I’ve been working on the project I call Images for three years now. It wasn’t something I worked on all the time, but images that I referred back to and would store, till they were ready for exhibiting. The underlying concept to the new works is related to the proliferation of images in our contemporary world. Images, particularly photographic, are everywhere—constant and yet ephemeral like ghosts. They are fast, often coming from distant places, and coming from a number of sources: the computer, TV, even the radio. Sounds become images that you hear, for example if I say the word ‘apple’, you immediately imagine the fruit or the company. My Dictionary pieces stemmed from that—I used about seven illustrated dictionaries, both English and Arabic—one being a dictionary I used when I was at art college in London in the eighties. When I went to study in London, I was told that if I didn’t learn English, I would not be able to access the information and knowledge required to work conceptually—something I retaliated against and the Dictionary piece is a play on that. So, I use anything from the illustrated dictionary to printed t-shirts.
Images are there to stimulate people in our current consumerist society, or perhaps that was always their function. But images can also provoke people. We can see it in the shopping mall. The malls are an important social vehicle in the UAE and everything in the mall is there to stimulate us. It’s a post-modernist existence, and I think of post-modernism as something horizontal, like the multipliant species of trees, for example mangroves, that grow laterally as much as vertically, their branches dipping into the ground and initiating new roots.
Yes, they make colonies, reinforcing themselves against each other.
Similarly, if you cut a branch and plant it, it starts to grow again. It’s a bit like the recycled material I receive on my doorstep, day in and day out, advertising papers; I’ve collected all these over the years and then used them in this project. I didn’t want to throw them away, because each image was its own form of communication: for example, the supermarket brochures, with the prices of items listed. It’s like a printed shopping window, the seduction of that framed space in print. I imagine people standing in front of the shop window, they can see a reflection of themselves in the glass, whilst they simultaneously see the reflection of other people passing, coming and going, and all they can think about is this thing that they want inside. They make comparisons of themselves to the others around them. They start to believe that these things will make them more themselves than anything else. This person goes inside, he or she wants to touch the unreachable. The sales person asks them what they would like, how they can help, and they point to the object, ask the price, and decide to buy it. So as soon as they’ve paid, they believe that they are getting something—that they are in a better spot than they were before. But actually, they’re losing something vital—his or her own hold over their identity. This is consumer capitalism and it is a sickness. If you drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, there are massive billboards all the way along it. I like to look at these, to watch them change every month or so, they are like those mirrored sunglasses. You stare out through a filter, and the thing in front of you is yourself; each image holds the potential of a new self. This is everywhere, not just the UAE, but perhaps here the billboards are more present or numerous than in other cities. So there is this cycle, you work in order to buy, you spend and then you need to work again. I don’t criticise this per se, but I am keen to show or remind viewers that this is now our reality. Through this work, I am saying, 'These are the images I am subjected to. What are yours? Do you recognise yourself in these?'
There are a number of artists doing very well in the UAE at the moment: Ebtisam AbdulAziz, Nasir Nasrallah, Abdullah Al Saadi and Shaikha Al Mazrou among many others. They are not just making conventional works of art, but they are committed to seeking out new areas, to drawing on conceptual approaches. I see this consumerist future as something that is forcing itself on us, and it is really important that the younger generation of artists realise this and think laterally about how to perhaps deviate, how to interpret. Again, I see this as a horizontal approach as opposed to the vertical. If we use the city landscape as an example—on a physical level this city is growing as much vertically (in terms of architecture) as it is horizontally (culturally), but one is not more important than the other. The future may be heading in one direction (a focus on the vertical and prolific construction), but this does not diminish the importance of the horizontal activities. There is a quote by Andy Warhol when he was making his Mona Lisa prints; he said that multiple Mona Lisas were better than one, so from one silk screen, he created 30 [images].
Accumulation becomes important, stacking one thing on the other. It’s like time—the idea that history stacks itself one event on another. By taking elements from the world around me, I repurpose them, restack them and present a different way of reading the situation. My practice insists [on] and requires this process. This also involves a recycling of concepts and approaches, for example British Constructivism; art as a practice for social purposes. My intention is to stimulate society, the viewer, in order to understand the foundations of contemporary or modern art and to understand or engage with the importance of these. I believe that ‘isms’ are now over; instead in the shift from the twentieth to the twenty-first century we moved to an era of remaking, rethinking, redoing and re-evaluating.
Hoor Al Qasimi took a selection of works, mostly my older performances and experiments, focusing on 1983, including: My body in the store, Sound of the act, Recording Stones and the Jumping series.
I was still living in the UK then, but I used to come back in the summer holidays, because I was working in the ministry so when there was no study I would have to come back. Effectively I was employed. I was already doing performances in London, which had been photographed. But in London, these were really public performances, in public spaces, but here I went to the desert, it was private.
Yes, Walter Benjamin is important. In 1936 he wrote an article called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (or Reproducibility).
It was his concept surrounding the ‘aura’ of the image, painting or artwork that is of interest to me—this idea that this ‘aura’ has effectively disappeared—and he is right. We no longer have this same attachment to the idea of a Picasso or a Van Gogh painting, we are not capturing time and place anymore through the work, this enchantment by the idea of the touch of the artist has gone. The aura no longer exists in the artwork, but instead in conversation. This is why audio is important. Sound has more impact than a painting now. I went to see Laurie Anderson perform in the eighties in London. At the time she was just making sounds, going back to pre-language. Before language, we had sound, before we even had hieroglyphic drawings. There are many things in the deep and profound past that I believe we could be revisiting now. And this is what my work has become about. If you look at my works, they are handcrafted, but with a complete lack of skill utilised, they are raw actions. I prefer now to use found material that has its own history attached to it, I used to buy materials from markets for example, but now I am moving towards only reused materials. Giving them a new purpose or new home, allowing their unknown history to exist as opposed to starting from scratch.
I think that this is where education is important. Education in order to respond to the changing audience. Artists here have to constantly re-discover their audiences. At the same time, everything is nascent, so they also are still one of the first generations to be responding to society, to pertinent subjects, through art. There is also a risk that artists from the UAE, or the region, fear a loss of identity. This is fuelled by the consumerism we discussed earlier. But, it is impossible to lose ones identity, in fact, that is a ridiculous statement—‘finding oneself’. Similarly, it is impossible to find identity through consumerism or through objects and belongings. The artists should find a freedom in their practice that doesn’t exist elsewhere and not try to conform to a particular style or category. For example, notions of ‘Arab’ painting, ‘Arab’ nationalism etc. are flawed.
I am saying that artists should not be afraid of the new. They should not be afraid to move away from heritage, away from notions of identity and national identity and away from nostalgia. There is a certain fetishism attached to heritage here in the region, a yearning for the old, for a time which to be honest was not particularly pleasant. Memory is playing tricks on people. We had very little water, no air conditioning, poor housing, barely any electricity—and that was just recently, in the seventies … this has all changed radically. This yearning is unhealthy for a number of reasons and doesn’t allow for the discourse and support that the community so needs. Mohammed Kazem, Layla Juma, Abdullah Al Saadi, Ebtisam AbdulAziz, they all work outside of these boundaries and are important to consider for that reason. Being in the moment, in the now, existing only in the current is important.
Yes, exactly. I never look back, when a problem comes up behind me, I jump my whole self to face it. I don’t turn my head and look backwards. My whole body moves so that I am always facing the future, whatever it may hold. As I mentioned before, the future is forcing itself on us, there is nothing to do but to face it. —[O]