Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Not Entirely Red

First published on REORIENT

Faika Al Hassan - Untitled
While Bahraini painter Faika Al Hassan was preparing for The Universe of a City – her 2010 exhibition, which revolved around the constant mobility of people looking for security and certainty – she began working on a painting that laid the foundations for her subsequent endeavour. The circular movement of her paintbrush in motion and the red colours she was using reminded the artist of the fez, the traditional Moroccan hat of Ottoman origin. Shaped either as a truncated cone or a short cylinder, it is made either of red felt or kilim fabric, and is inextricably linked to not only its hometown of Fez, but the whole of Morocco as well. ‘I began to recall my memories of Cairo, and how fascinated I was with the fez that I used to see a lot at Khan El Khalili’, says Al Hassan.
The major souk in Cairo’s Islamic district, the Khan El Khalili, dates back to the 14th Century and provides the perfect setting for one to visualise the contemporary Middle East. Celebrated in Naguib Mahfouz’s 1947 novel,Midaq Alleyit’s imbued with wild eroticism, restlessness, a state of permanent wakefulness, and the melancholy of a past half-passed, and half unable to pass. Here too, the history of the fez as a singular object is as noteworthy. It was first made fashionable in the 17th Century by the Moors in Fez, and was later introduced into the Ottoman Empire in 1826, as a means of replacing the traditional turban. From its original usage associated with the Ottoman military, the fez spread throughout the Empire and beyond, to Cyprus, Greece, the Balkans, as well as Muslim communities in South Asia, among other regions.
As the artist notes:
They used to be worn as a sign of respect … the idea of the fez ‘solidified’ while visiting my best friend last year in Damascus. I commissioned the best craftsman in the industry to make around one hundred and twenty fez pieces in the traditional style, and then cover each one with the white solid paint that is ground to cover canvas. This all happened before the uprising in Syria, and as a result of countless experimentations and tests. All the pieces were then sent to me, and thus I began the journey of my exhibition, titled Not Entirely Red.
Al Hassan paints objects – in this case, depicting the fez in paintings, and painting on fezzes – not so that they serve as mere adornments, but with the intention of interpreting and understanding the spaces surrounding them.
When the artist, a Baghdad-trained economist by profession, took up painting lessons at the Bahrain Arts Society – the usual pathway for Bahraini artists in the absence of a proper art school – she began experimenting with the traditional genres of painting (i.e. still life and landscape) taught in the Arab world. However, since Hidden, her first solo exhibition in 2007 at Albareh Gallery, she has developed a particularly unique style. It’s novel in its use of symbolism, lying somewhere between expressionist and abstract, yet it still retains a figurative quality, in its employment of delicate lines and shapes. Such elements reveal their true forms, and bring to the forefront archetypes, everyday objects, and thoughts, rather than simply images.
Faika Al Hassan - Untitled
The traditional pictorial space fades and dissolves unto itself in Al Hassan’s paintings, in a gesture that at times brings to mind the texture of cloth, impressionist landscapes, and a photographic montage. The small people that appeared inUniverse of a City, in her investigation of how people shape the spaces they dwell in, rather than the opposite, reappear in Not Entirely RedThe artist confesses that her ‘figurines’ are wholly abstract and symbolic, and in observing them, one can see a classical, miniaturist tendency. ‘Those were small figures representing the ones that were mentioned in poetry. I have used my own style, and perhaps unconsciously, I was influenced by those miniatures as I am an avid reader of poetry’.
Regarding the disappearance of the ‘pictorial space’ in modern painting, the French philosopher Michel Foucault remarks, with reference to the work of the impressionist painter, Manet:
… He [Manet] made a representational play of the fundamental material elements of the canvas. He was therefore inventing, if you like, the ‘picture object’, the ‘painting object’, and this no doubt was the fundamental condition, so that finally one day we could get rid of representation itself, and allow space to play with its pure and simple properties, its material properties.
The space on the two-dimensional surface of a painting is that optic illusion, which appears to recede backwards into depth from the plane of the image. Since the Italian Quattrocento in the 15thCentury when the pictorial space formally made its appearance, it was a tradition to make the viewer forget that the three-dimensional space inscribed in a two-dimensional surface was precisely that: a fragment embedded in a material space. This optical illusion was achieved by a regular light that came from within the canvas, and which relied on a monocular perspective that made the human eye the centre of the painting.
A change came about with Cézanne and Manet, when painters began to work with, and depend on the materiality of physical space, rather than a perfectly enclosed room with fixed points of light. ‘What I am looking for, instantaneousness … The same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light’, remarked Claude Monet in 1890. Eventually, this process fully materialised with the realisation that, in the words of the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘it becomes impossible to rigorously distinguish between space and things in space’. Space was no longer conceived merely as a surface, but as field that encompassed the whole physical universe; and the human eye, so limited, seemed so unsuitable a device to survey it fully.
To paint objects in a world of new, enlarged visions became a practice that came about only slowly, and had little to do with the still life of the classical world, or the Dutch painters of the 17th Century. This is because in these paintings, objects were not part of compositions, but rather self-standing figures with a principle of self-reference. The question was, how does one paint an object in isolation? What would it look life? Suspended? Fixed? Attached to something? Merleau-Ponty insists that though paintings resemble the world and the objects therein, they are not meant to represent or resemble the world; rather, they should stand as worlds of their own.

The fez isn’t merely an object here, but rather something fully immersed in the space wherein it happens to appear – a mirror of thought and contradiction

The small object worlds that appear over and over in the pieces in Al Hassan’s Not Entirely Red reflect simultaneity in thoughts being shaped by objects, and objects being shaped by thoughts. The fez isn’t merely an object here, but rather something fully immersed in the space wherein it happens to appear – a mirror of thought and contradiction; and is contradiction not the basis of everything that is rich about human thought? The painted fez mirrors what we would see if one could peer into someone’s thoughts by a gesture as effortless as uncovering their head; yet, these thoughts appear in a world of shared meaning, where we exist together with others – that is, the small figurines that characterise Al Hassan’s paintings. ‘They are either moving together in a group, or in different directions, meaning that they might not share the same opinions or views. I often ask in my dreams why people do not live together peacefully’, she says.
There is no pure space here than can be seen or judged from a distance; rather, one has to become immersed in the painting, to replace mere resemblance or representation – of a woman, landscape, hat, anything – with the feeling of its lived experience: the experience of an unfinished world.
Faika Al Hassan - Untitled
At the same time, however, there seems to be little or no arbitrariness in her work. The very large-scale paintings – some of which are as high as four metres – are coherent compositions in uniform strokes.
It is a rarity in the Middle East – and particularly in the Gulf – for a woman painter to complete the whole journey from landscape and still life to expressionist and abstract styles, and although she is not the only painter of her kind in Bahrain – being in the company of such distinguished artists as Rashid Al Khalifa, Balqees Fakhro, and Omar Al Rashid, for instance – contemporary art from the tiny island kingdom remains largely unspoken of.
Modern paintings are like a field of objects which approach one only one at a time, and whose totality is unlikely to be digested in one glance. Paintings require many eyes, many perspectives, many details, and associations that carry deeper relationships. These are what Faika Al Hassan’s paintings provide, and they appear as continuously unfinished works, born the moment they’re gazed upon. In the words of Merelau-Ponty, ‘Essence and existence, imaginary and real, visible and invisible – painting blurs all our categories, spreading out before us its dreamy universe of carnal essences, efficacious resemblances, muted meanings’.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

If Things Were Perfect

First published on THE MANTLE

For T.A.
[L'empire des lumières, 1954]
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” –Oscar Wilde
A jocular story was told about the Belgian painter René Magritte: He went into the grocer’s shop intent on buying a few slices of the traditional Dutch cheese; when the saleswoman moved on to grab the block on cheese on the display to cut the slices for him, he objected. What is the problem? Asked the saleswoman. Magritte responded that that block of cheese had been stared at the whole day[1]. This anecdote sums up succinctly the impetus of the eye in Magritte’s paintings: Objects transform into other objects merely by seeing them. He aimed not at an eye of knowledge or interpretation but at a Cyclopean eye – once confidence is lost in optical illusions, all what remains is a fleeting moment of anguish in which the impossible dissolves into the possible.
The temptation of the impossible is not realized in the absent subject of abstract painting in which only the vague voice of consciousness blends in with the brush of the painter – as for example in the paralyzing color-fields of Mark Rothko – but in visualizing wholly visible and real objects as impossibilities. The painter roughly classified as a surrealist – perhaps because of a period convention and association with prominent names of the movement – defies the illusion of the surrealists in positing that what interests him is not the world of dreams, for two reasons: Firstly, dreams have a time-movement quality that is only available to films; secondly, for Magritte the dream in painting is trivial and unimportant if it is not fully tangible.
What Magritte wanted in his paintings was not to translate dreams, but rather to present a world in which rather than sleepwalking through images and representations, one stands before primal objects, at an interlude in which interpretation is not possible. Full wakefulness without reference to dreams as if in a procedure similar to that of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake“Through all these scenes glide similitudes that no reference points can situate. Translations with neither point of departure nor support.[2] What does it mean to be awake? That seems to have been the real question that haunted Magritte. It is not persons or landscapes what he wanted to see but objects as they appear to us without standards or possible interpretations of reality.
Paul Cézanne comes to mind when he says: “Well, no one has ever painted the landscape, man absent but entirely within the landscape”. Is it perhaps a re-configuration of both the still-life since its appearance in the Dutch paintings of the 16th century and of the pictorial space of the Italian 15th century“The lived object is not rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the data of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the center from which the data radiate.[3] Magritte’s interest was not in objects as compositions but in doing what his predecessor Manet would do – and whom he deconstructed in his own work – not in inventing non-representative painting but rather picture objects or painting objects[4].
[Golconde, 1953]
Magritte wanted to represent things: “I just painted the paintings I thought to paint and did it. There’s nothing behind it. It is the picture I wanted to paint, and you see it. You don’t have to look for a symbol in there.” Franz Kafka, in his posthumously published Blue Octavo Notebooks (set to music in 2004 by German-British composer Max Richter), had a literary image for the kind of wakefulness that Magritte demanded: “Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be even proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.”
What is this mirror? What can be seen through the mirror or through the window?Schlegel had the idea that the problem with mirrors or windows is that they become obstacles between spectator and landscape, however, there’s no real landscape in Magritte because he has left the pictorial space and is not content with representing. Sarah Kofman tells us in reference to a painting by Greuzedepicting a crying girl and entitled “The Broken Mirror”“The bird is always already flown, the mirror is already broken, cracked, and it is this shattering of meaning that the girl is crying over –the loss, along with the mirror and the bird, of all reference and thus of all discourse.[5]
Kofman tells us that the painting does not mean to say anything at all and explains further: “Between the figurative order of the painting and the discursive order of language there exists a gap that nothing can bridge.[6] Similar is the demand of Magritte when he calls himself an objective painter and rejects both the arbitrariness and the lack of distinction between crass objects and art objects in modern art – exemplified by the practices of DadaSurrealism and Duchamp – and yet says: “Don’t search for hidden images in my paintings.” He considered himself more of a thinker in terms of images than a painter and objected the notion of art for art’s sake: “There is thus no art for pleasure’s sake alone. One can manufacture objects that are pleasurable by linking ready-made ideas in a different way and by presenting forms that have been seen before.[7]
Magritte’s point of departure, if any, was a painting by Giorgio Chirico“Chanson d’Amour”, a proto-Surrealist academic study in free association of images that opened a possibility distinct to that of the totality that was being practiced and experienced by the painters of his time. In between the objects themselves, there seems to be a lot of empty space, a room of anxiety and uncertainty. Magritte is the painter of the absolute absence, faces covered with blankets, objects that come to life only in their dislocation, and life that emerges out of a syntactic chaos that is yet composite: “The presence and absence of the painter, his proximity towards his model, his absence, her distance, finally all of this would be symbolized by that empty space.[8]
It is said that Monet and Magritte’s project of painting the impossible culminated at the limits of Impressionism when touching at the edges of the inhuman character of things to bring forth the human world of alienation, highlighting a devotion to the visible by contrast[9]. This is the courage of his art, as Hélène Cixous speaks of Monet: “And the greatest kind of courage? The greatest kind of courage. The courage to be afraid. To have the two fears. First we have to have the courage to be afraid of being hurt. We have to not defend ourselves. The world has to be suffered. Only through suffering will we know certain faces of the world, certain events of life: the courage to tremble and sweat and cry is as important for Rembrandt as for Genet.[10]
This is why Magritte finds redemption in the wholly and absolutely visible: “I think that the world is a mystery and we cannot say anything about a mystery. It cannot be a subject of fear or hope.”
[Le Retour de Flamme, 1943]

[1] Ellen Handler Spitz. Museums of the Mind: Magritte’s Labyrinth and Other Essays in the Arts (New Haven: CT, Yale University Press, 1994): 48-49.  
[2] Michel Foucault. This Is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: CA, University of California Press, 2008): 52.  
[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “Cézanne’s Doubt” in The Merleau-Ponty Reader: Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy(Evanston: IL, Northwestern University Press, 2007): 75.
[4] Michel Foucault. Manet and the Object of Painting (London, Tate Publishing, 2012): 79.
[5] Sarah Kofman. “The Melancholy of Art” in Selected Writings (Stanford: CA, Stanford University Press, 2007): 210-211.
[6] Sarah Kofman. 2007: 211.
[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 2007: 78.
[8] Michel Foucault. 2012: 77.
[9] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 2007: 70.
[10] Hélène Cixous. “The Last Painting or the Portrait of God” in The Continental Aesthetics Reader (London: Routledge, 2000): 591-592.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Everyday, Crass, Object

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, "Circle of Confusion", 2010
For R. & T. 

Drowning in familiarity. It's an everyday scene, with an added quality of stupor: A half-tilted tryptych hanging from a porous wall, and the waters uniformly painted in between blue and white, lacquered on the surface. Rather than giving the effect of water, the texture is absent and nothing seems to move. The painting seems to stand well among other objects, without being so much an object as a mirror of the surrounding. There are other things too, not as yet objects: Sofas mounted on tables, a mural being painted on the floor, an old-fashioned stereo, oil paintings disappointed with themselves, vases holding immobile plants that grow only sideways, an assortment of keys on a hanger. There's even a dartboard affixed to the wall, parallel to the tryptych, beneath a lightbulb. Do random objects exist outside a composition? What distinguishes crass objects from let's say, an installation? Imagine this to be a museum... Your entire life on permanent exhibition, or, at least, the external objects that once carefully delinated its topography. There's no composition. The sounds are so sterile, conversations, conversations that never become. Every word becomes smothered by the absence of other words. Forget the museum. Imagine throwing a thousand-piece puzzle in the open ocean.

What really is an everyday scene other than a pictorial imposition? Did anyone ever find himself in an everyday scene and claim a feeling for himself? The aspirations of art are sometimes cruel: An everyday scene is the highest degree of abstraction; photographs and standstills thrive on them. It's a still-life. It was much better when you imagined it, when you had - while far away - the sensation of what home would feel like. "Is this it?" was the question of a saint as he walked into a holy city and found the streets littered and flooded in nauseating smells from decomposition of matter. It looked much better in the painting. Paintings do not speak; they have no need to articulate anything. The mirror is already broken. What was ever so exceptional about this? So comfortable? Perhaps exceptional and comfortable are not compatible. Do you want to hide or to disclose? But disclosure yet seems so simple, it can all be fit into a three-word phrase. How often can it be uttered? How long until it dissolves and drowns in the familiar? Why would one want to be back? The depiction of objects should never be like in dreams, because of the time quality associated with them as they unfold. The true nature of the object is awakefulness, hence, radical whatness.

The whatness of an object in a painting isn't thingness, rather, the opening of a world in itself. Worlds are composed by objects, self-referent and self-contained. Can objects be moved from one location to another? Does it matter in a painting if the view can be alternatively rotated? Adjusting points of view, manifold times, this is what seems really important. But how do you call something a point at all from a position of permanent dislocation? I occupy a privileged place, a space, without texture or topography, without mapping, without true perception; it's constantly fleeting, a mere reminder of a possibility that never quite materializes. Perhaps everything would be better than the collision between this free floating space and the curse of familiar topography. You can touch over and over, test your limits, tune your judgments, and yet feel nothing at all. How to escape from what you never were? I would like to recover something more fundamental, more fundamental than conversations and images, something on the back of memories. Something so primal like the puncturing smell of detergent one felt in the bathroom of somebody you once loved, that breeze of the summer that only invades desiring bodies at the ocean, the texture of unshaven skin in the morning. 

Did you ever walk in a souk? The ideal museum of the mind, that is. Everything is an object, everything is a thing, and everything is in a composition, a composition of perception rather than of order. This is what I'm looking for: composite and yet irreducible feelings, in lieu of sterile memories. How to assemble one crass object next to another without losing their quality of crassness and yet forming a unity that is not a totality but more like a sequences of monads? Totality is perverse: there's no entrance or exit. Crass, like "interesting" is not an aesthetic quality or a degree of intensity in appereance - in appereance there's always isonomy and equality - but rather the negation of the possibility of a phenomenon, it's the anti-phenomenon: The illusion of durability without appereance - pure thingness. But pure thingness is also the negation of creation, that's why crass objects create the illusion of anti-art, nevertheless, "This is not a pipe", writes Magritte in his own painting. I want an inventory of memory populated with things, with primal things, and not with photographic memory; photography is the fulfillment of the contemporary illusion of death, of a transient death, that happens over and over. 

I want it to happen only once, like the moment of love. I want to be able to die. I want to be able to live. I want to be able taste. I want it to happen only once. It's the reenactment of memory, the reenactment of feeling, what causes the perpetual distortion, as if one were forever willing to return to a primal moment of intensity that was never experienced in this life, a vault of memory that remains closed for as long as one lives. That's why I'm so attracted to thingness. Caressing the cheek of a sleeping T. and feeling at the simple touch the years of absence between the longing and the moment of love, the water of glass atop the piano tiptoeing carefully around the notes, the smell of letters, the pearly texture of mussels, intoxications of mint and basil, the skin of blue cheese, imagining what Kuwait looks like from the Portuguese Fort, an I love you in the Arabic language. Those are the things I love. I am reminded of God, should he happen to be. He didn't describe feelings, he didn't see images. He only named things. Isn't that what Klimt did in his paintings? Think of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The sleepless nights our lips cracked. Familiary is a curse, so is the everyday. It's like an installation. I want the excitement, the endless possibility, the strangeness, of what can never be had.

Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I", 1907