Site-specific work at the Newark Museum: Dahlia Elsayed’s We Would Begin Our Own

July 16, 2014 at 10:13 am Leave a comment

“Were it to become the fashion to patronize American artists, designers and craftsmen and to give them a free hand instead of insisting on conformity to the ancient ways as interpreted by the ignorant rich, we would have a larger art demand in America; the supply would raise prices and wages; art study would be encouraged; more men of genius skill and training would come here from abroad; and we would begin our own Renaissance.” – John Cotton Dana, The Gloom of the Museum, 1917._DSC7163

The 2014 New Jersey Arts Annual, Ready or Not, was set out to activate unconventional areas in the Museum, in addition to the display of artworks in the rotating exhibition gallery spaces. Incorporating different artworks in sections that do not typically display or present art, several of artists in this year’s Arts Annual were invited to create site-specific works for this show.  They observed various parts within the Museum’s structure as an “empty canvas,” and created works that responded specifically to the Museum’s architecture and environment. Treating the Museum’s physical space as a medium was the point of departure when I started planning this particular aspect of the exhibition, and the blogs that will follow this one will present more artists whose work, be it performance, sculpture, installation art, painting or time-based media, is everywhere but in the galleries. Corridors, stairwells, ceilings and other “none-gallery” spaces, which are often left empty and shun from artistic presence, became part of the curatorial premise for this exhibition so as to extend the dialogue between art and space. The artworks’ placement and location involved intriguing curatorial discussions between the artists and myself, regarding the work’s visibility and its relation to and transformation of the location it is consuming.

_DSC6337Outdoors, in Horizon Plaza, Dahlia Elsayed created a temporary installation, We Would Begin Our Own. Selecting this particular spot to display her work was a way to activate this site through Elsayed’s poetry.  By erecting 29 yellow, bright flags attached to the fence surrounding the plaza, Elsayed repurposed the use of the fence in this public, outdoor space. Each flag is inscribed with a word or a phrase the artist appropriated from the Newark Museum’s founder John Cotton Dana’s notable essay The Gloom of the Museum (1917). Located right by the Museum’s entrance and visually prominent, these flags greet both visitors and pedestrians on Washington Street or Central Avenue. Elsayed, who often incorporates words and text in her artwork, reconfigured Dana’s essay and through this form of concrete poetry, shared her admiration to the site and the city. She explains: “InFlags -- HorzPlaza this poem, I reshape his [Dana] words to create something between a Newark artists’ manifesto, a love letter to a city, and a statement of solidarity with the institution that he profoundly shaped.” The brightness of the flags as well as their shape is reminiscent of a construction zone, alerting the viewer’s attention to their content and the site when read either as complete phrases or word by word.

In my next blog, I will discuss another site-specific work by Ariel Efron and Lucas
Vickers. Stay tuned.

– Shlomit Dror, Consulting Curator, American Art

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