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Seeing One's Own Eyes

Contemporary art from the Middle East Author: Sine 2009

Seeing One's Own Eyes offers its audience a rich paradox, dissolving any monolithic views of 'contemporary Middle Eastern art' but instilling a strong sense of the specificity inherent to the art's identity. It is a border-crossing show, consisting of mostly powerful large-scale installations and a selection of paintings and collages.

The meeting of different moments, referents, and cultures is complicated by the impression that perceptions of the Middle East bear heavily on the identity of art made in the region. This is a richly fascinating survey and anyone with an interest in the Middle East, at any level, would do well to take a look at these views. What were the specific conditions out of which modern and contemporary art emerged? How have ideas about tradition and modernity played out in a specific context? This show looks at how definitions of tradition and modernity have shifted over time and in different national contexts in the Middle East. Curated by the new art agency 'MadeIn', the exhibition avoids any prescriptive frame and steers clear of any didactics, instead the exhibition tries to present a representative – if never comprehensive – sample of what Middle Eastern wants to br about today... wheter we like it or not.  

Outside conceptions of the Middle East today are often dominated by media images, by reports of death and destruction, and the human misery caused by long-held political and religious antagonism. This widespread conflict overshadowing the region has tended to obscure the remarkably vibrant contemporary art scene that seems to be alive and well.

There are so many powerful, authoritative and insightful works in this show that it will be difficult to mention them all. One of the most arresting and moving pieces is 'Keep me Calmed (Down)'. This installation piece consists of a floor full of broken bricks, debris, dust – it is a sight of a human shelter that lies flattened beneath you. Nothing is there, besides a yawning emptiness of destruction. Looking closer you can see the debris moving up and down in soft, slow waves, there is no calmness after the bomb.

Another eye-catching piece is 'Extermination', also a large-scale installation that consists of hundreds of military boots, respectively just the cut of front part of them, shaped to form a big empty circle. This work may be about grievance, about all the people that have suffered from the numerous wars in the region. What makes these artworks so remarkable is they transcend their context. Though all are referring in general terms to the situation in the Middle East, their art is universal in its appeal, and it doesn't depend for its effect on our knowledge of specific political or social issues.

At a distance the painted series titled 'Make-up' look like blown-up and distorted Persian miniatures, with their rich colors and delicate arabesques, but their satire is savage. Calligraphies may resemble Pollock's abstract paintings, and whether the artist's attitude to this is celebratory or critical is hard to say. The works are pretty or battle-scarred; or, maybe, tacky and clapped out, depending on how you look at it. Its abstract narrative tells a story that cannot be told rationally. The same may be true for the other paintings of the exhibition.

Another hauntingly beautiful installation piece is 'The Soul has been replaced by Anxiety' which consists of a merry-go-round. The life-size carrousel itself might allude to childhood dreams, but this piece do certainly not: Here, the carousel is a bleak and black 'deus ex machina'–turning around and around without destination. The innocence has been distorted, and the effect is both highly effective and emotional.

Bringing very diverse works together, such as the grand mixed-media collages 'Widespread' based on satire and clichéd cartoons of the Middle Eastern conflict found in publications around the world, and contrasting them with each other, the curators of 'MadeIn' set up an engaging experiment in which all viewers have to position themselves in relation to the various actions portrayed and their inevitably propagandistic point of view.

Finally, the exhibition takes its title after the installation 'SEEING ONE'S OWN EYES' – a grand circular-shaped pool carrying a boat covered with a Persian rug. The spacious installation works as an oasis, a place to rest and dream in the shades of the palm-trees that surrounds the liquid. In line with the title, this piece is a reflection on vision and optics, and self-reflection. It serves to remind us that altering ones perspective will allow and encourage the world to come into and out of focus before our eyes. THE TITLE, AS THE SHOW ITSELF, SIGNIFIES A PARADOX: OBVIOUSLY, YOU CAN ONLY SEE YOUR EYES (i.e. VIEWS) THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE, AND THAT MIGHT BASICALLY BE WHAT THE EXHIBITION WANTED TO BE ALL ABOUT. It demonstrates the exciting potential where two sides are reconciled.

The exhibition is highly affecting, and one reason for its impact is that there is no simple message. It eludes interpretation, but invokes hope.

(MadeIn is a company established in the year 2009 in Shanghai by Xu Zhen. The firm expands its diversity on the creation, support, spread and curation of art.)

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XU ZHEN® 徐震®


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