Hole in the Head
An exhibition of modern Arab art in Doha can mean many things. The inaugural show at the MATHAF temporary space on the Corniche would not look out of place in New York or London – perhaps because most selected artists do live in one of the two cultural capitals. An installation of one of these Iraqi-born, New York-based artists, Wafaa Bilal, stood out in a remarkable and disturbing way.
The artist has surgically implanted a digital camera on the back of his head. Every minute, a picture is taken automatically, which is then uploaded on a special server where the images can be accessed and viewed. The first room shows the video of the entire process of making and inserting the camera, in graphic and gory detail. The film generates a sense of marvel at artistic dedication and endurance; an anticipation for the project’s creative potential is mounting up.
The second room is devoted to photos from Bilal’s server, featured on multiple monitors. I entered the room imagining a kaleidoscope of images, an infinite mosaic of textures, objects, and people – in other words, the richness of life. Instead, I saw a picture of overwhelming banality: fragments of ceilings and door jambs, corners of furniture, fluorescent lighting tubes, random wires on patches of grey sky. The material was so generic, it could belong to anywhere, to anyone. Is this because the view was from the back? Yet I doubt that the pictures would be much different if the artist implanted the camera onto his forehead instead.
What do we really see? How do all these meaningless fragments add up to memorable images, beautiful landscapes, lovely faces that we remember? It seems that snapshots of our daily existence by themselves are not very telling. Like random letters, they need to be processed and arranged in order to become a poem or a story.
In the introduction to the project, the artist talks about his desire “to objectively capture my past as it slips behind me”. He wanted to record life without any mediation “by the complete removal of one’s hand and eye from the photographic process”. Instead, he has proven that without mediation there is no life.