What if art was a game and everybody had the rules? What if an exhibition never ended? These are just two of the questions that occurred to Swiss art curator, critic and historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist, when sitting in a Parisian café nearly 23 years ago. This was when he originally came up with the idea for do it, an ever-evolving and “democratic” exhibition that, today, is the longest-running and furthest-spanning project of its kind.
It started with a candid conversation between Obrist, who is currently the notable artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, and French artists Christian Boltanksi and Bertrand Lavier, about the legendary Marcel Duchamp and his ideas of the rules of a game. And how works of art can be reinterpreted, allowing them to last for a lifetime.
Since then, the conversation has taken on a life of its own and do it has been re-imagined in countless ways and compiled as a compendium. A 450-page “how to” manual in which the world’s most respected artists, including the likes of Ai Weiwei and Damien Hirst, from all sorts of disciplines – sculptors to poets, performance artists to painters – have written their own instructions.
Today, this unique exhibition, which started in France, has travelled countries as diverse as Thailand and Mexico, Slovenia and Germany, and has just arrived in Bahrain. The idea being, essentially, that it turns the audience into the artists.
In its Middle Eastern form, the exhibition is called do it [in Arabic] (the “in Arabic” written in Arabic text), organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation and co-curated by Foundation President Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi and Obrist himself. More than 70 artists from across the region have had a hand in writing their own instructions, so anyone can create a new work of art.
In Bahrain, this month, do it [in Arabic] can be found at Red Bull’s Malja, and has been organised by Al Riwaq Art Space.
Curator Hadeel Eltayed explains: “It’s simple because it destroys all hierarchies and stereotypes of high culture and pretensions associated with the practise of modern art.
“Art just becomes something that you do; that anyone can do.”
Some of the region’s most recognised artists have been involved in the making of this incarnation of Obrist’s do it. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s Manal Al Dowayan’s interactive installation requires you to scribble graffiti on the gallery’s white walls. Lebanon-born, London-based lady Aya Haider wants you to make origami. And Montreal-based musician Sam Shalabi just needs you to play with cars. These instructions, plus many more, are fixed on the walls, or printed on hand-outs all over the space, and all you, as a visitor, need to do is have a go.
“It’s an exciting exhibition to curate, purely because you’re going into it with no definitive idea of what the outcome
will be,” Eltayeb tells us. “I chose a selection of artworks that would open the exhibition with mostly white walls, which can be intimidating...
“It’s a bit like being blindfolded with a pen and letting someone else move your hand. And the beauty of this is that the character of the exhibition will change and evolve throughout its run, and every visitor will make their mark.”
More than 20 years, 50 countries and 150 artists later, and do it has achieved its aim of inventing new rules within modern art and bringing the practise to all levels of society, “sparking their creativity and critical thinking,” as Eltayeb puts it.
“[The exhibition] is inspiring because, as you see, by the set of ‘rules’ you have to play with, there are no set rules within art,” she says. “There are no borders or limitations outside of yourself. It’s all an exercise in play, and that freedom
can take you places you’d never have thought possible.”
Now, pass us the paintbrush.
Until August 13, Tue-Sat 4pm-10pm. Malja Bahrain, Amwaj Islands (32 323 000). Also visit www.alriwaqartspace.com.
Three Artists Involved
Aya Haider from Lebanon
The multi-media artist likes to focus on using found and recycled objects in her works, usually exploring loss, migration and memory. She’s exhibited around the world and is currently based in London, England. In this exhibition, she’s asking visitors to create origami.
Manal Al Dowayan from Saudi Arabia
Well-known contemporary artist Manal Al Dowayan works across many disciplines, from photography to sculpture, video and sound. Her works largely focus on Saudi women and their representation. Here, she asks people to stencil graffiti on the gallery’s walls.
Rita Alaoui from Morocco
Rita Alaoui studied painting in New York, but she lives and works in Casablanca and is a major player on the Moroccan contemporary art scene. There, she created an alternative art space and artist-in-residency programme called The Ultra Laboratory. At Malja, she wants you to photocopy the contents of your bag.