Trade Routes / Conflicted Memory
Hauser & Wirth / Alan Cristea Gallery: A Spectrum Review
Two recent exhibitions, just a stone's throw from each other in London's West End, presented a selection of artists with overlapping social intents and geographies. Hauser and Wirth's Trade Routes (3rd May - 27th July) featured 15 artists, and took Antiquity paths from east to west as their rationale for understanding the contemporary implications of the exchange of goods, culture and ideas across national boundaries. Alan Cristea Gallery's exhibition Conflicted Memory (29th April - 1st June) assembled eight female international artists whose experience of conflict zones reference the act of remembering in their artistic practices. Trade and exchange, economy and conflict, history and travel, on a worldwide scale have had transformative and seemingly irreversible effects on society today, not to mention the production and dissemination of art and culture. In their focus on the history of globalisation and conflict, respectively, the exhibitions seek to foster a new understanding of contemporary culture and society through the lens of appropriation, the collapse and re-birth of ideology and the formation and negotiation of geographies.
Trade Routes presents a certain spectrum review of cultural signifiers – how they are used, appropriated and produced – within the context of global trade. Visible from the outside, and acting as a subtle intervention into the architecture of Hauser and Wirth's main gallery space (formerly a bank) was Bettina Pouttchi's Piccadilly Windows (2013). Here she overlaid patterns onto the building's windows that incorporate decorative elements from German timber frame houses, intended to remind the viewer of traditional Middle Eastern architectural motifs. The work blends a little too well into the space, quite inline with the decorative flourishes present in the gallery – and is both playful and discrete. Elsewhere, Rachid Koraïchi's tapestries from the series Les Maîtres Invisibles (2008), interweave Arabic calligraphy and ancient symbols that celebrate thirteenth century Islamic mystics. Behind the gallery reception's desk was Alighiero Boetti's Mappa (1984), a tapestry that signified the artist's inclusive and transnational collaboration with Afghans in Pakistani refugee camps and Afghanistan. Without negating the importance of the work, it is an obvious choice for an exhibition titled Trade Routes. Further, it sits somewhat anachronistically alongside the vast majority of works in the exhibition that were made in the 2000s.
Upstairs, on the mezzanine level and in the peculiarly named 'American Room' are two stand-out works by Fatima Al Qadiri & Khalid al Gharaballi and Adel Abidin respectively. Al Qadiri & al Gharaballi's video Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM) (2012) is a hilarious dramatisation of the social rituals engaged in by upper-class middle-aged Kuwaiti women. Stationed around a prized tissue box, these women – played by young men in drag – gossip, complement and reproach each other in equal parts. Abidin's Three Love Songs (2010) is a three-channel video installation of blonde starlets performing a selection of songs commissioned by Saddam Hussein to glorify his regime. Lyrics like, 'We will wipe America from the map' and 'We owe our lives to your moustache' are delivered with a suggestive smile and carefully choreographed hip-swivels. The work blurs the lines between violence and seduction, while foregrounding the implications of American foreign policy on public opinion and political propaganda in Iraq. In both works, tropes of entertainment are mined for artistic purposes. Their shared appeal is in their engagement with both the traditions of video art and the language of popular culture. With Al Qadiri & al Gharaballi the proliferation of the soap opera, a now worldwide phenomenon, is utilised to critique cultural behaviours that are at once specific and universal. Abidin's work simultaneously scrunitises idioms of the pop music video and the tools of the regime through subversion and humour.
And so from the global legacy of culture and trade, to a critical schema demonstrating how artists might present nuanced and diverse sets of narratives that unpick individual and collective memories in Conflicted Memory at Alan Cristea Gallery. This exhibition was built upon an intellectual discourse referencing French Philosopher and Sociologist Maurice Halbwach (collective memory), Historian Tony Judt (the age of forgetting) and Walter Benjamin's statement that 'history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now...'
This was further contextualised by social and political agendas that have sought to write and rewrite history and memory. Both Rita Donagh and Miriam de Búrca's works looked at the conflict in Northern Ireland. In de Búrca's video My Home is His Castle (2011), we are shown the verdant grounds of a former Anglo-Irish estate in Northern Ireland, with a soundtrack of hunters' gunshots playing in the background. The significance of the video's location combined with sounds that are unequivocal markers of violence is a powerful reminder of the legacy of conflict in the region. Meanwhile, Donagh's earthy-toned collages are a patchwork of architectural drawings, maps and newspaper cuttings that draw attention to sites that the British media and government tried to obfuscate from view. These include First Isometric (1980), which depicts the H-Block prison where paramilitary prisoners were held, and where the infamous hunger strikes and the Republican 'dirty protests' took place. Using her personal knowledge of the areas and direct experience of the conflict, she takes it upon herself to reveal these shadowy locations and re-present them to the collective consciousness.
Conflicted Memory presented a sombre selection of works that speaks volumes of the ongoing legacy of conflict and violence, and particularly the contribution of female artists to a narrative of remembering, understanding and dealing with the traumatic event through visual art. In Adela Jušić's video The Sniper (2007) the artist shares a very personal story of her father's murder while a member of the Bosnian army. Himself a sniper, he stationed himself at a vantage point where he shot Serbs trying to besiege the city of Sarajevo and documented each killing in a notebook. The artist reads the diary aloud while a black and white image of her father holding his sniper rifle slowly becomes visible, as the artist draws a red circle that eventually encapsulates the man's eye – where the fatal bullet penetrated.
Yet despite the efficacy of works such as Jušić's The Sniper, the exhibition was presented in a sterile and detached fashion that belied the deep emotional potential of the works. Perhaps this was an effort to honour the pensive nature of the exhibition, but its flatness; in a plain white cube, with a typical art historical hang felt like a sadly disconnected approach. Similarly, for all the literature handed out at Hauser & Wirth's Piccadilly gallery (3 separate booklets of a total 13 pages), the curatorial position that the artists were interested in an exploration of 'where these trade routes stand…today', seems tenuous at best. Both galleries being commercial enterprises (as I was reminded at Alan Cristea by proliferating red dots on the wall), these exhibitions cannot be viewed outside of demonstrable market interests in specific geographical areas: Eastern Europe, MENASA region and China; and artistic tendencies that consider globalization and conflict. The balance between the market and the curatorial intent of these two exhibitions has made me question if the emphasis was too heavy on the former.
In the end, these two exhibitions had the potential to shed new light on weighty ideas. Yet, the apparent curatorial framework of conflict for Alan Cristea fell somewhat flat due to the prevalence of academia and the resulting emotive distance from the material. At Hauser & Wirth, economy and exchange became buzzwords: a superficial rubric under which to categorise individual art works that speak of much more than their socio-political and geographical underpinnings.