Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Earwitness Inventory, 2018, mixed media. Installation view.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Earwitness Inventory, 2018, mixed media. Installation view.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Earwitness Inventory, 2018, mixed media. Installation view.

“A kind of superior journalism” is how art historian Kenneth Clark once thought of Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, 1814, a brutally graphic painting of then-recent political executions. Some two centuries later, employing the latest in digital technologies, investigative artists—among them Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Forensic Architecture, and Trevor Paglen—have fashioned themselves heirs to Goya’s repurposing of art: They seek to inform viewers of unjust and sometimes little-known current events.

Abu Hamdan gained attention last year with the audio work Saydnaya (the missing 19db), 2017, commissioned by the Thirteenth Sharjah Biennial and now reinstalled in a freestanding structure near the entrance to his solo exhibition “Earwitness Theatre.” Inside, as if occupying the beating heart of Abu Hamdan’s gallery/theater, we listen in pitchdarkness to mysterious sounds and the voices of former detainees of the notorious Syrian prison Saydnaya giving firsthand accounts of their incarceration there. Inmates were kept in darkness and even blindfolded;denied the faculty of sight, they developed an acute sensitivity to sound. (Conversely, Goya was completely deaf when he experienced the atrocities of May 3, leading Clark to speculate that the Spanish artist compensated with high-impact visual imagery.) Abu Hamdan has gathered the prisoners’ spoken testimonies alongside their descriptions of remembered sounds, thus producing a body of sonic evidence documenting the otherwise unrecorded, unspeakable violence that fills this architectural hell on earth. 

Surrounding the small enclosure housing Saydnaya is Earwitness Inventory, 2018, a collection of ninety-five objects mentioned in trials from across historyor in Abu Hamdan’s own inquiries into recent events involving acoustic memory. His assembled research into these earwitness accounts appears in a scrolling text projected on the far gallery wall. For instance, the sound of “wagon wheels on a dirt road” is how survivors in a South African gold-mining village described the ominous roar that preceded the opening of a giant sinkhole that swallowed houses whole and buried its residents alive in 1964; a wagon wheel and a pile of dirt duly occupy a section of the gallery floor. In the text, film-industry sound effects are sometimes a reference point for remembered noises; one witness explainsthat the thud of a punch does not so much resemble the Foley artist’s phone book dropped to the floor but that of a cinderblock falling onto concrete, or a watermelon being smashed. Abu Hamdan seems to suggest that partial and inaccurate accounts of the injustices that he uncovers offered by fact-based news programs may not be as far as we imagine from the overtly fictionalized depictions in movies and on television.

The scrolling text never remains static but appears to be typed in real time before us, in some ways mimicking the unresolved, open-ended nature of the narrators’ memories. Each black “page” is slowly filled from top to bottom with white text describing harrowing events; once full, the screen is wiped clear, and new typing emerges in the darkness from the top. No printed transcript is provided; if your eyes stray from the moving cursor you risk losing the narrative thread. Testimonies blur together. With my eyes fixed on the shifting words, repeatedly readjusting focus from light to dark, I nearly tripped over the cinder block and watermelon sitting on the floor. After crashing into a near-invisible standing helium balloon positioned at head level and encountered like a bodiless ghost, I stumbled weakly on, a little shaken.

Makers of unadorned documentary work, Forensic Architecture’s members (architects, artists, lawyers, scientists, and others with whom Abu Hamdan has collaborated) have questioned their own identity as artists. In contrast, Abu Hamdan’s artistry is unmistakable. He manipulates an arsenal of contemporary media—readymades, installations, moving images, and text, as well as performance (as in the associated piece After SFX, 2018, performed at Tate Modern in London), but the overlapping media never detract from the work’s primary truth-telling function. Abu Hamdan has skillfully orchestrated a theatrical experience that is both edifying and unnerving, transforming the windowless gallery into a disquieting, suffocating cell.