The Island Mara Sartore interviews Arnar Asgeirsson and Yazan Khalili

by Mara Sartore
April 1, 2015
Mara Sartore
Asgeirsson Arnar

Arnar Asgeirsson (b. 1982, Reykjavik) and Yazan Khalili (b.1981, Ramallah) have joined forces to work on a commissioned project for Art DubaiThe Island was commissioned by Absolut and it is an extension of Khalili’s artistic practice, which uses photography and the written word to unpack historically constructed landscapes. Khalili has been given free rein to fully conceptualise and create his art Bar, from drinks to decor and entertainment ambience. The Island is inspired by Dubai’s skyline and Khalili’s and Asgeirsson’s idea of past futures.
Mara Sartore met the artists to get to know more about The Island and their possible future projects together.

Mara Sartore: I would like to ask basic questions about how you work and how you approach to the outside world and to ask about Arnar’s involvement in the project.

Yazan Khalili: My practice is a really confused one, to be honest. I’m always trying to avoid being put in a genre or in a very specific kind of medium. There’s always a temptative to collaborate and to work more with collectives since the early beginnings with Zan Design Studio and now with this project working with Armar Asgeirsson.

MS: How was the Island idea born? Was this site given to you?

Arnar Asgeirsson: Yes it was given to us.

MS: So it was obviously related to building something site-specific for this space.

YK: Yes the bar was always going to be on the island and our installation is a reaction to the spot we were given. Once we began getting the plans and information about the location of the bar, having it mentioned as the island was kind of a moment of irony. It’s like a bridge that takes you to another piece, to the other platform, where Art Dubai is taking place and calling it a Fort Island it means it’s already there and we don’t need to add anything to it. The irony of having it called that way made us take it as it is, we agreed not to add anything to it. Meaning we didn’t want to add anything to its name or to the approach.

MS: I couldn’t avoid to notice yesterday how during Ghada Da’s performance the bartenders were dressed with these emergency blankets which could possibly give a touch of outer space and of surrealistic. But I’m Italian and for me Lampedusa is a rock, in the middle of the Mediterranean and the people are arriving and we see them wearing these emergency blankets so I was wondering if you were aware of the possible connection.

YK: To be honest I don’t think this was a reference, it’s a very tough reference…

MS: Yes but in Italy we keep seeing it very often on the news…

YK: Now that you’re mentioning it I see this relation with Lampedusa and the refugees trying to reach the island.

MS: It came to my mind also because we’re in Dubai, one of the rare peaceful areas in the Middle East and people in other places unfortunately have to escape their countries.

YK: There’s a poem that we read that also inspired us. I don’t know the exact wording right now but it says something like ‘The one lost in the sea always looks for the island as a refuge, but once he’s on the island he’s too afraid to leave it and eventually the island becomes his prison and the sea becomes freedom’. This relates to Dubai in general, I’ve worked here before in 2004- 2005, I studied as an architect and I came to work here; there was this moment when I felt like everyone was here and it’s not because of anything special it’s because of security: it gives you security but it takes away your freedom. You’re a afraid to leave it. You’re afraid to go back to poverty or to a war or to the life you were living before.

MS: Where are you based now?

YK: Now in Amsterdam but actually between Amsterdam and Palestine so there’s also this feeling of an island because I am from Palestine.

AA: And I am from Iceland, so another island…

MS: Armar, can you tell us a bit more about your background?

AA: I’m from Iceland but I’ve also been based in Amsterdam for a long time but recently I moved to Berlin. I met with Yazan outside Burger King at Schipol airport. We were both heading to a summer school together in Texas last summer, about 9 months ago, so we met outside Burger King and we then took the plane together and spent about a month in Texas. That’s were we basically started working together.

MS: Is this your first project together? And how long ago was it commissioned?

AA: Yes it’s our first project together and it was commissioned in November/December.

YK: We began slowly in November and we picked it up again in January.

AA: We were always working from different cities, we weren’t in Dubai but we were working on it from Amsterdam and Berlin which was also one reference to the mountain: I was trying to research about Dubai and I would just Google it and when you research you get all these images of magnificent buildings, I was so confused about what was real and what was fake because some of them are just renderings of how buildings are going to be. At one point I saw an image of a building and I was sure it was a fake image, but it’s actually here! I think this mountain is also a bit of a reference to that, a reference to a thin line there is when you look at the island from a certain point and you don’t know if it’s real or not, it could be 3D, 2D or just a lie.

MS: So how did it happen, did Absolut invite both of you to work on this projects?

YK: They invited me and I asked to work with Armar, because I always prefer to work collectively. I am Palestinian and a very negative and problematic person, I always see a conspirancy going on so I needed the positivity, he’s Icelandic, he’s very positive! Also the fact that we worked well together in Marfa and I really liked is work pushed me to ask him to work collectively. I thought that this project wasn’t only about building a mountain but also about having energy and spirti, also about making something that needs real discussion and that incourages to work with each other. If you leave it to one person maybe she won’t decide to make a 15 meters mountain; but because we were working together on it, it made so much sense that it wasn’t a one man show. This projects will really only stand for only for four days and we had to work on it for 3/4 months so really the process of making it is longer and more important than these just 4 days during which it’s on. So working as a collective made this process nicer.

AA: I think it was really nice because we think really differently but somehow it really works, like Yazan was saying there’s some Ying and Yang going on. If I become very negative he becomes very positive and the other way around…

YK: It’s actually usually the other way around!

MS: How was it working under commission? I suppose that it’s very different for an artist compared to when he’s working for himself.

AA: Totally different.

YK: It’s a thin line, in the end I think more and more artists are aware of the fact that capital and money is interfering more and more in the art practice. This one is a very clear situation: it’s a commission where a company that wants to make an event, calls the artists. We thought how to work on the process of doing an artwork on commission, thinking about how we usually produce artworks and how to combine it with Absolut’s ideas of doing an event. For us the audience is the audience of an artwork, for them the audience is made of potential customers. I guess it’s a normal process in the art world now, but it is clear, there’s no hiding of anyone’s position. As a production company you see it from a totally different perspective, they need plans, they need decisions, budgets, it’s a totally different approach. The production company wanted a decision on this two months ago, but we could only make them once we got here. Once we saw the material we could decide what to do, we could have changed our mind. in general I think that the pushing we had to deal with from the production company was good on certain levels but hard on other levels. I think that’s the thin line everyone has to walk on when a production of this kind is in place.

MS: Do you think you’ll be working on other projects together?

YK: We’re filming a few things here, we wanted to do something now but because of the pressure of the work we couldn’t. But we now share a lot of footage so we could do a film together, we could do it alone…it depends on what comes along on the way. The process has been really great, if something new comes on, we would immediately think of working again together.

Keep up to date with My Art Guides
Sign up to our newsletter and stay in the know with all worldwide contemporary art events