At first glance it seems absolutely bizarre to witness an Arab appropriation of the West’s already appropriated, capitalising, de-politicising, individualising, productivity-enhancing, positivity-demanding, self-loathing-inducing [deep breath…] perverse version of the New Age movement’s otherwise rather harmless quest for homeostasis and inner peace. But maybe not so much.
Positive Pathways (+) constitutes the artist group GCC’s first exhibition at the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash, located in the gallery neighbourhood of Chelsea. For the uninitiated, the name GCC mirrors the anagram of the Gulf Cooperative Council; a kind of emirate EU whose tasks include working with the region’s image. Following the same mirroring logic as the name itself, the artists work on the basis of the real GCC’s bureaucratic protocols, including a charter that has been copied wholesale and acts as the group’s manifesto; the only difference is that the artist group has replaced the words “Islam” with “art” and “state” with “artist”. The group has existed for three years and consists of eight younger artists (b. 1979–1990), all of whom have roots in the Emirates, but now live and work in New York, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Visitors to the exhibition at Mitchel-Innes & Nash are greeted by a somewhat modified version of their contribution to the recent DIS-curated Berlin biennial: a running track winding its way around two monochrome figures. A woman leaning forward and a boy, both standing in – and slightly covered by – sand. Both figures are dressed in what might at first glance look like traditional garb, but which those in the know will recognise as popular contemporary clothes. An invisible loudspeaker emits the voice of one of the female members of the group, quoting a regional leader’s speech verbatim in velvety, hypnotising tones. The main subject of the speech is a new, popular phenomenon in the region, the so-called Quantum Touch. A gesture that is believed to heal entirely without touching.
We see the same phenomenon reflected in the second element of the exhibition: a series of wall pieces based on instructional videos demonstrating how to carry out a range of esoteric healings. The images have been sourced from Google Image Search and YouTube and subsequently 3D-rendered to become partially three-dimensional. These 3D-rendered shapes were then surface treated with fibrous particles (“flocking”), creating a kind of Arab digi-rug-counterparts to the friezes of Soviet social realism. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the group uses a similar term to describe their work – “positive realism”: art that reflects The United Arab Emirates’ de-politicising and productivity-demanding propaganda. A propaganda cooked up with one dash of local heritage, a large dollop of New Age self-realisation culture, and strongly sanitised by so-called corporate aesthetics.
Never mind that the hundreds of thousands of refugees from their neighbouring country, Syria, cannot find asylum there. Never mind that Human Right’s Watch describes the working conditions for many foreign workers as “near slavery”. Never mind the public mass executions of homosexuals. As the voiceover tells us: if we stay positive it will all work out.
We recognise something similar at home, too. If you are angry or in some other way unhappy about your conditions or those of your fellow man, you should know that the political/economic/social realities of society are not to blame. They are not what’s depressing you; it is certainly not a collective problem. Instead, Just take a four-lesson crash course on mindfulness at 700 EUR, ex VAT and accommodation. You’ve probably done something like that. I know I have. Serenity now!
The method employed by GCC is to perform the Gulf’s version of this positivity horror: to appropriate the images and discourse of their propaganda, often without changing more than a snippet. It is all so close to reality that at times it is almost impossible to tell them apart. But this, according to the artists, is a relative thing: as non-Arab observers we may not be able to take in the nuances involved. At this point, I wish to ask forgiveness, if I am “lost in translation”.
GCC tells us that they do not wish to be critical. Such statements are commonplace now, especially in the New York/Berlin nexus. However, after several years of confusion about where to position these apparently un-critical practices – of which GCC and DIS Magazine are excellent examples – the statement seems a little like a rhetorical point that does not ring true. It is, of course, true that these relatively new practices do no engage in the kind of critique we were used to before 2010 or thereabouts. So what are they? They are performances that seek to destabilise the politics of predominant aesthetics by infiltrating them with campy hints of absurdity and queerness. We have also heard that these performances are not ironic. But performing consistently is not the same as being earnest.
Of course the “positive realist” method adopted by GCC is a critical method. It is a practice that is critical insofar as it seeks to train our critical eyes to better enable us to see through the world of propaganda, spin, PR and advertising in which we live. “Critique is in the eye of the beholder”. But let us note that this is, albeit in other ways, what almost all modern and contemporary art has always done.
GCC and Positive Pathways (+) presents us with a range of extremely relevant and rarely addressed phenomena – including their (at first glance rather dizzying) visual manifestations. But if we are to discuss GCC’s method and discourse in purely artistic terms it seems rather generic; like a transplant. By this I don’t mean to criticise what they call “positive realism”. Sadly, the reason for my criticism is that their work comes across as under par compared to their fellow artists.
Many of us ended up being more or less convinced that post-net-art looked better on-screen than in real life. However, this year’s Berlin biennial disproved such notions. The biennial presented some of the key artists of the generation, and in almost all cases their works presented themselves to even greater advantage in actual, three-dimensional life than on-screen. It is striking how the wall objects at Mitchell-Innes Nash, in their semi-3D state, only just manage to claw their way out of the surface (to form friezes). Positive Pathways (+) was not more striking in real life. Neither at the Berlin biennial nor at Mitchel-Innes & Nash. Rather, the two versions seemed like more or less over-scaled, 1:1 executions of rather too punch-line-like ideas rendered from home in SketchUp.