How NYUAD's In Real Time is an ode to transformation and the present moment

The exhibition comes at an important moment in the gallery's history, marking its 10th anniversary

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The latest exhibition at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Art Gallery has undergone several transformations since it opened in February.

From its inception, In Real Time has been driven by the concept of change. The exhibition was conceived as a way to ground the gallery’s visitors, staff and exhibiting artists in the present.

There are textile works reflecting on the smallest prison cell in the world, dance performances that give form to draped fabrics, as well as those that invite participants to bake bread or draw. As such, In Real Time inflicts an awareness of the body and its relation to time and space across a spectrum that ranges from discomfort to the numinous.

The exhibition began with artists creating their works at the gallery while reflecting on those of their peers. This was before its opening on February 22. Since then, many of the artists have returned to reactivate the space with performances and interventions. Even visitors have added their own touches to the works on show.

Sometimes only traces of these changes remain. In other instances, they manifested novel attractions within the exhibition – meaning that with every visit, In Real Time offers something new to reflect on.

“I wanted to make a space where we could just be present, and a little bit more responsive,” Maya Allison, founding director of the Art Gallery and chief curator at New York University Abu Dhabi, says. Unlike with other exhibitions, where works are usually left in relative stasis, artists have been free to come back to the space to add to their pieces.

Gozde Ilkin’s Entrusted Ground installation is the latest work to have been altered in some way. It features a series of several soft sculptures that have been made of fabrics the artist sourced from around the world. Arranged across one section of the gallery, the works come together in a sort of landscape.

“I made these pieces in such a way that they can be picked up, mounted on the body, and changed in form,” Ilkin says in the work’s wall text. This sprawling and interactive element of Entrusted Ground was what was highlighted on Wednesday during an artistic intervention spearheaded by Duygu Demir, curator at NYUAD’s Art Gallery.

Three dancers invigorated the installation by moving in between its soft sculptures. They bundled themselves in the textiles and impressed their forms on the draped works. One dancer was cocooned in a blue fabric, then dragged across the space.

Choreographed by Aslı Ozturk, the 40-minute performance rings with the exhibition’s themes of the ephemeral, of metamorphoses and change. It will be held again at 12pm and 5pm on Saturday. The performances will be among the last interventions in the exhibition before it concludes on June 9.

“The show itself is so much about the trace of an artist,” Demir says. “Of bodies being present in a space. Because of the nature of the performance itself, some of the works become inhabited by bodies and they change and transform.”

Entrusted Ground originally came as part of Ilkin's 2022 solo exhibition of the same title in Istanbul. The performance was a key aspect of it. While In Real Time is curated by Allison, Demir says she proposed including Entrusted Ground in the exhibition because of how potently the work reflected on its themes. It also resonates across several other pieces within the exhibition.

These include Haleh Redjaian’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing (II). The work is composed of nails meticulously fitted across several walls within the exhibition. The nails are connected with a fine thread, creating arcs and diagonals that stream across the space like beams of light.

Through its materials and the medium of weaving, there are evident intersections in the methodologies informing Ilkin’s and Redjaian’s works.

Moza Almatrooshi’s The Alphabets of the Baker was not part of the exhibition during the opening. However, there was a wall text that hinted at the work that would come. It was a performance piece that revolved around the act of making bread. The artist, as well as participants, kneaded dough, creating an alphabet of sorts as the bread was shaped. “With every performance a new narrative will be ‘written' using the breads, which will later be consumed by the exhibition visitors,” Almatrooshi writes in the wall text.

Food and storytelling also come together in Take a poiesis capsule with a glass of shadow on an empty stomach by artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian. The three artists, who often work as a collective, also created a landscape of sorts with several individual works coming together as a whole. The trio worked with collaborators to create videos, large and vibrant painted floors, metal forms and unfolding boxes. The piece was animated during the exhibition’s opening night with a performance by Butoh dancer Julie Becton Gillum and choreographer Kiori Kawai.

Other key pieces in the exhibition include two of its opening works, both hand-knitted wool pieces by Cristiana de Marchi. The Echo of the Void hangs on the wall as a white square and was woven to the exact dimensions of the smallest prison cell on official record. The title of the work, which in Italian reads Lettere dal Carcere, takes inspiration from a book by philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who was critic of fascism and died due to his prison confinement.

After completing the work in 2021, de Marchi found another, even smaller prison cell that was listed on non-governmental records. Black Square is laid out on the floor. Measuring only 98cm, the square of black wool immediately relays the exhibition’s intent to make visitors keenly aware of the physical space they inhabit.

In Real Time also comes at an important moment in the gallery's history, marking its 10th anniversary. Allison took it as a moment to reflect the gallery’s identity, and what it has to offer in the broader UAE cultural scene. It also addresses the function of an exhibition as a whole.

“In the last 10 years, I've been able to experiment with the exhibitions we can do that nobody else can do,” she says. “We are not a giant museum making a definitive statement. We are also not a commercial gallery that is here to sell. We’re here to tell new art histories and to investigate new curatorial methods, to think about the future of museums and exhibition making.”

In Real Time is running at the NYUAD Art Gallery until June 9

Updated: May 11, 2024, 7:04 AM