Tuesday, February 26, 2013

At Land IV

First published on THE MANTLE
For T., H. & J. 
[The Wait, 1979]
“Every era has to reinvent spirituality for itself… In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is art.” – Susan Sontag
There is a question. It always begins with a question. But the question is markedly different for the artist and for the reader.  In the painting, there are no answers. Hélène Cixous remarks: “A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to seek, to pursue the answers that will appease it, that will annul it. Yet what misfortune if the question should happen to meet its answer! Its end!” Such are the demands of art. The answers are not included in the work; the work is simply the external result of a process that takes a minute and a lifetime at the same time. The procedure is always rigorous but doubtful. What is art? The reader asks, and Sarah Kofman answers with duplicitous clarity: “The question itself is replete with metaphysical presuppositions.”
Is this not the subordination of art to orders of truth that belong to science and knowledge? One does not know paintings, unless that is, one is an art historian. In paintings, things appear and disappear simultaneously, leaving behind them only traces of objects that were once familiar, only to be devoured by the painting. The work of Bahraini painter Nasser Al Yousif belongs to this kind of paintings that cannot be read by dissecting the work into units of meaning and significance; they are construed as whole universes. The real difficulty with his work does not necessarily lie with the innovative technique and the colorful but yet obscure references to the traditional culture of the Arabian Gulf that can mislead the viewer into thinking that he is confronted with folklore painting in the manner of a visual documentary.
At the center of his artistic production rests a cautious journey through the materiality of the environment in which his work unfolded: Earth colors, sands, woods, Arabian doors against Persian and Indian pastel colors, bamboo baskets, dances and drums. And Bahrain is all of that. The poet Qassim Haddad understood this better than any Bahraini of his generation: “We are not an island, except to whoever sees us from the sea.” You must travel to Bahrain for two reasons: First you must discover that the border of the waters encircling the island is nothing but a geographical convention; Bahrain is in the waters and is the waters. Second, you must realize that the colorful world of Al Yousif is nowhere to be found in this formless extension of sand and asphalt. Where did the painter learn to paint this country? Where is this country?
Did he imagine it? That would be an unnecessary burden for someone who was simply asking questions; for someone who kept asking questions about the colors of this island even after his eyes could no longer see the fulgurant and intoxicating light of the place where Mesopotamian mythology claims that the sun itself was born. To have painted scenes of history, to have painted the past, Nasser Al Yousif must have then embodied the historicist consciousness of a modernist, but that he was not. Although the word Modernism often has a negative connotation nowadays in the Arab world, it simply describes those painters trained in the European tradition and that learnt to see their native lands with the eyes of Delacroix and Monet in Algeria. First there were the impressionist landscapes and then the naïve portraits of the peoples of the Orient.
In this tradition, the question of art would be overarching because the Orient as an object of composition would reveal a plethora of ideological gestures that carried within themselves the snake of the tree of knowledge: Art would want to know itself, and to know itself meant to ask what is art, and to answer the question would mean to lead art back to its very beginning: The primal world of formless physicality yet rising out of a world devoid of magic; the gap between the fresco of the Ladies in Blue at Cnossos and Marcel Duchamp. Al Yousif’s procedure stands out of this tradition of modernism both in its Western and Arab setting: He created a universe of color and form – rather than content and form – from the very womb of the land where for three millennia the sounds of the European Orient and the exotic East met at once.
Contemporary artists in the Gulf region live in that mortal contradiction of wanting to soak in aluminum and neon the same colors that Al Yousif was committed in bringing to life; adopting a reckless modernity of which they have never been part, except, alas, in the modernist imagination. The melancholy inherent in the modernist Arab painting of depicting a world that is vanishing in the moment it is being painted or has already vanished, is absent from his work because he is not painting out of the vaults of the grand past; here understood as the rupture or discontinuity between memory and the present, so that everything is to be immortalized in a last inward gaze before everything evaporates. Memory – in orality and sound – is an overwhelming presence in his work as a present that never ceases from making itself present.
O Lord, Safeguard this Country, 1983
O Lord, Safeguard this Country, 1983
To paint the past as the grand past, in order to remember it, is the safest strategy to discard it and forget it. Whereas the memory of Al Yousif – as it was proven in his later years when he went blind but continued working on linoleum – is the most careful and attentive observation of a world not vanished and not present; it is suspended in between so that it can always be accessed. The French mystic Simone Weil reminds us, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”.
In one of his best-known works, “The Wait”, being the first artist in the Gulf to work on acrylic, a generation before conceptual artists in the region discovered it; he stages a human drama in an archetypal manner: A bird in its cage is surrounded by restless felines, and both have waited long for the inescapable end – freedom or death. Art is always searching for humanity, and the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig insists that what is the purely human element in art and in life is that which is equal and common to us all, an element which is awakened by and in tragedy.
In her reading of Rosenzweig, conceptual artist Doris Salcedo tells us:“Rosenzweig said the hero of Greek tragedy embodies the solitary self, cut off from all relations to the world and his destiny is marked by two fundamental experiences: the encounter with Eros and the encounter with death. Death is silence, the impossibility of dialogue. Art is communication without words; art is silence. Art is also mediation; and therefore it enables a self enclosed in his own tragedy to awake another self, who is just as solitary.” Out of the conflict between the predator and the victim in the painting, is born a struggle pointing towards a humanizing lesson: In violence and conflict, there are no victories, there are no victors; there are only victims. Nameless victims. Faceless victims. And it is the realization that not to recognize personhood and identity in difference is already a form of violence.
But the message of Al Yousif is nowhere near the pathos of the irreversible – his dramas are suspended before their untimely finality, and without hints at redemption to the very last moment, creating a tension manifesting that humanity is still possible. No wonder that in the language of Rosenzweig, the Orient is referred to as “Morgenland”, the land where the sun rises, opposed to the “Abendland”, or nocturnal lands of Europe. And Bahrain is like this too, as Cixous exclaims: “Let yourself go! Let go of everything! Lose everything! Take to the air. Take to the open sea. Take to letters. Listen: nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought.”
In his acrylic from 1983, “O Lord, Safeguard this Country” he depicts an optical theater in which Islamic motifs of his earlier piece, “The Land of Peace” (1979) reappear embedded architecturally, surrounded by fluttering birds. In this painting, the artist is expressing his view of how in moments of hopelessness, of disunity, of violence, it is but the armor of the heritage what will protect the nation, any nation. But again it is easy to be misled: One could be fooled into thinking that by heritage it is meant a specific religious tradition or even cultural uses; but the vision of the painter goes further: By the heritage he articulates what is expressed in “The Wait”; heritage means here what is common to us all, the purely human element that is awakened in the darkest hours.
It would be completely mistaken to understand Nasser Al Yousif’s pictorial work as either representational or literary – and both motifs are identical – but rather, he is doubling and upsetting the layers of correspondence between the world of the living and the colorful universe that he created with his own hands out of – literally – sand and soil. Sarah Kofman concludes a discussion about the nature of contemporary painting by saying what best articulates Al Yousif’s careful observation and exploration of Bahrain as it disclosed itself to him: “What we call representational art can no longer be thought of as the mere repetition of a preexisting model but only as an originary double that causes all our assumptions to waver – our assumptions about the identity of the “object” as well as that of the subject – by doubling every “real” thing with its unwonted and fascinating “presence.”
[Unity, 1982]

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Who Draws the Line?

First published on REORIENT
Devrim Kadirbeyoglu - Who Draws The Line
What does it mean to travel? To journey far away? Where, exactly, do we go? There is a geometrical principle that always brings relief to those who embark on the adventure of travelling: parallel lines never meet. Thus, leaving a place also implies not encountering it again, or at the very least, leaving it behind and not facing its present again. The French writer Georges Perec (1936 – 1982) reminds us in Species of Spaces of the  ’surprise and disappointment of travelling. The illusion of having overcome distance, of having erased time. To be far away. Or else, rather, to discover what you’ve never seen, what you didn’t expect, what you didn’t imagine’.
The illusion of leaving places behind – often associated with forgetting, too – begins to crumble as we become familiar with the kind of world maps necessary for travelling, and realise that vertical lines all conjoin at the North and South Poles, even though they run exactly parallel at the equator line. There are no parallel lines, for all lines must meet up somewhere. The line is not simply a division marker, but also an indicator of time and direction, so that at the same time that lines meet up with each other, they also prevent movement and encircle the earth in a grid that is not necessarily invisible.
Crossing from one country to another, across East and West, North and South, rich and poor, war and peace, the reality of lines once thought to be imaginary is revealed. In Who Draws the Line?, a series of site-specific installations placed in public spaces in different cities, Turkish artist Devrim Kadirbeyoğlu maps out the frustration of citizens of the third world, in particular her native Turkey, with national borders and the tortuous journeys – both temporary and permanent – to promised lands. According to the artist, the project was born out of her long-time frustration with borders and visas:
Since the 1980s, due to political unrest in the country, it’s been difficult for citizens of Turkey to apply and obtain visas, and gathering all the documents for the application takes weeks. In the past, one had to get in line outside the consulates at 5 AM in the morning, winter or summer, and wait for six or seven hours only to submit the application. Then, stress would build up waiting for another week or two for the decision of the consulate.
Devrim Kadirbeyoglu - Who Draws the Line?

Time is not only necessary to navigate through her work, but it also consumes and erodes the final product, allowing her artwork to expand infinitely into memory as an experience

In 2009, Kadirbeyoğlu received an email alerting her about the Visa Hotline Project initiated by the Economic Development Foundation of Turkey, which was established to collect complaints from Turkish citizens around the world regarding visa-related difficulties. In 2011, the artist requested access to the hotline’s complaint letters received between November 2009 and January 2010, and selected 160 quotations, which she laboriously stenciled by hand in soil onto the floors of public spaces. ‘The words made of earth are erased with each viewer’s footstep and gust of wind, reflecting [the fate of] personal stories that have not been formally recorded for generations’, she says.
Unlike paintings and sculptures, installations are not meant to be consumed or grasped immediately. As art installation historian Julie H. Reiss notes, ‘… Art on a room scale must be explored and traversed to be grasped, and that exploration, however brief, takes time’. In Kadirbeyoğlu’s series of installations, time is not only necessary to navigate through her work, but it also consumes and erodes the final product, allowing her artwork to resist being collected, and as a result, expand infinitely into memory as an experience.
The artist was not only interested in fleeting experiences as a form of memory – a theme commonplace in the environments and situations that define installation art – but also in what she describes as an attempt to reposition production as a theatrical extension of daily life:
I’m interested in the idea of having the work of art interact with viewers. They approach the work, go around, inside, or over it, and become the protagonist of the story being told. Through this interaction, as the viewer becomes part of the installation, even if it is for a brief moment, hopefully he/she leaves with different ideas, impressions, and lingering thoughts.
Speaking about the concept of the installation, Kadirbeyoğlu notes that:
It is with this site-specific installation that I realised the concept of border and territory, both re-appearing in my work, as much as repetition and multiplication. This derives from not having a personal space as a Turkish woman artist. Growing up in a Muslim country with its many restrictions on women, I always imagined living abroad, far away from all the mental and social taboos. Travelling outside of Turkey helped me observe what it means to have an identity, what it means to be foreign, what it means to be a citizen of a country, to have a religion.
Perhaps the journeys of the artist and her work conclude that travelling actually causes one to be or become foreign. In a former work from the early 2000s, Immigration, she reflected on what it meant to have an immigrant identity in the United States. She made hundreds of Xerox copies of her American visa, which she then soaked each page of in liquid clay, and subsequently dried and placed them on a kiln to burn.
Devrim Kadirbeyoglu - Immigration
Set in a post-9/11 world amidst the new challenges faced by peoples of the Middle East in the Western world, hundreds of these fragile pieces representing one person were laid on a stainless steel table bringing to mind a customs gateway at an airport, with the sound of passports being stamped in the background. The lines in her work run in different directions, however, encapsulating not only the present and the anxieties of the future, but also the turbulent past of the Turkish Republic, her youth during the 1980 military coup, and the period of her mother’s imprisonment, during which the artist was only six years old. Reflecting on her childhood, the artist notes: 
My name, which means ‘revolution’ in Turkish, was given to me by my grandmother, who was a very modern and open-minded woman. During and after the coup, it was forbidden to pronounce ‘devrim’ as one could be imprisoned for doing so. My grandfather, out of irony and sarcasm, would instead call me ‘inkilap’ outside of home, which means revolution in Old Turkish.
The abroad, the ‘other’, and the idea of annihilating borders by showing their overwhelming presence in reality is something of an obsession for artists in the Middle East, where constraints on one’s personal identity are imposed both internally and externally. Kadirbeyoğlu nevertheless has brought over these regions of anxiety onto larger spaces, where she carries out three-dimensional investigations on the nature of space and time, embedded in rich contexts of identity and national history. Travel, or rather movement across inviolable, restricted lines surfaces in her production as an uncanny demand for more and better living spaces.

Devrim KadirbeyogluHer work becomes a passing reminder that the past is not history yet, but the debris of the present

Her installations Unknown (2003) and Here and Nowhere (2012) translate her questions about the nature of contemporary living spaces into sharp, yet ambiguous criticisms about the effects of production and industrialisation, which acquire a certain materiality in her own work, produced through endless processes of repetition and multiplication. The concept is broad but singular:
Defining order with the cycles or creation and destruction inspire my work, conceptually and aesthetically … Wars, natural disasters, or accidents occur and then reoccur. Time, as a loop, appears as a repetition and multiplication in my processes. It is a way to calm myself, a way to keep me sane … It is a way of reassuring myself that life will not disappear all of a sudden. Multiplication and repetition resonate as my own reality – a reality that comes from where all is one and one is all.
Kadirbeyoğlu is not too concerned about the passing nature of her installations, which disappear as soon as they are exhibited, or even while they are being exhibited. ‘Clearing off the table generates an emancipatory effect on my ideas … a fresh start … a new process, feeds my curiosity … The notion of the work being destroyed … helps me keep my thoughts serene’, she explains.
The artist has embarked early on a project – rather than specific works of art – that considers her and the world surrounding her as a part of a larger project wherein artistic interventions enable temporary fissures in discourses about identity, womanhood, immigration, technology, and/or industrial production.
What is an installation if not the art of the present tense? It is being unable to circumvent the anxiety of the future or find consolation in the past. The immediacy is not spontaneous or flashing; it is necessary to traverse the entire distance available. But this immediacy throws the artist ahead of herself, even at her own risk.
As the art critic Boris Groys once remarked:
If one is involved in a project – or more precisely, is living in a project – one is always already in the future. One is working on something that cannot yet be shown to others, that remains concealed and incommunicable. The project transports one from the present into a virtual future, causing a temporal rupture between oneself and those who still wait for the future to happen.
In this temporal rupture, one discovers a time freeze, which, far away from the background noise of daily life, reveals the tragic history of a region still scarred from wars, authoritarianism, and the untold stories of countless immigrants waiting to cross invisible borders that grow as cement blocks before them. Here, Kadirbeyoğlu’s work becomes a passing reminder that the past is not history yet, but merely the debris of the present, under which lurks the hidden message in a bottle left by Perec: My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them.

Cover image courtesy Erbil Balta / Vogue Turkiye Archive

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mapping Uncertainties

First published on THE MANTLE
[I Know People Like This III, Arter, February 2013]
“We speak so much of memory because there is so little left of it.” –Pierre Nora
Collecting has become one of the keywords in contemporary art from the Middle East. The institution of the collector – be it a patron, a gallery or a museum – is fraught with a two-fold obsession; one the one hand, the practice of collecting suggests a reverence for a national history and heritage that either wasn’t written or is not in possession of its rightful heirs, while at the same time denotes a certain desire to close off the past – and thus, nullify its effects upon the present – by collecting it. The existence of national museums – showcasing antiques, national history or contemporary art – reveals that the procedure of collecting is intimately associated with establishing the limits of history through a set of visual codes, or, in the words of Carol Duncan“To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths. […] What we see and do not see in art museums – and on what terms and by whose authority we do or do not see it – is closely linked to larger questions about who constitutes the community and who defines its identity.”  
The museum establishes itself not as an archive but as a ritual in which the nation is staged – it is primordially theatrical, more than a form of documentary. The rise of new state-of-the-art regional museums and art institutions (particularly inTurkey and the Gulf states) elicits criticism about the absence of certain larger themes that have either dominated or shaped local histories, but this criticism is oblivious of the fact that in its Western setting, the museum was conceived as an ideological narrative that would present itself as an established political reality. This state of affairs is further confused by the rise of collecting practices and museums at a time when Western art has not only abandoned the trajectory of art history as a grand narrative but also eroded the role of the museum as the sole authority of what is being remembered, turning remembrance into an activity of the present tense rather than a structure of the past. National and historical exhibitions, as per Timothy Mitchell, are seen with suspicion:  “The world-as-exhibition means not an exhibition of the world but the world organized and grasped as though it were an exhibition.”
From the work of Pierre Nora we learn that in the relationship between past and present – at the center of collecting practices – in the Middle East memory is often confused with history, in such a way that the perpetually self-enacting umbilical cord to the present is replaced by mere representation of the past, in the sense of a modern and alienated historical consciousness. History compensates for memory loss in such a way that in the words of Rabih Mroué“I am not telling in order to remember; on the contrary, I am doing so to make sure that I have forgotten.” For Nora, we remember only what is already forgotten and collect only what is already discarded. Archives of memory – rather than of the past – are not hierarchically ordered templates but rather labyrinths without exit: An intricate structure of interconnecting passages through which it is difficult to find one’s way. A labyrinth suggests continuity and homogeneity of spatial experience only insofar as it is an interminable, suffocating and formless extension; walking through the labyrinth is not a matter of visual safety, but the opposite: Uncertainty is being mapped throughout.
Hale Tenger’s installation “I Know People Like This III” presented first in the group exhibition of contemporary Turkish art “Envy, Enmity, Embarrassment” atARTER Istanbul in January 2013, functions as one of such labyrinths. Cleverly and uncomfortably assembled at the entrance – and exit – of the exhibition space, the installation grows as a series of corridors encircled by walls constructed as light boxes that permit us see a visual journey – from a variety of sources: news agencies, archives, journalists, neglected images – through scenarios of violence in the public space in Turkey since the military coup in the 1980’s throughout the protests in Diyarbakir, shortly before the completion of the installation. Rather than being simply an archival collection, the images are printed on clinical X-ray machines and made visible through the luminosity of the walls holding them together in horizontal grids that also carry chronological sequences. Tenger’s procedure isn’t simply one of displaying memory as a vast and interminable field but also of interfering with the process.
One of the common gestures of contemporary art when tackling the real, rather than juxtaposing orders of meaning through aesthetic encoding, is that the real – to use terminology of Hal Foster – is not a medium as it mistakenly assumed but a subject in itself as the stage of trauma and distress: The confrontation that the artist provokes by means of presenting the crass everyday object reveals the grotesque and the horror associated with the everyday and that is unavailable to aesthetic mediation; this confrontation is not only a transgression in the orders of beauty and composition, but to renounce a mediation between life and art, establishing formal principles of criticism within the art work, through anthropological and ethnographic methods.
[Being a Turk, 2002]
To document history in ways that alter the stability of remembering and collecting becomes an artistic practice in Tenger’s work as the artist simulates – without irony – history not as an act of memory but as a technical laboratory procedure, about which Hannah Arendt reminds us: “The fundamental fact about the modern concept of history is that it arose in the same sixteenth and seventh centuries which ushered in the gigantic development of the natural sciences.” Accordingly, the luminous display is not that of a museum as much as it could be a newspaper archive, an x-ray laboratory and a commercial window shelf. This realistic arrangement is shocking in its unnaturalness when contrasted with the rough-edged manner in which memories are arranged spatially and stored in experience and consciousness; the dearth of explanations – either in the form of text, quotes or interventions within the artwork itself –  leaves only a very minimal and liminal space for interpretation.
The surgical properties associated with the installation affect the viewer as a neutral clinical diagnosis that prevents moral judgment and in the absence of judgment, there’s also an absence of aesthetics – value-judgments – hence, participating in an unfinished reconstruction of memory that defies the closure of the collection and the archive and the museum, is the one only pathway available to interact with the work. The portrayal of violence is not limited to the grand narratives linked to political violence but also with public silences that are associated with symbolic forms of violence as repressions and dislocations: Disappearances, anonymous bodies, missing relatives or the Saturday Mothers that organize sit-ins in Istanbul demanding the right to know about the fate of their disappeared children.
In another installation of Tenger from 2002, “Being a Turk”, it is possible to identify a similar procedure: There the artist used only fabric dolls haphazardly positioned in such a way that the qualities associated with individuality are absent – a recurrent topic in Turkish art – and the formless mass of people could be led in any direction, mirroring history as discontinuous horizon of disrupted memories timed in and out by periods of police brutality and political contestations that are quickly overshadowed and hidden under the debris of official histories. While a great deal of contemporary Turkish art seems interested in personal narratives that leave open the question of history, Tenger’s work seems to move in a more unsettling and vertical direction by showcasing how closed off the past has become for mere observation. The different topographies at work in her installations retain a certain critical distance that could be passed for scrupulous indifference, but on closer inspection it is possible to encounter here a visual ethnography of trauma.
An even earlier example of the direct relationship to trauma is presented in a work from 1993, “Decent Deathwatch: Bosnia-Herzegovina” that explores how memory is shaped by archiving and displaying, this time working with newspaper articles from that conflict. In “I Know People Like This III” Tenger offers perhaps not a conclusion but a summary of her long trajectory in artistic interventions that manipulate objects into becoming themselves, that is, political realities, by liberating their haphazard immediacy and allowing them a disclosure towards us which is more real than it usually appears in the act of collecting them and exhibiting them as political markers instead of as plain facts: It is only here that they acquire the perverse capacity to remind us that everything that is exhibited can be easily archived and forgotten.
[Decent Deathwatch: Bosnia-Herzegoniva, 1993]

Monday, February 04, 2013

Symphony of Stone

First published on THE MANTLE
[Symphony, ARTER, December 2012]
“To kill, like to die, is to seek an escape from being, to go where freedom and negation operate. Horror is the event of being which returns in the heart of this negation, as though nothing had happened.”–Emmanuel Levinas
Contemporary art is replete with allusions to death. This contemporary fascination with death nevertheless has little to do with the sublime aspect thereof with which the death of the tragic hero was coated in classical drama, sculpture and painting; here one could recall the statue of the Laocoön and His Sons, attributed by Pliny the Elder to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes. Based on a lost play of Sophocles, the sculpture presents the Trojan priest Laocoön and his offspring as they are being devoured by sea serpents sent by Poseidon, after the priest attempted to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse. In the 18th century, the German critic Lessing was profoundly impressed by the paradox embodied in the work, in which beauty, death and failure blend into a single piece. According to Lessing, the artist could not realistically translate the physical suffering of the victims, as this would be too painful. Rather, he had to express suffering while retaining beauty.
Expressions of suffering in art were never considered contradictory as it is said – this time by Schopenhauer – that tragedy is a tonic. The Crucifixion as a tradition of representation in Western art is but one example of the duplicitously affirmative value of tragic art. The philosopher Sarah Kofman asserts that while on the one hand, “Rigorously speaking, an art that is harmful to life, that negates life, destroys itself as art and can only abusively be called art”, it is also true that“Tragic art is fundamentally affirmative: it leads neither to pessimism nor to optimism but to a “virile skepticism”: it teaches us to love life the way one loves an unfaithful woman, whose beauty is still acknowledged despite her duplicity.”Tragedy in fact was considered a supreme aesthetic category in that – now more or less defunct – tradition of thinking about art that ran between Plato and Hegel. But the situation of contemporary art is rather different, where death is dislocated from the traditional hierarchy of correlations between things, meanings and representations.
Lessing comes in handy here when he writes in his essay about the Laocoön that nothing is easier to represent than extremes. While it is all too tempting for contemporary artists to shatter the aesthetic mediation of dealing with death that was once afforded by classical aesthetics, it is also true that the proliferation ofphotography and video as documentary forms – whether art or not – has made it imperative for art to perform yet one another transgression. It is not because death is no longer a subject of inquiry and contemplation but because the essential qualities associated with death have been eroded in the course of the violent history of modernity, in particular the quality of its individuality. Thus, death is not necessarily the personal experience of leaving life and entering an unknown realm. Sublime or not, the technological possibilities afforded by the modern era, brought us into direct confrontation with deathless death: A death that is not personal or individual. Genocides, massacres, exterminations, wars and more wars. An impossible death.
Contemporary artists that have confronted the question of death have resorted to symbolic transitions whose common denominator is asking the question, “Was this his/her/mine own death?” or was it simply a bureaucratic operation, a political calculation, a biological task performed without the essential meaning or lack thereof which is associated with dying? The shift of the 20th century in which the distinction between art objects and crass objects perfunctorily evaporated – not without adding complex layers of subversion – allowed artists to explore death through objects, traces and self-referential symbolic orders. Artists like Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo with her re-humanizing of furniture left behind by victims of violence in her country’s long civil war, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum mapping the Oslo Accords on Jericho soap, factories of which had been destroyed by the Israeli army or Iraqi artist Adel Abidin installation paying homage to the emo teenagers stoned to death in Baghdad in March, 2012.
[Symphony, ARTER, December 2012]
“Of what one cannot speak”. That is the main question begot by these works. To talk about death unmediated and without the access to certain symbolic orders, is that not a way to de-humanize the victims and take away their dignity as much as the autonomy and dignity of the work of art itself? A conversation betweenHannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin about the horrors of the concentration camps in the 1950’s revealed the perils of such a journey: The fact of simply recounting the cold facts of the concentration camps is making them speakable, and insofar as they’re speakable, they are also understandable and therefore, condonable: A semantic distance ought to be established. The two-part installation of Abidin,Symphony, produced in Amman and part of the group exhibition The Move, presented at ARTER Istanbul in October, 2012, is characterized by a subtle gesture that makes a tragic event incomprehensibly poetic and therefore unforgettable in memorializing spatially, but yet clean from references: The work is an extension also of a clean white, so clean that it almost blinding and ineffable to the eye.
group of teenagers were kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Baghdad in March, 2012, because of their emo dress style that has been associated with Satanism and homosexuality. After the Iraqi Morality Police issued a statement, criticizing the emo lifestyle, and threatened to eliminate those associated with the phenomenon, the dead bodies were found in dumpsters after being beaten to death with cement blocks. In an interview with Basak Senova, curator of “The Move”, the artist spoke about how he started researching the event: “I was traumatized once I started reading further about the issue and watching interviews with some officials who were against the killings. What further shocked me was that the same officials were at the same time stating that ‘emos’ are bad for Iraqi society, as their ideology is imported from the west. This made me laugh, given their clearly westernized attire. Some clerics even suggested that ‘emos’ should be sent to court and put in jail.” As it is often the case with victims of violence in the Middle East, the perpetrators are on the run and an investigation is said to be open, which will never materialize.
The work is composed of a sculpture-based installation with ninety small doors built-in on the wall giving the effect of entering a morgue – white is often a metaphor for being de-sensitized to horror – some of which opened in the direction of the viewer and contained small white gypsum-statues of the young men, resembling the texture of stone and in their pristine whiteness, bereft of any of the commonplace references associated with the narrative of death: There are no IDs, no traces, no names, no photographs, no signs of mourning, no traces of life. The second part of the work is a video-installation with the same statues of the installation standing in lieu of their bodies. The mouths of the heavy-looking statues are threaded to the legs of white doves in a moving stand-still frame, pulling in two different directions: As the doves attempt to escape and flee into higher realms, the weight of the stone reminds the viewer of deathless deaths, and the frapping sounds of the doves attempting to escape, though somewhat soothing, recreate an inescapable confrontation with an unmastered past that is yet not passing; it is made of stone.
[From "Abidin Travels", 2006, Adel Abidin ©]
In the interview with Senova, the artist speaks about his choice of material: “These young people were not hanged or shot. They were stoned to death, their skulls actually smashed. I wanted to express this dimension in the work and therefore chose to make the sculptures from cheap gypsum, as it has the color and feel of stones.” In the making of the video-installation he speaks about the vision of 17thcentury philosopher Ibn Sina that he adopted: “Ibn Sina made an analogy between the soul and a dove in one of his poems. He believed that the spirit is ancient and eternal and it landed from the highest truth onto humans by force. This idea always attracted me. I always wondered: When the body is gone, what happens to the soul? Does it stay near the dead body; does it wait for something to happen? Does it vanish with it? Or, does it return to where it came from? In this imagined massacre, the doves are connected to the dead bodies with thin threads so that they cannot fly away. Yet this experience is accompanied by a symphony, performed by the desperate fluttering wings of the doves.”
It is not the first time that Abidin – an Iraqi exile in Finland – touches in his work on the cruel socio-political realities of Iraq and elsewhere, although his work, marked by this enslavement to history, typical of many conceptual artists from the Middle East, is aesthetically clean, ambiguous, melancholy and not politicized. His 2006 installation Abidin Travels promotes exotic adventures to Baghdad as an ironic form of thanato-tourism and invitation for a journey in a war zone, fraught with indescribable dangers. Two monitors featured montage of (violent) real life in Baghdad narrated by an American woman and an animated commercial advertising a special offer to win a holiday in Baghdad. It is complemented by brochures, ticket reservations and a website.  
Why or how is this installation-project a symphony? He expressed his personal reaction to this tragedy interwoven in distinct aesthetic elements, creating a poetic scenario that reinforces the nature of the atrocity – it leaves it in the hands of the viewer as an open field from which it is impossible to withdraw one’s gaze. To listen to this transparent and colorless symphony is to recognize that what is paralyzing about death is not the occurrence of the event, but rather, the metamorphosis of death into a cyclical, nameless and predictable discontinuity of the flow between life and death that we receive as a gift at birth. It is this discontinuity what we have to bear witness to, or in the words of Mascha Kaleko, from her poem “Memento”: “Going away does not hurt half as staying does.” 
[Symphony, ARTER, December 2012]

Friday, February 01, 2013

Artist's Leadership Programme @ Albareh Art Gallery

First published on ArtClvb

Text by Arie Amaya-Akkermans

One of the questions most often asked about the future of art in the Gulf and the Middle East at large is that in the absence of comprehensive art schools, professional curators and art critics, how could regional art be slated for growth and development? It is also said that the economic considerations of institutional projects – museums, fairs and exhibitions of well-known Western artists – are solely directed towards fueling tourism and foreign investment but will have next to no effect on the home-grown artistic scenes. While there is a grain of truth in this analysis, it also falls short on many levels and undermines local artists.

A small but significant local art scene is growing in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, even though it was in Bahrain where art from the Gulf debuted first early in the 20th century, as a product of exceptional circumstances, and has continued developing since then. Nevertheless, the complex politics of the Gulf and the relative isolation of Bahrain’s position after the rise of Dubai have somewhat stalled further development and art from the tiny island-kingdom remains largely unknown. There is no lack of exhibitions and cultural activities in the kingdom, but opportunities for emerging artists are only rarely available.

A new initiative developed by Albareh Art Gallery and its independently operated ABCAD (Albareh Center for Art and Design) running from January through April has sought to tackle the challenge of providing an alternative space for art education and professional training. The “Artists Leadership Programme”, a brainchild of art patron Hayfa Aljishi and sponsored by Tamkeen and Bahrain Economic Development Board, is an ambitious initiative focusing on the development of professional skills and artistic capabilities for Bahrain-based artists through a series of workshops and private mentorships, creating a broad range of opportunities only very rarely available in the Gulf region.

With a commissioned artist and curator, Mo Reda, in charge of mentoring a group of twenty-four artists in collaboration with Bahraini artist and musicologist Hassan Hujairi, the project took off with a drawing improvisation workshop, to be followed by a workshop with award-winning photographer Camille Zakharia, mentoring artists in professional skills such as portfolios and statements. The main final product of the initiative is planned to be a series of research-based group exhibitions, some of which are planned for the end of March.

The importance of the program lies not only in its educational value but in that the gallery is interested in nurturing a selected group of artists with the purpose in mind of helping them grow, representing them, exhibiting their works and ultimately bring them to biennales and fairs. This welcome addition to the artistic panorama of the Gulf presents itself as an opportunity for Bahrain to reclaim its long-established status as a cutting-edge cultural hub in the region and bring diversity to an art scene that in spite of its many qualities and achievements has been more or less stalling for the last decade.

It has been nearly five years since the “Contemporary Art of Bahrain” exhibition was held at Art Center Berlin, back in 2008, showcasing some of the most mature talents in painting from Bahrain, all of which are still active today. Since then, hardly anything has been heard of Bahraini art in the international scene – perhaps except for the discovery of Rashid Al Khalifa by Leila Heller – and in the tide of changes and turbulences that have swept the Arab world in recent years, perhaps there is no better timing than this to explore and filter what it is that emerging artists from Bahrain want to tell us through their work. 

Source: Albareh Art Gallery