DUBAI: Tourists to the contemporary art world remark upon its fixation with “space.” It’s just a colorless term for “exhibition hall” but its adjectival form, “spatial,” has a more sordid reputation.
Along with its Einsteinian twin, “temporal,” “spatial” has become part of an obscure parallel language called “art speak,” which arose when it was decided art could no longer be simply decorative and makes most writing and conversation about contemporary art inaccessible to most readers.
Curated by Myriam Ben Salah, “Of Other Spaces” is on show at this year’s edition of Art Dubai – the emirate’s yearly art fair, which opened to the public Wednesday.
It is the delivery system for the winning and short-listed artists of this year’s Abraaj Group Art Prize – one of several components that, for a decade now, has complemented the buying and selling that’s an art fair’s raison d’etre.
AGAP shows are habitually located at the far end of the Madinat Jumeirah conference facility that hosts the fair and – for the first time since AGAP was staged as a coherent exhibition, in 2012 – Ben Salah’s show mimics a living space.
After genuflecting to Michel Foucault, the wall text prefacing the show remarks that “Of Other Spaces” “focuses on an interest that all four artists ... share in their practices: exploring ... spaces of otherness [shopping malls, refugee camps, the dark web, prisons, exhibition halls, courtrooms], the way they are constructed by society and their effect on our perception of truth. Playing with fictions and the idea of representation, they explore the confines of what we consider ‘reality.’”
Upon entering, the gallery floor is dominated by two machinelike installations by Neil Beloufa. One of these, “Space for success bathroom,” 2016, does suggest a kitchen unit, albeit one designed for a very narrow space. A TV monitor on an adjacent wall is home to the artist’s 2011 video “People’s passion, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water.”
The rest of the main gallery is preoccupied by the work of Basma Alsharif. Her installation “Trompe l’Oeil,” 2016, covers two walls with large (295 cm x 295 cm) prints of a living room interior. A third wall is hung with 38 framed prints, while an eight-minute video is looped on a monitor deployed like a living room television, with a pair of salon chairs facing it for comfortable viewing.
On a plinth outside a secondary gallery, Ali Cherri’s sculpture “The Unmaking of a Warrior,” 2018 – formed from 19th-century logs found in Madagascar – provides an appropriate gatekeeper for his 2017 video installation “Somniculus.”
The filmlike piece juxtaposes a nocturnal tour of several French natural history and (non-European) anthropological museums with footage of the artist’s sleeping form.
A flashlight illuminates stuffed animal heads, mummified human remains and mock-ups while the artist’s face is shown either in repose or being covered in gauze bandages, in preparation for making a facsimile – and recreating a familiar scene from Luis Bunuel’s best-known film, “Un Chien Andalou.”
Founded in 2008 by the private equity investor Abraaj Capital, in partnership with Art Dubai, AGAP accepts project proposals from contemporary artists from the “MENASA” (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia) region. Prize-winning artists are commissioned to develop their projects and, paired with an international guest curator, are given $100,000 to do so.
About half a year after the prize is awarded, artist and curator unveil the finished work during Art Dubai in an exhibition that also includes existing work by short-listed artists. Commissioned work becomes part of the Abraaj Group’s private collection, where it can be loaned to exhibitors.
AGAP mechanics have been mutable over the years and during Art Dubai’s Tuesday news conference Dana Farouki, the jury chair, remarked that the format will undergo further changes in the coming year, though details were absent.
It was also announced that “30 important pieces from the Abraaj collection will go on long-term loan to Art Jameel” – an artist-support organization based in Dubai and Jeddah. The announcement comes ahead of the anticipated November opening of Art Jameel’s new home in Dubai, which will include state-of-the-art exhibition spaces.
In “Of Other Spaces” Cherri, Alsharif and Beloufa’s work is being shown as a complement to that of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose project won this year’s contest.
As such, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that the quieter pieces seem a bit like living room decor.
A video installation looped in a gallery off the main space, Abu Hamdan’s “Wall Unwalled,” 2018, frames three stories on the cusp of individual liberties and state security technologies. One takes up the arrest of an American pot farmer and merchant named Kyllo, who was busted on the strength of thermal imaging technology the U.S. military handed out to local police.
Another returns to the case of South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, whose conviction for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp hinged, in part, on witnesses contradicting his claims that he couldn’t identify Steenkamp (specifically her screams) as he shot her repeatedly through the bathroom door.
The third story is that of the experiences of former prisoners at the Syrian regime’s Sednaya execution center. Build according to acoustic specifications pioneered in the former German Democratic Republic, Sednaya has been ironically termed the Mercedes-Benz of detention centers.
“Wall Unwalled” is Abu Hamdan’s second major work to be derived from his interviews with these former prisoners.
The first, “Saydnaya (the missing 19db),” debuted at last year’s Sharjah Biennial.
“All the work and the thinking [of this piece] emerged from those [Sednaya] interviews and what those people taught me about an experience of space and a way of thinking about space,” Abu Hamdan said in an interview. “It at once makes you think completely differently about space and the way we approach boundaries and borders and the ways in which that is sometimes in [a] paradox[ical relationship to] the narration of these spaces.
“I’m trying to use [what they taught me, as listeners] to tell a whole series of narratives or biographies about the experience of space and ... [how] Sednaya is the most extreme example of a place that is [at once] totally confined yet totally exposed, how, in one way, it’s a division of the senses between sight and sound.
“[‘Wall Unwalled’ is] trying to reflect upon a sense of self that is emerging in a time in which technology allows us to look through walls, opening vast spaces that we did not yet know existed, while at the same time (and with the same gesture) [undergo] increased control and surveillance.”
While “Saydnaya (the missing 19db)” is a sound installation whose visual elements hinge on its location in a pitch-black room, “Wall Unwalled” is a video installation, shot in Funkhaus, the central radio station of the former GDR.
Though the work occasionally veers into file footage – U.S. actor Ronald Reagan’s TV ads for Voice of America (one of Washington’s long-running anti-Soviet propaganda platforms), for instance – most of the work follows the artist’s choreographed movement through three studios, the camera’s perspective being that of the sound engineer in the control room.
“Funkhaus [represents] a wall-piercing device, because it was radio that [undermined] the iron curtain. As Reagan says in the film, the iron curtain isn’t soundproof.
“[The work is] really about how the wall could be penetrated through sound, while, at the same time, showing that the wall has always been a fictive entity. When people were most concerned about being destroyed by a nuclear bomb,” he laughed, “they though a little wall topped with razor wire would help them.”
Abu Hamdan feels a lot of art may yet be pulled from his Sednaya research. While the work it’s so far inspired relies upon documented narratives, he doesn’t see the work to be essentially didactic.
“Anyone wanting to know the story of Sednaya shouldn’t rely on my work,” he said. “They should read the Amnesty International report.”
For similar reasons he’s uninterested in using this material to make a documentary film. Neither is he intrigued by the possibilities of a virtual reality treatment.
“I’m not interested in the immersive aspect,” he averred. “I don’t want to put anyone in prison or make them feel like they’re there. I want to give them a close relationship to those voices, a different way of listening to them and different ways of representation, but representation from a distance, not immersion.
“I’m not trying to use technology for journalism or activism. I’m trying to experiment with the means by which people are made audible if stories are told and politics is dealt with. I think this is a more interesting role for an artist.”
Art Dubai runs through March 24. For more, see http://www.artdubai.ae/abraaj-group- it justart-prize-2018/.