»My personal concern is to gain a pure individual experience, empty of radical emotions, as a stranger; to be able to stand on different platforms for a new perspective.« –Dima Hourani
Visual artist Dima Hourani from Palestine investigates images, symbols, and icons, questioning the role they play in specific societies and exiled communities, in relationship to traditions. Whether turning security checkpoints into fast-food restaurants or building associations between the cosmetics and the military industry, the artist aims to disrupt symbolic structures with her subversive strategies, to enable alternative readings referring to the crisis of the image in a propagandistic media society.
In her latest work, shown at Akademie Schloss Solitude this year, she focused on the blurred image that makes and fakes reality as a material for her art, wanting the visitors to question their visual experience. An interview about conflict zones, truth as an icon, and the attempt to be anyone, anywhere, in any situation
CH: How and with what project has your interest in this specific context started? What are the icons you work with?
Dima Hourani: Questions surrounding the real and authentic along with their effects in the false and the fake, require radical rethinking to examine the value icons play in certain communities; in political, social, and cultural contexts. From this kind of general approach, how I can just deal with these communities and symbols that they actually consume? How to go beyond the frames we address or share within specific communities? With the standards information obeys and the stereotypes?
My personal concern is to gain a pure individual experience, empty of radical emotions, as a stranger; to be able to stand on different platforms for a new perspective. For more than a decade, I have addressed this challenge in the context of conflict zones and exiled communities. For example, the Qalandia Lounge Project presents a hypothetical scenario in which security checkpoints are turned into fast-food restaurants—the project represents the deification of late capitalism characterized by speed, excess, and cultural homogenization. By placing these symbols of globalization at militarized checkpoints, I disrupt the viewer’s expectations and transform military signs of rule into symbols of capitalism’s melancholic happiness.
CH: How do you decide to work on specific icons and projects like N’oreal or Alrasasa?
DH: My artistic practice is a multipronged research, using our basic life icons. I take the method in N’Oreal and Alrasasa, by using readymade media and military objects to explore the possible associations between the cosmetics industry and the military-industrial complex. Where do »conflict zones« begin and end? Is there an aesthetics war machine?
CH: What are the subversive strategies you use to create different meaning and interpretation? What are your artistic tactics, for example, working on the project Art Delivery?
DH: It’s not different, but rather alternative meaning or alternative reading. It’s not to approach a specific or pure reality, but more to play with the icons, doubting the existence itself, with our surrounding, with our tools, with our beliefs. So, art delivery. It’s a performative interventional artwork, at the Tate museum when Ai Weiwei’s show with the sunflower seeds piece was on, wearing an electronic T-shirt with the moving phrase »Art Delivery« on it. It’s a scenario of turning the art as an icon into a product with the ability to deliver.
»I examine the extent to which our deep ideological and religious beliefs are associated with icons, how deeply and comprehensively we are related to our beliefs in symbols and how it could be affected/sensitized by other icons, or imitated icons, that may seem similar.« –Dima Hourani
CH: As already mentioned, with your work, you also address your own society and community. The last time we met, we talked about writings and icons from Arab culture and different religious contexts.
DH: Of course, speaking of the communities, it’s no longer in one geographical place. Now it’s wider; it’s different communities within a community. It’s not just about religion or traditions or the collective beliefs, as much about the one or the conformed icon. Through this kind of thought, I examine the extent to which our deep ideological and religious beliefs are associated with icons, how deeply and comprehensively we are related to our beliefs in symbols and how it could be affected/sensitized by other icons, or imitated icons, that may seem similar.
Since these symbols have their own specificity, it’s not an attempt to force a point of view or an opinion, as much as an attempt to open a door to start a dialogue with these sensitive issues, beyond the taboos, such as the religious and national icons.
CH: You also refer to today’s media society, in which the flood of pictures creates an impenetrably complex, infinite, and frantically growing network of images that are often not traceable to their real origin and meaning. The concept of reality or truth and its possible representation seem forever obsolete. Or as you mentioned once, the image is in a crisis. What is the notion of image you are working with as an artist?
DH: Icons and images no longer harbor the capacity to reveal a deeper reality or foundation of shared existence. Instead, the creation of images in the current century has begun to approach a situation of maximum transparency, in which images can only refer back to each other in a closed loop.
I work with the dual function of images as revelation and illusion, potentially like masking and disturbing the deep reality, like images and icons are composed techniques of hiding and transparence, the icons, the surroundings, or the issues you’re talking about. So, in my projects, I explore these dualities by intervening in the social life of images as they circle across borders between media. We talk more generally about why truth and why reality, but I say it’s just about the duality of the meaning, it’s all the possibilities of the things themselves.
We’re talking about the function; how the same icons can have dual functions, how it can play different roles in different societies. Is it a revelation or an illusion, is it real or is it not? How it’s masked and it’s a disturbed unreality because it’s already delivered. There isn’t more to talk about. Through my work I try to explore this duality through the divisions of work, through social life, across borders, through media. It’s not related to regimes and it’s not related to one’s issue; it’s about common human concerns.
CH: Is there a specific concept of truth and reality you are working with?
DH: The main concept is just the individual, a human concern. I’m doubtful about reality, about truth, about the information we have. I try to visualize the reality that basically I deal with. Rethink the truth; sometimes we don’t have the right, or the stage, or the others’ codes.
»Through my work I try to explore this duality through the divisions of work, through social life, across borders, through media. It’s not related to regimes and it’s not related to one’s issue; it’s about common human concerns.« –Dima Hourani
The truth is also a social icon represented in different means. I can be motivated by the idea, »the clearer the picture becomes the more its perfection departs from reality.«
CH: You started your artistic career in Palestine but you have been traveling quite a bit and working in different countries and institutions. What were your observations concerning the role of the icon in varied societal contexts, and how has this possibly influenced your work?
DH: My point is, each community has its own concern or consumes icons to discuss. I’m aware of the local Arab culture, but I like thinking as common human concerned through my artistic experience. Understanding, as a possibility to be anyone, anywhere, in any situation.
CH: So let’s talk about your exhibition at Solitude, where you focused on the blurred image in contrast to the high-resolution image of contemporary media. How do you work with blurriness or blurry pictures as material for art?
DH: As a multipronged research project, it extends beyond the artworks themselves. I worked with paintings, in a way, how clear lines could be out-of-focus, determine what’s the stronger line, what’s in the front, what’s in the back, a kind of competition between shapes, with similarity using the concept »out of focus« as a technical model borrowed from the mechanics of the camera to play with the relationship of the individual and the surroundings.
»The truth is also a social icon represented in different means. I can be motivated by the idea: the clearer the picture becomes the more its perfection departs from reality.« –Dima Hourani
Through different media, the project deals with the phenomenology of perception, to explore the relationship between figure and ground and draw attention to their potential for infinite reversal
I presented a completely blurred show and invited three artists in blurred characters in blurry relationship with the elements, including publicity, commentary, and setting, also I worked with live video installation, to the larger system of production. The project evokes alternative visual presence.
CH: It’s interesting that you say that you want people to look at the artworks with an out-of-focus view because I also had feeling that the »blurry« is almost like a critical aesthetic lens that you put in front of it. I think it kind of captures that moment where you think something can be sharp and you look closely and it gets really blurry because it’s so sharp and vice versa. It’s the same impression you get when you look at language or whatever symbolic system and the closer you look at it without the content of its meaning, the less sense it makes.
DH: Exactly, so this basic method that transforms the art from being a completely artistic practice to different platforms, it brings with it new information with particular debates.
CH: Do you also address topics like privacy and surveillance?
DH: I have addressed the act of being watched and controlled or surrounded by these civilian cameras for example, like in parks, in bars, at work, in the street. I used a readymade media from a street camera to pointing normal acts or moves, to play the role of the control and make anything suspicious.
CH: You also relate your work to social science. You read theory in English and Arabic, so what is your theoretical mindset?
DH: I’m interested in anything that awakens my interest, like philosophy, novels, the life stories. Before you just came for the studio visit, I was reading a nice article. There was a story of Socrates, he was spending the days walking in the streets of Athens and asking what things are. Asking the bakery what’s the bread, asking the artist what’s the art, asking the technician what’s the string. A Sophist has been away for six months and when he returns to Athens he finds Socrates in the situation. He asked him arrogantly, are you still at the same place asking the same question? Socrates respond was yes I do, but someone smart and a genius like you he doesn’t have to repeat the same question about the same thing. This kind of obsessive thinking draws me.
CH: You are also addressing refugee movements and migration in relation to war with your work. What’s your approach here?
DH: The project Past Tense Continuous shifts the line of inquiry in a historical direction by asking how collective memory is mediated through multiple technologies of memory. Focusing on the case of Palestinian exile, I examine »the past« as it is imagined in a political landscape saturated with iconic images raised to the level of myth. The piece consists of three parts: a live performance, a short film, and the construction of a publically-displayed doll that increases in size or »grows« into a giant size along with the Palestinian catastrophe.
Based on my longstanding interest in the centrality of icons to contemporary experience, I launch an immanent critique of spectacular media. Associated with mobility, ecology, security, and danger, the »refugee« is a calcification of the contemporary scenario in which we live. I ask how and where the refugee appears. As many critical theorists have argued, the refugee is saturated by power precisely by being ejected by and from it. My investigation reflects on the refugee as a figure in-and-out of the world: a world that at once excludes and »consumes« refugees even as it continually produces them.
CH: Now at the end of your Solitude fellowship: What have you experienced in this community?
DH: Being at Solitude was a really important period. Whether in a professional or social practice. Akademie Schloss Solitude is a great icon. It’s the chance to explore how to grow beyond our standard, typical ways of living, through the silence, history, routines; being in solitude, being away.