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In 2001, artist Michael Landy took inventory of everything he owned and for two weeks systematically destroyed all his belongings in an empty central London department store in full view of the public.

The artwork, Break Down, is one of the most unforgettable in a long line of extraordinary projects commissioned by Artangel, which has been tearing up the rulebook on art in the public domain for nearly four decades.

Among the crowds that flocked to Oxford Street in February was a young Chelsea College of Art student, Mariam Zulfiqar. “I’m now sitting in an office with Michael Landy’s print next to me,” she says.

“I went to see Break Down when I had just graduated from Chelsea and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what ambition looks like.’ To have this print next to me many years later reminds me of how influential Artangel was to me.

An image from Break Down, 2001, by Michael Landy artangel.org.uk

Zulfiqar joined Artangel as director earlier this year, succeeding co-directors James Lingwood and Michael Morris. She will spend her first year working alongside her predecessors, at the helm since 1991.

“It’s amazing to be here in this overlapping year,” says Zulfiqar. “We can discuss ideas and share experiences.”

It may seem like neat symmetry to end up so close to where he started, but Zulfiqar says there was nothing predetermined about his career, which has “been a pretty meandering path.”

Encouraged by a teacher to study at Chelsea, Zulfiqar moved away from the art world upon graduation, taking a job as a filmmaker before working alongside the diplomatic sector. The terrorist attacks of September 11 had just happened and it was a strange and sometimes difficult time to be at the intersection of culture and international relations.

Cast concrete sculpture by Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993-4 artangel.org.uk

“I was really fascinated to observe how culture was starting to become a tool deployed as a mechanism in international relations,” she says. “It was at the very beginning of the emergence of the term cultural diplomacy. I curated exhibitions and worked with artists from the Middle East at a time when these practitioners were not visible in the UK.
There is then a real tension in the relations between the Arab-Islamic worlds and the West. I learned a lot about how artists, musicians and poets from the Middle East were marginalized from the discourse in the UK.

Moving

Cultural exchange has always interested Zulfiqar, who grew up in a mixed-race family in Pakistan and moved to the UK when she was 11.

“When you’re cross-cultural, you don’t have free time,” she says. “In Pakistan I’ve always been the white kid and in England I’ll always be the Asian girl. I came to England in the early 1990s when I was 11 and people were quite open with their prejudices. It was a tough time, but in a way it was a very interesting first exposure to the nuances and challenges that need to be acknowledged.

“I’m particularly interested in the diplomacy and sensitivity that’s required when these topics are brought up in public settings, and how that’s handled,” she says. “I do not deprive myself of it. I think very deeply about how you occupy a space that is used by so many different people and how it can be activated to become a space for dialogue and growth.

Blue copper sulphate crystal work by Roger Hiorns, Seizure, 2008 artangel.org, UK

This dual worldview informed Zulfiqar’s own understanding of what public art is. “When I went to Chelsea College of Art and Design, at that time, art in the public domain was still mostly understood in the mainstream as sculptural, static and written.

“But I also had another vision of my childhood in Pakistan, where you would see historical sites and mosques decorated by anonymous artists and craftsmen. And there were also tanks and statues of soldiers, things that make military pride and illustrate the birth of a new nation, so I grew up with various references around public space and its occupation. Fundamentally, for me, public space is a platform for ideas.

Through her work with the diplomatic sector, Zulfiqar realized that her passion lay in conservation and she completed an MA in Contemporary Conservation at the Royal College of Arts. Her study involved an internship at Art on the Underground, which commissions contemporary artwork for the London Underground network. She ended up staying for several years.

Zulfiqar says responding to such a large audience — with millions of commuters from all walks of life passing by every day — opened his eyes to the power of what it means to occupy an entire city.

“When you create the conditions for artists to react to such a public context, you may not realize how much it affects someone’s life,” she says. “One of my favorite moments that really sums it up was when we had just done our Imran Qureshi tube card cover for the tube’s 150th anniversary. The phone rang one day and it was an elderly gentleman who said that he had seen a poster in Qureshi’s tube and asked me if I knew that artist was Pakistani.

MARIAM ZULFIQAR

Mariam Zulfiqar holds a BA in Design and Public Art from Chelsea College of Art & Design and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art.

She worked alongside the diplomatic sector as an events manager at Morris International Associates in 2003 and subsequently commissioned artwork for Art on the Underground. She has undertaken a curatorial residency in Barbados under the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Scholarship Fund and has also held curatorial positions at the Science Gallery at King’s College London, Film and Video Umbrella and Up Projects.

She was Head of Contemporary Arts at Forestry England before joining Artangel as Director in January.

“I told him I did and helped put his work on the tube. He said he had lived in this country since the 1950s and it was the first time he felt proud that it was his home. It moved me so much. »

Our understanding of public space has changed again since the pandemic, says Zulfiqar. “I think we’ve realized how valuable spaces outside of our home context are, whether it’s public spaces like museums or outdoor spaces. And culture, whether film, poetry or music, has been crucial for so many during the pandemic. It definitely strengthened people’s perception of culture, and their connection and access to public space.

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston during the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests has also caused society to reflect on the nature of representation in the public domain. “There is a friction between the evolution and movement of social consciousness and the ‘static’ of statues,” Zulfiqar explains. “We live with these statues around us that speak to specific times and point out specific kinds of historical and contemporary inclusions and exclusions.”

Billboards for Steve McQueen in London, Year 3, 2018-21 artangel.org.uk

Zulfiqar welcomes the “increased level of awareness and renewed engagement with the context in which we live” that Colston’s downfall has brought about. “It’s interesting to think that a statue erected so long ago would have the power to spark events and debates today,” she says.

Throughout his career, Zulfiqar’s work has – consciously or not – tracked some of the biggest issues of our time. Last year, she started working at Forestry England, a pioneer in artistic initiatives that respond to outdoor spaces. This is where Zulfiqar began to focus more intensely on the intersection between art and the climate and biodiversity crises.

“Forestry England brings a unique set of conditions to the table as not only do they have access to a huge amount of outdoor green space, but they also have access to scientists, researchers and people who are at the forefront of the climate emergency. I was really interested in developing Forestry England’s leadership role at the intersection of artistic production and environmental concerns.

Growing environmental problems

Under Zulfiqar’s leadership, Forestry England has embarked on a five-year partnership with Arts Council England to address climate and environmental issues. Zulfiqar is keen to pursue this direction at Artangel.

“One of the most important themes for me is the issue of the environment, because I think that, like the pandemic, it is a situation that will affect everyone, but not everyone will suffer in the same way. “, she says. “I’m really interested in having conversations with artists about what it means to respond to this crisis and how we can re-examine what art production means in this context.”

Longplayer, 2000, by Jem Finer artangel.org.uk

The Artangel Archives offer an incredible resource to draw on. Zulfiqar says she is particularly inspired by Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a musical composition released on January 1, 2000, which will continue to play until the end of 2999. The piece can be heard online and on multiple listening stations at worldwide. “I like what Longplayer stands for – long and durable rather than fast and transactional,” she says.

Zulfiqar’s zest for life at the prospect of becoming director of an organization like Artangel is palpable. “They’re a fantastic team – I’m really excited to hear the things they care about and can’t wait to see what projects we’ll be working on together.”

She says she is particularly motivated to expand the association’s regional and international remit. Taking over from two directors who have held the position for so long – and contributed to so many important moments in British art – may seem like a formidable challenge, but Zulfiqar is fearless.

“I grew up in a country where the experience of people who have been doing something for much longer is really valued,” she says. “It’s not a tough ending and a new beginning, it’s about how we build on their work to meet today’s challenges.”

Zulfiqar (center) with Artangel colleagues (left to right) Marina Doritis, Producer, James Lingwood, Associate Director, Sam Collins, Head of Production and Cressida Day, Managing Director Photograph by Phil Sayer
ARTANGEL

Founded in 1985, the driving principle of Artangel is “extraordinary art in unexpected places”. The charity has been behind some of the most memorable artistic experiments of recent decades, including Seizure (2008) by Roger Hiorns, which used blue copper sulphate crystals to transform an empty council flat into Elephant & Castle in London, and House (1993-4), Rachel Whiteread’s temporary sculpture depicting the interior of a condemned house in east London cast in concrete.

In 2011 the charity launched the Artangel Collection with Tate to enable the presentation of film and video installations across the UK. More than 25 works are available for free loan on state-funded sites. Current projects include Jitterbug, a film by Hackney artist Ayo Akingbade about the consequences of gentrification in his hometown, which was at the Museum of the Home in London.