This post is a continuation from the previous: Before, during and after (pt1): Unveiled – Saatchi Gallery
During my walk around the exhibition I was quite surprised by the vast amount of space and the room given to the work. There was also a very mixed collection of mediums – the first one I encountered was the large rubber map of Beirut on the ground floor. In a way this kind of sets the background to the rest of the exhibition – location and geography is a big issue and you can’t get more focussed on that than with this map. This subject is something that connects all the artists that were featured – their roots. They all seemed to have something to say about their origin and the cultures that came with them.
Beirut Caoutchouc by Marwan Rechmaoui
I liked the larger pieces and am always pleasantly amazed at how artists manage to produce work at such large scales, for example the towers by Diana Al-Hadid. These are not exactly pleasing to the eye and you need to look closer to see what they are made up of. ‘All the Stops’ was made with piano keys and tubes and various other musical references, structured like an organ and made from random bits of paper, card, styrofoam and painted to look almost like a grotesque organic form. According to the brochure this intentional appearance contributes to highlight the destruction of globalisation.
An 'Impossible structure' by Diana Al-Hadid
There were three such towers – “impossible architecture” – all similar but completely different in structure and parts. ‘The Tower of Infinite Problems’ lying on its side in two parts, was the one I preferred due to the way you had to walk around the whole thing in order to see it properly and to see how the two parts made a whole. Walking right to the far end of the room and viewing it from that side gave a completely different view. From this end it looked like a tube that gets narrower and made up of layers of hexagons getting infinitely smaller and smaller. There were also beehive like patterns on the outer layers which are quite obscurely cut and arranged in no particular way other than the need to create the basic structure. This produced quite a contrast to the inner layers, the outer looking a bit destructive but the inner with straight edges and hexagons forming neat and regular lines.
The Tower of Infinite Problems
I have to say I dwelled more on the ones that held instant appeal for me. But gave enough time to the ones that didn’t in order to ‘give them a chance’ to ‘set an impression’. For example I would look closely at the work, suss out the techniques used and the message being conveyed if I could. It was definitely a good thing that I chose to buy the ‘brochure’ as I don’t think I read art at all the same way that others do. I guess i’m more of a literalist – in the common/contemporary sense of the word.
It was definitely a good thing that I chose to buy the ‘brochure’ in the end as I don’t think I read art at all the same way that others do. I guess I’m more of a literalist – in the common/contemporary sense of the word.
This post is already getting very long and in order to prevent this taking another month or so I cannot comment on all the pieces I saw, many of them were impressive, maybe only because of the sheer size of them, use of colours, shapes, forms and sometimes subject. I cannot claim to understand all the pieces I saw but there are a select few I must mention.
Ghost by Kader Attia. This one took up a whole room and as can be seen it looked like a room full of women kneeling in mid prayer. These women look to be covered in shawls made from tinfoil. But you walk further along and realise that the women are hollow shells, the foil being the only thing to convey their shape. The technique is very cool. In trying to guess how the realistic forms were produced you’d imagine that the artist got someone to sit in the position required and wrapped them in the foil and then pressed it down to make it compact and tight and then somehow got them to come out of the binding without tearing the whole thing apart. Obviously there must have been a more efficient method but it highly interesting to contemplate it. Especially as each ‘woman’ looks unique and individual with a slightly different pose.
Ghost by Kader Attia
Ghost by Kader Attia
Now in this brochure it says the figures “synthesise the abject and divine” possibly because when in prayer a person is in their most humble state before God. The divine is not represented in this piece but the belief in it is. So where it goes on to say that this work questions “modern ideologies – from religion to nationalism and consumerism – in relation to individual identity, social perception, devotion and exclusion” it’s almost like the person who is writing this is trying to tick as many boxes as they can. I don’t know if this is what the artist supplied but until I do know I agree that issues of identity and social perception are the key elements communicated through this. Religion is the big one. How the women represent devotion to the Divine is clear to see and something I can relate to as a Muslim. This is something that poses many questions for me too as an artist – something I will be discussing in future posts.
I would also like to mention that I find it intriguing that in this work Attia decided to leave the faces invisible. I would be interested to know if this decision was in any way related to the idea that some Muslims believe it is not correct to portray living beings in Islam (unless completely necessary – e.g photos for ID cards etc) and especially when it comes to distinguishing facial features within art work.
Moving on I would like to mention – ‘Men of Allah’ by Ramin Haerizadeh. This is one that stood out for me – and not for the usual reasons. The images were an array of colourful, digitally manipulated body parts, small patterns and ‘tattoos’ entwining on a very dark background – therefore clear and focussed. I read the title of the work ‘Men of Allah’ and what struck me first was the amount of flesh being displayed in the work. Now the average person may not know why this is significant. But I shall explain this in just a minute.
Looking back in my ‘handy’ brochure there are several paragraphs about this collection of these images. They are based on Taaziye theatre, “a historic genre” in which very often only men are allowed to act in telling the stories of the life of the Prophet Muhammad (May peace and blessings of God be upon him). “In these photos Haerizadeh draws upon this religious ritual to stage scenes with the surreal dynamics of computer animation…” I could appreciate this work for just the medium and techniques used but that would be impossible. The method of producing as well that the intention for producing, the communication it involves and its impact are what makes a work of art what it is.
‘Allah’ is the Arabic word for God. It is used in the Qur’an as the word for God and therefore is used by Muslims. ‘Men of Allah’ therefore translates to ‘Men of God’. In the usual sense what does this mean? Perhaps someone who devotes themselves to God, the belief in Him and everything involved in the worship of Him. So far no problem right? Well let’s carry on.
Back to the brochure: “Haerizadeh’s men evolve as bacchant gods, conveying a literary mysticism in their carnal revelry…Haerizadeh reworks the codes of gender, body and sexuality. Intimately grouped and provocatively posed… in a perverse harem…epicurean and exotic”. So for anyone wondering if I was being over the top, there’s the proof from the brochure itself.
Now with this religious context in view and the use of the selected title a person who knows about this is going to wonder why the actual work holds no respect to the teachings to which it is connected.
Ok finally to the point I’m trying to make. If you’re going to even consider doing work that has any connection with the divine, spiritual, and sacred it is only right to do so with the utmost respect. I know artists who work with words/letters/poetry, producing the most beautiful artwork and even though they do not use the human form in any way they do not even go near the religious side of things. Hearizadeh clearly chose to convey an aspect of Iranian religious culture (as performing arts is not traditionally endorsed by Islamic belief) through a not so sensitive approach and as a result I find this offensive and would not be surprised if others did too.
Another collection of work in the exhibition which I can safely term as ‘controversial’ would be the ‘Tehran Prostitutes’ by Shirin Fakhim. There are a number of these life-sized puppets scattered about the room. They are made up of an array of household items and fabrics, for example knitting needles, yarns of wool and bits of lace. The body parts look to be made from sacks of cloth stuffed with more fabric, very scarecrow like. They are very scantily dressed in women’s underwear and some have abayas (long black covering worn by Muslim women) draped over the shoulders in a dishevelled manner with the revealing and vulgar and ill-fitted lingerie on full display. The impression of ‘ladies of the night’ is definitely achieved using a stark ‘in your face’ approach. I didn’t want to look at these for longer than I needed to. I know it’s a reality of life – women around the world are involved in this illicit behaviour but I was slightly confused by the artist’s choice of addressing the issue?
I guess exhibiting this kind of work in a Muslim country would have been very risky for the artist. Therefore this kind of exhibition offers them a level stage where there will not be as much judgement and scorn towards their work.
Flesh on display is taboo enough let alone an underworld of prostitution which the average and common public tend to ignore. Then there are the additional signs of other illegal and black market activity:
“Issues such as female genital mutilation, transgender orientation, homosexuality and cross-dressing are all awkwardly broached through her vulgar approximations of stitched crotches and mismatched private-bits, confusing the brutal, illicit, forbidden and desirous.” There is something of a shock-value here, right?
There is an underworld of prostitution even in Muslim countries where fornication and adultery are against Islamic law let alone this array of activity. But it still thrives because there are women – and according to the above even men – out there who need money and as long as there is demand there will be supply.
Fakhim, however, has chosen to treat this serious subject with humour and uses the situations of the ‘characters’ and the lives they portray as one big joke – ok maybe that is a bit harsh but it’s certainly not sensitive; “Fakhim ironically stages this menagerie as a source of ridicule, provocatively placing items such as alms baskets and air fresheners to illustrate public scorn and social stigma.” So in the end the purpose of this work is simply to highlight the situation and how it is placed within a strict culture but as the majority of people will agree it is something unwanted in general society – is there not a better message that can be conveyed? If we were made to feel sorry for these people and be led to think of how they could be helped instead of laughing at them – perhaps that would be more effective? Utopia doesn’t exist but there’s nothing wrong in trying to make this a better world.