All I want is to get into the studio (now that I have one again!), and so I am using that space as a place to play and process all of this historical reading and research while holding on to the visual vocabulary that I have been developing for a while now. This visual vocabulary probably reached its most distilled and pure form last year in my “drawing a day” project. In that project, I was still thinking about and referencing the stuff I always am thinking about (architecture, place, memory, etc.), but the forms and marks became the most abstracted that they have been—a kind of shorthand notation of form, material, and composition for the ideas and thoughts I was having on a daily basis while I didn’t have studio space to work things out more fully and completely. There’s something very rich and powerful for me in these small notations and drawings, and I am looking through them regularly to spur my thinking towards new directions in the work.
I realized I needed help figuring out what this visual language I was using meant for me and how it could be tied to the topics that are starting to envelop me with the 1844 project. How do you combine what on the surface looks like geometric abstraction with a deep dive into historical events and personal history, not to mention contemporary social, political, and environmental concerns?
I’ve been trying to go see some exhibitions and learn from other artists and see how they deal with these kinds of dichotomies.
The first exhibition that stood out for me in this vein was this one at the Guggenheim Museum: But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art from the Middle East and North Africa.
In the wall text, the curator Sara Raza writes:
“...[The work in the exhibition] focuses on geometry as a tool for the illumination of creative, historical, and philosophical enquiry. While rooted in the mathematical “thinking sciences,’ geometry is used here as a conduit for theories around logic and the origin of meaning...The geometric theme also intersects with the museum’s unique architecture to emphasize the circulation of ideas between different societies, cultures, and political systems, providing an enriched visual, psychological, and intellectual context for our current global situation…
The artists whose work is included...are attentive to the migration of ideas and peoples in an age of anxiety that has witnessed civil liberties and freedom of movement come under repeated attack. Architecture—whether formal, informal, or monumental—is framed as an ideological tool and used to evoke the former colonial powers responsible for defining the region’s territorial and economic status. Contained within the exhibition’s artworks are proposals—we might think of them as “conceptual contraband”—that counteract the mass media’s highly politicized treatment of the area. These diverse threads are interwoven with questions around the ways in which contemporary art has developed in the Middle East and North Africa and its diaspora, producing a nuanced survey of the region’s creative landscape as inflected by history and tradition, recent events and current thought.”
The work in the exhibition was powerful, and it was revealing to see and understand how this idea of geometry, and even of architecture, could provide an armature to hold these incredibly heavy and often difficult topics. What was also really instructive was how so many artists used the structure of the “archive” as a vehicle to explore absence (absence of the image, absence of the body, etc.).
Two pieces that particularly stood out to me in this vein were Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Monument (2013-16, Bronze and cotton) and Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer, 177 Days of Performances (2015).
From Akhavan’s website:
‘Study for a Monument’ (2013 – ongoing) is an act of commemoration, and also an attempt to archive plants belonging to regions around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the title hinting at the legendary gardens of Babylon. Plant taxonomy thrived as a scientific discipline in the colonial period, when 19th-century researchers gained access to new areas and organised expeditions around the world gathering species, thereby becoming the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge. Akhavan has traced botanical species such as those held at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in particular endemic species that grow in present-day Iraq, such as Iris barnumae, Astragalus lobophorus and Campanula acutiloba. Damage to their habitat, firstly by the destruction of salt marshes by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government to quell the marsh Arabs’ resistance and then by the effects of the Iraq war, has made tracing them a difficult task. Rooted in the funerary tradition of commemorating the dead, monuments often record public figures or landmark historical events. They demonstrate strength and attempt to stimulate forms of nationalist or collective memory despite the inevitability of shifts in power. Sculpted from photographic documentation and cast in bronze, these flowers, stems, leaves and roots are displayed in groupings which rest on the ground, resisting the verticality and singularity of traditional monuments. Enlarged to a human scale, they are displayed on simple white sheets, as if captured while being transported.
Hadjithomas and Joreige “explore the archive and the document as tools for representing the construction of imaginary and historical narratives, concerning in particular the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil Wars. In this installation of 354 books that were read and performed from over the 177 days of the Venice Bienale, the artists make reference to the biography of a fictitious photographer named Abdallah Farah, a witness to the economic, infrastructural, and political transformations of Beirut from 1997-2006. Each book contains rolls of undeveloped film. We do not see the rolls’ visual content, but are instead presented with meticulous written descriptions of each shot, contextualized as having been taken from the invented photographer’s notebook. They explore the evocative power of the image by rendering it absent from the work.” (from exhibition wall text, Guggenheim Museum)
These two pieces, as well as several others, gave me a glimpse into the potential of using (and perhaps subverting) existing structures and vocabularies (such as geometry, the archive, abstraction) to create a dialog with the historical research I am doing.