Art Writing & Design

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.


Simone Fattal:
Work and Days
at MoMA PS1

This article first appeared on

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.


and The Tyranny of Hope

This article first appeared on

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.
The Weight Of The World
/ A Conversation with Etel

Etel Adnan, The Weight of The World (2016), Serpentine Galleries, London

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I read Etel Adnan’s latest book: “Surge.” My friend told me that it was

darker, more morose, “less Etel.” “It’s still romantic, though” she said so as to comfort me. What prompted her to think that that would comfort me remains beyond my knowledge. Etel Adnan’s work never comforted me. I never felt that I fully understood it. It made me uneasy—a kind of unease I only feel when I read her work. It is a particular one that I never managed to put my finger on. The work is beautiful, a term often deemed to be pejorative. Frowned upon when used. But it’s beautiful in a way that terrifies you, “shocks [you] shitless.”[1]It’s beautiful in a way that only Etel Adnan’s prose can be. Take, for example:

"And of white butterflies the sea is inundated. A fabulous verse, for one needs trillions of butterflies to fill this image-equation, Gerard having seen at once the power of the infinitely small when it agglomerates. There's no denying it: in Beirut, it is the sea which calls for intimacy because it often resembles people's eyes. It is she who gives us the desire to live at the dimensions which are ours: taking walks, running into someone, wanderings, amorous ornonchalant, despair annihilating us because the sea's green is even more translucid when it appears behind the cactus bushes, it's a tear in a solar plant. The ocean pushes you to absolute solitude." – Etel Adnan, Life Is A Weaving.

In 2016, Adnan created a series of prints titled “The Weight of The World / Le Poids Du Monde.” The series consists of 20 paintings, all featuring at least one circle. No one knows what the circles are really meant to represent. Whether they stood for the all-seeing eye, the sun, the moon, or the tension between forms and the canvas, is anyone’s guess. Did they stand for the weight? This weight is supposed to be invisible. It cannot—physically speaking—be perceived by the naked eye. The weight was the invisible tension between the canvas and the world.

- Etel Adnan, The Weight of The World (2016), Serpentine Galleries, London

Some conversations can be invisible —wait, can conversations be invisible? I’m not entirely sure whether that’s physiologically possible.

(Conversations are audible, they are something that we listen to, or partake in; but they cannot be perceived by the naked eye, hence they are invisible.)

Is the weight of the world invisible? Is it quantifiable?

I had never seen any of Adnan’s work in real life up until this past summer, when, on a visit to the Sursock Museum in Beirut, I happened to stumble upon one of her large-scale tapestries. I’d been taken by photographs I’ve seen online of her paintings and tapestries, but it was something else to see a creation of hers in real life. A very specific radiance emanated from it, a certain light, a semblance of a memory.

Writers always say that they are in conversation with their predecessors, the writers and thinkers who influenced them. Am I in conversation with Etel?

Degradation followed display, reified and emptied. The circle was treated like the loneliest of things. It lived within the confines of the canvas, the confines of sharp corners, and lines that break.

There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things.

Of Mount Tamlpais, Etel explains: “It was my point of reference, it was like a pole, that when I saw it I felt like home.” In Surge, she did away with possessive pronouns: “During a darkest night I did away with the word “I” on my way to being just a being. The land was of the past. We will soon return to inhabiting trees (if any are left).”

Sometimes, I don’t know where to take and what to do with this body of mine: this body that needs to be constantly fed, washed, hydrated, scrubbed, clothed, informed and taken care of. Can I do away with it on my way to being just a being?

How do we construct being? How do we construct that which we cannot perceive?

The multiverse is composed of a quantum superposition of infinitely many, increasingly divergent, non-communicating parallel universes or quantum worlds. All outcomes exist simultaneously but do not interfere further with each other. Each single prior world had split into mutually unobservable but equally real worlds. The others are invisible to the one and the one invisible to the others.

12. a.
Every lie creates a parallel world: the world in which it’s true. It is a frequent habit when I discover several resemblances between two things to attribute equally to both points in which they are in reality different.

“Combined with this was another perversity – an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I like things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question.” Henry James, The Real Thing

Now I have asked this question before: how do we construct becoming? 

I am yet to excavate an answer.

Existing is in and of itself a form of breakage, consisting of a series of schisms: the first one happens in the womb, when chromosomes split and take either the form of XX or XY. How does the subject construct a form of becoming that emerges from within these schisms? How does it seep through the cracks and thread itself into a web of (invisible) synapses that make one what they are (becoming)?

This place had been arranged to be ready for some particular event. It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence. The time of its purposeful operation had dissolved and pooled into the containers of many living memories.

It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. It is achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.

“We witness night as the result of high-jacking of light, a home for despair. A thousand souls in one body, in one soul… body and soul dying at different times, different speeds.”[2]— Is the light of day a daily planned obsolescence? A trick played by the multiverse?

[1] Anzaldúa Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Duke University Press, 2009.

[2] Adnan, Etel. Surge.Nightboat Books, 2018.

(Revisiting) The Earth Room
Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett
“Look, look, the emperor has no clothes”

The room was quiet. This was Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, located on Wooster Street, in the Soho district of Manhattan. It’s hard for one to think of the concept of an Earth room in relation to an artist. We refer to it as Walter De Maria’s “Earth Room,” as if this stretch of soil, or any stretch of soil, could ever belong to a man. In the Dia Foundation funded white-cube gallery, where De Maria’s 1977 permanent installation resides, I shared the space, in 2018, with the room’s keeper. For the exception of the faint distant sound of the Fire Department truck, howling at the traffic, nothing could be heard but our unsynchronized breaths. I was instructed not to take any pictures, and to remain within a safe distance of the Plexiglas facade that separated my body from the Earth’s. In that instant, the Earth, much like art, suddenly felt highly privatized: collected, claimed and deposited on the second floor of a nondescript building somewhere in lower Manhattan. Something didn’t feel quite right about all of this. Perhaps, as city dwellers, we are not used to experiencing the Earth in the quiet atmosphere that is harbored here. When I think of soil, I think of Land, I think of belonging, and what it entails to demand for the right and ownership of a Land. When I think of soil, I am also filled with the sensation of my feet coming in contact with the Land, the Earth, the planet. In De Maria’s “Earth Room” there exists no such sensation.

The viewer is asked to observe it from a distance. Perhaps this is why it has stayed in pristine shape, something that can strike someone as completely unnatural. Perhaps, this is why vegetation started to sprout discreetly, outside of the existence of man. Some critics have dubbed the “Earth Room” as an escape [1] from the unforgiving streets of this noisy city; others called it “The Emperor’s New Cat Box. [2]” In the midst of contemplating the extremely dark manure-brown of the soil in contrast with the white walls of the building, one can’t help but wonder about the origins for the need of such an “escape.” The 280,000 pounds of moist Long Island dirt –in the spirit of mysticism and undeniable ties between Dia’s founders and Sufism– is meant to provide an avenue and space of transcendence. In the late 1970s in New York, Dia’s selection of artists and the commissioned work presented a sort of austere and seemingly ascetic new approach to contemporary art. This was quite alien to the art scene at the time.

Walter De Maria, born in 1935, was an American artist, sculptor, illustrator and composer who lived and worked in New York City. His artistic practice is most widely connected with Minimal art, Conceptual art, and Land art of the 1960s.

Like many of his installations, but most specifically his “Lightning Field,” De Maria, who died of a stroke at the age 77, was a figure of mystery. What is known is that he was born in Albany, California, to an Italian-American restaurateur. He studied the piano and later majored in art history and painting at the University of California in Berkeley. His move across the Bay to San Fransisco proved to be quite influential. He joined the city’s fresh new scene of cross-disciplinary avant garde artists, forming a friendship with the composer La Monte Young, with whom he would later collaborate.

However, the real breakthrough in De Maria’s career happened in 1960, when he moved to New York, slightly shy of twenty-five years of age. Manhattan, with its dazzling lights and very happening art scene, offered De Maria a taste for performance art that took other forms.

Steering away from labels such as minimalist, conceptual artist or even a land artist, De Maria’s work incorporated aspects of all three approaches to making art. It is evident that his multi-disciplinary background feeds into his later works. His involvement with the music scene creates a vibrant image of an artist who was dipping his fingers in many different alleyways. Sometime between 1965 or 1966, De Maria joined a rock band called The Primitives (it later went on to become The Velvet Underground). By then a percussionist, he soon tired of dragging his drums around the New York bar scene. In a 1972 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, speaking of his decision to not go down this path, De Maria ponders “I thought, are you going to play or are you going to do the sculpture? You know, are you going to be an artist or a musician?”

In 1966, he created a tall, thin stainless steel sculpture entitled Cage, named for the composer, John. Situating De Maria next to the likes of John Cage, creator of 4’33’’, models a scenic vision of artists working on and around the transcendental experiences of art and silence. This early piece of Minimalism led directly to the polished steel poles of The Lightning Field.

De Maria, one of Dia’s protégés, specialized in pinning human perfectability against natural imperfection. Land art expanded the boundaries of art by the use of unorthodox materials. These materials were often extracted from the Earth, including soil, rocks, vegetation and water found in relevant sites. The art movement centered on a rejection of the commercialization of art making. De Maria’s Earthworks felt both monumental and apocalyptic. As if he was in on a secret that no one else knew. As if knowing and anticipating the day when humankind’s enterprise has led to its extinction. This phenomenon, however, was reversed in The New York Earth Room, which contrasted with the hard metal of his earlier pieces. Standing near what is essentially an inside-out mudflat, remains, forty-one years later, a disquieting experience. Harboring a certain sense of circularity, it literally brings earth art to the city.

The ties between the Dia Art Foundation and Sufism are undeniable. The silence with which you experience spaces such as The New York Earth Room is a prime example of this. You are compelled to speak in a lowered voice, as if not to awaken the work, or offend it. The philosopher Otto Bollnow, in “On Silence,” speaks of silence as “the ground from which all speech emerges and into which it falls back.” The use of the term “ground” is oddly apt. The elevated stature of a second-floor loft on Wooster Street – which houses The Earth Room – is reminiscent of a space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech would emerge.

De Maria’s Earth Room exemplifies the ascetic formalism that distinguishes several of Dia’s artists. The Dia Art Foundation, launched under various aliases and in near-secrecy in 1974, is a nonprofit organization that initiates and preserves art projects. Its founders were Philippa de Menil, daughter of Houston arts patron Dominique De Menil and youngest scion of the Schlumberger oil fortune. and her husband, German art dealer and visionary Heiner Friedrich. They envisioned Dia as a space that would support artistic endeavors "whose nature or scale would preclude other funding sources."

The name "Dia," taken from the Greek word meaning "through," was chosen to suggest the institution's pivotal role in enabling artistic projects that might not otherwise be realized. Alternatively, and perhaps more fittingly, the word Dia’ in Arabic translates to “shine,” most commonly used in Islam for its reference to “light” or the “light of God.” The kind art put forth by Dia in the 1970s represented a radical departure in artistic practices. It was often large in scale and occasionally ephemeral or site-specific.

Together, De Menil and Friedrich created a refuge from the speculative art market then taking shape in New York, and a new standard of monumental and spiritually charged ways of experiencing art. Take, for instance, a SoHo gallery floor buried permanently beneath black earth, its layers suggesting a duration spanning epochs, reminiscent of a cross-section reference drawing from a geology school textbook.

A few years after commissioning The New York Earth Room, the enigmatic Friedrich left New York and disappeared; Philippa de Menil, on the other hand, had long since ceased to exist. In 1980, she had shed her western identity and had become a Sufi dervish, going by the name of Fariha al-Jerrahi. When the austere house of Dia fell – due to financial difficulties– Fariha moved on. The Sheikha now splits her time between a hilltop in Yonkers and retreats with dervishes in Turkey.

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein’s college professor in mathematics, arrived at a new way of thinking about space and time in 1906: “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Sufi mysticism is characterized by asceticism, and the renunciation of material possessions. It is, in essence, an understanding that space by itself and time by itself will fade away, but their union will preserve a different reality. In the quietude of The Earth Room, such a renunciation of time and space is overwhelmingly present, creating the space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech could emerge.

[1] "Escapes: 'The Earth Room' and Other Art by Walter De Maria in New York." The Washington Post. May 20, 2009. Accessed January 16, 2018.

[2] Hess, Thomas B. “The Emperor’s New Cat Box.” New York Magazine, October 31, 1977, 102-105. 

New York, Beirut