Liquid city, liquid life: major identity shift of the Homo sapiens and total de-growth.

Interview with curator Michel Dewilde, 6th of May 2018, Triennial Bruges

wale2 copyStudioKCA, Skyscraper, Bruges 2018 © MD

Anne Heard: Returning to the first part of the interview: the link between the corporal and striving for a liquid city or society? You mention the choice we have or can make?

Michel Dewilde: Yes, striving for a liquid city or world: is all about having a choice. We have a major choice to make about the impact of the global urban on our planet, and our human enterprise dominated by the forces of the global market economy. Or not, we can keep on sleeping.

So, yes, part of humanity can continue to live in its consumerist mirage, thrive in its air-conditioned bulb and escape earthly realities in often digital, imagined worlds. And continue, in the real world, to build and construct, occupy and exploit. For others, a minority, we wonder what to do with architecture, in the sense of building the new and further stimulate the rampant global urbanism.  As Damani pointed out last week in the debate we held:

“If we really take into account the ecological reality of our planet we should stop building immediately, and stop conceiving cities altogether”.

Renovate, re-use what is possible, change and basically change our conception of the architectural and urban. Here I also add Latour’s and others criticism about the world of the bio and geo-engineers, who still believe and make others believe that they can save or manage somehow the planet from the ecological disasters that we produce.

20180504_155009StudioKCA, Skyscraper, Bruges 2018 © MD

AH: Which artists of the Triennial embody these thoughts?

MD: We never asked the artists and architects to approach the theme from this ecological dimension. I worked on this theme before, that was in 2000-2001 in the exhibition ArtLine 5 which I curated for Jan Hoet in the German city of Borken.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESRobert Moreau, Installation view, Borken 2001 © VD

I remember that the Swedish artist Robert Moreau (2001) had an interesting project about the infiltration of Nature into Architecture.

But here in the Bruges Triennial (2018) I presumed that Tomas Saraceno with his yearlong interest in the Anthropocene and his enthralling Aerocene project would probably tackle this dimension. And he did! We were further positively surprised by Studio KCA’s impressive Whale Piece, constructed with the products of the plastic soup.

And of course by RoToR and their museum installation in Bruges and operating restaurant pavilion dealing with the invasive Chinese Mitten Crabs. In their endeavour RoToR linked up with the renowned anthropologist Anna Tsing, who was also part of the Triennial theoretical concept. These Brussels architects not only raised awareness about the reality of these and other invasive species, their project connected scientists, researchers and universities with local inhabitants and different restaurants who did put the crab on their menu: call it a local economy. Basically RoToR is working with and through the many differences in the multi-species world and set unexpected collaborations. To paraphrase Anna Tsing:

“RoToR worked on and within the ruins of the capitalist worlds.”

AH: If humans want to create these liquid cities and societies, they will have to change their identity?

MD: Yes, this ‘change’ can only occur through a major identity shift. Thinking the new (liquid) city, and dealing with the global urban in a fresh way is only possible when you re-think the human condition altogether. This identity shift entails the vision of the Homo sapiens as a species, as Morton points out. We are one of the many species thriving on the planet, we are not superior to any other creature, are living side by side with so many others and even more species living inside each other: being interdependent.

20180512_153140.jpgRoTor, What’s eating the Chinese Mitten Crab, Bruges 2018 ©MD

It is what Yong, Haraway and others call the human ‘I’ as a multitude, the human corpus hosts millions of other organisms which live, enhance, influence, heal, interfere or hurt each other. So when we speak about diversity I always look beyond the human diversity, in that respect there is no white, black, yellow or red race, only one human species, characterised by some local variants . For me, internal (corporeal) and external diversity always refers to forms of cohabitation with the non-human.

20180528_101558.jpgAnna Tsing & Lionel de Vliegher (RoTor) in Urb Egg Café, Bruges 2018 ©MD

So I never saw the human or humanity as being somewhere asked to come or join ‘inside nature’ but always as (always) been part of nature. We simply forgot, or did everything to erase and annihilate the interconnection, the interdependence of all species and our position within nature. We created this divide, call it human culture, ourselves. Here we arrive at one of my key-discourses on multi-spatial occupation as a driving force of the human enterprise and which lies at the heart of capitalism.

Homo sapiens is par excellence a species which occupies and exploits space, all its resources and simultaneously all the other inhabitants, both human and above all non-human. If species are not exploitable or proving to be counter-productive to our enterprise we either displace or destroy them. So, assuming our ‘new’ identity as a multi-species creature living inside nature, a position which does not give us the right to exploit, own or destroy the others, and dwelling on a planet which is not ours to own, is no mean feat. This explains my skepticism.

20180428_183909RoTor, Who’s eating the Chinese Mitten Crab, Zeebrugge 2018 ©MD

AH For you this identity-shift is not new?

MD: Oh, no, we simply wanted to erase it or forego, we left it, projected our human selves. In some parallel cultural world. This identity was always there, we have to rediscover it, I call it a new (corporeal) materialism, a multi-species corpus operating within a large interconnected context.

I add here that this identity shift, this awareness of human species as integral part of nature, doesn’t entail some sort of a naïve longing for a return to a romanticised prehistoric unity with Earth. This is impossible for different reasons: the major reason being that we simply cannot go back to that ‘presumed, pristine natural State’ as it simply doesn’t exist any longer.

Homo sapiens made sure of that impossibility with his gigantic pollution and destruction of our biosphere. Following in the footsteps of Anna Tsing or Donna Haraway: we will simply have to live within the ruins of capitalism that we keep on creating, together with creatures coming straight from Vandermeer’s novels. We will have to live and stay with the trouble, the mess.

RoTor, Who’s eating the Chinese Mitten Crab, Zeebrugge 2018 ©MD

AH: In several texts you share your doubts about a sustainable model for Earth, cities etc. Instead you advocate de-growth, the significant decrease of the population, etc.?

MD: Yes as for me, these discourses on for example ‘sustainable cities’ are yet other models for the sustaining of the needs and wishes of the non-integrated Homo sapiens and not for the sustainment of Earth. A lot depends on your definition of a sustainable world or city of course. But still.

I shivered when I heard for example about the role of the 3 p’s in the sustainable concept. Those 3 p’s which have to be in some kind of balance if we want to live in a sustainable world: they stand for ‘planet, people and profit’ (economy). It is basically some sort of a magic recipe for the creation of an ideal sustainable world meant for future (human) generations.

20180416_174241.jpgTomàs Saraceno, Aerocene project, Bruges 2018 ©MD

Here, in order to save our environment (more or less) for the next generations, and in order to benefit from the same levels of consumer prosperity, we have to reduce our emissions, reduce our footprint, use more public transport or cycle if possible, grow our own vegetables, etc. It sounds good for many members of our species, especially the part on maintaining and ensuring prosperity. But it simply does not go far enough and above all it starts from the human individual, far removed from Earth. The human capitalist enterprise, and its related multi-space occupation and exploitation. And this does not depart from the necessary identity-shift as member of a multi-species world.

20180528_135008RoTor, What’s eating the Chinese Mitten Crab, Bruges 2018 ©MD

So full de-growth yes.

At the heart of a definite human integration, living in synthesis and alliance with our inner and outer nature stands of course a culture of global de-growth instead of growth which stands at the heart of our global market economy. Concluding: The choice we have to make is that we cannot keep on living, eating, moving, building, growing the way we do. This species will have to live smaller, with much less, much less resources, exploitation of all forms of capital, stop its endless urge for physical and mental mobility.

And above all this species will have to de-grow itself, become significantly smaller in numbers. As an adolescent I heard about Snyder’s shocking but revealing text in his Turtle Island book: “human population should be halved”. Landry says basically the same in his new book: ‘The civic society in a nomadic world’: reduce the numbers.

So to respond to part of the sustainable city/world debate: our desire for the continuation of the present levels of quality of life/living and prosperity (let’s remember this is only true for a certain segment of the human species) will have to look very differently from our present culture of craving for the ‘ever more’ . This is only possible, thinkable, through a major identity shift. Learn to know, to appreciate who/what we really are as a species, and finally, embrace our planetary fellowship and live and dwell within according to its potential without endangering the life and prosperity of all other inhabitants.

RoTor,  Fishing the Chinese Mitten Crab, Bruges 2018 ©Benny Proot


Triennial Bruges 2018: Liquid City

Liquid aspiration


StudioKCA, Jason Klimoski – Skyscraper, Bruges 2018 © MD

On Sunday the 6th of May, the second edition of the Belgian Triennial of Bruges opened for the public. The Triennial entitled ‘Liquid City’ consists of a circuit of commissioned art works and pavilions set in the public space of the old city centre and a number of indoor venues such as the exhibition of the FRAC Centre in the Grand Seminar. The outdoor exhibition brings creations together from Monir Shahroudy, Tomàs Saraceno, Nlé-architects, Selgascano, raumlabor, StudioKCA, RoToR, OBBA, and many more. Based on the writings of the famed Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the exhibition explores the liquid condition of the city, the urban and its inhabitants. We had several talks with art historian Michel Dewilde, one of the curators. In this first interview we focus on a number of general questions about the Triennial.

Anne Heard:

This afternoon ‘Liquid City’, the 2nd edition of the Bruges Triennial opens. We interview Michel Dewilde next to one of the crowd pleasers a whale sculpture made by the Brooklyn based collective StudioKCA. Does this work epitomize Liquid City? And what can you tell us about the exhibition concept and the curatorial methodology?

Michel Dewilde: Thank you very much. I think that this work, called ‘Skyscraper’, also known as the ‘Bruges Whale’, stands for one specific approach within the Triennial. One could call it: ‘ the ecological translation of the concept’. It can be related to other works in the exhibition from architects or artists such as RoToR, Nlé, Tomàs Saraceno, Atelier 4, etc., but it does not cover all aspects of the exhibition. About three years ago I developed, together with Till-Holger Borchert, the concept for the second edition of the Triennial 2018: Liquid City. We wanted to approach or if possible even decipher, the contemporary condition, the state of our present day urban reality as seen from the context of a European museum city. So we conceived an exhibition framework where metaphors such as liquidity, fluidity play a central role. Then the curators presented the artists and architects a short text, depicting the condition of the city and the urban as liquid or fluid. We did not seek to illustrate this concept with certain artworks or pavilions,… We choose for an intense dialogue with other authors and the joint writing of a multi-text, translated in the commissioned works, catalogue texts, lectures, etc. I always favoured a polyphonic approach and I therefore saw the concept as an open text: consisting of many written or not yet written hidden texts and subtexts. Call it a film script without a scenario, and that scenario had to be written together with all the participants, including guest-curators, writers, and of course the public. So each artist or architect developed the concept of the liquid city a little further. There is no single-author (or duo-authors) active behind or in front of the scene. I call us initiators and co-writers. Concluding: take that ecological turn for example, which is clearly present in the exhibition: this is the result of choices made chiefly by the artists and architects.


AH: What is the importance of Bauman’s writings for the Triennial?

MD: The Triennial takes the city, Bruges itself, as its main protagonist. Bruges is a specific type of city: you can call it a prime example of the well preserved historic museum-city. Most visitors travel to Bruges in order to experience one specific urban image or identity: the seemingly timeless ancient mediaeval polis. That distinct urban environment offers an interesting backdrop or scenery for a range of major questions about the contemporary urban reality. In that respect, Bauman’s image of the Liquid Modernity is very useful to describe our present liquid condition. According to him we live in a (post) capitalist consumer society which is dominated by the whims and speculations of the global market economy combined with a range of historic evolutions such as for example the disappearance of the Eastern Bloc. This results in a apparently endless stream of social, political, economic, changes and crises. This fluid state corrodes, disintegrates a vast range of fixed entities, certitudes, authorities: we saw for example the erosion of the nation states and governments under pressure of the global market and its corporate agents. National governments seem to have lost control of their local economies which directly influences the social well fare of its citizens. These phenomenons affect the identity of the inhabitants of the liquid world: we are above all consuming agents thriving in an uncertain, unpredictable society. Cities where once pictured as safe havens against the threats of the outside world, now they are also subjected to the consequences of the global social, political, economic or ecological problems. Cities are mainly nodes entangled in the web of global consumption and tourism. But the liquid and fluid metaphors can also represent change, innovation and modification for the better. Within the Triennial we dare to look beyond the chaos and uncertainty embodied by the liquid condition and hope that the liquid can inspire to positive changes.


AH: The 14th edition of the Lyon Biennial, called ‘Mondes Flottants’ also refers to Bauman? A coincidence?

MD: I have no idea. Let’s put some facts straight: we had an initial meeting at the Bruges Town Hall in late august 2015. There the Mayor of Bruges, Mr. Renaat Landuyt suggested to Till and myself to develop a project based on Bauman’s books such as Liquid Modernity, Liquid Life etc. We quickly expanded those ideas and in early 2016 the concept of Liquid City was presented to the press. We only heard about Lyon’s theme in 2017, when the Bruges Triennial was in its penultimate phase. In the end it doesn’t matter which city or Biennial was first or not. Besides, both projects are different from each other: from the start we sought direct relations between art, architecture and the social fabric of the city through projects in public space. The fact that several major exhibitions deal simultaneously with this theme, underscores the urgency of Bauman’s analyses and the importance of a fluid lecture of the urban condition.


AH: Did you notice a different approach between architects and visual artists?

MD: We have to beware of stereotypes such as possible differences between artists and architects. The image of architecture having a solely practical, functional essence is since long outdated. As we also moved away from the representation of the distant ‘modern artist’, the romantic, isolated genius, hovering as a chieftain of the avant-garde above us in an almost mystical dimension. Contemporary artists do engage with society and are more and more getting involved with the public or the local population. On the other hand it is clear that in Bruges most architects and collectives combined a more functional with an impressive aesthetic approach of the exhibition concept: they literally operate within the social fabric: Nlé’s Makoko School will function as a school during the Triennial, the Selgascano pavilion is a meeting and swimming platform, raumlabor created with a group of youths from Bruges the bottom-up long term project House of Time which fully operates, OBBA’s Floating Platform was already used before the opening as a site for contemplation, studying, resting and playing, Atelier 4 functions as a floating gallery and exhibition platform, etc. But what about their ‘symbolic impact’.


AH: So, the visual artists did have a different inclination?

MD: I prefer not to use concepts such as ‘artists’ and ‘architects’, I favour terms such as cultural creator or producer. Let’s just say that Till and I invited artists such as Monir Shahroudy, Renato Nicolodi, John Powers who would probably opt for a more sculptural and symbolic approach. We hoped that their artworks would show a different way to imagine the liquid city, more through the production of ‘signs’ and thus form some sort of aesthetic counterweight to the more functional narratives.

You could argue that within that ‘group’, Tomàs Saraceno and Wesley Meuris are the exceptions. From Saraceno, who is in essence an architect, we expected a work which was related to his Aerocene model, which is his reply to the huge problems related to the Anthropocene period. Meuris on the other hand developed a sculpture-pavilion which can be used by visitors on a certain level, it gave the impression of a functional architecture, but it is not. This work remains first and fore most a sculptural analyses of a top down city planning set within a structure which operates as a panoramic looking device, enabling the visitor to look, watch and see through the spectacle of the Burg: thé place where the City and later the Province are governed for more than 500 years. And to further prove the limitations and arbitrariness of such definitions and categorisations: the American architects StudioKCA choose for a ‘sculpture’ of a whale? (laughs)



AH: I got the opportunity to read your text before the catalogue is printed. The bottom line reminds me of an exhibition you curated for the SMAK Museum in Germany in 2001 : Artline 5 Interaktionen zwischen Natur und Kultur? What can you tell me about the content of your text?

MD: I wrote this catalogue text post facto, I mean: after the encounters and dialogues I had  with the artists and architects or guest-curators. And after I saw their proposals for the commissioned artworks. In that respect I consciously highlighted one aspect of the Liquid City theme tackled by several participants: the interdependence (and reactions) between the urban condition, its users and Earth itself. I tried to approach, to define what this ‘new relationship between the urban, the citizen and Earth’ could be through the metaphor of the mobile, innovation, the liquid. Concerning the exhibition I curated at the invitation of Jan Hoet in 2001: you are right about the relation between the 2 exhibitions, these themes certainly reflect my interest and positions on the subject matter.

AH: In your text you stress the importance of the relational: forging new alliances, collaborations between all humans and non-humans, within their natural context.

MD: Yes I believe we can only conceive the (future) liquid urban through connections, relations, currents, flows and new forms of human and non-human cooperation. A fine example is RoTor’s project on the invasive species the Chinese Mitten Crab which lives abundantly in the canals of Bruges. RoTor set up a multidisciplinary collaboration with biologists, conservationists, restaurants, the general public and the crabs themselves. Inspired by the writings of Anna Tsing, their project functions on many levels: from the scientific to the culinary. But for me they opened the door towards new possible forms of an integrated urbanity set within a very problematic world: dominated by the ecological  disaster we have created. Quite a few participants want to raise our awareness of the global pollution and destruction of the planet and the impact of the urban, I refer here to Nlé and Atelier 4. The alarming rise of the sea level caused by global warming is just one of the many symptoms. Cities and its citizens are, whether we like it or not, globally connected not only through a vast digital communication network but also through our waste and pollution culture. Studio KCA stresses the enormous impact of the plastic thrash we dispose of through our sewage systems or throw inadvertently in canals or rivers end up in the oceans. We are interconnected and responsible through this non-stop massive pollution of our natural environment.


AH: This search for a new Liquidity, a liquid city starts from the corporal?

MD: Yes for me the movement towards new forms of urbanity and urban dwelling start necessarily from the awareness and the rethinking of our being as a species set within its larger biological context. In this geological period called the Anthropocene we have to accept, agree, research our difference as a species, I refer for example to Morton here. We have to rethink and (re-) experience our existence as a multitude of organisms, a self-contained biosphere in which the conscious homo sapiens is only one of the creatures. We have to explore and respect our different connections, relations. Only through this (slow and lengthy) realisation of belonging to a myriad or assemblage of creatures, situated within and on the surface of a corporal envelope, hosting colonies of non-human species, a multiple being in constant interaction with its wider outer context, can we expect to re-think the urban. I refer to an urban reality as set within nature, and not as some entity existing outside Earth. I still read far too many publications where urbanists and other specialists only talk about the development of humane cities, compact cities, cities on human scale, apparently not being able to look beyond the human and his devastating impact on Earth. It is time to re-view the highpoint of human culture, the City, to set it in the middle of Nature and at the heart of our global ecological issues.


Upwardly mobile

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43 pages 156-170. The online version of this article was published on January 9, 2018
by Selections Magazine. 

The Belgian art historian and curator Michel Dewilde has worked extensively with artists from the Middle East and Central Asia since the early 1990s. Here, he tells Anne Heard about his passion for movement, while sharing his views on commissioned works and art in public spaces

You are currently working on the Triennial for visual arts and architecture entitled Liquid City, (Bruges 2018.) In this project you refer to thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman, Manuel Castells and Anna Tsing. This reminds me of your earlier projects, like the exhibition Side-Tracks (Zij-Sporen) (1995-96) or Station2station (2002) where mobility, change and fluency played a key role. Is art on the move an important element in your curatorial practice?
Certainly, in my projects of the early 1990s, the representation of the contemporary nomad from a philosophical and specifically feminist point of view played an important role. I translated this search for a nomadic condition literally onto the level of the exhibition design and the navigation of the visitor itself. The whole exhibition and the visitors were moving in time and space towards or away from the artworks. But this mobile condition of the exhibition was not an end in itself; rather I saw it as a potent physical method, a pathway, in a sense, stimulating visitors’ critical behaviour and thinking. Thus, for the coming Triennial in 2018, although I agree with Bauman’s vision of Liquid Modernity as the contemporary social condition, the methods to reach beyond that state will be change, moving on, combined with the idea of deep refuge, the places for collaboration and regeneration. At the centre of this narrative stands the travelling subject. He or she is not a single entity, but a multitude, and exists in a state of constant negotiation with the others, actively seeking to relate to or to collaborate with them. To conclude, this image of mobility is, above all, situated on a mental and emotional level. So moving towards deeper insights or creating a heightened awareness can make an interesting goal for an art project.

Chohreh Feyzdjo , Untitled, 1995-96, Site-specific installation (on a passenger train), Mixed media, Zij-Sporen exhibition, Touring in Belgium, with stops in France and the Netherlands, Image: vzw Gynaika

Working in public spaces with commissioned site-specific artworks has been a trademark of yours. What drives this interest?
Let’s say that since the start of my curatorial practice, the creation of site-specific works, both inside exhibition spaces or in a public space, has played an important role. For me, any exhibition is site or even context-specific; there is no neutral, generic space. I suppose that my interest was greatly stimulated by a range of artists and a number of exhibitions which I saw as a student or in my early days as a curator, such as: Chambres d’Amis, Sonsbeek 93, or This is the Show and The Show is Many Things. As with the theme of mobility, working with commissions is not an end in itself; rather, I see this as an essential method within the fabric of the curatorial.

Exhibitions in public spaces and, specifically, those on location in city centres, have received a great deal of criticism, since they can be set up to achieve various political or economic goals, such as increasing tourism. Where do you stand on this issue?
Curating in the public domain is interesting, but also presents challenges. I often question its urgency. So yes, I agree that art projects in public spaces have become problematic since the 1990s. Notions such as city marketing, Disneyfication and the use of formats have come up in this debate, but we should not generalise. I believe that these recent developments are part of an ideological and economic shift. In the 1960s, art came to the streets. Artists joined other groups to come out, protest and even to recreate and rethink society, with the street or the square as their main stage. From the 1980s onwards, parts of this public culture, its manifestations and its political aims were appropriated and subdued by the art world, its institutions and curators and this energy was transformed into a wave of site-specific projects, with a spectacular dimension.

You often highlight the relationship between art and politics. Why is that?
I believe that every human act, and thus each art form, is part of a political dimension. So every artwork is either a confirmation or reproduction of a given political situation or a reaction to it.

What can you tell us about the artists you have chosen for Selections?
The selection combines artists I’ve worked with and those whose work has inspired me. For decades, I have had a specific interest in artists from the Middle East and Central Asia, so they dominate my selection.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Contra Diction : Speech Against Itself, 2015, Video, teleprompter, Variable dimensions, Edition 3 + 2 AP, Installation view, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, 2015, Credits: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jäggi, Courtesy : mor charpentier and the artist

Above all, I’m fascinated by their artistic and critical endeavours and the way they function in the space between poetics and the political element. The first pair of works I chose were part of exhibitions I curated in public spaces at distinct moments in my practice. The late Iranian Chohreh Feyzdjou (1955 — 1996) create d the installation Untitled for Side-Tracks, which I curated on board a moving train in 1995-96. Feyzdjou filled a first-class train carriage, developed in the 1920s by the architect Henry van de Velde, with long black hair. With her installation, the artist pervaded the exquisite train furnishings, whilst clearly referring to the rise of Fascism in Europe in that era. The second work shows the temporary pavilion Canal Swimmers Club, conceived by the Japanese collective Atelier Bow-Wow for the Bruges Triennial in 2015. Bow-Wow added a temporary floating sculpture in the public realm which not only redrew the ancient city landscape, but also answered direct social needs, creating new communities and connections on the urban level. Imran Qureshi’s mesmerising Blessings upon the land of my Love had to feature in my selection. This total installation engulfed the open space of the Sharjah building and the viewer in an endless visual poem, combining close and far perspectives.

When we speak about multi-layered responses, I instinctively thought of Barbad Golshiri’s combination of the visceral, performative with the acute sensitiveness of his poetics of loss and transformation. Hazem Harb successfully arrived where many aim by going beyond the documentary dimension for a poetic rendition of the occupation of his country, while Amina Menia touched upon the many paradoxes of the French occupation of Algeria. I wanted to conclude with the relationship between sound — human sounds that is — and the political. I believe no artist has pushed the boundaries in recent times as far as Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Youmna Chlala finishes the selection, with a site-specific project which brought me back to the architecture of language: the space between languages and signification.

Artist Talk: (fragments) Wesley Meuris

Bekijk de registratie van de Artist Talk (fragments) met Wesley Meuris gehouden in de Annie Gentils Gallery te Antwerpen (15 oktober 2017). In gesprek met curator Michel Dewilde, gaat Meuris dieper in op zijn loopbaan, diverse aspecten van zijn oeuvre en beschrijft een aantal tentoonstellingen in binnen en buitenland: zoals zijn deelname aan de volgende Triënnale voor Architectuur en Beeldende Kunsten te Brugge (2018), Recyclart Brussel (2018) e.v.a.

Welcome to amnesia, or how to keep on curating in the Anthropocene?

Anne Heard in conversation with Michel Dewilde

Part 1

A.F.Dewilde and his cheetah (1972)

Anne Heard: Recently you held a number of talks and presentations, one was at the TMoCA, where you questioned the role of the curator and the artist, or architect in the period called the Anthropocene. Can you elaborate on your question?

Michel Dewilde: Well I used that sentence in a rhetorical way. Since my first exhibitions in the nineties I have been wondering about the possible role of any human, and thus of any curator or artist being active in the period which some refer to as the Anthropocene. For me there was no easy answer. In some exhibitions I tried, mostly in vain, to approach the issue, but stranded often in descriptive formulations. So unless we speak about the discursive level, in a way it is, for me, a nearly impossible task on the curatorial level.

I would conclude with a simple question: What possible role could the champion of choice (aka The curator) still have, when the freedom, the illusion, even the culture of unlimited choice is one of the engines behind the most recent phases of the Anthropocene?

AH: How would you define the Anthropocene and what do you think about the name?

MD: Let’s say that the word Anthropocene is used by an increasing number of people to describe the present day geological epoch. This is an era, a time in which earth and its evolutions is dominated by the antropos, i.e. the humans, instead of Earth itself.

To cut it short, the history of Earth has been divided or labelled in geological era’s, huge time-periods. For many geologists, paleontologists, climate specialists and even historians, the present day era is still called the Holocene(= the total recent period).

To put in numbers: the Holocone is the last epoch of what we call the Quaterny Period, so we speak about the last 10.000 or 12.000 years of earth’s history, a period dominated by the advent of Man. On the other hand ever more specialists prefer the term Anthropocene as it clearly underlines this human agency. The word covers a period in which the drastic changes on the level of the planet, especially climate changes, are not an effect of the planet itself anymore. But are due partly or solely to the activities of one of its inhabitants, i.e. the Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Mankind is portrayed as the main geological, tellurgic force. I feel that the name is interesting as it points towards the agent or perpetrator of these changes. But I find Haraways use of the term Cthulucene as or perhaps even more interesting than Anthroposcene. But lets not get lost in this ‘name’ debate, only the content is important.

M.G.Dewilde and the skull of Smilodon Fatalis ( 2017)

AH: You agree that we entered an new geological period?

MD: Yes, I certainly share the vision that we entered a new era with changes due to no doubt only one agent: humans. But I would add immediately that those changes reach far beyond the impact on the climate. I would also add that humans are certainly not the only agents of change or disruption, I refer to Earth itself, outside sources such as comets, or above all the bacteria. Those last ones have changed the face of the Earth, its climate and subsequent population for billions of years. In the end they also inhabit the corpus of the Homo Sapiens.

But, I would stress that we are the only agents who wilfully or ignorantly and maliciously destroy this place. Anyhow, if we refer to human interventions, I would ask: which human(species) are we talking about?


AH: When does this period actually start?

MD: I recall that there are at least two lines of thought here.

The first one uses the advent of the first industrial revolution in the 18th Century, I think it was Crutzen who took 1784 as a symbolic starting date, or better, James Watt’s patent of the steam engine.

The second group goes much further back in time and refers to the earliest forms of Neolithic farming, the transformation of an, in essence hunter-gatherer nomadic society, towards a more sedentarian farming-exploitation-occupation culture.

For me, there is no real starting date, there is only a period before and after the first decisive human impact. It is a ‘post-Antropos’ era, where Earth will never be the same again as it was before, no matter how much bioengineering and other human rescue plans we add. To conclude: I am convinced that those major changes started during the Quartenary and that the first signs were not to be found during the New Stone Age or Neolithic era, but started earlier during the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age or even at the end of the previous period the late Paleolithic.


AH: Here your refer to the sudden disappearance of the Pleistocene megafauna?

MD: Yes amongst others, it is not only about the megafauna, but ‘they’ are obviously the most ‘striking’ examples of the vanishing. Think about the mammoths, sabre-tooth cats like the Smilodon Fatalis, giant sloths or the Coelodonta Antiquitatis also known as the woolly rhinoceros, who all went, quite abruptly.

I know that the debate about the ‘why’ of their vanishing is not settled yet. Basically we see two schools of thought: the debate rages between those who point at the climate change as the major culprit and the other group who suspects the human hunters as the key actor. Anyhow timewise we speak about a period between 13.500 and 10.000 years ago, I take into account some exceptions for small herds of mammoths who lived totally isolated. So, if we follow this line of thought a large number of mammals disappeared long before the sedentary lifestyle of the early Neolithic farmers, their first elaborate settlements, early forms of industrialisation, etc.

Personally I believe that their extinction is the result of different forces, a group of agents which came together: the drastic climate changes are important, but combined with an significant increase of the human population and a major improvement of their hunting techniques and weaponry. Well, if you want my starting date for the Antropos-change: somewhere between 13.500 and 11.000 years ago?

Subsequently the key criterion or trigger in this debate about the beginning of the Anthroposcene for me is: any form of ecological and planetary irreversibility caused by agents exterior to the planet itself and or its cosmic context. I refer here for example to the impact of one particular species on the living world at large, the extinction of any type of life, be they microscopic, plants or animal and its subsequent distortions of the biosphere . So I definitely adhere to the group of thought which relates the start of a new epoch or era with the first examples of permanent planetary change due to human agency.


AH: How do you see the whole human-nature relation in the Anthroposcene, our role on Earth and responsibilities towards our ecosystem?

MD: These are complex but essential questions. Let’s say that I depart from a vision where humans are part of nature, indivisible from and one with nature. We are One, but we are at the same time also multiple, in the sense of numerous, or a walking living collective. The human ‘I’, is not ‘1’, but a multitude, a set of interactive living communities. I refer here to the millions of bacteria, living, hiding, thriving, working within ourselves. I start from the image of an inner biodiversity: a fact which challenges the desire for an individual, conscious, human subject. The mirage of a strong united subject who would be in control of ‘himself’ and of its context. I am not referring here to the gender and cultural diversity, but about our biological essence. The assertion ‘I am an individual’ should be replaced by: ‘we are a complex ecosystem’. In the course of the human evolution, the desire for a (human)consciousness ripened , a consciousness which operates independently from the other inhabitants, both inside and outside the body. In a way humans were replacing the idea of onenness and biological multitude with the vision of the individual and separated (human)self. More and more scientific evidence points at the influence of our co-hosts, of our multiple biological essence on the functioning of the human body and mind. These facts have also a direct effect on the whole human identity, cultural diversity, debate.

In that respect I do not believe in the Nature-Culture opposition nor do I adhere to the Nature-Nurture binary. I see those binaries as existing cultural constructions, and they produce meaning, products and of course cause a range of problems, but in essence they are man-made. And I see them as obscuring, hiding the reality of the symbiosis, synergies, collaborations between all living and non living inhabitants of this planet. Following specialists such as Haraway, Lorimer, Tsing, Braidotti and many more: I would add, that we live in a hybrid, multi-species world, where the inter and counter-actions between the agents of culture/society and the so-called natural are manifold. So subsequently I share the vision that we have to leave the anthropocentric visions both in our relation to nature, our construction of Nature and in the role and or impact of human agency-technology on earth. Here we talk both about the bio-ecolo-engineering philosophy which hopes or claims to save the earth through its technological progress on the one hand, or on the other hand it is seen as the main or sole reason for the destruction or changes on earth. It is not.

So, on the one hand, we have to downgrade the importance and achievements of the Homo Sapiens on the planet, put it into perspective, some humility is necessary. Further, on the other hand: it is more than time for him(I stress ‘his’ gender!) to change his attitude towards the planet totally. This one inhabitant in particular, should be held accountable and take up ‘his’ responsibility towards the ecosystem and co-species he is living in and which inhabits his own corpus. To take a shortcut: I reiterate the fact that we are one, but one exists as a multiple diversity, both to the outside nature, as to our internal nature. The outside context is the relation between humans and the surrounding earth itself. The inner diversity points at the many beings living within our body. Bacteria are indeed the major officers of planetary change, they colonise us, they live within our corporeal borders and in order to regain our sense of oneness, fulfill our duties, our responsibilities, its time to work with and even listen to them. So, saving what is left of Earth, and continuing living in our distorted ecosystem starts with listening to and cooperating with the body, both the inner and outer one. An endless partnership.

Robert Moreau, Things that soon will be forgotten, Artline 5 (2001)

AH: In 2001 you curated the exhibition Artline-5 ‘Interaktionen’ in Germany. Was this the first project where the difference you make between nature and Nature, the relation between architecture, art and nature, your interest for forms of deep ecology, came to the fore?

MD: It is important to mention the context of that exhibition:

It was Jan Hoet, then director of the SMAK museum in Ghent, and former artistic director of Documenta IX, who invited me to curate this exhibition in Germany. So, before I started to work on this project, Hoet had already laid down certain parts of the exhibition concept: i.e. he wanted a show dealing with the interaction(s) between Nature and Architecture.

I continued to develop his project and was very much busy in those days with the writings of Schama in particular.

So I expanded Hoets exhibition theme with the idea that Nature, as it is written with a capital ‘N’, this vision of a immutable, pristine, untouched nature, is in essence a human construct. Call it a desire, a fabulation. Not only because since the advent of Man every part of Earth-Nature has been somehow altered by his agency, but also because it in fact never existed, unless on a cultural-artistic-desire level. So the exhibition explored different parts of the concept: the fact that Nature and Culture are inextricably tied together, that both fields are closer than we think, merge, mingle. I argued that Nature is in fact a post-Culture invention. To answer the last part of your question: Interaktionen was not the first exhibition which were dealing with this subject matter. It was actually the Origin exhibition which I developed well before Interaktionen, in 1996-1997, that dealt specifically with this matter. Alas, because of the scale of the project, the financial and practical aspects, I was unable to realise it.

Yolanda Paulsen Quintana, El Arbol Que Llevamos Dentro, Artline 5 (2001)

AH: In the Artline 5(2001) catalogue, I read your passages about the other exhibition which run parallel to the Interaktionen art project: ‘An exhibition with the bacteria, mosses, fungi and insects who would eat the human visitors’. You relate this with thoughts about the extinction of the Homo Sapiens?

MD: Yes (laughs) those passages were quite shocking to some members of the public or some colleagues. My choice for a quite terminal plot-twist was probably influenced by Houellebecq’s ‘Les particules élémentaires’ which I finished reading prior to the exhibition. But also Cronenbergs and Alaimos visions or Snyder’s ‘Turtle Island’ were instrumental.

In a way I did not only refer to the extinction of the Sapiens, which is the conclusion of Houellebecq’s superb novel, but also to the permanent (often) invisible ‘exposition’ of micro-organisms, present in or on our body and in any other exhibition space. So Interaktionen held the idea of the double voyage or return to an natural-cultural architecture. The Homo Sapiens ends, dies out, but does not truly disappear, he is transformed, eaten, merging and mutating into a set of microorganisms or energy.

AH: With hindsight which artist came closest to the Interaktionen exhibition concept?

MD: That’s a difficult question as the artists were free to approach the subject and the theme from different angles. Looking back at 2001, I feel that Alicia Framis, Yolanda Paulsen Quintana, Mariele Neudecker, Emilio-Lopez Menchero and the Swedish artist Robert Moreau above all, came closest to our present questions about the nature-Nature divide and the responsive earth-nature in particular. Amongst the initial selection Roxy Paine was certainly one of the key artists, but we were unable to include him in the final exhibition.

Emilio Lopez-Menchero, Tsee-Tsee, Artline 5 (2001)

AH: During interviews you stressed the influence of your father A. F. Dewilde ? How important was he for you? His love of art and architecture and above all his ecological, conservationist ideals? What kind of a man was he?

MD: It is only recently that I realised how much he influenced me. Even though I lost my father at a young age I am convinced he formed my ideas on such diverse subjects as art, ecological awakening. He was a typical example of the well-off Western European who left, in the late sixties (and early seventies) the urban context for a life in the countryside. In those days you still had some forms of countryside in this country. He purchased a derelict farmhouse, transformed it, and started his art gallery in the former stables of the farm. This farm was surrounded by the remains of a park and it had vast meadows. On the meadows he decided to make a new forest, so he decided to plant hundreds of trees, a multitude of coniferae, etc.



AH: What did you learn from him? 

MD: Above all the fact that we are one with nature, and that we should live and act accordingly.

So we are not so much part of an outside nature, but literally: who or what we are and can be is nature. The Oneness. On the negative side: the conviction that most humans can only occupy and subsequently destroy nature because they choose to forget the mere existence of this indivisible bond. This human occupation leads to the exploitation and annihilation of nature and in the end of the self as we are part of One. The key mechanism here has an economical background: the relentless commodification of all forms, actions, and inhabitants, of what we perceive as external nature, in particular. The reduction of Earth into a saleable object, call it(or better: ‘Her’) her reification, erases her inherent subject-position. Thus the(superior) human subject can subjugate this ‘outside nature’ because it is a mere object of human progress.
But his greatest lesson was the sense of respect for our ecosystem, through direct contact with nature.

M.G.Dewilde and F.A.Dewilde in the new garden (1970)

I mean my father planted all by himself many hundreds of trees and plants. His interest for very old, almost prehistoric trees and plants was striking. It was as if he wanted to recreate a mythical original forest. So my youth was dominated by the discovery of and the close contact with the mosses, ferns, Gingko Bilobas, Magnolia’s, Sequoia Sempervirens and the Sequoiadendron Giganteum or the rows of enchanting Japanese Cherry Blossoms. As a kid I remember planting ‘my own’ Giganteum in his new forest. I recall the direct contact with the trees, many of their stories. Tales about the great, giant trees, their memories inhabit me. So I remember much later, my first visit to Yosemite. Walking up to them and camping next to them. It was as if I never left them. In a way I am still there.


AH: What were his philosophical and political beliefs?

MD: That’s a difficult question as we lost him early, so my answer will be fragmentary.

I vividly recall his admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi and his beliefs about nature and the animal world, in combination with his admiration for Eastern philosophies. My father was very interested in the work of English-speaking authors especially the writers and poets associated with the Romantic Movement. I remember our trips to the Lake District, so I suspect that Wordsworth, Coleridge and others must have been important. Next to the English influence there are the Americans, precursors of environmentalism, I am quite sure about Emerson, probably Thoreau’s Walden, Muir also.


AH: Your father was also known as the cheetah-man?

MD: In a way yes, he wanted to save a number of large carnivores and build a refuge for them in his park. Animals which were held in appalling circumstances by private owners and who were alas not capable anymore to be returned to the wild. Together we visited a number of refuges for wild animals. Animals left by circuses, small zoos, private owners. I saw abused, beaten, angry or depressed animals: tigers, lions, cheetahs, you have simply no idea. I experienced human cruelty, disrespect. I learned to see humans in a different way.

AH: We went full circle, let’s end this first part of the interview with your question: how can we still curate in the Anthroposcene? And on what kind of Earth is the curator working? Which circumstances renders his job so problematic?

MD: It is hard to summarise the present situation of Earth and Man or for that matter the curator, in a few sentences.

I will give it a go: Thanks to a vast range of scientific, economical and political breakthroughs, major improvements on health, food, living and education were accomplished: we live much longer, we live in better conditions, the Homo Sapiens prospers. This leads to a seemingly unstoppable surge of the world population. Here, I add of course that those improved living conditions, do not apply to all nations and places on Earth. Far from it. Anyhow these ‘positive results’ of human progress, lead simultaneously to a massive increase of waste production, rampant pollution, destruction of our and others habitat. A depleted habitat, unable to follow human demands.

So for example, we speak since the 1970’s about an ecological overshoot. To put it simply: this planet can no longer satisfy the global human demands. Nor can Earth deal with our gargantuan waste production. And this troubling imbalance is on the rise. One of the driving forces behind this insatiable demand combined with the escalating waste production is the desire for the new and the different. I call it the production of a culture of the never ending choice. For me one of the major ecological problems is the continuous development of a choice culture, generated by the politics of endless choice and its central agent: the choosy-consumer. This cultural phenomenon is a major product of post-capitalism and is firmly embedded in the myth of the self, the individualistic and free consumer.

This search for, or the invention of the new and the different self leads automatically to an increased ecological footprint, greater demands, and a further exploitation, of Earth and its resources. In that sense I put the role of the curator in the spotlights. I felt that the (art) curator embodies, epitomizes the culture of choice, and not so much through the element of selecting, but above all in the search for the different, the other and the production of the new. The simple fact that we can eat, consume what we want whenever we desire it, or occupy, accaparate, built when, how and where we seem fit, and that we travel, move, go where and how we want, is not sustainable any longer and is endangering the planet and all its inhabitants.

So where does the always travelling, consuming, producing curator go from here?

Should he or she not lead by example?




So many steps, so little time


‘So many steps, so little time’ by guest curator Jerome Jacobs is presented to you by Cultuurcentrum Brugge within the framework of December Dance 2016 and Brugge foto 16. Jacobs’ approach to UK dance, movement and performance art is vibrant and dynamic. He focuses mainly on video art and documentaries, to which he adds photos, visual art works and a number of performances. Conscious of recent history, Jacobs creates a timeline that starts in the postpunk era with works by Gavin Turk, Sid Vicious and others, continues in the1980-1990’s club scene with art by emblematic figures like Leigh Bowery, and ends in the present day. His art highlights the opposition between elements like silence, slowness and a sense of movement on the one hand and noise pollution and dynamism on the other. Thematically, he focuses on the many layers and facets of Britain’s multicultural society and on the fear of the other, the outsider, the unknown body.

04/12/2016 – 15/012017 De Bond

Maryam Najd and Iran, suspended between her country of origin and the Iranian diaspora

I did study abroad: But even at that time, while my hands were doing something, my mind was in Iran. (Parviz Tanavoli, 1976)


When we bring the artistic practice of Maryam Najd into relation with her Iranian context, this can cast another light on certain aspects of her oeuvre.  But it can also limit her oeuvre to an ‘exotic context.’

At this time, for the nth time, we find ourselves at a stage in European cultural politics in which cultural organisations are being polled for their visitors’ numbers, participation and – significantly – whether or not certain target audiences are being reached. Visitor statistics that prove there is a broad ‘basis of support’ have become important tools in the legitimisation of the societal raison d’être of a cultural product, and are structurally linked to funding levels. And, in this way, terms such as art and culture for and with migrants or foreigners continually arise in funding applications and programming alike. One of the underlying motivating factors of such policies is to engage a large group of people in a (Western) society of which they apparently do not form a part.   

This phenomenon is not new as such. In the early nineties such aims coincided with the sudden ‘discovery’ by western art institutions of the existence of a global modern art and the art market that is linked to it. This finally led to a serious representation of non-western art scenes, a rewriting of the history of modernism, but also to the reintroduction of new mechanisms of exploitation, dominance or even exoticism. In this way artists with a non-European background were included in all kinds of ethno-cultural or religious thematic exhibitions, or set to work in socio-artistic projects in which their background played a leading role. In that sense they were reduced to an ethno-cultural component. Artist and professor Olu Oguibe (°1964) phrased it aptly: ‘… to explore the peculiar predicament of artists who come to the global contemporary art arena from backgrounds outside the West only to discover that the most valued attribute required of them is their difference.’

Maryam Najd left Iran in 1992 after a lengthy education in miniature painting (1983-1987) and studies at the University of Fine Arts Tehran (1986-1991). She continued her training in Antwerp at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (1992-1996) and finally at the HISK (1996-1997). Even if in some texts and reviews her Iranian or ‘Eastern’ background were mentioned in passing, her work was seldom brought into relation with Iranian art. This chapter is intended to ascertain whether the exercise of contextualising her work can cast another light on the analysis of her oeuvre. Can we for example place parts of her practise, her chosen style, the subjects or themes she treats, within a number of Iranian tendencies? But, in that context, of which Iranian context are we speaking? We will make a sharp distinction between the early modernist and prevailing art scenes in Iran itself and diverse groups that are active abroad and are classified under the Iranian diaspora.

We shall begin with a first thesis: Najd’s position is not only located between Iran, her country and community of origin, and Flanders/Europe, her place(s) of arrival; she also positions herself somewhere between the various Iranian art scenes and groups in the diaspora. Najd left her country in 1992, of her own volition, with a view to pursuing her education. In that sense she is no refugee or exile, which distinguishes her from a major part of the Iranian diaspora. On the other hand, she has since her arrival been perceived as an emigrant, a stranger, a Muslim woman, or as a threat, which again places her within the confines of part of the diaspora.

The Iranian diaspora is no homogenous group: a major part of these dispersed communities is based in Europe, the United States and, more recently, also the United Arab Emirates. The reason for where they settle is often closely related to the various socio-political upheavals in Iran and, simultaneously, their actual position within the political system at the time. A group of artists left the country during the second period of the Pahlavi dynasty (during the sixties and seventies) in reaction to the Shah’s regime, while others followed the banned imperial family before the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979; a later group left Iran during the establishment of the Islamic Republic (during the eighties and later). Yet another group of artists left Iran for merely familial and/or professional reasons. Given Najd’s motives to emigrate she belongs to this last, ‘disparate’ group. 

These communities of the diaspora become as heterogeneous in terms of cultural production as the diversity of their membership. Some artist practises were oriented towards the production of an Iranian identity abroad, as a counterculture. They developed a sense of belonging to a different Iranian model, which existed virtually side by side or in opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the same time artists strove to distinguish themselves from the local culture in the country of their arrival. Others chose to be absorbed; to flow into and participate in the local mainstream, in combination with the exploration of certain subject positions with themes such as escape, exile or the forced life outside of one’s community of origin.   

The latter proposition provides a second thesis: Maryam Najd operates in a relatively isolated way; she chose to adopt a critical form of participation and does not position herself within a clearly delineated Iranian diaspora. At certain times in her oeuvre she works around a series of subject positions such as the refugee, the foreigner, whether it is combined (or not) with references to her Iranian culture, but global questions may just as well arise. This latter dimension acts more as a mirror or a screen onto which the artist projects her desires, fears, questioning and critical analyses.

Transnationality versus an Iranian diaspora?

Can we bring Najd’s position and part of her oeuvre into relation with a so-called transnational position instead of with the Iranian diaspora? Contrary to a dimension determined by the diaspora, whereby migrants maintain strong ties with their fatherland and feel barely connected to their country of arrival, a transnational identity moves somewhere between different worlds. We saw that part of the artists in the strong Iranian diaspora forged a parallel, national identity, both regarding the present Iranian government and their respective countries of arrival. We can compare these diasporic elements with forms of cultural occupation, an archipelago of small islands spread over the territory of the new community, where one recreates an imagined homeland, often in a simplified way. In the face of this Iranian diaspora Najd tends to operate transnationally, beyond both worlds, be it as an observer who keeps a critical eye between the lines on all the communities of which she is a part. She speaks several European languages and knows about the local cultures in which she lives and works, whilst maintaining the connection with her country of origin. 

We find a similar openness and a desire to reach beyond da local/national dimension in a number of Najd’s works and themes. A good example of this are the installations The Non Existence Flag Project (2010-2012) and the related The Grand Bouquet (2011-2012). In The Non Existence Flag Project the artist examines a number of representations of nation states. She deconstructs the flag motif with the typical national colours, symbols and in some cases also text. Najd experiences the national flag as a compulsory symbol for a national state, a visual cloak for the having or obtaining of a nationality and the relative limitations for people who do not belong to a particular nation. She questions the limitations of the nation, of the notion of nationality and its symbols and finds a solution in the form of a global world society with a palette detached from politics or nations. In relation to this, in The Grand Bouquet, Najd researched the flowers used as national symbols: every country has a national flower as its symbol. In response to this Najd thought up a ‘global flower bouquet’ as a representation of a global unity beyond local distinctions and differences. In these works, too, the artist bases herself on her personal situation: in the West her ‘Iranian nationality’ has frequently been received as a negative. And yet she transcends the merely personal dimension with this flag project as she translates it artistically to a global dimension.

Najd in Iran

Najd left her country of origin as an adult, aged 26, having already enjoyed extensive art training.  The question remains of whether, and to what extent, this Iranian phase shaped her work. 

From a number of interviews we gather that she studied during the Iraq-Iranian war (1980-1988). During her first training, in the celebrated Persian miniature art, she was taught by the teacher Ali Motie (°Teheran 1916?), who had a great influence on her, an eminent specialist from the neo-Herat-/neo-Safavid school. After this course of study she began a new course at the University of Fine Arts in Teheran. There, according to her own account, she developed a pronounced interest in colour, landscapes and still lives, including floral pieces. During that course attention was also paid to the Old European Masters. In terms of modernist influences, she mentions movements such as cubism, expressionism up to conceptual art. Regarding the burgeoning Iranian modernism, she is clear: ‘This simply did not come up. Remember the historical situation: these artists were part of the Shah’s sphere of influence.’ To the question regarding possible influences on her work of artists that belong to the most important Iranian movements that came into being during the Pahlavi dynasty, such as the Sakka-khaneh or Nakkashi-khatt, she answers in the negative. Several times the word cultural restriction is uttered; she speaks of images that were shown partially covered or blocked out; the strict control of students and their subject matter; the division of genders in the course. As far as artists who influenced her are concerned, Najd mentions the renowned miniaturist Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād (ca. 1450 – ca. 1535) and, remarkably, also Kamāl-al-Mulk (1847/48-1940). She also recalls an exhibition with work by Kamran Katouzian (°Teheran 1941) at the TMoCA. Regarding her Iranian period she also says: ‘I left Iran as a realistic painter.’

The development of a layered realistic style

In the interview Najd mentions the artist Kamāl al-Mulk as an example. She hereby returns us to the Qajar dynasty (period of rein 1785-1925) and the introduction of the earliest forms of modernity in Iran. Kamāl al-Mulk (1847/48-1940), originally named Mirza Mohammad Ghaffari, was appointed as the court painter of the Qajar king Nassir al-Din Shah (rein 1848-1896). Al-Mulk counts as a key figure in the development of an early form of Iranian modernity in the second half of the 19th century. Under the influence of European examples he developed an academic realistic style that, above all, was intended to represent the regal aspirations of his masters, their architecture and their immediate surroundings. His style was very different from the eclectic Iranian painting of the time that displayed strong influences of the old Persian miniatures.

Here we would like to put forward a new supposition: Najd did indeed leave Iran as a realistic painter; her early work was a synthesis of a photographic or illusionist realism of the al-Mulks school and the attention to detail that came from her fascination for the art of Persian miniatures. We can find an example of this striking realism in her portrait of a Sheikh (1990-1991?), which she painted in Teheran. This work can be brought into relation with the examples of Kamāl al-Mulk, but also those of his followers. The tradition of this court painter to the Qajar continued long after his death in Iran, even throughout or in parallel with the modernist movements of, for example, the Sakka-khaneh. Here we think specifically of the portraits by al-Mulks’ best pupil, Ali Mohammad Heydarian (1896-1990).

The question remains whether the influence of the realistic tradition on Najd and the apparent absence of the Iranian modernists in her curriculum are only due to the policies of the Islamic republic, which strove for a break with the art and image culture of the Pahlavi dynasty, or that it is instead a continuation of the older, realistic tradition. In the latter case, with her portraits Najd would align with contemporary Iranian artists such as Y.Z. Kami (°1956, Teheran), Ahmad Morshedloo (°1973 Mashhad) and others.

In any case the seeds for her varied figurative style, the ease with which she switches from suggestive synthetic painting to an extremely detailed representation within the same work, appear to have been present throughout her education in Iran. We can trace this attention to detail back to her training as a miniaturist, to which the painting of a woman included as illustration to this text attests.   

Najd’s combination of figuration and more abstract art, and her frequent use of the monochrome, generally tend to be brought into relation with European examples. We would like to add a touch of nuance here, too:  influences from painters such as Gerhard Richter are not unthinkable, but still the attention to colour, as encouraged at the university of Teheran as well as the role of colour fields in her training as a miniaturist are not to be underestimated. 

Najd and Iranian modernity

Najd’s synthesis between these apparently disparate influences seems analogous to the relationship between modernity, modern art and Iran. An analysis of that complex and at times problematic relationship falls beyond the remit of this text. We will here keep it to a sketch that touches upon some of the forces that can possibly be related to Najd’s oeuvre.

A first element is the determinant role of the government in the importation of any kind of modernity in Iran. From the 19th century onwards this modernity was imposed from above, first by the Qajar dynasty and until 1978 by the Pahlavi dynasty that followed. These were disputed, imposed ideologies that were barely adopted by the broader layers of the population. In that sense, Iran gives an early example of processes that would later appear in the wider region. After the popular uprising against the Pahlavi dynasty in 1978-79 we also find that close-knit situation between governmental structures and the art world at the heart of the Islamic Republic, albeit with different protagonists and art forms. While the Qajar kings affirmed themselves in the 19th century representations as the first modern, enlightened monarchs, and the Shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty propagated their image of the imperial, worldly, modernist state, art in the Islamic Republic served the antimonarchic and anti-western ideology of the Islamic Revolution. Artists, architects or urbanists were consciously deployed to further the image and to consolidate the situation of those in power.

A second element is the manifold relationship between modern or contemporary art and the formation of a national cultural identity, an element that often returns throughout Iranian history. During the Qajar period the modernisation of the country was accelerated. This was paired with the importation of western photography, including the daguerreotype. Following that, aspects of European painting and other art forms were aspired to, whilst examples were taken from photography, which was viewed as a reliable, almost scientific discipline. In their work, Iranian painters tried to equal the degree of realism achieved by photography. This however happened at a moment in time in which European artists were starting to move away from such illusionistic representation, for example in impressionism. Being modern found a different expression in Iran; the detailed representation of visible reality was key.

This Iranian evolution differed from that in the West and it was strengthened even further starting in the years 1940-50. In various intellectual and artistic circles the call for modernity that was specific to Iran, even Anti western or non-European, became increasingly clearer. The fascination for the West was described with the term gharb-zadigi (westoxication), a notion that has arisen often since. In this climate, in the late 1950ies and early 1960ies, movements such as the Sakka-khaneh, with influential artists such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (°1937 Teheran), Parviz Tanavoli (°1937, Teheran) and Faramarz Pilaram (°1937-1982), arose. These artists consciously adopted an analysis of local Iranian and/or Persian motifs, often from popular culture, interweaving them with contemporary discourse. This longing for the development of a locally embodied modernity simmers on in the work and discourses of Maryam Najd’s contemporaries, such as Sadegh Tirafkan (1965-2013) and Khosrow Hassanzadeh (°1963, Teheran), with a local modernity.

Najd’s art of concealment: a look beyond deception, the mirror and the veil

The conclusion remains that the various Iranian governments and rulers needed modernity and its representations in order to consolidate their politics, but that at the same time many artists continued to develop their own vision and style, often in an indirect, veiled manner. In a previous essay we have summarised this apparently paradoxical relationship between Iran, the imposed modernity and the striving for a local, unique voice, using the photograph by the 19th century Iranian photographer Antoin Sevruguin (1840?-1933). His intriguing state portrait of the Qajar king, Naser-al-Din Shah sitting at his desk in the Hall of Mirrors (1890?), reflects this complex power relationship and the role of the artist. Sevruguin places the subject of the photograph, king Naser-al-Din Shah, towards the background and the reflection of the photographer is visible behind the king’s back. In that way, not only photography, but also the author-photographer Sevruguin appear to dominate king Naser-al-Din-Shah, one of the founders of Qajar modernism.

Part of Najd’s practice seems to resonate stylistically with the more photographic-realistic tendencies in Iranian painting, although we should expand this to include the influences that she absorbed in Europe. In terms of themes and subject matter, aspects such as veiling, mirroring, masquerading, the analysis of power structures and their representation in the media play an important role. Najd frequently allows the harshness of reality to briefly float to the surface in her works. She obliquely conceals the confrontational inequality under many layers of paint, or sets it up, covers it, in the shade of a dazzlingly rich colour palette, of blinds it with the flash of cameras or televisions. Again the world of the renowned Iranian artists such as Parviz Tanavoli appears to be close at hand: ‘… in Persian life everything is inside’.

In the end, Najd, after the revelation of these painful subjects, appears to want to dissolve into the rich colour fields of her monochromes, whereby she invites the viewer to meditate in silence and harmony. In other instances she presents our reflection in a mirror of colour, with the author in the background. 

Michel Dewilde

Guest Curator