#ListeAsks Marwan T. Assaf, Collector, Curator, Member of a committee at Tate, Founding Benefactor Beirut Art Center, Beirut
As you won’t be in Basel this June, what are you doing instead?
The fact that Basel week is not happening in June creates a strange and significant void. Nevertheless, I think it is a good period for introspection and perhaps it is time to reexamine the “old word order” and our individual lives within it, and to reevaluate some of its characteristics, such as its dizzying pace. It may be a cathartic exercise to try to understand what was working and what was not, and most importantly: Where do we go from here?
“May you live in interesting times,” says the famous Chinese curse. And with the pandemic, the lockdowns, the travel moratoriums and the surreal restrictions on movement around the world, how much more interesting can it get?
What is something that you never thought would happen but that has now happened as a result of the lockdown?
It was difficult to imagine we would live to see this dystopian situation with its Orwellian restrictions until it suddenly became reality a few months ago because of the pandemic. The buzzword “new normal” has an uncanny ring to it, it almost sounds post-revolutionary.
In addition, the sight of people going about wearing masks is not something that many could have envisaged. But this may have a good side to it, and not just for protection against the virus; the mask, paradoxically, makes the Other look and feel less alien. Five decades ago, in speaking about the masked figures in his photographic series “The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater", Ralph Eugene Meatyard said the masks erase the differences between people. But can this greater sense of understanding survive when the masks are no longer needed? Could this whole pandemic episode be heralding a kinder, gentler situation? I hope so, but it is wise not to be too starry-eyed.
In what ways has the current state of uncertainty and unpredictability changed your attitude towards collecting?
I believe the purpose of collecting is to create a novel entity in the form of an art collection that is more compelling than the individual artworks within it. I call this endeavor “collecting the dispersed.” Art fairs have the ability to bring together scattered works of art from many cultures and countries in one location. But this exercise has now encountered a huge obstacle given that the pandemic has made it impossible to hold such events, and this is hampering the process of collecting. However, I think this is temporary and that the artworld will eventually weather this whole episode out. It may even reemerge wiser, perhaps with more interesting twists.
What is one of the most inspiring initiatives or projects by an artist, institution or gallery you’ve come across since the outbreak of Covid-19?
There are a good deal of initiatives and projects that have emerged. For example, there’s artist Grayson Perry’s popular TV series, Grayson’s Art Club, which presents art to the public made by people stuck a home. In an interview with The New York Times, Perry compared the inspiration behind the drawings to “going right back to cave painting: You pick a charcoal stick from the fire and draw on the wall. You can do it with your phone, you can do it with some sticks from the garden.”
I have also been reading about several positive initiatives such as the #ArtistSupportPledge started by Mathew Burrows on Instagram. Participating artists put images of works for sale on social media for a maximum of £200. When their sales reach £1,000, they commit to buying a work from another artist for £200. There is also the Quarantine Art Club by the illustrator Carson Ellis, whose members define their activities as “daily art homeworks and inspirations to keep you from leaving home.” They post prompts on Instagram for people to draw. There are of course also a plethora of initiatives from established institutions.
How can younger and less established galleries that are representing emerging and yet-to-be-discovered artists approach you as collector in a time of online-only exhibitions, fairs, etc.?
Galleries around the world have always reached out, long before the virus. But this outreach has now been expanded and has become more widespread. It is also more interactive with online viewing rooms and immersive technologies. During this time, for example, I have been getting acquainted with new projects such as Vortic, an extended reality platform that makes it possible for galleries to present virtual versions of their spaces.
But it is ultimately the content that will matter, the quality of the art that these galleries are proposing. And just as in physical exhibitions, the subjective element will remain: Some art will speak to one collector but not to another.
Have you discovered any new artist during the lockdown?
I think there are a good deal of undiscovered Outsider Artists—untrained, non-academic artists—who have created works during lockdown, prompted, as they were, by a long spell of isolation. Some could be great artists waiting to be discovered. I find resonance in this line from Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things": "And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.” Perhaps a new Jean Dubuffet needs to appear to help discover those artists and bring them to light.
With regards to the effect of the pandemic on art, what comes to mind is that the Black Death in the 14th century inspired the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, which remains an artistic point of reference to this day. But the Black Death ranked second on the Foster Scale of human disasters (the first being World War II). The current pandemic, as bad as it is, thankfully remains incomparably milder. It remains to be seen if the current pandemic will inspire some art form that will stand the test of time.
Can you tell us about the very first artwork you purchased at Liste and what it means to you?
I first acquired a work from Liste in 2007, a sculpture by Maciej Kurak. Liste is special in many ways. There’s the Escher-esque building, with its floors connected by a zigzagging outdoor staircase, and of course, all the new talent to discover in rooms that pleasantly jut out in all directions. Liste is a quirky yet serious art fair, a seductive mix.