As far as the perpetrator is aware, he’s the first person to pull off an art heist of this kind.
In a challenge to the concept of authorship, Edward Salem has lifted the works of no fewer than 25 internationally known artists and displayed them at the UMAM Hangar exhibition space.
Salem’s curatorial project “By Hook or by Crook” is no conventional act of theft. Rather than simply appropriating the original works, he recreates them using local materials.
“About Money and Zeros,” by Serbian artist Mladen Stilinovic?, for example, features a wad of small denomination shekles impaled on a fork and affixed to the gallery wall. Salem’s recreation uses LL1,000 notes instead.
While Salem attributes all the works to their original creators, he displays each next to a useful set of do-it-yourself instructions. For most, the instructions are simple.
Liudvikas Buklys’ “Portrait of Ignacy Julian Cejzych” requires that one “Buy light blue drawing tool (e.g. crayon, colored pencil, pastel stick). Draw thick arc high on wall.”
Others recreations demand more work and precision.
For David Hammons’ “In the Hood” one must “Find green hoodie. Cut off hood. Nail to wall and shape as shown, using balloon and homemade fabric stiffener, equal parts white glue and water.”
All the displayed pieces could feasibly be recreated by a punter with the artistic aptitude of a mosquito.
The U.S.-raised and educated artist says his project is to the art industry what torrent sites are to the film industry. At first glance it screams belligerence – an angry defiance of an over-hyped, market-driven industry. Salem’s motivations for assembling the exhibition are more thoughtful.
“I wanted to address the trend of outrageously high production and expensive art by embracing more modest modes of production, art that’s a poetry of the everyday and familiar,” he said in an email interview.
“I wanted to raise possibilities and critique the conventional market-driven modes of distribution and ownership to imagine a more fluid and inclusive economy of cultural meanings.
“The idea of how and where and at what expense art could be produced is just as meaningful as the art itself.”
This project was originally intended for display in Ramallah, having been conceived, “following an abortive attempt to exhibit a renowned artist in Palestine.” the exhibition sheet explains.
Restrictions on mobility and access in the occupied territories can curtail the exhibition of foreign work as it does personal contact among Palestinians. Salem’s decision to recreate the works evinces ingenuity akin to that of an art thief or forger.
When Salem and his exhibition were denied entry to Palestine, he decided to create it in Lebanon instead.
“I didn’t reconceptualize or change the show,” Salem says. “It’s a question of the exhibition also being relevant to this context, though in different ways.
“We could say the concept is purest in the context of Palestine, where there are severe economic limitations and restrictions on mobility and trade.
“Lebanon is not under a military occupation, but it does suffer from neoliberal economic policies that contribute to class disparity ... and lack of access. There’s no modern or contemporary art museum and no international art collection of note in Lebanon, just as there aren’t in Palestine.”
Some of these works, he suggests, may prove more poignant in Lebanon than Palestine.
The “racial tension evoked in the two pieces by William Pope.L [sic] may for some speak to the pervasive racism plaguing Lebanon, in relation to its relatively high population of foreign workers.
“On the other hand Diego Leclery’s piece, which evokes the idea that imprisonment only strengthens convictions, would probably resonate more in Palestine, where the mass prisoners’ hunger strike has played a significant role in the resistance efforts.
“By Hook or by Crook” assembles an array of work while avoiding the logistical challenges involved in assembling the original work of artists of a certain stature. Yet Salem’s free-for-all is not without its limitations.
Most obviously, a major curatorial principle of the exhibition is the capacity of the work to be recreated on site, and his craft in restaging it.
Salem contends it was possible to exercise significant selectivity even within a restricted field.
“I compiled a large folder of possible works that are recreate-able, many more than could fit in the space,” he says. “Many of the works were chosen because they are motivated by deeply felt political commitments ...”
While restricted in the works he could use, one boon of Salem’s technique is that it leaves the curator wholly unfettered in how those works can be displayed.
Salem says he “was interested in creating a kind of narrative that could arise from the formal and political qualities of and connections between the works as a viewer navigates the gallery.
“In a way I see this exhibition as one piece or artwork, a group exhibition as an artwork. For example, I love that I had the opportunity to present Ghassan Mashala’s piece ‘Until Victory (Dome of the Rock)’ between Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ synced clocks ‘Perfect Lovers’ and Amalia Pica’s colorful array of cups in ‘Eavesdropping,’ Mashala’s gold champagne bottle nearby. There’s a story or a scene evoked in the associations of the arrangement.”
Onlookers are unlikely to be overly bogged down by the political overtones of the project because, as the artist is well aware, the show is fun.
“I think what might have resonated most with the audience is the humor of the show. Many have said they found it playful and funny. I think it’s great when you can raise more serious questions of politics and art – maybe even answer a few – through humor and play.”
As for the artists whose work has been heisted, Salem says some of their galleries have contacted him about the permission he never secured beforehand. He seems unconcerned about any legal repercussions.
“Galleries and estates of artists who seek to protect the commercial viability of the products they manage know it’d be a losing battle to pursue me in this new era,” he muses, “where there is an established precedent by now of appropriation and recontextualization, open-sourcing and new modes of distribution, that protects artists with projects like mine.”
Time will tell.
Edward Salem’s “By Hook or by Crook” is up at The UMAM Hangar in Harat al-Hreik until June 17. For more information call 01-553-604 or visit www.thehangar-umam.org.
By / Daily Star