Mohammed Kazem, Photographs with Flags, 1997, Archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl, 19.7h x 27.6w in / 50h x 70w cm
While he’s no stranger to the international scene — he represented the United Arab Emirates in the 2013 Venice Biennale and co-curated 2007’s influential Sharjah Biennial — Dubai-based artist Mohammed Kazem is only now getting a well-deserved debut solo show in New York. “Memorizing By Means Of Observing,” on view at Taymour Grahne Gallery though December 20, acts as a small-scale survey of the artist’s career, from “Photographs With Flags,” 1997 — for which the artist had himself photographed standing next to yellow and red construction banners, his back to the camera — to “Kiss,” 2014, images of gum-spots on New York sidewalks that Kazem joins via lines of colored chalk. “My work has a deep relationship with the environment,” the artist said during a recent interview. “I’ll capture elements from nature and put them in the context of my work — lights, movement, sound, color.”
Downstairs, 14 lightboxed photographs comprising “Windows,” 2003-5, create what Kazem considers a quasi-narrative about progress and construction in Dubai. The series tracks the erection of the Shangri-La Hotel as seen from the window of Kazem’s apartment, and includes informal shots of some of the (mostly Asian) laborers charged with completing the building, as well as a scan of a UAE newspaper story about a Chinese factory worker who was fired after writing a love letter to his girlfriend. The exhibit is paired with a video that Kazem made at the Shangri-La itself, focusing on the daily routines of various hospitality employees there. Both works contain the ambiguity common to Kazem’s practice: An edge of criticality that stops short of making any didactic statements about the nature or side-effects of economic growth in the region. The artist uses a similarly oblique photo-documentary technique in the series “My Neighbors,” 2006, which features images of clothes hung out to dry in front of an apartment next to Kazem’s own. The photographs are a portrait via absence — he didn’t actually know his neighbors, at all. “You’d hear them fighting — all these stories — which are not existing in the images,” he said. As with “Windows,” much of the composition is taken up by the blank blue sky — what Kazem considers a rare shared, collective space.
The exhibition also includes “Directions,” 2002, a mix of photographs, a short film, and printed GPS coordinates. “There are only four images,” Kazem said, “but I was involved with this project for five years.” It involved the artist tossing wooden panels engraved with GPS coordinates of a location in the UAE into the sea; they would later, presumably, wash up on shore and be discovered by strangers. (Kazem developed this idea for “Directions,” 2005/2013, his 360-degree video installation for the Venice Biennale.)
More recently, Kazem has been intrigued by the black circles of chewing-gum residue on city streets. He connects these disparate dots with chalk, then photographs the resulting “kisses.” The artist has also continued to make an ongoing series of works that involve him scratching and gouging paper with a pair of scissors, creating abstract patterns that he likens to music; in some cases (as at Taymour Grahne), they’re modestly scaled, although he’s also made epic, meters-long versions. This past summer, as a resident at the Watermill Center in the Hamptons, Kazem made some scratched-paper drawings based on the forms of various objects and antiquities in the institution’s collection. “Some people ask, ‘What’s the relationship [within the various parts of my practice]?’” Kazem said. “But they do have a link to each other. If you look at conventional works, you might say, ‘This is the brushstroke of that artist, the technique of this artist.’ But here, the technique is a mental technique. I feel very free when I do projects; everything’s an element that I can use. That’s the beauty of the visual arts.”