Aftermath: Lessons in Futurity from Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Lawrence Abu Hamdan: ‘Rubber Coated Steel’, ‘Walled Unwalled’ and ‘Once Removed’
15.03.20 – ongoing
Entry in English
Money has never felt more morbid, which is to say that materialism can no longer provide us with the illusion of safety. To stall the economic collapse flowing from Covid-19, Western strongholds of capitalism have increased basic income and social assistance which, despite its valences of care, fail to disguise the hundreds and thousands who will continue to die. We are expected to feel grateful for state redistribution without questioning why it takes catastrophe for a minimum to be conferred, or how the good of staying home to curtail the strain on hospitals is offset by the already dead, many of whom lacked healthcare and financial stability in the best of times. ‘Flatten the curve’ is overly generous rhetoric for ‘do your duty to society’, because, as Naomi Riddle writes, ‘the dots on the graph are not dots, but people’.
How will we mourn once the pandemic is over? If art is expected to hold a mirror up to these times, poeticising its casualties will prove slippery. And although it’s tricky to speak in the future tense I am already braced for the failure of representation – or rather, I am suspicious of art that might deploy hindsight to obscure the gravity of our present moment. Put another way, whom will artists deem worthy of remembering?
In March this year, the Turner Prize-winning artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan released three of his video works on YouTube, offering those in isolation a way to pass the time. In recent years, streaming platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have been operationalised by artists such as Ryan Trecartin and Sue de Beer to become exhibition spaces that annihilate the prescriptive ways of seeing a museum often demands of its audience. And indeed, while it would be a stretch to label Abu Hamdan’s gesture curatorial, the resonance of his act nevertheless leaves a psychic trace similar to that of a curatorial intervention. Here, the four walls of my bedroom and computer screen appear less as indicators of safety than a reminder that my protection exists at the expense of another – that the distinction between the leisure class, to which I belong, and the labouring class, whose tasks range from trolleying dead bodies to delivering food, has never been more pronounced. Accessing Abu Hamdan’s work accentuates our reality in opposition to many others who have always lived in situations of greater deficit – a concern of the artist who takes this aphorism and expounds it within the context of fascism in the Middle East.
Viewed as a whole, Abu Hamdan’s work is marked by his willingness to sublimate evil: contemplating the aftermath of wars, human rights abuses, and the systems that allow for its metastasis. Ben Mauk surmises that Abu Hamdan takes ‘freely from the traditions of investigative journalism, human-rights campaigns and conceptual art […] moving towards an encounter that transcends the legal and extralegal injustices that form his raw material’, which is to say that the strength of his oeuvre lies not in artistry itself, but in his gift for staying close to injustice and exposing it.¹ In Rubber Coated Steel ( 2016 ), Abu Hamdan presents a video set in an indoor shooting range, centred on the legal question of whether the Israel Defense Forces killed two unarmed Palestinian teenagers – Nadeem Nawara and Mohamad Abu Daher – using live ammunition, or, as the defendants assert, standard rubber bullets whose ultimate form of injury is inconsistent with these teenagers’ cause of death, thereby negating culpability. The prosecution tries to establish a more insidious pattern of behaviour in the IDF, arguing that live ammunition is commingled in the magazine of rubber bullets, so that under the guise of dispersing crowds with the latter, Palestinians can be assassinated covertly, yet in plain sight.
The transcript of this proceeding is given to us in subtitles, over a video which is otherwise silent but for the mechanical hum of pulleys moving evidence in and out of frame. We read the subtitled testimony of an expert witness who analyses the sounds captured at the time in issue: a polyphony of live ammunition and rubber bullets, each mapped on infrared diagrams and shown to us as the trial runs its course. Considering the synthesis of sight, sound and the lack thereof, I notice how expertly Abu Hamdan plays with affect: we brace for a volley of gunshots that never arrive, forming a disconnect that situates us as both passive observers and arbiters of fact. The theatre of the indoor shooting range propels this dualism further as an imagined battlefield, alive with traces of violence, yet sanitised by the verbal swordplay of lawyers. The ingenuity of Rubber Coated Steel lies in its locating of audiences within the parallel subjectivities of observer/judge, suggesting that if what we see represents competing facts, then there is a distinction between that and the truth. Consider how Abu Hamdan omits the ultimate judicial finding from the work, and it becomes manifest that he, too, is contesting the broader narrative that law delivers this truth, despite what we might otherwise believe.
The subject matter of Abu Hamdan’s work leaves little room for levity. It’s a convention seen again in Walled Unwalled ( 2018 ) when he speaks to us through the testimonies of others, interrogating walls as both object and metaphor, an instrument that assists regimes of xenophobia, torture and other modes of violence. Again, brutality and conflict are extracted in Once Removed ( 2019 ), an interview between Abu Hamdan and writer/historian Bassel Abi Chahine, whose ability to recall with striking detail the many redacted horrors of the Lebanese Civil War is due to residual memories of his past life as one its soldiers. Gleaned from these works is the idea that the aftermath of violence is rarely linear, and that those subject to the same systemic evil very rarely have the exact same story to tell. Individual suffering is as much a narrativisation of society as it is a unique story of pathos. For Abu Hamdan, storytelling bares the rift between official record and subjective truth, and how at times it’s the grand narrative of history that is most removed from reality. If memories are seen as porous and unreliable, then Abu Hamdan negates this as a falsehood designed by states to allow violence to remain unchecked. Put simply, it’s only the individual, once subject to evil, who can give shape to events distorted by and omitted from the public record.
Against the chaos of the pandemic, can it not be said that the piecemeal socialism ratified by states to sustain fiscal health is a kind of evil that functions to mask the true collateral being lost? Might focusing on the individual, then, be considered an ideal starting point for artists to create work that resists ignoring the dead, or more accurately, the disproportionate amount of deaths in the lower socio-economic public? Crucially, should we not fight the fiction espoused by theorists like Judith Butler, when she states that ‘the virus does not discriminate […] that it treats us equally, puts us equally at risk of falling ill, losing someone close, living in a world of imminent threat’?² Capitalism has failed to create a collective condition of safety, which is to say that one’s complicity in the system sustains another’s subordination. It is the conceit responsible for society’s collapse. To reiterate an earlier point, self-isolation is now the stadium in which we witness the loss of decadence and reflect on our past. Indeed, what stories might we tell as participants and subjects within the matrix of complicity?
Abu Hamdan’s oeuvre is not scripture for how art must exist après le virus, as Hannah Arendt might have formulated it. Rather, his marked engagement with storytelling and memory presents a compelling case for how to begin rethinking the relationship between death, systemic neglect and complicity. This existential moment allows his videos to be read differently: how not to be seduced by the poetics of abstraction into straying too far from the truth. Mark Fisher famously quoted Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek when he wrote that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Today, it feels apposite to modify this maxim, insofar as it’s easier to conceal capitalism than it is to imagine it as the end of the world. Abu Hamdan provides us with ways of imagining art after capitalism and its influence on fascist regimes – to produce works imbricated by critiques of evil, while remaining focused on the power of individuals and the truths of storytelling. In Once Removed, Abu Hamdan confesses to Abi Chahine that he ‘wasn’t taught anything about the [Lebanese Civil War]’ and was in fact ‘actively discouraged from finding things out’ – foreshadowing the ease with which governments can alter history and preserve hierarchies of power. We ought not forget that the most valuable currency within this psychic economy is truth, whose power one might lean on once the dust settles, to oppose the preservation of our present imaginary.
1. Ben Mauk, ‘Does Sound Deceive? The Forensic Art of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’, Frieze, 196 ( 27 May 2018 ) <frieze.com/article/does-sound-deceive-forensic-art-lawrence-abu-hamdan-0>.
2. Judith Butler, ‘Capitalism Has its Limits’, Verso Books Blog, 30 March 2020 <versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits>.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan on YouTube
译 / 顾虔凡
金钱从未如此的病态，也就是说，物质主义已经不再能向我们提供安全感的幻觉了。要想阻止COVID-19疫情带来的经济崩塌，西方资本主义的数个大本营都采取了提高基本收入和社会援助的策略，尽管尽到了看护照顾的职责，这些政策仍然无法掩盖成千上万的生命还将持续离世的事实。我们被期待着会对国家政府对财富的再分配心存感激，而不去质疑为何要以灾难为代价才施行最低保障，或是大家为减轻医院压力而足不出户所带来的好处已经被死亡病例抵消了，这些逝者中有许多人在生前都并无医疗保险和稳定的经济收入。所谓“拉平曲线”，相对于“对社会尽责”而言是一种过于宽泛的辞令，因为正如娜奥米·里德尔（ Naomi Riddle ）所写：“曲线图中的点并不是点，而是人。”
今年三月，透纳奖获得者、艺术家劳伦斯·阿布·哈姆丹（ Lawrence Abu Hamdan ）在YouTube上发布了自己的三个视频作品，为那些孤身自处的人提供了一种消磨时间的方式。近年来，像YouTube和Vimeo这样的流媒体平台，已经为诸如瑞安·特雷卡丁（ Ryan Trecartin ）和苏·德·比尔（ Sue de Beer ）等艺术家们用作展览空间，这样的空间消除了观众参观博物馆所需的限定的方式。确实，虽然为阿布·哈姆丹的所为贴上策展的标签可能显得略微言重了，但他的举动引起的共鸣仍留下了类似于策展干预的一种心理层面的痕迹。在这里，我卧室的四面墙和电脑屏幕似乎并不显得安全，而只是提醒我某种保护的存在，而其又以牺牲他人为代价——我所属的有闲阶层与劳动阶层之间的区分从未如此鲜明，后者的工作任务包括搬运尸体和运输食物。观看阿布·哈姆丹的作品加剧凸显出我们的现实是如何与其他生活拮据者的境况相反，这是艺术家关注的一部分。他的作品以中东的法西斯主义为背景，对其进行阐释说明。
从整体来看，阿布·哈姆丹作品的标志是它们让邪恶纯净升华的意愿：思考战争的劫后余生、人权的侵犯以及允许这些事情不断蜕变的系统本身。本·莫克（ Ben Mauk ）认为，阿布·哈姆丹“自由地汲取调查新闻学、人权运动和观念艺术的传统……朝向着超越法律和法外的不公正遭遇，而这些构成了他的原始素材”，也就是说，他创作的力量并不在于艺术性本身，而在于他接近并暴露不公的天赋。¹在作品《橡胶涂层钢》（ Rubber Coated Steel, 2016 ）中，阿布·哈姆丹呈现了一段室内射击场中拍摄的视频，并聚焦这一法律问题：以色列国防军是否用实弹杀害了两位手无寸铁的巴勒斯坦青少年——纳迪姆·纳瓦拉（ Nadeem Nawara ）和穆罕默德·阿布·达赫尔（ Mohamad Abu Daher ）——或者，如被告所述，橡胶子弹所形成的伤口形态与少年们的致死伤并不一致，因而可以否定罪责。起诉方试图在以色列国防军中勾勒出一种更阴险的行为模式，认为实弹和橡胶子弹在弹匣中混杂在一起，因而在杂乱的人群和后者的幌子之下，巴勒斯坦人有可能会在暗中被悄悄杀害。
阿布·哈姆丹的作品主题几乎没有为不确定留有余地。这种惯例在作品《筑墙而起的无墙》（ Walled Unwalled, 2018 ）中再次出现，当时他通过其他人的证词与我们对话，审视既作为物件又作为隐喻的墙，这种协助仇外心理、酷刑和其他暴力形式的工具。再一次地，作品《一旦被移除》（ Once Removed, 2019 ）提取了残酷与冲突，作品呈现了阿布·哈姆丹与作家和历史学家巴斯尔·阿比·查希恩（ Bassel Abi Chahine ）的对谈，查希恩能令人惊叹地回想起黎巴嫩内战中的许多恐怖细节，是因为他还留有前世作为士兵的残留记忆。这些作品能让我们得出这样的想法，即暴力的余波鲜少是线性的，而遭受了相同的系统性邪恶侵害的人也很少会讲述出完全相同的故事。个人的痛苦既是整体社会的叙事化，也是独特的悲情故事。对阿布·哈姆丹来说，讲述故事弥合了官方记录与主观真实之间的裂缝，以及历史的宏大叙事如何时常变得与现实最为脱节。如果记忆能被视作多孔的、不可靠的，那么阿布·哈姆丹则否认了记忆并不真实的假说，这是经过政府设计的说法，旨在允许暴力能够不经检视。简而言之，一旦涉及邪恶，那么只有个体才能为这些被公共记录扭曲、遗漏的事件赋以形状。
借鉴汉娜·阿伦特（ Hannah Arendt ）的说法，阿布·哈姆丹的创作并不事关艺术为何在病毒之后必须存在。取而代之的是，他标志性地让讲故事和记忆都参与创作，由此呈现了令人信服的示例，事关如何开始重新思考死亡、系统性漠视与同谋之间的关系。这个存在性的时刻让他的视频可以被不同的方式解读：如何不被抽象的诗学所诱惑，而不至于偏离真相太远。马克·费舍尔（ Mark Fisher ）非常著名的在写作中引用了弗雷德里克·詹姆森（ Frederic Jameson ）和斯拉沃伊·齐泽克（ Slavoj Žižek ），“想象世界的终结要比想象资本主义的终结容易得多”。今天很适合对这句话进行改写，因为掩盖资本主义比将其想象成世界末日要容易得多。阿布·哈姆丹为我们提供了在资本主义及其对法西斯政权的影响之后对艺术进行想象的方式——创作的作品一方面批判了邪恶，同时又专注于个人的力量和故事讲述的真实。在《一旦被移除》中，阿布·哈姆丹对阿比·查希恩坦言，他“从没被教授过有关（黎巴嫩内战）的事”，而且事实上他“主动地不想去探寻究竟发生了什么”——这成为一种前兆，表明了政府能够改写历史并保留权力阶层是易如反掌的。我们不应该忘记，在这种心理的经济中，最有价值的货币是真理，一旦尘埃落定，人们便会依靠真理的力量，去反对那些维持着我们现状的想象。