x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dubai exhibition explores the dichotomy of the 'state'

Two separate galleries ponder the literal-metaphorical dichotomy of "state" through representations depicting social behaviour, ecology and psychology.

'Blue Boy' by the Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj is one of the works displayed at the Third Line gallery. It riffs on constructed notions of what is anti-social behaviour, juxtaposed with found cigarette boxes sold - and therefore sanctioned - by the State. Courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj / Third Line Gallery
'Blue Boy' by the Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj is one of the works displayed at the Third Line gallery. It riffs on constructed notions of what is anti-social behaviour, juxtaposed with found cigarette boxes sold - and therefore sanctioned - by the State. Courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj / Third Line Gallery

All across the floor of the Traffic gallery in Dubai are strips of LEDs, forming lines and squares and rectangles. Seen up close, they look like a maze, but stepping back reveals the floorplan of a large house, in fact a scaled-down replica of the floorplan of the Pakistani mansion in which Osama bin Laden spent his final years.

This work by James Clar is part of The State: Social / Antisocial?, an exhibition curated by the Emirati artist Rami Farook and running across two Dubai galleries, Traffic and The Third Line, both in the Al Quoz area.

This exhibition is the third in a series, following 2010's exhibition The State at Traffic and The State: Uppers & Downers, earlier this year. The current exhibition continues the themes of the earlier exhibitions, discussing the state of the world through, as the gallery puts it, "artistic representations depicting social behaviour, ecology and psychology".

The State, of course, has a double meaning - the current situation and the nation State. The state we are metaphorically in and the state we are literally in.

"There's more than one interpretation of 'state' and having the exhibition in two spaces reflects that," says Tarane Ali Khan, of the Third Line gallery. "It allows for a broader perspective, two opportunities for people to see how the different works utilise the different spaces to best reflect the dual meanings."

Both of these ideas pervade many of the works.

At the Third Line, in a work by the artistic collective Slavs and Tartars, a mosaic of shapes make up a mirror inlaid with the words "Resist Resisting God". Through the viewer's reflection, the words become visible. It is a statement on the state of the world and the importance of religion, especially in this region.

Yet at the same time, the viewer is not alone in being spoken to, even though their image appears in the mirror: the exhortation to submit to God is not made to the viewer alone, it is made to anyone who looks. This is a central question of some modern nation states. There are states in the world today that promote that idea of submission to God as a central part of their nation's ideology. In these cases, as in the work, it is not individuals alone who are being asked to submit to God. The state intercedes in this idea of a personal God, taking on the role of exhorting people to believe and in leading the believers.

What the work seems to be asking is how far such exhortations can be made by a State. In this conception of religion, it is not only a flawless deity who asks individuals to believe - it is, rather, a State, with all its flaws and complexities, that asks people to believe. But can a flawed system make such a request?

This question of authority is expanded in a work by Rami Farook at the Third Line, featuring a riot shield inscribed with the words "God Save the King". There are many layers to this work that bear on the central dichotomy of the state/the State.

One can read it firstly as a straight political point, made with reference to the recent riots in the UK, where the law enforcement arm of the State was used to quell protests against the current state of the economy, the state of the politics, the state of the world.

But Farook, I think, wants to make a broader point about authority, hence why the old formulation "God save the King" is used, as opposed to the more accurate "God save the Queen". In this broader point, there is the question of the role of force - particularly the force of the State - in maintaining the status quo, the current state of being. This is particularly relevant these days, when protesters are challenging the status quo, from Yemen, to Syria, to the United States, and being met by the force of the State. "God Save the King" can be read as an ironic take on America's police force arresting those protesting at what Wall Street has done to them, or on those Arab leaders of republics who have used the power of the security apparatus to pass - or attempt to pass - power to their sons, hereditary republics in all but name. In many of the works at Traffic and The Third Line galleries, the State appears as something vast and impersonal. Over at Traffic, this is particularly true. Unsurprisingly, the United States appears or is referenced in many of the works, given its impressive ability to project power beyond its borders.

James Clar's recreation of Bin Laden's Abbotabad house seems to question the impersonal nature of the US State. On the one hand, vast military power allows the State to reach into people's lives, across great distances and borders. Yet that very ability is only achievable through the mechanisation of the State, necessarily reducing people's lives to data, to lines on a screen.

Clar's work makes this point in the context of Osama bin Laden: in the end, all the trauma he caused to Americans, to citizens of the US State, was condensed into those lines on a grid, as stealth helicopters made their way to his hideout with US troops aboard. A bogeyman who dominated American public life, he was, to the State, just lines on an electronic screen, a target in a city.

Combining these two ideas - the current state and the nation State - is a work by Aman Mojadidi about Afghanistan, a series of love letters from Kabul. Mojadidi, an American of Afghan ancestry, explains that when he moved to Kabul, he began to receive emails from the US embassy, travel advisories, security warnings and the like. "There's something very interesting about the emails," said Mojadidi in a conversation with The Review, "I started to feel that the embassy really cared about me. The romantic fantasy of there being an entity that really cares about me. I envisaged it as love letters from a woman at home."

Mojadidi has rewritten these emails in that style. One runs: "My dearest love, I know you've never been there, but I thought I should let you know anyway that Camp Phoenix was attacked this morning. So, Jalalabad Road is off limits to you. Stay safe."

This is a strangely personal view of an impersonal State, a way of conceptualising the relationship of the State to individual citizens that highlights how, to a large extent, the State mirrors the role of parents, partners and providers. The State, this anonymous bureaucracy that restrains and allows, that provides and punishes, mimics a family role, wanting to counsel and help, and in fact borrows the language of family, of advice, assistance and pubic service announcements, to explain its role. Mojadidi's work shows how even a small State, even a State far away, can infantilise its citizens through advice that directs their behaviour and removes their autonomy.

Indeed Afghanistan, as a place, is a good microcosm of these ideas, a place where the current situation has been created through the failure of one State (the state apparatus of Afghanistan itself) and the intervention of others.

The civil war that plagued Afghanistan for two decades ended with the rule of the Taliban, which was patchily enforced across the country. This period in Afghan history scarcely counts as a functioning state, since Taliban rule was unable to provide the basic services of a nation state.

At the same time the involvement of other States have created and exacerbated its problems. In Afghanistan, the state the country is in is directly related to problems of the State and problems with other States.

There is an irony therefore to Mojadidi's work - that the State (in this case, the US) can reach across oceans and mimic the protective behaviour of loved ones, in an unintended and (Mojadidi seems to suggest) unwanted way, while at the same time it is precisely that lack of State protection that is causing so many of Afghanistan's problems. The grip of the State can be both too strong and too weak.

By its presence, it can create the states we find ourselves in, affecting the way we think, the way we act and even our physical well-being. Yet by its absence it can do those same things.

The State, the works across these two galleries show, can be both a social and an antisocial force.

The State runs at The Third Line and at Traffic until October 20.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.