Art Here 2021
Richard Mille Art Prize
18 November 2021 – 27 March 2022
The child of Palestinian exiles, Tarek Al-Ghoussein was born in Kuwait in 1962 and spent part of his youth in the United States, Morocco and Japan. His photography examines the traces of human presence in anonymous spaces, vast and variable expanses where he often positions himself as a lone figure. Performative but carefully conceived, momentary yet consciously constructed, each image offers a quietly contemplative reflection on issues of personal and universal concern, from the diaspora experience to the broader challenge of negotiating one’s identity.
In Odysseus series (Abu Dhabi, 2015-ongoing), Al-Ghoussein explores these ideas through a specific study of a number of islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi. Unknown to many inhabitants, these particular territories are at once within and external to the city’s boarders. As such, they open narrative gaps in the local geographical landscape, where time appears to slow down as space simultaneously expands. The resulting images present a minimal yet stark contrast between baren desert landscape and the remnants of urban engineering. These ambiguous scenes ultimately become a stage for exploring fundamental questions about the relation between subject and place: how do individuals affect and become affected by the space they inhabit? What does it means to be situated in a given landscape?
By including himself in the scene, where he appears both motionless and in movement, Al-Ghoussein adopts an engaged position which suggests a new relation to the environment, a new way of being in the world. This barely perceptible but significant detail shifts our perspective to reveal the basic architecture of place (both geographical and photographic) as time becomes frozen in an opposition between structure and space.
“I was born in Kuwait but we went to live in the United States soon after. We then moved to Japan when I was nine years old and returned to Kuwait for high school. I first studied biology, before taking a photography course into my fourth year at New York University. I fell in love with it and ended up double majoring in biology and fine arts. After my studies, I traveled to India for a year and a half to write, read, and take some photographs. I later started to put together a portfolio in the United Kingdom, to apply to a graduate school in the US. After graduate school, I took a three-years break in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to be a diving instructor. One day I missed the art world and found a job opening at the American University of Dubai. When I arrived in the United Arab Emirates, I was picked up by my cousin who took me to the American University of Sharjah by accident. It was just opening so I left my CV there and ended up working at the American University of Sharjah. It was a brand new institution and I was really looking forward to the idea of writing a curriculum and designing spaces. The country has changed so much since I arrived in 1997, I have seen it transform immensely. I moved to Abu Dhabi around 2013 to become professor of visual arts at New York University (NYUAD), partly because in 2010, I was commissioned by the Guggenheim museum to do a series of images on Saadiyat island.
I did not know the artistic local scene before I arrived in the UAE, but I soon met a lot of them and I have been very welcomed by the local community. In 2003, I participated in the Sharjah Biennale with Mohammed Kazem, and then I was included in an exhibition called Languages of the Desert, at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in Germany in 2005, along with Hassan Sharif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Mohammed Kazem and Abdullah Al Saadi among others. Soon after that I juried an exhibition with Hassan Sharif for the Emirates Fine Arts Society and we became close friends.
I do not know if it is my Palestinian background but I have always moved a lot. As a child, I moved numerous times with my family and as an adult I kept moving as well, it was in my blood. And because of that I think a lot of my focus in my art has been on landscape and watching the transformation of landscapes wherever I have been. A photography movement that deeply inspired me is the New Topographics, which was a movement that was reexamining the contemporary landscape. They were stating that the old, beautiful landscapes that photographers such as Ansel Adams used to photograph no longer existed. One of the main photographers of the movement, Robert Adams, said that a photograph has to be true and real, that Ansel Adams' work was not true because it negated the whole presence of the human being in most of his pictures. The New Topograhics’ works was looking at the contemporary condition of the landscape, and I think all the photographers did include some kind of human presence in their works. Until 2015 or 2016, most of the landscapes I photographed were anonymous, it was never specific to Abu Dhabi or Dubai for example. I would always use the landscape as a kind of stage as a film director would do, I would look for a landscape to interact with. It is only with the Odysseus series that I specifically named Abu Dhabi as the creation place of the works; I even named the actual islands that each image came from.
Around 2015, I read an article in The National saying that Abu Dhabi municipality was in the process of naming and mapping the 214 islands of the Emirate. That mesmerized me somehow. I was shocked that I have been living in Abu Dhabi for about nine years, and I had no idea that it was part of such a large archipelago. This fascination became an obsession to document or visit as many of these islands as possible. The research process is difficult, there is very little information written about the islands and even getting a full list of names has been complicated. Until now I have photographed about 40 of them. I know I am not going to photograph the 214 islands, because some of them are military, commercial or private, but knowing how many I can get to, the obsession and insistence of trying to get access to as many as possible, and the difficulties in getting this access, are part of the project. It makes me think of the novel by Franz Kafka, The Castle (1926), where in the majority of the book the protagonist is trying to reach the castle. This journey of trying to get to it is a major part of the project.
I rarely had a picture in mind before I visited one of the islands, I usually respond to what I am seeing. Most of the time it demands going a few times. I also have a few images where I am standing on a beacon in the middle of the sea, and when I plan to show the whole series into one exhibition, I will use them as a kind of marker throughout the show. I have been taking short video clips from certain islands as well, and I have collected some objects, but I do not want to be too scientific about that. My goal is not to be in all of the photographs, because sometimes I feel like the image does not need me in there, and I want to avoid the superficial reading of “Where's Waldo?”. It is myself in a space, in my relation to a space, how I affect the space and how the space affects me.”
Interview with Tarek Al-Ghoussein, 20 December 2021, Abu Dhabi