Artists turn themselves inside out; fear and trembling are external hints of what is really going on beneath the skin. Yet for many creatives, their pain is visible, visceral and filled with discomforting dark phenomena they expose for our scrutiny. It is as if artists sacrifice any semblance of normality and refuse to be placated in their search for what some might see as a horrifying truth. This is a truth that can be unpalatable, edgy and threatens to unleash all that has historically been so powerfully subjugated. The installations of Grzegorz Klaman are an example of this edginess which forces the viewer to ask unpalatable questions about the world. His intense exhibition ‘Fear and Trembling was staged at the Haifa Museum of Art in 2009.
In fact, artists from the Middle East often articulate the experience of collision between cultures and experiences. It is as if some are being pressed into the gaps between east and west. These are inexorably shifting towards one another and creating overbearing pressure. This year Lahd Gallery has exhibited, amongst others, Suhair Sibai, Wadia Boutaba, and Asli Erel. These three artists are aware of these pressures. Their work expresses fissures, fault lines but also a glimpse into the molten heart of the female experience.
Their work is about struggle, about conflicting influences of disruption and complex identities. They challenge beliefs and explore notions of fear and oppression through certain iconoclastic beliefs. Suhair Sibai’s art has at its centre a locus of displacement, division. It faces the dark phenomena lurking within each one of us. We live with it but often mask internal passion, emotion and fear beneath societal expectation, tradition and ritual. These structures attempt to maintain surface calm and acceptance of an approximation less challenging than what lies beneath. These artists occupy an uncomfortable spot at the juncture of culture. This is a complex vantage point. Politically there is the residue of essentialism, otherness and absence to deal with as Wadia Boutaba’s work demonstrates. However, this focus on the domestic occurs alongside the impact of a new global political order and the highly politicised gender debate which questions the very notion of female ‘self’.
Realism is the new mimesis but still a representation with its own political agenda and subjectivity. These artists are not content to passively picture the contemporary world. A realism, a brutal line of enquiry which interrogates the ‘Why and the who says? Which challenges what mandate governments possess and for how much longer?’ Sibai’s work, for example offers up representations of strong women whose expressions are still somehow veiled by the invisible yet tangible continued misogyny evident across the globe. Elsewhere, others, such as the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo’s installation Shibboleth in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (2007-2008) investigate the dark phenomena at work in the world. Her installation was composed of a crack that ran the length of the imposing Tate Modern space. The sides of this crack were encased in a steel mesh fence. The definition of shibboleth is maybe a custom, a way of speaking a phrase, or even a style of dress that enables specific groups or classes to be racially or socially excluded. You look into the crack and see the darkness within.
Mona Hatoum also offered an even more startling insight back in 1989 with her installation ‘Light At The End’ A stunning, provocative and visceral play on the juxtaposition of light and darkness, of supposed salvation and notions of torture. There is an intense desire to come to terms with the realism of this dramatic new world order, the abuses, censorship and repressive nature which still prevail. ‘Art is praxis…an engaged stance in the historical present.’ Asli Erel understands that even making marks are loaded with symbolic meaning. We may feel it’s easy to put a mark on a page but each letter is a story in itself and the artist is acutely aware of this fact. Our artists make art in uncomfortable times.
We all struggle with concealment and revelation, truth and artifice, the experienced and the imagined. The great battles between good and evil, darkness and light, ignorance and wisdom, prejudice and tolerance, suppression and liberation, are acknowledged; Halloween being one such time; the Day of the Dead being another example.
Some contemporary artists paint with fear and trembling always, in an attempt to explore this darkness and bring it into the light.