Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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Asociated with Gulf Futurism, a movement of artists commenting on the accelerationist state of the Arabian Peninsula, Monira Al Qadiri creates work that addresses the tension between natural ecosystems and high technologies. Scored by her sister Fatima, her new video installation is set in the alien landscape of the Oman desert, chasing meteors, pearls and petroleum.

MYRIAM BEN SALAHYour video Holy Quarter (2020) was shot in the Rub’ al Khali desert, more specifically in the "Empty Quarter" situated between Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, and the UAE. I would love to hear more about your choice of this specific location.
MONIRA AL QADIRIThe Empty Quarter is where my story's protagonists—the meteoric Wabar pearls—were found in the 1930s, so I was trying to retrace those footsteps by traveling there in person to see what I could discover. It is known to be a deadly, treacherous place where foreign travelers die every year—and actually, that turned out not to be very far from the truth: I had a near-death experience there with the film crew when our car flipped over in the dunes. Between one minute and the next, the ground is shifting from under your feet, so it isn't easy terrain to navigate at all. The desert has a land mass bigger than France, and it’s almost impossible to cross by foot.

What intrigued me about it was its very alien landscape and its relationship to outer space: after Antarctica, Oman is the second most common location where meteors land on Earth, so I decided to start my journey there to see if I could catch a glimpse of this intergalactic connection. The Empty Quarter is actually only one location in the film; we shot around thirty locations all over Oman. Oman is also a place where you can actually see the formation of the Arabian Peninsula itself: geological deposits, fossils, and other multi-million-year-old elements are littered all over the landscape. Its a fascinating place, not to mention the local lore about Jinns residing in the mountains and caves at night. When you speak to people in Oman, Jinns don't represent belief or fiction for them—they’re merely facts of life, beings that exist among us in a parallel world.

MBSThe film was presented earlier this year at the Haus Der Kunst; it showcases multiple long drone shots over desert landscapes, with a computer-generated voiceover addressing the viewer as "we." Could you tell me about your process, how you shot and post-produced? I get the sense it wasn't the easiest project to complete.
MAQIt was a really risky project, as I had never been to Oman before, and didn't know what to expect. I did a lot of research and read texts on geology and the strange natural elements I could potentially find there, but it could have turned out to be a sad ending of me not seeing anything. It was really like diving into the unknown. But as soon as I arrived, I started to realize that the terrain and landscape were a hundred times more magical and visually stunning than anything I could have imagined. Still, it took some perseverance to actually get to these places and film them. Just the three of us—my cinematographer, my production manager, and I—traveled for many long hours by car across a land we did not know, often without Internet, without seeing any trace of other people for miles, just to try to discover certain rocks or meteors or desert landscapes. Needless to say, it was a very specific goal, one that not a lot of people around us understood. Because we had a drone with us, government officials kept asking me: "What are you really here to film?" I replied "Just landscapes" every time.
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MBSThis was not the first time that you’ve explored extreme or endangered ecosystems: the desert is a recurrent motif in your practice, but you’ve also alluded to bioluminescent marine life (Alien Technology (2014-2019)), for example. What is it in these natural environments that appeals to you?
MAQI grew up in Kuwait, which geographically is a desert facing the sea, so these are environments that feel natural and close to me. At the same time, Kuwait already has highly toxic air pollution because of the burning of petroleum 24/7, so in a way, it already feels like the state of the world after a huge ecological disaster has taken place. The country is also scorching hot: it’s a concrete jungle full of asphalt that traps heat; last year it reached the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. I imagine that in the future, most of the world will just be made up of these “dirty” deserts facing seas (due to rising sea levels), so through my works, I want to reflect on this ruinous future prospect while raising awareness around the terrible path we are on.
MBSIn this iteration, the film was shown with a set of sculptures: large black glass pearls, which allude to the Wabar pearls that formed in that desert after the fall of a meteorite. As you mentioned, the pearls are actually the narrator, the "we" of the video. They seem to be standing for something much bigger, maybe divine. Could you expand a bit on this voice, how you crafted it (it is masculine? with a specific accent?), its ties to the sculptures, and on what it represents? A divine intervention, maybe?
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MAQThe collective voice is that of a fictional entity that I created around the Wabar pearl meteorites. I imagined that they could speak as one and tell the story about how they landed on Earth, how they formed, when they encountered the colonial explorer who dug them out of the ground, and how they became a subject of worship. The relationship of the whole Arabian Peninsula with meteors is an interesting one, laden with mythology and even religious connotations, and that's where I originally got my inspiration from. Some say the holy stone in the Kaaba in Mecca is a meteor, but it has never been verified. I wanted a narrator that sounded in-between an artificial AI voice but sometimes almost real, so much so that you couldn't tell whether it was computer-generated or a real human attempting to sound like a computer, and many who saw the film initially couldn't tell the difference. I wanted Wabar to use the English language in an awkward way, as aliens would use an artificial translator to transmit their message.
MBSThe way you treat and sort of animate these inanimate objects through this voice made me think of the object-oriented ontology and speculative realism movements, which encourage us to move past the 20th-century obsession with human subjectivity and perception in order to focus on things themselves, rather than focusing on our perception of them. It seems to me that you're drafting through this video a way of interacting with the world that is not based on human tyranny over different life forms. In a way, we can say that things, and in this case these pearls, will inherit the Earth long after we're gone. Is it something that you were considering while working on the show?
MAQ Yes, you've summed it up perfectly. Generally, in my practice, I try to aim for the ambiguities and diversity in our perception of things, and to give the “things” themselves an emotional spectrum with which to express themselves. The thing has a persona by itself, and as humans we may have no control over it. For example, I have a large body of work on petroleum in the Gulf, and I imagine ways in which oil could become a separate character from us: corrupt, evil, miraculous, divine, etc. It exists in a place beyond our ability to tame or remove it from our surroundings. In a way, myths can be created through objects and forms in nature. Previously, I studied and lived in Japan for a long time, and I think this way of thinking that souls reside in nature affected me somehow. Gods inhabiting trees, rocks, rivers; these ideas are the basis of the Shinto faith. My outlook is less human-centric because of these culturally hybrid experiences that I have.
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MBSThere is actually an interesting line in the video where the voice over says: "Come with us now, let us choose a different fate together." To me, it resonated as an ecological prompt. Focusing on things instead of humans also means a deep ecological awareness, an interest in a vast and complex system of interdependencies that includes but also excludes us as humans. I'm sure these questions are at the core of your reflexions somehow, especially given the specific geography of the region which appears through your work: the desert, the oil, the pearls. Could you talk about the link between all three?
MAQMy interest in pearls is a biographical one: my grandfather (who passed away before I was born) was a singer on a pearl diving boat. That was his job. For hundreds of years, pearl diving was the main industry in the coastal Gulf before the discovery of oil, so as a post-oil person myself, I felt that that whole world had disappeared to the point that it became somehow fictional. I couldn't see a cultural connection between me and my grandfather at all. The way pearl diving is marketed and advertised to the local populace as heritage and history is deformed and sanitized, like a Disney movie of sorts. Poverty and hardship are removed from the equation. So I decided to create works that can link pearls and oil through color and form, as a way to visually connect myself to the past. I discovered that pearls and oil had the same iridescent/dichroic color spectrum, so I came up with a lot of works over the years around this central idea. Holy Quarter is the next frontier in this imaginary story, where I found that "pearls" actually came to us from outer space. They are in fact meteorites. Did my grandfather sing in the cosmos? This is a new path I'm exploring.
MBSFor the music, which is mesmerizing, you collaborated with your sister, the composer and DJ Fatima Al Qadiri. I would love to hear about the way you worked together on this specific sound.
MAQAs we've been constantly collaborating with each other since we were children, me and Fatima have this telepathic relationship sometimes. Even though our mediums differ—I might be working on a video or an installation, she would be working on some music or an album—we’d share our ideas with each other and magically it turns out to be totally symbiotic, as if from the beginning we were 100% in tune with what each of us was working on. I have to say, this is exactly what happened with the soundtrack of this film. I had just returned from Oman with all this footage, and I spoke to Fatima about the idea behind the film and what kind of music I was looking for, and she just happened to be working on some scifi-sounding tracks. When I listened to them, my heart skipped a beat. I assembled the footage with the music, and it was just perfect—like magic, or destiny. This isn't the first time we've had this kind of thing happen.
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MBSYou’ve said elsewhere that your practice in general is about tragedy, and about humans as tragic subjects. Could you expand a little bit in relation to this particular work? I remember also that one of the first times we met, you told me about your thesis, which focused on "the aesthetic of sadness in the Middle East." Is the Middle East more inclined to tragedy and sadness than the West?
MAQYes, I am always trying to approach my subjects as being tragic, melancholic but at the same time spiritual and sacred. Historically, I feel that in the wider Middle-Eastern region, sadness and loneliness were always appreciated as being noble and beautiful emotions more so than in the West because of the unique natural environment that exists there: the desert is a difficult, unrelenting place, full of death, atrophy, and deceit. This “depressive scenery” (as one religious prayer describes it) allows one to explore an emotional landscape beyond duality, beyond mere happiness and unhappiness, positives and negatives. Thus, the writings, poetry, and art of this region are naturally narrating stories of crumbling ruins, love lost, people gone, and civilizations destroyed. Mourning is a part of daily life and is not seen as a bad state of being at all. In this work, I also wanted to imagine the end of the world as being a beautiful place—that even after we have destroyed the planet, it will come back to haunt us and astound us in surprising and beautiful ways.

MBSYour work has been often associated with the loosely defined movement of "Gulf Futurism." There is an accelerationist thread that runs through your work, with a tension between these natural ecosystems and high technologies. Could you talk a little bit about that?
MAQSince Sophia Al-Maria first coined the term some years ago, I think Gulf Futurism has widened and come to encompass a lot of new ideas emerging from the Gulf region, which is interesting because it gave a conceptual framework to categorize and define this loose movement. In terms of the origins of futurism as a concept, the group that started it—Italian Futurists—had quite harsh fascistic tendencies, so in my view, Gulf Futurism is also a depiction of this outer gaze onto the current non-democratic state of the Gulf itself. They are the futurists, not us. Through our work, we exaggerate their madness and lust for power, destruction and ecological disaster, in a way that is both critical and reflective.
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Monira Al Qadiri (Senegal, b. 1983) is an artist who lives and works in Berlin. Following her solo exhibition at HdK in Munich, Al Qadiri’s work will be featured in two upcoming group shows at Kunstverein In Hamburg and Kunstverein Wiesbaden, opening in October

Myriam Ben Salah is a writer and curator, recently appointed Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Renaissance Society, Chicago.


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