Friday, 27 April 2012

'Subversion' - the search for a modern Arab identity

The manipulation of media imagery and a manufactured portrayal of the East has often led to incorrect and naive views of non-Western cultures. The current exhibition at Manchester’s Cornerhouse entitled ‘Subversion’ is a collection of works by several Arab artists who explore their cultural identity and a historical struggle for acceptance, in several thought provoking mixed-media pieces. The artists use dark humour and play with stereotyping to portray the problematic nature of mass media culture and politics. Many of the pieces resonate with a longing for cultural acceptance and a desire to break free from such engineered stereotypes, and invite the viewer to look beyond the violent connotations associated with some Eastern areas, welcoming a modern Arab identity.
Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour has contributed several pieces for this exhibition, one of which is her installation of little model astronauts, which she has cleverly renamed ‘Palestinauts,’ and emblazoned with the flag of Palestine. This installation coincides with Sansour’s video ‘A Space Exodus,’ from 2009, using adapted clips from Kubrick’s ‘A Space Odyssey.’ The space helmets worn by the people in this video seem indicative of barriers that Arab cultures have had to hide behind for social and political acceptance. As the famous proclamation “one giant leap for mankind” is spoken, a Palestinian flag is placed on the moon, signalling a kind of achievement of equality between Eastern and Western cultures, whilst also mirroring a well known piece of media footage. The use of dark outer space in these pieces however also seems to suggest society’s fear of the unknown, and past labelling of Arab people as ‘outsiders,’ stemming simply from a lack of both education and firsthand experience of such cultures.
Many of the artists in this exhibition appear to have used the medium of film as a way of commenting on the influential nature of televised material. Tarzan and Arab’s ‘Gazawood Project’ (2010) consists of a small movie theatre installation in which a wall is lined with gory film posters. Here the artists appear to be playing up to stereotypes in their film, portraying the East as a place fraught with violence and desolate war-torn villages. Several of the artists within ‘Subversion’ have centred their work on the way their home countries are portrayed by the Western media, focusing on issues such as suicide bombing and terrorism. Far outside such places, we can often only form a view via what is shown on the news, but this exhibition evidences another side to Arab culture; not one of violence, but one which is constantly searching for acceptance.
Akram Zaatari’s ‘Red Chewing Gum’ (2000) is a heart-warming video letter from a man to his lover, using the colour red not as a colour of blood or violence, but of love, personal emotions and memory. This thought provoking short film provokes empathy in the viewer and is a reminder of just how problematic and hurtful living in war-torn countries can be on a personal level, as well as on a wider social scale.
Within many lesser known cultures there can certainly be a feeling of isolation and a longing for social equality and acceptance, and what the artists have created within this exhibition is not only a cultural commentary personal to them but also a modern Arab identity, one which is better accepted and understood. Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s piece for this exhibition is a large scale puzzle covering a mirror, entitled ‘Circle of Confusion’ (1997). The puzzle makes up a photograph of Beirut, however sections of the puzzle are missing to reveal the mirror beneath. This is indicative of both physical and metaphorical ‘cracks’ in society, and perhaps a lack of knowledge of some Arab cultures. As the viewer looks in closely they are confronted not only by their reflection but by their own personal ideas about such places that have been constructed by the media, and often by the ease of cultural generalisation.
‘Subversion’ presents both Arab places and cultures on another level, allowing the viewer to obtain an altered and contemporary perception of these Eastern civilizations. The artists’ mockery of stereotypes and subtle commentary on the influence of the media is clever and thought provoking. The use of film and popular culture such as soap operas and video games addresses the mediated representation that both the people and their regions have faced for a long time, and contains a personal narrative from some of the artists. This exhibition demonstrates perfectly the roles that society has had Arab cultures perform, as well as the duplicitous nature of a modern Arab tradition, as they continue to face both struggle and growth in the modern world.
By Liz Buckley

Image: A Space Exodus, by Larissa Sansour, 2009

First published on - give it a visit!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Sibyl Montague, Pia Borg & Sean Vicary

Despite showing the work of three individual artists, the current exhibition at Oriel Davies Gallery, offers an array of installations that all complement each other by raising questions of perception, context, and meaning. Sibyl Montague uses found objects to create unusual sculptural amalgamations, and the gallery has also commissioned a new work by the artist, which is a video to accompany the physical works. The two work together and create the sense of a performance in which the objects have strayed from their conventional meaning. In Montague’s work there is certainly a theme of the temporary and, certainly in the video, the rhythmic. This ties in nicely with Pia Borg’s work, which in this exhibition comprises several short film installations, all of which seem to play with the rhythmic nature of time and movement. There is some beautiful and haunting imagery in her work, especially within ‘The Crystal World’ (2012). Borg’s work, like Montague’s, seems to want to change our perception of time, and juxtaposes the animate and inanimate. The third and final artist in this exhibition, Sean Vicary, changes the focus of specific natural objects, presenting them as enlarged and sentient. Film’s ability to both speed up and slow down time is certainly a factor which seems to be at play in all these artists’pieces, as well as perhaps the preservation of memory. All of the work for this exhibition is brilliantly thought-provoking and certainly makes the viewer question their perception of what is real and what is mediated.
Sibyl Montague is an Irish artist currently living in London, and this is her first solo exhibition. ‘Arm Around You’ offers a collection of sculptures made from everyday found materials, all of which are brought to life with movement and lighting. Montague’s aim with these pieces is to free such familiar materials from normal association, and give them new meaning and purpose by becoming temporary props in a performance. The physical sculptures here are an extension of the video installation that the artist has produced for the exhibition. This short film consists of the objects ‘performing,’ and seeming to move independently in a backdrop of flickering lights and unsettling sounds. All of Montague’s work here nods to the temporary; these objects have come together by chance and met with a contradictory context, they are not presenting any permanency. The cylindrical, spherical and circular pieces within the sculptures suggest the possibility of movement, as do others which indicate flight or climbing, however all of the pieces are stationary; movement has been frozen in time.
As aforementioned, ‘The Crystal World’ is a film installation by Australian artist Pia Borg, and is also the name of her exhibition here. This video installation includes imagery of cloudy waters and floating hair from Laughton’s 1955 film ‘The night of the Hunter,’ and above all shows the crystallisation of liquid, indicating the freezing of movement and time. These crystals halt the movement of contraptions such as wheels and cars, questioning the power of the natural over the manmade. Borg’s other film installations here such as Palimpsest (2009) and Footnote (2004) all play with the concept of time and create anxiety in the viewer with such sounds as the ticking of a metronome or the whirring of a machine. Like in Montague’s film, rhythm plays a big part in indicating a passing of time, and some kind of repetitive performance. ‘The Automaton’ (2008) includes many clocks, cogs and turning mechanisms indicative of the monotonous rhythm of life; the inclusion of the bed as a prop also suggests routine time spent between life and death. Pias Borg’s work shows us how animate objects can seem inanimate when captured on film, and vice versa, making them seem distanced and even false. By using the medium of film, Borg has been able the blur several time frames into one, whilst also suspending movement and memory into a kind of film crystal.
In Sean Vicary’s work ‘Lament’ (2012), natural objects and animals seem to sit in their correct context yet at the same time appear completely independent of the landscape. This animation of usually inanimate objects brings to light a detached sense of belonging in one’s surroundings. The rhythmic movements of the leaves, shells, pines cones and other objects seem indicative of invisible process at work behind the piece, and these altered portrayals make the viewer construct a new personal meaning, something which is certainly true of all the aforementioned pieces on show here. The audio-visual relationship in Vicary’s ‘Lament’ suggest a kind of ritual, complemented by the hints of poetry and particularly the imagery of spinning frogs that appear to dance in a circle. As an extension of his exhibition, Sean Vicary has implemented related imagery through GPS positioning, available to view on a mobile platform. This work is wonderfully innovative and certainly indicative of our quickly advancing digital world. Through a smartphone, viewers are able to see floating leaves from Vicary’s film installation, appearing as part of the immediate landscape but invisible outside of the device’s screen.
These three exhibitions at Oriel Davies have been cleverly curated to thematically weave in perfectly with one another. The work of all the artists showing here portray an exploration of time, rhythm, landscape and various juxtapositions transferred from life into film. Each piece encourages the viewer to adopt an altered perception of what is real and what is fictional, questioning accepted meanings and contexts. By using the medium of film, each artist has allowed themselves to play with time, movement and stillness, creating internal landscapes which are both permanent and temporary.
- Liz Buckley
Images: Sibyl Montague, Pia Borg, Sean Vicary - courtesy Oriel Davies Gallery

(This review was first published on Interface and is the result of an Interface and Oriel Davies Bursary Partnership)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

1984 Looks Like This

George Orwell’s enigmatic novel ‘1984,’ first published in 1949, got the world thinking; was this a prophecy, or simply science fiction? First written not so much as a prediction for the future, but as a topical fiction story, Orwell’s prophetic tale has turned out to be chillingly relevant to every generation since its publication. The current exhibition ‘1984 Looks Like This’ at Salford Art Gallery centres on the story of ‘1984,’ as well as the photography of David Dunnico, who as an artist has occupied himself with issues surrounding surveillance, as well as the unnerving relevance of Orwell’s novel to today’s society. This exhibition offers a collection of work by Dunnico, as well as his impressive collection of copies of ‘1984’ and related ephemera, showcasing not only the changing covers of the book but also its consistent relevancy to our modern culture.
Image courtesy David Dunnico Exhibition Catalogue, Salford Art Gallery Website