Nassiem Valamanesh’s video piece Distant Words, projected onto a central wall on the ground floor of the Crawford Art Gallery, lasts approximately five minutes, but is looped continuously to create a repetitious cycle of a day in the artist/narrator’s life. The film mixes animation, minimal sound, Arabic patterns, miniature models, and narrative told through text overlaying images in the film, as opposed to a voiceover, in an attempt to express the experience of an inability to communicate. The use of abstract Arabic patterns, which attempt to convey God’s greatness by other means than figurative depiction, and mythological mosaics, which seek to explain the values of a society by other means than direct address, fit in smartly with the narrative’s theme of communication and non-communication, expression and stunted expression. The lost voice of the narrator is taken as an emotional illness which is affecting an entire nation: that of Iran. Valamanesh himself is the Australian son of an Iranian artist, and this video piece aims to convey the experience of finding oneself cut off from a tradition.
The continuous looping of Distant Words creates a strange atmosphere in which a new day dawns and night descends every five minutes. This in a sense parallels the workings of some kinds of music, or any art whose primary ‘hook’ is the repetition or looping of its main elements. Visually, Distant Words is a highly layered piece, which explicitly invites us to explore its complex effects, such as those produced by the intricate patterns projected onto walls of miniature model cities in the video itself. Every repetition allows us to see more, while the narrative relayed to us by the large lettering on screen remains the same. The viewer is called to look around the lettering to see what the purely visual elements convey of the video’s themes. A link with music is also present in the narrative where ‘hope’ is signalled by the onset of a female voice singing an Arabic folk song. It is interesting and relevant that music is itself sometimes referred to as ‘a language above language’ or a ‘universal language’. Thus music can become communication by other means, and a tacit signal of hope. These thoughts arising from Distant Words will be confronted by the second work in the show.
While watching Distant Words it was impossible not to notice, projected behind it and to the left, images of flamboyantly dressed street musicians. These figures belong to the second work in this show (which has been skillfully curated by Rose Issa): Hassan Hajjaj’s installation, My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1. The installation consists of a video projection of nine musicians of mainly Moroccan and English residence (the two countries where Hajjaj is based), dressed in dazzlingly patterned clothing designed by Hajjaj himself. This video is housed within a make-shift viewing space, replete with upholstered Coca-Cola crates to sit on, a blue and black striped plastic rug, and two low coffee tables bearing advertising insignia (one is Hassan Hajjaj’s own artist brand logo, the other is for New Improved Baba Ijebu Aloe Vera Soap). Each projected musician is enclosed in their own rectangular window not directly in contact with the other performers, though they take turns to perform and all face in the direction of the musician who is playing at that moment. The performers are brought together from different times and spaces to play on the same ‘stage’. The fact that the crates on which the musicians sit are also those used by the audience viewing the performance creates a certain unfamiliar common ground between the ‘rock stars’ and the spectators. The Coca-Cola crates signify the interaction between cultures that commodity circulation necessarily brings about, as companies seek new markets in which to exploit labour, sell commodities and make profits. The capitalist culture is the shared culture of the world, which helps explain the fact that most of the nine musicians sing in English, or perform styles of music synonymous with western musical genres: Pop, Rap, R&B. These performances would seem to be at odds with the kind of folk music that we might expect, given all the acoustic instruments on view here.
Hajajj refers to his work as a ‘celebration of “his” culture’. However, the fact that this celebration is carried out through the means of a Pop Art aesthetic (the proliferation of branded images, and the music’s closer ties to pop rather than ethnic folk music), does not fully support this claim. The strategies of Pop Art inevitably leave the artwork on an ambiguous footing, particularly as regards its complicit or critical relationship to the commodity form. The visual aspect of the video part of Hajjaj’s installation is filled with an over-abundance of colour and patterns. This over-abundance is mesmerising to the degree that the patterned backdrops of the performers begin to resemble or mimic the pixelated quality of lower grade digital equipment. Reading the work in conjunction with Distant Words we can see how Hajjaj problematizes the hope hinted at in the video loop by offering us the veneer of Spectacle that covers the entire world under the reign of globalised capital, from the big studios to the streets.
In the last few years more and more exhibitions of Middle Eastern and North African art have been shown in the U.K., and especially in and around London. With the news media regularly reporting on political events surrounding the Arab Spring it is important that art that is from and about that region is shown in galleries in the West, hence the contemporary importance of this exhibition. Though there were only two works presented here, together they articulate the project of coming to terms with globalisation, and the difficulty of maintaining cultural traditions in its wake. Valamanesh shows us a glimpse of isolation in this world, while also trying to signal hope. Hajjaj’s piece confronts this with the collective image of his rock stars performing together, while at the same time pointing to the globalising forces of capital which stifle such promise.