Abdulnasser Gharem's Irony by Donald Kuspit

Abdulnasser Gharem, Caged Humanity, 2022. Lacquer paint on rubber stamps mounted on aluminum, 42.9 x 63 in.

Abdulnasser Gharem: Hospitable Thoughts

Marc Straus Gallery

September 6 through October 16, 2022

By DONALD KUSPIT, September 2022

Once a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army, now an artist, and a rather brilliant, ingenious one, Abdulnasser Gharem is a protest artist—not the usual aggressive kind, making works that are blatantly in-your-face, getting the often simple message across easily, but rather subtle conceptual works, readable as pure abstractions apart from the socially critical message they ironically communicate.  His is an ironic conceptual art, as the title of the exhibition, “Hospitable Thoughts,” makes subtly clear.  Irony is a sort of humor, ridicule, or sarcasm implying the opposite of what is literally stated.  Its paradoxical character—absurdity—is at once a kind of defense and attack against the reality it addresses—a way of distancing oneself from the offensive reality without denying it.  Thus, ironically understood, Gharem’s “Hospitable Thoughts” are in psychosocial fact “inhospitable thoughts”—often implicitly about his homeland, Saudi Arabia, not exactly a hospitable place, as his artistic reading of it strongly suggests.  Without irony, language art tends to be simplistic shouting to the masses, bludgeoning the passing crowd with easily comprehensible words, which is what Jenny Holzer’s and Barbara Kruger’s billboard soapbox word art does, rather than engaging individual consciousness by making the viewer aware that he or she is ironically implicated in an absurd world.     

No one can escape it—humanity is caged everywhere, to refer to Gharem’s Caged Humanity, 2022 and we all “participate” in surveillance, to refer to his Participatory Surveillance, 2022—think of the surveillance cameras everywhere, the always open eyes of the Orwellian Big Brother, which we accept as a matter of mindless course.  It is clearly universal, as Gharem’s use of a global map—a conceptual representation not to say abstract image--implies.  But humanity seems more caged, surveilled, monitored in an authoritarian regime such as Saudi Arabia, a regime run by religious clerics not to say authoritarian fanatics and authoritarian rulers—so-called religious police once patrolled the streets, picking on women who were not properly dressed according to Islamic dictates--than, say, more open-minded, liberal, democratic European countries and the United States.  To my mind the freedom of expression—the critical consciousness—evident in Gharem’s ironical works suggest a change of consciousness underway in Gharem’s home country or else a tolerance and use of art and culture as so-called soft power.  Gharem’s art is part of the much-noted new liberalism of Saudi Arabia, but his art suggests that it is an illusion, even if, ironically, it also suggests that Saudi Arabia has more to offer than oil.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Prosperity Without Growth II, 2020. Digital print, gold and color paint on rubber stamps mounted on aluminum, 33.7 x 49 in.

I think the mullahs—the religious authorities, enforcing Sharia law—are a particular target of Gharem’s ironical ire, as Prosperity Without Growth II, 2020 strongly suggests.  The work is unusual compared to Gharem’s other works because it is representational and figurative rather than abstract and language-based, although it also makes a critical point.  Indeed, it is perhaps the most straightforward statement of Gharem’s critical consciousness.  It attacks the religious ideology of Saudi Arabia, represented by the holy men—Islamic saints—pictured.  (The figures are appropriated from the Hagia Sofia.)  These sacred strongmen, their sacredness signified by their halos and the heavenly gold in which they stand, seem imperturbable, untouchable.  But the gold of their heaven is slowly but surely disappearing, rotting:  heaven finally becomes a void, a blank page with more or less blurred texts, suggesting the meaninglessness of their doctrinal beliefs, not to say the hollowness of their authority.  Eroding into oblivion, Gharem ruthlessly annihilates them, their traditional, old-fashioned clothing suggesting they are pretentious relics of a bygone time.  I suggest the work is a profound, direct assault on Muslim ideology, implicitly a delusional belief, for the figures are mirages.  If nothing else, Gharem’s work suggests the rigidity of their rule, as their rigid, upright appearance indicates.  Gharem seems to be reminding Muslims that God is dead, as Nietzsche said more than a century ago.  One wonders if anyone in Saudi Arabia has read Nietzsche, or for that matter Freud’s “Future of the Illusion” that is religion.  Gharem’s Prosperity Without Growth II is a statement of his disillusionment with Islam—he disillusions us about the Islamic saints by suggesting that they are illusions, even hallucinations—even as the ironical title of the work suggests his disillusionment with Saudi Arabia.  The work suggests that it is a materially prosperous but emotionally primitive country, for its inhabitants are trapped in the  Procrustean bed of Islamic authoritarianism.  Inhibited by Islam, they can ironically outwit it, as Gharem does, and compensate for its control of their spirits by capitalizing their oil, that is, becoming manipulative materialists.  

But the work is aesthetically intriguing because it is composed of tiny tesserae-like units, integrated into a mosaic, giving the work as a whole a radiant autonomy, indeed, a certain transcendental beauty, an inner spiritual beauty that contrasts with the fake, pretentious, theatrical spirituality of the puppet-like figures.  Even more ingeniously, each tesserae is marked with a letter, forming words when they are put together, the subliminal text usually ironically criticizing the image it composes.  Each tesserae is in effect a piece of type set in a manuscript—a secret, subversive text that must be decoded to be understood, although its irony is transparent, if only because of its absurd construction.  Gharem’s is a conceptual aesthetics, rooted in illuminated manuscripts, which demand a close reading, as all of his works do.  They typically function on two levels:  their imagery and form are instantly perceived and readily comprehended by consciousness, but the embedded text in the tesserae demands what might be called the psychic work of the unconscious to be comprehended, indeed, deciphered.   

Installation view, Abdulnasser Gharem: Hospitable Thoughts at Marc Straus Gallery.

Gharem has made many free-standing works, works that exist in space rather than hang on the wall, although, with his usual irony, they read as both sculptures and paintings, as Concrete Wall Painting, 2022 makes clear.  The sandy color of the concrete suggests it is a symbol of the desert, a shifting terrain of soft sand ironically hardened and geometrically contained by Gharem, perhaps symbolizing the “hardness” of Saudi Arabia’s rulers and the absolute, not to say eternal truth of Islamic doctrine, for geometry is absolutely and eternally true.  Believing in an eternal God--cursed by the illusion of eternal life, as Freud might say—Saudi Arabia’s Islamic rulers, as holy as its Islamic enforcers, have set up a kingdom of God on the shifting sands of the desert, unwittingly suggesting that it is inherently unstable, in an absurd situation, as Gharem’s ironical art implies.  Even more ironical, “soft” words are embedded—inscribed, incised--in the hard concrete, eternalizing them.  They will never be blurred by time, buried in the drifting sand of the desert, but remain as a testimony to the “gospel” truth of the desert religion of Islam and the absolute power of Saudi Arabia’s royal rulers.  But the authoritarianism of both—their inseparability is implicit in their co-rule of Saudi Arabia--is implicitly conveyed by Gharem’s treatment of them—his subversion of them by ironically signifying them.  The fact that the work is a wall also signifies that Saudi Arabia, an Islamic Middle Eastern country, is spiritually walled off from Christian Western countries, however much it imports Western products in exchange for its oil.  It is a treasure that will soon be exhausted, which is perhaps why Saudi Arabia is busily Westernizing, at least superficially.  More pointedly, the modern Enlightenment, with the open-mindedness of empirical science rather than the closed-mindedness of dogmatic religion, more broadly its critical consciousness rather than blind faith, passed Saudi Arabia by.  Blind faith rules Saudi Arabia; it can only be questioned ironically, as Gharem does, which is to subvert it intellectually, as Gharem’s conceptual art does.  Its conceptual irony goes directly against the grain of Islamic dogmatism.

For Gharem there is no one true “path” to enlightenment, be it spiritual or scientific, which is why he questions—ruthlessly satirizes—the Islamic “path” to salvation and with it Saudi Arabia’s path to modernity, both symbolized by the bridge in The Path, 2011, a photographic tour de force.  The traditional idea—religious fantasy--of a path to salvation—a sacred path to God—and the empirical reality of a modern highway ironically converge and coincide in Gharem’s photograph. The seemingly banal, matter-of-factly picured scene is ironically colorful, for the colorless bridge collapsed, a symbol of poor engineering, and with that the jerry-built reality of superficially modern Saudi Arabia.  The bridge was built by the government at the request of a provincial village in order to cross a river that was a kind of lifeline to urban Saudi Arabia, indicating that urban and rural Saudi Arabia were connected, indeed inseparable—that there were no cultural, social, economic, class differences in the country—but the collapse of the bridge, its failure to do what it would do if it was well-built, suggests that Saudi Arabia was more divided than it cared to acknowledge.  The same difference between the overdeveloped urban and underdeveloped rural reality that plague many Western countries inform Saudi Arabia.  It was a new bridge, but in many Western countries, including the United States among, bridges have collapsed, indicating that Saudi Arabia is in good company, and with that paradoxically “advanced.”  More insidiously, Gharem’s ironical photograph suggests that Islam’s “path” to salvation is a big lie.

Abdulnasser Gharem, The Stamp (Moujaz), 2022. Hand carved wood with embossed rubber face, 36 x 36 x 40 in. Edition of 8, AP I/III.

Authoritarianism in any form, particularly in the symbolic form of The Stamp, 2022 of authority and power—totalitarian authority and absolute power--is anathema to Gharem.  The seal stamped on some piece of governmental paper seals the fate of many people.  Gharem offers us two stamps, one large, one small, both beautiful carved sculptures, masterpieces of their kind, at once eloquent and elegant.  The absurd contrast between the large circular rubber stamp—the one-eye of the Cyclopean giant that is the State--and the elongated wooden handle that are the conflicting parts of the small stamp is ingeniously mannerist.  I think it suggests the contradictoriness of Saudi Arabia, caught between authoritarian Islam, symbolized by the stamp, and modernizing ambition, symbolized by the long, extended handle, perhaps suggesting overreach.  The large, indeed enormous stamp, standing on the ground like an autonomous abstract sculpture, impossible to hold in one’s hand unlike the more intimate small stamp, is composed of intricately abstract geometric calligraphy typical of Islamic art.  The work could easily hold its own on the floor of the Hagia Sophia, where it might be idolized as a symbol of the Prophet.  It may be Gharem’s way of expressing his faith in Islam despite his skepticism about Saudi Arabia, but it is after all a stamp, a symbol of absolute authority and ruthless power.  It thus resonates ironically despite its sublimity.  Its authoritarian presence suggests it is meant to intimidate rather than worship, but of course one worships what one is intimidated by.  It certainly precludes the intimacy that the small stamp suggests.  It is a perverse masterpiece, for it ironically undermines what it signifies.  I think its overstated size, not so say pretentiousness, suggests that it is an ironical statement of Saudi Arabia’s ambition, and perhaps an expression of Gharem’s own ambition, for it is his largest, boldest work.  The grandeur of the work suggests that Islam—and implicitly religion as such--is a delusion of grandeur.  But I am not deluded in thinking Gharem is a uniquely important, original artist, all the more so because his art is a thorn in tyranny. WM

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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