Surface Tension: a group show
Due to the cohesive nature of liquid molecules, they can resist a certain amount of pressure from an external source and therefore create what is known as surface tension. While it appears as a boundary, this surface is not resistant to disruption. The molecules will also act differently depending upon what material they are touching. So while the liquid acts as a whole, each drop has the ability to function independently. As such, by choosing the title Surface Tension for his most recent exhibition, on display at Sharjah Art Foundation, curator Ryan Inouye is exploring the metaphorical properties of the phrase through artworks that simultaneously address collective and individual scenarios.
In his exhibition essay, he describes the modern world as in a state of “latent crisis” where major global events “irrevocably shape life … [with] few tools or vocabularies that can focus individual and collective feeling on this crisis in meaningful ways”.
Cue Surface Tension, a tightly curated selection of works by emerging artists that both individually and in synchrony reflect the present moment. “The surface is a moment and I wanted to explore that,” says Inouye. “It was my intention to make a show about how we feel at the present moment, but also as a way of installing ethics. I don’t want to say that I’m providing insight into this vast world rather, just opening up opportunities to delve into ongoing conversations.”
The geographies across the exhibition are vast, belying its compact size. One of two commissions is Dale Harding’s giant painting, which lies on the floor of the gallery subverting the normal order and asking for a viewer’s scrutiny. And one must indeed look closely because Harding and his cousin, Haley Matthew, spent two weeks painting the canvas with an ochre yellow pigment similar to those used by his Aboriginal ancestors upon rocks in the Australian highlands, only to then obscure most of it with the same bright white paint used on gallery walls. The commentary here calls attention to the way any contemporary artist places his or herself within a collective history as well as the plateau between personal story and political concerns.
On display in the adjacent space to Harding’s work is a 19-minute film by Randa Maroufi, a Moroccan artist living in Paris. Her work Bab Sebta (2019) focuses on the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the Moroccan mainland, through which many people attempt to smuggle counterfeit goods. The scenes in the film are staged and the camerawork exports the viewer into the action through various experimental techniques. The effect is that we know we are watching actors, but we also feel immersed in the action.
“The idea of embodiment is really important,” says Inouye. “That is something I really wanted to explore and that is why I call the artworks interfaces – not just screens or windows. [They’re] working in both directions and being renewed by the viewer. These artists’ practices stem from real places and real social and political concerns that they are already engaged in, so while presenting them as a surface acknowledges the superficial and formal engagement, it also allows you to intuit something deeper while also ethically respecting that you are only just now joining this conversation.” As such, we are allowed to sympathise with the people spending hours at the border crossing in Ceuta even though we are not able to empathise.
One piece of work that undoubtedly draws in its audience is Ophelia (2018-2019) by South Korean artist Mire Lee. Named after the ill-fated character from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is a distinctly genderless mass of silicon hoses attached to a plaster head. Powered by a small motor, the sculpture flails around in a shallow pool of viscous glycerine that splatters occasionally onto the gallery floor and is at once revolting and compelling. In parallel with the second commission of the show, a curtain of silicon-coated tissue paper suspended between floor and ceiling, the artist is making a comment on the permeable surface between the truth and a lie as well as the slippery characteristic of human intention.
Hung at several points inside the exhibition are a collection of works by Lebanese artist Dala Nasser consisting of painted, resin and latex-coated survival blankets. They visually resemble abstract surfaces clinging to the wall. Her use of material represents the ongoing and, at times, invisible crisis that Inouye mentions in his curatorial statement as well as overtly paying heed to both the migration situation as well as the recent rubbish problems in Nasser’s native Beirut. Her use of pigment is also deliberate and her works in green, red, yellow and blue bring some of the only colour to the show. The dialogue between these works and those of Minam Apang’s fragile charcoal drawings on cloth is visceral as well as visual. Apang’s ability to create texture from such a simple material creates a balance to Nasser’s work, in a relationship that the curator describes as musical.
“I don’t play music, but I felt that at times I was playing music by ear with this exhibition, listening to conversations around me as they were coming to the surface,” says Inouye.
Composition and sound are also key to Mohammed Al Faraj’s 10-minute video Sophia (2018-2019). Projected on three surfaces – two joining walls and the floor – the work merges real news footage of Sophia, the first robot to be granted Saudi Arabian citizenship, with reportage about a distressed sea turtle in Jeddah and other images of the artist’s home town, Al Hassa, in Saudi Arabia. It has an apocalyptic feel to it, particularly as Al Faraj has introduced purposeful glitches, which the curator says represent a kind of “digital decay that anticipates the demise of our computational order”.
For me, the show feels like a snapshot of now, which although spreads across a wide social and political geography, is talking of something much more central to human consciousness – the idea of a common intuition or a common idea that can traverse boundaries and borders and indeed, crash through the surface.
Surface Tension. July 6 – September 7, Gallery 4 & 6, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah Art Foundation. sharjahart.org