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LOOKING FOR ISLAM
by P.C. Smith
 
"Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking," Feb. 26-May 22, 2006, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019

Museum of Modern Art curator Fereshteh Daftari denies that "Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" is a survey of contemporary Islamic artists. Yet most of the 17 artists were born in Islamic countries (though they now live in the West), and all of their works show some Islamic influence. At the same time, the works in "Without Boundary" seem to have little in common, stylistically or in terms of content. To confuse things a bit more, two of the artists in the show, Mike Kelley and Bill Viola, are American -- though their works here are, arguably, Islamocentric.

But, while Daftari argues for multiplicity, she does organize the show around three mediums that she considers Islamic: calligraphy, miniature painting and carpets. Here, though, the artists often negate Islamic culture as much as they embrace it. "The means and strategies of all these artists," Daftari says, "defy tradition and align them with contemporary practices." Clearly, "Without Boundary" represents a kind of esthetic diaspora.

Ghada Amer, who was born in Egypt and now splits her time between New York and Paris, is an example of this kind of contradiction, with her colorful embroideries on canvas that invoke the elegance of Islamic calligraphy at the same time that her subject -- sexuality, as expressed in images from Western pornography -- distances them from Muslim cultural norms. Daftari also describes Amer’s works, which use texts as well as images, as a feminist response to Abstract Expressionism. Are Amer's dangling threads, with their superficial resemblance to paint drips, a feminist critique on the level of the work of Sue Williams or Jenny Saville?

Another artist who both embraces and subverts a native tradition is Shahzia Sikander, who was born in Pakistan and now lives in New York. Sikander makes delicate works on paper that are inspired by traditional miniature paintings -- a vocabulary that was for her reinvigorated by the influence of the work of Sigmar Polke. The works in "Without Boundary," which date from 1997-2005, include Web (2002), which integrates a leopard hunting gazelles with a fighter jet caught in a spider web between oil derricks, just for starters. Other works are wholly abstract, and draw a certain social resonance by referencing formal conditions like bordering. 

Indeed, in "Without Boundary," one feels the boundaries keenly -- and they circumscribe a contemporary Western art world with an experimental, new-media focus. Many of the artists here have New York gallery representation: Ghada Amer at Gagosian Gallery, Y.Z. Kami at Deitch Projects and Gagosian, Kutlug Ataman and Shirazeh Houshiary at Lehmann Maupin, Emily Jacir and Mona Hatoum at Alexander & Bonin, Shahzia Sikander at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Raqib Shaw at Deitch Projects, Shirin Neshat at Gladstone. The Atlas Group/Walid Raad recently exhibited at the Kitchen.

An alternative curatorial strategy would have been to introduce the established artists of Islamic countries to New York audiences. One example would be Tyeb Mehta (b. 1925), the figurative expressionist painter who currently lives and works in Mumbai, India, and whose vaguely post-Matissean "memory image" paintings have been a recent sensation at auction, with one work from 1997 selling for more than $1.5 million. Instead, Daftari has chosen to focus on the émigrés -- and their marriages of Islamic and western art forms.

Islamic calligraphy and an obsessive, ethereal Minimalism, for instance, in Shirazeh Houshiary’s Fine Frenzy (2004), a robust and astounding work on canvas that deserves its pride of place at the entrance to the exhibition. Hypnotically repeating loopy abstracted Arabic script in white pencil on a black ground, Houshiary builds up the field until it appears almost three-dimensional, like thick knitting. The geometrically complex, radiating-circle structure seems to give rise to an almost spiritual vibration. Houshiary was born in Iran and lives in London.

A second Houshiary work -- and one that is even more dramatic -- is installed in an all-white room in the center of the exhibition. Made in collaboration with Pip Horne, White Shadow (2005) is an open-latticework helical column whose contour swells and recedes, made by diagonally stacking hundreds of small, white rectangular boxes from floor to ceiling. White Shadow has the openness of molecular structure, and invokes a particularly vital aspect of Postminimalism, struggling against reifying social rectangularity with radically reimagined curving forms.

Arguably more interesting today, however, is the kind of Muslim militancy that occupies the headlines, and "Without Boundary" does offer up works that are politically engaged. It remains unclear, however, whether the works in the show actually "offer us a way out of the prison house of the culture of torture and security," as Homi Bhabha argues in his catalogue essay. Indeed, what Bhabha calls "the musèe macabre of war and terror" seems to be exactly the point.

Shirin Neshat, whose films are justly celebrated for their strikingly imagined scenarios of Iranian social passion, is represented here by earlier photographic works, also well known, that combine calligraphy with images of Iranian militancy. Speechless (1996) shows a large close-up of the right side of a woman's stern visage. In place of an earring, the barrel of a pistol emerges from her shawl, pointing at the viewer. On the photo, her face is elaborately overwritten in beautiful Persian calligraphy, with a text eulogizing religious martyrdom that in this context might suggest feminist fervor. Neshat's stark visual drama definitely has its place -- one would love to see her re-design the confused Orientalist-Modernist production of Saint-Saens' Samson and Delila at the Metropolitan Opera.

MoMA's large media gallery is given over to an atypical video installation by Kutlug Ataman, who was born in Turkey, studied art in California and recently has lived in Barcelona, Istanbul and London. In 99 Names (2002), Ataman represents Muslim feeling rising to hysteria across five screens that are suspended, skewed at tumbling angles, across the space. On all five screens, a man is seen prostrating himself over and over in frantic and almost deranged prayer. A response to the extremism of 9/11, 99 Names soon becomes unbearable.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, displayed on a pair of small, wall-mounted LCD screens, are two more sedate meditations by Ataman, black-and-white images of serenely morphing digital calligraphy that, like Houshiary’s works, demonstrate the links between western abstraction and Islamic artistic traditions.

The Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir has proved herself particularly adept at crafting specifically Palestinian political statements using the styles and forms of high Conceptual art. The work presented here, a two-channel DVD titled Ramallah/NewYork (2005), was also included in the 2005 Venice Biennale. With Warholian detachment, the work presents side-by-side videos of Palestinian small businesses -- travel agencies, corner groceries, hairdressers and cafes -- located in both Ramallah and New York. The scenes are almost identical in either place, confounding expectations that life in Ramallah, a center of Intifada in the Palestinian West Bank, would be dramatically different that that of New York.

The most direct address to Mideast politics in the show is found in the work of the Parisian-Iranian comic-book artist Marjane Satrapi. Her well-known Persepolis (2000), a kind of contemporary Iranian relative of Art Spiegelman's Maus, recounts her childhood in Tehran during the Iranian revolution. She was 10 in 1980, when her bilingual, coeducational French school was forced to close and mandatory veiling was imposed. Her drawings, done in black-and-white ink, are straightforward and effective, and the text's sensible humor is charming. Faced with Satrapi’s work, one can’t help but wonder about Muslim strictures on images of the prophet. Not only does Satrapi draw an unspecified patriarchal God with which she has childhood conversations, she also observes how he resembles Karl Marx.

The Atlas Group, an archive based in New York and Lebanon, is known for often chilling works focusing on the violence of the Lebanese civil war. The work here is comparatively bland, a group of small, framed snapshots titled We Do Not Dig Holes to Bury Ourselves (2003) and purporting to be the only known photos of a deceased, mysterious Dr. Fakhouri. Elsewhere, the Atlas Group elaborated on Fakhouri’s strange project, which involved his recording the model and color of every car used in Lebanese car bombings in 1975-90.

In fact, the entire Atlas Group enterprise is a fiction transparently constructed by artist Walid Raad, and the snapshots here are actually of Raad's father. Raad's wit about bombings could be sinister, though it should be reassuring, really. At dapper ease, smiling in his suit in front of monuments that are notably un-thronged by tourists, "Dr. Fakhouri" on European vacation represents a different, cosmopolitan face of Islam. 

The artist Mona Hatoum, a Lebanese Christian who was forced by war into exile as a teenager and now lives in London, has long specialized in surreal works that transform everyday objects into symbols of inchoate political dread, and her work in "Without Boundaries" is concentrated and memorable. Made in 1995, Hatoum’s Prayer Mat is a bed of nails in the form of a prayer rug, with a compass attached to allow the user to orient himself toward Mecca. Hatoum is also represented by Keffiah (1993-99), a version of the traditional black-and-white headscarf that was the customary costume of Yassir Arafat, here embroidered with locks of women's hair.

The photographer Shirana Shahbazi, who was born in Tehran, raised in Germany and now lives in Zurich, made a splash in the 2003 Venice Biennale with a large painting of several Madonna-like women. For the works here, Shahbazi hired carpetmakers to make prayer rugs in knotted wool and silk that reproduce her own hackneyed photo-images of beauty, the kinds of images (a portrait, a bowl of fruit, water lilies) that one might find on a Kazakhstani calendar. The result is a series of artworks that aren’t particularly interesting either as carpets or as images. This produces an uneasy un-esthetic that, weirdly, may be Shahbazi's goal.

A more clearly comic and endearing carpet in the show is by Mike Kelley, whose untitled 1997 work copies a Persian rug in the Metropolitan Museum collection, but gives it a "kelly green" ground -- presumably Irish, though here it could easily be Islamic -- and images copied from Pennsylvania Dutch hex symbols. In its apolitical unruliness -- and trademark disregard of social conventions -- Kelley’s work seems peculiarly out of place.

One of the few artists in the show who joyously embraces the life impulse is Raqib Shaw, who was born in Kashmir but lives in London. Shaw takes miniature painting's jewel-like color and precise, detailed line and applies them to a Shangri-La of polymorphous perversity at an awesome, 15-foot-tall scale. The Garden of Earthly Delights, III (2003) details a coral reef of improbable couplings, so hallucinogenically vivid as to make contemplation difficult. During the preview, a harried mother was trying to distract her whiny child with an impromptu game of find-the-lobster -- which was interesting, since the painting’s lobster is engaged in visually inventive coitus with a human female. Even the phallus spewing sperm doesn't seem objectionable in Shaw's cloisonnè Nature (one finds similar things in prayer rooms in Buddhist monasteries in Spiti).

But, finally, it’s back to meditative restraint with the compact video installation by Bill Viola, Surrender (2001), which uses the mirroring and fluid distortions of water for an expressionist effect that the artist relates to a 13th-century Persian poem. Similarly, the New York painter Y.Z. Kami, who was born in Iran, is represented here by two extra-large photorealist portraits of meditants at a Vermont retreat. The show is rounded out by one or two works by two less familiar artists, Jananne Al-Ani and Rachid Koraichi.


P. C. SMITH is an artist, recipient of a 2005 Joan Mitchell Foundation Prize, who often contributes to Art In America. Recent work by Smith can be previewed at www.photo.epson.com by entering the album name polsmit@hotmail.com.