Refractions of Khaled Sabsabi

Khaled Sabsabi discusses his works 'Mush' and 'Syria', exhibited as a part of 'The Floating Eye', 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art's Sydney Pavilion at the 9th Shanghai Biennale. Video produced by DasPlatforms.

We believe our eyes more readily than our ears. This might explain why visual deceptions aren’t considered lies but tricks, illusions, mirages, fantasies. To enter a darkened space and hear Khaled Sabsabi’s works before one sees them is entirely the point. Paradoxically, part of their immediate physical presence rests in the effect of the rush of aural stimulation that runs on a separate sensory mainline to the brain, bypassing the intellect to be interpreted before the visual space-defining cues the human animal is more accustomed to. To encounter Sabsabi’s multimedia installation Mush (2010) is to first hear the ambient sounds of built and natural environments recorded by the artist in Australia, the Middle East and North Africa. Like a subliminal sonar guiding us home, a panoply of low traffic hums punctuated by the chirping of birds, the soft swaying of branches in a breeze and melodious human voices locate us in a familiar terrestrial world even if we’re not sure quite where we are.

Then out of the darkness it appears. A large cubic form, seemingly floating in mid-air, looms before our field of view. Projected on four sides is a kaleidoscope of earthy colours, geometric lines and amorphous shapes that prompt all sorts of associations, from the Euclidian geometries of the art and architecture of civilisations past and present to the playful mechanical puzzles of the Rubik’s Cube, while in its form the cube brings to mind the sacredness of the Kaaba at Mecca. As a world refracted through glass it is, of course, none of these things. Comprised of hundreds of moving images created and compiled by the artist over several years, Mush is a gridded armature on which Sabsabi transforms everyday observations of his immediate environments into a cubist centrifuge of multiple perspectives that dissolve to a central vanishing point. It’s a sensation enhanced when one moves in closer to view the cube at an acute angle, gazing down its surface at an almost parallel perspective to be disorientated as if falling into an horizon from orbit. It has all the mimicry of a tiny universe.

Adjacent to the cube is a projection of diaphanous shape and hues­—pink and purple-tinted silky, delicate light—that gently moves in a whirlpool constrained by the contiguous edges of an eight-pointed star. Barely distinguishable to the naked eye in real time, this ethereal network of moving images comprises human faces that take form in light as rapidly as they dissolve into inky wells. For Sabsabi ‘this eight-pointed star symbolises balance and counterbalance … taking its form from the superimposition of two four-sided squares: four being the lowest spiritual number, eight being the highest for many cultures and religious faiths.’ [1] For all the hard-edged abstract quality of the work’s form, ironically the title Mush suggests (not without some humour) the consistency of the human body’s innards—our largest organ, the skin, like a screen, holding all the mushy bits together. Intriguingly, MUSH is also a computer programming acronym for Multi-User Shared Hallucination, a responsive coding system commonly used to modify social interaction and spatial boundaries in multi-player online games.

By comparison, Sabsabi’s Syria (2012) is a provocation to those who hold an entirely reasonable expectation that a label exists to act as a logical descriptor of its referent. Let’s be clear: Syria is not about Syria. The work signals Sabsabi’s fascination with the ways by which beneath the surface of things there can exist a metaphorical structure opposed to that surface. For instance, the way a visually complex abstract image of bustling lines and jostling forms doesn’t necessarily convey a buzzing randomness but instead unveils the balance of nature’s elementary simplicity, or the symbolic means by which the underlying moral structure of foundational myths runs perpendicular to the chronological unfolding of events. Syria is a title that illustrates the inadequacy of words to define that which is beyond them.

Incorporating moving images from the artist’s large archive of recordings of Damascus since 2004, Syria has the beautiful complexity of fractal geometry of which it shares a self-sustaining system of self-similar patterns that span different points in time. Its degree of formal and aesthetic complexity is enhanced as a multi-channel projection that is reflected onto glass. Undoubtedly a masterwork within the artist’s oeuvre, Syria is a culmination of two decades of an artistic practice tied to a deeply ethical and spiritual enquiry that is remarkable in its consistency of yearning and generosity of spirit. Speaking of this trajectory Sabsabi confesses to a highly focused determination to ‘work toward a progressive collapsing of space—the territorial space of nations, of the mind and of the soul.’ [2]

Listening to the artist speak I’m always struck by the fact that he never reverts to a dependence on received opinion from the white noise that surrounds discussions about race, religion and politics. In a full measure of things, as an artist Sabsabi’s achievement is one of moral courage tempered by a deep, sustained and genuine deliberation of the nature of our universal equivalence. Look around you: one is so easily rewarded for accepting the masks of the enemy at face value, safer still to trace familiar lines of separation or unjustly profit from the unchallenged stigmas and prejudices of an inherited world where the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. [3] Artists, no less than anyone else, are not immune to this, especially in the age of flagrant and unacknowledged privilege that facilitates deliberate or otherwise ignorant misrepresentations. Left unchallenged it can lead to an altogether more suffocating cleansing of what an artist does, creates and, more sinisterly, his very person.

Like the great American novelist, poet, playwright, essayist and political activist James Baldwin, who in 1955 at the age of thirty-one published his first collection of essays Notes of a Native Son a few years before the creation of the works that cemented his reputation as a writer and orator of a rare and brilliant eloquence, Sabsabi is an artist and a man for whom vanity is a lie and hubris a prison. In Baldwin’s essay Everybody’s Protest Novel he bravely positioned himself, at a critical historical juncture, as an irreconcilable opponent of the fallacies of social consensus by repudiating the moral foundation of ‘good intentions’, noting the bitter irony that this in fact amplifies the afflictions of the intended recipients of charity by sustaining their—which is to say, our brothers’—stifling categorisation and captivity. Similarly, in these two works of major accomplishment, Mush and Syria, Sabsabi atomises his own identity, history and geography to the point where the light and heat of this artistic fission is either illuminating or blinding depending, as Baldwin put it, on the question of one’s steadfastness toward navigating one’s own path:

I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this centre will guide one aright. [4]

In the refractions of Khaled Sabsabi we pierce the surface of things to confront the capacity of our conditioning to bend to another’s will or to a power greater than we can know.

[1] Khaled Sabsabi in conversation with the author, 8 August 2012.
[2] ibid.

[3] The best-known, most oft-quoted line from W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming (1919), one of the most iconic Modernist poems, composed in the same year in which the first Syrian National Congress convened in Damascus following the imposed conditions of the Paris Peace Conference after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
[4] James Baldwin, ‘Autobiographical Notes’ in Notes of a Native Son, Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, p. 9; ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’, collected in this volume, was first published in The Partisan Review, 1949.

Commissioned for The Floating Eye – Sydney Pavilion: The 9th Shanghai Biennale (exhibition catalogue), Aaron Seeto (ed.), 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 2012, pp. 148-163.

Khaled Sabsabi: Mush, Artspace, Sydney, 21 March - 29 April 2012.

© Pedro de Almeida 2012.