Ingrid Hora, Positions for leading, 2013, ink-jet print, 18 7/8 x 26 3/8".

Ingrid Hora, Positions for leading, 2013, ink-jet print, 18 7/8 x 26 3/8".

Ingrid Hora

Ingrid Hora, Positions for leading, 2013, ink-jet print, 18 7/8 x 26 3/8".

A photograph of the torso of a modestly dressed woman greeted us in the vestibule of “Dear Leader,” Ingrid Hora’s elegant solo debut in Dubai. Titled Positions for leading, 2013, it shows the Berlin-based Italian artist facing the camera and making a determined gesture with both hands—elbows jut out, arms come back in toward the chest, palms face into the body, thumbs press against two fingers. The terse gesture, that of a conductor at the beginning of a performance, is an apt introduction to Hora’s practice, which can be characterized as an ongoing investigation of orchestration and choreography as not just artistic acts but social and political phenomena, technologies for exercising control, eliciting devotion, and envisioning utopias.

Why do people follow, whether the latest fashion trend or an all-powerful leader? What compels them to accept instruction, to act en masse? Hora often probes the mechanics of such behavior by orchestrating strange rituals involving esoteric objects, a selection of which were on display. Consider The Promise, 2011: Four aluminum shields, placed in a neat line like a Minimal sculpture, are artifacts of an investigation into faddish sun worship. The functions of Objected 1 and Objected 2, both 2013—a pair of curious but elegant wooden pieces—are almost impossible to work out without additional information. The former, a boot remover, can easily be repurposed as a brace for holding a leg in place, while the latter, a mold for cigars, literally produces identical units. In their own way, both are disciplining objects, enforcing a certain type of order.

“Dear Leader” focused on North Korea’s Arirang Mass Games, a mind-boggling spectacle of totalitarian might that involves tens of thousands of performers executing precisely choreographed programs of gymnastics, dance, and martial arts. This display unfolds in front of a gigantic shifting backdrop of party slogans and propaganda images, each composed of thousands of flip cards—those corresponding to a single pixel of this human digital screen are carefully sequenced and loosely bound into hefty books—held aloft by children trained specially for the task. Filling the long horizontal wall of the rear gallery, No Motherland Without You, 2013, re-creates a small section of one of these enormous mosaics as an installation of 192 hand-painted sheets of paper—each lightly folded down the middle like a page from a book. The shallow space did not allow the distance necessary to resolve the whole image, which is already abstracted through cropping, but instead forced a proximity that allows individual sheets a visual autonomy and material presence they might have otherwise lacked. Flatly painted, some read as monochromes, others as simple geometric abstractions composed of two or three colors. Modestly perched on the floor nearby, Devoted Pixel, 2013, memorializes the invisible labor of a single child: A set of similarly sized sheets, each folded in half lengthwise and standing vertically, are tethered together at the center, opening up into a lush red flower or asterisk. Both installation and sculpture privilege encounters with individual units over the collective composite, subverting the core logic of totalitarian ideology.

What might this all mean in the context of Dubai? Recently elected as the site of World Expo 2020 and firmly on the road to recovery after the 2008 recession, Dubai is ascendant again and its status as a global city, an exemplar of neoliberalism and urban branding, is commonly attributed to the singular vision of its own “dear leader.” Read as an allegory of the city, Hora’s show was a timely reminder to look through this carefully crafted cult of personality, which masks the everyday contributions of those faceless individuals whose labor built and continues to sustain Dubai.

Murtaza Vali