Lawrence Abu Hamdan is a familiar name on the art and biennale circuit, enlarged by solo shows at the daadgallerie (until December 2018) and Hammer Museum (Jan-May 2018), recent participation at Sharjah Biennale (2017) and Ballroom Marfa (2017) & nomination for the Jarman Award in the same year. He also often works for/with Forensic Architecture, an investigative agency based at Goldsmith’s led by architect Eyal Weizman (and a 2018 Turner Prize nominee), conducting multi-pronged research into human rights crimes and state violence.
Hamdan’s practice has really absorbing and genuinely interesting qualities, mostly appreciated in its conjunction of serious political & social matters with the (underestimated) medium of sound, away from statistics or observational visual documentation. My understanding of how much can be embedded in and extracted from recordings – and, as demonstrated in the recent exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery, also from sound memories – has grown a lot thanks to his work.
Two installations make up the show: Saydnaya (the missing 19db) was commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation in 2017 while the collection of 95 objects constituting Earwitness Inventory is his latest work. Ideas about potency of sound and its ability to retain and/or provoke lived experience have actually been fermenting for a good few years, although not exactly as preparation for any exhibition. Earwitness Theatre was preceded by the artist’s attempts to produce a radio programme for a Swedish radio station about CIA black sites (the project was paused) and a subsequent Forensic Architecture enquiry for Amnesty International, leading him to interview former detainees of the Syrian Saydnaya prison in April 2016.
The accounts of what happened during their incarceration are heavily reliant on the prisoners’ sonic memories – the inmates were prevented from seeing anything by either being blindfolded or forced to cover their eyes. Their only source of information about the activities, changes and threats in the prison were footsteps made by guards, echoes of opening and closing doors, violent beatings behind cell walls. Evidence of abhorrent crimes was entering them solely through their ears.
The question about how one converts this in to an exhibition is a complex one, and it is, of course, completely understable to ask if such material is, in fact, appropriate for aesthetic consideration in the first place. The artist explains his motivations after completing the report on Saydnaya: ‘…I still felt as though there was all of this inadmissible information that could neither really enter the news nor could it enter the law courts. So, where does this information that we don’t have a language for go?…It seemed to me that it was really important to use the space and language of art as a way to deal with this stuff that slipped through the cracks.’ This approach can be detected in the works – they are less concerned with the brutal Syrian regime and the range of its torture techniques, traumas and manipulations and more with the shift from the factual to the realm of subjects’ recollection and evocations.
There are (possibly) three parts to the gallery space – a central enclosed white room with a ramp, utter emptiness and dimness on one side of it and an assemblage of disparate objects with a silent text projection on the other side. The physical inventory comprises shoes, racks with bags and boxes, catering silver trays, a set of small wooden doors with several locks, a set of half-carpeted stairs, flatbreads, a pile of sand with a wheel, a small inflatable swimming pool, a car door jammed into a wooden frame and loads more. The items just sit there, inert, inactive, although highly conspicuous (after all, the exhibition title explicitly references theatricality and, by extension, artifice). Initially, there seems to be no logic according to which they were brought together; they are mostly typical household objects, a banal archive of unobtrusive mundanity.
The projection on the wall, however, is the key to unlocking their significance in this context. It yields its message gradually, with a muted volume button alluding to a person/people mouthing explanations in real time. The database of alphabetically arranged entries appears, listing sesame seeds, helium balloons, a popcorn maker, including the same shoes, trays and boxes, essentially everything in the space around. It becomes clear that the projection entries – and gathered objects – are here for their sonic qualities, a visualisation/physical materialisation of the research, memories and accounts that use these items to remember, provoke or contextualise particular sounds.
The listed objects are now instruments, mnemonic devices that ‘channel’ a CIA black site in Romania which was found thanks to one detainee’s memory of an omnipresent train whistle; they convey an experience of an ex-prisoner at Saydnaya who could not bring himself to rent a certain flat because its doors produced the same sound as his cell door; they ‘represent’ diggers that sound like breaking of the bread and flatbreads which, dropped on the floor, evoke the cavernous Notre Dame to starved men. A lot of what is shared is valuable information which rubs against distortions and conflations of subjective processing; the boundaries between the two are not blurred, instead they offer a more accurately fleshed out ‘image’ of the prison experience. This is where the space for emotion, fragmentation and (audience) imagination is carved out. With the gallery space in the enforced silence and with only the visual aspects of the artwork available, one has to arrive at the described sounds by themselves.
In Eyewitness Theatre, the artist stages a presentation of sounds only through text and object display. This must be his own hushed ‘library’ of sounds – potential creaks, dormant scratches, latent rumbles. The suppressed noises leave me feeling slightly paralysed; I cannot experience the acoustic memories, situations and environments that the work points to. If anything, it re-affirms my presence at the Chisenhale Gallery and my ability to perceive all the internal and external noises there. On the other hand, it could be pretentious and misleading to give these sonic accounts a more concrete form – they have a level of emotional power for their subjects that seeps way beyond the material and the physical possibilies in the gallery space.
The role of senses is reversed in the central, self-contained space housing Saydnaya (missing 19db). It is pitch black inside with a 12-minute sound piece looping all day. It concerns itself only with the Syrian prison and presents a sonic reconstruction of the interviews the artist carried out with the former prisoners. If I remember correctly, the English (translator’s) voice is female (while the prisoners were men). There are two tall, narrow ‘windows’ looking out onto deactivated choir of objects out there. You hear distressing things, about guards who used to walk around in sneakers which made little to no sound on the concrete prison floor as a way of frightening prisoners and dropping in on them unexpectedly. It was a torture of silence with sounds being severely punished; even if you were being beaten, you could not make any noise. The detainees’ tongues got so weak due to constant whispering over the years that, upon release, they spoke with great difficulty and had to train their tongue muscles again.
The interplay between presence and absence of sound (or presence and absence of sight stimuli) leads visitors through different registers and was further harnessed for Hamdan’s Tate Modern performance in October 2018 where the 95 objects were heard, not seen. Transmitting traces of the real unspeakable stories, this event as well as the Chisenhale Gallery exhibition centre on the confluence of fact, fiction, memory, testimony, endurance and impact of sound; they convert the acoustic into the visual and vice versa in order to destabilise sensory hierarchies and false autonomies.
PS – Lawrence Abu Hamdan in conversation with Stuart Comer, Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York
PS 2 – Saydnaya recreation and witnesses accounts on Amnesty International’s website: https://saydnaya.amnesty.org/?kind=explore
PS 3 – Eyal Weizman’s Violence at the Threshold of Detectability on e-flux