Ode to the extraterrestrial modern

BEIRUT: “Craft” is a word with diverse usages and meanings. It suggests preindustrial, therefore specialized, labor and production – “handicraft,” say, “craftsmanship,” or “craft beer.” This trail of usage includes terms related to knowledge of arcane matters inexplicable by reason alone – “witchcraft,” say, or everyone’s favorite secret society, the Freemasons (aka “the Craft”).

Then there’s the fully contemporary (if reason-resistant) practice of “statecraft,” which – after terms like “imperialism” fell out of fashion – became the catch-all term for how powerful states and their clients tell subaltern ones how to behave.

Craft also came to mean “vessel” and some may find it interesting that the same word can denote basket weaving, practiced deceitfulness, and off-world travel (a la spacecraft).

“The Craft” is the title of Monira al-Qadiri’s solo, now up at the Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries.

The exhibition’s three works, which are all from 2017, may be seen to have been conceived somewhere in the vortex of deceit, statecraft and spacecraft.

It’s useful to enter Qadiri’s show from the right, via Twin Gallery I.

Decorated in the candy-coated hues of a skittles ad, the gallery decor is that of a U.S. diner – born in the 1950s, kept alive by the commercial utility of nostalgia.

The faux diner is the delivery system for two of the works on show.

“Omen” is a neon sign, centering on the words The Craft, as if to name the diner.

“The Craft” is also the title of the 16-minute VHS-shot video that is the exhibition’s narrative load-bearing wall.

The video is a low-fi counterpoint to the glossy naturalist aesthetic of “Omen” and the diner installation generally.

It’s based on a collage of brief family videos shot when Qadiri and her sister were still kids (including some kitsch mementos of the U.S. invasion of Kuwait in 1990).

These have been augmented with some ’50s-era sci-fi effects and colorful drawings (aliens, spaceships and the like that the little girls might have drawn), all superimposed over the home-video footage.

The images are accompanied by electronic sounds (apparently devised by Qadiri’s sister as a child).

These disparate components are crafted into a narrative by the artist’s voice-over narration.

Footage and voice-over commence in 1982 (the year before Qadiri was born) as her father was driving to work at Kuwait’s (startlingly modernist) embassy building in Dakar, Senegal.

The tale resumes in 1988, when the kids’ mother was trying go out to attend an embassy party – shown to be a flying saucer – and the girls try to prevent her leaving.

The artist’s sister managed to slip the nanny’s grasp and chased her mum into the spacecraft.

The interior of the craft, she tells her little sister afterward, looked just like an American diner, where aliens sat around eating burgers and drinking Diet Cokes.

The voice-over recounts how, obsessed with what she’d been unable to see with her own eyes, she devoted years to drawing how she’d imagined the aliens might look.

When war came to Kuwait in 1990, then, it was obvious to her that the lights and noises in the sky were those of an alien invasion.

The aliens are destroying the reality we know and trust, the narrator remarks early in the video.

“Were my parents conspiring with aliens behind my back?”

The tale of alien invasion that drives “The Craft” finds its end in Beirut, in 2011.

The works on show in “The Craft” have an international provenance, having been co-commissioned by the Sursock Museum and London’s Gasworks gallery, which hosted the exhibition’s 2017 premiere.

In her practice and personal history, in fact, Monira al-Qadiri could be a poster child for the increasingly diverse texture of cultural production in this region.

Born in Senegal, the Kuwaiti national was educated in Japan, receiving a doctorate in media art at Tokyo University of the Arts, and has since been a serial resident of Beirut.

Her art mines cultural practices in the Gulf region – a group show at the Sursock last year included a sculpture series of Qadiri’s that aestheticizes drill bits used in oil exploration – but traces of Japanese practice sometimes color her work.

Take the music-videolike piece “Abu Athiyya” (Father of Pain), exhibited at Ashkal Alwan in 2013.

While preoccupied with the aesthetic of sadness once prominent in the culture of southern Iraq, this performance-based video is diffracted through butoh – a contemporary Japanese dance form premised on the reanimation of the corpse.

This exhibition is grounded in autobiography but, as the video’s Beirut terminus suggests, Qadiri’s subject matter is a more wide-ranging thing.

It’s fitting that the vid’s Beirut chapter captures no landscape or architectural features that recognizably “belong” to that city. Beirut in 2011 was (and perhaps remains) nothing more substantial than nocturnal clusters of artificial lighting.

The centerpiece, and formal conclusion, of Qadiri’s show is situated across the hall in Twin Gallery II, which is completely dark but for a single spotlight.

In it, Nora Razian and Robert Leckie (the curators whose brief essay accompanies Qadiri’s show) have found echoes of Japanese cultural production.

“The End,” as the piece is called, is a fabricated object, rather larger than life, that appears to be levitating above a plinth.

The installation is accompanied by a recorded reading from Saba George Shiber’s study of modernist architecture in 1960s Kuwait.

Without spoiling “the big reveal,” in ad craft, this handmade object is “arguably, the most iconic symbol of consumer capitalism.”

Monira al-Qadiri’s “The Craft” is up at the Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries through Feb. 5.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 23, 2018, on page 16.




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