Told/Untold/Retold: Qatar Contemporary Art Exhibition

Screencap of BIPRODUCT, a multimedia installation by Khalil Rabah.

Wow, Qatar has been making headlines lately. The Arabian-peninsula nation committed the coup of snatching the 2022 World Cup from the hands of other likely aspirants, assuring that players and soccer hooligans alike will have to cope with the region’s 120 degree heat.

Now, according to an article in Gulf-Times.com, Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar is hosting its first multimedia art exhibition, a little thing called “Told/Untold/Retold,” which opened December 30. Qatar Museums Authority‚Äôs new exhibition hall at the Museum of Islamic Art. In fact, if you visit Mathaf’s website, you’ll find a slideshow of some absolutely incredible images, including the unbelievable image at right.

According to the website, this piece by Khalil Rabah is a multimedia installation. I haven’t got the foggiest idea what’s meant by that term, in this case…it boggles my mind. This isn’t Dubai, so I assume that Khalil Rabah didn’t actually build an aircraft carrier with plants growing on it, or obtain a carrier and plant stuff on it. But who knows…?

Incidentally, you absolutely must check out this image, from Jeffar Khaldi. There are other offerings by Khalil Rabah, Youssef Nabil, Khaled Takreti, mounir fatmi, Jeffar Khaldi, and more, for a total of 23 artists represented. But of course, the part of the show that generated headlines, and probably the only part that will lodge in the brainpans of art lovers in the west, is the dude with the camera implanted in his head.

In case you missed the media orgy in November and December over this wacky Iraqi, that guy with the head-camera he’s Iraq-born Wafaa Bilal, an artist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Photography and Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The implantation of a camera in Bilal’s skull was sponsored by Mathaf for the Told/Untold/Retold show. It’s part of an art experiment in which the two-inch-diameter camera in Bilal’s head takes a photo once a minute for a year, wherever Bilal goes and whatever he’s doing.

The photos are posted to the website 3rdi.me, but since Bilal is back in New York (after a trip to the middle east in December), he must be asleep now — at press time, it’s jet black.

Bilal’s project was covered pretty extensively in the Western press a month or two ago, including articles in the Daily Mail, HuffPo, Popular Science, the BBC World Service, CNN, blah blah blah. Gulf-Times quotes Bilal extensively from the BBC World Service interview about the bizarre implications of this project, including the fact, for instance, that he “hopes to upgrade his camera to a waterproof one,” so he can take a shower without a shower cap, and that his “private moments” with his girlfriend will become public moments.

I’m going to be honest with you: I get the heebie jeebies even thinking about art like Bilal’s head-camera, not because I’m squeamish about someone having a camera in their head, but because it reeks of gimmicky, pointless tech obsession. Bilal, who lost a brother to a checkpoint bomb, surely has plenty to say about surveillance and its related traumas.

And conceptual art as a category, I don’t object to — in fact, sometimes I love it. Otherwise, how could I get so excited about this incredible installation by Buthayna Ali. I occasionally wake up from nightmares alternately screaming or giggling over the installation I once saw at the San Francisco MOMA with the thousand-and-one French poodles barking at the baby. (I’ve never found it again…it may never have existed. Never have existed. Never have existed…)

But I will admit that I’ve always been deeply suspicious of “high-concept” conceptual art like the Bilal camera; I always feel like it’s remarkably free of content, relying on form to give it meaning. At any given poetry reading at the underground art gallery, I’m always the guy in the corner trying to stifle my laughter as a “performance artist” slaps meat on their head and screams “I am a butterfly! BUTTERFLY!! LOVE ME!!!”

Go ahead! Point me at a canvas of International Klein Blue, and say in your rapture-drunk voice: “Isn’t it glorious?” I’ll try not to punch you in the face. I’ll try.

Clearly, Bilal’s experiment is a whole other field of conceptual art, but as compelling as I find it, every fiber in my body screams “Gimmick.” That’s why I, personally, got a groovier vibe when I checked out Bilal’s competition for eyeballs within the Told/Untold/Retold show. In some ways its fascinatingly credulous art, which makes it kinda refreshing to me. There are other ways in which it strikes me as less credulous than American contemporary art, which has gotten pretty credulous in recent years. Whether it’s drunk American Kool-Aid or failed to drink it, I’m never quite sure.

The good news is that MATHAF has a Facebook Page, a Twitter account, and of course a blog. It’s having a photo competition (deadline, January 6!), so be sure to upload all those snaps you took when visiting the museum. If you’re a virgin to contemporary Arab art, as I am, you may be as pleased as I was to run across the “feisty Beiruti grandmother” showcased in the film Grandma, A Thousand Times, which the museum recently screened (don’t miss the upcoming UAE premier!).

I’m as sad as you are, however, that I missed the free bracelets given away last Thursday, as announced on the Twitter account:

From MATHAR's Twitpic account.

With our powers combined! We join to form Captain! Mathaf! @MathafModern bracelets for our first visitors. Come get yours this Thursday at 3PM! #Qatar

It sounds like they’re having a heck of a party over there in Qatar, that’s for dang sure.

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