Guggenheim Abu Dhabi tackles light in first major exhibition

Maisa Al Qassimi, programme manager for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, talks to Vision about the museum’s first major exhibition, and why light reflects life

Vision: What is the Seeing Through Light exhibition?

Maisa Al Qassimi: Seeing Through Light is the first major exhibition for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, running from 5 November 2014 to 19 January 2015. We will be presenting 18 international artists in total. Sixteen of the artworks are from our permanent collection – which belong to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – and this is the first time they will be on show in the emirate. The other two artworks are supporting loans from the Guggenheim museum in New York. The exhibition is a stepping-stone for what the future museum will be and our focus here is on building an audience.

What is the inspiration behind the exhibition’s theme?

We went through the entire collection of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and we thought light was the strongest theme. It is a theme that is very rich and flexible, which relates to different cultures and time periods and which artists from around the world address in a different manner.

We have around six Middle Eastern artists whose work will be on display, including the Syrian painter Samia Halabi and the sculptor Ghada Amer. It is very important to us to have an exhibition that runs parallel to the narrative of the museum; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi focuses on Middle Eastern artists and the relationship between local, regional and international artists in historical context. International artists such as Otto Piene, Doug Wheeler and Yayoi Kusama will also be on show.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Doug Wheeler, Untitled, 1968/2013 Sprayed lacquer on vacuum- formed Plexiglas with white UV neon

What topics will the exhibition cover?

There will be five sections in the exhibition – activated, celestial, perceptual, reflected and transcendent – which really talk about life. We try to have the exhibition cover a lot of mediums, such as installations, sculpture, as well as painting, to show the future museum will have different types of artworks.

The first section is perceptual life, which defines the theme in a historical context from the 1960s, showing mostly American artists that were the pioneers of the light and space movement.

The second section, reflected light, talks about light as a medium but also the shadows that artworks can cast. One example is a piece from regional artist Ghada Amer: a round, lattice-like sculpture with Arabic calligraphy. The whole sculpture, entitled The Words I Love the Most, is created by Arabic calligraphy and part of the artwork is the shadows that are cast on the floor around the sculpture itself.

How have you built education into the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s exhibition?

We have about 100 workshops for adults and children that will be run from 12 November this year to 17 January 2015. For example, there will be a workshop on shadow drawings, encouraging people to play with light and shadows to create their own shadow painting; and a workshop on mirror mosaics inspired by artist Monir Farmanfarmaian.

The first section is perceptual life, which defines the theme in a historical context from the 1960s, showing mostly American artists that were the pioneers of the light and space movement

Maisa Al Qassimi, Programme Manager, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

We have worked with many teachers from the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) to integrate the exhibition into their curriculum as well. It is very important for us to build an audience and have them understand what contemporary art is, ready for the future museum.

What other programmes have you got in the pipeline?

We have a public programme, called Pulse Corniche, taking place from 8 to 17 January next year. There will be an artwork of around 100 light installations on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi to engage with the public. The installation invites visitors to come and put their hands on heart monitor sensors, which detect the heartbeat and then the lights go on and off according to the heartbeat. It’s very interactive. It is part of the museum’s repertoire of very different and broad mediums and artwork.