Culture

Turner Prize short-lists Beirut artist

An installation view of Abu Hamdan's "Walled Unwalled" as seen during its premiere during the 2018 Abraaj Group Art Prize exhibition, at Art Dubai. Photo courtesy of Art Dubai

BEIRUT: Lawrence Abu Hamdan is among four artists nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize. The Beirut-based “artist and audio investigator” earned the nomination on the strength of works referencing his interviews with survivors of the Syrian regime’s Sednaya prison, where well over 13,000 people are believed to have been executed since anti-regime protests began in 2011.

Unveiled in London Wednesday, the short list also includes London-based Helen Cammock, nominated for a film on the role of women in the civil rights movement in Derry in 1968, at the start of three decades of unrest in Northern Ireland. Also nominated for the prestigious prize are Colombian-born Oscar Murillo and self-taught artist Tai Shani.

The Turner Prize is open to visual artists born or based in the U.K.

In its nomination, the Turner Prize jury highlighted Abu Hamdan’s video installation “Walled Unwalled,” 2018, his solo exhibition “Earwitness Theater” at London’s Chisenhale Gallery (Sept. 21 to Dec. 9, 2018), and his performance “After SFX” at London’s Tate Modern (Oct. 4, 2018).

The jury’s press release said it was “struck by Abu Hamdan’s exploration of sound as an architectural element and the way he recreates particular situations through sound and performance.”

Grounded in interviews with former detainees on behalf of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture (Goldsmiths, University of London), the artist’s fieldwork on Sednaya prison first found expression in the 2017 sound installation “Saydnaya [the missing 19db],” commissioned for Sharjah Biennial 13.

Winner of the final edition of the Abraaj Group Art Prize in 2018, Abu Hamdan’s video installation “Walled Unwalled” frames three nonfiction stories on the cusp of individual liberties and state security technologies.

One takes up the experiences of the Sednaya survivors. Another centers on an American pot farmer and merchant busted on evidence local cops divulged using U.S. military thermal imaging technology. A third returns to the case of Oscar Pistorius, whose conviction for the murder of his girlfriend hinged, in part, on witnesses contradicting his claims that he couldn’t identify her screams as he shot her repeatedly through the bathroom door.

“All the work and the thinking [of ‘Walled Unwalled’] 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 told The Daily Star on the sidelines of Art Dubai, where the work debuted in March 2018.

“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.”

The video was shot in Funkhaus, the central radio station of the former German Democratic Republic, and 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.”

Abu Hamdan said he didn’t see his work on Sednaya to be didactic.

“Anyone wanting to know the story of Sednaya shouldn’t rely on my work,” he said. “They should read the Amnesty International report.

“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.”

Founded in 1984, the Turner Prize helped launch the careers of Damien Hirst and other members of the “Young British Artists” generation, and often sparks debate on the value of modern art. Previous winners include potter Grayson Perry and electronic artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen. The winner of the 25,000 pound ($33,000) award will be announced Dec. 3. - With Agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 03, 2019, on page 12.

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