Mohammed Kazem, Directions 2002, multimedia installation, dimensions variable
A second-generation Emirati artist, and protégé of conceptualist Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem joined the Emirates Fine Arts Society in 1984 at age 15 and has been making waves ever since. Starting out as a painter and musician, Kazem has evolved into one of the Gulf Region’s leading conceptual artists, representing the United Arab Emirates in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
His first one-person show in New York, held at Taymour Grahne Gallery at the end of 2014, was only his eighth solo outing since 1987. The exhibition offered an overview of thought-provoking photographic and video works made between 1997 and 2005, alongside a suite of his celebrated “scratched” paper pieces. These were also accompanied by two new photographs, documenting various chewing gum pieces stuck on the sidewalks of New York, which he connected with chalk marks.
The earliest series on view, “Photographs with Flags” (1997–2003), captures Kazem within a barren plot in Dubai, standing next to marker flags while looking out onto a horizon of land that is slated for development. A modest cityscape shown in the distance looks tiny in comparison to the decadent skyscrapers that have been built in Dubai in recent years. In the work, the artist has portrayed himself—who is seen faceless from behind and, thus, representative of the everyman—observing the past while both occupying a transitional present and contemplating the imminent future.
Also featured in the exhibition was the series “Windows” (2003–05), comprising 14 light-box images, a video and a white panel with GPS coordinates painted on it in black. The photographic work is Kazem’s continued observation of his homeland’s rapid real-estate developments. The series documents the view that Kazem sees from his apartment, mixing together narratives of capitalist luxury and medieval servitude: the light-box images show a skyscraper rising from the ground, as well as the laborers who have built it; the panel painting depicts the exact GPS location of the construction site; and the video shows affluent residents inhabiting the sleek, finished building.
“My Neighbors” (2006), a series of 14 photographs of which 6 were on display in the show, looks at the lives of migrant laborers from around the world who have come to work in the UAE. Shot from the house of Kazem’s friend, the pictures show shirts, pants, underwear and towels—the possessions of working-class immigrants—hung on outdoor lines to air or dry. These ragged belongings are in contrast with the clear blue sky that dominates the background, which seems to highlight, and call out for, the freedom and endless possibilities that all people should equally share.
Elsewhere, the exhibition displayed Small Pink (2013), consisting of five small, monochromatic “scratch drawings,” which are made by abstractly scraping the surface of a paper with a sharp tool—thereby evoking and incorporating sound in his work—and then tinting the marks with ink. Rounding out the exhibition was his new photographs of chewing gum on the streets connected by colored chalk, entitled Kisses and Kiss (both 2014), along with the show’s pièce de résistance: Directions 2002 (2002).
Directions 2002, part of an ongoing series of photographs and videos that incorporate GPScoordinates, was inspired by an incident in which Kazem was out fishing with his friends and fell overboard at night without anyone noticing. His associates were able to find him by back-tracking their boat’s GPS locations and searching where they had dropped nets and cages earlier. Since that time, Kazem has been ardent in knowing where he is at every moment in time.
A seminal piece in the artist’s oeuvre, Directions 2002 consists of four photographs, two painted panels and single-channel video. They document a performance in which Kazem took a boat to the Arabian Sea and threw in wooden panels that he had engraved with coordinates of various UAE locations. Through the work, wherein the panels are free to float beyond the UAE’s borders without passports or papers, Kazem explores the notion of (fluid) political identity.
A gesture to his global way of thinking, a tribute to the laborers who built the environment that now surrounds him, and a positive view of what a future without boundaries could be, Kazem’s amazing body of works is both visionary in scope and humanist in its embracing nature. Straightforward yet complex, it delights the mind while tickling the eye.