Once Removed from Art

Most of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s works at Bonniers Konsthall would have worked better as printouts.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, film still, 2018.

Outside of art, so to speak, Lawrence Abu Hamdan conducts sound studies and has on several occasions been called as an expert witness to comment on sonic evidence in legal contexts. There are parts of “earwitness” testimonies that do not really hold up as legal evidence, and perhaps not as journalistic material either, but which Hamdan still believes can provide a more complete truth about the event in question. Furthermore, it is a truth that only art can accommodate. This is the background to his exhibition Dirty Evidence at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm.

The presentation can be divided into two different topics. The first is about audio testimony from various criminal cases and prisons built to manipulate the sounds that prisoners hear. This is extremely interesting, I just want to hear more about those things. The second topic is about Toronto-based historian Bassel Abi Chahine and his Walid Raad-esque investigations about Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990). If I understand it correctly, the premise is that Abi Chahine is the reincarnation of a solider, Yousef Fouad Al Jawhary, who died in 1984 at the age of 16. Quite curious. 

It is a rather disturbing exhibition in the long run. The witness is so exposed and defenceless; “no one / bears witness for the / witness”, as poet Paul Celan wrote. Yet, Hamdan is somehow trying to do just that. The theme also raises the idea that the critic should perhaps see themselves as a witness to an exhibition – to dare to stand there as the last, possibly indefensible, outpost of the truth and recount what they have seen, not what they know.

In Hamdan’s text-based video work After SFX (2018), it becomes clear that audio testimonies have a typical form. Someone knows that they have heard a shot, for example, and then say that it did not sound like a shot, but like something else – and here follows a parable or metaphor or approach to recreate the sound. That form actually fits perfectly what I would say if I were to testify about what I experienced in the exhibition: it did not feel like it was about testimony, but another art that was not directly present, but somewhere in the distance. Or possibly: it didn’t really feel like art, but more like… in-house training?

In an interview quoted in the press materials, Hamdan says that people are offended by his art: “They are willing to accept new forms in addition to those which conventionally disseminate information, but they say that it shouldn’t be art.” This comes close to my own opinion. But I don’t mean that one shouldn’t make such art, just that Hamdan shouldn’t. He should write essays. I enjoyed reading the transcript of his film Walled Unwalled (2018), much more than watching the film itself. Details concerning wall thicknesses and density figures are easier to keep track of in writing if you want to delve deeper into the content. And there is also a touch of humour in the text that his voice is not at all able to convey. His works are really laboured, but not the texts. The essay as a genre also belongs to the realm of art, not journalism, so it should be possible for him to present his truths there.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan & Bassel Abi Chahine, Shot Twice (By the Same Bullet), eight lightboxes, digital print on acrylic, HD video, stereo sound, 125 x 73 x 8,5 cm, 2021. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

I’m not arguing that information has to be conveyed in writing. I’m merely saying that Hamdan isn’t very good at visual representation. In Walled Unwalled, the artist is almost always in the picture, reading from his manuscript. It’s like watching a mediocre lecturer filmed in a sleek, yet banal cinematic aesthetic featuring every colour, lighting choice, and camera move. Warm, soft parts dominated by yellows and reds (and some smoke in the air) are contrasted against cold blue images combining a metallic sheen with the light from a computer screen. The former show Hamdan recording voiceovers in a sound studio, while the latter are interviews with former prisoners done in a ‘fictive’ style whose aesthetic inevitably diverts attention away from what is said. I cannot seriously regard this as a successful way of problematising the conditions of witness and testimony. My reaction instead is that there is not even a second of visual representation here that does not feel pre-packaged. 

Furthermore, this is paired with awfully banal installation ideas. Since the film talks about surveillance technology that allows you to ‘see’ through walls, which then no longer delineate a private sphere from a public one, Hamdan has had a glass wall erected in the room where the film is shown – you know, in order for us to understand the whole looking through walls thing. It is stupid in so many ways, an amalgamation of art and didactics that becomes flat and illustrative.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Saydnaya (the missing 19db), chromogenic print in lightbox, 243 × 30,5 × 10 cm, 2017. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

In fact, virtually all the works have flaws that are difficult to justify. Shot Twice (By the Same Bullet) (2021) comprises eight light boxes with two photos on each and a voice talking about them. You have to follow the voice from box to box. Why this extremely coercive form? Like a flock of sheep, the audience moves from one image to another; it’s like being ushered through the various security checkpoints at an airport. In addition, the voice comes from a red silhouette in the box, which points to a detail every time it says “there.” It’s embarrassing as art, and if not downright insulting to the audience, then at least maddening. The only point at which something sensual happens in his exhibition – where words, concepts, sight, and sound begin to form new constellations – is in the work Earwitness Inventory (2018–2019), which consists of a collection of objects from trials where testimonies about sound have been needed. It is very special to see something that represents a sound – not in itself, but its ability to sound like something else, like the sound of a certain act of violence or a crime.

But now I have failed what I witnessed, namely an art that was not really present. So far, I have only dwelled on what is present, the presentation. Maybe I should take the wall text at the exhibition’s entrance more literally, the one that describes Hamdan’s as “an interdisciplinary practice” that uses artistic forms. This is the opposite of academic art, where an artist takes on forms that are close to science and brings out knowledge through art. On the contrary, Hamdan seems to want to bring art out of the scientific. Perhaps one way of doing so is via the artist. This is exactly what seems to emerge when a work is brought in by Abi Chahine “in collaboration with Hamdan.”

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Once Removed, video installation, 2019. Photo: Foto: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Abi Chahine is depicted in the video Once Removed (2019). But the interesting thing about him is not his person so much as his dual perspectives, that is: one as a witness and one that wants to make room for the witness and strengthen the testimony. Abi Chahine returns to places he photographed in his previous life to take the pictures again, and experiences flashbacks to a time before he himself was born. As I said, it’s reminiscent of Walid Raad, but Hamdan’s practice is the reverse. He does not work with documentary and scientific forms as fiction, but seems to be using a real person’s incredibly idiosyncratic investigations as art. If this makes Abi Chahine an artist, then he is one of an unusual kind: an original human being, the sort of which is barely allowed into art anymore.

Maybe this explains my experience of another art in the exhibition, one that is not quite there. It is an art once removed from art, embodied by characters like Abi Chahine, who, in order to be left alone with their useless pursuits and production of “dirty evidence,” must appear alien, mysterious, or even dead. By bringing in Abi Chahine, Hamdan introduces another art which is neither academic nor decorative, and which doesn’t even have to be good to be at least as interesting as its content.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Dirty Evidence, installation view, Bonniers Konsthall. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger