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.

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.

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.

by Michel Dewilde

Featured image: Portrait of Michel Dewilde

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43 pages 156-170.