Octavian Esanu on Skill, Deskilling, Reskilling


The Daily Star  June 1, 2013

By Chirine Lahoud


The Daily Star


BEIRUT: The American University of Beirut unveiled its second art gallery earlier this month.

The AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery (AUBBBAG) was inaugurated within the campus gates with the exhibition “Art in Labor: Skill/Deskilling/Reskilling,” curated by Octavian Esanu.

The show is comprised of works by a wide range of modern and contemporary art, including figurative works by pioneers Georges Daoud Corm and Saliba Douaihy, an installation by Lawrence Abu Hamdan that ponders the importance of sound, and Hito Steyerl’s short film “Strike,” a study of an LCD screen’s breaking point.

Esanu spoke to The Daily Star about the new gallery’s place in the country’s cultural life and how it should configure itself as an artistic and academic venue.

Q: How did you come to curate the inaugural exhibition of the AUBBBAG?

A: I [was] hired almost a year ago by AUB. It announced its interest in arts, [its willingness] to promote arts and to play a more important role in Lebanon’s cultural life. It has been decided to launch a new program to work on new art spaces.

We have this space and the [off-campus] AUB Art Gallery. In that space, we organize shows which [focus] more on modernism. There was the Khalil Saleeby show which I organized also. After that, we organized another show called “Profiles,” which was about collectors of Lebanese art ...

I was selected and employed for a program called AUB Art Gallery and Collections. They received the first collection of paintings of Saleeby by one of his relatives, Samir Saleeby, who offered his collection of artworks to AUB. We use these artworks to teach students about art and the history of art because we have an arts department.

Q: How should the mandates of the AUB Art Gallery and AUBBBAG be viewed? Are they meant to complement one another in their exhibition programs, or are they designed to run without reference to one another?

A: At this point we haven’t established a reference with each other. The only thing they may have in common is using works made at AUB, donated to AUB or commissioned [by] AUB. At this point, this is the only one but I’m sure that in future we will organize a project [on which] both spaces will work.

It is nice to have a historical space like the one off-campus and this gallery to show periods of artists from the past who worked and are not well-known. It is not only about showing art but also to include an academic knowledge [of] it, with research. [AUBBBAG] is a gallery dedicated to contemporary art. We have artists here from Lebanon, Egypt, Germany and the U.S.

Q: While Lebanon has no national gallery or museum of fine art, Beirut is home to a few respected art spaces. As you know, these tend to fall into two categories: commercial galleries like Agial and Sfeir-Semler and noncommercial spaces, of which the Beirut Art Center is most prominent.

How does the AUBBBAG fit into this habitat? How do you see the role of a university gallery in straddling academic, commercial and noncommercial functions?

A: Its distinct mission is that it is an art gallery located on the campus. We try to emphasize the learning aspect of it. Every time we [stage] an exhibition, professors bring their students, try to coordinate the practical and theoretical aspects [of art]. We try to show [art] in practical terms.

The Beirut Art Center does very serious exhibitions. “Home Works 6” ... brought the most distinguished [figures in] regional art. Our [space] is maybe a little more academically inclined. It invites art critics ... This kind of academic dimension [is important] ...

Q: For the AUBBBAG’s inaugural show you’ve referenced John Roberts’ labor theory of culture [which traces artists’ historical transformation from being artisans who know how to make beautiful objects to being aesthetically minded intellectuals whose work employs ready-made objects, or employs craftsmen to make the objects. Does your show speak to this disparity? Is there a disparity at all?

A: I could explain it in another way. At AUB, we have this fine art department. We have professors who believe that a good artist is someone who has a good hand, who can draw a painting or make a sculpture. We have other art professors who believe that, yes this is important, but it is also important to be well informed, to use this more rational form of art. Art is about skill, coordination, manual and conceptual. How do you give form to abstract stuff? How do you translate economic problems into artistic forms?

We decided to organize this exhibition and try to clarify a little the position inside our department. We did this exhibition to show the different visions of art labor, skilled works and we invited John Roberts. He has written a book in 2008 [“The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade”], in which he speaks about this entire problematic. He tried to understand what happened in art, from an artist’s point of view. He came and gave a few lectures. It was perfect for an academic setting, for an arts space.

When you look at Douaihy and these drawings, I’m not using the word “artisanal” [to mean an] artisan who makes pots. Artisanal means in this context – for instance, 100-200 years ago before the avant-garde art was recognized – the excellence of an artist who was recognized within the closed circle of artisans through [his] technical proficiency. It is called “artisanal” because of the use of hands. And this excellence was seen through artisanal, manual or skilled qualities. Now, we don’t have this anymore.

Q: This exhibition will have a generous run, not shutting until the end of July. What’s next for the AUBBBAG?

A: It is a bit early to discuss it now and say exactly when it will happen. There is [still] extra work to do in the space first. But we are now working on the program for the next year with many events [scheduled].



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