SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: Taysir Batniji knows what it means to be unable to work. Between the ages of 6 and 42 – spanning his Palestine childhood and adolescence, his departure to study art in France and his decision to make a second home there – he repeatedly lapsed into bouts of inactivity.
It takes creativity to work through such spells of enforced idleness. When he was a little boy in Gaza, for instance, Batniji learned that a good way to appear busy with a forbidding homework assignment was to sharpen pencils.
This fragile palliative persisted though adulthood. While overseas, expatriate artists often feel cut off from the mundane experiences that inspire their work. Returning to Gaza from Paris, Batniji would busy himself cleaning up his studio there, only to find that the territory’s poverty and imminent violence made work impossible.
As the figurative pencil shavings accumulated, it dawned on the artist that his peculiar practice of burning through idleness left material traces. Work issued even from the impossibility of work.
This is the story behind Batniji’s performance/installation “Hannoun” (poppies). Dated “1972-2009,” the work was commissioned for “Palestine c/o Venice,” a collateral event at the 2009 Venice Biennial. It’s been restaged for “Customs Made: Quotidian Practices & Everyday Rituals,” a group exhibition curated by Nat Muller and Livia Alexander at Sharjah’s Maraya Art Center.
Batniji’s work is mounted in a stagelike false room within Maraya’s main hall. Hanging on the wall at the far end is a color photo of the artist’s Gaza studio, singularly uncluttered by works in progress. Between this false wall and the front, the floor’s expanse is littered with the delicate concave disks of red pencil shavings, meant to evoke the fields of poppies the artist recalls from his childhood.
“Customs Made” is a thoughtfully devised exhibition assembling works according to several criteria. Incidentally, the eight artists whose works are on show are all from the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region – the vast area in which the UAE’s cultural funding, exhibition and sales apparatus are most interested.
As the show’s title suggests, Muller and Alexander have selected works that meet at the cusp of the temporal and the practical. “Hannoun,” for instance, reflects upon the work that issues from wasted time.
The formal approaches to this business are as diverse as the broad conceptual field the phrase “quotidian practices and everyday rituals” suggests. While all the works here are by turns evocative, observant or amusing, the show is best realized when the “time” and “practice” in the works is transparent – allowing viewers to focus on individual pieces rather than labor over how the square peg of a work is meant to fit into the curatorial round hole.
Formally speaking, the two works that speak to one another most naturally are “Hannoun,” the spatial epicenter of the show, and “FIRE/CAST/DRAW” (2013), a Rayyane Tabet work whose thematic tie to Batniji’s is ritual – in this case both the quotidian practice of creating the piece and the supernatural premise it evokes.
The fruit of Tabet’s encounter with the Abraaj Capital Art Prize – which formerly allotted $100,000 to each of five artists and a curator on the basis of project proposals – the work consists of 5,000 hand-cast (therefore unique) lead pieces arranged on the floor, complemented by two (Arabic and English) wall texts.
The work was inspired by his grandmother’s occult prophylactic against the “evil eye.” The best solution to this affliction was to melt a bullet slug in a rekweh (coffee pot), then pour the molten lead into a finjan (Arabic coffee cup) full of water. The metal is thought to congeal into the shape of the ne’er-do-well’s face.
Complementing this pop-spiritual practice is the mundane one of Tabet replicating his gran’s ritual 5,000 times to make this work.
In “Customs Made,” Tabet’s recongealed lead bits have been deployed on the floor to form a rhomboid, echoing and gesturing to Batniji’s pencil shavings.
Formally distinct from both works but thematically akin to “Hannoun” is Shilpa Gupta’s photo-based mechanical installation “100 Queues” (2008). For those unfamiliar with this practice, a “queue” is the orderly single-file line that people from certain countries form while awaiting service at a busy checkout or an understaffed state office.
Gupta has taken the bureaucratic queue, and the drudgery of wasted time it embodies, and sublimated it into a work comprised of a 268-cm-long row of cylinders. Upon the surface of each cylinder is a segment of a long queue. As the public gazes upon the work, a motion-sensitive electric motor slowly turns the cylinders, recreating the impression of motion while the queue always remains the same length.
In his 2013 series “Smoking, Dancing, Kissing,” Raed Yassin is inspired by scenes from family photographs lost in the course of his family’s repeated uprootings during, and since, Lebanon’s Civil War. These vistas have been programmed into computer-driven sewing machines and stitched into factory textiles of the type used to cover living room furniture.
By “commodifying” these fragile, intimate moments from Yassin’s lost family archive, the series routinizes dislocation and its impact upon consciousness. While reducing the tragedy of human displacement to the status of mundane practice, Yassin’s series is among several works here that speak less explicitly to the matter of temporality than the theme of childhood, common to Tabet’s and Batniji’s works.
This is most evident in the works of Mohamed Sharkawy, whose acrylic-on-canvas series “El-Kehrita” recalls a rapidly vanishing healing ritual – in which prescribed performance is thought to cleanse afflicted individuals of physical or emotional disability – practiced among villagers in parts of Upper Egypt.
Oppressive temporality, specifically the way convention subdivides – indeed, the fact that convention does subdivide – our time is the driving force behind Cevdet Erek’s multimedia work “Week” (2012).
Anyone entering Maraya’s exhibition hall is greeted by a 16x124 cm LED display ignited with the Arabic word “Usbua” (week). Echoing hypnotically through the exhibition is the “Week” sound piece. Accompanied by electronic percussion, the artist enunciates the Arabic days of the week, with different stresses on particular days.
The coolest single component of “Customs Made,” this sound work wouldn’t be out of place on a dubstep DJ’s hard drive.
“Customs Made: Quotidian Practices & Everyday Rituals” curated by Livia Alexander and Nat Muller continues at the Maraya Art Center until May 12.