In Focus: Rana Hamadeh

Posted on 11 August 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Rana Hamadeh, detail from The Alien Encounters Project, (2011-ongoing). Image courtesy of the artist.

Rana Hamadeh, detail from The Alien Encounters Project, (2011-ongoing). Image courtesy of the artist.

Rana Hamadeh, a performance and visual artist from Beirut based in Rotterdam, is one of 18 artists exhibiting at The Old Blind School for Liverpool Biennial 2014. Her ongoing piece, The Alien Encounters Project, can be found on the second floor, whilst an immersive sound installation, Can You Pull in an Actor With a Fishhook or Tie Down His Tongue With a Rope?, is housed in the topmost corner of the building. Liverpool Biennial Fellow Jenny Glydell takes a closer look at the themes and ideas behind the artist's practice and the work on display. 

Rana Hamadeh’s practice cannot be summed up in a few short sentences detailing her artistic intent and inspiration; it is too vast, too encompassing and too subjective. More explanation is needed, and that is the intention of this post. The process of trying to understand Hamadeh’s work through reading around her practice or hearing her speak about her work is when her art truly captivates.

The Alien Encounters Project (2011-ongoing) is Hamadeh’s continuing artistic and research project. Her installation, situated on the second floor of The Old Blind School, considers a recurrent theme within this project: the notion of ‘alienness’. Hamadeh introduces and deconstructs this vast notion through the exploration of legality linked to space and place, and the possibility of the existence of a space in which people are outside of the law of the countries they inhabit.

The new commission consists of paraphernalia displayed on a wooden pyramid shaped display stack and shelving unit, and in form the work is similar to previous pieces. Although the array of items is at first glance a little overwhelming, spend some time here and the items reveal a network of narratives. ‘Alienness’ is explored through both the literal and the metaphorical; funny images of fancy-dress aliens, historical maps of migrations, photographs of immigration protests, and a poster of Sun Ra, an experimental jazz musician and artist whose film work addresses ‘otherness’ and ‘alienness’ through ‘blackness’.

Rana Hamadeh’s practice cannot be summed up in a few short sentences... it is too vast, too encompassing and too subjective

One narrative strand that particularly engages the viewer is the inclusion of archaic medical objects and items you would normally associate with dated methods of maintaining hygiene; a manual of medicinal herbs; a plague doctor’s mask. These may seem slightly disparate within the main theme of ‘alienness’, however, there is a great interview focussed on her exhibition at Lisson Gallery in 2013 that explains this concept. Here, Hamadeh describes how she is drawn towards the terminology of “hygienification and purification”, ranging from Gaddafi’s interview in which he described demonstrators as rats carrying the plague, (the plague of Athens in which legal and sanitary purification were linked), to the plague doctor’s theatrical assertion of authority. This detail gives more meaning to the handkerchief hanging like a banner from one of the shelves of the installation: "‘As Long as the Doctor is not Touched by Death’ the Government says ‘He Will Never be Infected by It’ but Governments Lie, and Doctors – Whether Cloaked or Not, Eventually Die".

Rana Hamadeh, detail from The Alien Encounters Project, (2011-ongoing). Image courtesy of the artist.

It is hard to ignore the second of Hamadeh’s commissions for the Biennial; the rumbling, groaning monster that is situated on the top floor of The Old Blind School, Can you Pull in an Actor with a Fishook or Tie Down his Tongue with a Rope (2014). This piece consists of an incredibly loud and barely contained sound room (at the climax the bass reverberates throughout the building). The sound extracts, taken from the Shiite ritual of Ashura in which the Sunni Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the grandson of Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali, are mixed with incongruous excerpts from other sources such as Alice in Wonderland, and build and mutate over a 20 minute period. Upon entering the space, you are invited to pick up a script that works alongside the piece or choose to experience it without the script; either way the work is intense, shocking and you may surface from the sound installation feeling slightly altered.

The work is intense, shocking and you may surface from the sound installation feeling slightly altered

Can you Pull in an Actor with a Fishook or Tie Down his Tongue with a Rope is an extension of The Alien Encounters Project, but it is Hamadeh’s first foray into a unique sound installation. While addressing other concepts recurrent within this project, the work also questions the human need to understand and quantify foreign and sometimes disturbing, noises, experiences or rituals. When reading the script and listening to the sound, you may find yourself struggling to match the script and the sound together. Interestingly, in a previous interview Hamadeh said that her body of work involves mainly text and performance, her installations often playing the ‘stage’ for her ‘performances’ that also qualify as artist talks. This piece furthers this concept: here, by picking up the script and participating or listening, the audience becomes part of the performance.

Hamadeh’s work for Liverpool Biennial 2014 is by no means the end of The Alien Encounters Project. It can be viewed as a continuous conversation, a discussion that may never be resolved, similar to the issue of ‘alienness’. The gallery texts are intentionally vague, and though some viewers may need a conclusion or a more didactic approach, both Hamadeh’s work and the way it has been curated within the exhibition leave room for further interpretation and personal research. 

Rana Hamadeh's work will be on display as part of the wider exhibition A Needle Walks into a Haystack at The Old Blind School until 26 October.

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