May 2009, Interview with Al Braithwaite
Lee Johnson in conversation with Al Braithwaite
Museum No. 1 Hizbollah's Caviar and Other Works on Terror at Rose Issa Projects
269 Kensington High Street
London W8 6NA
April 23 through May 16, 2009
Lee Johnson: Your solo exhibition 'Museum No. 1 Hizbollah's Caviar' consists of a limited Edition artist book and series of photographs. Why did you choose to produce a book?
Al Braithwaite: The book is a timeless art form, as relevant in the age of the internet as the age of the illuminated manuscript. As a way of delivering and storing knowledge, and compressing a large area of physical and symbolic space into an openable, portable, container - without the need for say a computer, broadband signal or power point - the book is an enduring human technology.
I love the sense that when you step up to create a book, you are vying with the ancestors, playing the with the same chessboard that say a Rumi, a Shakespeare, or a Nietzsche played on. Or artistically, the same chessboard that say a Ruscha, a Duchamp, or a Guo-Qiang have played on. There's familiarity and fierce competition in that. You are orbiting the same Ka'aba. You are looking at the same night sky. You tread the same soil.
I also admire the singularity of books, with their multiplicity of contents; their simultaneous smallness and largeness; their self-contained interiority; their kinetic journey; their finality; their authority; their tactility; their intimacy; their appearance as bodies, covered in skin (leatherbound ones very obviously so) And with my amount of work, on a massive geographical scale... the idea of compressing it all into 4kg, pouring my soul in, creating a black hole to pull people in, wrapping the War on Terror up into a box, is one that appeals. It should feel like a bomb going off, or threatening to go off. Guernica-like.
LJ: How did the exhibition at Rose Issa Projects come about?
AB: Since 2004, Rose has been a vociferous supporter of my Middle East work, which first came to her attention through the Booth-Clibborn Editions bookOffscreen (Braithwaite, Hemming, et al. 2004). She has been following my work keenly ever since, and has been delighted to see the slow maturation of this body of work into something quite heavy and significant, culminating in the scope for a solo exhibition. She offered me her new Project Space in 2008 as a site to launch the project, when I was ready. It has been a great honour to work with her on Hizbollah's Caviar, with her gold-standard reputation, dynamism and warmth. I can't imagine a better person to be working with, she is constantly incredible.
LJ: When you set out for the Middle East, what made you think art could bring people together during conflict? And did you experience this in practice?
AB: I view art as an exemplary locus of mental health and a hub of world-creation: one of the most valuable ways in which the world can renew itself. Art as Medicine as Aeronautics as Military Industrial Complex as Freedom as Stimulus Package as Myrmecology. Among artists - in Tehran as much as London as much as Beirut - that's almost universal, (hence the common goal). Yeah yeah, you can tell I have idealism levels that smack of Mr Blair. (I saw him matter-of-factly talked of as 'the British Devil' in a Jordanian newspaper, that was good.)
On the Offscreen project, by taking four people, a message and a truck called Yasmine out around the Middle East, it started small and grew, like a weed trying to struggle through a tennis court. The group of us worked hard. Our message reached over 15 million people by the end of the first journey. And into the future,Misadventure In The Middle East by Henry Hemming (2007) continues to entertain audiences with a beautifully written account of the group's antics, and the Offscreen Education Programme headed by Stefan Stapleton continues to do stalwort pragmatic work, introducing European Schools to Middle Eastern Schools and vice-versa, and conducting expeditions. Meanwhile, the freshness of Offscreen (2004) together with the talismanic mass of Museum No.1: Hizbollah's Caviar (2008) are both lasting legacies of the work. This is bringing people together, and challenging them, renewing them even.
LJ: What attracted you to the Middle East to the point that you sold all your possessions and went there for 6 years?
AB: Reputation, Space, Light, Hospitality, Bravery, Defiance, Kinship, Misunderstanding, War, Orientalism, Imprisonment, Disempowerment, Destitution, that kind of thing. It's reassuring you can live anywhere; I have lived in lots of different places.
Much of the last six years has been spent in the Middle East, and some of it outside too, in places like New York, LA and London, where it exists too. (As any cartographer will tell you, you should not take a map literally.) Bit like Santa Claus, The Middle East doesn't actually exist. I mean I guess it does,
but not meaningfully. Not in THAT way.
LJ: You describe your Artist book as a 'Museum'. Please explain how a book can act as a form of museum.
AB: It's a building to preserve and display culture.
I wanted my museum to be small enough to fit on the back of a ute or a camel, or a human, perhaps neatly contained in a small Nike rucksack or cotton khefiyeh - for adaptability in a changing world. You could consult it, like a sacred text. It could tell you something about the world.
LJ: You co-authored the 2004 book Off Screen: Four young Artists in the Middle East". How has this solo project compared to the collaborative project?
AB: The point of departure feels similar - journeying around the middle east (at a given historic moment) – but the destination feels very different. You know 5000 or so copies versus 28. 20quid versus 3-5k. Chatter versus solitude.
That kind of thing. High-end, leather, extremely rare, long-production cost, Anselm Kiefer mountain-moving versus affordable, ziney, mass-produced, whacked out, Banksyish winkle-picking.
LJ: There has been a lot of interest in Middle Eastern art since the recent Middle Eastern art exhibition at the Saatchi gallery. What was your experience of art and creativity when you were traveling in the region?
AB: Underexposed, underfunded, a wealth of talent waiting for international recognition (and political freedom in a lot of places). The territorial idea of art is bullshit, humans everywhere need to express themselves, and it's an annoying marketing thing, that New York has Abex, so Tehran can’t/doesn't.
LJ: When I interviewed Iranian-born artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh recently, he insisted that he is an Artist, not a 'Middle Eastern' artist. Would you describe yourself as a British artist making art inspired by the Middle East, or a Middle Eastern artist?
AB: My art doesn't have much to do with Britain. Comes up quite a lot this. I mean there are American artists that do work that's about America and there are American artists that don't. Nationhood is so overrated as a way of understanding artists, unless their work's about that; that's finally starting to be appreciated when we've got over this naff tribal marketing, chinese art, middle east art, american art one-size-fits-all, I don't much care for it. I feel as British or Persian or Turkish as the next man. I move around and want to get over obsessing about cultural difference, given that everyone's complex anyway. Read my preface, there's a big beef on misrepresentation.
LJ: How do you feel the contemporary experience of an Artist from the UK travelling and producing art in the Middle East compares to the Victorian experience of Western artists in what was then known as the Orient?
AB: Art and Cultural Studies have moved on a lot in the last hundred years, pumping vital fresh air into threadbare traditions. Thank God things like Dada, Punk, Pop, Postcolonialism, Feminism have changed the landscape forever. It's not that I don't respect John Frederick Lewis, it's that Edward Said gets my ear, for attending to his disquiet. I respect Vivaldi, but Kurt Cobain does turbulence better. I find that more beautiful.
I am glad my experience of the Middle East is not quaint, pretty watercolours if that's what you mean. My experience is more cigarettes and bulletholes, fishtails dune-diving, Toyotas, GIs and fake tracksuits taarofing. R.Mutt daubed on an Asian Toilets. A smile here and a car crash there.
LJ: How did you distill 6 years into one piece of art (4kg of world)?
AB: Like most artists, my method involves a lot of filtering and fermenting to come up with single entities that have many times their weight in power. It just happened, not in a planned way, that this body of work took six years to recover and reach the maturation point, bringing a weird patch of my life and the world's, up to a redemptive close. It is like the bottling of a fine concentrated liquid. You let it coil up, to rerelease its genuine capacity for dazzling unexpected pleasure.
LJ: Do you feel that your art offers an equally or even more insightful perspective of the Middle East than your counterparts such as Lord Leighton, John Frederick Lewis and Edward Lear did in the 1800's?
AB: If my art is informative, it's probably most so in the realm of psychology, imagination and contemporaneity. I don't set out to bottle the Middle East, I set out to bottle my journey, and chart the battles, crosscurrents and strange cul-de-sacs I find a long the way. Insightful? Maybe. Relevant? I hope. What does any one object, or one artist, tell you about the mass of other objects in the world? Never enough for me, in an ontological way, but that's half the fun of miniaturisation, and obviously not its truth. Every artist tries to build and climb their own mountain, and excel in their specialty, I mean Leighton, Lewis, and Lear are obviously three ancestral national treasures, at the height of their prowess. I would love my practice to burn with even 1% of their brightness, despite the clear differences in my time and style.
LJ: How does the advent of the digital camera and technology such as the internet aid the contemporary artist, and how does it benefit your practice?
AB: Mobility, seeing what you're getting, cheapness, connectivity, novelty, lubricating space, a whole welter of stuff. New media, new environments, new feelings, new places, new ways of looking, new attitudes, new speeds, new geeks, new language, new brands, new channels, new ideas. I benefit from all this stuff, it throws new options at me, saying look you've got an idea, why not make it out of this. Or this. Or this. Or this. I become aware of more stuff. The simultaneity of everything presses in on me, like never before. It gets worse, and better, everyday.
LJ: What contribution do you feel 'Museum No. 1 Hizbollah's Caviar' has made to the dialogue between east and west?
AB: I suppose when you stand at the Bosphorus, and try and work out whetherMuseum No.1 Hizbollah's Caviar will help you cross from one side to the other, maybe it will maybe it wont. I am not sure if it floats even. But maybe it makes you smile. Maybe it tells you something you didn't expect. I mean the bridges and boats do their thing to move people, and the artists do their thing to move people; and whether people choose to jump off a boat or sabotage a bridge or destroy a piece of art is kind of up to them. I'm just a crankshaft, a slightly futile take-it-or-leave-it contribution. Perhaps a Charon puntsman that meanders very weirdly among the waves. When we are talking of a million easts and a million wests, we are getting closer to the multidimensional universe the Museum is trying to pin down, or chop up and liberate.
LJ: Would you cite Joseph Beuys as as an influence? Are there any other artists that have deeply influenced your work?
AB: He's a bit self-obsessed and stuff, slightly too much of the shaman thing for me, but I do love his use of materials, so yeah Joseph Beuys is pretty influential in that way. I like Derek Jarman, Martin Puryear and Mark Wallinger a lot at the moment. And I've always thought of Helen Chadwick and Eileen Agar as industry standards.
LJ: What is the message of photographs such as 'Twinnedtowers in Rajef', which entwine eastern and western text in iconic brands such as pepsi and marlboro. Are you saying that global brands unite us?
AB: I use brands as touchstones of landscape, in the way an expanse of desert, lift of sunlight, or seductive hooker may present opportunities to a traditionalist. The cigarette for one is a powerful device to infer stress, globalism, consumption, America, fire, war, smoldering sexuality, mortality, anxiety, habituality, addiction, that kind of thing. I like that stuff, in the way that it's sold to me and I buy it, and it's everywhere. Celebrity shapes. Frenemy relationships. It doesn't strike me as unidirectional with global brands though, towards togetherness and enrichment, because they obviously rip apart communities, trashing equality, policing profit as they go, global dialectics blur blur blur. I sow my twin towers together because I wish to rebuild after 09/11, healing the massive perceived cultural rift that this event emblematised and amplified (e.g. between the english speaking world and the arabic speaking world). The easy symmetry of transliterated packaging, despite its obvious linguistic difference, is something that interests me in this contract. I like its duplicity.
LJ: You talk about 'New art for generation elect'. Do you feel that your perspective is more open-minded and informed than those artists and academics who were criticised by Edward Said in his work 'Orientalism'? Said saw Orientalism as a series of false assumptions held by the West about the East: Are you trying to forge a better understanding of arab cultures through your work. And how?
AB: With Hizbollah's Caviar I am trying to pick up Said's gauntlet and produce a genuinely revolutionary, empowering art that rings true with the vanguard of post-studio, post-structural, post-colonial attitudes to art and cultural production in this area. If I do something to trash the media stereotypes prevalent outside it, to cut-up the enduring macroscopic one-size-fits-all cultural straitjacket of categories like 'the Arab', 'the Muslim', 'the American', 'The Orientalist', then I have performed my duty.
Said's deriders don't interest me much, I defend his spirited anti-bigotry to the hilt, I'm also one of these defiant types. Racism, insensitivity and dominant-arrogance piss me off more than anything. Hallowed be the whistle-blowers. I hope he would look at Museum No. 1: Hizbollah's Caviar if he was still alive right now. And I hope it would resonate with him. It is an extension of his project; like a ring ranging out from his pebble.
LJ: What are your future projects?
AB: Dominoes, road kills, and icons (a post-Iraq collaborative mythology). Iran should see me this year too.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief