In her first solo exhibition in the United States, Sophia Al-Maria explores “Gulf Futurism” through the haunting spaces of luxury shopping malls.
On show until 31 October 2016, “Black Friday” is a poignant exploration “of dreams and of reality and of the future. The future that had already happened. The apocalypse that is already here.”
The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Gallery on the first floor of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art is transformed into a darkened room filled with voices, noises, music echoing as if coming out of radio statics or a dystopian future where the sun never shines and the only light visible is artificial, coming from neon and fluorescent signs and screens, flickering, flashing and dazzling the senses, like the distorted, cavernous halls of mammoth cathedral-shopping malls towering over us… This is the vertiginous atmosphere of “Black Friday”, Qatari-American artist, writer and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria’s first solo exhibition in the United States to date, curated by the museum’s Associate Curator Christopher Y. Lew.
In the artist’s words, “Black Friday” is like “a bad trip”, even the title has the power of a curse or a bad omen; it is like entering a horror film or a nightmare, removed from any cognisable space and time. The exhibition comprises the titular video Black Friday and The Litany, an installation made of a mound of sand on which rest a number of devices, from mobile phones and tablets to flatscreen monitors flashing with images and buzzing with indistinct sounds.
Gulf Futurism and the shopping mall
The exhibition “Black Friday” presents yet another aspect of Sophia Al-Maria’s (b. 1983, Tacoma, Washington) term “Gulf Futurism”, and explores this phenomenon through a focus on the shopping mall, an American invention embraced by the Gulf and taken to its most opulent, luxurious heights, as an ostentatious display of extreme wealth and capitalism. The mall is also a “neutral space”, sustains Al-Maria, whose identity as the daughter of a Bedouin father and an American mother has opened doors to cultures of the West and East with ease, having also been educated in the United States, Cairo and London.
Al-Maria was raised between Washington State and Qatar, and witnessed first hand the birth and proliferation of shopping malls in the Gulf throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. She wrote to curator Christopher Y. Lew, as he writes in his essay on the exhibition, defining them – and shopping in general – as “being a weirdly neutral, shared zone between cultures in this … war being fought through screens by the American Right and groups like ISIS.”
Al-Maria coined the term “Gulf Futurism” when she was studying at Goldsmiths in London, where she is currently based. She used the term to describe what was happening in the Gulf region in terms of development, with the über-technological, the über-slick, the super-sized, and all that was created to woo and awe, like skyscrapers and mega-hotels, fake islands and superfast cars. In a 2013 article in Dazed, Al-Maria in collaboration with musician Fatima Al-Qadiri compiled a list with a series of such futuristic additions to Gulf life.
In the introduction to the list, Dazed explains what “Gulf Futurism” essentially is:
Over the last fifty years, the Arabian Gulf has given birth to a very particular brand of futurism. It is a phenomena marked by a deranged optimism about the sustainability of both oil reserves and late capitalism. Similar to early 20th century Euro-Futurism and mid-century American kitch and retro-futurism, Gulf Futurism is evident in a dominant class concerned with master-planning and world-building, while the youth culture preoccupied with fast cars, fast tech and viddying a bit of ultra-violence.
The Arabian Gulf is a region that has been hyper-driven into a present made up of interior wastelands, municipal master plans and environmental collapse, thus making it a projection of our global future. From this statement, the themes and ideas of Gulf Futurism emerge: the isolation of individuals via technology, wealth and reactionary Islam, the corrosive elements of consumerism on the soul and industry on the earth, the erasure of history from our memories and our surroundings and finally, our dizzying collective arrival in a future no one was ready for.
Black Friday in the United States (and now also all over Europe and even Asia) is symbolic of shopping extravaganza, a day when whether by taking to the mall or through online shopping portals, people essentially realise the phrase “shop till you drop”. In an ironic nod to this day, Al-Maria has titled her video and exhibition.
In Black Friday, shown on a giant, vertical screen installed just above the sand mound of The Litany like a stele or the glass window of a cathedral, Al-Maria has used a drone to film the vacant, deserted spaces of two shopping malls in Doha, Qatar: the retail-entertainment complex Villaggio and the still-unfinished Al Hazm. Both malls appear mostly in their architectural details rather than larger space views, such as the indoor canal and imitation Italian village streets of the Villaggio, or the glass dome and double arcade of Al Hazm, modelled on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.
While at one point a man and a child seen from the back appear in the cavernous halls bathed in blood red, orange and yellow light of the shopping mall, the only ubiquitous human figure present throughout the film is a woman clad in a black veil with high platform shoes walking around the vast, empty spaces – an all too familiar presence for those who have been in such places in the region.
The grandeur of the venues is accentuated by Al-Maria’s vertical distortion of the images to elongate the view to dizzying heights. She used this same technique in her video installation Sisters, shown in 2015 at the New Museum Triennial, which incorporated YouTube and WhatsApp footage of young Arab women filming themselves while laughing and dancing in their bedrooms, “turning spaces of confinement into public nightclubs”.
The soundtrack to Black Friday includes a voice over narration by actor Sam Neill, which Al-Maria describes as “a nightmare sermon”. In an ominous tone, Neill pronounces:
“This is where the glamorous heart of evil is born. And reborn. Not in the dark satanic mills of the 19th century but the bright fluorescent malls of the 21st.”
Towards the end of the video, Al-Maria recounts a chance encounter with an old classmate of hers from the United States, who seemed to be there on military duty. She saw him at a shopping mall in Qatar, as she was standing behind him on the escalator, but she did not call out to him as, wearing a veil “probably looking like a picture from their target practice”, he would not have recognised her anyway.
The face of the wandering veiled woman is constantly blurred; she could very well be the artist herself as much as she could be any other woman wearing a veil, unrecognisable. At the end of the video, the woman lies prone on the beautiful tiled floor of the mall, exhausted.
Curator Christopher Y. Lew writes in his essay that the mall is the embodiment of
the capitalist system that engendered it: one of endless choice without any escape […]. Likewise Black Friday is a closed loop; Ouroboros-like [a serpent that eats its own tail], the video’s beginning is also its end with automated walkways that appear to go both up and down but lead nowhere, neither to heaven nor hell. The video captures a mall in limbo, in an unfixed state between near-completion and abandonment to ruin.
The dystopian atmosphere of the video is heightened as it plays amidst the intermittent noise of sounds coming off the multiple flashing screens strewn across the sand at the feet of Black Friday. In The Litany, an exploration of what Al-Maria calls her “techno-pessimism”, the plethora of mobile phones, tablets and flat screen monitors lying on the sand all show different videos on a loop.
There are frenetic images of American soldiers form the Iraq war, logos of multinational companies like Kellogg’s and MasterCard, luxury fashion labels like Dior, Gucci and Chanel, or footage of buildings being demolished, apparently collapsing upwards on the upside-down screen. These devices symbolise the obsession of owning the latest gadgets and the information overload that accompanies it, their slick presence set in stark contrast against the raw nature of the sand.
With its schizophrenic atmosphere, “Black Friday” offers a disturbing view of an apocalyptic and dystopian reality created by a hyper-consumerist, capitalist, luxury-obsessed and technology-controlled culture.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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