Damien Hirst's £50 masterpiece

How has a small Palestinian gallery managed to attract the art world's biggest names? Saeed Taji Farouky on an inspiring coup
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The Independent Online

Their work may be worth a fortune, but under the rules of a new exhibition, As If By Magic, 25 world-class artists agreed to spend no more than £50 on materials and deliver a set of instructions to the modest Bethlehem Peace Centre in the occupied West Bank.

Constrained by politics, practicalities and the imagination of curators Charles Asprey and Kay Pallister, the artists were unable to ship any work directly to the venue. Instead, their chosen pieces were recreated, following their instructions, on the walls of the gallery. Each artist met the challenge in his or her own way: Gary Rough submitted a T-shirt to be worn by visitors. Damien Hirst sent a fax.

The idea for the show came about during Asprey's last visit to the occupied territories while working with Art School Palestine - founded by Asprey and curator and art critic Sacha Craddock to support Palestinian art.

Noting that Palestinians had no modern art museum, Asprey began planning an international exhibition in the occupied territories. But the danger of work being destroyed, along with the prohibitively high cost of insurance, meant he had to think of another way to get the art into the gallery.

He recalls the invitations: "We're not inviting you to travel, we're not inviting you to send any artwork. We'd like you to come up with an instruction that doesn't compromise the quality of the work, and allow us to recreate it in Palestine. Once it's done, it's painted over. Job done. It's very simple."

The list of participating artists is staggering: Martin Creed and Wolfgang Tillmans join legends such as Lawrence Weiner and Daniel Buren. "We weren't afraid to go for big names," Asprey says.

The show is sure to touch a few nerves. While Asprey admits that the concept is a contentious one, his initial invitation asked the artists not to be overtly political. "If you do that," he explains, "then people would be pressurised to make some sort of statement. I think the quality of art is so good precisely because people have not felt obliged to follow a political instinct."

Then, with few of the artists ever touching their final gallery pieces, the show raises questions about authenticity and authorship that have been dogging high-profile art since the days when Andy Warhol asked his assistants to urinate on his canvases for him.

Nathan Coley, one of the exhibition's featured artists, believes the bizarre format builds on a long history of similarly controversial experiments. "I think sometimes you need to focus on the idea and what you're actually going to generate, rather than form or material or production values. You don't need to steal the show and be dominating to have an impact. Sometimes the slightest interventions are the most potent."

Coley's body of work seems perfectly suited for the exhibition: his detailed and often surreal architectural models examine the relationship between individuals and the built environment. He is also no stranger to politically sensitive subjects: in 2003 he exhibited Lockerbie, an exact replica of the witness box in which two Libyans were tried for the 1998 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. "I think it's political both with a small 'p' and a large 'P'," he says of the exhibition, adding, with a distinct sense of mischief, "I guess I'm secretly hoping that it will be used and misused as people see fit."

Co-curator Pallister describes another crucial aspect of the show: trust. "The artists have to trust us that we will carry out their work in an appropriate way, and the people of Palestine have to trust us to make sure we've got all the information right."

Coley's piece, for example, is a page of instructions on how to recreate one of his earlier works - THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE - by drilling the words into the exterior wall of the gallery. He has no idea who will carry out his instructions, or how closely they will be followed. For Coley, it's an exciting prospect. "That's interesting, because there's a change of responsibility. People in Bethlehem - the people who know the place, and the audience - they are the custodians of the idea."

Coley's approach is adventurous, but for critics, that "change of responsibility" - and the passive involvement of many of the show's artists - hints at a rather superficial cause célèbre.

Asprey prefers to concentrate on the strength of the work rather than the artists' names. Still, he's not afraid to recognise the value of attaching some of the biggest names in the art world to the project. "When people in New York or LA are turning the pages of an art magazine, and they see there's a huge show in Palestine with 25 names that they recognise, it'll be an extraordinary shock. I expect even the advert to throw up a lot of dialogue and emotion."

But Asprey's focus remains on the show's Palestinian visitors, and for them, questions of authenticity and celebrity may prove to be redundant. "People in the West Bank don't know who Damien Hirst is," he says, "so in a way we're going without baggage."

As If By Magic runs at the Bethlehem Peace Centre until 6 October