St. Gallen

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012, vinyl, paper, paint, wood. Installation view.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012, vinyl, paper, paint, wood. Installation view.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes, 2012, vinyl, paper, paint, wood. Installation view.

Surah al-Balad 90:9 of the Qur’an states that man was created with “one tongue and two lips,” the latter presumably conceived to keep the former in check. More than an idea, the verse suggests an actual mechanism, one that operated at the core of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s most comprehensive exhibition to date, “ة ي ق ت ↱ (Taqiyya) – The Right to Duplicity.” The vehemently repeated utterance of this term throughout the byzantine sound-image-teleprompter installation Contra Diction (Speech Against Itself), 2015, refers to an ancient Arabic semantic concept that allows its user to outwardly and temporarily renounce his or her faith and to lie, so as to escape persecution at the hands of those of another faith or faction. What in the age of Daesh and its myriad mutations again constitutes a contemporary survival strategy simultaneously flourished in a Swiss kunsthalle as the latest variant of the prized postcolonial virtues of in-between-ness and hybridity.

Abu Hamdan unpacked taqiyya as an unexpectedly urgent sonic biopolitics, delineating it, for example, among the Druze, who struggle to maintain a voice of their own in the face of both surging Wahhabism and the Israeli-Palestinian status quo. The grotesque graphic design envisioned on the basis of immigration-policy procedures in the series of diagrams Conflicted Phonemes, 2012, meanwhile, addresses the EU’s hardening guidelines, according to which the fate of Somali asylum seekers is now apparently meted out via the “objective” science of identifying local accents.

Abu Hamdan’s treatment of governmental communication devices and schemata corrupts them, making them register and transmit the dissonances they’re designed to optimize, streamline, administer, and discipline. In the exhibition, this methodology veered from the humorous to the deadpan. The transcription software portrayed in Contra Diction intermittently threw back on the screen such hilarious bunk as “non-verbal truth can at times be just as revealing the car off your true identity as Jews is mostly on the juicer bananas for cough,” while the monochrome audio waves painted on the seven panels titled Beneath the Surface, 2015, which visualize the veracity of oral testaments/testimonies, proved sonic “uncertainty” to be nearly indistinguishable from “truth.”

The navigation of image regimes appeared less intricate—and also less enigmatic—than Abu Hamdan’s deconstructionist sculpting of sound and data. One gallery, painted the shade of pastel green that museums seem to reserve for historic masterworks, contained a framed reproduction of Géricault’s Officier de chasseurs à cheval de la garde impériale chargeant (The Charging Chasseur), 1812. Hung alongside it was a supposedly empowering detournement of this composition, picturing a Syrian-Druze protagonist of the Syrian Revolution, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, substituting the supercilious Napoleonic chevalier with a no less imperious Arab war hero. This multicomponent work, OD’ing on its postmodern title Double-Take: Officer Leader of the Chasseurs Syrian Revolution Commanding a Charge, 2014, further consists of an essayistic video narrated by the artist. It documents a tour of the sprawling English-countryside estate of an aspirational Syrian entrepreneur whose acquisition of this architectural gem allegedly came complete with said Géricault knockoff, inspiring him to commission a reinterpretation of the canvas. The vulgarities of this plot aside, the installation bypassed the fact that such cultural heritage is often best suited for postcolonial pop à la Kehinde Wiley’s 2005 Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. From Versailles to Brooklyn, the ride to duplicity is not least interesting for the noises en route.

Daniel Horn