Farah Al Qasimi at Delfina Foundation
Dreaming of a different way of living sometimes feels deeply self-indulgent. Imagining being free from the shackles of the various systems that dominate and exploit us feels ironically secondary to attending pragmatically to the violence as it is happening. No time for pontificating. The present moment needs action to determine any kind of future, and yet knee-jerk reactions and a lack of solidarity run the risk of history repeating itself, again and again. In a future whereby violence and exploitation are minimised, (and when they do occur, survivors have access to strong and caring networks of people and resources) this must extend to nature and our immediate environment. There is a certain courage to putting a plan in place for a world without mindless destruction. What does it look like? How do we communicate it with others? How do we step up when someone is hurting, alienated, isolated, grieving?
A stone's throw away from Buckingham Palace, Delfina Foundation's current show of work by Brooklyn and Abu Dhabi-based artist Farah Al Qasimi takes inspiration from not only everyday life and visual cues of our relationship with nature, but also the aesthetics of globalised cultures through the internet and gaming. The artist's work reveals itself in small blocks, calmly curated despite a vivid array of colours, themes and ideas at play. There is a great deal to digest, but at no point does the experience feel overwhelming.
The press release of the show, which is entitled Abort, Retry, Fail, discusses the artist and her family's use of the internet in the early days, how it was an escape from reality "until its recent malfunction". Much like other novel gadgets and concepts, I would argue with the school of thought that the internet is working as intended, as opposed to malfunctioning; it is only the privilege of time passing that we have been able to illuminate and critique its methodologies and politics, and fathom that we remain a rampant and violated consumer in an immaterial world. Al Qasimi's photographic works are incredibly interesting within the Delfina Foundation space, boasting a range of visuals and evocations, such as a visually stunning image of a woman dressed in a hijab walking slowly through a large body of water. There is a deep tranquility within the image, despite a frenzy of footsteps in the sand she is walking towards, and quiet implications of both violent histories and current realities of bodies suffering and perishing at sea.
There is a feeling of the importance of "characters" in Al Qasimi's work, and the viewer leaves wondering whether they are a character within a bigger web of players, and of course the answer is yes. Another piece depicts a woman sat at a computer, with her screen showing an image of an unattended computer at a desk. The very act of being online is perpetually confusing and alienating. The promise of community and empowerment has devolved into consuming both the hyper-mundane and the hyper-extreme, and both serve to melt the mind.
Engaging with people we will never meet in person is both a blessing and a curse. The para-social relationships that emerge and shape us, yet what we have been conditioned to understand about "real world" relationships arguably does not apply now that our methods of communication have altered so drastically. The lack of explicit narrative around the subject matter of Al Qasimi's photographic works intrigues me endlessly, especially when thinking about the "Main Character Syndrome" that some people who live out the majority of their life online seem to experience. Instead, as a viewer, we have a suitably limited understanding of those depicted in this exhibition. Aesthetically we can understand, or imagine, their story, but we are not inundated by an excess of information about them. We retain our reasonable distance.
Through a curtain lies a video screening space for the artist's short film, Signs of Life. Immediately this is a cosy space; there is a padded seating area on the floor to get comfortable. It is a warm respite from the outside world, dare I say even a respite from the online world. This affect of warmth, intimacy with one's own surroundings, and comfortable viewing is at ones at odds with our online life. Is it possible to feel cosy in immaterial settings? The video itself is only a few minutes long, but is packed with so much wisdom wrapped in the aesthetics of gaming.
Alas, the film piece speaks to the viewer directly: "Do you remember waking up in the orange cloud?" one silent subtitle asks us, followed by: "Through the smoke, the sun was a tangerine". The work is poetry, and we are reminded that however much we want to dive into the self as a fictive practice, a performance, a "main character", there are some political and physical truths that we cannot run from. Al Qasimi's environment of large-scale mixed media prints, and videos that buffer and load while we wait in a state that seems to reject space and time, wraps us up in the whimsy of imagined places and scenarios. Yet, the idea of waking up in smoke and the sun burning in the sky as an abstract object highlights the absurdity of running from ourselves. This seems especially salient at the time of writing, whereby we are witnessing a genocide in Gaza. Usually large swathes of people retreat to the online realm when similar events have taken place and a veil of ignorance, however temporary, is deployed. However this time, the activism and the realities of what is taking place are ubiquitous and unthinkably violent and destructive. Collective action and care are not a concept to integrate into a practice, but an urgent call.
Instead of the previously mentioned "self-indulgent" dreaming of another world, could we dare to want something enough for ourselves and others that we can actually activate it? At the point of being imagined, the dream is always at least partially real, plausible, tangible. Engaging the imagination is crucial to Al Qasimi's offering in Abort, Retry, Fail; the imagination and the real become interchangeable. An almost unnerving sense of peace flows through this body of work, and it is enough to take us to the streets and demand it for us all.