Akram Zaatari at New Art Exchange, Nottingham

By Louise Darblay

Akram Zaatari, The Script (still), 2018, HD video, colour, sound, 8 min. © and courtesy the artist

It seems fitting that a show surveying the work of Akram Zaatari, with its particular attention to regional identity and practices, is receiving this lengthy tour of UK institutions (it will next travel to Margate’s Turner Contemporary and Modern Art Oxford). Featuring two older installation works and a new film commission, The Script reflects on the artist’s exploration of methods of display, both literally, by locating his practice between art and archive work, and conceptually, tracking and identifying patterns in forms of self-expression and representation in the Arab world.

Object of Studies, an ongoing project updated for this show, introduces Zaatari’s long-term engagement with the work of studio photographer Hashem el Madani (1928–2017), who portrayed young Lebanese people throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Zaatari originally acquired this archive through the Arab Image Foundation (an organisation he cofounded in 1997 in Beirut to collect, preserve and study photography practices in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora) and interestingly brought el Madani to international recognition by displaying his prints as Zaatari’s own artwork. The apparent objectivity of the original arrangements, however – grouping prints typologically, eg couples, men dressed as soldiers, men posing with cardboard cutouts of women – is here diluted by an unusual transformation: pasted onto the walls of the gallery via print transfer, the images resemble incomplete temporary tattoos, their contours dissolved and partially painted over in shades of white and grey. While the work renounces the initial display’s fruitful ambiguity between artwork and archive, it attests to Zaatari’s desire to experiment with and rethink the conventional treatment and presentation of archive material.

The most compelling installation here is the immersive four-channel video Dance to the end of love (2011), an edited compilation of excerpts from amateur YouTube videos created by young men from Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Using juxtaposition, Zaatari reveals some defining tropes in the subjects’ online self-representation, capturing the men throwing balls of fire (in animated montages), lifting weights, ‘skiing’ (a driving stunt in which a car is driven while balanced on only two wheels), but also playing guitar or posing with friends and family on holiday. Zaatari treats these videos like el Madani’s photographs, as alternative forms of evidence for a generation of young Muslims, sharing a similar deployment of theatrics (el Madani’s photographs feature both props and backdrop settings). Except here the potential for exposure is dramatically heightened in publicly shared videos, producing even more controlled narratives of self-representation. While underlining the narrow definitions of masculinity on display here (and in the pop-music videos that preceded them), Zaatari most importantly points to the problematically closed circuit of platforms like YouTube, on which those representations are shared and sustained via endless copycat reenactments.

The staging element materialises in the artist’s latest film, which shows a Muslim father attempting to perform Salah, the daily prayer, while his two young sons clamber over him. In one cinematic 11-minute video reenactment, Zaatari distils the essential features of what he has identified as a strange YouTube subgenre (after hours of scrolling through content, we’re told in the exhibition handout): cluttered domestic settings jarring with a spiritual moment, the amusing, seemingly choreographed dance routines of children challenging their fathers’ (almost) unshakeable concentration. But what the work emphasises, via an overly dramatic mise en abyme, is the apparent paradox of broadcasting such an intimate and sacred ritual on YouTube: in the last minutes of the film, the characters are transposed onto a theatre stage, the camera then turning to reveal rows of empty seats – perhaps a metaphor for the many anonymous viewers intruding onto the scene. From el Madani’s photographs to his appropriation of YouTube material, what this succinct survey highlights is Zaatari’s anthropological ability to navigate the specific and the universal, in turn revealing that though modes of display might change, the scripts of self remain essentially the same.

Akram Zaatari: The Script at New Art Exchange, Nottingham, 13 July – 9 September; at Turner Contemporary, Margate, 19 October – 6 January; Modern Art Oxford, 23 March – 12 May 2019.  

From the October 2018 issue of ArtReview