ikono’s guest for this edition of the Carte Blanche series is Charlotte Bank, an internationally operating researcher, curator and writer living and working between Berlin, Geneva and Damascus. Bank curates exhibitions as well as film and video programs, she organizes talks and seminars, and is currently the director of Zakharif projects, a platform for contemporary visual practices in the Middle East and beyond.
Focusing on the emerging contemporary art scene in Syria in the context of the critical art tradition of the country, the curator has a background in Near Eastern archaeology and art history. In her curatorial and scientific work Bank addresses the reception of Islamic and Arab art and culture in Western high and popular culture, early Islamic visual art, contemporary artistic and cultural practice in the Arab world and its Diaspora, hybridity and inter/transculturality.
Bank is also part of the curatorial team of the Visual Arts Festival Damascus, an independent art festival launched in 2010 and re-conceived as a nomadic event from 2012 onwards.
With Spatial Reflections, Bank presents a selection of works “that explore different aspects of the relation between human beings and their physical surroundings.” The series of five productions showcases artworks of Steve Sabella, Salah Saouli, Ghassan Halwani, Ali Skeikh Khudr, Bashar Hroub and Kevork Mourad.
Please find below Charlotte Bank’s introduction to Spatial Reflections:
by Charlotte Bank
“Spatial Reflections” presents a series of works – videos, photography, installation – that explore different aspects of the relation between human beings and their physical surroundings. They share a fragmentary and fragile quality which seems to be symptomatic for contemporary existence with its frequent changes of locations and recurring feelings of alienation. Like fragments of memories that one might attempt to piece together in order to reconstruct a complete image of a past event or experience, these works are composed of multilayered, occasionally barely graspable imagery, complex and haunting at the same time.
The artists come from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, places that have known political oppression, dissent, war, civil war, armed conflict and social violence. But while their works might be partly informed by traumatic experiences, they transcend the geographic locality and through their very personal languages touch upon universal issues of great relevance to the 21st century. They tell stories of loss, displacement, disorientation, of recollection and longing.
Steve Sabella has since his series “In Exile” (2008) been using multi-angled photomontages to investigate his mental map as he strove to come to terms with the condition of inner exile and dislocation that defines his existence since an early age. In the following series, “In Transition” (2010), “Euphoria” (2010) and “Beyond Euphoria” (2011), like he did in “In Exile”, he delved into the depths of his own mind and studied the complexities of his alternating feelings of anxiety and deliverance. In his new work, “Metamorphosis” (2012), Sabella seems to have reached a new stage on this path, a stage of maturity, of meticulously “reconstructing” his self, as he states on his website. The images that form the basis of the series are all somehow related to Palestinian reality, the separation wall, barbed wire, the cactus plant behind the window. But these images are in no way simple statements of cultural belonging. Rather, each of them appears to hold an inner conflict between the outer appearance and the inner function, or between the obvious connotation and possible other significations. Thus, Sabella has chosen to turn barbed wire into a method to “stitch wounds together” or as “organic extensions of a tree branch” (stevesabella.com). The spectator is drawn into a whirl, like a kaleidoscope by the pattern of plants and wire, blurring the boundaries between the two elements. This ultimate metamorphosis of a symbol of restricted movement and forced control into a whirling movement of vegetal forms appears as the crucial step to overcome those burdens that weigh upon humans in conflict zones around the world and could constitute an important step in a necessary process to overcome the wounds of a tormented history.
Another kind of inner landscape with a similar kaleidoscopic quality is presented in Salah Saouli’s room filling installation, “The Labyrinth”. Saouli built a labyrinth of plexiglas plates onto which he printed various images and texts from the city of Beirut’s past: Historical photographs, reproductions of early postcards, newspaper texts and photographs taken by the artist during the Civil War alternate with photos of persons gone missing during this period. At each turn the visitor takes when moving though the installation, the images form new constellations and conjure up new patterns of recollection. Like a palimpsest, the work reflects memories that overlap each other, fragmentary, located on the diffusive border between the real and the imagined. The visitor is drawn into a quasi-archaeological process of following moments of collective memory through the artist’s archive of city images. While it represents a specific city, “The Labyrinth” is also a reflection on the fragile complexity of cities in general, this “most precious collective invention of civilization” in the words of Lewis Mumford (Louis Mumford: The City in History), always balancing between refinement and the risk of downfall. Salah Saouli offers us his very personal memories of a city that in its long history has seen several reconstructions after disasters, but always seem to reappear in a new shape.
An entirely different view of a cityscape is offered by Ghassan Halwani. In his video “Jibraltar” (2005), Halwani plays with the idea of the birth of an adult, a human being that is without any history or memory, free to explore, but also free to loose himself in an unfamiliar, urban environment that appear governed by strange codes. The loss of memory might seem desirable for any person who has just left a trauma of war behind and in fact, collective, voluntary amnesia appears characteristic for many societies, past and present that strive to regain normality after periods of extreme violence. But rather than freed, Halwani’s figure seems utterly lost as he moves through the deserted spaces of a railway station, thereby reflecting the discomfort of anyone lost in a foreign city.
In “City of Emptiness” (2010), Ali Skeikh Khudr’s revisits his hometown of Salamiyeh in northern Syria and presents a searching gaze back to another time. He shows us streets that are hauntingly empty, almost stripped of human presence, strangely suspended in time, leaving the final escape appear as the ultimate and inevitable end. For the faceless, shadow-like figures in Bashar Hroub’s “No Time, No Place” (2009), no escape seem possible. Barely recognizable as human forms, the figures gain an almost timeless, ancient and otherworldly quality as they move slowly around, following patterns of interweaving movement that remain unclear and even seem purposeless. Hroub’s figures appear doomed to eternally perform their inexplicable tasks, with no hope of deliverance; the video seems like a discomforting parable of an existence robbed of its social ties and meanings.
The disruptive effects of architecture of power on spaces of human habitat stand at the centre of Kevork Mourad’s animation “The Walls” (2011). In delicate, drawn lines structures and buildings of a town appear, multiply and flourish, only to be separated by a wall winding its way through the cityscape like a destructive snake. The scenario repeats itself, the wall changes its appearance, crumbles, only to reappear with renewed strength. For anyone familiar with the geopolitics of Palestine, the reference to the Separation Wall seems obvious, but the trauma of walls separating families, friends or people from their land is only too well known in other parts of the world as well. At the end of Kevork Mourad’s video, the wall is once again replaced by houses; the wound in the cityscape is healed. Despite the tendency of walls, whether physical or mental, to reappear at regular intervals, we might take this as a sign of hope.
How are our memories and bodies affected by our physical surroundings? How do urban and rural landscapes affect our perception? What are the images and fantasies that guide us when we navigate through these spaces? In what way do physical spaces reflect our own mental landscapes?