Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Travel to Oz

The first group of tourists visited Oman in 1983. Prior to that year, an official government invitation was required for any entry. At the time, there were only two consulates in Oman, British and Indian, and the ruling sultan Said considered the country’s membership in the United Nations unnecessary and suspicious.

A few decades later, the capital of Oman has a full assortment of five-star hotels; the buses, rental cars, and even cruise ships full of tourists arrive daily. What do they see? A land of powerful strangeness: architecture that defies description and style; surrealistic mountains in the middle of the city; lush flowers on streets; multiple portraits of handsome Sultan Qaboos. “Like being in Oz”, said Laurene, as we stood at the gates of the Royal Palace.

Oman is a prosperous country, where much revenue is generated by oil exports. There are state-of-the-art roads, impeccable service industry, clean beaches, and yes, McDonald’s. But there are no skyscrapers in Muscat, no starchitect-designed museums, no mega-malls, and no déjà-vu feel of a generic international metropolis. Whether by happy coincidence, or by ingenious planning, Muscat did the right thing, and managed to retain its own unique and peculiar character.

Considering that decisions about virtually everything in Oman are made inside the Royal Palace, the Sultan Qaboos must have a special design sense – just like the legendary Wizard of Oz.