Chisenhale Gallery presents a major new co-commission by Beirut-based artist and ‘private ear’, Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Earwitness Theatre develops Abu Hamdan’s enquiry into the political effects of listening, presenting two installations that capture the psychological, bodily, spatial and sometimes hallucinatory world of the earwitness.
Abu Hamdan’s exhibition is commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery in partnership with: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; and it will be represented at the partner venues throughout 2019.
Working with sound, installation, performance, text, video and graphic works, Abu Hamdan’s work examines the contemporary politics of listening. Often building on audio analysis that Abu Hamdan has made for legal investigations and advocacy for humanitarian organisations, his work is acutely attentive to sound. Proposing new strategies for listening, Abu Hamdan’s work questions the ways in which rights are being heard and the way voices can become politically audible.
Building on the premise that crimes are more often heard than seen, Abu Hamdan’s new commission explores techniques to access sonic memories, where not all things look the way they sound or sound the way they look. For Abu Hamdan, testimonies describing gunshots like “the popping of balloons” or the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy like “somebody dropping a rack of trays”, are just as important as the sonic evidence itself.
In 2016 Abu Hamdan was asked to create dedicated earwitness interviews for an Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London’s investigation into the Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya. In Saydnaya 13,000 people have been executed since 2011. Inaccessible to independent observers and monitors, the violations taking place at the prison are only recorded through the memory of those few who are released. The capacity of detainees to see anything in Saydnaya is highly restricted as they are mostly kept in darkness, blindfolded or made to cover their eyes. As a result, prisoners develop an acute sensitivity to sound.
Working with Warner Brothers Sound Effects Library, as well as encouraging the mouthing-out of sounds and the use of test-tones, Abu Hamdan worked with Saydnaya survivors to gain insight into the actions taking place inside the prison. Unsatisfied by the imprecision of the sound effects used in feature film, Abu Hamdan has since amassed a growing inventory of objects that generate sounds and can be specifically used to develop and refine earwitness testimony techniques.
For his exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, Abu Hamdan presents a new installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018) comprising a selection of 92 objects derived from descriptions of sounds from legal cases all over the world, which include pinecones, cannelloni pasta, unwound video tape, a selection of shoes and a series of customised door instruments. Central to the exhibition, and surrounded by this collection of objects and their narratives, is a contained listening room hosting the audio work Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017). In this work Abu Hamdan’s treatment of the detainees’ whispers as sonic evidence reveals information about Saydnaya and in doing so amplifies their voices, while also addressing the destruction of their speech.
Using text, sound and an installation of objects, Abu Hamdan’s exhibition explores what can emerge from audio-focused investigations, examining the role of artifice, illusion and creative labour in the construction of evidence and the specific truth that artists, and art work, can produce. Earwitness Theatre comments on the processes of reconstruction, addressing the complexity of memory and language, and the urgency of human rights and advocacy. What will emerge through this process is a body of work that testifies to the threshold of an experience – where sounds are remembered as images, where objects have unexpected echoes, and where silence becomes an entire language.
Abu Hamdan’s exhibition continues Chisenhale Gallery’s programme for 2018, which includes major new commissions by artists Lydia Ourahmane, Paul Maheke and Banu Cennetoğlu. Through his work, Abu Hamdan raises questions concerning how history is constructed in order to examine the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge, themes that recur throughout Chisenhale Gallery’s programme for 2018. As part of the commissioning process, discursive events are programmed in collaboration with each artist, and contribute to the organisation’s Engagement Programme of public talks and events held at the gallery. Abu Hamdan will also present his expanded video installation Walled Unwalled (2018) and site-specific performance After SFX (2018) at Tate Modern, London from 1 October to 7 October 2018 (performance on 4 October). The sounds, voices and texts that comprise the performance are derived from Earwitness Inventory, giving audiences the opportunity to see the project in its entirety across the two galleries.