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Car and other creatures

Popular Culture and the City, a show held in Abu Dhabi, is a thoughtful selection, and questions the definition of popular, popular art or pop art

Car and other creatures
Jeff Koons: ‘Dipstick’, 2003-2009.

Urdu, French and some other languages perform a magical feat by transforming objects into living beings. Genders are allocated to things. As per Urdu grammar, chair is feminine while table masculine; window is female but door male; a house is referred to as a man and a hut is a woman. Yet we never understand the reason for this, apparently illogical, divide.

What if we took a step further and granted emotions and feelings to items that are lifeless? In our gardens we actually do this — by saying flowers look happy today or that some plants are feeling grim. Otherwise, we don’t ever say a watch is sad or a lamp is depressed. Although sometimes we do act as if these mechanical products were living entities. We become angry with them, adore and adopt them. Writers are seen treating laptops like their pets (if not partners); some look after their clothes and shoes as if they were family members. One has experienced agitated viewers hitting their TV screens, frustrated drivers swearing at their vehicles, workers sweet-talking to their tools.

This response to ‘materials’ is a new form of idolatry. Yet we carry on without precaution. Only because everything mankind has produced has a segment of its creator. So, one may not be surprised to come across a car that is frowning. The surprise is for later; because that car (Fat Car by Erwin Wurm) is part of an exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

Titled Popular Culture and the City, the show is being held from July 17-October 5, 2019 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, an art centre in the Gulf state, which not only includes exhibition space, but art studios for children, workshop venues, and talks on art and culture.

The display comprises “a selection of works from the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi’s collection, that embody the meaning of popular culture and its synchronistic relationship with the city”.

The show is important in many respects, because the notion of ‘popular’ in United Arab Emirates or the Middle East and the South Asia for that matter, is not what one associates with the western world, the cradle of this concept. However, this superbly curated exhibition combines various meanings of ‘popular’ in relation to multiple geographies and situations. You see Pop Art, Hard-Edge surfaces, New Paintings along with works by the artists of the Middle East region. A connecting element is the way these artists have perceived the world outside art and, in order to describe it, have relied on a language that is devoid of painterly/passionate touch.

Walking in the large exhibition area, one realises that Jeff Koons, Jacques Villegle, Frank Stella, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alighiero Boetti and Robert Hammond are not much distant from Hassan Sharif, Taysir Batniji, Rokni Haerizadeh and Wafa Hourani.

The latter artists are closer to the region in every sense of the word, but if we ignore the cultural/residential connections, all works appear in conversation with each other. Ripped layers of posters on the walls of Paris city in the art of Villegle offer a familiar sensation/scenario, besides suggesting the nature of information. A phenomenon that instead of providing, obstructs facts through its excess. In the good old days of Soviet Union, Umberto Eco had observed that one couldn’t get any news; neither in Pravda a paper controlled by the Communist state nor in The New York Times because a single copy being of 100 pages, especially on Sundays, was impossible to access in one day.

A similar statement about truth and doubt can be found in Dipstick by Koons. The sculpture seems a structure made with inflated plastic toys, but in reality, is constructed with “Polychromed aluminium, wrought iron, stainless steel”. Thus what looks light is heavy, what feels floating is fixed, what seems temporary is permanent. A depiction of our world, full of contrasts and conflicts just like Boetti’s embroidery piece (to create these he usually commissioned “Afghan artisans in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan”). Boetti’s Tutte (1988-89) refers to domestic articles of minimal importance/value with other forms that entered the life of a man, woman, child in the age of war. Thus, in that complex composition, echoing a jigsaw puzzle, one could locate a pair of scissors, metal clippers, guns, fighter planes — all denoting an altered world, which had encountered destruction and disillusion.

That shattered world has continued and is being portrayed in literature and plastic art. From laments of ancient Jews captured by the Persian empire to atrocities against a displaced community, especially the Palestinian population in the Zionist state. Hourani has created an installation with numerous structures that look like houses, but in their essence seem like makeshift arrangements. These arbitrary abodes, of Arabs under the shadow of Israel, map the situation of a people who are forced to exist as a marginalised community in their land. Shack-like structures belonging to Palestinians are rudimentary compromises in comparison to Israeli settlements. The contrast becomes clear by examining the two aquariums. In the occupied territories, fish dies due to lack of water supply but in Israeli locality water streams are jetting fully, and freely.

More than this direct message, the works of Haerizadeh and Batniji suggest the politics of popular culture. In most of mixed-media pieces of former (each called Rolling Stone, 2009) one recognises heads of animals (mainly of goat) being replaced on pictures which originate at different venues, suggesting the inhuman side of our existence. The other artist deals with the danger of wealth in a growing economy. In Imperfect Lovers by Batniji, both circles of neon convey different messages. “Two words in Arabic, tharwa thawra, are intertwined to read ‘wealth revolution’ side by side”.

Stella’s monumental painting Damascus Gate, 1970, envelopes not only the gaze of the viewer but their whole being. One travels with it, rather in it, through stripes of flat colours (hence the title, …Gate). His second work La Penna di Hu, 1984-85, a construction/combination of separate shapes and forms created with etched magnesium, aluminium wood and canvas, imbibes the artist’s position: “what you see is what you see”. If Stella deconstructs the edifice of narrative, the paintings of Haring and Basquiat challenge the established norms of aesthetics. Haring brings in graffiti into art, and Basquiat opts for imagery that is distinct for its rawness and unusualness.

A thoughtful selection, the show invokes another question related to the definition of popular; popular art; or Pop Art. For someone belonging to a country that has resolved all political conflicts, popular culture means urbanisation, industrialisation and market, and modifies the idea of taste through perpetual advertisement. Other communities, that are facing crises of economic nature, territorial wars, western hegemony, translate popular into political conditions.

Perhaps the best merger of two hemispheres/understandings is Hassan Sharif’s sculpture Spoon, 2008, made from stainless steel and copper. The scheme of turning, twisting and tacking spoons on copper rods, indicates the popularity of a banal product — spoon. It simultaneously becomes a metaphor for citizens, clinging to good life in those contorted positions, in their reality, imagination and art.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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