Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Nation from Center to Margin

The Kingdom of Bahrain’s first-time Venice pavilion, “In A World Of Your Own,” after two very successful participations in the Architecture Biennale, brings together the trio of Mariam Haji, Waheeda Mallulah, and Camille Zakharia, two Bahraini women and a Lebanese artist, presenting works spanning across photography, collage and drawing.

The exhibition is conceived as an environment, through which the artists unmake national identities at a time when the Gulf is experiencing the rise of post-colonial nationalisms and identity politics. Responding to current geo-political enfranchisement, Bahrain disestablishes normative identity through a series of interventions questioning the boundaries of social norms, the role of women and the place of historical memory. More than a national pavilion, it is an experiment in understanding the role of images in configuring reality.  

Bahrain is a new comer into the world of contemporary art, in spite of a long tradition of abstract and expressionist painting and sculpture. The postmodern scenario of gentrification, overpopulation, labor migration and hyper-spaces is played out in Bahrain, in such a way that art reflects the difficulties that Bahrain encounters when addressing “tradition”. The pavilion asks poignant questions about the nature of space – in terms of memory and experience – and how all these contemporary phenomena distinctively shape the living space of Bahrain.

Cultural and political structures become obviously altered in the process and that is how they appear in the exhibition as disembodied selves, personal experiences bordering on alienation and discontinuity. It is still not entirely clear to which extent this concept represents the current state of visual arts in Bahrain but can be seen also as trend-setting and encouraging. But a central question remains: What is national identity in a country so beset by constant physical and social change? Is it even necessary?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Fabric of Uncertainty

First published on THE MANTLE
[The Israeli invasion of Beirut, 1982]
I am always thinking about exile. Sometimes I think it’s an obsession: the unfulfilled dream of always being in transit, without ever reaching a final destination. But exile is a trick; it implies that there was a point of origin, and that we have traveled far away from it. Recently, a conversation with the American poet Catherine Theisreminded me that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives—concerning the family, the village, and the home country—help us stay in exile and familiar with ourselves, in order to go off and "be foreign." We don’t know if these stories are necessarily true, but they build imaginary referents around us that furnish our life with permanence. Yet, these points of origin and departure are also subject to displacement.
What happens, then, when the referents cannot be located? What if the referents are destroyed together with our belongings? Can memories exist without referents? This is what is said about the photography of war: it’s always unclear, blurred, or out of focus. This happens with memories, too. Do we tell stories in order to remember? The Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué tells us in the voice over of his video, Old House:
I am not telling in order to remember; on the contrary, I am doing so to make sure that I have forgotten. Or, at least, to make sure that I have forgotten some things, that they were erased from memory. When I am certain that I have forgotten, I attempt to remember what it is that I have forgotten.
I think about my own memories of war, and how they are intertwined with a home that I would never want to return to. Did this really happen? I ask myself this constantly, and quick shun the question to resume going about my own business. Sometimes I am reminded of what a Lebanese-Polish writer, Rima Dadenji, calls the "textures of war:"
War has a specific texture that permeates to the bones. It is synthetic. War is synthetic and you, a civilian, become hostage of its synthetic reality … War disrupts our nature of being, forcing an internal and external displacement. You become exiled from your native space and from your native memory.
I’ve known these textures well, and it is precisely because of this knowledge that I resist the representation of war that is persistent in contemporary art from theMiddle East.
Those who have lived in Lebanon and the Middle East have known that our personal recollections of war have little to do with the sights and sounds of wars televised from afar. The real snapshots are simpler, more confusing, more intoxicating; they depict people carrying on with life, pretending that nothing is happening, that everything will be fine. They find oranges in the market, fall in love, attend weddings, and bathe in the sun. How were we able to do that? That is the real question. As the Lebanese poet Mishka Mojabber-Mourani says in her memoir, Balconies"It is all up in the air. Nothing is sure anymore. Again. Just when things were beginning to feel secure. Just when banality was starting to be taken for granted. The fabric of certainty is torn."
This passage, written during the Israeli invasion in 2006, overlaps with letters, articles, correspondences with friends, meditations, and poems spanning nearly fifty years. The order is by no means chronological, and the continuity is maintained only by thin and invisible threads of personal opposition to the collapsing order of reality. This unlikely sequence, always fragmentary, attests to the poet’s recognition that our sense of memory is altered by everything, and coincides with Mroué’s proposal of wanting to forget through remembering. "Our memories of war have a particular intensity, arising from our desire to forget the horror and try to find meaning, to find ourselves. For war altered not only our memories, but our identities," she said in a conversation a few months ago.
In the middle of the Israeli invasion, she sends a letter to the late Mai Ghossoub, a Lebanese writer and publisher whose death is bitterly mourned in the book. "Thank you for your SMS message, dearest Mai," she writes. "I will not respond with banalities, but look forward to a time when banalities can once again become the lubricant of our lives." She reflects for a moment: "I thought the Lebanese war was the worst experience this country could go through. I see there is something worse: rebuilding the country and having it destroyed once again." Her memories and experiences form the body out of which Alone Togethera volume of poetry co-authored with her long-time friend Aida Yacoub Haddad was conceived in 2012. A short poem in the volume sums up the sense of displacement that fuels their writing:

How can there be exile
When there is no homeland?

The book contains poems written during the span of three decades, about the itineraries of emigration and immigration. Mishka, Egyptian-born, half Greek, and for some time, an exile in Australia, wrote in English from Lebanon, while Aida wrote in Arabic from the United States and elsewhere. Each poet translated the words of the other into her preferred language, to form this bilingual anthology. "Your voyages have been very different from mine, but both of us have been on long and tortuous journeys," writes Mishka to Aida in the introduction. "We have navigated the seas of war and loss of many sorts, and our ports of call have lacked permanence. We have assumed identities and abandoned them." Another poem expresses their sense of an outbound voyage:

I did not know
The extent of my happiness
Until I realized
That I long for
I miss no place.
I regret no lover.

In Balconies, Mishka reflects poignantly on this longing with a passage, exhilarating in its sobriety:
The point of nostalgia is that you have survived the past: It’s not that you have forgotten what you went throughit’s remembering feeling what you went through and knowing it isn’t there anymore. It is about having overcome the gratuitous past because the future is viable.
"There’s no return from exile. Home while in exile is fixed memory, while all, in fact, changes’, she tells me in our conversation, speaking about her return to Lebanon.‘Home is an anchor to the exile, who never thinks that those places left behind, and those who occupy them, are in a state of flux." At the same time, there’s a place for love and daily life in their poetry:

Every night
I crawl into myself
Looking for me,
But your presence
In your absence
Locks me out.

[Shelled apartment in Beirut]
Beirut occupies a central place in their imagination, not necessarily only as a war-torn city, but as the imagined Beirut, bristling and candid, exhilarating and fearful at the same time. "The ordinary here assumes mythical proportions: the blueness of the sky on a January morning, the magnificence of a fall storm, and that sea … that sea!" she tells me. At the end of Balconies, she writes a letter to her late father, dated 2004. "But Beirut survived, a 'battered, paranoid, schizophrenic city,' as I wrote in one of my poems," she writes. "It stood, shell-shocked and dignified in its dementia, tenacious in its refusal to be partitioned." The referenced untitled poem is included in Alone Together:

Observe the beauty of this ugly city,
With its brilliant fruit stalls
Against leprous walls,
Which have mocked fireballs,
Shielding tired, crouching people
Who dream of a different history.

Observe the dignity of this demented city,
With its profuse garbage dumps,
And rasping motors, which pump
Noise and fumes into hole ridden streets,
Peopled by lab mice in bread lines,
Attempting normalcy.

Observe the strength of this paraplegic city,
With its gas-less stations
And waterless taps
And tenacious women with deserted laps,
Who wait, despairing yet erect,
For the good old days
That may never be.

An earlier passage in the memoir dissects the grammar of Beirut through light, as if it were being seen by the eyes of an Impressionist painter: "Beirut knows no twilight, that stretch of time and diffused light after the sun has set," Mishka describes. "There are no in-between times in this city of contradictions and contrasts. Twilight is a time of nuance, this city has none." It could well be that sometimes, we truly haven’t chosen to become writers, and that perhaps we haven’t chosen our homes or our exiles—easily interchangeable terms—but thatthey have chosen us. For Levantines, always obligated to negotiate with conflict, the words of the French writer Hélène Cixous come to mind: "The condition on which beginning to write becomes necessary(and)possible: losing everything, having once lost everything."
And this idea of loss, as a geography for literature, reminds me of an anecdote by the German political theorist and Jewish exile from Nazi Germany in the United States, Hannah Arendt, widely read and translated in Lebanon in the 1980s, during the darkest days of both the Civil War, and the Syrian and Israeli occupations. In the 1960s, after her return to her native Germany, Arendt, in a now-legendary interview with the journalist Günter Gaus, was asked about what remained and was irretrievably lost in Europe."The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains."
When somebody becomes an exile, even without leaving the borders of their country, it is a language, even sometimes a foreign one, that becomes home: a safe and intimate space, protected from the mercilessness of violence and oblivion. "The memory of poetry does battle with the memory of shells," writes Mishka in her memoir. Yet, one finds her at home in Beirut, amidst fragile jasmines—real or imaginary—cherishing memories of laughter, music, and old photographs, all at the risk of uncertainty. This art in which the peoples of the Middle East are so well trained. In her writing, the poet is always weaving utterances that defy the possibilities of the moment, without ever turning a blind eye to them: "I wake up very early and turn on the TV. I sip my coffee and start my ritual of checking the local and international channels: Al ajounaa fi bayrout hadi-a hatha-s-sabah ba’d qasfen layliBeirut is quiet this morning after a night of shelling."
[Israeli shelling of Beirut Port, July 2006]
*Photography courtesy of Mishka Mojabber-Mourani

Friday, May 24, 2013

Sites of Memory

First published on THE MANTLE

["In Situ", installation, 2013]
What is the meaning of lived space? Space is not simply a geographical location, but rather an extension of the ability to locate ourselves at all. Spaces do not exist before us; we construct them with a gaze which is constantly arrested by it. There are no native spaces, or spaces to be born into. A space can never be a point of origin or departure, because we are the space itself, as we suffer the weight of gravity, and destroy the space as our eyes withdraw into another optic plane.Places are something else, or rather, what can never be had, appropriated. When traveling we have the illusion that places will remain fixed, in snapshots, like our memories, but yet everything is in constant flux. The philosophers of the 17thcentury conceived of space – unlike the Aristotelian “place” – while marveling at the infinite universe, but still earth-bound by classical metaphysics and the solid physics of Newton.
The ultimate demise of metaphysics and traditional religion in the 20th century caused this closed world to collapse unto itself and reveal space as a question, a doubt, a trace and loss. Memories, after the same fashion, unfold spatially as an extension of our gaze – a third eye, desire, the oneiric, a weak Messianic force – and resemble a collage whose entire composition can be altered by simply shifting around some of the elements. But are all our memories real or are they sometimes an extension of the imagination? This does not mean that they’re false, as the dichotomy of reality is not built around logical truth but experience. Collective imaginaries enable us to present altered memories and historical facts simultaneously as a coherent grand narrative. These myths – often contemporary ones of the political kind – precede histories and exist in a timeless vacuum that endows them with abstract qualities.
A lot of the urban history in the Middle East region has to do with the transformation of physical places into memory lanes cutting through time. Communities of memory – and often also communities of amnesia – are perhaps the building block of political constructions, and story-telling is sometimes more important that the actual deeds remembered and told. Istanbul is one of those cities fraught with endless sequences of memories serialized as snapshots, derived from cultural imaginaries and that only but seldom represents political realities; instead it offers alternatives to it. My earliest memories of Istanbul I realize now, were all fictional, drawn from Turkish director Ferzan Özpetek’s film “Hamam” (1997) that I had seen several years ago, and that presented the city in the way we would have liked to imagine it: The sensuality of the hamam, a slow visual depth and a certain provincial familiarity and quiet that is nowhere to be found around in the real Istanbul.
["In Situ", video, 2013]
In this film, an Italian upscale businessman leaves his native Rome to come briefly to Istanbul to reclaim a property inherited from a late aunt. While in Istanbul he discovers that the property in question is a hamam that his aunt had owned, restored and run for several years in the old quarter of the city and the brief business-like trip turns into a strange journey in which the tragic, the erotic and the imaginary coalesce and blend into a directional present whose temporal index is not the fleeting and passing but rather a collective imagined Istanbul. But when I came to live in Istanbul and I finally had the opportunity of visiting a hamam, it was entirely clean from the references associated with my imagined yet shared memories. The places tend to be either too sanitized to carry any emotional value or too derelict and run down. There seems to be nothing in between. A city proud of its imaginary and fluctuating history and yet bent on erasing its real history.
I hadn’t thought about the hamam until I experienced Turkish artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s installation “In Situ”, in which she stages on soap a recollection of memories associated with the Pangaltı Hamamı that existed in the neighborhood of the same name, where coincidentally she not only completed a four month residency in 2012 at the Interdisciplinary Project Space, but is also her native quarter in Istanbul. A place of origin one would say, but now added to the larger map of urban spaces slated for development. The historical hamam was demolished in 1995 with the promise that it would be soon renovated and a decade later it made its come back as one another hotel in the current economic frenzy of the country since the early 2000s. In the absence of official resources and documentation that comes with evictions and demolitions, Büyüktaşçıyan investigated the different layers of memories, physical and otherwise, traced back to this one singular place.
Her installation suggests both a visual archive and an archaeological site. The work begets the question: How is the work of remembrance to be done? Is this a work of mourning or celebration? The intimate living room-like space at PIST serves not only as a physical place, but as a site where the present is excavated through what is not yet. Walking through the careful archive-like display – of blank postcards – and the imagined Pangaltı Hamamı in its tile-like arrangement is also visiting a public space which yet is intimate. How can a public space be intimate? Contemporaneity makes us often dwell in in-between spaces, abstract and non-descript, whose utility is functional rather than intrinsic and that disappear as soon as we withdraw from them. The constant anxiety over the future turns into a calculation through which the present swallows the future as its own extension and deprives it from its quality of promise. The future is risky because it is predictable.
[David Ward, "Nocturne", site-specific installation, 2006]
Public spaces (and by this we mean public square, and not any grand-scale concept of spaces) in Istanbul are often endangered by the aestheticizing of the public sphere into a total realm of consumption clean from historical references. The social and functional dynamics of global capitalism do not rely on foundational myths or narratives. According to Pierre Nora, sites of memory are ought to exist nowadays because no real environments of memory truly exist, which is perhaps one of the reasons why a great deal of research-based contemporary art is obsessed with archives and cultural archaeology. Büyüktaşçıyan’s work resembles a 2006 site-specific installation by British artist David Ward, “Nocturne”, in which a digital projection of the night sky with the Pleiades was projected onto the southern wall of St. Michael Paternoster Church in London. The church is since 1856 headquarters of the Mission to Seafarers, an Anglican charity supporting marines and sailors.
The charity has offices in over two hundred ports worldwide and provides resources for people at sea to contact their families and provides counseling to ease the psychological effects of loneliness, fear, isolation and homesickness caused by long periods at sea. The projection on the wall of the church is but an attempt to bring into the busy cityscape the views of the lonely mariners and sailors at sea in the starry night. Ward plays with symbolic orders of experience: What seafarers long for, city dwellers want to escape. The relation to Büyüktaşçıyan practice has to do with the enactment of an experience which is both intimate and public, and the desire for an imagined elsewhere, theoretically situated in the past but whose temporal framework is past the limits of history. Ward’s starry night and Büyüktaşçıyan’s hamam have in common that they’re both psychic spaces, in which the illusory nature of belonging somewhere and the instability of memory are considered.
Yet Büyüktaşçıyan’s work protrudes in materiality and asks another question: What are or would be the objects of history? Can histories be traced and archived through objects clean from immediate semantic references? The writer Georges Perec is keen to establish a crucial distinction between places and spaces; for him places are always neutral whereas space is by nature idealized, space exists as a reassurance. The idea of the public space itself, as a shared space, is a tale of mutual reassurance that no longer depends on the durability of places. The space is determined not by the content but by what is on the contours, on the fringes. In the case of the Turkish installation artist, it is the trajectory of the soap, the smells, the surrounding geography and the desire to become part of a ritual that is both cleansing and conspicuous, what determines her psychic space. For archaeologists, an artifact being “in situ” is critical to its interpretation because otherwise it does not provide enough information about the cultural setting in which it was created. Büyüktaşçıyan works with the assumption that such native spaces are no longer available, and she feels the need to site them in.
Spaces do not contain memory by themselves, they are memory triggers because we exist in them, we create them, re-create them and destroy them. Our memories are at times illusory, constantly modified by the sheer thereness of a present we’re unable to evade. And when memories are shared – and what is history if not this? – we do not even belong to them, but they belong to us, and the search for a material history that is at the heart of Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s practice, feeds on the sense of contradiction and paradox brought about the internal and the external manifestations of memory. It is the passage of time what leaves traces, but space is always emptied out from its objective content if we’re not experiencing it right then, thus all spaces are psychic and immediate. Space is a form of writing, writing of the most meticulous kind: The sole awareness that remembering is a form of authorship. Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s “In Situ” reminds us of the words of Hélène Cixous“Listen: Nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought.”
["In Situ", installation, 2013]
Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s "In Situ", on show at PIST / Interdisciplinary Space Project, in Istanbul, from May 22nd until June 15th.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Moving Portraits

First published on THE MANTLE

In the introduction of a now classic textbook on video-art, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat writes back in 2005 that the biggest development since the appearance of video-art, has been that “artists are finally relieved of the task of making ‘objects’, and can now conceive their ideas in a way that becomes experiential”. Neshat adds recollections from her personal experience with this kind of art: “I remember the first time I experienced the work of Bill Viola: I was mesmerized by how he managed to remain faithful to the vocabulary of visual arts, as his installations became painterly and sculptural, yet retain the magic, the intangibility and the transparency, of the moving image.”
It was a day in 1958, when German artist Wolf Vostell incorporated for the first time (in history of art) a television set into a complex multi-media work titled “Black Room Cycle,” and his subsequent Transmigration – an oil painting in décollage, out of which, through a slash in the canvas, a TV set plays a bad signal from a UHF channel. That is when apparently video-art was born. What captivates in the case of Vostell is precisely the fact that he was a painter and sculptor. Though his work was an early example of intermedia and the famous “happenings”, he remained something of social realist. His realism—sometimes expressionist and sometimes pop—dealt primarily with capitalism and war.
What is often forgotten by contemporary video artists is that being relieved from the task of making objects is not meant to simplify the production of art; rather, it is meant to amplify the possibilities of expression into heterogeneous fields—learning how to see different things at the same time. And no doubt the relationship between painting and video-art is extremely complex: Although painting has not been discarded and perhaps never will be—one would hope—the moving image is part not only of the social and technical history of images, but also of the history of aesthetics and art. The problem lies in the fact that moving images as such cannot be so easily historicized and talked about.
Nevertheless video-art comes with a palette of its own. And I would think that what truly is perplexing about video as an art form isn’t its narrative capabilities but that uncanny territory in which situations unfold as (human) conditions, conditioned by this new lexicon of the eye. Maya Deren insisted that the narrative plot of films was inherited from literature and underestimates the verticality of this new format. When I was a teenager, the local museum was always available with Pisarro, Picasso, Mondrian and Renoir, but it wasn’t until I saw a modest video-installationby the Swiss-Colombian artist Rolf Abderhalden that I decided I wanted to work with art one day.
There were two parallel screens in which one man, perhaps a soldier—standing on something like a desert—is very slowly throwing things at the man in the other screen. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what it was all about, or how I was supposed to call this art but I did know it had transformed my eyes internally. Something similar happened many years later—and actually last week—when I walked into theMamut Art Project in Istanbul and experienced Uygar Demoğlu’s “Portrem” (Untitled self-portrait), a six-channel video-installation, alone occupying a booth in the young artists’ project conceived in the format of an art fair.
The six channels, almost resembling light-boxes, face the viewer obliquely and on closer inspection, they do not actually reveal a scripted plot or a re-arrangement of footage obtained in documentary fashion and re-enacted. Demoğlu is here not a story-teller but a painter, for whom the powerlessness of life—life as a weak power—is staged as a grand performance, fraught with risk and uncertainty, in which chaos and disaster are omnipresent and the eye cannot travel fast enough to assimilate change and movement at all, so that his installation has to cut out chunks of reality and re-assemble them in a different temporal sequence. This is what is most unsettling.
Video is here a fourth wall or dimension. The different coalescent planes interrupt the natural anatomy of spatial continuity and break off from the spatiality of memory as well, setting free different forces of cognition and recognition that are sometimes erotic, sometimes violent, sometimes indifferent, yet never continuous. His untitled self-portrait is a gaze, a gaze into the unique landscape of dream and night, fantasy and reality, chaos and ecstasy, that are meant to invade a painting but that exist only as suspended presences. Demoğlu’s discursive order is optical but not transparent; it is a navigation map to get lost inside the stage of his fourth wall.
The artist is permitting the viewer to intervene in his night world and become part of what he would see, had he chosen to paint a self-portrait. It is both terrifying and intimate. Fernando Pessoa writes in “The Book of Disquiet:” “Man should never see himself in a mirror. Nothing could be more terrible. Nature endowed him with the gift of not being able to see his own face, and to not being able to look into his own eyes. Only in the waters of the rivers and the lakes, may he contemplate himself. The posture he had to adopt was very symbolic: He had to kneel down, to bend, to indulge in the ignominy of his own sight.” It is impossible to experience this self-portrait without ignominy as well.
However risk, the risk to which one is so mercilessly exposed in this work, is not an objective phenomenon but a reflection. The contemporary anxiety over the future is perhaps symptomatic of the disappearance of the future as such: In the middle ages the future was determined and closed to human intervention, but the notion of risk, born in the 17th century with the colonization of the future brought about by global capitalism made us stop depending on notions such as fate and luck. Risk arose as a rational, calculated response to the uncertainties of the future. Risk isn’t an experience, but an attempted quantification of the risk possible and available in reality.
New media—not only video but also the Internet and mobile phones—have overcome the separation between space and time, by disembedding or removing events and situations from the local time frame. In the words of Gerda Reith: “The organization of time and space in a way that connects presence and absence.”This has in practice de-articulated the future and incorporated it into the endless and rather homogeneous extension of the present. As such, risk becomes a temporal orientation towards a time already collapsed. Colonization of the future meant always its openness to human agency and the vertigo of an infinite (and infinitely contingent) universe.
And video artworks such as Demoğlu’s, confront us always with the question of what really is the contemporary in art? For example, will once contemporary art be another period of art history replaced by something else? By what? In surveying contemporary art after post-war and postmodern, Dan Karlholm argues that the contemporary perhaps can never be written into history. Further than that, I would think that insofar as the moving image is a reality, that is, a construction out of a specific and live social reality, it is impossible to consider it in another tense than the present, even if the work is question is fictional or re-fictionalized.
This untitled self-portrait will continue to open before us as a paradox, invade us with questions, sometimes eroticize, sometimes slumber, sometimes awake. Most of the works you find in art fairs today are but effective as consumption items, commissioned by markets and sometimes even by willful participation in their tastes. And it is only sometimes that you find artworks that were created perhaps not to be shown, perhaps accidentally wounding both the viewer and the maker. Then you actually remember that it is art and artists who shape what is to be called art or not. And it is good to remember that too, because this is what artworks are meant to do: Transform you, even if just for a second.
Uygar Demoğlu’s installation was perhaps construed as a series of semantic accidents, and the experience albeit consuming, is never total. The inventory ofdigital images has already by far surpassed the inventory of printed images since Gutenberg, and this isn’t because we tend to see more, but because we remember less, and are in need to be reminded constantly of our featherweight existence. Those moments of clarity are rare, and all the more confusing. Standing across the untitled self-portrait made me think of Pessoa again: “I feel as I’m always on the verge of waking up.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Suspended Objects

First published on THE MANTLE
[Arrival, 75x50 cm, 2012]
One of the questions asked most often in art history nowadays is whether art history has gone “global” and what does it mean to practice art history outside the Western world? Even in North America, a variety of formats and media contrast today with the linear aspirations of an art history—an entirely European project—conceived as the confirmation of the grand political narrative born out of Greece and Rome. Recent archaeological findings—and the reexamination of those already canonical—have also changed this panorama and the traditional tripartite strategy of dividing art into symbolic, figurative and abstract periods, inherited from Hegel. For example, an exhibition held at the British Museum, between February and May 2013, Ice Age art: Arrival of the Modern Mind questions whether abstraction was not one of the capabilities that human beings acquired with the birth of themodern mind, or, that is, the mindset for human culture—and narratives—during the Ice Age.
That being said, there’s no longer one art history but many. At the same time, though it would be still early to speak of “global art”, certain practices and strategies—particularly those born during the high era of modernism—have been adopted by the public worldwide and metamorphosed into various international movements and the art world—publications, fairs, galleries—seems to demand an uniform code of seeing, or at least, of perceiving. In the Gulf region, nevertheless, the transitions between traditional, modern and contemporary (definitions that really say everything and nothing at the same time) have been far less smoothed out, and in the era of identity politics, art still seems quite unable to freely negotiate the real and virtual extensions of identity that have come with globalization and the Internet to the most of the art history world. It is common to hear that the art movement in the Gulf began less than ten years ago with the rise of Dubai.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth: Schools of paintings—somewhat in the tradition of European modernism—consolidated in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain since the 1930s and conceptual artist Hassan Sharif has been working in his native Dubai since the 1970s. Perhaps what is meant here is that it still has not been possible for contemporary art from this region to articulate the vast transformations of the social and cultural sphere undergone since the post-colonial era that saw the independence of the Gulf states. The question here is no longer that of “Modernity,” which can be studied through the appearance of certain institutions, architectural forms and political processes. The condition of Postmodernitywhether one subscribes to the term or not, is visible to the eye of any visitor to Doha, Dubai and Manama. What does this condition mean? Perhaps it is something to do with heterochrony – the time is out of joint!
[Postmodernism, 120x185 cm, 2012]
A singular project, carried out in Doha, by the artist duo Christto Sanz and Andrew Jay Weir (born respectively in Puerto Rico and South Africa) in their exhibition Unparalleled Objectives,” held at Katara Art Center in Doha in 2012 and curated by Mayssah Fattouh, was set out to explore these transformations while embedded in a rich set of practices articulated by contemporary art not necessarily just elsewhere, but nearly everywhere. At a time when Gulf artists are still preoccupied with notions of identity—perhaps mourning without knowing, an identity already lost—the duo’s proposal is uncanny in its appropriation of everyday life as a discursive order and not merely an optical reflection. The exhibition, conceived as photographic units of meaning, unfolds with larger ambitions such as that of video and performance. The photography isn’t built from casual or controlled accidents but rather, as staged environments.
The situational aesthetics takes form and attributions in their works, not as an extension of the materials but as a message, out of which objects are generated rather than merely presenting them. The total realities of the Gulf presented in these works, not without the strategic irony of pop art—somewhat forgotten in the pop art produced in the region with very few exceptions—reproduce accurately the state of transition towards the contemporary, embodied by the urban landscapes of the Gulf that actually is no longer temporary but rather a permanent state of transition in which the natural flow of time has become dislocated from a linear source and resembles more the state of being suspended, a time warp, a great zone for disentanglement and the continuous negotiation of identity. While a lot of the art in the region seems overly concerned with the heritage, few are capable of articulating this alongside the postmodern anxieties.
Reality and identity are performed out in the region—and this is what Sanz and Weir capture with great detail—in the manner of a simulation, somewhere between parody and political allegory, in a sequence of images that supposedly have a referent in “real life”, but the truth is that these images and constructions are only referential in relation to each other and the lived time of people seems somewhat abstracted and prey to this homogeneous time—depicted in the photographs with a cyan blue color as a background, the same color associated with cinecolor and pools—in which the absolute present swallows everything in its proximity and both the past and the future, encompassing the full range of memories,  histories and expectations, appear as mere extensions of the simulation which encapsulates the order of society not as an organic whole but as a museum display: It is constructed ideologically to appear seamless and smooth-edged at the contours.
[Era without Era, 120x85 cm, 2012]
For the art historian—obsessed with materiality—every serious work ofcontemporary art must recapitulate, to some extent, an historical sequence of objects to which it belongs. Certain artistic practices are been set out to transgress this periodic narrative marked by the cultural ambitions of art history to illustrate a body politic. Can art under such circumstances contribute to the reconstruction of political space? The answer is particularly difficult in the Gulf, but one could say that articulating the contemporary anxiety over the abstractness and timelessness of experience is an intersection between politics and aesthetics, to the extent that reality is not being made into an object of study but rather being presented as a question mark. In an era of overly politicized art, whose ideological content supersedes its objective content, one cannot help but notice how Sanz and Weir draw attention towards the fabrication of politics as an autonomous space, as conceived by media in the age of globalization.
Objects are not left alone to speak but rather re-arranged into fuller orders and re-enacted in contexts of mass production that present globalization and “Modernity” not necessarily as a positive or negative force or influence—the answers to this question are both individual and epistemological only—but as a condition. This condition – they call it postmodernity, but there are many names for it—does not have to be conditioning, as much as it is a platform for staging identities and therefore, nations, on the global spectacle of images. If there were to be an art history today, it would be a history of the image and of the moving image, which is in itself, a technical impossibility, because insofar as it would be a history of perception, it would be necessarily dystopian and a-historical. In Sanz & Weir’s work the objects become objective and objectives, without following a trajectory but rather existing suspended, ripe with impossible possibilities.
Hyper-spaces are no longer science fiction. They can be seen demolishing the pedestrian scale in many of the world’s mega-cities, and deeply transforming the human eye in unexpected ways. It is only logical that these experiences had to be appropriated and intervened by contemporary art that has for long outgrown its own material limitations into concepts where the discursive precedes the visual. “Unparalleled Objectives” and subsequent works of the artist duo, such as the more recent, “The Factory of Good Intentions” (2013) seem to have been deployed not merely as reflections of the spectacular as staged in the Gulf but as a microcosmof the current global order, without forgetting that total spaces do not exist. Spaces are mnemonic illusions and all geographies remain to be conquered and shaped, by every coming generation, in order to make a world for themselves. Will the promiscuity and fleetingness of the image be enough for this? That we don’t know yet. 
[The Factory of Good Intentions, 2013]

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Point of No Return

First published on THE MANTLE

[Swinging on the Stars]
"Beyond a certain point there's no return. This point has to be reached." -Kafka
An event horizon is, for the scientist, a boundary in the mathematical continuum of space and time; a boundary after which events cannot affect an outside observer. The terminology, though somewhat familiar to layman, is very difficult and is indebted to Einstein’s general relativity. The event horizon is a point of no return out of which the gravitational pull is so strong—density becomes infinite and volume drops to zero—as to make impossible to scape of any particle within time or space; light is no longer able to travel. These gravitational singularities—and apparently the universe was born out of one—are no longer representable in coordinate planes and one needs a lot of imagination to picture lines that become curvatures or cones and then disappear unto themselves.
The event—like death—remains incomprehensible, thus absolute. But there’s a misconception: That of event horizons as a visible (albeit by contrast) and immutable surface that swallows everything that approaches it. There’s even a film, from 1997, also titled Event Horizon that describes exactly this. In the year 2047 a rescue vessel is dispatched to inquire on the whereabouts of a spaceship, launched to generate an artificial black hole—the most common form of event horizons—in order to reduce travel time over astronomical distances. A member of the crew returns in a catatonic state after having been exposed to the “outside” of the known universe and is placed in stasis after he attempted to commit suicide over what he witnessed “in the other side”.
It was Susan Sontag who said that science fiction—in particular films—is not about science as much as it is about disaster, which is one of the oldest topics in the history of art. The reality of the event horizon as we understand it nowadays – uncannily similar to an established set of practices in contemporary art—is that in fact, an event horizon, in the case we would witness it from close, appears always to be at some distance from the observer no matter how closely we are drawn towards it, and any object sent towards an event horizon will never appear to have crossed it from the observer’s point of view. The light cone of the event never intersects with the world line of the observer. An event horizon behaves as something that never truly existed.
How is it that it never truly existed? The observer can never touch the horizon or be at a specific location where an event horizon appeared to be. Light cones—a path of a flash of light—emanating from a single event, and traveling in all directions, present us with an observational paradox here: Situated on the position of the present—called in science hyper-surface of the present – we are able to observe the past but never the present. Are we perhaps already in the future? It’s difficult to tell. But on a clear night and with the help of adequate tools, it is possible to see the past billions of years ago according to the path of light traveled by those events, still visible. Not without irony, the recent past is more and more difficult to see; more and more specialized tools are required.
[I Know People Like This II]
And in human history it is all the same. After seeing Hale Tenger’s recent artworkSwinging on the Stars (video on large screen format), shown in Istanbul last month, one cannot help but thinking that he is confronted with the ultimate event horizon in Tenger’s work. Not surprisingly enough, the versatile Turkish artist began her work in 1990 with two singular sculptures, “History of Time” and “Progress”. Working on hard materials such as iron, bronze and steel wire, Tenger manifested early on her uneasiness with the question of progress, though the artist declares that at the time she was more involved with her own person and life than with questions of history. It is perhaps true that works of work complete each other only later when the subsequent context for their creation re-surfaces with tacit answers. Nevertheless the artist has also moved onto softer, why not say it, almost imperceptible materials.
From “History of Time” throughout “Swinging on the Stars”, Tenger makes manifest her preoccupation with historical objects not in terms of sequences, teleologies and final destinations—which might well be one of the obsessions of modern art—but rather with the larger, or even largest structures of history: The narrative. The reason why one is tempted to call her most recent work, an event horizon, is because of how closely interwoven it is with recent and not so recent work of the artist along a very specific line. About “History of Time”, she says: “They’re all teetering, ready to fall”. Is she speaking here maybe about a history without foundations? And when you come to think about it, all histories are in fact accidental, ironic and without foundations.
A pictorial maxim, popularized since its appearance on a 17th century carved door of the Tosho-Gu shrine in Japan, carved by Hidari Jingoro, known as Three Wise Monkeys,” appearing on the 2nd out of eight panels carved on the famous door, are supposedly embodying a proverbial principle derived from Confucius’ Code of Conduct: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. The monkeys depict the life cycle of man on a cosmic scale. And this perhaps how her early works, such as “History of Time” and “Progress” appear: As a history of man and of progress not viewed through the inner logic of history and the grand political narratives but through the prism of the event, the geographical mutations, the journeys of man, the cultural transitions between different media—history on a cosmological scale as if seen from outside the limitations of the earth and gravity.  
The three wise monkeys appear in Tenger’s work as early as 1992, with two controversial works that deal explicitly with Turkish politics and history. It would be perhaps unnecessary to label Hale Tenger’s work as political, because theaesthetic and the political have to necessarily overlap in art as the subject of art becomes an object of the world and therefore an element in object-based learning about the experience of participating in the world itself. Any art work is capable of doing this, if sufficiently endowed with an internal logic that does not submit to prevalent ideologies, but rather question them all at the same time by presenting the instability of life and ideas as questions and doubts.
[History of Time]
In “I Know People Like This II” the monkey statuettes appear in a large scale work (700 cm X 140 cm) that one is never sure whether to call it sculpture or installation, apparently representing the Turkish flag and consisting of hyper-phallic brass Priapos gods and the three wise monkeys. The work perhaps started to awake and consolidate some sensibilities in the artist, or what she calls, a sense of “urgency”, as she began to confront—not without irony—the political realities of Turkey, a country in which traditionally, the wisdom of the three monkeys is adopted as the lifestyle of indifference in which people seek shelter from the outside world, in private and incommunicable realities, becoming shakier and shakier each time, as the writing on the wall becomes too clear.
This artwork, produced for the 3rd Istanbul Biennial landed the artist in court on the Kafkaesque charges of violating the penal code and insulting the Turkish flag; charges to be dropped a year later when the flag turned out to be not really a flag, but more like a microcosm. The stellar journeys of Tenger begin to appear in this work—and in some others, but too numerous to mention here—but her project starts to consolidate as a force of time against oblivion. The artists seem to be actively engaged in witnessing, and more than witnessing, presenting environments and situation that sometimes appear in the format of installations but that are construed as total realities—hence, they’re unsettling—from which it is impossible to withdraw.
It was however in “Necessity of Air” that the situational landscapes for which she is known today emerged. As a skilled archaeologist and ethnographer of the present (in)tense, Tenger used the materials of the Atatürk Library to set up a sham scientific and ethnographic institution, oscillating between museum and library, so well executed that many artists thought this section of the library actually existed and that Tenger only performed small-scale intervention on-site. It is in this project that her notion of ghost and the haunted, as elaborated by Nermin Saybasili, appears, based on a reading of Derrida’s “hauntology.” The artist, though trained as a sculptor, returns here to the use of raw materials and the re-arrangement of objects and stories into realities through absence.
Recreating the Turkish approach to museology—still prevalent today—the artist engages in the criticism of a country, through some of its most revered objects, reinforcing her ambiguity between the object and research approaches. A document on the founding of Istanbul appears in the exhibition, and that for all its historical importance, it is also showing how similar is the invisible present to the ungraspable past that seems remotely placed inside an event horizon. But here again, the monkeys re-appear as small statuettes on a book found in the library archives, embedded on a stellar map. Tenger experiments with Turkish lexicography and historiography, showing how easy it is to re-arrange history, to un-make it, to produce it, and ultimately to control it.
And the journey of the three wise monkeys seems now complete: Through the microcosm of a supposed Turkish flag and the incisive intervention on Turkish museology, the three monkeys, perhaps representing the complacency of the people—a complacency born out of a combination of economic comfort and political ineptitude—in which seeing, hearing and speaking seem to lead nowhere but to error. And why are the three monkeys now swinging on the stars? It is precisely the event horizon, the ultimate horizon, similar to death and disappearance: The history has become remotely inaccessible, the memory corrupted, the language unsuitable to describe the modern experience and perhaps even the art a little boring.
What is left then? One can never be sure that the artist’s journey is complete, not even the artist would know that. Yet there’s a fourth monkey in the carved door from Tosho-Gu, his name is Shizaru, embodying the principle of “do no evil” while at the same crossing his arms. And perhaps Shizaru was sitting there in the audience, with Hale Tenger and all the people who saw this work in Istanbul. He was perhaps thinking that it is impossible to act in the world if one never hears, says or sees any evil. And that little fourth monkey, invisible, as many of the missing persons in Hale Tenger’s installations, going away before they could finish their breakfast, finds himself suspended, beyond the horizon event, between a past that he doesn’t understand and a present that never quite arrives.  
[Necessity of Air, detail]
Hale Tenger's "Swinging on the Stars" was on show at Galeri Nev, in Istanbul, from April 5th through May 4th.