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The Craft

Rebecca Bligh visits Monira Al Qadiri's solo exhibition at Gasworks, 13 July - 10 September

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft 2017. Installation view. Credit: Gasworks

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft 2017. Installation view. Credit: Gasworks

The Craft, Monira Al Qadiri’s first UK solo exhibition, is well situated at Gasworks, triangulating with the quietly extraordinary new Cabinet Gallery building in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens—a twelve-sided brick keep that fairly reeks of morphic resonance, conjuring the genius loci, and which has been called ‘a welcome antidote’ to ‘the proliferation of shiny new atrocities which are currently turning Vauxhall into Dubai by the Thames’ [1]—and the Tate’s new Blavatnik building, a ziggurat, a mothership, a fortress (lit. ‘strong place’) with a veiling skin of ‘chain-mail’ [2]  that is also rendered in brown brick, ‘the city’s native stock’. [3] The just-landed Blavatnik, brutal beauty, offers crushing views of ‘Dubai-on-Thames’, as well as of its immediate neighbours, whose domestic apartments are relentlessly glass-walled. Signs on the viewing platforms implore us to “please respect our neighbours’ privacy,” but how, exactly? By closing our eyes? By not employing zoom? The Blavatnik is named for the ‘US-educated, Ukrainian-born’ “oligarch” [4] (disputed) or (self-described) ‘major American industrialist’ who funded its completion. [5]  


As for Gasworks, The Craft’s own landing site, its own white-cube-white painted brick exterior speaks of the 1994 establishment of this non-profit studio complex and gallery. (The proprietary White Cube, est. 1993, also has its newest site south of the river, yet another brown brick building at Bermondsey.) Read in its London context, the disjunction of Gasworks’ exterior with the richness of its alien (yes) and informationally dense interior at once amplifies the work and evokes both the many cultural and commercial ventures that are hidden away behind vernacular shell facades in the poorer parts of the city, and the first, most fundamental of the forms of capital that afford access to them—that is, the knowledge that they are there to get inside.

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft 2017. Credit: Gasworks

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft 2017. Credit: Gasworks


And it is dark when you get inside, so very deep and dark that even when your eyes adjust, they still fill up with the inky blackness. And it is biblically void and empty, save what you may gradually determine to be there, levitating, reverentially underlit, above a black, cuboid podium. And there is a voice, undulating through the darkness, an auto-tuned reading from The Kuwait Urbanisation (1964) by architect and urban planner Saba George Shiber. It’s inevitable at this mid-point in the exhibition’s run that there is paratext and commentary in circulation. This excerpt now appears on Frieze’s website in ‘Portfolio: Monira Al Qadiri', a revelation of sources, six delicious sachets in all:

 
'The 1960s was the high summer of American cultural expansion in the third world, and also the arrival of modernity and statehood in my native Kuwait. So far, this is the only accurate text I have found that likens the arrival of modernity to an alien invasion. Ultra-futuristic modern architecture in Kuwait always triggered subconscious images of spaceships and other galaxies, appearing in our dreams at night.' [6]

 
You can trace their outlines in the darkness of your mind’s eye—or, at least I did. I sat there on the floor and listened through a few times in the gently glowing Presence all the while. Later, I had to light up my face with my phone to let some people know I was there with them. Still later, they were couple-gramming in the diner when I went inside.

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft 2017. Credit: Gasworks

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft 2017. Credit: Gasworks


And how to describe the diner, the poufy banquettes, the darker-than-blood ketchup red and white straws, walls a green that is tone-perfect, as if picked from Baty’s The Anatomy of Colour to be not quite unsettling and not quite not? [7]  Except as a very good place to sit and watch the VHS, in which the diner you are inside also appears inside The Craft you are inside, etc. 

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft, 'Omen', 2017. Credit: Gasworks

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft, 'Omen', 2017. Credit: Gasworks


Food ‘being the oldest carrier of culture’, Al Qadiri says that her generation’s first contact with ‘American cultural hegemony was...first and foremost a cultural invasion of our guts—an imperialism of the stomach.' (Compare the good food-centred Radical Kitchen project hosted this summer in Francis Kéré’s 2017 Serpentine Pavilion, ‘building on his own ideas of socially-engaged architecture.’[8]) Anyone doubting that the chicken nuggets of her childhood could have ‘ideology embedded within the deep fried batter’ must not remember Freedom Fries. On July 3, 2017 Al Qadiri gave a lecture performance entitled AMERICAN CENTURY: THE END, in which the exhibition text promised ‘a eulogy for the death of the American popular imagination, using a single all-embracing motif: junk food’—and on August 15, 2017, The Onion published a piece with the title ‘Disgusted Robert Mueller Eats 2 20-Piece Chicken McNugget Meals In One Sitting In Attempt To Get Into Trump’s Mind'.

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft, 'The End', 2017. Credit: Gasworks

Monira Al Qadiri, The Craft, 'The End', 2017. Credit: Gasworks


We also get Al Qadiri’s child’s-eye view of the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990, embedded with documentary footage of her as a child, and retold from her steady, playful and serious adult perspective. Unlike Into the Unknown, the summer sci-fi exhibition now on at the Barbican, The Craft makes explicit the connection between human-alien encounter narratives and intercultural encounters between humans and their exercise of power, soft and hard. The science fiction writer William Gibson also explicitly does this in ‘Modern Boys and Modern Girls’, an essay in Distrust That Particular Flavor, with reference to what he considers to have been formative Japanese-British and Japanese-American encounters, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose anniversaries are just passed. Gibson says he always uses his fiction tools for writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, as they’re the only tools he’s got. This makes for good companion reading, also because The Craft is realised by Qadiri with techniques of what (if you like theory) might be called ‘fictioning’, as defined here:

'the material instantiation—or performance—of fictions within the real that then gives them a certain traction on the latter... practices that develop fiction as a mode of existence (the term is borrowed from Bruno Latour), especially when this manifests in a sequencing and nesting function (section 2); the deployment of ‘fabulous images’ and intercessors (section 3); and/or more occult principles (or intentions) and the idea of an ‘invented life’.' [9]


See the show and you’ll get more from this; consider it a kind of anti-spoiler. For now, compare it to how an embassy functions, the fiction of its inviolable mission: one of The Craft’s multiple meanings is statecraft.

 
***


Rebecca Bligh is an editor and writer, based in London


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/art/cabinet-gallery-unveils-an-original-new-building-with-a-strange/
[2] https://www.architecture.com/awards-and-competitions-landing-page/awards/riba-regional-awards/riba-london-award-winners/2017/tate-modern-switch-house
[3] https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/2016-the-year-of-brick-cultural-projects-and-herzog-and-de-meuron/10015857.article?search=https%3a%2f%2fwww.architectsjournal.co.uk%2fsearcharticles%3fkeywords%3dblavatnik
[4] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/may/04/tate-modern-names-extension-after-oligarch-donor-len-blavatnik
[5] http://features.thesundaytimes.co.uk/richlist/live/
[6] https://frieze.com/article/portfolio-monira-al-qadiri
[7] https://thamesandhudson.com/the-anatomy-of-colour-9780500519332
[8] http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/radical-kitchen
[9] Simon O’Sullivan (2017): Mythopoesis or Fiction as Mode of Existence: Three Case Studies from Contemporary Art, Visual Culture in Britain:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14714787.2017.1355746