Open Frequency 2009: Rabab Ghazoul selected by Richard Higlett

Open Frequency 2009: Rabab Ghazoul selected by Richard Higlett Rabab Ghazoul, Where His Hands Decay, 2004

Richard Higlett selects the work of Rabab Ghazoul

Ghazoul was born and spent her childhood in Iraq. This experience of living in two cultures informs her approach as a social observer and commentator. Her practice combines text, film and altered objects to create installations that call into question the values and hierarchies of society.

Ghazoul's early works investigated how language can be used to imply a sense of shared value. While language is primarily associated with the spoken and written word, Ghazoul's work refers to the term language in its broadest sense; here language could be the difference in gestures and actions, social codes and subtle differences that identify different cultural systems. These are part of a network of internalised social exchanges that inform and borrow from our notions and preconceptions of what is understood as cultural. In many instances these exchanges are resonant of a specific geographical region.

Ghazoul's later works question how the media is able to nurture emotional falsehoods held together by nationalism and the values associated with a collective identity. In 'Mourning Inabsentia' (2005) a piano is spliced in half by a false wall, accompanied by a soundtrack of Ghazoul attempting to learn a piece of music by John Dowland. A court musician for Elizabeth I, Dowland was renowned for creating works of exaggerated melancholia. In learning the piece, Ghazoul implies that deep emotions are manipulated through numerous forms of media. She is interested in the phenomenon of mass grief and mourning, of how events transmitted through the media connect with individuals to create a constructed emotional empathy, some responses bordering on hysteria. She has observed that in events such as the death of Princess Diana and the destruction of the Twin Towers, we never really knew the people we collectively grieved for. The victims may be no more real to us than characters from books: we have never met them, they are neither family nor friends, but we empathise with them through social expectation and the implied values they come to represent through their deaths.

In her 2007 video installation 'We need a constant though' Ghazoul filmed a series of individuals attempting to carry an object - a sheet of rigid foam light enough to be caught and carried by the wind – each in their own separate way. The individuals were then invited to conduct an imaginary dialogue about a song the group might sing to accompany their task, and this formed the audio for the work. The work examines the potential ways of achieving the same aim through different methods, thus exposing the dynamics of a team ethic. As the voices search for definition in the group they move to a point of consensus, and the search for a collective expression replaces an earlier sense of a developing hierarchy.

Ghazoul's more recent work is concerned with the notion of territory, ownership of land and how the perceptions of place are constructed through various narratives. In 'Small Medium Large/ Man Woman Child' (2008) Ghazoul produced a series of t-shirts based on the 'I heart NY' motif. As part of an on-line project members of the public were invited to pick a city in Iraq and search the internet for facts about its culture and social history. The resulting texts were printed onto t-shirts: New York was replaced by the names of cities in Iraq that have come to our attention as places of bloodshed and conflict. The writing was often very personal, detailing people's reflections, frustrations and assumptions about a place they feel familiar with, but inevitably have an understanding of which is a blend of opinion, fact and fiction. The original New York motif is an iconic branding device designed to promote the city as somewhere you must visit as a cultural tourist. The perception of New York is one of a city steeped in the values of western democracy: a place of freedom, liberty and tolerance to all. Through the action of wearing an 'I heart NY' t-shirt, we subscribe to the veracity of such values. A t-shirt displaying 'I heart Basra' or 'I heart Baghdad' would suggest these are places safe to visit, with regular flights and package tours. Iraq being outside the geography of the West it is defined by the voices of the media. It is a narrative that speaks of terrorism, check points and suicide bombers, and little of the country of Ghazoul's memories.

In 'Can't Keep Up With Keeping You Down (the allotment project)' (2008) Ghazoul looked at the relationship between land and freedom. Her act of working on an allotment, sowing and saving seeds was an empathetic act in response to the plight of Iraqi farmers whose right to farm the land as they had done for centuries has been altered irrevocably due to US-backed legislation foisted onto the Iraqi legislature in 2004. This work culminated in a film and installation at Chapter Arts in Cardiff. The gallery become home to a glasshouse containing the statement 'but all land, she said, all land wants to be a land full of promise... wants to be a green zone for all our desires' in neon. The Green Zone is the term for the four mile area in the centre of Baghdad which is the heart of the American operations, and whilst consciously referencing this, Ghazoul also conjures a green zone as a fertile site of individual or collective aspiration - be it a small farmed plot of her own, or wider territories, where possibilities denied can flourish.

Ghazoul's practice is provocative in an art world that can at time be overly occupied with surface beauty. What we need to ask ourselves is why this is so, calling onto question the values by which we frame our lives.

Richard Higlett, March 2009

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Artist's biography

Ghazoul currently lives and works in Wales, where she completed her studies in theatre and performance in 1992. Born and part raised in Iraq, then later the UK, her work explores the duality of this cultural experience as well as the construction of wider political and social narratives. Recent work includes 'The Suitcase Project' (2007) at Beaver Arts (Copenhagen, Denmark) and 'This Edible Map' (2007) as part of the Gresol Festival of Art (Girona, Spain). In 2008 her solo show Can't Keep Up With Keeping You Down was shown at both Chapter Arts Centre and Pontcanna Fields Allotments (Cardiff). Amongst other work in 2008, she also produced 'SMALL MEDIUM LARGE/ MAN WOMAN CHILD' for the National Eisteddfod (Cardiff) and a new commission for Me v U, at the Oriel Davies Gallery (Newtown). Currently her video work 'Breeze, for love's sake, take me home' is showing throughout March as part of the My Place exhibition at Oriel Myrddin Gallery (Carmarthen).

About Richard Higlett

Richard Higlett is an artist/curator working across a range of media. Based in Cardiff and the West Midlands, he is a co-founder of Mermaid and Monster, an artist-led agency representing emerging and established contemporary artists at International Art Fairs. Mermaid and Monster also exists to curate exhibitions of emerging artist and commission new projects. He is also a co-founder Artists Resource Cardiff (arc) an artist-led networking initiative for the capital whose website hub went live in January 2008.

As an artist he is a previous recipient of a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council, he has exhibited internationally as himself and as the imaginary outsider artist Wally French. His work involves the creation of various acts of folly and creating objects that are, in his words non-visual in that they do not demand to be observed and sometimes can remain unobserved by the viewer. He is currently writing a book of fictional first pages in collaboration with the writer Leona Jones.

He has worked as a project manager for Cardiff Council, working on the 2005 Cultural Program, involved in initiating the first Cardiff Contemporary Visual Art Month and was the education co-ordinator for the first Artes Mundi Prize in 2004. He is also an experienced lecturer who was recently invited by Axis to be a graduate advisor for the 2007 MA show at UWIC, Cardiff. 

Open Frequency keeps you in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators, artists and writers, presenting the work of artists to watch out for over the coming year. Open Frequency represents a forward-looking glance today of the artists who will be setting the agenda tomorrow.