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Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Chisenhale Gallery

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Earwitness Inventory, 2018, mixed materials

The room is mute; the floor full of mundane objects laid out messily all over the place. Tension runs around the room, around the car door, the crispy Arabic bread, the stepladder, the watermelon and coconuts beside the fizzy drinks. I know exactly how the noises sound like coming from these objects, yet they lie here frozen in silence – as if they are all dead.

The collection of objects is obtained from the aural memories of the former detainees at Prison Saydnaya in Syria and other similar legal cases around the world. In the earwitness testimonies, the witnesses testify the sounds they captured in the darkness while imprisoned: the car door makes the sound when a corpse is being dumped into the car; the sound that a punching bag generates when being dragged across a carpeted floor is identical to the arrival of Belgian steamboats. When vision failed, their aural memory became the alternative method of construction and confirmation. The Earwitness Inventory (2018) is the physical representations of traumatic experience, the sound of violence. Scrolling texts appear centralized on the wall behind, documenting the speech of the witnesses and how they have related the sounds they heard to the objects. Being inside this room is repressing, I feel like a frog being boiled. The sound of silence grabs me and kills me gradually.

I feel the urge to hear sounds, any kind of sounds, to rescue me from the suffocating silence. The enclosed listening room in the center of the gallery is the outlet, yet to another dimension of horror: it is dark and full of sounds, record playing the audio work Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017). I am blindfolded in this cramped space, surrounded by invisible people and sounds, sounds of a female narrating the testimony while a male whispering in incomprehensible foreign language at the same time. I feel overwhelmed by trying to catch every single word while adjusting to the darkness. Is this the feeling of being imprisoned in Saydnaya? Far less, I would say. But it is indeed very uncomfortable. I can’t help keeping noticing the dimmed light at the top of the door – it becomes particularly salient in the dark, just like how sound stands out in silence, it becomes our only substance for resistance.

I always try to justify the aesthetics within such artworks. The critique usually lies in the question of whether a forensic investigation of political issues being staged inside a white cube can be labelled as art. I don’t think that art is becoming more political. Instead, while staying in its neutral position, art has become so powerful that it is changing the politics. I admit that when I see works from artists like the Forensic Architecture, I always have the feeling like I am watching a documentary or reading a research report. But at the same time, it excites me, just like what Lawrence Abu Hamdan does here at the Chisenhale Gallery. I know that I am witnessing something historical, and I am glad to see that artists are empowered to advocate for human rights in this new-found shelter inside the white cube. And we, the spectators, are beholding a manifesto that, once wholly belonged to the artists, is now perforce also ours.



I am interested in the entanglements of landscape and narratives, that are necessary, if not inevitable, in rewriting certain histories.