Sarah Abu Abdallah at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai

Sarah Abu Abdallah, The Salad Zone (still), 2013, video, 21 min 27 sec. Courtesy the artist and Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai

Rahel Aima looks beneath a series of internet jokes and finds a deeper layer of cultural subversion

It turns out that everything happens in ‘da salad zone’. A woman sits inside a giant metal stockpot and uses her hands to drag-twirl herself across a cerulean-carpeted floor, as if she were on a spinning-teacup ride at a funfair; later she stumbles around with the pot on her head. And even though she is filmed through a partially open door, the feeling is more stylised than voyeuristic: get a good shot of me doing this. Later on, schoolgirls fantasise about Japan as the camera tracks a spider across a terrazzo floor. A family bickers about lapsed vegetarianism while a cockroach scuttles across tiles. Cars slosh through a flooded road. Everyone is so stubborn and so bored.

The video The Salad Zone (2013) is one of a sparsely hung assortment of five works from the last six years by Sarah Abu Abdallah. The Saudi artist gained attention in 2011 with Saudi Automobile, in which she painted a wrecked SUV baby-pink – a comment on her country’s then-ban on women driving – and is known for her irreverent, slice-of-life videos. Here the video is shown alongside a friezelike painting in one large museum gallery, with a multichannel video installation that dominates another darkened room. And in a third, sunnily windowed space, a drawing and some live plants. The selection mirrors the casual, vloggy feel of the videos, where you half-expect the artist to pop up saying, “Make sure you click the link below to subscribe!” Somehow, it all works.

In The House That Ate Them Whole (2018), the dwelling in question gets so bored that it makes a meal out of its residents. The story unfolds over three screens – one on each wall, surrounding the viewer – through lurchy, spinning cinematography, talking-head-style witness testimony and sung narration, all of which contribute to a pervasive sense of audiovisual claustrophobia. Warbled lines like “destruction can be slow and unnoticed” and “it is important to eat” seem to fix the house as a metaphor for the insatiable appetite of urban development. This anxiety becomes more explicit in an installation of raised soil-beds planted with tomato vines in the next room. The seedlings are an heirloom variety Abu Abdullah remembers from her childhood, the farming of which has all but disappeared as oil extraction and unchecked urbanisation encroach upon the farmlands that once surrounded her hometown of Qatif. Its title, Trees Speaking with Each Other (2019), suggests that the trees are logging onto mycorrhizal networks or the ‘internet’ of fungi that plants use to communicate with each other.

Perhaps this is just a way of describing how our brains have mutated on the internet. In Abu Abdallah’s work, images and references aren’t mixed so much as made to duke it out with pool noodles, to entertaining effect. The first gallery is dominated by Bad Hunches (2019), a 23m-long painting hung from the ceiling that snakes through the space like a ribbon worm. Patchy, dieselly sloshes of black that suggest a topography of extreme scale – either a satellite view of the earth or a cellular-level map – are collaged over with printed-and-cutout images melding personal snapshots (a kid on a tricycle, gahwa cups and tarot cards, a hand flexed to show off some nail art) with assorted digital flotsam (a medical diagram of a torso, house facades, an embarrassment of tomatoes), portents of the other works in the show. Those scenes of domesticity in Salad Zone are meanwhile intercut with a pair of niqabis methodically smashing a TV using garden implements – vengeful tomato farmers perhaps? When they’re done, they turn towards the camera with no small satisfaction and stand, inverted shovel in hand like a Grant Wood painting transposed to eastern Saudi Arabia. Standing at the precipice of change and wary of being wholly consumed, a Khaleeji Gothic.

Sarah Abu Abdallah, For the First Time in a Long Time, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, 17 December – 20 April 2020

From the Spring 2020 issue of ArtReview Asia

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