Thread count: the invisibility cloak of tech

The upcoming art season in the UAE is looking like a humdinger, and the Fall exhibition at the NYUAD Art Gallery on Saadiyat sets a high standard. It’s not quite a blockbuster, but it’s still pretty impressive.

Under the title Invisible Threads: Technology and its Discontents, it features works by 15 international artists – some very big names among them – to consider the tensions in our everyday relationships with technology. That’s a great topic, not exactly original but still very pertinent and allowing for a good variety of artistic explorations.

So Invisible Threads promises “a nuanced discussion of a global topic, framed by the region’s complex relationship to the benefits and pitfalls that accompany technological advances”. The curators – Bana Kattan of the NYUAD gallery and Scott Fitzgerald, Assistant Arts Professor and Head of Interactive Media at NYUAD – say they hope to generate dialogue and reflection around our use of these everyday tools.

Prof Fitzgerald describes the artists in the show as “a spectrum of established and emerging talents who offer a broad and critical look at the way we have enshrined these [technological] tools in practically every aspect of our lives. Collectively, they help present a past, present, and future of our evolving relationship with technologies.

The 15 artists in the exhibition are Jamie Allen, Aram Bartholl, Taysir Batniji, Wafaa Bilal, Liu Bolin, Jonah Brucker Cohen, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Michael Joaquin Grey, Monira Al Qadiri, Evan Roth, Phillip Stearns, Siebren Versteeg, Addie Wagenknecht, Kenny Wong – and Ai Weiwei, whose superstar status means he has been getting all the media attention.

Ai’s contribution (detail at the head of the article) is a wallpaper design from 2015 called The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca, an elaborate rococo like composition of handcuffs, surveillance cameras, and the Twitter bird in a bright yellow-gold colour.

It is (probably) a comment on free speech circumscribed, with social media surrounded by the paraphernalia of the surveillance society; and alpacas can indeed be mistaken for llamas …

Canto III: Wafaa Bilal, 2015

Another biggie is Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal, who will be showing his 2015 work Canto III as seen at Lawrie Shabibi a while ago. This is a 1m gilded bronze bust of Saddam Hussein, riffing on one of the huge stone monuments created by the Ba’athists. The striking element of the original was crown that echoes the holy shrine of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, thus conflating Saddam’s role as ruler and soldier with a divine mandate.

The symbolism is inescapable, a comment on the hubris of despotic leaders who seek to immortalise themselves through works of art; the title presumably refers to Canto III of the Divine Comedy, featuring the Gates of Hell and the ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ inscription.

Unknown Gamer I-IV: Aram Bartholl, 2014
Unknown Gamer I-IV: Aram Bartholl, 2014

Berlin-based conceptual artist Aram Bartholl, currently fascinated by the role of mobile phones in our life, has received solid reviews in Germany for his video installation Unknown Gamer. This has four phones playing videos of strangers who were filmed while gaming on their own phones; the point is that the individuals didn’t know they were being filmed, so focused were they on their own small-screen tech.

Siebren Versteeg gets even closer to the nuts and bolts of technology, mining cyberspace for content and creating algorithmic programs that respond to and distort the imagery he finds there. The results might be presented as 2D painterly abstractions or run as anmations on monitors.

We might get to see his 2014 work Like, which uses live recursive Google image searches. Fascinating stuff.

We’re also looking forward to seeing work from Gaza-born Taysir Batniji, a multidisciplinary artist who these days concentrates on video and photography; Evan Roth, an American artist based in Paris who explores “the relationship between misuse and empowerment and the effect that philosophies from hacker communities can have when applied to digital and non-digital systems”; and the quietly exciting Heather Dewey-Hagborg, another American, who has been doing great things with DNA art.

A couple of years ago Dewey-Hagborg caused a stir with her Stranger Visions show, featuring busts of people she’d never met that were based on DNA on cigarette butts, gum, and hair found in the streets of New York. She tested for the genetic variations that revealed gender, ethnicity, eye colour, and facial structure., then used that data to build heads which were 3D printed in plastic.

Stranger Visions: Heather Dewey Hagborg
Stranger Visions: Heather Dewey Hagborg, 2012

She says she works at the intersection of art and science “with an emphasis on conceptions of the natural and the artificial … I engage in art as practice based research; a means of exploration to probe the deep and often hidden structures of media/technology/science that dominate the contemporary moment and frame our cultural imagination”.

Which sounds like it could be a neat summary of the whole show.

Invisible Threads will have an accompanying public programme of events and talks “for all ages”. The show opens on 22 Sep and runs to 31 Dec.

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