Reviews/Visual Art

Channels of communication

23 August 2018

Review: Khaled Sabsabi, “A Self Portrait” and Amalia Pica, “please open hurry” ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·

Showing concurrently at PICA, Khaled Sabsabi’s “A Self Portrait” and Amalia Pica’s “please open hurry” are exhibitions that require the viewer to actively engage with the works on display; to listen, watch and interpret. By embracing both non-verbal and verbal messaging, the exhibitions demonstrate the complexities involved in communicating between and within cultures, political structures, histories and species.

“A Self Portrait” commands a reverence as soon as one enters the darkened ground floor gallery. Featuring Arabic script, a colourful banner in a tented shape hangs from the wall, illuminated. While there is an immediate awareness of the “other”, Sabsabi is seeking to have a conversation through his pieces, deliberately positioned for us to experience more than one at a time.

The video installation We Kill You plays on both sides of three screens suspended in the main space. We hear and see someone speaking Arabic, snippets of English catching the ear; the moving, blurred background landscape symbolising the challenge of remaining fully focused when attempting to converse across differences. The moving images of mass human movement, worship and conflict, and the background score accompany us as we walk around the space to view Guerrilla. This is a series of 99 hand-coloured photos of Beirut in ruins, that form an evocative palette of neutrals, giving the rubble a jarring softness in places, alongside stark highlights of yellow, for police tape, and teal, for plastic sheeting. These are scenes of destruction in fresco form; highly effective.

Moving into another room, projected faces watch, eyes shifting. Here, 114 photo montages, each comprised of seven layers and the Arabic script for Allah, are displayed on low-lying plinths and also on the walls in frames. As with Guerrilla, there is so much detail in each singular component, suggesting, perhaps, that it would be wrong to reduce the collective into one, oversimplified image. With intolerance, anti-Muslim sentiment and everyday racism still prevailing in Western society, the exhibition highlights that it is possible to appreciate the richness and weight of meaning in an ideology and culture different to our own, if we focus our efforts on trying to understand, rather than trying to tear it down.

Upstairs, “please open hurry” is an engaging set of multi-media works exploring language and communication, specifically human attempts to communicate with the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorilla and orangutans). A monochrome video installation in a darkened room positions the viewer as viewed; the apes stare at you from their vantage point, trying to communicate verbally and non-verbally. It’s an interesting reversal of a zoo experience; outside the cinema room, an installed monitor plays surveillance footage of gallery visitors entering, heads tilted in curiosity, and then exiting with pensive expressions.

Amalia Pica, ‘Extended ears’, 2017, gypsum. Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti. Courtesy of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Casts of human hands spell out a sentence in American Sign Language in the corridor. A piece in the next room is also a cast, this time of two hands held together in a formation to act as “extended ears”. The main feature in this room, however, is Yerkish, a large-scale depiction of abstract symbols called lexigrams, which humans trained apes to understand. With each colourful tile stripped of its translation, visitors can pick up one of the handouts in the gallery space to start deciphering the sentences. This task takes longer than might be anticipated and, while the viewer searches the handouts for the right lexigram, a recording of humans imitating primate calls plays as an audio installation. Nearby, the video In alphabetical order plays on a screen, the dancer’s choreography serving as a catalogue of great ape gestures. The whole experience encourages the visitor to ponder which technique is better: training apes to point to corresponding tiles in human-led experiments, or humans studying and attempting to understand the apes’ calls and gestures.

There is a spotlight on power imbalance through these works, with both Pica and Sabsabi questioning whether humans have the right to frame the validity of another language or form of communication. Personally, I came out of both viewings aware that I had not been able to comprehend all of the messages presented, that a full translation would take time and patience. Yet this double feature at PICA seems to suggest that, through art, we are at least attempting to connect, and that this is how we should be moving through life… trying to tune in to what is going on around us, despite our limitations.

‘A Self Portrait’ and ‘please open hurry’ are exhibiting through to 7 October 2018.

Pictured top:  “A self-portrait”, 2014-2018. Mixed media installation (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. 

abstract symbols called lexigrams which humans trained apes to understand.
Amalia Pica, ‘Yerkish’, 2018, timber, paper, paint. Photo: Alessandro Bianchetti. Courtesy of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

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Author —
Belinda Hermawan

Belinda Hermawan is a graduate of UWA Law School (2009) and a fiction writer whose short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. She is a summer school alum of Parsons, The New School of Design in New York. Favourite piece of playground equipment: playground car on springs!

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