Reviewed: Light From the Middle East at the V&A

Middle Eastern photographic practice in focus.

Light from the Middle East: New Photography

Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

It seems the great galleries and museums in London have been bitten by the shutterbug, with a noticeable tendency towards photographic exhibitions this season. The National Portrait Gallery recently exhibited Mario Testino’s portraits of the Royal Family, complemented by Marilyn Monroe’s portraits by Cecil Beaton. Ansel Adams’s photographs are currently on show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the Victoria and Albert Museum has followed suit with two spectacular shows. As an avid amateur photographer, I couldn’t have been more excited to see "Light from the Middle East", the V&A’s exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern photography.

The Middle East is shining bright as a growing "hot spring" for contemporary art. Sotheby’s held its first ever auction highlights exhibition from its Doha sale, along with a charity auction in Saudi Arabia last month as part of its new arts initiative, Jeddah Art Week.Other art ventures, such as the Sharjah Biennial launched in 1993, Gulf Art Fair in 2007 and Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, home to Louvre and Guggenheim franchises opening in 2015 and 2017, has drawn increasing amounts of attention, commercial and otherwise, to the region. So the V&A show is highly relevant.

Light from the Middle East is the V&A’s spotlight on the response of contemporary Middle Eastern artists to the social and political challenges of the past 20 years. Scanning (and spanning) the region stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, curator Marta Weiss has selected 95 works that reflect a growing interest in the region’s photographic art as a distinct and often under-represented category. The majority of works exhibited are from a joint collection sponsored by ArtFund and built by the British Museum and the V&A. It features photographs by celebrated and emerging artists from the late 20th century to the present day.

Divided into three themes - "recording", "reframing" and "resisting" - the exhibition presents itself as a project with two related aims. The first is to present a multi-faceted set of viewpoints on a region where the personal, social, religious, and political lives of its inhabitants are sites of friction. The second is to present an exploration of the medium. How do these artists employ different visual strategies to demonstrate the possibilities of the camera image today? The inclusion of photographs that use the camera as a tool for faithful documentations of people and places are juxtaposed with "staged reality" and images that had undergone obvious post-processing to subvert the authority of photographs and expose its limitations.

The same visual strategies and motivations were employed by German photographers during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as by photographers subjected to Stalin’s Socialist Realist agenda. Interestingly enough, one artist, Taysir Batniji, noted the influence of German Modernist artists Berndt and Hilla Bechers’s serialised photographs of old industrial buildings in his Israeli Watchtowers series. Nermine Hammam’s Upekkha series (pictured at the top) bears remarkable technical similarities to Stalinist Socialist Realist paintings, and Sots-Art paintings by Russian artist Boris Mikhailov.  Hammam’s works were based on the 2011 Arab spring where photographs of soldiers in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were re-coloured and placed within idyllic settings as a means to transport them away from the violent reality in which they previously stood.

 It is quite fascinating to see how the presence of these techniques in Middle Eastern photographic practice has created a visual language for viewpoints on a variety of issues including: the conflict between tradition and modern consumer culture and censorship of media texts in the press.

Shadi Gharirian’s Qajar series manipulates the trope of portraits of Iranian women of the 19th Century Qajar period. Photographed against an architectural backdrop, the traditionally dressed sitters are pictured interacting with modern objects such as Pepsi cans, stereo systems, and sunglasses to compare and contrast ways of life for women then and now.                                            

Shadi Gharirian, from the series ‘Qajar’, 1998.
Picture: pressimages.vam.ac.uk

Light from the Middle East: New Photography runs until 7 April.

Nermine Hammam, from the series Upekkha, 2011. (Picture: Victoria and Albert Museum)
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear