Devices for Looking: Rheim Alkadhi’s Eye-Odyssey

Last year I visited Brisbane, Australia for a conference called ‘The Classical and the Contemporary’ as part of the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial. Before going I spent some time looking at the artists on the Queensland Art Gallery website and I was immediately drawn to a work by US-Iraqi artist Rheim Alkadhi called The Eye Theatre Closes Its Doors, and Opens Them Again. This work is a performance that the website describes as follows:

 

Using images that the artist has taken and created in the Persian Gulf, Palestine, and North Africa, the performance will focus on the inherent theatricality that exists within photography. This theatricality — or possibility for exaggeration — also extends to our retinas, raising questions on our reliance on vision as a vehicle for perceiving the world.

I was intrigued by the combination of the political pertinence of the contexts of these images and the artist’s emphasis on perception. Both of which seemed to be engaged with photography’s theatricality as a medium. I proceeded to email Alkadhi to see if I would be able to ask her some questions about her work. After some preliminary comments, I made, and at the same time resisted, the following simplistic analogy between her work and Homer’s Odyssey:

Now, the traditional Classicist, could approach the APT8 work as documenting an epic adventure or journey across the sea, possibly referencing Homer’s Odyssey. But…I am more interested in how The Eye Theatre relates to your other work in terms of a general spirit of intervention. I am specifically interested in how you transform performances and projects involving public interaction into aesthetic objects (I’m thinking here about your works with eyelashes and hair at the 12th Sharjah Biennial).

The work that I referenced here produced the object – Device for Looking at the Sea – created from the collected eye-lashes of dockworkers from Sharjah creek.

While I was still resistant to the simplistic reading of Alkadhi’s work as a contemporary odyssey, this strange eyelash-object for some reason reminded me of the moving scene in Book 19 of Homer’s poem, the encounter between the disguised hero and his wife Penelope:

He spoke, and made the many falsehoods of his tale seem like the truth, and as she listened her tears flowed and her face melted as the snow melts on the lofty mountains, the snow which the East Wind thaws when the West Wind has strewn it, and as it melts the streams of the rivers flow full: so her fair cheeks melted as she wept and mourned for her husband, who even then was sitting by her side.

It was in the next lines that Alkadhi’s creation of objects out of eyelashes resonated more directly:

And Odysseus in his heart had pity for his weeping wife, but his eyes stood fixed between his lids as though they were horn or iron, and with guile he hid his tears.

This passage has been read as reflecting Odysseus’ self-control before his wife’s tears. Yet the transformation of his eyeballs into objects, as if manufactured by a craftsman, is juxtaposed by the still human eyelids as he fights back the tears. His cunning devices in lying to his wife are transposed onto his eyes, which which he has seen all the lands and peoples of his long wanderings (including that one-eyed monster, the cyclops Polyphemus!).

Located somewhere between performance of The Eye Theatre and the surreal object of Device is Alkadhi’s contribution to the Do it exhibition, also at the Sharajah Foundation, which was called Ask a Stranger for an Eyelash, 2015.

1. Ask someone (better, a stranger from another land) for an eyelash.

2. Grasp the stranger’s eyelash between your thumb and forefinger, so that its length projects into space.

3. Hold it near your eye, at the edge of your visual field.

4. Now look at the world (which has suddenly become de-centered) alongside this tiny piece of peripheral vision.

5. Tape the eyelash onto a page of the blank book, found to the left of this text.

It is this work, with its oscillation between intervention and object, its bridging the self and the other, sight and insight, that we need more than ever today, amid the inhumanity and violence of twittering Twump’s Executive Orders on Immigration and Refugees.

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