Writing Art History Since 2002

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Is it past and future or, perhaps, continuous present? Former events influence our today and shape our tomorrow. This fluidity of temporal perspectives results in the phenomenon whereby the reflection of real events has an impact on the potential future. The future is thus always imaginary, since we can never fully define and predict our destiny. What is less obvious, however, is that the past itself is just as unknown as the future. Therefore, imagination, as well as the fertile mixture of real and fictitious, can be an important element not only in our expectation of the future but in our understanding of the past too.

AA Newsletter June30 Zoltan6Hicham Benohoud, detail of Ânes situ [Donkey in situation], 2013. Digital photographs, 50 x 75 cm each. Courtesy of Cultures Interface, Casablanca and the artist. Installation view, ‘The Time is Out of Joint,’ SAF Art Spaces, 2016. Photograph: Shanavas Jamaluddin.

These considerations are apt for both of the exhibitions on review. The Sharjah Art Foundation’s two large-scale shows work together wonderfully, even if, from the outset, they seem to be ‘formally’ quite different. The first, titled ‘The Time is Out of Joint,’ is a group show of mostly recent work, curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh. The other exhibition, curated by Sharjah Art Foundation’s President Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, is titled ‘Two Suns in a Sunset’ and features Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (displaying their work from the late 1990s until today). In a way, each exhibition analyses the power of time and its effect on us, all subjects of its strength.

“Please feel free to take a picture,” reads the short description – in the accompanying catalogue – of one of the works by Hadjithomas and Joreige. The ambiguous imperative, however, does not (only) refer to the act of photographing the exhibited artwork. It can also be taken literally: “please take a fragment of the artwork.” The monumental installation of 3 x 4 metres, titled The Circle of Confusion is a panoramic view of Beirut, cut into three thousand pieces. Behind each numbered fragment is the statement “Beirut does not exist,” and upon lifting the pieces, a mirror – underlying the entire installation – becomes increasingly visible. As the image of Beirut gradually disappears, the artwork reflects more and more of the visitors, who will carry the city’s constantly fading image with them. Like most of the other work exhibited, this piece departs from the events and context of the Lebanese capital – including the cruel civil war – and from the possibilities of memory, hence the re-elaboration of individual experience, which in turn forms yet another collective.

AA Newsletter June30 Zoltan3Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, The Circle of Confusion, 1997 – 2004. 3000 photographic fragments stamped and glued on a mirror, fragment to be taken away by the visitors, 300 x 400 cm. Courtesy of the artists. Installation view, SAF Art Spaces, 2016.

 The artists constantly examine the interconnectedness of history and its presentation or even presentability: the ways in which past events can be re-told and reactivated through various forms of art. This is why the exhibition incorporates a wide variety of media: photographic, sound and video installations, sculptures and works on paper, all presenting the temporary result of the artist’s research; temporary results, since they do not offer a precise and final answer but rather an invitation to join them as they continue their attempts at making sense of the past.

AA Newsletter June30 Zoltan1Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Two Suns in a Sunset, various works. Installation view, SAF Art Spaces, 2016.

 Parallel to ‘Two Suns in a Sunset,’ ‘The Time is Out of Joint’ investigates the interconnectedness of temporal and physical perspectives, inviting the visitor to get lost between cities, events, here and there, past and present. Following on Andalusian philosopher Ibn Arabi’s concept of time as a fluid place and place as a frozen time, the exhibition ‘re-enacts’ two previous art events, the First Arab Arts Biennale in Baghdad in 1974 and the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing in 1989, and also ‘pre-enacts’ a future event, the Equator Conference to be held in Yogyakarta in 2022. The exhibition comprises video works, installations and photographs (four of them new commissions) and is a critical evaluation – or re-evaluation and pre-evaluation – of the aforementioned events, questioning the influence of time in our own self-understanding.

AA Newsletter June30 Zoltan5Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades:The Secrets of Karbala, 2015. Single channel HD-video, colour 5.1 dolby surround sound system, 120 minutes. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg and the artist. Installation view, ‘The Time is Out of Joint, SAF Art Spaces, 2016. Photograph: Shanavas Jamaluddin.

 Both exhibitions challenge the viewer by confronting our understanding of the relationship between context and the individual, highlighting the fragility of the illusion of stability. We can understand that not only is the future unforeseeable from the present perspective, but also that the past and its personal rendering – i.e. memory – is perpetually reshaped and its fading is unstoppable. Our only possibility is to be constantly working on memory, collective and personal, at the same time. An important manifestation of this is the series of collateral events, talks, conferences and presentations that accompany the exhibitions. Also, as part of the group show, we find a Reading Room with a wide selection of publications and a consultable digital archive. Obviously, as we can learn from the shows themselves, we can neither stop the fading of remembrance, nor make the future more foreseeable. However, by working on our self-understanding we can definitely strengthen our resistance against the challenging condition of the overwhelming constraints of time.

Dr. Zoltán Somhegyi is a Hungarian art historian, holding a Ph.D. in aesthetics. Based in the United Arab Emirates and teaching at the University of Sharjah, he is Middle East Editor-at-Large of ART AFRICA. (www.zoltansomhegyi.com)

‘Two Suns in a Sunset: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’ was on until 8 May 2016. ‘The Time is Out of Joint’ will be on show until 12 June 2016. Both exhibitions were shown at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE.

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