x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

What you see is not quite what you get at Grey Noise's exhibition

We review works at a Dubai exhibition that will leave you wondering about the take-home message.

Mehreen Murtaza's artwork of rowboats with passengers heading to Jaffa. Courtesy Mehreen Murtaza / Grey Noise
Mehreen Murtaza's artwork of rowboats with passengers heading to Jaffa. Courtesy Mehreen Murtaza / Grey Noise

Vac.u.um is Grey Noise's second exhibition in its new Alserkal space, following a relocation from Lahore earlier this year. It's a show as fittingly stark and cavernous as its title suggests. Here, spacey video pieces drift by on an opalescent tide while images of almost graphical precision and restraint hum from the walls.

"Now that my work is conceptual it doesn't pay for my bills anymore," writes Saira Ansari in one of a series of testy text pieces that greet viewers on the way in. Signed and numbered, on tea-coloured paper, the artist sets a tone for the show - minimal in aesthetic yet with something, albeit oblique, to say.

"I'm looking at the space as a visual vacuum," explains Umer Butt, the director of Grey Noise and curator of the show. "Also, there's a deception between the viewer and the work here, questioning what you actually take away from a work when you see it."

The works seem to exist in their own airy limbo. They are full of implications yet give little away for us to unpick.

Fahd Burki handles acrylic painting like pixels. The shapes he creates are so clean and measured, using collage to create gradients and shadows, that the piece has an almost rendered quality.

Grey Noise is fresh back from Switzerland after exhibiting Burki in the Liste satellite art fair that runs concurrently with Art Basel. His paintings, with their totemic appearance, gathered significant interest at the fair. They appear like traditional fetishes or charms, evocations of bird-gods or archetypal heroes, yet just tease us with this comprehension and under scrutiny fade back into obscure lines and shapes. There's also a great-looking sculpture here by Burki that could almost be cubist.

Mehreen Murtaza's Dubious Birth of Geography is an assemblage of archival photographs from the turn of the 20th century. We see rowboats carrying passengers into the port of Jaffa in 1911 (a wave of settlers newly landing in Palestine?). There's a shot of the Swiss geologist Amanz Gressly and Al Qastal, the Palestinian village that was depopulated and absorbed into the spreading suburbs of Jerusalem. Yet in each image, she's inserted something fantastical - maybe a shimmering, floating island, or the robes of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie evaporating into crystals.

The dusty archives she's raided to find these images are almost vacuums within themselves - where truth and history can be lost in their voluminous depths. By manipulating each image, she shows us that all history is assembled from snatches of memory, image and testimony, all of which can be twisted.

Basir Mahmood's video piece A Message to the Sea is also a curious work. Somehow, he has made watching a Turkish fisherman pushing a motorboat in the shallow waters of Bodrum compelling. With a single hard push, the puttering boat drifts away from the fisherman to the misty horizon; he's abandoning his trade forever in one final act of release.

The piece took Mahmood about 40 takes, according to Butt, to achieve the resolute stillness of the camera in the water. It's a simple but well-executed piece, which could be read as a meditation on the way that an artist releases their work into the public sphere and into a foggy infinite.

More cryptic are the works by the Irish artist Michael John Whelan, who has a solo show at Grey Noise after the summer. Whelan's softened Polaroids with slight blemishes caught in their developing make for strangely evasive images. Similarly, Nadia Khawaja has created her own lexicon of dashes and lines that, when strung together, create tide-like forms on paper. Keep an eye out for the 500 plastic bottles in Ayesha Jatoi's One Long Song (somehow people miss them); these tiny vials once held Zamzam water from the springs in Mecca.

This is a fine insight into the artists that Grey Noise works with, but demands time and immersion to get the most out of it.

Vac.u.um continues at Grey Noise, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until September 1. www.greynoise.org

clord@thenational.ae