An exhibition in Paris exploring spirituality by five artists from different religious and cultural backgrounds is both sincere and authentic, writes Gemma Champ.
Exhibit in Paris explores spirituality through disparate artists
If ever there was a difficult time to create an exhibition juxtaposing the explicitly spiritual work of artists hailing from the Arab world with an Israeli artist, it is now.
When Lost In Paradise, which was showing at the Loft Sévigné in Paris earlier this month, was conceived by Arianne Levene and Eglantine de Ganay of A&E Projects, there was no obvious sign that Israel and the Palestinian Territories would once more be mired in serious conflict.
Even so, the pair acknowledged that they were doing a difficult thing with their exploration of spirituality through artists from different religious and cultural backgrounds, the most controversial aspect being the inclusion of Tel Aviv-born Michal Rovner, who now lives in New York.
But, as Levene points out, "People are addressing spirituality, and if they can't even talk about it in art, there's a problem."
And Rovner's beautiful works, and those of the Birmingham-born, London-based Idris Khan, the Indonesian J Ariadhitya Pramuhendra and London-born Shezad Dawood, are anything but political.
They are about communication, language both visual and verbal, poetry, mysticism and science. In that, they are quite different from the works of the exhibition's other artist, Reza Aramesh, arguably the best known of the group, and easily the most strident (albeit impartial) in his take on warring nations.
Aramesh, in his famous photographs, takes the scenes of power and submission played out by prisoners and their captors in war photographs, dating from Vietnam onwards, and recreates them in refined, classical settings, drawing attention to their brutality.
These huge black-and-white images dominated the entrance to the exhibition, but his new sculptural work holds a power derived from the religious art of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.
After seeing an exhibition of Spanish 17th-century religious sculpture, he was taken by the realism of the wooden carvings, painted to be as lifelike as possible, and he now translates his scenes of prisoners into similar carvings: a brutalised prisoner, his chest bare and his trousers runkled, kneels, terrified, with his hands behind his head, in a sculpture made in Italy in lime wood, handpainted, on exquisite chequered marquetry.
It's spiritual, certainly, but it's a painfully physical memento mori, too.
What it has in common with the other works of the show, though, is a sincerity and an apolitical authenticity that has become rare in contemporary art: a world of postmodernism, irony, too-clever-by-half concepts and slick, commercial execution.
And that is exactly the industry bubble that de Ganay and Levene were aiming to puncture with this exhibition.
"What sounds cheesy here in Europe is not cheesy elsewhere. Here if you mention spirituality, well, it's cheesy, but outside Europe it's a real question. This return is a tendency that we are seeing in the art world. It means also there's a void," says de Ganay.
In other words, the vacuum of feeling in so much contemporary western art can be filled by works from the Middle East and Asia, where there is no shame in emotion, no reason not to react, and, in the relative youth of its art market, little concern for commercial interests.
"The idea in Lost in Paradise was to show artists who have different religious backgrounds, inherited religious backgrounds, but who don't necessarily have a strong practice in their daily life, and how their religious backgrounds, their education, their cultural heritage can't help but come through their work," explains Levene.
"So, for example, Idris Khan, although he isn't a practising Muslim, his wife is Jewish, his mother is Protestant, his work is talking about what goes on during Haj - he was in the show at the British Museum - and he is very influenced and excited about Sufism.
"Shezad Dawood, his work talks about birds of paradise rising from heaven, and is related to Sufism, to Attar and Rumi.
"When you look at Michal Rovner's work, she doesn't want to have those associations - she feels that her work is about the human condition. And Pramuhendra is Catholic, and he still can't help but constantly paint himself in religious costume, using symbols of Catholicism and stating his identity, because he is a minority in Indonesia."
Across Paris at the same time, at the Institut Du Monde Arabe, the third exhibition of four to celebrate the institution's quarter-century offers a survey of 25 years of Arab art - and one that will travel to the UAE for 2013's Abu Dhabi Festival, from March 5-31 - and it's hard not to come to the same conclusion.
The work is reactive, contextual, and even when abstract seems to respond to the emotional and traumatic events that have marked so much of that period in the Middle East.
A large painting by the Syrian painter Safwan Dahoul, Dream 43, showing a sleeping figure hunched into a foetal position, stylised but rough, on a chequered background, is obscurely moving in any case, but when Hisham Samawi, co-founder, with his cousin Khaled, of the Ayyam Gallery, which lent this and several other pieces, explains the circumstances under which Dahoul and some of his compatriots have been painting, a rare sense of authenticity is bestowed on the work.
"We set up a webcam in the studio in Syria, with a live webstream," he says. "And you'd sit there and he'd be working on it. He'll be painting something and then he'll just sit and stare at the canvas for hours. We'd tune in and he's just sitting there, staring at it.
"Even when the gallery had to move its operations to Dubai [due to the conflict], we kept the Damascus gallery as a studio so that the artists who were still in Syria had a place where they could still go and feel connected to each other and the gallery, and we set up webcams in all four studios.
"There was a time when you could literally tune in every day and you could watch it almost like a reality TV show, and it was great for them because they felt connected to the outside world, and what they were doing mattered. It's all recorded."
Poignantly, the project ended when the internet stopped working.
Now, though, Ayyam's website features silent videos of the artists at work in their studios, enigmatic clips that look as Bohemian as any poverty-stricken Impressionist in a garret might have done, and hark back somewhat to an era before fabrication was outsourced.
In the next room, Nadim Karam's bizarre little sculptures of characters from his regular visual lexicon are pulled together in two sets of shelves, the "war closets" and the "dream closets", balancing each other like chimeras being weighed on the scales of the Gislebertus tympanum.
Here, too, is an artist unconcerned with commerce, though his endearing creations have brought him fame: his sculptures in Beirut - his Urban Toys - were, says Khaled Samawi, confiscated by the city for their perceived political content.
"But now he's their hero," he laughs, and it's true that his work is to be found all over Beirut, from the Waterfront to the swish Le Gray Hotel. Yet those toys are not simply playful creatures: they contain horrors as far from paradise as any of Gislebertus's broken demons, twisted and dystopian visions, Ralph Steadman horrors reimagined in the appealing guise of Quentin Blake cartoons.
It is, says Hisham Samawi, inevitable that these artists respond to their circumstances - and that is perhaps why much art produced in the context of the comfortable West is chemically sweet in comparison - and the Arab Spring has, even among his least political artists, created a moment of response. "A lot of it is very subtle in how it has evolved. They'll do an exhibition in which you can't miss it but then they'll go back to normal," he says. "It's like they have to get it out, but it's very genuine - it's not like, 'Ok, let's do some Arab Spring'.
"I have one artist," he continues, "called Mohannad Orabi. Before the revolution, all the eyes of his characters were dark, like they were closed, and the characters were happy and youthful and doing happy things. After the revolution, all the eyes were opened and their looks became more serious. He said they were living in a dreamlike state before, where ignorance is bliss, and now their eyes are open and they don't like what they see."
Perhaps that discomfort is something with which artists of the Arab world can fill their western contemporaries' emotional void.
Gemma Champ is a freelance writer based in London.