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Bring the money to the makers: Damien Hirst and Adel Abdessemed in Doha

Damien Hirst’s RELIC at QMA in Doha leaves Fat Nancy stone cold whilst Adel Abdessemed stokes the fire of art in the Middle East. 

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Maybe FN wasn’t in the mood, maybe it is just that she’s seen it too many times before, maybe it was too much expectation, or perhaps it was knowing that the fly larvae had been flown in business class – but FN went into Damien Hirst’s exhibition in Doha looking to find some new insights and left feeling empty. Granted, a satisfaction of her yearning for a nostalgic flashback to the first time she saw 1000 years in London at the ‘Sensation’ exhibition was unrealistic – you cannot relive seeing that work for the first time.  That, along with versions of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the sharks), Mother and Child Divided (sliced cows), the medicine cabinets and experiencing the stench of the giant ashtray of fag butts in editions of Crematorium are important works that anyone with an interest in art should see, if the opportunity presents itself. His enduring fascination with the daily intrusion of death into life, and the inevitable decay of our bodies despite an increasingly unquestioning faith in pharmaceuticals has the potential to make any viewer see themselves differently, there is no doubt. And for that reason alone, it’s a great thing to witness the QMA’s support not just of easy, non-confrontational work in a region where access for the majority of the public living here to contemporary art of that scale and nature would otherwise be a pie in the sky. But the exhibition was an overkill on too many levels for it to stand up as a retrospective, if that was the target as per the Tate Modern exhibition in 2012. The repetition of spot paintings, butterfly collages, cabinets and animals in formadahyde left little room for exploration into the artist’s progression over the years.

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Instead, what you have is a slick presentation of everything we’ve seen before, just maybe ever so slightly different and at best an introduction to the Middle East of his work, of what it means to be one of the world’s most financially successful artists … make a great work, make 100 different versions of that work, make a limited edition version of the work, make a mug with your work on it, make a t-shirt with your work on it, totes bag, flip flops, plate, notepad. You name it, you can find it in the gift shop – including your very own Hirst edition of a canvas with some butterflies, glitter, pills and hyperdermic needles stuck on top for a mere 145,000 riyals.

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The most relevant aspect to this exhibition and others led by QMA, is the focus on audience engagement. Providing access to works that can change the way you think, and FN would hope that all the schools in Qatar are being taken to see it. However, in this instance, less would have been more, focus on the really important pieces, don’t duplicate, let one work say what it needs to say and move on. It does pose the question of selling and reselling to create an exhibition that resembles a broken record. Is it necessary to see not one edition of For the Love of God (diamond encrusted skull) but a second with pink diamonds too? Couldn’t some of that money have been better spent and what are we teaching the next generation about excess, about what it means to be an artist and why art is important? It was sad that, as per FN’s last visit two years ago to see Murakami, the spaces were empty of visitors. At once a pleasure to have almost an entire museum to yourself, but a bit odd to be watched over by bored security guards as you look at the art.

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Perhaps FN went on a particularly quiet day, there are a few thoughts from visitors on the website – where they’re letting it all be said – both good and bad. Not something that FN has seen very much of in the Middle East before … the acceptance of any view/criticism as valid: http://www.damienhirstqatar.qa/

Across town, an hour’s cab ride through Doha’s traffic to Adel Abdessemed’s L’âge d’or. Like a splash of cold water to the face, FN’s sleepy brain was reset to zero, imagination triggered and emotions tight within the first two rooms.  Just as direct, but with a lot more to say and  many different ways to say it –  the tactile diversity of Abdessemed’s practice alone is engaging and a vital contrast to the stony cold galleries of fellow blue-chip Hirst’s RELICS.

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Abdessemed transforms well-known materials and imagery into unexpected and charged artistic declarations, working across a wide range of media, including drawing, video, photography, performance, and sculpture. Pulling freely from a range of sources—personal, historical, social, and political—his visual language is simultaneously rich and economical, sensitive and controversial, radical and mundane. His art addresses the underlying effects of globalized society on the individual, often using his own personal circumstances as a point of departure. Abdessemed has described himself as “an artist of acts,” his works having a forceful impact and symbolic resonance. Taking materials into great consideration, using them as a provocation; camel bones, gold, salt, brass, gum, and terracotta take on new and multiple meanings – Abdessemed is a maker in the true sense of the word and he is reinventing the material of his vocabulary in every work.

Some pieces cause more controversy than others, and FN isn’t a fan of all of them, but at a minimum they sparked an opinion. You may have heard of the 5 metre bronze statue that was installed on Doha’s corniche depicting French footballer Zinédine Zidane’s infamous head butt on Italy’s Marcro Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final match. Like Zidane, Abdessemed is French and of Algerian descent and to some, the sculpture is a topical, purely provocative work, but Coup de tête‘s craftsmanship and symbolism are as timeless as Greek Mythological works of art, glorifying human defects. The work has since been moved from the corniche to Mathaf permanently.

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Another work in the exhibition that has caused big controversy is Printemps, a video depicting several chickens screaming while appearing to be on fire, some residents starting a petition for the cancellation of the show and the sacking of QMA’s and Mathaf’s directors. It’s not the first time that Abdessemed has used violence against animals in his work with his films Usine and  Don’t Trust Me. Many see Printemps as encouraging violence and nothing to do with art, but after witnessing what you believe to be chickens burning to death, the first thing FN thought of was her responsibility to all life, to how flippant we have become when it comes to what we consume, how we treat and farm animals, how violent our attitude is to life just by being complacent and not questioning where things come from. That such strong reactions have been triggered with regards to this work suggests that he is touching on some very pertinent nerves, cutting close to the bone on subjects that some citizens are just not ready or don’t know how to address. Adel Abdessemed is on topic for the region, challenging the local audience and making them think.

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FN highlights:

The artist’s hand is apparent on walking into the museum – his name and the exhibition title written in charcoal across the wall.


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The large-scale, site specific terracotta wall relief, titled Shams depicting the unseen workers of this world.

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East of Eden, groupings of knives thrust into the ground with Mémoire (2012) playing in the same room – a video showing a baboon spelling out “Tutsi” and “Hutu,” in specific referring to the opposing ethnic groups in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Seeing this in the context of the Middle East – it reminds us again of the futility of conflict, whether based on ethnicity, religion or other.

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Two more new video works where Abdessemed employs the percussive and rhythmic device of a bare human foot repeatedly crushing objects of high symbolic significance: a white rose (Ayaï) and a skull (Histoire de la folie)

State (2013), an animation depicting labyrinth-like drawings.

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Placed throughout the exhibition space were Soldaten (2013), a series of large-scale charcoal drawings featuring soldiers in full gear again representing the continuous existence of war in our time.

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Born in 1971, Abdessemed studied at the École des beaux-arts de Batna and the École des beaux-arts d’Alger, Algiers (1987-1994), before traveling to France where he attended the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Lyon (1994-1998). He was an artist-in-residence at the Cité internationale des Arts de Paris in 1999-2000, and the following year at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center’s International Studio Program in Long Island City, New York. Now based in Paris and New York, the artist has also lived and worked in Berlin.

Adel Abdessemed runs till 5 January 2014

Damien Hirst till 22 January 2014

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