A conversation between Basel-based Sylvain Baumann, London-based Justin Eagle, and Dubai-based Raja’a Khalid about their recent three-person exhibition at VITRINE, Basel, which explored the artists’ shared concerns with trust and safety and the relationship between society, architecture and the commercial object.
This exhibition explores, among other things, the relationship between society, architecture and the commercial object. How do these themes play out in your respective practices?
RK: Much of my practice stems from critiquing the motifs of luxury and economies of desire, within the context of the Arabian Gulf region. I find Dubai (my home town) to be a phenomenon rather than a 'place'; the cultural shape, temperature and frequency with which it exists is incredibly global, contemporary and in many ways unprecedented. Applying any kind of pre-existing European or North Atlantic frameworks for understanding Dubai's urban landscape, its population, its vernacular, its industries is completely futile and so it comes down to artists and writers that have grown up in the city to write up narratives that can fully make sense of its idiosyncrasies. Many of these narratives emanate from the neoliberal quote unquote marketplace and so in my work, I try to think carefully about the affective and the abstract; these include the materials, surfaces, consumables and commodities that make up a place such as Dubai. This allows a more interesting exploration of the subtleties and nuances of the Gulf, which further enrich conversations about what it means to practice from 'a place'.
JE: The commercial object or the commercial world or even our relationship within that world seems to be explored within the show, and all of this is of interest to me and forms the way in which I participate within that world.
SB: Architecture is a container to me. A container of human activities. One of my first projects, the site-specific installation “AIR PLAIN”, consisted of a reproduction in negative of the exhibition space, scaled down to 67%. The slightly reduced version of the room within the room, places the viewers between reality and its model, facing an object that virtually contains them, giving them a point of view of their own situation. Who else has this viewpoint over our existence? How to see oneself in this representation of the world? Where to place the limit between those two realities? And, does this external viewpoint over our own situation really help us position our self?
The difficulty in visualizing the structure of our surroundings and understanding its mechanisms doesn’t come only due to architecture. Interior design, visual communication, products of mass consumption, signage, public speeches, etc, surround us too, pretend to help us define our position and ask us to interact with them. They promise us something that does not exist yet, or that we are not able to see with our basic senses. The architectural elements that I use in my practice today, as well as the found furniture, images and texts, interrogate our society as a promise. The constellations of elements that I develop try to recreate some kind of meta-space that suggest to the viewer where he could be, here but also somewhere else, in the physical world and in a fictive world at the same time. With my work, I attempt to occupy the virtual dimension of the physical space.
Recently, these lines of research have led me to develop a set of procedures that the public could interact with. For example in the show at Vitrine, I offer the public the possibility of applying for a Certificate of Trustworthiness.
The engineering of trust in business through marketing has become the basis of my work. I have therefore decided to conceive my practice as a company. In order to distance myself from the process, I am now developing my work through company merchandising. Currently, my company develops a range of products called Trust ® << Because all we have is promises. >>
The work in this exhibition exists within a very specific space: the gallery is viewable from the public square, and the work can be seen 24 hours a day. To what extent does the work respond to or rely on this?
RK: The piece I produced for the exhibition was made specifically for the show and I knew I wanted to take full advantage of the gallery's all-glass exterior. For some time I had been wanting to critique the cultural artifactness of Oud not simply as an olfactive consumer trend but as part of a larger eco-socio-culture that grows and evolves into and out of the region, one which relies heavily on consumer activity. The Adidas shirts and the image of the Emirates plane were imagined, created and finally situated in a direct response to the storefront aesthetic that the site affords the artist as an investigation on part of those artistic enquiries.
SB: This particular context activates the public dimension of my project of a company. Its existence is independent of the gallery itself. It is an abstract entity, only visible through the sale procedures. The fact that the exhibition can be visited from outside at any time, allows my work to enhance the idea of the institution, a concept that has inspired the project from the start.
Justin, you were in Basel for a residency with Atelier Mondial in the run-up to this exhibition. Does the work of yours in the show respond directly to the city and the gallery’s surroundings?
JE: Yes the work was a result of me being displaced from my natural surroundings, which at the moment are East Ham, London, which could not be further away culturally and visually to that of Basel. I arrived pretty much empty handed with no plan, idea, materials or equipment. I was under a considerable amount of restriction to what I could actually produce, and as you may well know, Switzerland is very expensive!
However, I used this to my advantage and was able to hustle to get reductions on materials from an art suppliers. It forced me to interact and I was able to form a relationship with a local printer called Nerriana Cappatti. She was trained in Basel to paint signage and commercial imagery before everything went digital. So we spoke regularly about cultural traits, characteristics, phrases, language and print technique.
So for the show, with Nerriana’s help, I ended up producing a work that would function as an open-ended question, displayed on a canvas, using the Swiss Helvetica font. The question is both a question you ask to yourself but at the same time, a question posed to others. I like the ambiguity that is created, this moment of saying “who are you asking it to?”, “who are you trying to gain information from?”. It’s rather like a psychoanalytic question: when you are talking to a therapist, who are you talking to, to the therapist or to yourself? At the same time, it is also an abstract work because it is in a language that I cannot read, so in a way it can also work as an abstract painting.
How was the experience of having your work brought together? Did it highlight particular themes in your work?
JE: Yes, I felt a certain sense of melancholy was touched on within the show and preconceived consumer profiles were explored.
SB: To see my own work brought together with works of Raja’a and Justin made me think about how I put the individual into the perspective of the corporate entity. The way Raja’a uses existing corporate material focuses on the company as the subject, whilst Justin’s work seems to be more from the person’s point of view. With my project of a company, I try to explore how the latter interacts with the former. I’m sort of playing the role of somebody who tries to be part of the game, somebody who wants to exist on another level, who wants to be more than just an individual. My work is the story of somebody who doesn’t want to be exclusively what he is because often he had been told what he could be.
RK: I feel that there are certainly lots of shared aesthetic sensibilities between the three of us and I had a sense that the show would look good because of these. While contextually my concerns are quite region specific I don't think they are confined by any highly peculiar or particular cultural specificity. My current work is a critique of a set of desires and fetishes which might seem prominent in the Gulf region, but are actually quite global. They are the true face of late capitalism and so it's only natural that outcomes of my research would make sense alongside work made by artists practicing in Europe or the US.
Sylvain Baumann, Justin Eagle, Raja’a Khalid ran between 15 October and 15 January at VITRINE, Basel. For more information, visit http://www.vitrinegallery.com/exhibitions/sylvain-baumann-justin-eagle-rajaa-khalid/.