Contemporary Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem’s Art Dubai Portrait Exhibition, The Shape of Everyday, starting January 14th, features works from the early 1990s through today that are emblematic of the artist’s œuvre. Three of his career-defining bodies of works – his seminal Directions series, his ‘scratchings’ on paper, and his visualisation of the materiality of light and sound, are united in a show where conceptual profundity meets frank irreverence. Dubai-based artist discusses his practice, encompassing video, photography and performance, as a means to finding new ways of apprehending his environment and experiences.
In his exploration of the mundane, Kazem foregrounds unsung modes of engaging with the social, urban, and natural landscape. The Shape of Everyday spans early, deeply experimental works to more recent series tackling the materiality of sound and light. In Kazem’s hands, the banality of the everyday becomes a site of exploration for his heightened ways of seeing.
Head Movement. An experimental take on body art, Head Movement (1995), is a set of 14 chromogenic prints of the artist’s head nodding upward, then down. Disarming in its simplicity, the work is an early indication of Kazem’s attention to minute, unremarked quotidian actions and encounters. Later, he springboards off such interrogations to fathom the imperceptible.
Directions, Triangle. Directions (1999 – ongoing), inspired by a fateful fishing trip during which he fell into the sea and remained unlocated for over an hour, is a conceptual project conflating Geographical Positioning System (GPS) coordinates with the artist’s very existence. For each work in his series Directions, Triangle (2006), Kazem collected GPS coordinates from three improvised locations around Dubai: a neighbourhood store, a construction site, a hidden alley. After creating triangles from the three previously collected GPS coordinates in random assembly, he relinquished his role as the fabricator to local seamsters, who rendered the alphanumeric coordinates in hand-sewed sequins covering a glowing swathe, like stitching together layers of the city.
Sounds of… (Seoul Art Space Residency). Kazem’s urge to materialise an experience, a mood, a moment resurfaces in other works. In 2016, during a six-week residency at Seoul Art Space, he used a smartphone to record his commutes on public transport.
Sounds of Doksan Train Station (2016) is a visual record of interstitial moments between destinations on a train. The artist recorded the ambient sounds with the intention of rendering them, coaxing the sonic into material form. Collaborators, once again, engaged with the process: embroiderers made the sound waves manifest with colourful threads sewn into Hanji paper, a traditional Korean handmade paper from the inner bark of the Paper Mulberry tree, native to Korea.
Similarly, Sounds of Euljiro (2016) and Sound of Copper (2017) give visual form to evenings spent at a copper-cutter shop. The artist recorded the fraught moment of a blade hitting metallic surfaces, then rendered the sound using the very materials in the shop.
Sound of Light. Dubai sometimes seems to be in a permanent state of construction. Kazem reacts to this liminal urban state by seeking out the intangible, sometimes even the imperceptible. The artist sees what others cannot, and his practice is devoted to interrogating the frontier between the invisible and the visible. Kazem believes buildings emit sounds that are determined by the light that touches it. In this series of large-scale paintings, the artist captures light streaming across concrete bricks, domes, arches, and scaffolds. The light settles differently, emitting different sounds, which Kazem renders in an interplay of bold brushstrokes and minute detailing.
Collecting Light. Begun in 1990, Kazem’s scratching works transform the auditory into the visual through elaborate and labour-intensive abrasions on paper. In Collecting Light (2016), a series of scratches on inkjet prints, Kazem photographically hunts down the elusive play of sunlight on objects in the world – plants, poles, rocks, doors – and scratches the surface following the light’s direction. He delicately gouges the Hahnemuhle paper, charting the luminous trajectory while giving materiality to light.
Mohammed Kazem (born 1969, Dubai) has developed an artistic practice encompassing video, photography and performance. The foundations of his work are informed by his training as a musician, and Kazem is deeply engaged with developing processes that can render transient phenomena, such as sound and light, in tangible terms. Often positioning himself within his work, Kazem responds to geographical location, materiality and the elements as a means to assert his subjectivity, particularly in relation to the rapid pace of modernisation in the Emirates since the country’s founding. Kazem was a member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society early in his career and is acknowledged as one of the ‘Five’, an informal group of Emirati artists at the vanguard of conceptual and interdisciplinary art practice.
Notable Exhibitions. In recent years, Kazem has participated in several group shows such as 21,39 Jeddah Arts (2020), Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (2017), Guggenheim New York (2016), the Yinchuan Biennale (2016), Sharjah Biennial (2015), Gwangju Museum of Art (2014), Fotofest Biennial in Houston (2014), Boghossian Foundation (2013), and Mori Art Museum (2012), amongst others. In 2013 he represented the UAE’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale with an immersive video installation entitled Walking on Water, curated by Reem Fadda, in 2015 he showcased works from the Tongue series at 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the UAE, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, and in 2017 Kazem’s work was showcased in The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.