Thursday, 5 March 2009

Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, the Saatchi Gallery

‘Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East’ at the Saatchi Gallery confirms expectations: it is both exciting and utterly disappointing. It does to a certain extent bring emerging artists to a new audience and features a few works of exception such as Diane Al Hadid’s apocalyptic and futurist, yet coral-like sculpture The Tower of Infinite Problems (2008) and Shadi Ghadirian’s tongue in cheek reordering of female representation, veiling household utensils, in Everyday life series (2000-2001). Nonetheless, beyond the fact that Saatchi was naturally castigated by critics, as all prominent figures invariably are, the show still falls flat on its face with all the bravado of a slapstick comedian demonstrating a new trick. Whilst the myriad crowd flocking to the palatial temple-like gallery as the rabble to the sermon reveals the following that Saatchi has inspired - only the priggish observer cannot celebrate that fact- the show remains a poorly curated clumpy whole that stops short of instituting any real discussion with current creative practices from the Middle-East.
The title is in itself emblematic of the show’s paradoxical failure to shed light on contemporary art from the region as it apparently sets out to do. ‘Unveiled’ jumps headlong into the trap it intends to flag-post. Lisa Farjam writes - intelligently and convincingly - of dismissing pre-conceived ideas of the Middle-East and of surpassing the ‘magic’ of the fetish, yet the veil remains a poignant and obtuse, often misused symbol, that obfuscates any other aspect of Middle Eastern culture. Why then, this very title? The perplexing title is indeed unoriginal and ignorant if not shameful and borderline colonialist. Art from the Middle East, has, in fact, already been ‘unveiled’ – if unveiled it ever needed to be - and has been the subject of very interesting curatorial endeavours both within and beyond the Middle East such as ‘The Iraqi Equation’ and ‘Tam├íss’, both curated by Catherine David.
‘Unveiled’ predominantly features tedious painting that over-estimates it’s own potential. A lot of the work is dependent on the exotic allure of the Middle East to sustain any interest, such as Shirin Fakhim’s unoriginal Tehran prostitute figures of stuffed tights, leather boots and provocative underwear. From the disappointing selection of work on display, Kader Attia’s Ghost (2007) is one of the few works of interest. Row upon careful row of cavernous figures modelled out of a skin or shroud of aluminium foil kneel as if in prayer. As an Algerian artist living in Paris, Kader Attia’s work hinges on a complex interplay of nationalism, identity and religion. Islam in post-independence Algeria came to be synonymous with nationalist fervour directed against the Western ideals of its former colonial oppressor, whilst the dirty civil war from which the country is today emerging is rooted in such ideology. Exhibited in the limiting space of a corridor-like room the work looses its poetic poignancy instead becoming mere spectacle. Spectre (2006-2008), Marwan Rechmaoui’s replica of a now evacuated apartment building in which the Lebanese artist resided, speaks in volumes of twisting, haunting desolation consequence of a bloody war. Her work echoes with Jalal Touffic and Walid Raad’s idea of the ‘surpassing disaster’. Spectre indeed responds to intellectual and physical realities specific to Beirut and Lebanon whilst echoing nonetheless with wider aesthetic concerns such as that of Brutalist architecture.
To focus on 19 artists from different Middle Eastern countries is to suppose an affinity between their diverging experiences. However, in a pluralized global world with an ever-widening art market it is difficult to sustain such an argument unless the exhibition is thematic. It is perhaps rather our keyhole perspective as Westerners that is the common denominator. The unfortunate reality is that the common visitor to ‘Unveiled’ is starved of information concerning the subtleties of Middle Eastern society and culture, and let alone its contemporary art scene, as Said demonstrates in ‘Covering Islam’. In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed rule.