Afternoon Dust

Yara El-Sherbini — The Current Situation

Yara El-Sherbini is one of a generation of artists associated with the Live Art scene that blossomed around the middle of the last decade. Her work often humourously adopts forms common to popular culture, such as the pub quiz, the newspaper crossword, and the board game. This has been described by many commentators in terms of taking art out from the art world to where ‘the people’ are to be found, but El-Sherbini’s appropriation of popular forms is in no way driven by the current cultural-political agenda of inclusiveness and accessibility; rather, the games and pastimes are used to channel a sharply intelligent political critique. And perhaps, sometimes, a little frustration, a hint of rage. Take this question from one of her pub quizzes, for example:

Jean Charles de Menezes was shot and killed when mistaken for a ‘suicide bomber’. On news reports, shocked passengers on the tube carriage stated the Brazilian man was ‘Asian, definitely Asian’.

Does this suggest that:
a. All brown people look the same?
b. There are people in the world who believe Brazil is part of Asia?

Oof. The way in which the question draws out the absurdity of the public’s response to a deadly police screw-up is laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s no missing El-Sherbini’s impatience there — an impatience directed not at the trigger-happy authorities, but at the witnesses who had allowed a certain dominant image, that of heroic police battling evil Asian suicide-bombers, to determine how they interpreted what they saw. And perhaps also at the quiz contestants too — because we would never allow our worldview to become so distorted now, would we?

The aggressive humour continues in El-Sherbini’s gallery works. For her End of series (2014) she destroyed various texts related to geopolitics and empire by hole-punching them into oblivion, drily observing that the pile of punched holes that was once the text of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which carved up the Middle East between the British and French empires, turned out much smaller than the pile constituting the remains of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s seminal critique Empire. In The Current Situation (2014), people are invited to trace the metal outlines of a world map in the style of the classic game ‘buzz wire’. Whenever they touch the map outline with the hand-held fork used to trace it — an unavoidable occurrence when crossing borders — a buzzer sounds, a red light flashes, and they receive a small ‘buzz’ from the handset, courtesy of the current flowing through the map. Texts, maps, and visitors all whither under El-Sherbini’s deft tactical strikes.

It is clear that El-Sherbini’s attacks are aimed not at the bodies and territories targeted by military-terrorist violence, but at the presumptions and worldviews and attitudes of those who believe themselves to be non-combatants. Through her use of humour and of play she both admonishes and challenges her audiences and participants: “You’re not thinking hard enough, think harder”. A little patronising, perhaps? I don’t feel patronised by her work, but it does make me feel uncomfortable even as I appreciate the acerbic wit and intelligence behind it, which given the issues she addresses is something to be valued. I do wonder how her work is received by the average Daily Mail reader, however — it’s one thing to be challenged and provoked by someone whose views you broadly share, but wholesale political conversion is something else, though not unrelated.

At another level, it’s interesting to see artists associated with the Live Art movement making objects for gallery installation (the wonderfully talented Helena Hunter is now making video works; Franko B has shown neons). While every artist is of course free to pursue whatever course of direction best suits their aims and ideas, and while even ‘dead’ objects can engage a ‘live’ element (The Current Situation being a case in point, just to add to the pile of puns), to my mind something about the economics of art production still seems to favour the static object. There’s something pleasing about the notion that live art is still too precarious, too unintegrated into the wider art world economy, for some of its most well-known proponents to make a living from just doing live, as their object production would imply. But each of these artists’ work was never simply reducible to its liveness. Perhaps there has been a shift away from thinking of live art as a discrete art form and towards a more general, diffuse notion of liveness that infects and modifies a range of diverse practices, something along the lines of ‘abstraction’ or ‘discursiveness’. Perhaps that was always the point.

Yara El-Sherbini’s The Current Situation is showing at New Art Exchange, Nottingham until 7 September.

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