Art Here 2021
Richard Mille Art Prize
18 November 2021 – 27 March 2022
Mays Albaik (b. 1991, Abu Dhabi) is a Palestinian artist whose work explores how a sense of placehood is formed, reflected and refracted by what mediates it. Her visual practice asks fundamental questions about how the body is molded – shaped, morphed, supported and restricted – by its surroundings: what are the shifts a space undergoes before it becomes a place? What are the psychological and physical affects of such environmental changes? For Albaik, these questions have particular resonance in the UAE, a location unique for its population’s persistent personal connections to other places around the world. As “a non-citizen resident of her country of birth,” she seeks to open the contradictions in the language used to draw our relationship to place – resident, citizen, expatriate – and expose a growing, collective comfort in “multipresence”: the act of inhabiting multiple territories at once. Specific to the diasporic experience, this multi-existence also reflects the universal digital condition of being perpetually online.
In Awaiting Weightlessness (Abu Dhabi, 2021) she examines these issues through the phenomenon of waiting. Three video essays running at three different temporalities create an effect of resonance and dissonance which highlights the body’s experience of space and time. Placed in a state of waiting, the viewer’s linear sense of past, present and future unravels and becomes circular. As time becomes plastic and poetic, space expands and becomes elastic. Gradually, we are made aware of the invisible structures mediating the seemingly intimate relation between figure and ground. Ultimately, we become conscious of how our bodies occupy space through time and how time animates space through our bodies.
“I spent most of my childhood between Ajman and Sharjah and moved to Abu Dhabi in 2019. I have spent my whole life in the UAE, which is a place with a lot of siloed communities, a lot of different demographics, but there is a thing about being here that does not untether you from other places. My relationship to places such as Palestine and Syria is always mediated but still very strong because of systemic structures, like language, family history, or generational narrative and trauma. This connectedness to places away from the body’s presence is a difficult parse through, and this is how I started my art practice. I wanted to think about how I got here now. I started to really put down these existential and self-contextualizing questions sometime around 2014, at a time when I felt guilt, disconnection, and mourning with my relatives in Syria. And I found myself thinking, how am I here in this set of circumstances? Why am I not experiencing the events in Syria while cousins that I am very close to are? Why do I get to escape the corporeal reality of the occupation in Palestine? And why is it me that is here rather than elsewhere? These are the quintessential questions of everyone’s existence.
I started practicing art to figure out not only my relationship to the UAE, but also how is it that I come to have a relationship to the UAE, as well as a relationship with Palestine and a relationship with Syria. I also questioned my body's relationship to the UAE. I feel very confident in my relationship to the geography, as my body truly existed here for almost 30 years, my feet were literally on this ground as I grew up. More recently in my practice, I started asking myself if our feet literally touch the ground as closely as possible: could this be the moment when you really are of the place, that you and this place belong to each other and that there is no way to deny it. But there is always that little bit of mediation, whether at a molecular level or a bureaucratic one, whether it is your shoes, the concrete that you stand on, or it’s time and the paperwork your body carries. This broke my heart a little.
I’ve been trying to convince myself that you could be from multiple places at once, that you can have this sort of multi-dimensional relationship with places. I have a whole body of work, which I started in 2020 when we were suddenly entirely online, that interrogates the way we exist digitally, as proof that we can exist in multiple places at the same time. My interest in digital media started because I was interested in light as a material and as a vehicle for communicating but also as a way of translating information. It started as very low tech, with me creating lenses and shining light through them. There is a spatiality in working with the digital that is layered on top of the temporal dimension, which I am really interested in. I am trying to keep my work from getting entirely virtual, so it does not disregard the body, because there is no avoiding the fact that we experience everything through the body. We experience our screens through our body, we have to use our body as apparatus to engage with the apparatus (the body?) of the digital to access the virtual.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi project occupied a lot of my discussions while it was being built, there was a lot of energy around the debate of what the Louvre Abu Dhabi can be and what can it do, around what it meant to bring an international cultural institution in the UAE. I am interested in different things that I wanted to push myself to explore through this project. In one of the last residencies that I took part in I started to explore the idea of chronological displacement. I tried to think about the body or the self and the place, and to see what happens when you take the two apart, when these two things are dislocated from each other, but continue to grow. When I approached this exhibition and the piece, I had a desire to directly tackle the question of time. I knew I had this big question mark on time and its relationship to place.
I had a writing practice before I had a visual arts practice. But I also always compartmentalized the literary side of me, the side that enjoyed poetry, that enjoyed writing, that felt the word as my medium. I gradually started to bring them together, through the body, by looking at the negative spaces around the body. I looked at the mouth a lot, as the gateway of words from our body. I spent a lot of time interrogating the space of the mouth, and from there I started to think about speech and language. Every piece I make is driven by a question, I have a curiosity and I interrogate these questions by testing things out in a video or by imagining it in a sculptural three-dimensional way. These questions focus themselves to become a piece, to become the crystallizations of the research. I also tend to avoid having concrete answers in my pieces, I think if we knew the answers to things we would not need to make art about it.”
Interview with Mays Albaik, 3 November 2021, Abu Dhabi