The works are drawn from the Barjeel Art Foundationcollection of modern and contemporary Arab art, and the final display of a year-long series at the Whitechapel will focus on the theme of what the press release calls ‘mapping geographies’ which examines “the notion of statehood and exploring how artists engage with the rapidly expanding cities of the Arab region.”
LISTE, Art Basel’s sister, home of emerging artists’ art fair is on in the medieval Swiss town, running June 14 to 19.
This year’s event sees a whole host of exciting names presented by their respective international galleries, with some artists coming together for the first time, giving forth their work in in-booth collaborations.
L’air du temps (French for ‘the current trend’) is an immersive video installation that consists a “roving shot across a recently purchased and renovated hotel particulier in Paris”, probing the tenuous relationships and potential symbiosis of “comingling colonial forces” in a series of digital interventions and interactions that are “mutualistic or antagonistic in nature”.
The nine artists come together to create an art tableau of current political tensions. A fax machine sits on a regency chair in the NICC vitrine, spewing out communiques from GCC to Brussels: “This diplomatic legal lexicon reveals the barely veiled tension of an EU desire for further economic liberalisation in the Gulf and a resistance to political interference from the envoys from the Gulf Cooperation Council.”
“It’s not really about oil running out, it’s about oil becoming worthless again”, says Monira Al Qadiriin the second instalment (see here for the first) in a pilot series, titled Money Makes the World Go‘Round, produced in partnership with arts digital production unit Video in Common (ViC). The Beirut-based artist explores history as construction in a contemporary milieu of global capital and linguistic imperialism. In an age of networked communication, driven by the internet, the role of the English language and corporate branding becomes central to economic development and rapid cultural change in regions like the Middle East.
“It’s this conflation between corporate culture and the state”, adds Al Qadiri about the practice of art collective GCC (taking its name from the economic and political union Gulf Cooperation Council) of which she’s a member. With her solo work, Al Qadiri goes further in examining the homogenising effects of economic language and communication networks, beyond global politics and business, to national identity and even religion.
Art and economics is central to the Money Makes the World Go ‘Round series –exploring art and artists in a global market –to publish at the start of every week from the last day of March to June, 2015. It features six artists from cities around the networked world. **
To write an account of FIAC is to attempt to speak of parts within a necessarily unknowable whole. Were the whole visible from one’s perspective on street level, no doubt it would be truly terrifying. Thankfully, we’re not obliged to be all-seeing, in fact perhaps even the organisers would advise against it. La Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris designates a four-day event whose object is art, galleries and exhibitions of a sort. Yet when someone says ‘FIAC’ (fyak!), they tend to mean something much more englobing even than the majestic Grand Palais that houses the main stands.
This year, FIAC introduced (OFF)ICIELLE, the ‘official satellite’ fair, whose purported purpose is to “showcase new territories: young galleries and newcomers to the international art scene; emerging artists and those whose historic contribution has been overlooked”. It was noted by more than once that, in actuality, the (OFF) – held in the less grandiose, more utilitarian venue Les Docks – Cité de la Mode et du Design – was a veritable salon des refusés. Which is to say it housed those galleries which applied for the main event but, for whatever reason, didn’t make the cut, suggesting that FIAC had cleverly maneuvered a cash cow on the back of younger, less established clients. That cynicism aside, (OFF) hosted some great galleries and artists, and its energy was slightly more welcoming, less high-maintenance than its older sister.
It’s worth mentioning, though there’s no space to go into detail, that besides these ‘official’ fairs there was also the fourth annual Young International Artists (YIA) art fair, held at the Carreau du Temple in the Marais. Which, thanks to the appearance of FIAC’s (OFF), became a sort of off-off. Here, works by USA-based Jon Bernad and French artists Loup Sarion and Eva Barto at La GAD (Marseille) were a highlight, as was Barcelona’s The Green Parrot. Each of the three fairs had outdoor or hors les murs projects, as well. There were many, many openings at galleries in Paris during FIAC week, including a great solo show by Latvian artist Daiga Grantina at Galerie Joseph Tang (she also appeared in Tang’s (OFF) booth, accompanied by Adam Cruces, Jo-ey Tang and others). And the ‘Gallery Night’ on Thursday 23 October saw spaces throughout the city opening until 10pm. Everyone makes an attempt to get a piece of FIAC pie, it seems, for you never know when a collector might just swan past and fall madly deeply for one of your stable.
Even the day of rest, Sunday, saw the Belleville Galleries’ Brunch, where the array of young-ish spaces based in Paris’ Belleville quarter opened their doors. For someone who went expecting sweet patisseries and Nutella, the brunch itself was disappointedly meagre, however. Seemingly, everyone was hungover and would rather have been in bed. The Friday had seen the Ricard Foundation’s announcement of their annual art prize at the infamous bal jaune (yellow ball, named after the family’s eponymous pastis, one can only assume). More occasion for what became somewhat of a constant for many people from Tuesday’s (OFF) vernissage onward: drunkenness. Curatorial collective castillo/corrales curated the Prix Ricard show this year, with a fine selection of French artists including Mélanie Matranga, Audrey Cottin and Jean-Alain Corre. The winner was Camille Blatrix.
In addition to all this folly, FIAC had organised substantial parallel programs of films, performances and conversations. The latter were conceived and orchestrated by Paris-based artist Alex Cecchetti under the title ‘Voices of Urgency’, with the final conversation event consisting of New York-based poet Ariana Reines, Paris-based sociolinguist Luca Greco and Slovenian poet Peter Semolič, reading around the topic of ‘desire and revolution’. Earlier that day, Laure Prouvost had given the performance titled ‘Bread, Tunnel, Vegetable’ (2014), which involved a group of children offering tea, bum-shaped cakes, and crisps to the audience sat on the floor, while the London-based French artist dramatically recounted stories associated with her imaginary lost granddad. The performance falls within the expansive Turner Prize-winning project, ‘Wantee’ (2013), the video of which was shown on a laptop monitor during the performance.
Berlin-based artists Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz showed two videos within the films program, ‘To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation’ (2013) and ‘Opaque’ (2014), a film so recently finished that Boudry and Lorenz had not yet seen it projected. A discussion between the artists and French art historian Élisabeth Lebovici followed each film, with some of the primary concerns being non-hierarchical production (in film, and in Pauline Oliveros’ music), the camera as active participant in a performance that couldn’t exist without it, and opacity as resistance against the aggressive act of understanding. The veil is a recurring motif; the artists suggest we don’t need to see everything and it is misguided to think the camera reveals all.
If only one didn’t feel the pressure to see it all! At the main event, expensively-dressed people shuffle around with glazed eyes, darting between 750,000€ Isa Genzkens, 9€ sandwiches resembling plastic, and Ruinart champagne. The most interesting booths were ones that pretended to be anything else but a luxury goods stall. Particularly successful were those who allowed one single artist to create a total installation, not only because it gave a more generous insight into the practice, but also because it was such a relief after the endless white. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two Berlin galleries were among the most adept at this technique. Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie’s Wu Tsang installation came directly from the artist’s solo show, A day in the life of bliss, held at the gallery this summer. One of the highlights of the season, they cleverly re-contextualised the work for an FIAC audience, turning the stand into a mirror-like infinity lounge and inviting people to sit and observe reflections of themselves and others – and of course the colourful flashing light sculpture which took prime position in the centre, hanging from above and almost touching the floor.
Meanwhile upstairs, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler’s GCC installation included the HD video ‘Co-Op’ (2014), which ironically promotes a society based on luxury. The flat screen is installed within ‘Royal Mirage’ (2014), where wallpaper depicting the luxurious interior of a multi-billion dollar hotel in the Gulf serves as the background to eight painted portraits, hung in an even line. GCC commissioned a Thai painter in Kuwait to create oil paintings of members of the collective in the same style he paints sheikhs. Depicted in thawb and in a typical soft-focus manner, signs of age or gender become indiscernible, and all eight artists fall under the category of ‘Arab’. Simultaneously a witty comment on the kinds of portraiture Western collectors might hang on their walls, the rising power of the Middle East, and the role of the artist as self-promoting brand, GCC really made the mirage work.
Other galleries went for the classic mixed-bag group show model, which inevitably meant the works on display ranged from the merely eye-catching to the quietly stunning, with little way of discerning the two, unless you mustered up enough energy to speak to one of the exhausted looking gallerists. Some gems among the Kapoors included French artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s dancing pyjamas encased in glass sheets, ‘Live Through That ?!’ (2014), at Kamel Mennour, London-based Eloise Hawser’s two pieces at Balice Hertling, young Romanian Mihuț Boșcu Kafchin at Gaudel de Stampa, Praz-Delavallade’s swathe of LA artists including Amanda Ross-Ho and photographer Matthew Brandt, and Galerie Antoine Levi’s display of Italian artist Francesco Gennari’s spiderweb photographs and US-American Sean Townley’s sculptures.
In addition to all these Paris galleries, highlights from abroad included Mexico D.F.’s House of Gaga, whose pairing of New York-based Sam Pulitzer’s drawings and Mexican illustrator Julio Ruelas, who died of tuberculosis in Paris in 1907, made a link that gave a touch of much-appreciated sentimentality. Unexpectedly seductive, German artist Martin Eder’s painting at Leipzig/Berlin Galerie EIGEN + ART also spoke to the romantics amongst us, while New York’s On Stellar Rays had a wild display of Debo Eilers’ and Rochelle Feinstein’s colourful painting and sculptural works. Austrian-born artist Josef Strau’s tacky fence piece was a highlight at London’s Vilma Gold, and the Latin American stars Adrián Villar Rojas, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Gabriel Kuri at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, were predictably impressive. Meanwhile, Lisbon’s Vera Cortês Art Agency presented artists Joana Escoval and Daniel Gustav Cramer, whose understated pieces provided relief from the bombastic, ostentatious norm.
That’s a tiny, we’ll say refined, taste of FIAC before one even begins to rattle off some of the things to be seen at (OFF)ICIELLE. There, it’s worth mentioning Cynthia Daignault’s photographic and painterly meditation on images of the Matterhorn for New York gallery Lisa Cooley; British artist Merlin James’ solo show of his expanded landscape painting practice at Kerlin Gallery, Dublin; London-based Italian artist Salvatore Arancio at Rome’s Federica Schiavo Gallery alongside Jay Heikes; and Jacqueline Mesmaeker’s beautiful photo-sculptural installations at Nadja Vilenne, Liège.
At Galerie Tatjana Pieters, Belgian artist Philippe Van Snick’s ten-colour palette and associated aesthetic limitations proved in reality to allow an ongoing multiplicity of forms and encounters. Andreas Angelidakis’s series of ‘bibelots’, 3D-prints resting atop internally decorated vitrines, at The Breeder (Athens) were a highlight. As was French artist Sarah Tritz at Paris Galerie Anne Barrault, whose work included a trashy fake-hair and bead sculpture and large collage of a seductively angled naked arse.
Last but not least, who could forget the darling, not just of ‘post-internet’, but of contemporary art in general. Amalia Ulman’s solo show at the booth of ltd los angeles was a total hit, making one wonder how the artist could put a foot wrong. One of the large digitally printed tapestries Ulman had produced for the fair seems a good note to finish on. Depicting two African children in school uniform, a girl whispering to a boy, the serif embroidered text reads:
‘What Have You Heard About MONEY?’
‘What Does It Mean?’ ‘How Does It Harm Us?’ ‘Who Can Get It?’ ‘What Causes It?’ ‘How Can We Stop It?’ What Can We Do For People Who Have It?’ ‘Can It Be Cured?’ ‘What Does It Look Like?’ ‘Which Of Us Has It?’
‘Don’t GUESS the Answers! LEARN THE TRUTH ABOUT MONEY!’ **
“Sounds like a trap. Is it a trap?” says the shifty blue iris of Sophia Al-Maria’s ‘Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches)’ (2014) video. The robotized voice carries through the speakers of a CRT TV set, on rack and rollers, powered by a battery and pulled along by two straight-faced attendants wearing sunglasses. They’re the props for a guided tour of Frieze London 2014, commissioned by the fair, inspired by John Carpenter and starting at the pavilion’s tours and catalogues desk. It’s raining outside, the tent roof is being buffeted by strong winds and everything feels futile. “Will they withstand a real rain?” Al-Maria’s words come less as a question than a warning as she interrogates the “temporary structures” of “weak shelters covered in a carpet chosen to match the drapes” that is the Frieze fair. It’s the premiere four-day event, bringing both the rich and the desperate from around the world to binge on “that great flower of our species’ effort” that some call art but Al-Maria’s omniscient eye calls commodity.
The TV and its two attendants lead their audience through a half-hour assault of the sections marked yellow, green and purple on the map in the Frieze Fair Guide. They’re the ones where each gallery’s share of the space appears to shrink according to their capital importance. Experimenter Kolkata andProject88 are there. The former features Indian art collective CAMP’s collaborative film ‘From Gulf to Gulf’ (2013), while my Nokia won’t wordpredict ‘Mumbai’ when I try to type in the origins of the latter. Around here are the Gs, Hs and Js of the ‘Focus’ of the fair, the smaller spaces with fewer viewers where the more interesting artists are. Morag Keil capitalises the letters spelling “REVENGE” painted in acrylic across cereal boxes on a shelf in the center of an otherwise sparsely furnished Real Fine Arts booth. There are stuffed toys on one side; a conch, a hot dog and a puffed oat on a mixed media mount on the other. A print of an interview with Harry Burke called ‘Can you live in art?’ is chained to a pair of chairs for children in a corner. It was originally conducted for Keil’s exhibition called L.I.B.E.R.T.Y..
“In a way, that’s what locations are today, different markets,” says Michael Connor, moderator of the three-day offsite discussion series centred around its thematic title, Do You Follow? Art in Circulation. The stage is set up in the industrial space of the Old Selfridges Hotel, an extension of the high-end shopping centre. The infrastructure inside is non-existent so there are port-a-potties downstairs and the salon where the complimentary beer and Smartwater flows freely is full of plants framed by the building’s concrete structure. The sense of a space catering to the bottom feeding art marked ‘post-internet’ couldn’t be better realised.
On Day One Martine Syms, Kari Altmann and token abstract expressionism expert Alex Bacon talk the #same-ness of networked art across aesthetics and algorithms. Takeshi Shiomitsu reads out his dense ‘Notes on Standardization’: and cites a subject position – across race, gender, class, sexuality – as shaping an experience of culture, while “our interactions are rendered within the confines of the user interface or platform”. Hence, the notion of dissidence-so-long-as-you-follow-the-rules, which is exemplified IRL when a puppy enters the building to the joy of the ICA staff but the chagrin of Selfridge’s security who force the dog and the human it’s attached to back outside.
It’s this fruitless performance of disruption that is probably best realised on Day Two during Constant Dullaart’s ‘Rave Lecture’, his ‘BRIC mix’ booming across from a concrete corner as an art audience stands around largely unmoving behind obstructive grey pillars. They’re reading the geopolitical messages that dance in lurid neon streams of colour, the laser beams “projecting chemically enhanced pleasure into your children’s future”. The sonic intensity of thumping electronica featuring languages I don’t understand generates that familiar feeling of fear and fascination that’s also at the core of Al-Maria’s “cosmic horror of reality” back at the Frieze pavilion. Tsagaglalal’s shaming gaze glitches, cuts and scrambles across fleeting interjections of images and bold white text: “EARTH LOST 50% OF WILDLIFE IN 40 YRS”. Her human flunkeys run their UV torchlights along the pavilion walls to reveal the residue of human handprints glowing alien-blue.
How diverse. How pointless. These are thoughts that linger as the tour passes through this battlefield of economic warfare – assaulted by art and artists fighting for attention. There’s the queer crosshatch of space, time and cultural signifiers in a lurid installation of Sol Calero’s “ciber café” at Laura Bartlett. PC computers propped on desks, among Hispanic food brands and gaudy gestural prints, are running on Windows XP and screening films of street parties. Men in dark blue overalls are chanting “at the rodeo I was like, this is the one” for Adam Linder’s performance art-for-hire at Silberkuppe. A line of people connected at the head by pink fabric walk past as part of James Lee Byars’ ‘Ten in a Hat’ (1968) at the exact moment that Tsagaglalal asks, “What are these weird wandering ghosts?” No joke.
“…then we went to the ICA for a little bit, then we went to see Big Ben and the London Eye…” yawns a visiting invigilator at one booth describing a week of costly cultural enrichment before I’m confronted by Nina Beier’s ‘Hot Muscle Mortality Power Pattern’ (2014) at Croy Nielsen. Keychains and dog treats, power sockets and perfume bottles are embedded in packing foam and framed behind UV security glass above a carpet scattered with organic vegetables, ordered online for Beier’s ‘Scheme’ (2014). Villa Design Group’s live auditions for a film adaptation of Jean Royère’s 1974 memoirs, ‘Arab Living and Loving as Seen by a French Interior Decorator’ at Mathew Gallery is filmed and re-mediated above the scene via a line of screens on the scaffolding. Carlos/Ishikawa offers free manicures care of Ed Fornieles over an Oscar Murrilo table flanked by Korakrit Arunanondchai’s body-paintings. ‘Affordable’ limited edition reproductions by Parker Ito, Neïl Beloufa, Ed Atkins are available for purchase at Allied Editions, while Richard Sides’ mixed-media contribution warns ‘Gamble Responsibly’.
“There’s even a food court” is another observation of art fair infrastructure by Al-Maria’s Tsagaglalal that runs through my mind while watching a photographer take a picture of the “A to B Coffee” café. The people there are consuming across from the Corvi Mora booth, where Anne Collier’s framed C-print memo ‘Questions (Relevance)’ (2011) queries “What does all this mean?”. An answer comes in the infantilised whisper of Laure Prouvost’s narrator in ‘Paradise On Line’ (2014), played in a pink-carpeted projection room at MOT International and suggesting ‘grandpa’ is “just interested in painting bottoms and not conceptual art”.
“Did I see Beyoncé? Yeah, yeah, yeah…” an attendant groans through her phone, walking past Mike Kelley’s ‘Rewrite’ (1995) enamel on wood panel that reads “our method of exploration: polymorphous perversity” at Andrew Kreps. The thin metallic ‘clack’ of Hito Steyerl cracking a screen in her ‘STRIKE’ (2010) video is playing on loop at its entrance as it occurs to me that Beyoncé’s presence was only felt at Frieze last year through the popular icon as self-image in Jonathan Horowitz’s eponymous mirror. It’s as if now the art and the image is not only reflecting a certain reality but somehow materialising it, in the same way that Amalia Ulman problematises the distinction between the performance and the person in her social media experiment in networked self-objectification, ‘Excellences & Perfections’ (2014). Presented in a slideshow on Day Three of the Art in Circulation series, she reveals that the photos of her fake boobs were fake. The minor plastic surgery and talk with the ‘King of Collagen’ was real but the public breakdown wasn’t. Or was it?
“Bodies are suitcases for a consciousness”, announces Ulman, paraphrasing infamous body-modification pioneer Genesis P-Orridge, “but who is this suitcase by?” In the case of the artist it’s one by the networked patriarchal gaze. Fellow panellist Derica Shields suggests an alternative model of authorship of the body for black women, reanimating themselves as cyborgs in 1990s music videos to create a “sense of control but also invulnerability”. Perhaps, it’s a way of achieving what Hannah Black’s polymorphous narrator can only aspire to while plummeting towards the earth’s core to the warped and slowed tune of Whitney Houston in ‘Fall’ (2014) screened before the panel begins: “At 13,000 feet, I finally discover my own language”.
The search for language appears part of a perpetual capital exchange as pamphlets from Deutsche Bank encourage “#artmagyourself”; urging art viewers to “post a selfie with the artwork you love and win a terrific prize!” whether it’s next to one of Cerith Wyn Evans’ chandeliers or Heman Chong’s red vinyl text of ‘The Forer Effect’ (2008) that cold reads, “Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic”. They’re as unrealistically aspirational as Shanzhai Biennial’s ‘Live’ installation at the art fair entrance. There they re-imagine their work as real estate in the Frieze brand-emulating sale of a £32,000,000 “Ultra Prime Residential” property in a room coloured rich-people-red with a contact email on the wall for “qualified buyers” only. Merlin Carpenter’s consciously crude painting of a middle-aged couple grinning in the golden glow of a stock sunset suggests ‘Price on Request’ at dépendance. Cory Arcangel’s Lakes series of flatscreen animations advances from ‘Diddy/Lakes’ (2013) at the team gallery inc. booth in 2013 to the bigger Lisson Gallery. The ripples under ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘Dinner’ is powered by modems and hanging above the milieu of rainbow-coloured carpeting and Joyce Pensato’s huge black and familiar Disney head in ‘Mickey for Micky’ (2014).
The fabric of fantasy tears at one point when a cleaner walks past me in the Frieze pavilion’s ‘Main’ section. She’s sweeping the space in front of Fiona Banner’s huge dark image of graphite on paper shouting “THE HORROR! THE HORROR!” in ‘The Greatest Film Never Made (Mistah Kurtz – He Not Dead)’ (2012). It’s an IRL occurrence that has a similar effect as Monira Al-Qadiri’s mediation in her ‘Soap’ (2014) video. Screened at Art in Circulation and featuring popular Gulf soap operas based in worlds of affluence, Al Qadiri reimagines these shows that forever forget the labour behind the wealth by transposing the ‘help’ into existing episodes. A vase is smashed in a fit of passion. The maid bends down and cleans it.
‘But what’s the plan?’ one wonders as Christoper KulendranThomas explains his accelerated drive to bringing Sri Lankan artists into a post-fordist economy, whether they like it or not. The artist argues for an integration into the spread of malignant markets on the back of branded sportswear: “I was thinking that what failure for me would look like in this work, is probably what success would look like for a lot of artists”. Though I’m not so convinced there’s that much of a distinction as I try to list every artist and booth who made it into Frieze worth mentioning: Simon Thompson at Cabinet London, Jack Lavender and Amanda Ross-Ho at The Approach, Lisa Holzer and Philip Timischl at Emanuel Layr,Hannah Weinberger’s ‘Frieze Sounds’ work, Société, Loretta Fahrenholz… There’s more but this whole piece has turned into an exercise in Search Engine Optimisation for ‘good art in a bad world’ while really just drowning in its own impotence as part of the fabric of collective failure.
“Is this an art fair or a mall?” barks Al-Maria’s electronic mouthpiece in my mind as I wander by Carsten Höller’s ‘Gartenkinder’ playground at Gagosian and Salon 94’s acid-yellow curation of Snoopy animation and largescale emoticons causing retinal burn at ‘The Smile Museum’. This is definitely Al-Maria’s “maze of particleboard walls built to bare a heavy product”. More succinctly, it’s Hannah Black’s “shiny surface of a world of shit”, as read from a poem performed during the Art in Circulation #3 talk, before speculating that “hopefully we are the last, or among the last generations of a collapsing empire”. Because when Monira Al-Qadiri says the purpose of the “over-the-top, luxurious, crazy, dystopian image” of the GCC art collective is to mirror the reality that “our governments have somehow become corporations”, it’s easy to assume that it also goes the other way. Along with the sense of being trapped in a violent cycle, circulated by the structures that exacerbate pre-existing socio-economic prejudice while hurtling us towards environmental collapse, one can’t help but agree when Tsagaglalal concludes, “this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye”. **
When I speak to Sophia Al-Maria, I haven’t read Virgin with a Memory yet. It’s the companion text to the London-based artist’s solo exhibition of the same name –opening at Manchester’s Cornerhouse on September 5 –and one so evocative and unsettling that I suspect the interview might have gone differently if I had. “Something delicious and fresh about the violence”, says the sentence fragment about an unnamed film set in Belfast (“blown up”) in a note dated March 10, 2014. It’s nestled among the collection of emails, diary entries and fictional narrative; headshots, script excerpts and kit lists, making up Virgin with a Memory: The Exhibition Tie-in and could just as easily be applied to its content:
“So let’s spend today thinking of ingenious ways to hide and dispose of bodies and discuss tomorrow
See you tomorrow
“For some reason I keep being dragged back to these subjects”, Al-Maria chuckles, between sighs and over the phone from her hotel room in Manchester. She seems exhausted, and not just because I’ve caught her in the middle of the Virgin with a Memory install but she’s on the line to talk about a feature-length film she’d spent the last two-and-a-half years working on, only for it to essentially come to nothing. “This show is not a eulogy but a way of displaying all the supplementary materials that went into working on the production”, she tells me about the collection of pseudo-documentary footage and video installations built from the remains of Beretta. It’s a film that would have been a rape-revenge thriller set in Egypt and inspired by Abel Ferrara’s cult-classic Ms. 45, where mute and man-hating prey becomes predator on a killing spree after one too many abuses.
As a fan of Al-Maria’s work and writing, I’d read her memoir The Girl Who Fell To Earth, watched her videos, and seen the work of eight-strong collective the GCC. I followed her blog and more writing on Gulf Futurism across articles in Dazed and Art After the Internet. None of it could prepare me for this:
“I could barely shut the refrigerator door. I had to put his head in the freezer. In the end I used the electric carving knife to get through the tangle of bone at his back. If I had a machete it would have been easier.”
The body above is not just human but ‘tomcat’, or ‘pig’, depending on which simile you choose to describe the men Beretta’s heroine, Sueda, murders as revenge for their part in making her life a living hell. Scattered in fragments across its Virgin with a Memory novelisation, the film-that-would-be is a product of Al-Maria’s own experience as a student in Cairo, set to the backdrop of the 2011 Arab Spring. “Beretta is not only the story of a mute, repressed woman pushed to extremes by her environment,” Al-Maria writes in an excerpt of explanatory notes as part of the book, “but it is the story of a people, raped and degraded by their government, culminating in revolt.”
I remember you writing in The Girl Who Fell To Earth about your experience of Egypt, where you were basically assaulted.
Sophia Al-Maria: Many times. That was one example.
Because the country has become known for being one of the worst countries in the Arab world to be a woman?
SA-M: Well, in the same way that Mumbai is famous for what has been going on there with mob attacks. Certainly, it’s become aggravated by the general chaos of post-2011. In the past I’ve been involved with and continue to support activist groups [in Egypt] trying, from the ground up, to help combat this problem of harassment on the streets. The real issue is that, within living memory, if a man was caught harassing a woman in the street in Cairo, the people who witnessed it would grab him and shave his head so that he would be publicly humiliated.
That just doesn’t happen anymore. Everyone sort of acquiesces to the general anger and aggression of frustrated men. I think that it doesn’t matter with regards to culture, as much as a mixture of over-population and repression. If London was as crowded as Egypt is, I suspect that there would be much more public harassment on the street.
You talk about the film in past-tense, is it not going to go ahead?
SA-M: The film will go ahead but in a different form. We got funding and were waylaid by legal issues at the very last minute, which are hilarious because the financiers wanted something called ‘right of title’. Abel Ferrara, who made the original Ms. 45, was very into the project and was very supportive but then it turned out that the original porn company who produced Ms. 45 had disappeared and Warner Brothers had bought the rights. Then it turned into this kafka-esque farce of trying to get the rights to this movie.
Plus the writer of the film, Nicholas St John has become a monk and moved on top of a mountain somewhere in France, disavowed everything he’s ever done and refuses to sign anything. So in the end we were stuck because somebody somewhere along the line stuck his foot in his mouth and said we should get the rights to this movie so that we can say it’s the ‘Egyptian Ms 45’ which was a huge mistake.
So I’m rewriting it, basically. I’m hopefully going to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab this January and restaging it elsewhere, not in Cairo, and trying to get it back on its legs in a new form. It’s a universal story. I just wanted to set it in Egypt because that is the root of my interest in the subject matter and my experience. But I think there are many other places in the world where this is equally relevant.
In the blurb for Virgin with a Memory, it says a Beretta actress was arrested?
SA-M: Yes. Not the main actress but the second lead who’s the heart of the film. She’s the reason that a lot of the events go down. I wanted there to be a sort of sisterly friendship that causes the revenge, not just what happens to the main character. The main character is raped and is unable to speak to anyone about it because it’s a cop and she internalises all this fear and anxiety –what to do with the body and all these things –until her best friend is compromised and she then goes in and saves her from a sort of bunga bunga party situation, which she has found herself in.
So the actress, who was incredible and blew everyone away in the audition, was unfortunately put in jail. She’s in for a year, which will be up, I think, next spring. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, accused of smuggling drugs and used as a scapegoat because she was very popular on television at the time. One of the videos that’s in the show [‘Class A’ (2014)] is a sort of love-letter to her. It’s using her audition tapes with footage of an interview she gave where the woman interviewing her is this sort of evil Nicole Kidman type who is being so cruel to her and asking her questions to try to sort of throw her off. There’s these really aggressive bits and then these fractured images of her audition tapes mixed in with it.
I watched the two year-old promotional video for Beretta on vimeo.
SA-M: Yeah. That was done before we got the producers involved; it was just me with a thirty-page version of the script. I’d been in Cairo with a friend and shot some of that stuff with a Nokia, and some random evening cut it together. It had a bit of the vibe of what I wanted and there’s going to be a companion piece shown at Manchester, which was done without my knowledge by the producer.
He took some rushes that we had shot in Cairo and then made this thing to try to convince financiers; he had done a little shoot with the actress on his own and everything, which I found… he really had gone behind my back as the director. So I’m displaying that as well, as a sort of example of the power dynamic between producers and directors these days, which is shifting more and more to the producers, as money gets more and more difficult to raise.
That’s interesting because if you think about that in conjunction with your involvement in the Whose Gaze Is It Anyway? exhibition, when a producer –who I’m assuming is a man –shoots with the woman lead without your knowledge…
SA-M: Yeah, and saying it was a surprise [laughs]. I was working on a new draft of the script. I met up with him after I’d finished and he said, ‘I have a surprise for you!’ and he shows me this ‘taster’ for the financiers. He’d shot this stuff with her and used a Kanye West song underneath. It was a bit of a creative rape moment where, ‘you’ve just taken this thing out of my head, put your own spin on it and then shown it to the people who are supposed to be giving us money. And this is completely not what I want’. It has the actress putting the gun in her garter belt. It was all very, sort of like ‘gaze-y’. I think he worked very hard to get the project where it is, or where it was, and he got a little carried away at that moment. I think in retrospect he understands that [laughs].
Kanye West is an interesting choice.
SA-M: Yeah it’s funny, of all people.
You also mentioned the relationship between directors and producers is shifting as it becomes harder to raise money, that’s pretty much a universal theme when it comes to economic and social stratification.
SA-M: Yeah, things are polarising and its this, sort of, drift. It’s the one per cent and 99 per cent. It’s the corporation and the individual. It’s all of those things. I think these little titles like ‘producer’, or ‘curator’ or whatever will eventually become irrelevant when it becomes ‘studio’ and ‘content’ [laughs]. It’s interesting; things like television, for example, where the director’s role has been massively downsized and now it’s writers who are the show runners. Writers rooms are far more in control and directors shuffle in and out as workmen, or tradespeople on shows. Things are really changing, I think. This is a totally random sidenote…
No, I think it’s all relevant. Like you say, writers are running the show. Even when you think about how history is written, you have a specific set of people who have the privilege of writing it.
SA-M: Yeah absolutely. People link that shift in power to the writer’s strike a few years ago in the US, which then led to things like The Sopranos and these big showpiece series’. And, of course, that’s all about the strike, and about the collective, right? Writer’s finally putting their foot down and taking power but I don’t know what the moral of that story is.
When you think about it, the outcome is Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos. They’re all pretty macho.
SA-M: Yeah, and actually the one’s that are overtly trying to subvert that are often really unsuccessful, like The United States of Tara or… there’s one recently with Laura Dern…
SA-M: Yeah, yeah. I mean, these ones, you hear about them and stuff but they’re not like Game of Thrones or True Detective –which I am so pissed off about, it’s not H.P. Lovecraft, fuck-off everyone. It’s just macho. It uses women as props in the shows… there is much to be torn back because, again, writers’ rooms, as with most things, are still male-dominated. I guess you have your Lena Dunhams but they’re tokenised.
I read an interesting observation that in art, it’s an industry that’s so low-paid and it seems to be woman-dominated, at least on an administrative level.
SA-M: [laughs] Yeah. Hey, there can only be one explanation and that’s money. If you follow the money, you’ll get your answers. Always. **
Following on from their Achievements in Swiss Summit exhibition during London’s Frieze week last month, the celebrations continue for the GCC art collective, at Berlin’s Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler gallery. In their second show as a ‘delegation’ named after the regional government body, Gulf Cooperation Council, Ceremonial Achievements again pulls focuses on parade over practicality. Now in the hands of politicians and officials, the PR campaign of success well-celebrated in the Gulf is passed on as its nine artists -spanning Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, and including Khalid Al Gharaballi, Fatima and Monira Al Qadiri, and Sophia Al-Maria -investigate traditions and icons of self-congratulations.
A screen on the floor projects ‘Ceremonial Projects in Motion’, a video of stately-looking men in the traditional Arabic thobe with large scissors in their hands cutting inaugurating ribbons. They smile and lift their hands as the tape falls and crowds applaud, before a new clip of a similar ritual begins. In each one, the same characters mimic the same ceremony, leaving one disoriented and dislocated: are we applauding the opening of a new shopping mall, with shiny floors, in Kuwait, or is it a children’s hospital in Qatar? Solemnly proud music plays alongside it, while this parody of personal victory, in self-promotion repeated, becomes absurd; the characters themselves becoming caricatures, without overstatement.
At the center of the room, a smaller screen shows a glowing and outlined presenter gesticulating in front of a projection of similar video loops in ‘Protocols for Achievements’. Screening information in Arabic beneath her, the presenter could be reporting the news or presenting said ‘protocols’ to her audience. Only, its impossible to tell by her body language alone as she stands mute. There’s no concrete information to draw from the text, doubtless incomprehensible to many a Berliner viewer, as she mimes in time with the sound from ‘Ceremonial Projects in Motion’ echoing throughout the whole exhibition.
Hanging on a nearby wall, an image from the GCC’s induction in Switzerland earlier this year (as well as the earlier London show), ‘Inaugural Summit, Morschach 2013, 7’, shows three figures, presumably men, sat on a picnic blanket on the bitumen and sharing tea, photographed only from the waist down. Again, it’s not so much the content of the image, or even the identity of its subjects but the ceremony around it that matters.
Spanning the width of a wall in the inner space of the two-room gallery, the most visible piece in Ceremonial Achievements is enacted. It’s a screening of a make-believe ribbon ceremony by GCC, taking place in a grand hall. Several people take part by standing still, forming a circle and holding a red ribbon between them. The other three walls of the room display photos of the same event, a series called ‘Ceremonial Sphere’, taken from different perspectives and digitally printed on circular aluminium dibond. A marble veneer stall stands proudly in front of the large-scale projection, presenting a trophy-like ship’s wheel. With a map of the world at the centre of this golden sculpture, ‘Berlin Congratulant’ echoes the same glass sculptures from the GCC’s Achievements in Swiss Summit. As before, the source of these ‘achievements’ and their outcomes are nowhere to be found, the round shapes, circular motion and endless repetition leading to nothing. **
In furthering their efforts “to reinforce and serve Gulf and Artistic causes” the recently formed art collective GCC, will be celebrating their accomplishments made during their first meeting in Morscach, Switzerland. In a corporatised global tradition, with a government sanctioned edge, the group aims represent their “official Communiqué” as “a High Level Strategic Dialogue” for their Achievement in Swiss Summit at Mayfair’s Project Native Informant, opening October 18 and running, through Frieze week, to November 16.
Forged in 2013 and featuring Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Amal Khalaf, Aziz Al Qatami, Barrak Alzaid, Fatima Al Qadiri, Khalid al Gharaballi, Monira Al Qadiri, Nanu Al-Hamad and Sophia Al Maria, there’s no doubting the delegation’s efforts to reaffirm “their common desire to enhance and diversify these strong relations in the artistic field”.