In the 21st century, does an art institution need a permanent collection, an architecturally important building, and a wealthy board of trustees to truly qualify as a museum?
If you look at the major collections around the world today, you may think the answer is yes. But twentysomething art darlings Simon Sakhai and Aya Mousawi believe differently.
Together the two founded the Moving Museum, which is based on the belief that a modern art institution can exhibit anything, anywhere—including online. Having noticed that for an artist's career, traditional museums and gallery shows have declined in importance when compared with art fairs and biennials, they decided to create a series of pop-ups that follow the major fairs. The idea was to take the concept of a restaurant or retail pop-up and populate it with site-specific work. According to Mousawi, they wondered: "What if there [were] a moving museum that traveled to these art fairs and capitalized on them, popping up and engaging with the city?”
They began the project just three years ago, and in the short space since they have staged pop-up projects in Dubai, London, and Istanbul. Each show asked an invited group of artists to produce work in response to their local surroundings. For a show in Dubai, for example, they hosted a work called Moje Sabz (The Green Wave) by Iranian-born artist Soheila Sokhanvari, wherein a small English pony named Sarah was perched jauntily on a bright blue fiberglass ball, gently mocking the respected animal much as the Iranian revolution, or Green Wave, of 2009 taunted the government. “We shipped a horse to Dubai, flying it in a crate," laughed Mousawi. "And we have a photograph with that horse in the crate hanging from a crane with the Burj Khalifa as a backdrop.”
In London, the pair curated a nine-piece limited edition box set of vinyl records, each a sound piece by local artists such as James Bridle and Celia Hempton. “Outside of the gallery context, artists aren’t just interested in making ‘art;’ they get engaged with all sorts of things,” explains Sakhai.
After their years of moving their shows around the globe, they've set their sites on the Web as a place for exhibiting art. “Simon and I had a lot of conversations about how the Internet is our permanent home,” Mousawi admits. The newest Moving Museum show is entirely virtual, consisting of digital artworks by the likes of Amalia Ulman or Jeremy Bailey. The latter’s piece is titled The You Museum, and it's an interactive experience that follows you as you browse the web. Just sign up at www.theyoumuseum.org, and Bailey’s program will populate the ad spaces you encounter on many random websites with art. “In the same way that a corporation tracks your activity online,” Sakhai explains, “it uses the ad space on pages to create artworks tailored to your browsing history.” As part of the show’s second phase, there will be functionality that moves the artwork offline, too: If a project appeals to the viewer, he or she can buy the piece, download the blueprints, and produce it instantly at home on a 3D printer.
On the phone from their temporary base in Istanbul, the duo talks with a teasing familiarity, jostling like siblings. Sakhai is more reserved, while Mousawi peals with laughter easily (“I can be quite anxious sometimes, while Aya is a bit the opposite,” he says). They have complementary backgrounds as well as personalities: Anglo-Iraqi Mousawi was a curator at the Edge of Arabia, a nonprofit in London, while Iranian-American Sakhai ditched a globe-trotting career with the State Department to follow a passion for the arts that took him to Britain to help launch the Shirazu gallery.
They were casual acquaintances on the British art circuit; it wasn’t until a flight to Art Basel three years ago that they became friends. On an Easyjet plane, without assigned seating, they ended up in the same row. Both looking for fresh challenges, they bonded on that trip and quickly developed a nonprofit concept. It was a deliberately provocative gesture to dub it a museum, aiming to challenge the received definition. (It's not strictly a "museum," as the artwork is sold.) “We knew that calling it a museum could be problematic, a really loaded connotation and totally confusing to people in the art world who don’t like to see things as commercial,” Mousawi admits. Yet commerce and curation are converging closer than ever in the contemporary art sphere, despite the reluctance of most to acknowledge the shift publicly. See, for example, how the art works in Venice’s storied Biennale are quietly sold to prestige collectors and institutions, even though gallerists are not officially permitted to use the event as a showroom for sales.
After they launched a show in Dubai in May 2013, the pair rapidly staged a huge show in London around the Frieze art fair in the fall of that year. They then spent much of 2014 living and working in Istanbul, where 36 artists were invited for a residency to create work in response to Ottoman traditions. It included some of their most ambitious collaborations to date, such as that with artist Mai-Thu Perret. Already known for her work using carpets as a substitute canvas, she was seconded to the Eastern city of Van and learned traditional kilim-making from a local workshop.
Now back in London, the pair plans to concentrate on the Moving Museum’s digital launch for the next few months before decamping for their next city: Los Angeles. ”It has a double identity: an old art scene that’s superconservative and intellectual in a way that even New York isn’t, then a whole new wave of art and galleries,” Mousawi explains. Sakhai admits to a more prosaic lure. “I just can’t wait to eat some good food.”