Mohammed Kazem: Infinite Angles
On ViewIsabelle Van Den Eynde
On graphite paper, strokes of gouache and watercolor make amorphous figures of humans. Loose traces of hard hats and sarongs emerge in familiar but elusive settings. A sense of place is established. Windows (2019–2020) is an ongoing series of watercolor and graphite on paper works from photographs of migrant laborers in construction sites and amidst the stark whiteness of labor accommodation in nondescript Middle Eastern metropolises. “I saw them before they were designated essential,” explains Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem, who muses about the fact that they are now amongst the few groups allowed to move around the country during a nationwide lockdown. In Infinite Angles, a solo exhibition on view at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Kazem captures sound and light in an unfolding somersault of new paintings and works on paper, bringing to the fore that which is beyond human perception or blends into the background.
From his downtown Dubai apartment as the first light and murmurings of the day unfurl, he sits by his window overlooking a construction site teeming with workers, observing as they perform their tasks of opening the city. “It’s interesting how central they are to the heart of the city, yet they exist on the margins,” he says. In any given building in Dubai, the windows will more often than not overlook a kaleidoscopic tessellation of high-rises under construction. To Kazem, these windows are mere frames for vibrant tableaux vivants; his subjects, the fulcrum of the canvas. “The way structures swallow and refract light, casting interesting shadows, made me think of how laborers don’t even own the shadows of their own creations,” laments Kazem. He is wary of joining the ranks of artists-cum-activists, but in today’s mounting global healthcare frenzy, the topic takes on new significance. “I don’t have solutions. I just observe life and interact,” he says.
Perhaps this is most apparent in Sound of Angles (2020), an installation comprising 18 new scratch works and a found bathroom door he stumbled upon at an Italian restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio. The door, worn out from 30 years of use, bears the marks of time with countless blotches of paint repairs on its scratched surface. Each layer, a different color. “I’m fixated on the idea of infinity, that’s why I wanted the door to be a sort of ongoing record that would continue bearing the marks of countless palms pressing against it,” says Kazem. Here he invites viewers to push the door, which swings open onto a showroom where his new scratched works hang in a cacophony of colors taken from the many layers of paint on the bathroom door. The scratches trace the endless permutations of angles created by light bleeding into the room each time the door was pushed.
Kazem’s scratches, which developed into a signature technique, date back to 1990, when he started creating visual representations of sounds by scratching paper with scissors. In Collecting Light (2020), made of large foldable scrolls of paper, he continues a hellbent attempt at charting light by gouging the point at which it lands like coordinates on a map. But creating a compendium of sound and light is no cushy job: it took the conceptual artist around 70 hours to complete each piece. “I don’t hold on to my initial vision of the work, nor do I overload it with symbolism,” he tells me. Indeed, he glides through the process like natural light flowing through his studio from dawn to dusk.
To Kazem, darkness is not the absence of light: darkness is a separate entity which tangoes softly with light. “As the earth rotates around the sun, shadows move and that creates a symphony of sound. You won’t see or hear these elements because we too often forget that there’s a metaphysical aspect to visual art,” he tells me. For Sound of Light (2019–20), composed of massive canvases perched on freestanding wooden structures in the middle of the gallery, Kazem depicts scenes from his ventures into abandoned construction sites, with light thrusting in from the apertures, hungerly coating cement surfaces.
Kazem is neither an experimental light artist of the Instagram-era or a disc jockey of the New Wave renaissance. Rather, his layering of light and sound create infinite reverberations, lending the conditions for the party and the after-party, ad infinitum.