Staff Review/ Subversion

Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Ben Williams explores our current exhibition…

Curated by Omar Kholeif, Subversion brings together the work of eleven artists from across a range of disciplines including animation, video, installation and photography in response to the often histriographic presentation of Arab culture. It is a collection of work that frames Middle Eastern art in a post social media era instead of within the restraints of traditional geographical, political and ethnic preconceptions.

With that in mind, you may not be as surprised as you might think to enter Gallery 1 and find yourself lost in space and surrounded by little space men. Huddled together mischievously, the space men are actually Palestinauts designed by the acclaimed Larissa Sansour. These tiny child-like vinyl figurines bearing the Palestinian flag are your amusing companions viewing Space Exodus, a short film by, and featuring, Sansour. She assumes the role of an astronaut in an intriguing pastiche of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – as things go wrong you can’t help but feel you and your Palestinaut friends are right there with her.

Gallery 2 features more work from Sansour. A Nation Estate is a series of dreamlike photographs of an imagined Palestinian state realised within a skyscraper. It’s an eye-catching piece, reminiscent of Science Fiction concept art and works well as a companion piece to the earlier work in Gallery 1’s animated installation. I’ve Heard Stories by Marwa Arsanios tells the story of the Carlton Hotel and the taboo sexual encounters which led to it’s destruction. What might have been a difficult subject is handled with a darkly humorous, if rather sad, tone. Be warned though, it does contain hard-to-get-out-of-your-head samples of Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love‘!

Gallery 3 is a ‘playground’ where visitors can ‘engage and tamper’; its open spaces and large installations are a welcome relief to the claustrophobic space oddity in Galley 1 and the more intense themes of Gallery 2. Circle of Confusion by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige is an impressive interactive work, originally a glorious aerial photograph of Beirut, the photo has been sliced into 3000 separate pieces that you’re invited to pull apart, rearrange, or even take home. Behind each slice is a large mirror which reflects your image as you pull the city apart. I took some glee in the thought of the image I viewed looking totally different when the exhibition closes. It’s a piece that would dominate most spaces but the impressive Gaza internet cafe set constructed by Kev Thornton to house Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi computer game must be seen to be believed. Finally, from outer space we end our journey sitting in a pop up cinema which houses the ironic works of Tarzan and Arab.

In summary, much of the exhibition feels like a question rather than an answer; though it addresses many themes, identity remains at the heart of everything. However, the importance of Subversion isn’t in the question, it is in the asking. There is such variety in media and tone, from the humorous and satirical Khaled Hafez’s Of Presidents and Superheroes to much more poignant work such as How I Love You by Akram Zaatari. As a visitor, I didn’t find everything completely worked, for me there is too much emphasis on video installation. But this is my own personal bugbear, and in general I found the exhibition a success.

Overall, Kholeif has hand-picked an eclectic selection of work with the intent of showcasing Arab art and culture in not-so-much a new light, but by using current trends. These have allowed artists to express individuality that is influenced by their culture rather than dictated by it. As such, Kholeif has created a collection that does not fit into the expected dialogue of what western audiences might consider ‘Arab art’. In this respect, it’s an important exhibition that I would recommend, not just for its ambition, but for its content of often interesting, and sometimes beautiful, work.

Subversion continues in Galleries 1, 2 and 3 until Tue 5 June 2012. The Galleries are open Tue – Sun and are free to visit. Do pop in and take a look for yourself.