BEIRUT: The practical work of sound artists is not unlike that of composers or sound designers in cinema. Lawrence Abu Hamdan has followed a different trajectory. Much of his work has been grounded in research on the science and technology of sound reception and its political and cultural ramifications.
Take the 2018 video installation “Walled Unwalled,” which (being the final project to win the art prize of Dubai’s now-defunct Abraaj Group) may be his best-known work. It’s one of several pieces that draw on interviews with survivors of the Syrian regime’s Sednaya prison - part of the artist’s 2016 collaboration with Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture.
All inmates’ speech (including screams during beatings) was punished. As it was designed with state-of-the-art East German acoustics, Sednaya’s guards could eavesdrop on the detainees’ every sound. As the detainees’ experience of the space had been auditory, not visual, Abu Hamdan’s interviews centered on the prisoners’ experiences of the heard environment - how the screws used the prison’s acoustics to keep their charges perpetually anxious, for instance, and the detainees’ efforts to monitor the guards’ movements and to decipher the violence they inflicted on other prisoners.
Shot in a suite of studios in Funkhaus, the former GDR’s central radio station, “Walled Unwalled” folds the Sednaya testimonies into a more wide-ranging discussion of the state’s use of technology in law enforcement - also referencing the murder trial of South African athlete Oscar Pistorius and the arrest (and acquittal) of an American pot farmer and merchant.
The latest incarnation of “Walled Unwalled” (devised for the Venice Biennale, which encases the video screen in an expansive plexiglass frame, erecting a transparent wall in the exhibition hall) is nowadays on show at Sfeir-Semler Gallery. It’s a centerpiece of the Lebanese-born artist’s first Beirut solo, “Natq,” - “ntq” being the root of various Arabic terms for “speech.”
Six of the show’s eight installations ruminate on sound and punishment, work that has landed him among the four artists short-listed for the 2019 Turner Prize.
Sitting in Sfeir-Semler, Abu Hamdan chatted with The Daily Star about the recent developments in his practice that echo through “Natq.”
Abu Hamdan said the six Sednaya testimonies he recorded in 2016 completely rewired his practice.
The former detainees “made me understand the relationship of sound to memory, to architecture and to the human voice,” he said. “In the two years after those interviews, I worked ... to communicate what they’d taught me through the work.”
He emerged from the process convinced that their experiences’ worth wasn’t restricted to journalistic communication.
“Working within the confines of legal and human rights testimony is important, but it makes abundantly clear the limits of that discourse. What could otherwise be extremely lucid articulations of events are pushed aside and not given any legitimacy. That made me understand what art could do as another mode of truth production, distinct from science and from the law.
“I’m speaking romantically here, in the sense that a painting can sometimes capture the essence of someone better than being with them.”
The former prisoners’ vivid recollections of Sednaya, he realized, applied to memory generally. Their insights into the site’s architecture were true of all walls - “what walls mean,” he mused, “the syntax of walls. [Their descriptions] of their whispers, of the way they were forced to speak [also reflected upon] what it means to testify, what it means physically to utter testimony.”
The report of a slamming metal door abruptly thunders from “After SFX,” the 2019 work occupying the gallery foyer. In this four-channel audio installation, the sounds a foley artist might make with various objects - an ostrich feather duster, steel wool, a punching bag, a cricket bat - are keyed to a text scrolling on a monitor recounting Abu Hamdan’s conversations with former detainees about how Sednaya sounds, or else other documented cases of “ear-witness” testimonies and the means used to reproduce remembered sound.
“All that [mental] turmoil,” he said, “leaks into the works I’m doing now on reincarnation.”
There are two such pieces in “Natq.” Best-known is the 2019, 28-minute video “Once Removed,” commissioned for Sharjah Biennial 14. Abu Hamdan’s subject is Bassel Abi Chahine, a 30-something writer-researcher and collector of rare objects and interviews from Lebanon’s Civil War, specifically the activities of Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.
The artist interviews Abi Chahine about his work as both men stand before a slide projection of items from his collection. The conversation is informed, in part, by how Lebanese of Abi Chahine and Abu Hamdan’s generation tend to be ill-informed of the 1975-90 conflict. Being born in the late ’80s, they’re too young to have experienced it firsthand, and discussion of the war was repressed when they were growing up in the ’90s.
At one point, Abi Chahine remarks that a PSP flag in his collection is from his previous life. It unfolds that he is widely acknowledged to be the reincarnation of a PSP fighter named Yousef Fouad al-Jawhary, killed age 16 in early 1984.
“Once Removed” works on multiple levels. For innocents, the incongruity in the piece (Bassel’s claims of reincarnation contradict his apparent rationality and the academic seriousness of his research) offers a comic vignette from the murder and rapine of civil war. For anyone knowledgeable of Lebanon’s conflict-laden history or Druze doctrine, the comedy is freighted with the political class’ amnesiac postwar policies and the resilience of belief in a multiply traumatized community.
The new works, Abu Hamdan acknowledged, have nothing to do with sound yet they are also concerned with legitimate forms of speaking. “The voice, the xenoglossy of reincarnate subjects, accessing histories that are otherwise suppressed, for which no language exists, interests me,” he said. “In Sednaya, listening [involved] a leakage between walls, understanding the inseparability of the wall from the sound. Here it’s the same. Looking at the leakage itself, the relational space between generations or between experiences, has allowed me to understand Bassel’s story.”
Abu Hamdan equates the sound that leaked through the walls of Sednaya, and later recollected by the prison’s survivors, with the memories of “reincarnated” individuals, which have leaked through generations. “The ‘wall’ here is not only between two lives,” he said. “It’s a question of what you’re allowed to access, and what not. These works on reincarnation [have] no interest in belief in reincarnation. They’re interested in reincarnation as a sort of tool, for what reincarnation does as opposed to what it is.
One thing reincarnation “does,” he suggested, is create a means for the postwar generation to empathize with those who lived, and died, during war.
“When you believe in reincarnation, perhaps you don’t only think that it’s terrible what happened to ‘those people.’ You start thinking that it happened to you, because you’re not really separate from them.
“I think you see a lot of these moments of leakage in Bassel’s story, but one of the walls that’s made porous here is the one created by [Lebanon’s 1991] Amnesty Law. When they made the Amnesty Law, I think they knew how to deal with the people who had survived the war, but I don’t think they’d accounted for people coming back.”
“Natq” is up at Sfeir-Semler Gallery through Jan. 5, 2020.