IN THE NAME
There are at least three ways of finishing the title, 'In the Name ...', this installation and sculpture by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. The first is to complete it with the name of God, Allah, that was spoken by the artist's father as he slaughtered sheep in the family's backyard. In the 1980's, Halal meat was hard to find in Australia, so Abdullah's father drove him from one part of suburban Perth to another to buy live sheep to feed his family. Embracing Islam in Malaysia in 1971, Abdullah's father is a white Muslim. He plays an inspirational role for Abdullah, as dreams of his childhood come to life in sculptures of oversized insects and life-sized cats, kangaroos and buffalo, crows and doves. Such beings are almost life-like, but never lively, as they simulate the idea of an animal without being an animal. Abdullah's lambs and buffalo are too pale, his cats and insects look as if they have been lifted from storybooks. Being rather than beings, they are knowing actualisations of the unknown, indelibly imprinted upon our unconscious before we encounter them.
A second way of filling in the phrase is the beginning of the Christian blessing 'In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit' that is spoken when making the sign of the cross. For Freud, Christianity is an interesting and progressive religion because it substitutes the father for God, and God for the father. It makes Christians compelling analysands because they are so confused, incapable of distinguishing one authority from another. By contrast, in Islam the father is not one of the 99 names of God, and so for Freud Muslims are like children, free of the burdens of the Oedipus complex that compels Western society to greater heights of neurosis. There is no murdered prophet in Islam, no humanisation of Allah. In this way, as Hegel pointed out, Islam is a sublime religion, a religion that invokes a singular God, who does not come to earth or offer himself as a father figure, but reigns in invisibility. It is, as Zizek says, a feminine religion, not haunted by the father complex. No wonder, then, that so muchof Abdullah's work refers in some ways to the acts of his father, as coming out of a Muslim household in a Christian society, he establishes the place of he who is not established. For other Australians, the father's influence is taken for granted, but in a Muslim household, the father has not been ordained by Allah to play his role. He is instead a man among other men before Allah. So it is that Abdullah makes art of and for his father, in order to establish his place amidst a neurotic Western culture. Rather than trying to martyr his father, to overcome him as Freud would have it, Abdullah instead shows love for his father. He regularly speaks of his time growing up, of dreaming of his childhood home, and it is this home that he brings into the homeless apparitions of the artworld.
The third meaning of 'In the Name ... ' is the contemporary. For as Abdullah aspires to bridge the gap between his situation and that of Australian contemporary art, between the Muslim and the Christian-Western culture that surrounds him, he only demonstrates their differences. For if, as Freud claims, Muslims are stuck in a pre-Oedipal phase of their lives, if they have no father complex, then like children they can only make contemporary art, an art of the present moment. The 'stuckness' of Islam that Freud wrote about, its refusal to confuse Allah with fathers and sons, puts it beyond time, beyond the past and future. Islam presents the state that contemporary art aspires to. Christian-Western artists can never be contemporary in this sense, but must always make art that comes before or after the present moment, as they attempt to overcome the father. This is precisely why modernism looms so large in Western art, as it presents an endless overcoming of one's forebears. It also explains why slaughtered animals are so numerous in the history of Western painting, from Rembrandt to Soutine. Such images are provocative because they stand for the violence of the slaughter. Abdullah's silicone sculpture of the same however is not realism. It has more in common with Claus Oldenberg's inflatable foods than to Francis Bacon's painterly angst, inviting us rather than shocking us, born of everyday experience rather than leering at us from the realms of the repressed. So that while, at first glance, the slaughtered sheep here stands on the one hand for Christian and Muslim monotheisms, making visible their differences, it ultimately glosses both.
The glossy surface of this skinned animal, its blurry blues, reds and whites, is more hyper-realistic than realistic. The conceptual edifices of the West and Islam resonate through its silicone, but as Steve Baker puts it, the animal holds to its own form in an 'unmeaning thereness', an intimation not of what we know but of the unknowingness of the animal. Unlike the hyper-realism of such Australian sculptors as Patricia Piccinini and Ron Mueck, Abdullah's animals are not fabricated to convey detail but generality, to lack individuality, so that they do not know who or what they are. The burden of the animal lies with us, with those who share the world with them, who slaughter them, and who turn them into metaphors of their own neuroses. In this sense 'In the Name ... ' is a key to Abdullah's oeuvre, as it foregrounds those anxieties that simmer in his sculptures of living animals, but which are also sublimated by their beauty. Through 'In the Name ... ' it is also possible to begin to think through how it is that contemporary art functions in relation to religion, as its superficiality turns theology into gloss, and puts the gloss back into religion.
Catalogue Essay - Dr Darren Jorgensen