Earwitness Theatre, Lawrence Abu Hamdan @ Chisenhale
Emoji summary: 😶 🔇 🔅
This week’s review, I’m going to be talking about Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s show Earwitness Theatre @ Chisenhale. And kids, today I wana get straight into it. So you walk in and there’s this massive wooden box, like an outhouse, dominating the space in front of you. Beyond that, to the right is a collection of objects gathered in a lil space, all clustered around a projection. Black background, white text moving to the cadence of someone’s voice (I suspect). And the objects; a metal trash can with a umbrellas, sticks, a wooden sword; arab flat bread; a step ladder; a concrete breeze block; a sledgehammer; a pile of sandy earth. There’s also a fly zapper shining it’s neon blue light over all the other objects, and reflecting pure blue off the white wall behind it.
In the wooden box, was a really quite stressful almost complete darkness. There’s one dim light right above th door, and 2 narrow windows facing out onto the clusters of objects; and some light comes in through there. But it’s not enough for your eyes to see if there’s a bench, someone else in the room with you. The audio playing in this lil listening box is Saydnaya (the missing 19db), a work containing the testimonies of former detainees of Saydnaya prison and (apparently) their reenacted whispers. I say apparently because i didn’t really catch that. The audio was all too solid for me to feel like I was catching anything; and i think that’s because when I walked in the person at the desk said, ‘It started ~10 minutes ago’ so I was out of sync with it all, unable to catch up. Just floating through half understanding the narrative, and too impatient and stressed out stood next to the doorway in the dark to wait for it to loop. But basically the bulk of this work was pulled from Lawrence’s investigations into the same subject of Saydnaya (the Syrian regime prison) in 2016 with Forensic Architecture. Forensic Architecture is a collective made up of artists, architects, designers, software developers, journalists, archeologists, lawyers etc and they construct cases investigating enormous crimes and breaches of human rights. Both the audio work in the listening box, and the projection of white text moving like someone would speak.
Of the projection, I wana keep it brief, but i’ll say this. It used the investigation into torture in Saydnaya as a central pin, and stretched out from there to talk about other cases. But the main theme was ofc the way sound is used to investigate wider cases; as well as Saydnaya there was a reference to another one of Lawrence’s works/investigations for Forensic Architecture involving the shooting of a Palestinian teenager by the Israeli Defence Force (who claimed they were using rubber bullets, but were actually using live ammunition, i think?) I say I think because tbh the details were foggy to me. I followed the projection more smoothly than the audio work, and I got it. The voice/text acts as a kind of performance, performing a kinda weird proxy awareness of the silence in the room. You hear the objects creak around you, you’re hyper aware of the footsteps in the hallway outside the gallery. It is a recreation of a percentage of the silence imposed in Saydnaya, I guess. and throughout the projection, the text/voice winds its way through talking about the research and its weighty chunk: the way silence is used as torture, how the detainees developed a hyper sensitivity, making them able to recognise and recreate the sound of, say, a cell door closing by comparing it to breeze blocks or identify a similar sound to trainer-clad footsteps on a metal staircase in the Warner Brother audio effects library. The way silence and sound is impacted by things like hunger, the way sound or recognition of sound and its likeness can be used as a way to build evidence. How gunshots don’t sound the way they sound in Hollywood films. I was just confused by the objects, even though they flashed up as relevant to the cases being discussed in the projection (I sat down in front of a stack of Arab flatbread in a plastic wrapped package, the projection references one of the witnesses being able to tell exactly how many pieces of bread were being dropped through their cell by the weight of the sound), but they held a weird position of power in my attention. Maybe it was the passivity of watching text being spoken, or the dominance of trying to decipher the image in relation to its reference, or just trying to pay attention while I really just wanted to have a poke round all these seemingly random objects and figure out their connection on my own? i’m not entirely sure. But i feel like the actual weight of research being presented sank beneath the fact of the objects in their own deafening silence.
Which brings me on to what I really want to say;;; I think I didn’t like this show, even though the projection and silent text/voice alone had me interested and kept me hooked despite me wanting to poke around some sand and breeze blocks. I just found the objects themselves weirdly placed. I guess they were there for decoration? demonstration? exhibition? i wasn’t too sure. I was just sure that they changed the work (the research) around them in the way they were laid out. Like installation, or cool-girl-sculpture, the objects felt like they were being exhibited. Like they felt like the product of a Contemporary Fine Art Practice, and in trying to unpick why that bothered me, I circle back to what I wrote about in my second review of In Formation at the ICA. I circle back to what I said about the Rojava Women’s Revolution, and how uncomfortable I felt to witness art being inserted so forcefully into something that felt like just politics; whether you can turn politics into an Art at all! I felt the same uncomfortability in this show. I felt like maybe the objects would be better tidied away elsewhere, because their very presence kinda demands a specificity in their arrangement and placement. And I also want a better word than placement here, I want to be saying presentation rather than something tied so formally in my mind to Exhibiting. The Objects and their weight deflated the show around me, and I feel like that has something to do with Aesthetics, and that whole debacle. I wonder if I’d have minded if they were all just lined up in a row? Or if they were strung from the ceiling? Something other than the cool-sculpture-bro feeling of them being placed so specifically. Maybe it’s because placement implies intention? I DON’T KNOW!!! i wish I was talking about something else!! this show felt disappointing because I think I was so close to liking it. I just wish it wasn’t so close to Art.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan's Earwitness Testimony is on at Chisenhale until 9th December.