On Post-irony, Parafiction, and Other Distortions: Sahar Khraibani in Conversation with Hicham Faraj

Hicham Faraj is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer currently based in New York City. He holds an MFA from the Yale School of Art. Faraj’s work deals with friction and dissonance in an age governed by technologies seeking to eliminate them. He explores serious questions on the tension between the human and the post-human with a rather casual and humorous tone. He recently sat down with Sahar Khraibani to talk about post-irony and parafiction, repetition and immortality, and other distortions of time in the Internet age.

Sahar Khraibani (Degree Critical): You talk about post-irony and “parafiction” in your work. Can you tell me a little bit more about these concepts and how you apply them?

Hicham Faraj: I discovered post-irony independently of my work. I was in conversation with my colleagues at the Yale School of Art in 2017 that were engaging with research on post-irony, and the concept resonated with what I was working on at the time. One aspect of post-irony is that it is almost impossible to decipher people’s intentions. I grappled with the inability to tell whether someone is being sincere or being ironic in their statements. We witness many instances of post-irony online, with the way people engage with social media platforms, and the way they share their opinions or worldviews. I think there’s something very ironic about the Internet and social media in general. It’s a great platform for people to be ironic. The way I see it manifest with my work is less about how my work makes people feel but mostly in the way I describe other people’s work or the way I approach it.

DC: What do you mean by that?

HF: I frequently use the adjective “cute” to express my opinion about a project, or an artwork. While my intentions are sincere, they are often mistaken for being ironic, crass or indifferent. The misapprehension of intentions — what makes this situation post-ironic — is the result of the underlying ambiguity of cute. The term cute has three definitions. Cute can mean attractive in a pretty or endearing way, or sexually attractive. But cute can also be defined as cunning and clever, especially in a self-seeking or superficial way. The last definition itself sounds pretty ironic but it’s the only one that comes close to the original meaning of “cute,” which first appeared in English in the 18th century as an abbreviation of “acute,” which also meant sharp or clever. But it seems that over the years the word’s slang meaning caught on and the aesthetic sense has overtaken the intellectual values. Because of its ubiquity in teen magazines, and more recently, the Internet, “cute” is now chiefly used to refer to things we find attractive due to their tiny sizes, fluffiness, and irresistible smiles.

But I’ve also been using “cute” to describe work that isn’t meant to bring out a similar reaction to the one expected when looking at a video of a baby panda sneezing. My confusing choice of words spurs a knee-jerk, pejorative reaction that leaves me wondering about my real intentions in the first place. Have I been using it to mean clever and sharp? Is it a reaction expressive of my attraction to the aesthetic value of the artwork in question the same way I might use it to describe someone’s physical appearance? Could it be my own version of the equally dreaded yet possibly less problematic adjective “interesting?” Maybe I’m not as sincere as I thought I was.

DC: So how does “parafiction” function in relation to this? How does it manifest itself?

HF: What’s interesting to me about parafiction, very similarly to post-irony, is again the incapacity of being able to tell what one thing is. With post-irony, you can’t tell the real intentions behind something, with parafiction you can’t really tell if something is true or false. In my opinion, what makes parafiction successful is that something feels visceral and real, but then you come across minute details that make you question this reality. Parafiction is a term used to describe an emergent genre of artwork that plays in the overlap between fact and fiction. If a parafiction operates within that space between the fictional and the real, alongside this term we might position a second one: a “parafact,” an artwork that draws from the real, but a real whose narrative is so curious, exquisite, or implausible so as to call into question its own veracity. In my work, parafiction and post-irony are major influences. But my work doesn’t quite fit any of these categories fully. This is best embodied in the Immortality Record (2018).

DC: Can you tell me more about the Immortality Record?

HF: It’s a project that was a culmination of a lot of ideas and references related to immortality that I was exploring at the time. The main inspiration for the record was Shin Kubota, a Japanese marine biologist who researches the Turritopsis polyps[1]—the immortal jellyfish—and who also writes karaoke songs about the jellyfish and dresses up as a jellyfish to perform them in karaoke bars in Japan. The relationship between his research and music was intriguing, so I started looking at immortality through the lens of music. In pop songs, the theme of eternity or eternal/immortal love is very relevant. There are so many songs that talk about being immortal in their lyrics. The other influence came about when I was looking into immortality and reading biomedical research about cryonics,[2] rejuvenation, and blood transfusion. I was also looking at online life hacks on how to live longer. Those were more spiritual: drink more tea, look at more art, laugh more often, and finally, listen to more music. All these different references came together and I created the Immortality Record. The record had 12 songs that went chronologically backward from the most recent song to the oldest. They were all pop songs about love that included the word “forever” in the title. The record mimicked the life cycle of the immortal jellyfish and came with the premise that if you listen to it repeatedly, you would keep going back and forth in time, extending your life. In that sense, maybe the record works and fulfills its mission, but it’s a very exaggerated form of parafiction. The balance between fiction and reality here is steeper, and it’s more obviously fiction than it is fact.

Hicham Faraj, Outside Unit A5 (2017). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Your work operates under specific themes, and you tend to think a lot about a certain idea—shadows, smudges, repetitions— and then create a body of work in relation it. I’m interested in knowing more about two of your projects Outside Unit A5 (2017) and Do you feel alone? (2017).

HF: When I start working on a project, there’s always a formal interest at the beginning. I try as much as possible—and that’s when I feel like I’m being the most successful—to follow where that takes me without being influenced by the ultimate formal result. And I think that was the case with shadows. I was initially just interested in silhouettes of shadows, but as I looked more deeply into them I started getting bored of the formal aspect, and became more interested in the verb “shadow” or what it means to shadow someone and follow them around. Do you feel alone? came from the idea of being watched all the time, or being followed around. It references different contemporary situations, the myth of being constantly watched through your webcam, or receiving targeted advertising, or walking alone at night and feeling as if someone is following you. It also references self-help books. At a time where people are talking and thinking about what it means to be lonely today, the short clip started off as a self-help audio book. Its purpose is to assuage the feeling of loneliness, to make you feel better, and to tell you that you’re not alone. But it’s not telling you this in the sense where you have friends you can reach out to, it’s telling you that you’re not alone because so many people are watching you—the Internet is watching you.

DC: Did this come after working on Outside Unit A5?

HF: It actually came before it and is what prompted Outside Unit A5. When I started becoming interested in shadows, and dove deeper into the topic, the research made me think more about digital surveillance and being watched by other people online. It was post-human in a way. Outside Unit A5 was a complete opposite reaction to that, where I was trying to actually get the attention of my neighbor in New Haven.

My neighbor would always leave their shoes outside the door of their apartment. For some reason, I started taking pictures and documenting their shoes whenever I would leave or come back. At the time I wasn’t working on shadows yet. But when I started researching and working with shadows formally, I looked back at these images and realized that the shoes themselves were an indexical image of my neighbor the same way your shadow is your indexical image—a trace we leave behind. I also noticed that my action of photographing the shoes was in and of itself an act of shadowing my neighbor. I wanted to push that and I wanted to make it a point to find out who my neighbor is just by looking at their shoes and putting clues together. The first step for me was to embody the persona of a private investigator instead of calling myself an artist. I started paying more attention to the habits of my neighbor and the traces of things they left behind until I was actually able to find out whom they were. Once I found out I wanted to reveal myself, which is ironic because I was functioning under the secrecy of a private investigator.

DC: Did calling yourself a private investigator make you approach the work differently? Why did you feel the need to work on this under the guise of an investigator?

HF: I think it was a way to exaggerate the fictional aspect of the project. At the end of the day, I was fetishizing this idea of them leaving their shoes outside when it’s actually a very normal habit. I wanted to exaggerate the shadowing aspect of the work and to push it to its limits. How far could I really go with this? I exaggerated this habit and I wanted to add to the fictional aspect of the work by pretending that I was a private investigator.

DC: What were you reading at the time you were working on these projects, or what were your influences? Whose work were you researching?

HF: At the time I was taking a class at Yale School of Art about German cinema in the 70s and the 80s, and we were looking and thinking about movies by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Haneke. Voyeurism is a big theme in their films. There are a lot of mirrors, the characters were often very melodramatic, and there’s always an aspect of sensationalized violence, or a characteristic of just being watched and looked at. With Haneke’s movies there’s always a feeling of things being on the verge of crashing, or moments of high tension. These influences made me want to tap into things that made me a little less comfortable in my practice. Like putting myself in situations of being a character in a movie. I think that’s why I wanted to exaggerate the fictional elements in the work.

DC: For a while, you did a lot of work about smudges like Compulsory Figures (2018). How did that come about and how did you become interested in smudges? How did you take this almost mundane aspect of everyday life—smudging your phone surface with your fingerprints—and conceptualize it? What was it about these smudges that made you interested?

HF: I always have an interest in one thing and then I let it guide me. With the case of smudges, my interest started with videos of figure skaters falling down. I was really interested in the emotional repercussions of the fall. There’s a millisecond, a tiny mistake, when they fall down, and it breaks the whole illusion of elegance that they are creating. The gracefulness of their movement gets interrupted. Because of the way figure skating is broadcast on TV, a tiny mistake gets extended in time, slowed down, repeated over and over again and there’s nothing the skater can do about it. As I was watching these videos, my attention started shifting from the figure skaters to the surface of the ice. When the lights hit the ice surface, I noticed how flawed the surface becomes with all the skate marks. You can see all the flaws in what otherwise seems to be like a smooth and pristine surface. I was able to create an analogy between something that I know nothing about and something that I do every day: browsing on my phone. That moment when I noticed the ice reminded me of moments where I’d be on my phone and I would notice how smudged the surface of the screen is because of the cracks and the fingerprints on it. And then I realized that the way I slide my fingers on a screen is somewhat similar to the way a figure skater moves on ice. For the longest time, I thought there was something so romantic and beautiful about the way we use our phones but I wasn’t able to pin it down. I was afraid that I was romanticizing and sensationalizing an everyday activity. And I think being able to draw this comparison with figure skaters gave me an excuse to explore this further, and look at the romantic aspect of how we use this technology.

DC: Can you tell me more about this worry of sensationalizing an everyday activity or a repetition of some form?

HF: What’s interesting about repetition is the fact that there’s something satisfying about an action being repeated. It gives one a sense of order, perhaps even some sense of control. There’s also something very visual and systematic about it. My interest in repetition is a result of a broader interest in time, and this is where immortality comes in. One way I witness repetition and deal with it in my work is through animated GIFs. There are so many types of GIFs. There are some that repeat seamlessly where you can’t tell when it starts and when it ends, but then there are the more humorous GIFs, normally sampled out of videos, where it abruptly stops and then begins again. When I interviewed John Williams, Associate Professor of English at Yale, he told me that there’s something childish about these GIFs but that doesn’t make them less entertaining or humorous for adults. That’s a small example of the satisfaction you can get from repetition.

Hicham Faraj, Any (2018). Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Is this what prompted your web-series Any (2018)?

HF: In a way, yes. When you repeat something an excessive amount of times, it becomes comical, for many different reasons. You begin noticing underlying and less obvious aspects of what you are scrutinizing. It’s all about temporal measures. I created the web-series Any with artist Ingrid Chen, and it also relates to repetition, and the exploration of how we experience time. There are three episodes so far and we essentially deconstructed the trope of online tutorials of unboxing consumer goods, cooking videos and other instructional videos that are taken from a top view camera where you can only see the hands of the performer. It’s called Anybecause these hands can signify anyone and can do anything. The first episode is from the point of view of the viewer watching the video, and how for them the person behind the scene is anonymous. Essentially, these hands become yours, and your phone screen where you’re watching becomes a cheap and dissonant portal into a different life. As you hold your phone screen, your hands disappear behind it and they emerge again in the screen through the video. The second episode is from the point of view of the person making the video. We found the subculture of unboxing videos where the people who perform for the camera have very elaborate nail art—their hands are the only way to show their identity in these videos. Conversely, in more mainstream tutorials the hands are supposed to be as neutral as possible. The third episode of Any was more of a speculation on virtual reality in relation to these videos. We were noticing how most applications of virtual reality today take on our human perspective. When you put an AI mask on you are transported to a different constructed reality but you still have somewhat of a linear perspective—the same you would experience it in your natural environment. We were speculating on a virtual reality that takes on other perspectives, like the very unnatural perspective of a top view, or omnipresent perspective. These tutorials bend time: an activity that normally takes a long time such as baking a cake would take 30 seconds on a cooking tutorial and is made to look so easy. Whereas an activity that normally takes 30 seconds such as unboxing, is extended to a 20-minute tutorial video. Time is warped in that sense. Tasks that we find laborious or difficult in real life are made to look easy, whereas tasks that are simple are extended. The excessive amount of these videos that you can find online relates to this repetition, you get to live vicariously through these hands and these videos. The Internet can stop time.

[1] Turritopsis polyps is a species of small jellyfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and in the waters of Japan. It is one of the few known cases of animals capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature, colonial stage after having reaching maturity as a solitary individual. This process can go on indefinitely, effectively rendering the jellyfish biologically immortal.

[2] Cryonics is the low-temperature freezing of a human corpse, with the hope that resuscitation may be possible in the future.


Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee at the Met Breuer

This piece first appeared on  degreecritical.com

Mrinalini Mukjerjee, Installation view. Left to right: “Basanti (She of Spring),” 1984; “Yakshi (Female Forest Deity),” 1984; “Pakshi (Bird),” 1985; “Rudra (Deity of Terror),” 1982; and “Devi (Goddess),” 1982. Courtesy of Met Breuer.

Mysterious, sensual, grotesque: Mrinalini Mukherjee’s works in Phenomenal Nature, currently on view at the Met Breuer, are commanding in their scale and dominant in their presence. Organized by Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibition marks the artist’s first retrospective in the United States, bringing together fifty-seven works spanning her forty year career, exploring her engagement with fiber, along with her significant forays into ceramic and bronze.

Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949–2015) who worked intensively with fiber, was among a group of post-Independence Indian artists who did not abide by the then dominant tradition of figure painting. While nonrepresentational forms of fiber art emerged in the West in the 1960s and ‘70s, Mukherjee was never part of that movement. She worked instead in near isolation in India, integrating traditional craft techniques with a Modernist visual vocabulary. 

The unconventional exhibition layout creates a labyrinthine, fantastical backdrop for her work. A grey stage curtain, envisioned by the exhibition designer Alejandro Stein, snakes through the entire gallery, enhancing drama. The works are democratically positioned next to one another, with some suspended from the ceiling or spilling onto the floor without a base. Written or archival material is absent from the show; the viewer walks through guided by the works. No solid walls or barriers separate the different phases of Mukherjee’s work. This disorientation, however, serves a purpose. The tensile presence of the artist’s intricately woven objects draws the viewer through in a spellbinding trance, like walking through a dense forest. 

The artist’s appreciation for the natural world may be traced to a childhood spent between the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas in Dehradum where her mother Leela (also an artist) taught at an all-girl’s school, and the rustic landscape of Santiniketan, West Bengal, where her father, the legendary scholar-artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, taught at Visva Bharati University. At age sixteen, Mukherjee enrolled at Maharaja Sayajirao University, where she earned a diploma in painting in 1970. She then studied mural design under her father’s former student K. G. Subramanyan, who advocated for engagement with the entire spectrum of historically Indian artistic and craft traditions, and encouraged the use of unconventional materials and techniques. Mukherjee’s attraction to fiber stemmed from this mentorship, where she was pushed outside the studio to find inspiration in earthly materials. Her earliest works were wall hangings evocative of scenery or flowering vine species.

Left to right: Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Black Formation (1977), Waterfall (1975), and Squirrel (1972). Image: Ben Davis.
The diverse references that populate her imagery go well beyond the representational to trouble the divide between figuration and abstraction. Using the tactile and laborious process of working with her hands, the artist’s forms draw attention to the marvels of growth and fruition in the natural world. Lotus Pond (1995), made up of thirteen terra cotta components with shifting earth tones, hints at the gradation apparent in nature. By deploying different kiln temperatures, she achieved a variation in hues that occurs through natural means. As with her early fiber sculptures, Mukherjee drew on floral. Some of the lotuses’ gaping buds and crevices resemble open mouths, while others are covered with twirling, petal-like foliage. On the other hand, some of her earliest fiber pieces, including Squirrel (1972), the first work on view at the entrance of the exhibition, are a testament to Mukherjee’s interest in the relationship between figuration and abstraction. The three-dimensionality of Squirrel, a bricolage creature with a crocheted head and a carpet-brush body, hangs by its tail from a net of loose jute, and appears to emerge from a knitted backdrop. Squirrel is Mukherjee’s first animal form, and foreshadows her later fiber works, which exist somewhere between the realms of plant and creature.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Rudra (Deity of Terror) (1982). Photo: Ben Davis.
Representations of forest spirits and nymphs are part of the traditional iconography that the artist observed at temples and roadside shrines during her frequent travels, and later adopted in her fiber works. However, her evocation of such iconography is interpretative rather than imitative. Her biomorphic objects were symbols of metamorphosis, transfiguration, and a new way of looking at the natural world. She saw nature as a living thing: fertile, aggressive, and at times, erotic. Her extravagant and inventive visual language communicates irrepressible growth that is both grandiose and terrifying. Rudra (Deity of Terror) (1982) is a prime example of this interpretive and authoritative effort. The imposing, purple-hued fiber sculpture refers to the deity in the sacred Indian text Rig Veda, who personifies horror. Mukherjee was not timid about pushing her works into the realm of the frightening to induce a sense of awe in her viewers. Rudra’s central cavity stretches out symmetrically and extends into long tassels that pour forth onto the ground. The artifice and grandeur of Rudra suggests that of theatrical costumes seen in the classical Indian dance form Kathakali, which are sometimes used to project reverence, and occasionally fear, to their audiences.

In the second half of the 1990s, Mukherjee’s output of fiber sculptures diminished. A number of factors hindered her production: working with fiber was physically demanding; the manufacture of the rope that Mukherjee preferred was altered, the material now combined with synthetic fibers; and a ban was imposed on the dyeing units she needed to achieve her colors. As her production of fiber works decreased, she found refuge in ceramics. Unlike knotting rope, which was slow but malleable, allowing for control of the work’s form, handling clay required Mukherjee’s immediate reactivity and attention. Her transition to other media was not a rupture from fiber, but rather a continuation of her process of using natural materials. She worked additively by layering individual slabs of clay, and her use of contrasting glazes enlivened the ceramic works and heightened their artifice. Late works such as Outcrop VI (2007-8) and Palmscape (2013) demonstrate her layering of leafy scapes to create an invented species. These final works reversed the weight of her fiber sculptures: her bronzes appear not to wrestle with gravity at all.

Left to right, “Devi (Goddess),” 1982; “Lotus Pond,” 1995; “Vanshri (Woman and Tree),” 1994. Photo: Brittainy Newman/The New York Times.

Throughout her career, Mukherjee created extraordinarily diverse forms that bring forth the phenomenal forces of nature—lush, expandable, all consuming, and eventually, deteriorating. Phenomenal Nature demonstrates the artist’s radical interventions in her adaptation of craft, creating a new approach to modernism. Transgressing art-historical categories and imbued with contemporary ethos, they bask in undoing the distinction between the traditional and the modern, and blur the line between what is known and what can be imagined.

Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee remains on view through September 29th at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York


Simone Fattal:
Work and Days
at MoMA PS1

This article first appeared on degreecritical.com

Start with the legs: thick, long, bowed, and unwieldy with texture resembling crusty cement on an unfinished sidewalk, or trunks of trees hemmed and ringed by time. Man and Companion(2004), one of Simone Fattal’s glazed terracotta and stoneware figures currently on view in “Simone Fattal: Works and Days” at MoMA PS1, bares the marks of the human hand—raggedy surfaces locked under a glistening coat. It is the case with most, if not all of her figures that their impurities engender a freedom in expression, a letting go of perfection akin to the waters of a torrential rainstorm leaving sudden and ravishing traces on sodden earth. The retrospective, curated by Ruba Katrib, is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.

Fattal’s work is influenced by the myriad ways history shapes individual lives and desolates landscapes, and her practice is informed in part by her own diasporic experiences. Born in 1942 in Damascus, Syria, she was raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where she studied philosophy at the École des Lettres before moving to Paris. She continued her philosophical studies at the Sorbonne until 1969, when she returned to Beirut and began producing visual work, exhibiting paintings and watercolors locally until the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. “In 1980 I realized that the civil war was not going to end, so I decided to leave,” explained the artist during a recent talk at PS1, of her decision to flee Lebanon and settle in California. There, Fattal gave up her painting practice and launched the Post-Apollo Press—a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary work. In 1988, with the publishing house thriving, she enrolled in a course at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which prompted a return to her artistic practice—only this time in a newfound medium: sculpture and ceramics.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days, on view at MoMA PS1 through September 2, 2019 (Artwork courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York; Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus)

“Works and Days,” which opened March 31st and continues through the summer, brings together a selection of over 200 abstract and figurative ceramic sculptures, paintings, and collages Fattal has created over the last five decades. Drawing from a range of sources and themes that resonate across the artist’s multifaceted practice, the body of work she has produced touches on geopolitical conflicts, landscape painting, ancient history, mythology, and Sufi poetry to explore the impact of displacement as well as the politics of archeology and excavation.

The show opens with Fattal’s first sculpture, Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut, (1988), a marble torso that resembles archaeological objects native to her region of the Middle East. Deliberately choosing alabaster stone for this first sculpture, the artist said she felt guided by her senses and she worked on it gently, allowing its natural forms to direct her process. Her partner, poet and artist Etel Adnan, has written about Fattal’s encounter with this stone that:

“The pink alabaster, luminous, almost sensual, had become the bust of a statue one would have found on an archeological site, only this time the archeology was of a contemporary site. It was as if the war, which was still ravaging Lebanon thousands of miles away, was fusing with this unique piece.” [1]

Simone Fattal. Man and his shadow. 2009.
Courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York;
Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles

Standing characters are a recurring theme in Fattal’s work. At the beginning they were small, and she used Adam, the first man, as an early reference point. In the late 1980s, Fattal had immersed herself in Sufism, and Islamic mysticism, and as Adam was known by Muslim mystics to have been very tall. She soon started creating taller sculptures, with very long legs and disproportionate bodies. This prototype informed the works that followed. Her Standing Man(2012) is an example of the imprint that her first sculpture left: the atrophied heads and textured bodies makes these figures look as though they’ve weathered a great storm. Since she considers many of her standing figures “warriors,” they are rendered in a way that shows that they’ve survived. In her figurative sculptures, clay figures are rendered with just enough detail to be recognized as human attuning the viewer to the body’s fragility.

While working at Hans Spinner’s workspace in Grasse, France in 2006, Fattal had access to a large garden space, allowing her to create pieces of increased size. She made figures as tall as she could; characters who seem to come out of the mythology deriving from the Mesopotamian region in Syria. An ancient culture founded in the Mesopotamia region of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sumerians are considered the creators of modern civilization as we understand it. But her sculptures, while reminiscent of ancient times, are simultaneously of today. For Fattal, history is continuous, and her practice involves a process of recovery. However, it is not only recovery but also a protest against forgetting.

Fattal’s influences come from epic historical texts as well as poetry, rather than a sculptural lineage. While in Grasse, Fattal made two works, The Guard (2006) and The Wounded Warrior (2008), two characters from the epic of Dhat al-Himma, each one-and-a-half meters high. The Dhat al-Himma is a little-known Arabian epic from the seventh or eighth century that depicts events that occurred under the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, a period made legendary by Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The heroine of the epic, Delhemma, is a “woman of noble purpose”—a knight and warrior who dedicates herself to her ambition and wishes to remain unmarried, although it is against custom. A female djinn (a mystical spirit) falls in love with Delhemma and attaches herself to the heroine until she is eventually killed off. Fattal has depicted characters from this long and adventurous narrative in several sculptures, such as Djinn and Zhat el Himma (2010-2019), a glazed terracotta sculpture that represents two joined figures, and Rider on Mizna the Fabulous Horse (2009), which memorializes a horse celebrated for its beauty within the epic. The warriors in this series reflect Fattal’s reverence for archaeology and lore. Their sturdy arch-like formations become symbols of resilience and fortitude in the long history of struggle in the Middle East. The choice of this epic can possibly be understood as Fattal’s attempt to excavate hints of feminism in old Arabian epics—where chivalry and strength were only attributed to men. Perhaps she saw some parallel between herself and Delhemma: a woman who dedicated herself to her ambitions and who decided walk down a path different than the common one inscribed for an Arab woman.

Fattal’s work creates a microcosmic universe, an all-encompassing temple riddled with totem and ritual. It constructs a world emerging from history and memory, grappling with the losses of time. Grounded in the earth, her practice can be read as an unfinished project coming to form each time in a different medium. Straddling the contemporary, the archaic, and the mythic, Fattal’s work is at once timeless and specific.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days remains on view through September 2, 2019 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101.

[1] Nayla Kettaneh Kunigk, Simone Fattal, (Beirut, Lebanon: Galerie Tanit, 2016). Accessed as .pdf file.


Excavating A Point Of Entanglement

This article first appeared on tersejournal.com

“This is how space begins,” writes Georges Perec with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text.”


I will begin with the act of pointing.

Lack masquerades itself as desire and desire takes the shape of a space. It pulses as the auto-focus on the camera hunts for the edge, or any point that settles it onto the horizon. She appears in the frame as a mere voice at first and asks the viewer—directs, rather, because she plays with the ambiguity of the grammar—to look over there. She calls for the attention through pitch and intonation. She then appears and instructs: “Look at that rock over there,” and she leaves. She gets out of the way so that one can see “that rock over there.”

In her short film “The Island of the Dead,” Beth collar points, urgently and persistently, over and over. She points, so there must be something there to see. A small island sits in the middle of a body of water. No other land is visible.

Perhaps she is on an island, or on a boat, but the viewer gets the strong sense that she is looking at an image of an image, rather than a picture of a rock in the round. The picture is flat and coarse. Hints of sounds of the waves signal movement, but movement is in and of itself barely detectable in the course of the film. Her finger hunts, like the camera, for its target. She points to this “island of the dead” as if she were uncertain whether the viewfinder, her index, and the island are intersecting. She urges me to “look” over there, to “look” and to “see” the island of the dead. This requires sight and perception. Repetition follows display, reified and emptied. The incessant request to look and to see the rock over there forces us to be rooted here.

Time seemed to fold over itself and look at her. She took away one subject matter to allow the appearance of another. The first subject matter is herself, the second is the island of the dead, floating within a sea. She begs us to look, as if its existence is contingent upon us seeing that it’s there.

It is unclear whether Collar is inviting us to contemplate what lies beyond death. She is forcing us into the present, and by insisting we “look over there,” she denies us the agency to look anywhere else—let alone beyond the island.

Separation, adoration and denial are attitudes towards the unseen, and yet they can be seen. We read them into landscapes, which then reflect them and make them visible, unmissable. They reflect lines of separation, and they encourage you to recede within their grandness. Collar exists within the universe of “The Island of the Dead.” She can get at what it is—if that is what she wants—with an image, a simulacrum, or a haunting. The universe is not seeable, but its images are.

To talk about separation is to excavate a point of entanglement. Entanglement begins with language, and in order to excavate it, it has to be released from its translation. The artist can function as a translator of images, allowing them to escape the shackles of the tongue. Walter Benjamin writes: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work.”

The image had been arranged to be ready for some particular event. The time of its purposeful operation had dissolved and pooled into the containers of many living memories. The way an incident occurs or a memory unfolds reflects nothing about the incident or memory itself, but instead reflects something about the person involved in the happening and the telling: in the telling and retelling of stories, people reveal both the action and themselves.


Deflecting from speech in the face of the sublime is the first source of suffering, as explained by Gaston Bachelard: “[it] lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment we accumulated silent things within us.”

In silence, you hunted around among your memories. Spaces in which words had never pried before. You tried to assign meanings to these words: convergences meant the meeting of two points in space, perhaps even the meeting of two souls. Convergence was the desire that arose from the lack of a clear resolution in the story. The lack of narrative plots, twists and turns. You looked at the landscape and desired answers, demanding of it an explanation. Perception, you thought, was nothing but “the inner resonance to influences nearest at hand.” It is these influences: the sea, the sky, and the horizon line that resonated with you. They, at once, made you see, and imposed a moratorium on looking.

“The sea is treacherous,” proclaims the voice of artist Lara Atallah as footage of the waves of the Mediterranean Sea roll through the short film “A Moratorium On Looking” (2019). The short film troubles the relationship between beauty and terror. “I suppose it’s strange to think that something so beautiful could be so deadly,” continues the narrator. In juxtaposing the picturesque beauty of the landscape with words that instill a sense of impending doom, the artist brings to the front how the duplicitous nature of beauty lies in its ability to stealthily bring about demise. Atallah alludes to the sound of the waves, compares it to a lullaby that “assuages the most troubled of souls.” And then, as if it were an ominous foretelling of events to come, she poses the question: “But what about that other sea? The one that robs and plunders. The covert mercenary that claims the lives of those who’ve lost their right to land leaving them at the mercy of its liquid entrails?” “A Moratorium On Looking” anchors the sea’s gentle waves within the peripheries of terror. What was once beautiful stops being so by virtue of becoming a menace: a dark devouring entity. The short film functions as a testament to this meeting of opposite ends: life and death, beauty and terror. John Berger writes: “A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording, that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.”

At one point in the film the artist takes a polaroid photograph of the landscape. She then deposits the photograph on a rock and allows it to materialize before the screen. The wait seems to last an eternity. By forcing the viewer to look at the photograph, she imposes regulations on looking. “By virtue of its existence, I can claim to have stood on that shoreline.” To claim your presence, by means of registering it through a photograph, is an act of asserting your right to this presence. Berger continues to argue that the only decision a photographer can take is actually “the moment he chooses to isolate;” but it is this particular limitation that actually gives a photograph its power and strength: “What it shows invokes what is not shown.” The photograph, through showing this stark contrast between the sea on a photographic surface and the sea in its motion, invokes what is not shown: beauty in motion and terror in stillness can coexist in one landscape. The sight of one does not cancel out the other. However, the desire for the beautiful will still supersede fear of the terrible.

Eros, the Greek word for desire, simultaneously denotes a “want” and a “lack.” It is the desire for that which is missing. Desire can thus only be for what is lacking in sight; it is forever “at home in a life of want.” Desiring perception is an act that bears within itself the need to reach for what is not there, to formulate what is presented in sight as something more. It is the act of making coherent the heap of images that crowd thinking.

To relinquish desire,

To represent it as hunger,

An absence,

A lack.

A lack is a thought,

Turned into a subject,

Turned into an act,

And within this act

Lies the desire for that which is unattainable.


I am brought back to the void that one feels in certain spaces, or in the presence of particular landscapes. I try to call on my senses: sight, touch, and smell. Absence is a physical void, an emptiness where there once was a presence. It is an enemy. A void can also be a self-imposed exile: from one’s place of birth, from one’s mother tongue, from oneself. Gustavo Perez Firmat writes: “The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else.”

An escape—while being a possible course of action—can also be invisible because it is an idea. One can even venture to say that it is a desire. Toni Morrison’s argument that “invisible things are not necessarily not-there” encourages the complementary gesture of investigating how that which appears to be absent can indeed be a seething presence. The absence which an escape provides is an intense form of presence.


Etel Adnan alludes that it is in the water and not in heaven that her enemy lives. This enemy of hers is not even a person: it is often but the passage of time. Hers is a vision of a world in which there is no “pure” and there is no original. We borrow from here and there. The traces of other people’s wars, loves, and lies are inscribed on our bodies and in our minds—often our own histories and infatuations get entangled with these traces. We

are the products of everything that came before us: We are the coffee stain on a book, the scar that refuses to heal, the fabricated memory born out of a photo we once saw in a family album. Our constitutions are a mysterious thing. There is, however, something bracing about this refusal of resolution.

The most she ever wants to do is show you the end of her sentence.


and The Tyranny of Hope

This article first appeared on degreecritical.com

In the music video for her song “Paper Planes” (2007), the rapper M.I.A. delivers a kebab sandwich from a New York City halal food truck to a passerby as she sings: “All I want to do is [three gunshots] and take your money.” It’s a play on xenophobic fears of the immigrant—represented here by the halal food truck, and the paper plane, a metaphor for a travel visa—who arrives in another country and takes the job of a native who supposedly deserves it more. But her lyrics clash with the image: Selling street food is quite different from holding someone up at gunpoint. M.I.A. hands over the sloppily wrapped sandwich and the viewer is left wondering about the tyranny of hope, about the way certain stories are expected to achieve a particular resolution, and about the painful act of reducing oneself to a narrative worthy of consumption.

The tyranny of hope lies in the sadistic comfort we take in the idea that the mind-numbing motions of day-to-day life are worthwhile. We tell ourselves that it is why we keep going, why we write, why artists produce, why they continue to push these things out of themselves. We say that hope is what drives us to define ourselves, in spite of the stories that others may tell about us.

Still from MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. (2018). Courtesy of Cinereach / Abramorama.

M.I.A., born Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, is the daughter of Arul Pragasam, a founding member of the Sri Lankan guerrilla organization the Tamil Tigers. While her father remained in the country, M.I.A. fled Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s with her mother and siblings, all of them arriving in the United Kingdom as political refugees. The long-awaited, Sundance award-winning documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. (2018), released in September and now screening widely, is a personal profile—and a defense—of the acclaimed but controversial artist. The film attempts to tie together all the different parts of the pop artist’s identity: Matangi, daughter of an armed Tamil resistance leader and the woman who would have potentially become a fighter, too, had she remained in Sri Lanka; Maya, the precocious and creative immigrant teenager, newly arrived in London; and M.I.A., the world-famous rapper and pop star who created a cut-and-paste identity drawing from every aspect of her life’s journey. Directed by Steve Loveridge—M.I.A.’s art-school peer from Central Saint Martins in London—the film rallies against the idea that M.I.A. embodies just one experience or one identity and instead makes a compelling argument for the collective existence of all three women. Hers is a story of complex personhood, full of contradictions.

Loveridge’s documentary relies on a mixture of media footage and extensive, almost obsessive, home videos that M.I.A. herself shot over the past twenty years. Through this mish-mash of film clips, it becomes clear that Loveridge has struggled to reconcile the rapper’s contradictory and expansive history. The narrative rarely relies on voiceover, but in one of the few instances where it is used, M.I.A. tells the audience: “As a first-generation person, I’ve lived through a war, came as a refugee, that is now a pop star. What are the goalposts? It’s amazing that in one lifetime you have to come and figure out so many things, but I’ve made it all fit together.”

M.I.A. troubles the mainstream media because there is no convenient format to tell the story of a refugee-turned-pop star. Hers is the story of a self-made artist, whose unapologetic and at times abrasive rap tunes, compelling political lyrics, and DIY guerrilla style challenges a global cultural moment. It’s a simultaneous tale of a teenage immigrant dealing with culture shock in a new country, the drama of her troubled lineage, and learning to survive with this dual existence. “If you come from the struggle, how the fuck do you talk about the struggle without talking about the struggle?” she protests in the film. It is also the story of the activist M.I.A., who utilizes her position as a famous pop star to shed light on the ongoing violence and turmoil in her home country, and the plight of immigrants and refugees worldwide. Still, none of these storylines or angles manages to capture the full picture of the fearless, defiant, self-described “bona fide hustler” who has continuously challenged pop culture. Throughout her musical career, she has been shunned by the press for reimagining real-life film footage of children being shot in the head in the video for her 2010 song “Born Free” (trading in kids from Third World nations for ginger-haired boys, and blood for ketchup), having her consumption of truffle fries be read out of context1, and upstaging Madonna by flipping her middle finger to the cameras during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

Why do we tend to repudiate artists and their struggles as soon as they become rich or famous? Must an artist continually suffer for his or her plight to be validated? Why can’t we accept one’s need to express and appreciate the beauty and heartache this contains? Sociologist Avery Gordon examines these problems in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997), in which she discusses how historically marginalized people are denied the concept of complex personhood:

Complex personhood means that even those called “Other” are never just that. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward.

In his film, Loveridge half-jokingly asks: “Maya, why are you such a problematic artist? Why don’t you just–” She cuts him off. “Shut up? Why don’t I just shut up and make a hit?” This is the act of a self, adhering to the tyranny of hope and conscious of wanting to be expressed, while also being aware of the limitations society is trying to force upon her. Her fierce, overwhelming, furious need to say “I’m here, I have something to tell you, and you will listen” is a statement of ownership of her presupposed victimhood—a victimhood that has legitimized both her struggles and her successes. M.I.A.’s complex personhood, and her need to be read outside of the margins, to be conceived of outside of categories, and to remain open-ended, is in and of itself powerful, political, and revolutionary.

It is very much unlike M.I.A. to let others speak on her behalf. After all, she has always authored her own image, aesthetics, and the style of her music videos. Perhaps it is for this reason that Loveridge decided to stitch together footage of a young Maya speaking directly to the camera. Because of his resignation from full authorship of the documentary, instead allowing for the artist’s own words and images to prevail, we can begin to peel away the layers of her complex story. While Loveridge’s film shies away from being a typically constructed documentary about an artist’s musical career, it instead sheds light on the human need to express oneself, in whichever way, shape or form, and to use whatever platform necessary in order to voice that expression. The film shows a rare instance where one person’s victimhood is blatantly owned, making Matangi, Maya, and M.I.A.—in her own words—“interesting.”


[1] In Lynn Hirschberg’s profile “M.I.A. Agitprop Pop,” published in The New York Times Magazine on May 25, 2010, the author took one of M.I.A.’s actions during their interview, eating a truffle-flavored French fry (which Hirschberg and the newspaper had provided to the artist) and erroneously described it as having taken place while the singer spoke about being an outsider: “Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. ‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.’” This mischaracterization of her words and actions resulted in critical backlash at the time and is discussed in MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. as an example of how the mainstream media set out to portray the rapper as a hypocrite: someone who talks about being an outsider while enjoying the comforts of wealth.
New York, Beirut