Debating Modernism II @ Whitechapel

Towards the end of last year, I wrote about the ongoing series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery that present the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection of modern and contemporary art from the Arab world. The first exhibition of the sequence left a positive impression on me, however, after returning for the second, I couldn’t help but leave with a few issues.

I must emphasise from the outset that it is not the content of the exhibition that leaves me with problems, but the way that it has been curated. The exhibitions on display are tucked away on one of the higher levels of the gallery, where one would have to search out for to find it. There is almost no advertisement for the show when entering the gallery and there is another sound installation that is taking place right up to the very door in which the Barjeel Art Foundation is on display. This installation is not pleasant, furthermore it has nothing to do with the exhibition behind the doors that it leads up to.

My next issue becomes apparent when the exhibition doors which are the same for the incumbent Debating Modernism II as they were for the first exhibition, which was titled Debating Modernism. The room in which the yearlong series of exhibitions are to be displayed is staggeringly dark. The dark room would not be so much of a problem if it were in a different museum, however, once the visitor has been exposed to the white walls of the rest of Whitechapel, it feels as though they have been plunged into darkness. The artwork, which is staggeringly modern, is presented as though it is from another time, one that has past, and lies in history – surely this is a problem.

The art history and theory that one would expect to be presented with the work also leaves much to be desired. Annotations to the images are not placed beside or underneath but at the end of each of the gallery walls, meaning that the information for half a dozen artworks are jumbled together making it very difficult for the viewer to understand what piece of information relates to each piece.

I mustn’t finish this piece without saying a little about the art on display in the exhibition. My personal highlights are Kamal Boullata’s geometric works and Marwan Kassab Bachi’s portraits. Boullata is also a great writer and theorist of art, who I have cited in many of my scholarly essays.

I feel that the work in both the first and second exhibitions would probably have benefited from one major exhibition instead of a series of four smaller ones in order to give them the impact and exposure they thoroughly deserve.

While the artwork on display at Whitechapel is excellent, the way in which it has been displayed, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired.

Imperfect Chronology: Debating Modernism II is on display at Whitechapel Gallery until 6 March 2015

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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