Warehouse421's new exhibition challenges the concept of publishing

We speak to the curators who are challenging the concept of cultural production in a new exhibition in Abu Dhabi

I thumb through one of the books on display at Warehouse421 like a toddler who is confused and delighted by the object at hand. The book is shaped like a fidget spinner. It is covered in a green fuzzy material and has pages folding outwards and sideways.

It is at once familiar and alien. Beside it are other books – more traditional in form – with hardcovers made of egg cartons and sliced industrial pipes. The pages depict photographs taken in Hialeah, Florida, and the South Bronx, places where Cuban artist Rafael Domenech has lived for the past two years. But the photographs themselves, some of which have perfectly circular cut-outs in the middle of them, could have been taken anywhere, and simply show recycled materials. The images are not the point of the work. The books themselves are.

Domenech considers bookmaking the core of his artistic practice. His books question the medium entirely. Like the rest of the works found at Warehouse421's newest exhibition, they explore the boundaries between formal and independent publishing; between mainstream and alternative cultural production. "We always associate publications with books and magazines," says Faisal Al Hassan, manager of Warehouse421. "The exhibition aims to open up relevant conversations around notions of authorship, independence, censorship, values, constraints and dominant discourse."

With more than 40 works on display, the show, titled How to Maneuver: Shape-shifting texts and other publishing tactics, is the largest presented at the venue. The works are developed by artists, writers and publishers from across the region and the world. The exhibition opened on Tuesday and runs until Sunday, February 16.

“The exhibition in itself is presented as a publication,” Al Hassan says. “It poses the question, who decides what is published. Do we trust the public to be discerning enough to know? Do we trust institutions to know better than the public?”

Maha Maamoun, co-curator of the show, says the works creatively question the limits of publishing. The spaces, she says, that separate the different regimes of authorship, publishing and readership, are also where these differences can be manoeuvred. 

"Publishing is the act of making public," Maamoun says. "It isn't restricted to specific producers, languages of production or sanctified routes of distribution. However, we say this, but that is not publishing as people have come to know it. How to Maneuver challenges the traditional conception."

<span>The exhibition in itself is presented as a publication. It poses the question, who decides what is published. Do we trust the public to be discerning enough to know? Do we trust institutions to know better than the public.</span>

Maamoun says publishing is not limited to printed material. "Even sound pieces, sculptures and concepts can be considered a form of publishing."

Another piece at the exhibition, Scrapbook by Syrian-French artist Bady Dalloul, shows a collage of photographs of political figures, origami shapes and texts. The works combine historical events, personal facts and fiction. "Scrapbook was inspired by Dalloul's trip to Hiroshima, Japan," says Ali Younis, the show's co-curator. "He decided on making the work after encountering the story of Sadako, an ordinary Japanese schoolgirl who was one of the victims of the atomic bomb."

Contaminated with radiation and condemned to death, Sadako learnt of an ancient legend that if a person could fold a thousand origami cranes their wish would come true. Wanting to be cured, Sadako folded origami every day, but died before she was able to complete her thousandth. "Dalloul intertwined Sadako's story with the history of Syria and the Middle East," Younis explains. "The piece provokes consideration of a country's destiny."

Both Maamoun and Younis were inspired to set up the exhibition after experiencing publishing as artists themselves. The duo have set up Kayfa Ta, a publication that draws its inspiration from how-to manuals. Artists are invited to submit their ideas and concepts to Kayfa Ta in how-to formats.

At the centre of the new Abu Dhabi exhibition are 15 tall columns by Lebanese artist Hussein Nasereddine. They don’t serve the traditional purpose of columns as they hold nothing up. However, steel pipes, alluding to fronds, sprout from their heads. It doesn’t take much to see a resemblance between the columns and palm trees.

The work is inspired by the tradition of how Arabian poets described newly built palaces to the public. "The poems circulated like a postcard," Nassereddine tells The National, "some people memorised them and narrated them to others. Each time the poem would alter bit by bit. The postcards changed colours. The poems that were passed down to us have been altered countless times."
To make this point, Nassereddine creates a fictional poet, a surrogate, if you will, called Abdallah Al Qateel, meaning Abdallah the Killed. "Abdallah Al Qateel was the first poet to see the columns of the castle as palm trees, and this was the last thing he saw."

The story goes that by comparing the columns to palm trees, Abdallah Al Qateel accessed a metaphorical plane with physics and laws different than ours, which ultimately led to his death. 

For Nassereddine and for the fictional Abdallah Al Qateel, the physics of the metaphorical world are different to those of reality. "Kind of like the theory of relativity, time and space are measured differently in that realm," he says. "This metaphor killed him."

How to Maneuver: Shape-shifting texts and other publishing tactics is at Warehouse421, Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi, until Sunday, February 16