Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Visualisations of echoic memories from a notorious prison...

By Paul Pieroni

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Saydnaya (ray traces), 2017, inkjet prints on acetate sheets on overhead projectors. © the artist. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London


Maureen Paley, London, 28 April – 28 May 


‘What does your PTSD sound like?’ asks a thread on myPTSD, a popular Internet forum dedicated to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (I’m research-browsing). ‘It kind of just sounds like growling, grunting and anguished moans,’ answers Venator, an active forum member. Reddevil1111, a forum guest, adds: ‘It can be with my father yelling, the sound of his belt hitting my flesh.’ Here – in extremis – is the auditory component of sensual memory, what is known as echoic memory. The resounding of such memories, in particular those of trauma, is the keynote theme of Jordanian-British artist and ‘private ear’ Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s second solo exhibition at Maureen Paley.

Downstairs is a new installation resulting from Abu Hamdan’s collaboration with human rights NGO Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture (a research project coming out of Eyal Weizman’s Research Architecture department at Goldsmiths, University of London). Billed as an ‘acoustic investigation’, Saydnaya (ray traces) (2017) focuses on the echoic memories of former captives of Saydnaya prison, a notoriously brutal Syrian regime compound 25km north of Damascus. (Picture cells so cramped inmates die of suffocation, sadistic rape games, torture involving scalding water and nail pulling, and some 13,000 executions since 2011). Kept mostly in the dark or blindfolded, Saydnaya’s prisoners, the exhibition text informs us, developed an acute sensitivity to sound. Employing a digital visualisation process used in architecture to map acoustic leakage (the titular ‘ray tracing’), Abu Hamdan has diagrammed ‘ear witness’ accounts from freed inmates into a series of images that attempt to render the prison’s otherwise unknown architecture through memories of how sound propagated in the building. Printed on acetate and mounted onto six overhead projectors, these images (essentially scratchy lines inchoately mapping architectural geometries) beam out onto the gallery walls at oblique angles. Thus so, the abominable soundscape of Saydnaya – slamming cell doors; morbid screams; wall-shuddering torture machines – is neatly transposed into architectural data.

Could this be one of those nuanced situations in which the sheer horror of an event or circumstance is ramped up by its relative absence or adjacency in representation (qua Hitchcock)? Perhaps. Though I feel that Abu Hamdan’s compassion is unquestionable (he is dedicated and consistent in his politics), he has decided here, as elsewhere, to filter the contagion of poesy and viscerality from his work. This is undoubtedly in order that it might serve another cause, one quite strange to art: that of useful evidence, in the most formal, legal, forensic sense.

Note: If one is alone or among quiet visitors, sound drifts down from a second work upstairs, This whole time there were no landmines (2017), an eight-channel video installation that reworks a 2013 project exploring ‘the shouting valley’: a stretch of land on the Syria/Israel border that, due to its unique topography, allows divided families to communicate directly with each other. (The work comprises low-res video footage of the transgressive moment when, on 15 May 2011, 150 Palestinian protesters from Syria broke into Israeli territory). There’s power in this accidental mingling. If it needs saying, there is something jarring about hearing actual screams and yells as opposed to viewing them represented as visual information, however instrumental such information might be in the establishment of vital, objective truths.

From the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview