“We are not an island,
Except to whoever sees us from the sea.” –Qassim Haddad
The transformation of the place of art that took place in the 20th century seems to have been slightly more than a mere transformation of art, and philosopher of art Arthur Danto has called his process the ‘transformation of the common place’. By common place we are speaking here about the relationship between objects and meanings that takes place in the world. The classical idea of art and life, deeply rooted in traditional metaphysics, can be summarized in the Thomistic passage “Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei” (Truth is the conformity of the intellect to the things.) According to this re-working of Aristotle and Avicenna, there is an exact correspondence between things that exist in the world and the concepts we have thereof. Although this theory does not account for so much that we ignore about pre-classical art (the royal seals of Dilmun, the frescoes of Knossos or the art of the upper Paleolithic period in Europe), it is relatively consistent with the figurative tradition of art developed in Greece and that sustained itself until the rise of contemporary art, in different variations.
What is striking about this art isn’t only the epic and mythical dimension – that somehow diluted over time and was already considered a luxury by the Renaissance – but the cunning realism that elevated the human figure to a proportion so big as to assume a godly status. The problem with classical realism, however, when seen from a contemporary perspective, is that realism achieves the opposite of what its intention is: Its loyalty to reality, with its concern for representing the real and the actual, carried to the extreme of a mathematical procedure, alters and subverts the orders of reality by applying scientific rigor to art, in such way that it is undistinguishable from surrealism. The “Greek” problem has many ramifications derived from a main tenet and the question of foundations in Aristotle’s philosophy: Firstly, the development of a notion of place based on points in the dotted line or plane, that is, misunderstanding the qualities of space; secondly, and closely associated with the first, the central problem of foundations in the Western tradition: The Greeks lacked not only an idea of time and a linear concept of history, but also a creation story.
The consequences for art – and philosophy – of the poor Greek understanding of time and space, while at the same time being, in retrospective, the founders of aesthetics and the canon of formal procedures to study art – although this is only implied, as the ideas of Plato and Aristotle hardly encompassed anything other than drama and sculpture – were visible already in times of Copernicus, with the discovery of celestial bodies and the astronomical viewpoint, when the first actual concept of space emerged, posing an ineludible challenge to the human condition or, at least, to our perception of its size. A more developed concept of space emerged in the modern era that was coeval with the [attempt at the] conquest of space and the discovery of scientific premises that ultimately challenged not only Aristotle but also Newtonian physics. Hannah Arendt answers the question “Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?” with singular pessimism: “The conquest of space and the science that made it possible have come perilously close to this point. If they ever should reach it in earnest, the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.”
Art from this period – in particular Kandinsky – also reflected on the nature of these new spaces emerging with the particular achievement of science and its non-Euclidean geometries. There seemed to be something primitive about this highly modernist art: Clear lines, absurd inner lapses of space, as if in some sort of archaic writing, rather than the composite visual topographies of Impressionism. The work of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum poses a set of important questions about maps and the mapping of subjectivity in general: For Hatoum maps are unstable and boundaries somehow internal conditions summed up in the metaphor of Edward Said borrowed by Hatoum to title one of her works: “The Entire World as a Foreign Land.” Space is not properly represented by the earthly grid, and her sculpture “Globe” (2007) gives us the impression that the grid, rather than a space for freedom of movement (considered one of the fundamental human rights) is more of an encircling, boundary and metaphor for imprisonment: “You’re still here” (one of her famous works) means also “You’re behind bars.”
Space – as it can verified through learned astronomical observation – is a complex texture, and if there could be a visual metaphor for it, it would be an ocean reef rather than a flat grid on a textbook. There are different layers to which different ecosystems belong, imperceptible depths, vast uncontrollable voids out of which vital energy emerges miraculously, the light is always travelling throughout giving an impression of a horizon that yet multiplies in size and surface, depending from where you look at it. That is space. And clearly place is not space: The earthly grid would be an accurate representation of the planet if only we didn’t live our lives suspended in space and would instead move orderly across a Cartesian plan. But life is terrible, is chaotic, is uncertain, and is beautiful. It is not possible to locate adjectives on the Cartesian plan.
The realities of war, conflict, occupation and post-colonial governance make artists from the Middle East especially preoccupied with the notion of space; how do you make space your own? In the absence of strong state institutions, and the inability to distinguish between power and authority, artists often travel to imaginary lands in their work to find a fence to surround an ever so unstable and yet claustrophobic space. Many contemporary artists from the Middle East that received their art training in Western schools usually take salutary pauses to come out of what is known as the “blind spot” of the Western tradition, or in more sophisticated vocabulary, the tension – out of which the living space known as “Modernity” was born – between types of spaces and types of time: Modernity as an homogenous time, almost neo-Platonic, a “stans aeterninatis” in which paradoxically an ever recurring present swallows all the tenses without an specific geographical topology or destination.
Many of these artists find solace in Islamic art, or in classical cultures of the Ancient Near East, or in early Christianity, etc. The search for an historical home is part of a quest of acquiring an identity – as if such were possible. The challenge of the pictorial space is a crucial element of the praxis of contemporary art in which philosophy, or at least theory and art have become merged. The pictorial space that was born officially born in the Italian Quattrocento with the introduction of the canvas, those close to the revolutions of the Renaissance, still remained a highly conservative notion not only in terms of the demand for realism – that even the Romantics practiced – but also the geometrical uniformity of sources of light. To test the limits of a pictorial space without leaving the margins of painting proper is that Bahraini painter Nasser Al Yousif attempted in his watercolors(*) from 1989, conceived as academic studies on color, texture and balance. It would be a mistake to call these paintings expressionist or abstract, as the painter remains firmly anchored in a tradition in which signifiers are never lost and formal criteria of identity between the painting and its interpretandum are established.
His gesture here is not the sublimity of the gaze, as much as it is a lens – or a microscope – into what color fields would have appeared as in the architectural configuration of unstable spaces. Although the concept of color fields – a technique that has been practiced in Bahrain only by Rashid Al Khalifa and Nasser Al Yousif – is indebted to abstract expressionism, the watercolors of Al Yousif rescind abstraction in such a way that the clear lines of Kandinsky become concave and oblique surfaces that overlap with each other in the manner that a tapestry is woven rather than a lacquered painting. There is an overbearing presence of human limbs-like contours and rough-edged symbolic forms that yet aren’t archetypical or geometrical but somewhat tilted volumes. The small size of these works might be disappointing for the viewer, but that only reinforce their microscopic quality; a lens is necessary to view it properly, but the lens isn’t necessary one of the kind that enlarges images as much as one that expands signifiers until the point they become entirely palpable; this is what takes place in the rest of his paintings.
The random exercise in consciousness or the lack thereof – the myth of a disembodied self which art somehow espoused until Structuralism and that somehow has been inverted now into its total opposite – that established itself as a tour de passage from the symbolic order to the figurative order to the abstract order or that of the Absolute spirit – using Hegelian terminology – is looked upon with suspicion by Al Yousif, safely anchored in a two-fold paradox: The theme of Islamic harmony also inherited from pre-classical art thrives side by side with the doubt over the uncertainty of place and the risk of dislocation that resonates throughout the turbulent and nomadic history of the Arabian Gulf. But the Arab peoples are a consciousness without a body, and in spite of the geo-political facts, this consciousness extends beyond know borders and screams out loud in the soft quarter tones of Al Yousif’s watercolors that somehow resemble the oil paintings of Lebanese artist Mouna Sehnaoui but replacing her symbology with a full display of iconography, as if it were an Acadian syllabary.
These watercolors are often translated into the rich backgrounds that permeate his land paintings as if it were necessary to deconstruct the entire range of formal possibilities in order to arrive again at the cleanest form of presentation that is not representation: Representation – as in classical figurative painting – closes the orders of interpretation of reality, replacing them with the formal principles of art, in a dialectical relationship in which the imaginary and the narrative is absent. What does Al Yousif do if not represent? What kind of painting it is that refuses to represent? There is a search for truth here which resembles cartography, the cartography of truth! Not truth conceived as in the Western Thomistic fallacy but in the way that theologian Philip Goodchild proposed: Truth as a shared form of public power. Thus, as a vehicle for memory. Hannah Arendt insisted that it is a fallacy to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process but rather starts with an experience of truth as both the beginning and a priori of all thinking. But visual thinking is different because the process – lasting just one second and a lifetime at the same time – requires wholeness and unity of experience rather than broken units; Al Yousif’s cartography maps lands in a way that access is not denied – what usually happens in abstract painting.
The modern transformations of the place of art – and of common relationships between objects and signifiers – are not forgotten in his paintings, but rather, are dealt with in a way that does not accept at face value the rupture between symbols and signs that characterizes modern art and semantics, and this relationship re-emerges in a comprehensive narrative that evaluates critically the transformations of art with the radical openness of the bard that has been silenced nowadays by the contradictory tensions between the Greek model of representation and the aesthetics of silence – or of shock – that characterize contemporary art. There is a land, bleeding itself out of the canvas in greens as in a dance of fabrics coming out of their own margins; this land is not invisible or abstract, it is named being, with faces, with names. His cartography does not recreate maps, but a simple under-title: Bahrain is here. It will not go anywhere. A poem of Dan Pagis has a line that asserts the obvious: “Travel, travel far. You are not permitted to forget.”
(*)Watercolors by Nasser Al Yousif, Color Composition (Sleeping Feline), 17x28 cm; Color Composition #3, 10x18 cm. 1989.
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Bahrain, Middle East, Nasser Al Yousif, Hannah Arendt