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The Guggenheim’s Potentially Controversial "Middle East" Show Is Anything But

Stainless steel and rubber mobiles and cities constructed of couscous comprise the Guggenheim's 'But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise.'

by Kat Herriman
May 17 2016, 4:25pm

Installation View: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 29–October 5, 2016. Photo: David Heald

But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise, the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s new show, may be a mouthful, but what it purports to accomplish stays relatively straightforward. The final part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, the lyrically-titled exhibition introduces a newly acquired work designed to broaden the scope of the museum’s holdings. This show, focused on contemporary artist practices from North Africa and Middle East, uses geometry as an entry point for understanding the region’s connection to its history and the geopolitical climate. Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator Sara Raza took lead on the acquisition driven exhibition, which now resides on the interior galleries of the fourth and fifth floor.

If you start from the top of the exhibition, the show’s opener is artist Ala Younis with his Plan for Greater Baghdad (2015), a series of inkjet prints referencing a set of images that architect Rifat Chadirji took in 1982 of a Le Corbusier-designed gym in Baghdad named for Saddam Hussein. Unknowable at first glance, the wall text gives Younis’ piece the requisite knowledge for enjoyment—most of the work shows requires this kind of sustained attention. Flying Carpets (2011), a mobile of stainless steel and rubber by Berlin-based artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke, consumes the left wall but leaves room for visitors to pass beneath it. A reference to magic carpet narratives as well as the blankets that Illegal street vendors use to quickly pack and transport their wares to safety, Flying Carpets perfectly fulfills the show’s curatorial desire to link the symbolic significance of pattern with its aesthetic tradition. At the back of the gallery, Mariam Ghani’s two-channel video installation, A Brief History of Collapses (2012), widens the gaze. It parallels the narratives of two buildings the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany and the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul, in order to draw attention to treatment of architectural icons in the two cultures. Tied together by their fascination with architecture and its absence, these three artworks hang together comfortably.

Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaïa), 2009, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP Purchase Fund 2015.84. Installation View: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 29–October 5, 2016. Photo: David Heald

Architecturally-engaged work appears again on the fourth floor, where a city constructed entirely of couscous elicits the first awes of the day. From afar, Kader Attia's piece looks like a sandcastle, but up-close one sees the grains which the artist carefully sculpted to look like a model of Ghardaia, a city in Algeria, that designers Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon borrowed from heavily but without any acknowledgement to the Mzab influence. Another recreation, Hassan Khan's Bank Bannister, a shiny brass facsimile of the handrail outside Egypt’s first locally owned bank, floats by itself. The sculpture's finish also coincidently matches the ones you see the Guggenheim's staircases. A symbol for stabilized, regional wealth, Khan’s stairway to nowhere asks more questions than it answers. Using architecture as a bellwether for political stability and cultural progress, these works question the structural viability of the developing world.

The fourth floor feels significantly less cohesive, but there are treasures to be found for those curious enough to look. Dubai based artist Mohammed Kazem’s monumental Scratches on Paper (2014) looks completely blank until one is close enough to perceive the obsessive incisions that cover the matte surface. Engaged in repetition and the recording of action, Kazem’s piece connects to more critically-engaged content, like Ahmed Mater’s lightboxes, which depict a bird's-eye view of Mecca, the holiest site in the Muslim world. Mater’s Disarm 1-10 (from Desert of Pharan) comes out of the artist’s vigilant recordings of the city's development over the past decade—including its gentrification and militarization.

Installation View: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 29–October 5, 2016. Photo: David Heald

Despite the extreme levels of inequality and liberty hinted at by the a vast majority of the work, But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise feels peculiarly benign. Soft-spoken in its delivery, the critique leveled against social and political systems could go unnoticed if you’re not reading carefully—perhaps a kind of safety precaution for the artists involved. In light of the Guggenheim’s own construction projects in the area, specifically that of the forthcoming, Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the museum has taken a lot of heat for its unwillingness to work with the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, a protest group formed by artists and activists concerned by the potential mistreatment of workers during construction. Since the work has yet to commence, the institution seems to be caught in its own development cycle and unable to speak to an uncertain future. Hopefully when plans move forward, the museum will be able to take a stronger stance.

The exhibit But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise is at the Guggenheim through October . 

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