Hans Ulrich Obrist Archives - Chapter 2: Etel Adnan

The Tower,  Cherry Tree Gallery, Level -2
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‘The world needs 
togetherness, not 
separation. Love, 
not suspicion. 
A common future, 
not isolation.’

Etel Adnan, Juin 2016

‘Ever Etel
Ever Adnan’

Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Février 2021

A Leporello, several notebooks and watercolour drawings exhibited in Dubai in 2007 catalysed Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s long-term collaboration and friendship with the late Etel Adnan, one of the greatest poets and artists of our time. Obrist was magnetically drawn to the cosmic energy of her work and obsessively collected every publication he found. The first he read was Sitt Marie Rose (The Post-Apollo Press, 1977), her magnum opus on the Lebanese Civil War, which established Adnan as a significant political writer and one of the preeminent voices of feminist and peace movements.

Seeing her work then evoked in Obrist a similar feeling to discovering Paul Klee’s work as a teenager. Like Klee, Adnan was a polymath. Her practice could be linked to superstring theory; a Gesamtkunstwerk that has many dimensions and expands the notion of single disciplines: cartographies, drawings, films, notebooks, novels, paintings, plays, poems, political journalism, sculptures, tapestries, and teaching.

Born in Beirut in 1925, Adnan studied at Sorbonne and Harvard, after which she taught philosophy at the University and started painting in the late 1950s in California. There, she fell in love with her life partner Simone Fattal as well as a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, at the foot of which they lived. Her passion led to numerous paintings and the book Journey to Mount Tamalpaïs (The Post-Apollo Press, 1986). Often stemming from a red square, her canvases are abstract compositions with flat colours directly applied from the tubes. She was interested in the immediate beauty of colour. As Simone Fattal explains, her paintings both ‘exude energy and give energy. They shield you like talismans.’

Her unrealised project of becoming an architect can be compared to how she approached painting as something that is built. Adnan understood painting as addressing itself to the outside world and architecture as inescapable, something that is always already there and made for us to be. As she said, ‘the first architecture for a human being is their mother’s womb.’

It was under heavy rain, during the winter of 2012, that Etel Adnan, Simone Fattal, Koo Jeong A, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist found refuge in a café in Brittany. Throughout long conversations, Adnan was writing poems on a notepad. It became evident to Obrist that it’s important to celebrate handwriting as opposed to the lamentation of its disappearing. Since then, he posts handwritten notes of the people he meets on Instagram once a day.

After a first chapter dedicated to Édouard Glissant, the second chapter of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s archive focuses on the myriad of conversations with Etel Adnan from 2009 until her last days in 2021, offering fifteen hours of unreleased interviews, tracing their relation through hundreds of published documents, post-it notes, handwritten correspondences, and artworks. Their connection was one of mutual respect and, above all, wholehearted admiration. They shared numberless projects; she was a regular participant of the Marathon conversations, organised yearly by Obrist at the Serpentine, London; he devoted two major solo exhibitions to her practice and published multiple monographs. Adnan is an essential figure for LUMA in Arles, a project Hans-Ulrich Obrist has accompanied since its inception. Maja Hoffmann, founder of Luma, remembers: ‘Etel once told me, what we are doing with LUMA is creating a lighthouse for the Mediterranean. If LUMA is the lighthouse, then Etel is certainly the fire, the fire that lights up the space and shows directions.’

Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Paris

Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan (1925-2021) was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father a high-ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus, Syria. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools. She studied philosophy first in Paris in 1949, at Sorbonne. In January 1955, she travelled to the United States to pursue postgraduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley and Harvard. She taught philosophy from 1958 to 1972 at Dominican College of San Rafael, California. Reflecting on the political implications of writing in French during the Algerian war of independence and in solidarity, she began to resist and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. However, with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam, she began to write poems and became, in her words, “an American poet”.

In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers — first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient-le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976. In 1977, her novel Sitt Marie-Rose won the “France-Pays Arabes” award and was published in 1978. This novel has been translated into more than ten languages and, with immense influence, became a classic of War Literature. In 1977, Adnan re-established herself in Paris and in 1980 in California, making Sausalito her home, with frequent stays in Paris. In the late seventies, she wrote texts for two documentaries made by Jocelyne Saab on the civil war in Lebanon, which were shown on French television as well as in Europe and Japan.

Her paintings, drawings, and Super 8 films have been exhibited extensively in the United States, Europe, and the Arab world. She participated in the Serpentine Marathons since 2010 and was one of the guest artists at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel in June 2012. Since then, numerous museums have devoted retrospectives to her, including the Mathaf in Doha in 2014. She died in Paris in November 2021.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist (b. 1968, Zurich, Switzerland) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine in London, Senior Advisor at LUMA Arles, and Senior Artistic Advisor at The Shed in New York. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show), in 1991, he has curated more than 350 shows.

Obrist’s recent publications include Ways of Curating (2015), The Age of Earthquakes (2015), Lives of the Artists, Lives of Architects (2015), Mondialité (2017), Somewhere Totally Else (2018) The Athens Dialogues (2018), Maria Lassnig: Letters (2020), Entrevistas Brasileiras: Volume 2 (2020), and 140 Ideas for Planet Earth (2021).

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