studied the location and condition of each artwork in the two scenarios, once for the event of Expo 2020 as well as in the future neighborhood of district 2020.

The Expo 2020’s event time reflects the world. There are many activities, performances, entertainment offerings, architectural styles, colors and different kind of aesthetics. It is very important that contemporary art gets its own space within these diverse manifestations. In addition to the conceptual narratives that connect the works, there are also aesthetical aspects: The first four artworks are all made out of metal, including different metal shades, as in the works of Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Haegue Yang, Khalil Rabah and Olafur Eliasson. They are followed by artworks made out of marble, stones and with earthy colors, as in the works of Shaikha Al Mazrou, Afra Al Dhaheri, Asma Belhamar and Abdullah Al Saadi. The only three works with strong colors are the iconic work of Yinka Shonibare and the impressive floor sculpture by Hamra Abbas, both in the park, in addition to Monira Al Qadiri at Opportunity Square.

For the public space, it is very important to create artworks that attract people to come closer and see, to raise the curiosity of people who are not used to visit museums to look at the works and read about them. It was also very important to choose the tone of the language in the labels to be accessible and informative.

I am very curious to see how this will develop in the neighborhood. I believe it will be a remarkable experience to live or work in a place where public spaces have contemporary artworks with various aesthetics, concepts, and ideas from different parts of the world.

(January 2022)

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Text and information: Expo 2020 Dubai Public Art Programme.

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