Abdul Rahman Abdullah and Abdul Abdullah: WA Focus at AGWA
The future will be an interesting time – particularly for the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA). It is significant that there is something like this exhibition in AGWA. Not necessarily for the work, but for AGWA – perhaps the budgetary measures that seem to have resulted in this might actually do some good for the gallery. There is, unfortunately, something standardised about AGWA’s vision of the world, and it needs some shaking up – it does try, but there is something sad about the immovability of the gallery. I don’t think I have seen the collection substantially altered in years, or the institutional model remotely reconsidered, despite changing times (where is the online collection? where is the curation that reflects changing views of history?). But, for the time being, let us move on from polemicizing. What of the work in this space? How is it that it imparts itself so beneficially to AGWA?
I feel so extraordinarily different, torn almost, about the two works that I want to talk about. There is Abdul Rahman Abdullah’s seated child, and Abdul Abdullah’s series of photographs. As a metaphor, I think I would call my reaction to them as being like breathing – like I am holding my breath waiting for something to burst, and like I’m sighing. The contrast is extreme, for two artists who share not only a family but also a similar interest in figuration and cultural identity.
The photographs are (as much as I have searched for a more appropriate term) intense. They play a very serious game with representation, and one that is filled with volatility – anger and love and hope and fear, bound up in a wall of images that I find myself really quite affected by – and I am rarely accosted by images. Scale operates to perform this, and so does figuration, but the politics are what is given front of frame. Yet they are not as simple as initial impressions suggest - as images are often not. They are certainly made from the position of a minority for/against the majority, a parody – or rather, subversion – of the ways of seeing that cultural nationalism enforces. Benedict Anderson defined the nation as an imaginary community, but differentiated it from ideology based on its being more like a religion. That space is contested heavily in the contemporary popular Australian psyche. Highly simplistic social images are positioned in opposition, and it becomes suddenly necessary that one does not hold one and another simultaneously – at least, those who are fundamental among us would have it so. There is, I would dare to say (with only a faint hint of irony), a fundamentalist sentiment to the religion of Australia that is dangerously unaccepting, and refuses to acknowledge any notion of plurality – particularly regarding its minority groups – which really is essential, to come upon that fabled goal of justice. The images here play with the ‘othering’ that people suffer at the hands of this national regime. Yet it takes it to an extreme, presenting us with a conceptual inversion of the racism that considers Muslim people somehow degenerate. Yet these images are directed at us, at the viewer, as a an extreme and parodic fulfilment of the othering of people – at least, the frontal presentation, the direct engagement with the audience, all point to this being the case. There is some kind of antipathy in the photographs; they are, even at their most intimate and gentle, quite antagonistic to the viewer, despite their visual generosity. It is a very theatrical story that unfolds within them, to be sure, but one that implicates the viewer in the injustices of the processes of looking. Othering has been performed in visual representations in western art galleries in almost all encounters with people of other cultures; here there is here a challenging reversal: an indignant self-brutalisation of the figure – a covering of the face with the silicon mask of the non-human. Here the viewer becomes the observed, from behind the mask of the other, and the power dynamics become troubled. One is reminded of the varying use of masks in such texts as V for Vendetta, and Maus. The two texts feature them in extremely different ways that may prove beneficial comparisons to the operations it fulfils here. Art Spielgman’s graphic novel Maus features masks more suggestively similar to this body of work – the Jews during the Holocaust are presented as mice and the Germans as cats, the other nations as other animals. The animal representations in that book function similarly to the mask here – the mask does not reinforce the process of racist differentiation, but rather pointedly re-enacts it both critically and with a certain empowerment. What was a degenerative propaganda technique (of representing the Jews as mice – as vermin) becomes a device to embody narrative, and the reclamation of a history. V for Vendetta features the mask as anonymous and thereby powerful, and there is certainly a degree to which the pseudo-anonymity (for of course, we know the anonymity here is merely symbolic) of the other here becomes a position from which to enact one’s agency, to reaffirm one’s rights.
The strength of both the photographs (and the paintings) and the sculptural works feel, to me, to be in their figuration. Although non-figurative artistic gestures were thought to be (by some) the most powerful operation in the visual vocabulary at the turn of last century – the dissolution of the hierarchical space of the perspectival image being its focus – the figurative rose once again, along with photography, and the power of the image reinstated itself beside these new regimes. Though this is old (and vaguely inaccurate) news, it seems pertinent to mention it in the context of the power of the figurative that is evidenced in these works. They impress themselves onto us – and it is their figuration that does this, their figuration that reveals their content. The strength of the work is present in the space of both the photographic and painted works, and in the sculptures – the space of the human body. The portraits, or figures, do not present a recession into space, but press onto or through the surface. It is a differentiation from deep perspectival space, and one that we can parallel with Caravaggio’s employment of a similar technique. His figures were shown as if they were just in front of the picture plane, inhabiting the space not of a window, but the world. Like those paintings, these works’ inclination feels almost sculptural rather than pictorial.
The sculptures of Abdul Rahman Abdullah’s work operate at the extreme other end of the emotional register to his brothers – it is some kind of hopeful, patient elation that I gather from them. It shares the visual splendour and theatricality of the photographs, but the delicate and diminutive child is no antagonising presence. The narrative that is bound up in the work is less polemic, less playing with representation – and with less allusion. The strength of the work lies in other areas, mostly its sense of magic. I have spoken previously about Abdul Rahman Abdullah’s work in terms of an apparition of an image, and I think that a similar act has taken place here. The figure’s gaze, directed on the chandelier, or slightly above it, directs us away from the physicality of the sculpture – it is rather the sensation of expectation that this work focuses. Frozen in sculptural media, it takes on a strange kind of perpetuity – an endless recapture of a prolonged moment, which consists only in waiting. Once again, the placement of the onus on the space between the sculptural space and a rather more abstract space of patient waiting, gives the work its power. Both this work and the work in Here and Now 2015 succeed in moving themselves somewhat beyond the matter of their sculpted being. For, after a long period of formalist sculpting, the return to figuration, and not just any but hyper real figuration – and not a retrogression, but a particular development - is a clear movement away from the excessive emphasis on the material physicality of the sculpture, a recapitulation into the Pygmalion complex of the dream of the sculpture that could come alive.
The opposite end of this – in death – is presented in another sculpture I would like to mention: the carcass hanging there in space. I went in several times to look in at something closely, and then looked up to find the cut neck and gristle and blood red form looming over me. Here there is a different operation in progress. It is a sculpture that is more traditionally confined to itself, though of course through its elevation and installation it takes on a quite different task. It implies a great deal of other things, the storing of the meat, letting it hang, a whole process to do with death – a ritual – and it also engages in the discourse I mentioned above – the extreme return to figuration. It is ominous, though, to suddenly sense it hanging above you. Dead matter represented in dead matter. The sculptural suggestiveness of the other work stops here with a certain literal emphasis on the presentation of the carcass.
I have witnessed my own families’ killing of beasts many a time, the raised body, peeled of skin, upside down on a hook. The presentation of this extended moment: the hanging, after the killing, before the butchering, provides a sense of stillness, and a powerful image. The work seems suggestive of an ominous mortality of being, and its dependence, for the omnivore, on the eating of other beings. Perhaps this is an attempt to monumentalize the very flesh of that other being, to pay respects to its existence. Often the abattoir sequesters the very aliveness of our meat away from us, discretely killing far from sight. Here the visibility returns a figurative dimension to the very source of our meat in the bodies of other animals. The brutality of life and death is visualized, its very origins in the body and the flesh – yet exposed through the most plastic and artificial of materials, through a re-creation.
It is all a promising beginning for the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s focus on WA, and perhaps this budgetary measure may yet prove to give the Art Gallery its most interesting exhibitions.