Friday, 16 August 2013

Dublin Revisited

It's a long time since I was last in Dublin - 15 years to be precise. As a consequence I missed the Celtic tiger thing completely although the difference in the price of everything since I was last here was pretty shocking. Nevertheless, Dublin is still an absolutely great city and I think its recent financial shenanigans have given it a renewed edge that suggests a resurgence of self reliance and a customarily ironic take on the recent past.

It's still doing very nicely out of the tourists and given the amount of bars featuring live traditional music there can't be a musician in the Dublin vicinity who is ever out of work. This is great although I personally don't want to spend every night in a bar listening to music. It's partly age but I have spent a lot of time over the years with assorted folkies and musicians so I can get my fix of Irish musical tradition from my MP3 player any time I like. I am also unlikely to go to the Leprechaun Museum and while I am happy to sample the products I don't need to go on the distillery and brewery tours either.

Perhaps the assumption that tourists know little, or are expecting a very particular experience, means there is a general confinement of national promotion to very predictable areas. Coming from the land of fish and chips-the queen-London bus I get easily frustrated with this kind of thing and am on the lookout everywhere for a more contemporary and innovative take on things.

Howth Beach County Dublin 

The universals of the natural environment and beauty of a landscape that doesn't really require much human intervention to sell is fine. It's all that other human stuff. So I was delighted to find a crossroads of back streets covered in murals celebrating the whole spectrum of Irish cultural icons. This means literary giants, musicians, political and popular personalities who have had an impact on Irish society, sporting heroes, thespians and a whole lot more. Sitting at the centre of the crossroads was the organisation responsible for this magnificent display - The Icon Factory

Like Francis Bacon (see below) this artist collective manages to cram a massive amount of stuff into a small space including T-shirts, coasters, mugs, magnets, jigsaws and prints featuring a huge variety of images by Irish artists each celebrating their heritage in their own unique way.

This project highlights a lot more than the enormous scale and quality of Irish cultural output. It provides a valuable service to its own residents by attempting to beautify these otherwise unremarkable streets in which someone noted there was 'a defecation problem'. The first time I perused the murals there was the vague smell of the alley urinal but nothing out of the urban ordinary. The next time I went earlier in the day and got a sense of the parameters of the 'problem'. This really begs the question of where the public toilets are or are they only for the tourists on the main drag?

Up on Parnell Square is the Dublin City Gallery. Unusually for a gallery of this size the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity although the amount of stuff Francis Bacon crammed into his relocated studio covers both of these categories. The Bacon studio project was another real highlight. Rather than just recreate his working space there were screens with photographs and commentary on the contents of the studio. This was very well documented and put together and provided a fascinating and easy accessible insight into the man. The only problem was that only two of about eight possible screens seemed to be working.

The night before we left we went to the Abbey Theatre to see George Bernard Shaw's 1904 play Major Barbara. Still very relevant to the present in terms of the ethics of the arms trade and the compromises of both politics and faith, it featured a great set and several storming performances especially Paul McGann as Andrew Undershaft. The audience were unfortunately not as appreciative as they should have been but I think the problem was the conclusion of the play itself rather than the performances. Had  Major Barbara decided to maintain her idealism and deny pragmatism, status and acceptance of the inevitability of war I am sure the audience would have been on its feet....

Monday, 3 June 2013

Packed and ready to go

Here is the trunk all packed and ready to go. Everything that needs to be secure is secure (I hope!) and everything else can be tested and improvised on the road. When Annie and Anna come to pick it up later we just need to work out where and how the video will go and to do an unpack-display-repack rehearsal or two!

Friday, 31 May 2013

The contents and their challenges

So....  lining the case with maps and postcards was easy. In fact it took longer to come up with those ideas than it did to do the work...... actually that's a lie....  

Anyway before getting onto the main subject of this post - the contents of the trunk - I am happy to say that the third map arrived yesterday so here are a few pics of the fully lined case. Isn't it lovely?

The first thing I did in relation to contents was to scale down one of the components of my own installation in the original exhibition. The suitcase full of keys has shrunk to the size of an old cigar box and has also been modified to harmonise it with the case and to slightly expand its conceptual remit.

All the other contents of the trunk were provided so it was just a matter of working out where and how they were going to go. This has been the most difficult part of the exercise. Helen Omand's fragile cradle and Penze and Fiore's figurines in particular needed to be presented in such a way that did them justice but also gave them a lot of protection.

After lots of thinking there was a eureka moment as I remembered the delightful shop fittings, displays and accessories store that I used to frequent on Seven Sisters Road. Paid a visit and right by the door as I walked in was the answer......

Not only was this item perfect in terms of display function and size it was also half price which I knew would make the Something Human team very happy indeed. Will fix everything safely in the display case and also fix the case securely in the trunk today and post results later.

There are two other content challenges. John Clang's has been resolved by fixing an old radio aerial inside the lid of the trunk and draping his photos over it. This has several benefits. The photos can be seen from both sides, the aerial effectively creates another space / dimension to the whole spectacle and it can be neatly retracted when the trunk is on transit.

The other challenge of how to display Gloria Houng's prints may be irresolvable in the short term. However, this just means that the travelling team will have to transport and display them separately until we find a longer term solution.

I will leave you with this little abstraction....

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Maps and postcards, velcro and glue

After the initial experimentation with arrangements I emptied the trunk and using a combination of maps and Nina Feldman's postcards, covered some of the flat interior spaces. Rather than put up  whole maps, I cut them into strips and reassembled them in a grid to make things more interesting.

Despite measuring I didn't account sufficiently for overlap so ended up getting through the two maps I originally thought I would need pretty quickly. I did manage the cover the vertical lid and one of the vertical interior sections. There's another map in the post so will complete the other sections when it arrives.

I arranged some of Nina's postcards so that they covered the entire base of the trunk. This was great! I really enjoyed having the chance to look closely at all these images of Victoria Roads around the world in a way that I didn't have time for during the original exhibition. The effect is good too.

I think I have to remark already that this project would not be possible without glue and lots of Velcro. The Velcro is particularly useful - it not only enables everything to stay in place during transit but also allows for future options. All the decorated surfaces on the floor, lid and sides of the trunk are removable thanks to 25m of this.... :)

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

First Steps - Preparing the trunk

Before starting to pack there was a lot of thinking.

The main conceptual (or was it aesthetic?) challenge was harmonising the trunk in a way that made it a completely new project whilst seamlessly integrating as much of the essence of the original exhibition as possible.

The main logistical challenge was ensuring that the contents of the trunk, once definitively arranged,  would be secure enough to be thrown around, possibly on conveyor belts and planes, without moving, breaking or damaging the interior of the harmonised trunk.

When Annie delivered the trunk and most of the exhibition contents to my studio we were able to talk about possibilities and also play around a little with arrangements. The case itself, with its separate compartments, hanging area and internal covers dictated the initial possibilities. However, as soon as the red silk dress from Penzo and Fiore's piece in the original show was on its hanger we had a great focal point from which the internal arrangement of the trunk began to flow.

And that was how we got the first picture:

Thursday, 23 May 2013

WITH(OUT) is going On The Road...

WITH(OUT) was the great little exhibition curated by Something Human at the Brockspace last December which I both participated in and reviewed (see review here).

Well.... it's going on the road and the curatorial team of Something Human have asked me to prepare it for the journey. In essence it is the entirety of the WITH(OUT) exhibition condensed into a big travelling trunk which will be presented like a theatrical installation. In keeping with the nature of all journeys it will not only take things with it but will inevitably pick other things up along the way.

The trunk and some of its contents (either modified or as presented in the original exhibition) were delivered to me a few days ago. I will start working fully on the project next week and will also be photo and text documenting the process and its challenges both here and on the Something Human WITH(OUT) blog.

In the meantime here is the awesome trunk ....

Friday, 7 December 2012


"I want people to know me first as an artist and then as a Palestinian"
Tayseer Barakat. 

This statement is one of sixteen projected onto the wall of the gallery at RICH MIX London, each representing one of the sixteen Palestinian artists included in this diverse and very well presented show.

I am actually a little surprised that this show curated by Aser Al Saqqa and Nicola Gray has not received more attention. Among the artists exhibited are several internationally renowned and prize-winning veterans of the Palestinian arts scene alongside younger artists. Collectively representing Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Diaspora this show is perhaps the closest semblance of a unified Palestinian state that is currently available. Otherwise it is probably best represented by Mohammed Musallam's Torn Map.

Mohammed Musallam  

It is particularly interesting that there are so many artists from Gaza - eleven in total with nine of these still based in Gaza itself. It is something to be celebrated that artists continue to live and work in Gaza despite the pincer movement of both internal and external pressure. Any sense of this humanising normality is now largely absent from public consciousness particularly when the recurring psychotic episodes of this 'war' are accompanied by an often word for word regurgitation of infantile media simplicities and lots of pics of blood and emotion.

Walking around a room in which that same reality is presented from within and in such a completely different way, is like taking a day trip to a parallel universe that is more intelligent, more reflective and always constructive. Getting involved in the movement and colour of Dina Mattar's bright, strong abstractions of nature, for example, is a very uplifting experience.

Dina Mattar 

Mohamed Abusal's succulent Sabr is another reminder that there is nature, beauty, texture and colour that exists in perpetuity and it is this aspect of his cactus that asserts primacy with its underlying symbolism in relation to Palestine a gently understated given.

Mohamed Abusal

The strength of the work from these two artists introduces nature as one of the thematic strands running through this show. Another is text but this too is used in very different ways. Majed Shala uses Arabic text, cut up and arranged in vertical forms on canvases layered with texture and vibrant colour.

Majed Shala 

These distinctive compositions suggest classical Arabic calligraphy while  undermining the form at the same time. Nabil Anani has taken the beauty of illuminated Quranic manuscripts to produce a mixed media work that sublimely presents this ancient art in a contemporary way.

Nabil Anani (Detail)

Mohammed Al Hawajiri's three works on paper in ink and acrylic also use text in a very contemporary and free flowing style, arranged either within or as accompaniment to other Palestinian symbols and motifs. Rana Bishara's urgently brush-stroked watercolours hint at text although the movement and the medium are the message. Rima Mozayan interprets traditional motifs and pattern in two small works that communicate a subtle atmosphere of delight.

Rima Mozayan

Another theme that comes through in this show is space or rather the lack of it, a reality acute in the Palestinian experience. However, Tayseer Barakat's The Camp, although essentially depicting the architectural density and claustrophobia of a refugee camp has a quiet earthy beauty as do Shareef Sarhan's series of four small also earthy toned abstractions called Washing Line.

Raed Issa's chunky and colourful sunlit houses covered in satellite dishes reflect not just a local but an increasingly recognisable experience of condensed city life.

Raed Issa

There is a definite absence of people in this show and that is perhaps defined best by Jawad Al Malhi's 2000 work, The Presence of Absence. This barely-there figure is nicely accompanied by Hosni Radwan's barely-there face.

Jawad Al Malhi and Hosni Radwan 

The Fisherman's Daughter by Nidal Abu Oun does feature a figure but in the context of a surreal and remarkable image which received a lot of attention from the audience. There was something about it that actually brought the early work of Bahraini surrealist Abdullah Al Muharraqi to mind.

Nidal Abu Oun

The only two artists whose work does feature human figures are Hani Zurob whose two powerful paintings are another highlight of the show and Mohammed Joha. Hani Zurob was supposed to be attending the Private View of DESPITE on December 6th. However, the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen agreement so despite the fact that he now lives in France and very obviously had a reason to visit the UK he was not granted a visa. This is a shame because not only is this the first time his work has been shown in London but Between Exits, a book about his work with text by Kamal Boullata was published in London in November! 

"What I try to do when I paint is to rewrite my life; I try to place myself as a witness of the situations and the events I experience. That’s why there are no boundaries between political matters and private stories in my work". 
Hani Zurob

Last but definitely not least is Mohammed Joha. One of his pieces Four Faces has been used in the publicity for this show and it was a treat to discover that there were three more. The two I particularly liked use a mixture of paint and collage so carefully that the only way I could tell what was collage and what was paint was to have a sneaky touch when no one was looking. Who I am is a bold and dramatic Palestinian film noire contained within a a single frame. I loved it. 

Mohammed Joha

Equally impressive but for different reasons is What's behind the wall. In both of these works the medium and the story are perfectly interwoven and there are suggestions of all sorts of other cinematic and artistic preoccupations. I also loved the rusty blue car.... 

Mohammed Joha (Detail)

until December 28th

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Geometers Tale – The work of Zarah Hussain

This essay originally appeared in Araam published in Spring 2012. This beautiful publication documented the work of Zarah Hussain and Halima Cassell. The essay is reproduced here in its entirety with a postscript.

When immersed in the compelling form and distinctive colours of Zarah Hussain’s unique aesthetic, it is easy to forget that geometry is a pillar of mathematics and a cornerstone of Islamic art. In Hussain’s work geometry becomes a vibrant and very contemporary expression of the sublime and timeless beauty of abstract order. Looking more closely at the precision of angles, the exactitude of lines and repeated motifs, however, reveals underlying structures of phenomenal discipline.

First codified and named by the ancient Greeks, geometry formalised the properties and attributes of spatial relationships and, together with arithmetic, became the foundation of mathematical science. In the Islamic world eight centuries later an intense and long period of scholarship began in which Greek scientific and philosophical texts were translated into Arabic, and then absorbed, developed and disseminated. The unparalleled knowledge of astronomy in the Islamic world at that time made geometry of particular interest given its utility in the development of navigational tools such as the astrolabe. Culturally and spiritually underpinned by the Quran and its myriad references to the divine organisation of the universe and the principal realities of the order of the cosmos, it is no coincidence that the star became such an important motif in Islamic art and design.

The aesthetic that emerged emphasised the primacy of the word in the form of diverse calligraphic scripts and richly patterned Quranic manuscripts and books, while the use of tessellation and interlaced pattern on floor coverings, prayer mats, decorative carpets and ceramics was already well established. Incorporating a more rigid geometric approach to visual creativity, therefore, was intrinsically compatible with an existing sensibility that understood regularity of pattern and containment of decoration within space, be it a page, a rug or a tile. This organic rapport between Islamic worship and the art of Islam that developed over centuries is now instantly recognisable across the Islamic world. Geometry, with its simple genesis from a single circular point in space that leads to infinite planes of harmonious and perfect order, embodies both the unity and multiplicity of the universe and its creator. The repetition of Quranic verse and the supplication of prayer, the sublime order and beauty of the mosque’s tiled and carpeted interiors - all of these things are an antithesis to chaos and assist the spiritual quest to be at one with the unifying presence of the divine.

Early Work

Mosaic - Acrylic on canvas 60cm x 60cm

Zarah Hussain’s intuitive affinity with geometric form is evident from her very earliest work, created between 1997 and 2001 when she was studying History and English Literature in Manchester. This work is fascinating in terms of its negotiation between form, time and place with geometric order and pattern, combined with a brightly abstract op-art sensibility that also picks up on the emerging visual technology of the period. The net result is a series of images that suggest a digital origin but are in fact created and painted entirely by hand. This synthesis of form and disconnection of medium in relation to time is an interesting component of Zarah Hussain’s practice and approach to her subject at this time. This early body of work is important because it was the first step onto her creative path as a geometer and became the basis of her successful application to do an MA in Islamic Art in 2002.

Pink - Acrylic on canvas 111cm x 111cm

Dance -Acrylic on canvas 85cm x 85cm

The academic training received during her masters is very evident in Zarah’s first major body of work after graduation. In Handasah: Unity in Pattern, traditional geometric formality has been meticulously executed. In some cases it forms an almost palpable structural strength, while in others like Pomegranate, Twelve Fold Geometry and Radiance the viewer is drawn into the centre of the image and compelled to analyse the detailed complexity of the visual environment before being released to appreciate the whole.

 Radiance - Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 50cm diameter 2004

Pomegranate - Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 57cm x 57cm, 2004

Although Handasah uses a variety of mediums including egg tempera on gesso panels and the classical base for geometric design of ceramic tiles, most of the work ingeniously employs the unlikely medium of watercolour. This serves as a reminder of both the contemporary aspect of the work and the geographical locus of its creation. It also gives rise to the sublime delicacy of work like Inominate III and Purple Haze in which the subtlety of the medium is prioritised over the discipline of the form.

Inominate III Hand ground watercolour on khadi paper 15cm x 15cm, 2004

Beauty of Abstraction
Unlike Handasah, which contained a diversity of both medium and compositional shape, Zarah’s next major body of work, Beauty of Abstraction, was an exercise in uniformity. All of the paintings in this series were the same size (90cm x 90cm) and all were created using acrylic on canvas. There are only three or four underlying geometric structures but each one is repeated two or three times with unique variations of colour and subtle design modifications. This gives each image a consistency of shape, visual effect and colour intensity, making Beauty of Abstraction a very cohesive body of painted work.

Muscida -Acrylic on canvas, 90 x 90 cms, 2006

However, this method of taking one geometric design and revealing a number of possibilities inherent in the structure is innovatively consolidated with an animated light installation projected onto the darkened gallery wall. Linking to the past by using a design from Handasah, this slow moving image continuously builds, dissolves and rebuilds in layers and sequences of colour and light. It is as mesmerising as it is beautiful, animating not only the processes and infinite potential of geometric design, but also the sheer joy of its contemplation.

Stills from Light Projection

This freedom of movement within the form, so succinctly captured in this animation, was to have a major impact on Zarah’s next body of work, Araam.

Araam is a chronological drama in which the viewer is able to follow the artist’s unfolding debate with her geometric practice in three mediums. The first two paintings in Araam are small, multi-sided oil on gesso pieces very reminiscent of previous work in their conformity to classical geometric discipline and aesthetics. However, the next piece in the oil on gesso sequence, Green Composition, signals a change in which the self-contained elements of each geometric motif are drifting away from their central core. This gives a palpable sense of disintegration and expansion.

Green Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

The subsequent Blue Composition seems to contain the essential debate in itself as if some reassembling were needed after the dilution of the previous panel. However, while many of the individual geometries are more robust, the very act of placing them in non-tessellated and sometimes overlapping positions is another innovation on traditional form.

Blue Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

Circle Composition also contains overlapping motifs, but this time they are very mixed. Some are basic and almost transparent geometric sketches, while others are densely complex in both colour and form. There is a freedom here which suggests that the debate has been resolved, but the disparity is slightly disorientating and prompts much closer scrutiny to find an underlying structure holding it all together.

Circle Composition - Oil on gesso panel, 150cm diameter, 2010

However, it is the final piece in the oil on gesso sequence that makes the biggest visual impact. This square panel contains twenty five identical geometric rosettes with a colour code running through each line that seems both ordered and random at the same time. It demands attention and plays visual tricks but perfectly exemplifies the end of a process in which traditional has been meticulously transformed into contemporary.

Rosettes in 5x5 formation - Oil on gesso panel, 110cm x 110cm, 2010

This is consolidated by the next sequence of works in Araam in which the medium changes to gouache on paper and rosettes become the whole work instead of just a part of it. There is a joyous sense of movement and freedom in these rosette compositions. Despite their apparent simplicities, however, the works contain a challenge to the viewer who must concentrate harder to find the geometric codes that can potentially extrapolate the pattern to infinity.

Composition with 24-fold rosettes – Gouache on paper, 100cm x 70cm, 2011

The final component of Araam is another animated light projection. However, this one does not create a pre-existing pattern nor repeat its own sequence. The building blocks of the geometer’s craft are separated from any whole and projected entirely as multiple shapes in their own right. The way in which they interact is entirely random. The beauty of this work is that the viewer is able to understand and appreciate each individual shape as well as have a complete visual experience that is totally unique at the time of viewing. Mesmerising in a totally different way to what is visually static, the projection provides a subtle and beautiful closing scene in the drama of Araam.

Still from Light Projection - Araam

As noted above the book in which this essay appeared was published in Spring 2012. Since then Zarah's work has continued to develop.

As a response to being commissioned by Vital Arts to create an installation at the Royal London Hospital, she took the extraction of singular geometric motifs further by creating 3D handpainted models. Cloud was conceived in two layers: vibrantly coloured shapes on the back wall echoed in muted colours on the windows.

She is currently working on all three tracks of her practice producing a new series of paintings, a series of 3D sculptural geometries and also researching new possibilities for light projection.

Desert Night Sky - Oil on Gesso Panel, 150 x 150 cm, 2012

Reflecting the movement, wonder and infinity of the night sky, her new paintings reveal an abundance of geometric shapes dancing over an ordered background of hexagonal stars.

Isometric Wave, based on zillige tiles from the Alhambra in Spain, blurs the boundary between sculpture and painting. Each shape has 3 edges and each is painted in gradating colours creating depth and movement that transform this traditional two dimensional design into a three dimensional object.

Isometric Wave - Oil, Gesso, Wood, 120 x 180 x 3.6 cm, 2012

For more information about Zarah and her work please see her website.