Radia Soukni Hi Monira, I’m so happy to have this conversation with you after visiting your recent exhibitions. The current exhibition ‘Empire Dye’ at the Kunstverein Göttingen is your first comprehensive solo exhibition in Germany. Simultaneously the Studiengalerie 1.357 is showing your video work Behind the Sun (2013) in Frankfurt.
When I walked into the exhibition in Göttingen, I was greeted by an enlarged vibrant violet seashell. The title of the sculpture (Empire Dye (2018)) is the same as the exhibition title. Can you introduce the meaning of this ambiguous title in connection to the addressed themes of the works on display?
Monira Al Qadiri The work Empire Dye is basically an enlarged Murex-Seashell. Thousands of years ago it was discovered that you can get the colour purple out of the seashell and they would have to harvest like 40,000 seashells to dye let’s say one dress or coat – so the colour purple was very difficult to make at the time. It was only worn by emperors or, you know, very important people. It was seen as a colour of empire basically. I was obsessed with the colour purple for a while because I use it a lot in my work as an intermediate colour between the colour-spectrum of pearls and oil which I do a lot of research on. But then I also discovered that it’s the colour of bad luck in the oil industry. The red alarm stands for the most dangerous stage like an oil leak for example. But they have an even more dangerous alarm, which is the purple one. In that case the oil rig is about to explode. There is also this folklore in the oil industry that you shouldn’t wear anything purple when you get to the oil fields because it is bad luck. I thought it was a nice allegory for the age that we live in. We live in this climate crisis, which also comes from, you know, exploiting fossil fuels. Maybe we have already reached the purple stage of this. It’s no longer the red alarm it’s the purple one. Or things are about to …
MAQ Exactly! (laughs) It’s also kind of a warning. My work appears fun and seductive on the outside and when you actually get into it is quite dark.
RS Absolutely. That can be observed in the many sculptures of oil drill bits that we encounter in your exhibition in Göttingen. They come as iridescent, shiny sculptures (Amorphous Solid Ghost (2017)), in the form of carved pearls (Wonder 1, 2, 3 (2016–2017)) and in black dyed soap bars (RESERVOIR (2019)). Removed from their function as tools to extract oil they seem oddly alluring and beautiful. What was your intention behind the different aesthetics?
MAQ I’ve been working on drill sculptures since 2014. As someone from Kuwait – a country that is 90% depended on oil – I was very struck by how interesting and beautiful these drills look like and by the fact that we don’t know anything about the inner working of the oil industry. It is concealed from us. They say it’s for security reasons but I think it’s also because they want to create this mythology around oil. It was just there and we were the chosen people and we became wealthy because of it. But then we don’t know how it works and I was asking myself what will happen when oil is over (which will happen soon). Will I still have a country then? It’s kind of this existential crisis that every Kuwaiti has to go through. I thought maybe 100 years from now when you look at these drills, will you know what they are? Maybe you just think it is some kind of artefact from an ancient age.
The idea was to create a link between the pre- and post-oil, let’s say histories or historical narratives in Kuwait and in the wider region. Before oil was found in Kuwait, the main industry was pearl diving. My grandfather also worked on a pearl diving boat. I wanted to transfer some kind of aesthetic connection between these two very different industries. I discovered that pearls and oil have the same colour scheme, so I made these drill sculptures that are dyed in this iridescent colour. Maybe after oil and after pearls there is another history that uses this colour as well. I am trying to create a connection even though there isn’t one. The oil industry really destroyed so much of the history and the culture of this place it really created this rupture in history. So, it is also quite tragic the way that I am trying to create connections that are not there.
RS By trying to create these connections, as someone who grew up in a post-oil-discovery generation, do you feel a responsibility as an artist to shed new light on crises – even though created by others – we have to cope with now?
MAQ Yeah of course, I mean… I wouldn’t say a responsibility more kind of a reflection. My work is also dealing with subjects that in my country are seen as taboos. Now it is very apparent that the oil industry is going to collapse soon. It actually started in 2014, right when I made the first drill sculpture, that the oil crisis happened, so I also felt like a fortune-teller or something (laughs). But the fact that it’s still going on is no longer visible. You have to actually talk about it and deal with it, but it is still seen as something that you shouldn’t discuss because it really goes to the core of our existence as people in this world.
For many years I’ve researched what is called the ‘aesthetic of sadness’ in the Middle East. My work always deals with these tragic subjects and asks: how did we get here? Why is there no other way of thinking about life? Oil is a curse but also a miracle that revolutionized our lives in so many ways. Not just as a fuel but also there’s the petrochemical industry. It’s killing us at the same time. I also want to show all the nuances around the subject. It seems to be kind of black and white, but then we use it in everything. We are all complicit in this scheme.
RS I would like to talk a bit about your work Behind the Sun (2013). You use found VHS footage of burning oil fields in Kuwait after the Second Gulf War in 1991. Images of the war and the apocalyptic aftermath reached an immense media presence and were used in artistic works such as Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992). Growing up in Kuwait during that time, how would you describe your relationship to these images?
MAQ I experienced the war as a child. I was seven years old and had a very different experience than my parents. As a child everything – even war – can be fun sometimes, you don’t really understand what is going on. You think ‘Oh there is no school, yay!’
At the beginning of the 1990s my parents had a VHS tape at home that said ‘Lessons of Darkness – Werner Herzog’. And as a child I watched it and obviously I had a very visceral hate towards this film (laughs). I mean as a child you don’t really understand what docu-fiction is, so I was just very puzzled. Why is this German man making up lies about the war? Why is he saying these strange things that never happened? Using passages from the bible… It didn’t make any sense to me as a child. I grew up, went to art school, started seeing his other films and started to understand the idea behind this kind of work. But at the same time there was still the 7 year old inside of me that couldn’t forgive Herzog.
RS What happened then?
MAQ I moved to Beirut in 2011. The war in Syria had just begun and I started to really remember my experiences of the war that I lived through. In Kuwait we have this kind of amnesia about our war. We are not supposed to remember it. Whereas in Lebanon the war is ever present even in the artistic discourse. People are always thinking about it, investigate it and deal with archives. I was really affected by that and thought: why can’t I make my own version of Werner Herzog? I met a photographer named Adel Al Yousifi, who took 25,000 photographs of the burning oil fields. I asked him if he had any videotapes and initially he said no. A few weeks later he said ‘Look, I found this box full of VHS tapes that I shot. They are really bad and nobody has seen them. But you can have them!’ When I first saw them, I cried. The thing that annoyed me about Werner Herzog’s film was this god-like-perspective from a helicopter with the Wagner music. The way I saw the oil fields burning was shaky from the ground and you don’t understand what is happening. But as a child I also thought it was beautiful somehow. This is the image of hell that they told us about in the Koran and we are living in it. The earth is burning and the sky is black. It was just a very surreal place to be. I edited Adel’s videos together and added excerpts from Islamic TV programs about the majesty of God and the divine. Later, I cut up about twenty episodes of these and I created one poem out of them. This was the idea behind the work. At the same time, I mean, I love Werner Herzog now, but I also wanted to reclaim this context somehow. Make it mine, because I lived it.
RS You created this work 6 years prior to today’s urgent debate on climate change. Do you think that the perception of the work has changed within these years?
MAQ Yes, of course! At the time, if they didn’t send all the international teams to put the fires out, the oil fields could have still been burning today. It is said that they can burn for up to 200 years. It was one of the worse man-made ecological disasters of all times. We lived in this kind of bubble of poison and toxicity that still has devastated the ecology of my country and so many people got sick because of this. It showed you if you tamper with nature, it can kill you. And we have to deal with it in a more thoughtful and tender way. But to me it was also about oil itself, not only as a substance or material, but as a character in our history. As this villain or alien that came from outer space and we touched it and our lives have changed forever. Sorry, I didn’t answer your question …
RS No, but you mentioned something very topical which is thinking of materials like oil as an actor in this complex network. There is this constant interaction between humans and their environment. The way we think about these intersections has changed drastically in the last three decades. So, seeing how artists visualize that over the years is very interesting to observe.
MAQ Yes, exactly. I mean the worst-case scenario is if we keep going down this path, which is what is going to happen. All of this happened 30 years ago in Kuwait, but it is a vision of what could happen to all of us.
RS What strikes me most about your installations are the different materials you use and their meaning within society. Can you talk about your why you started to use materials like soap (used in RESERVOIR, 2019) or Murano glass (used in Amorphous Solid Ghost, 2017)?
MAQ Soap is a very important material in this storyline because recently I’ve been thinking about oil as a petrochemical. We always think about is as a fuel but never think about petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are used in most sanitary products – our shampoos and soaps are full of petroleum. Without these we wouldn’t be able to clean ourselves anymore. The works are also about the notion of cleanliness. How do we keep ourselves clean? And how did we get there in the first place? Who thought of that? I find that in Europe people are much more aware of these things. They purposefully use petroleum-free products. But in our part of the world nobody has a clue about this.
With the glass, for this work in particular, I was imagining that when the drills go down into the earth and drill the sand, they would leave a ghost behind. Because by drilling the heat suddenly turns the sand around them into glass and would leave these leftovers in the earth that we would dig up hundreds, thousands of years from now and find the ghost of the drills. That’s why it is called Amorphous Solid Ghost, which is the scientific name for glass (amorphous solid). It is basically the ghost of the drill.
RS Something else that I find quite distinctive about your works is the use of sound in your videos. Both, in Behind the Sun (2013) and Divine Memory (2019) you use audio monologues from Islamic television programs of the 1990s. The combination of sound and images creates sometimes a stark contrast while at other times they merge harmoniously. What role do these voices play in your work?
MAQ When I used to see these programs as a child, I really felt like it was the voice of the divine almost like a holy voice which is speaking to me through the TV with this sublime, orgasmic voice. It was very sublime. I couldn’t put my finger on it and I still have a physical memory of this voice. If I hear it triggers something in my body.
So, I’ve been collecting these poems from the TV archives. I like to use them in my work because I think even for people who did not grew up with this, it triggers something physical when you hear this voice. Even, you know, some elderly people in Göttingen came up to me and told me that the video Divine Memory was the most beautiful thing they have seen in their lives. I think it is this voice combined with the music and the images it triggers something that… I don’t know it’s like by reading these poems, they created a new art form. Also, the Arabic language is very beautiful and dense. The way they read it makes it sound very theatrical and dramatic and it just takes you somewhere else.
RS Yes, it is very melodic and transports you in this meditative stage.
With Behind the Sun we get a look into the past and a chance to question contemporary implications of resource scarcity and its effects on humans. ‘Empire Dye’, however, feels partially like a vision of a possible future. What does your outlook on the future in regard to the finiteness of oil as a resource look like? And what role will art/artists play in it, in your opinion?
MAQ That is a difficult question. I think it is the role of artists to paint dystopian pictures of dystopian futures, but it is also at the same time the artist’s role to paint an utopian future. For us, let’s say in the wider Arab World, we had a series of revolutions since 2011 that made us very hopeful about the future. And then everything came crashing down and there was this kind of air of despair. That is also why many of us left. Because artists need support and when the society starts to push you out and say it doesn’t need you because there is too much despair it is also very sad because you don’t have a place to express yourself. Expression in the end is a very hopeful activity, even if it is an expression of something really dark. This is how I kind of found my way to Berlin. Now things are changing again, so I have very high hopes for 2020.
RS So, no purple alarm yet?
MAQ (laughs) No, it is becoming a positive outlook. What you can also see in the show in Göttingen is that no matter how terrible it seems, there is beauty in destruction. Even though the burning oil fields are horrible and a total disaster there is beauty in what you see. You can still be hopeful even if the world is collapsing. This is what the photographer told me, Adel Al Yousifi. I asked him ‘Why did you go and photograph all of these burning oil fields and risk your life?’ Because it was dangerous and toxic and there were mines everywhere. He first told me he was taking them to show his family the extend of the destruction. But then I think he also found the scene itself somehow hauntingly beautiful. The burning oil looks somehow beautiful. There is something sublime in destruction.
RS Thank you so much for this insightful conversation. Can’t wait to see your upcoming projects in the future!
MAQ Thank you!
22 September – 24 November 2019
Behind the Sun
30 October – 12 December 2019
60323 Frankfurt am Main
31 January – 21 June 2020
Curated by Jana Baumann
Haus der Kunst
Monira Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti visual artist currently based in Berlin, Germany. For her Ph.D. she researched the aesthetic of sadness in the Middle-East trough poetry, music, art and religion. Her work explores unconventional gender identities, petro-culture and their possible futures. Recent solo exhibitions include: CIRCL Pavillion, Amsterdam (2018); Sursock Museum, Beirut (2017); Glasworks, London (2017). Recent participations in international group exhibitions include: Forum Expanded at the Berlinale, Berlin (2019), the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane (2018); 6th Athens Biennial, Athens (2018); Lulea Biennial, Sweden (2018).