Alserkal: Art In Dubai

Dubai is the modern-day crossroads of East and West. An eight hour’s flight from two thirds of the globe, it is ideally situated to display a wealth of contemporary art from the Islamic diaspora, as well as Northern European artists. I have written elsewhere of the dichotomy at the heart of art curation in Qatar: a lot of money, but a lack of direction. Direction is thankfully not a problem in Dubai, as all points of the compass lead to this cross-continental city and its artistic enclave Alserkal.

Sited within what my brochure described as the city’s ‘gritty, industrial’ district of Al-Quoz, I reached Alserkal following a 35 minute walk from a brief diversion at the fairly unremarkable Meem Gallery elsewhere in the city. Dubai is not built for walking. Understandable, given the summer heat, when a car’s use is for mobile air conditioning as much as transport. Filled with wide-eyed, cod psychogeographic ideas about using the opportunity to walk between the galleries as an opportunity to experience ‘the real’ Dubai, I was unable to indulge my inner flaneur, focusing too much on leaping between sandbank sidewalks while the real Dubai drove past me in a cascade of battered 4x4s and water trucks. The smell of Al-Quoz was quite something. Walking along 8th street, roughly parallel to the Sheikh bin Zayed road, Dubai’s aorta, oil never left my nostrils. Oil in a host of flavours. Gasoline at filling stations. A tangy must escaping from print factories and bottling plants.

There was no gradual transition into urbanised grot about the space of Alserkal; it was just suddenly there, with the advertising posters and clean graphics on its outside the only real clue that it wasn’t another motor works facility. The block was a grid of warehouse and lock-up spaces which were variously used as galleries, office spaces for design agencies and upmarket, organic coffee stations. Shoreditch on the sand, if you will.

Farhad Ahrarnia – Something For The Touts, The Nuns, The Grocery Clerks And You @ Lawrie Shabibi

image

Fahrad Ahrarnia. Something For The Touts, The Nuns, The Grocery Clerks And You, No. 17. 2015. Work on cardboard.

Having accumulated a good portion of sand in my shoes, and dodged litter blowing through the air along the road into Al-Quoz, the first gallery I visited appropriately had cardboard, and not canvas, as the medium. The press release heralded Farhard Ahrarnia’s pieces as a recollection of Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard works, but they lacked Rauschenberg’s structural play, being mostly utilised as a two dimensional surface. Ahrarnia took discarded boxes from the urban centres of Iran and repurposed them as a backdrop for tazhib, a Persian form of gilding typically used to ornament books. Al-Quoz was an appropriate place for them to be displayed, being the engine of Dubai’s manufacturing and packaging. The second half of the exhibition drew upon a different craft; that of khatam, a micro-mosaic technique which requires a methodical collecting of filaments of different materials (ivory, copper, and brass are common) which are cut at the cross-section to reveal the underlying geometric complexity. In Ahrarnia’s version the strips are laid out in dynamic collages, which were often in deliberate homage to pieces by Lissitzky and Malevich. Ahrarnia was very open about his influence from the Russian Modernists, and to see Persian craftwork colluding with the Russian avant-garde was one of many pleasant surprises which Alserkal afforded.

Lawrie Shabibi, Al-Quoz 1, Al Serkal Avenue, Unit 21

Ramtin Zad – Retrospective @ Salsali Private Museum

The Salsali Private Museum was a terrific space, with immaculate lighting piercing through black walls and black ceiling to allow details like the impossibly radiant tail of an acrylic peacock to shine through. There was not a dull piece in this exhibition, with Zad commanding an impressive and consistently penetrative style through painting, drawing, and sculpture.

On the back wall were the most imperious pieces, large canvases with different scenes united by cornucopias of people writhing and melding in forms which approached the botanical. A constant throng shapeshifting from man to beast to flower. Crowds flew on the backs of eagles. Rabbits, bears, humans and deer danced and ate and fucked at the centre of dark woods. Canvases with dramatically flat perspectives sucked me in as vigorously as the intense landscapes of late Van Gogh or Kiefer. Thick brushstrokes depicted crowds of spectre-spectators, their flesh with the slippages of candle wax, all in a carnivalesque turn reminiscent of the recently exhibited James Ensor at the Royal Academy.

image

Ramtin Zad, Magician. 200×150 cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2015. Courtesy the artist and Salsali Private Musuem.

The paintings touched on places and symbols from Persian folklore which would chime readily with a native viewer (the Damavand mountain, mythological symbol of Iranian pride and resistance, is namechecked in one piece), but less so with ignorant Westerners like myself. That soon, however, became irrelevant: Zad still provided overwhelming sights which packed a punch regardless of prior knowledge. As the press release described, Zad fused a private language of his unconscious with mythological archetypes – not knowing the man or his cultural language that well, I should have felt cut adrift. But I never felt alienated – in the city where simulacra towers rise out of dead ground, I felt alive.

Some paintings had a millennarian air, especially one which had a Moses figure cleaving apart the Red Sea, towering over one of Zad’s distinctive masses of figures. The painting’s title was given as ‘Return of Trump’. An enigmatic one, as the painting seems incredibly timely, though it was actually painted in 2012. I emailed the artist to try and get to the bottom of it, but without a reply my best guess is that the title is a later addition to the piece. Still, at a time when the new American president is keen to roll back rapprochement with Iran and paint it as the international enemy number one again, vibrant Iranian artists like Zad are needed to speak out for his country, and he did so with aplomb.

peacock-200x-150-cm-Acrylic-on-canvas-2013.jpg

Ramtin Zad, Peacock. 200x150cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2015. Courtesy the artist and Salsali Private Museum.

How does Zad see himself? A self-portrait at the end of the gallery held a clue, with the artist as a ‘Magician’, levitating from a chair in front of a crowd that mixed people with anthropomorphic animals, or maybe just people wearing masks. Irreverent yet self-confident, it was a profile fitting a man who paints so powerfully despite not being much past thirty.

Salsali Private Museum, Al-Quoz 1, Street 8, Al Serkal Avenue

Bernhard Buhmann – Modern Times @ Carbon 12

Bernhard Buhmann was another ringmaster, conjuring tricksters and jesters of his own, albeit on rigorously portioned canvases. Half of the pictures were figurative paintings constructed from 4×3 square grids. These were the stronger, and just about justified the artist’s claim that the pictures invoked the split of identity facilitated by social media. However, I felt that Buhmann was caught between continuing his usual character shapes and types, and engaging with post-internet art. For what it’s worth, I find Douglas Coupland’s pictures in the latter field to be similar, but much more effective.

image

Bernhard Buhmann, Mister D. 200x130cm. Oil on canvas. 2016. Courtesy the artist and Carbon 12 gallery.

Likewise, though the abstract paintings which constituted the other half of Buhmann’s show weren’t bad, and were a commendable effort at trying on a different hat, they lacked the freewheeling charm of his early paintings. Buhmann’s art seems to be self-consciously receding to straighter and crisper lines, and I missed the steampunk world of aeronautics and harlequins and from his prior output. Modern Times treads much of the same territory as his previous show The Pretenders, but cannot say it as well as The Pretenders did, that show being the chrysalis of Buhmann’s career so far. Those paintings, loosely based on circus performers assembled out of bright colours and animal faces and disproportionate body parts, made the more nuanced, yet more impactful, statement on identity.

Carbon 12, Unit 37, Alserkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

Safwan Dahoul – Miniatures @ Ayyam Gallery

A dark room away from the glare of the Dubai sun was the ideal setting for Safwan Dahoul’s haunting dream visions. A continuation of his long-running Dream series, Miniatures was a departure in form, transferring his pictures to a smaller scale. The gallery trumped up these miniatures as being like storyboards, and this was true to an extent, but the comparison faltered through giving too much preference to film. This wasn’t some incomplete or deficient work, waiting to be built up into something more. These were intimately rendered vignettes where the physical size of the pieces were crucial to their claustrophobic feel.

image

Safwan Dahoul, Dream 139. 10x10cm. Acrylic on wood. 2016. Courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Dahoul has stated that his Dreamer, though she is a woman, is a version of himself. But that undersells his ability to capture something inherent to female experience. One of the most affecting sights I saw in Alserkal was a triptych in the corner of this exhibition, focusing on the dreamer’s belly: first with a close-up of it, then a close-up which revealed a foetus inside, then finally the woman’s belly with her arms crossed in front of it. It could have been in protection, in enchantment, in memory, or something else entirely, but each interpretation held a new well of feeling. It’s the exhibition in microcosm: symbolic, elusive, and all the more powerful for it. With such small paintings, Dahoul left elusive and allusive pointers to what’s happening in his native Syria, like the triptych where his dream-protagonist appeared to dissolve before the viewer’s eyes. These miniatures were paintings as portholes,  with passing glimpses into portals of a female psyche. I felt distinctly like a voyeur, with the dreamer’s expression impassive through it all. Visually, Dahoul’s dreamer looked European, French even, with a close-cropped bob of black hair. But hung closely together, and with a distinct narrative edge making a viewer less likely to contemplate in front of them, the vignettes could have been a comment on the passage, upheaval and suffering of Syria’s refugees.

It is worth mentioning that while Dahoul is conversant with early 20th century artists’ investigation of dreams, and shares traits with Picasso in his manipulation of the female form, dreams are traditionally important in Arabic culture. Medieval Arab cultures composed volumes and volumes of ‘dreambooks’, encyclopedias designed to be used to unlock the symbolism of objects which presented themselves in dreams. And unlike the self-contained, diagnostic dreams of Freudian psychoanalysis, these dreambooks had a divinatory role, where they revealed something hidden yet imminent in the world, instead of the dreamer’s anxieties. For a series that is based around dreams and unreal worlds, it had an oblique yet incisive analysis of Dahoul’s native country, particularly since the Year Zero of 2011. Even on a purely conceptual basis, the questions loomed large: with the horror happening in Syria, who is to say that reality is less surreal than a dream? Are we collectively daydreaming through humanitarian crisis?

image

Safwan Dahoul, Dream 120. 13x13cm. Acrylic on wood. 2016.

Having worked on his Dream series since 1987, Dahoul ought to be commended for having pursued a singular vision so successfully for so long. But he does so much more than that, weaving a subtle wider commentary throughout the works.

Ayyam Gallery, Units 11-12 Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

Thaier Helal – Landmarks II @ Ayyam Gallery

Just over the other side of the road was an exhibition of Dahoul’s compatriot, Thaier Helal. For all that a Western observer might wring their hands about the difficulty at representing the chaos of the world, those problems pale in comparison to those faced by Syrian artists, who must try to come to terms with the displacement, devastation, and death incurred by the ongoing Civil War. Thaier Helel’s latest effort is more oblique than his 2012 exhibition In Army We Trust, which pilfered the iconography of the Syrian army. Helal looked deep within the earth for Landmarks II, representing the cartography of his native land through mixed media on canvas. His pieces were as much sculptural as they are pictorial, with layers of crust and sediment erupting from the canvas. Grit, glue, sand and salt layered with paint in a process depicted in an illuminating video on display at the exhibition, which hit the perfect middle ground between academic over-explanation and brevity.

image

Thaier Helal, Sand. 190cm diameter. Mixed media on canvas. 2016.

The works were powerful, and not in a handwavy spiritual sense. They weren’t idly romantic visitations, in a way that English art at times of war very often is; they were hard, concrete, and did a solid job of deferring to nature as the supreme authority in Syria’s fate, the judge of what will emerge through decay or rebirth.

Ayyam Gallery, Units 11-12 Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

 

Nick Brandt – Inherit The Dust @ Custot Gallery

11660b_b763f0d997984564af5fb046e0d95c54-mv2_d_3800

Nick Brandt, Underpass With Elephants. 2015. Photo credit: Nick Brandt. Courtesy Custot Gallery Dubai.

As with Safwan Dahoul, Nick Brandt presented a body of work which was part of a long-running series, but could still be enjoyed in its own right. Brandt took monumental photographs of animals he snapped for earlier projects, and cleverly choreographed enormous prints of those around the urban sprawl of East Africa. Elephants loomed out of factories and landfills; zebras stood on railway lines. They were all shaded with Brandt’s distinctive monochrome, a technique which made the pictures, and the people and animals within them, look like preemptive memorials.

The pictures were all the more effective from being shot on location, rather than edited in post-production, thanks to the chance encounters of elements in the photograph. So a family of elephants propped up beneath an underpass were viewed with awe by homeless children, and the zebra originally photographed by a lake had his surroundings seamlessly overlaid with those of a fetid waterway surrounding a factory. A chimpanzee appeared to mournfully examine the wreckage of a landfill.

When scale is so important, occasionally it can be difficult to appreciate finer details, particularly in the smaller works, having got used to large prints which aimed to impress a reaction upon the viewer instantaneously. But the smaller works had their charms too, like the photograph which showed a ranger crouching by two dispossessed elephant tusks so that his body shape resembled the elephant’s head. It’s always tempting to divorce aesthetic impact from social conscience, to think that the ivory tower of art is apolitical and amoral. But ivory is hardly apolitical, as Brandt’s tusks remind us. It was a mark of the exhibitions in Alserkal to marry those artistic and political tendencies, sometimes held as contradictory in Western art. Yet it is difficult to imagine that, if we were to undergo something as catastrophic as the Civil War which has afflicted Safwan Dahoul and Thaier Helal’s homeland, for example, we would feel the same way.

Custot Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Unit 84, Street 6A, Al-Quoz 1.

Abderrazzak Sahli – Tolerance And Peace

Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory: Modern Art From North Africa @ Elmarsa Gallery

I technically entered Elmarsa in error, as the gallery was in the process of transitioning between exhibitions. But, true to Alserkal’s openness, the staff were perfectly happy for me to amble around their work-in-progress space and get almost two whole exhibitions for the price of one…which was still free, as all of these gallery spaces were.

Downstairs, a posthumous retrospective of Abderrazzak Sahli was being dismantled. As with Farhad Ahrarnia, the twin influences of Islamic abstract art and the Russian avant-garde were held in parallel. In contrast to the abrupt angles and shapes of Malevich and Lissitzky, Sahli’s canvases danced with fluid forms which were much more vibrant and cartoony. Think Miami, not Moscow. Some of the more neon shaded paintings could be screenshots from the intro credits to an early 1990s kids’ TV show. But the title of Tolerance And Peace alerted the viewer to Sahli’s high-minded intentions. He said that his work ‘[translated] diversity’ and that the ‘clutter of objects’ in it was ‘nothing but a representation of the crowd’. For Sahli the crowd is a heterogeneous dance, diverse underneath uniformity, like sand under a microscope. His later works vibrated and shimmered like the most aquatic Paul Klee paintings.

mainlogo

Abderrazzak Sahli, Untitled. 120x120cm. Acrylic on canvas. 1993. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery.

Against the rainbows casting out across the gallery, some austere works stood out, consisting of white shapes against a black background which had the concentrated intensity of Matisse’s cut-outs. Without colour, the focus could switch to Sahli’s use of shape. As ever, the danger to read too much into abstract painting looms large, but the overwhelming impression, at least, was of tumbling leaves, crescent moons, and dynamic human forms, arms outstretched. It certainly felt crowded, even in the austere pieces, and it made an interesting counterpart to Ramtin Zad’s wild, fleshy brush strokes when painting his pile-ons of spectators, as Sahli came off as much more confident and celebratory of gatherings of things and people.

Though this exhibition focused on Sahli’s paintings, there was dialogue with his sculptural work, and some of his paintings communicated ideas which were also realised by him in three dimensions. The abundance of works which consisted of frames-within-frames evoked the image of the illuminated manuscript; the decorated word. Similarly, the cut-out style of the austere works made overtures to a specifically Arabic architectural form: Mashrabiya latticework. Used in windows and dressing screens, it’s a type of wood design where the wood is peppered with small holes which allow light and air pass through, but maintain privacy as one cannot be clearly seen through them. It’s often used in screens which would allow women to undress behind when indoors. Abstracted from a design context, and shot through with Sahli’s distinctive colours and rhythmic shapes, the door motif is, in the coloured works, made sexy with suggestions of glimpses and teases. In the austere ones, there is a more concentrated focus on illumination from darkness or ignorance, or freedom from tyranny.

nejib-belkhodja-abstraction-numéro-45.jpg

Nejib Belkhodja, Abstraction Numero 64. 99x64cm. Oil on canvas. 1964. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery.

Mashrabiya can be found all over the medina squares of North African cities, which was in turn the structural motif toyed with by Nejib Belkhodja in the group exhibition upstairs, Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory, a ‘greatest hits’ collection of post-War artists from the Maghreb. The clarity of line and colour in his work is staggering, especially considering it predated digital art – from a distance, you could mistake one of his paintings for a QR code. I had a sense that among the North African artists, there was a willingness to embrace structure and form within abstract expressionism which would be anathema to some of the more self-directed North Americans. I felt that the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, just finished at the Royal Academy, was striking enough, but even in a shed on the outskirts of Dubai, artists from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria et al more than held their own against Pollock and co in Burlington House’s grand halls. 

There is something of Franz Kline’s enigmatic calligraphy in Rachid Koraichi’s etchings and sculpture, but of course the latter artist has a solidified relationship with Arabic text and symbol, whereas Kline’s relies on vagueness in his brushstrokes. Not to say that Kline is a worse or less educated painter (far from it), but it’s worth pointing out that the African artists’ manipulation of text went beyond source material into something essential to their identity and self-expression. Nja Mahdaoui made pure art out of calligraphy; Khaled Ben Slimane fused it with pottery. At the other end of the scale, Aly Ben Salem’s Le Jardin d’Eden was an outpouring of Oriental life and colour to make Henri Rousseau’s head spin, depicting two alluring women spangled together in a torrent of flowers, reeds, birds, forged by daring tones of blue and black. To make another overwrought comparison to a Western artist, it was a painting which made Klimt look impoverished. It was sheer magic, and any attempt to make a weedy critical comment was dashed by the saucily insouciant expression in the central figures’ eyes.

13320057_1030545617052808_56803234_n.jpg

Aly Ben Salem, Le Jardin d’Eden. 74x52cm. Gouache on paper. 1950. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery. Please note this picture has been unintentionally cropped.

The deep reds and oranges of Emna Masmoudi and Asma M’Naoaur burned with the Mediterranean sun, the Rothko to the Pollockian intensity of lines bedecking  Mahjoub Ben Bella’s art. Elmarsa should be applauded  for including Masmoudi and M’Naoaur, as they represented the more recent vanguard of women in North African painting. If there was one downside to the overall experience at Alserkal, the relative paucity of women was one. But then again, that’s a criticism which has been made of abstract expressionism all over the world: that it is, to put it bluntly, a load of cock waving.

Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory dipped a toe in the water for a colourful, thoughtful, and still fertile art scene and has allowed me to uncover even more artists from Tunisia and countries north of the Sahara which were not represented, and find out their communication with artists from Arabia, the Levant and beyond. Viewing it in close proximity to the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show was a convenient coincidence, but the wealth of Maghreb art more than matched those lofty standards.

Elmarsa Gallery, Unit 23, Alserkal Avenue, Al-Quoz 1

After Elmarsa, I walked out of the last warehouse into a nondescript gravel car park, and my visit was over. Compared to Dubai’s more well-known (and more central) sights, Alserkal is modest and quiet. Yet the voices it contains needs to be heard. I visited Dubai the week that the new  American president signed an executive order limiting travel to his country from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It goes beyond saying how short-sighted, narrow-minded, and plain callous that was, and it is hard not to feel pessimistic about how the Arabic world at large will be demonised into super-villainy over the next four years. Cross-cultural communication with the Arabic world is now more vital than ever, and art has a role to play in that. It may be the case that the artists are barred from travelling to their own opening nights (as happened to Thaier Helal in London), but their work has the ability to talk to us when they are silenced.

 

Advertisements

Underexposed Albums #2: Zoviet France – A Flock Of Rotations (1987)

Zoviet-France-A-Flock-Of-Rotati-446999

Io! (0:26)
Drive (6:26)
Skritha (0:31)
Slide (2:42)
Drifan (1:32)
Mandrel (2:55)
Skratte (3:53)
Irken (0:33)
Ions Collis (6:16)
Luh (4:10)
Luh Windan (2:52)
Dream Hole (4:23)

Number of last.fm listeners as of 9th Feb 2015: 851

Zoviet France make industrial music for the third world. Whereas Throbbing Gristle or EInsturzende Neubaten will place music atop the apex of mechanisation, echoing their live music with wails of machinery and steel, Zoviet France compose collages woven with wood, hessian, raw materials – and then they package their albums in them. 2014 was the recent peak for a trend of recording albums that imagine an alternative geography, usually a specific island. This covers a multitude of climates – look at Loscil’s icy Sea Island, Mark Barrott’s tropical Sketches From An Island and the exuberant Tayi Bebba by Clap! Clap! for examples of this phenomenon. Such albums are always an alluring listen but Zoviet France’s experiments from the 1980s are not just ahead of their time, but much darker and sharper. The materials of recording are inescapable in their output. Instead of painting a wide canvas of an imaginary locale, their settings come in fits and spurts through obscure samples, often severely compressed. The recent set of ‘island albums’ are a credible attempt to eschew conventions of nationalism – particularly relevant given the posturing by Putin and ISIS – into a pan-global, semi-fictional music (though Loscil’s album is more cold and survivalist, a reduction to essentials). Zoviet France concentrate on the frailty of the message, however, and it’s a theme which is just as applicable now as it was in 1987. Playing A Flock Of Rotations means letting spikes of Orientalism pierce through your speakers that infer a general otherness, snatches of sound; market patter, bizarre tapes from markets, a muezzin’s call.

The entire album is smothered by a cassette decay effect, and the template for the album, such as it is one, is an insistent, woody rhythm underpinning tortured samples of vaguely ethnic sounding instruments – what sounds like an ‘oud here, a tabla there.

As with one of my previous entries in this series, Hot In The Airport, the opening track, ‘IO!’ is jarringly uncomfortable – a call to arms or a call for help, untranslatable in any case – and therefore the best preparation for what follows. ‘Drive’ is the longest track on the album and lays the foundations for motifs to be picked up later on. A veritable bazaar of sounds collaged together, it leans on the edge of plunging into pure noise but always retains some semblance of melody and rhythm. ‘Slide’ is the fourth track and provides the first opportunity to take a breath and get some respite from the onslaught, though it forebodes a tone of imminent dread that is qualified when the second half of the album begins. Before that is an indication of the album’s emphasis on miscommunication across cultures as ‘Drifan’ is, in its title, a poorly echoed translation of ‘Drive’, completing the first of a handful of paired tracks which have names that exist in floating languages that cannot be coherently united. ‘Mandrel’ closes out the first side and gives the first example of something more populous on the second side; namely instruments that sound like instruments. The reversed melody matches the ironic theme of ‘Drive’ and driving – the promise of direction that is wholly incongruous. This is another facet of the album which makes it a good fit for our patronising perception of the Middle East in recent history, assuming it is progressing out of the Dark Ages that Europe abandoned in the 16th century. ‘Skratte’ sounds like the rantings of a psychotic prisoner, rocking back and forth in their stone cell. ‘Ions Collis’ is the most fear-inducing track on the album, an unbearably slow creeper at 6 minutes which steadily piles on echoic drum samples that hang around the stereo mix like chittering insects and invoke impending doom. ‘Luh’ arrives afterwards like a breath of fresh air, with (gasp) clean guitar playing, rather John Fahey-like, backed by initially pleasant reverb which is eventually dragged down into the oppressive dark ambient quagmire. ‘Luh Windan’ serves as a reprise from ‘Drive’ before the album closes with ‘Dream Hole’, which is like a soundtrack for the most horrifying film you’ve never seen. Given the ethnic flexibility the album possesses, it seems ironically apposite that it should end with a track based upon keyboard sample, the daddy of all instruments, the instrument capable of taking on any identity.

I can remember when I first listened to this album – it was an evening after having watched Egyptians mass in Tahrir Square during a free period at school with some friends. It instantly struck a chord as the album’s impenetrable mystery, with its sourceless samples, predicted the collapse of the Arab Spring and emergence of civil strife which subverted the expectation of peaceful liberal uprising along the lines of Western tradition(™). A Flock Of Rotations lacks the polish of Zoviet France’s later albums Shouting At The Ground and Look Into Me, but this is not an album about cleanness; it’s about muddied communication. It puts the ‘orient’ into ‘disorientation’.

The Bellicose Remembrance

“War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war” – Constance, King John, William Shakespeare

When I started this blog I had no intentions of commenting directly on the news or political events. On Sunday, I opened up my internet browser to be greeted by a putrefying stench – the pervasive smell of fish surrounding the story, first reported in the Sun, about a supposed plot to assassinate the Queen (that’s OUR queen, the British queen, God love her) at the Remembrance Day service in the Royal Albert Hall. Firstly, a lot of news sources reported that it was a gun or a bomb plot, which is not true – the arrests were done on the pretence of there being a ‘stab plot’ against the Queen. In the interest of balance, I won’t commit to any certainties, but nearly every household in this country has at least one knife in it that could probably cause severe damage to an 88 year old woman. These are not people found with bomb-making equipment in their kitchen, there is no smoking gun in this story. In fact, no weapons were found during the initial raids. The men apparently had ‘access to firearms’. What does that mean? With enough know-how I could find a gun if I really wanted to. I find it too convenient that such a story would emerge, on such a flimsy pretext, on this week of all weeks, when the suspects had been under surveillance for months, in the midst of perhaps the worst feelings of insularity and xenophobia I can remember happening in this country. Of course we should be vigilant following the events in Canada. But we should also be careful of turning a blind eye to a degradation in the legal status of British Muslims (or, heck, anyone who happens to look and sound foreign enough for the papers to run a juicy story), one which allows them to be subject to increased police interference and to be assaulted by people in the street.

The phrase ‘routine surveillance’ is one which only uncovers dubious dealings when you really pick it at it. In the context of what the Sun are saying, ‘routine surveillance’ is comfy, a sort of honourable act that the bobbies do in order to keep us safe in the fantastical Merrie England village which the Sun tries to convince its readership it could live in, if only they piggybacked onto enough of the paper’s campaigns. ‘Routine surveillance’ means the Met Police making an order for historical metadata on phone and communications usage – something which does not require a court order. How utterly convenient, then, that a story like this would emerge, where surveillance seems to be what’s needed to keep us all safe, in the wake of the scandal which uncovered just how much ‘routine surveillance’ was carried out by News International. Something seems to be very strange at the heart of it  – it was only a few weeks ago that the Met Police were slapped on the wrists for using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to tap into the phone of the Sun’s political editor. Maybe, while Operation Elveden is still ongoing, it is the Sun’s way of proving that they and the Met are not so different after all – they both act in the public interest, even if they have to be canny in their methods.

There is a deeper lying hypocrisy about this story which I can’t stand either. In the past year people have been thinking critically about religion and the unique idealism it holds which can provoke people into committing heinous acts. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But the way that the Queen (her Maj, our Liz, God love her) is spoken of in most red-tops borders on the religious itself. She is the only person who can make this story work, as she is perhaps the one woman in the world (except maybe Beyonce) who is above all criticism. The Sun is expecting to stoke a righteous indignation in their readers, who in turn would presumably find the idea of faith in the ideals of Islam an utterly intolerable concept.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Remembrance in the past week. Writing that seems like a doubly redundant sentence, but thinking and Remembrance to me seem increasingly mutual exclusive activities. The Remembrance industry, such as it is, is one which appears to provide us with niches for individual thought – a minute’s silence here, an art installation there – but social media has exacerbated the rapacious groupthink which occupies Remembrance. This is what I think Jonathan Jones was trying to get at when he wrote about the poppies at the Tower of London, before he (or his editor) decided to make the article incendiary to the point of embarrassment. The Tower poppies are undeniably powerful. But they are not the type of installation which facilitate an individual response – if you go there, you will be standing on your tiptoes to try and get a better view, you will have other people’s elbows jabbing into you, and generally, you will, through the power of collective experience, feel obliged to view the piece in the manner in which it is expected for you to. Remembrance Sunday is important. The poppy, in its red and white incarnations, is important. But no-one should ever feel that they are obliged to Remember with a capital r. Remembrance should involve personal discretion, whether you’re reading Owen, going through a religious text, scanning through history books (that, heaven forbid, may explore beyond the Western front), looking at the letters of a family member involved in the war. It’s a dexterous feat of historical interpretation to claim that the soldiers in the conflict fought for ‘liberty’, but if we assume that to be the ‘moral’ of this war, then we should use it to justify thinking about it in our own personal terms, not with a sense of obligation and shame that is drilled into us from the newspapers and elsewhere.

One final point – terrorism is scary. That’s how it works. It makes you suspicious of people you walk past on the street, it closes off your mind, it encourages you to accept freedoms being curtailed. But as I mentioned at the top, it is pretty obvious that one party (whether the government, the Met, or the Sun) felt the time was right to launch what was effectively a conveniently timed PR exercise,  moving against four men who have very little in the way of evidence against them. Terrorism also makes you blind. It makes you think that there is only one hot topic in the world, and that if only we could cut it off at the source, we’d be able to go back to the normal lives we once led. Don’t get drawn into the fear stories – think about the real difficulties that this country is facing at the moment; the piss-poor rights for housing tenants, the slow death of higher education possessing any sort of intellectual merit, and loneliness. The last one is different because it is not as contingent upon government policy, or lack of it. But it is perhaps the most preventable. All of those factors work in tandem to create disenfranchised people (who may be succoured into extremism) just as much as any abstract ideology. Initiate contact with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Call your parents. Say hi to your neighbours. Don’t proceed through the world alone and scared.