The next few years are going to have the art world’s focus zooming in more and more on West Asia, or at least that’s the expectation of mammoth museums like the Louvre and Guggenheim which both plan to open shiny new outposts in Abu Dhabi. As something of a lead up to this era of eastern art expansion, Walid Raad is collaborating with the Louvre on a project taking place over three years, which began with the opening of the Louvre’s new wing for Islamic Arts in Paris and will continue to their opening in Abu Dhabi in 2015.
I recently visited both Raad’s first iteration of this project, Preface to the First Edition, as well as the new Islamic Arts wing, although both were tricky to find in the Louvre’s labyrinth of gargantuan galleries and grand staircases, not to mention the constant current of tourists desperate to beeline to the highlights. However, down in the basement, in a concerete room right next to the medieval ruins of the castle that once stood in the Louvre’s place, I found it.
The installation was very minimal, and in fact most visitors that wandered into Preface to the First Edition walked right through the exhibition, thinking the shadow-casting structure hanging from the ceiling was a preface itself, and suddenly faced the adjacent elevator banks with surprise. I have to admit that while the idea was interesting, with all these little entrances cut into the mobile-like hanging sculpture casting shadows in the dark like a phantom museum, the space didn’t do Raad any favors. There are many alcoves and small quiet places in the sprawling Louvre, but this gallery had to be one of the most forgotten.
Yet in minimalism, Raad works well. The New York and Beirut-based artist is as much a historian as a visual creator, with projects like his Atlas Group archive, a fictional collective said to have started in 1999 to document an alternative history of Lebanon, and his Scratching on Things I Wish I Could Disavow project launched in 2007 to focus on the Arabic-speaking world’s art history. Alongside the sculptural installation at the Louvre was Raad’s engaging video piece that focused on the objects from the Islamic Arts department that will travel to the new branch in Abu Dhabi, and meditated on what metamorphosis they might undergo along the way. To go with the September 2012 opening of the Islamic Arts wing at the Louvre in Paris, he’d also designed Preface to the Third Edition, which had sleek and often stunning renderings of the objects into different forms. Raad notably was part of the boycott against the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in a reaction to the exploitation of workers, and the artist seems like a strong fit to really think about what changes the meaning of objects might have in the modern environment of Abu Dhabi, where staggering skyscrapers seem to grow like mushrooms overnight.
While Raad’s exhibition was this small, subdued rumination of the changing perception of the region and these traveling art objects, the Islamic Arts wing where many of those objects are now housed was much more about their existing beauty. Beneath a metal wave of a ceiling that closes the space which was once a courtyard into a glass-walled gallery are stunning sculptures, carpets, artifacts, and other art.
There is in the Islamic Arts wing a concentration on how numerous cultures have merged together to create these works. Islamic arts encompass a broad scope, not just West Asia, and the diversity is apparent, from a rare example of architecture from the Egyptian Mamluk dynasty to carpets from the Mughal Empire in India to the Monzon Lion that was part of a fountain in Spain. Recently, the Louvre revealed some of the paintings that will be in its Abu Dhabi museum’s permanent collections, with art from Modern Masters like Gauguin, Magritte, and Picasso. While Islamic arts will definitely have a presence, the museum, too, will be something of a collision of ideas and cultures, much like the surrounding area itself. It will be interesting to see where Raad takes his thoughtful, archivist-minded project as we get closer and closer to the opening of this new artistic center, which joins an urban landscape that has so rapidly changed and continues to morph as much as Raad’s journeying objects.
Walid Raad: Preface to the First Edition was January 19 to April 3 at the Louvre in Paris. The Islamic Arts wing opened in September of 2012.