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‘Coded Gestures’ is survey of invested labour performed by the human body

The exhibition Coded Gestures at NIKA Project Space, Dubai, showcases the conceptual works by Alexander Ugay, Minja Gu, Fatma Al Ali, Mona Ayyash and Khalid.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 29, 2023

The annals of art history have long grappled with the philosophers’ scepticism on the true accounts of reality represented by the creative minds. The lineage of disbelief reached its pinnacle with the onset of photography that despite the promise to lay bare the objective truth could never dissipate the question of 'the image' as an accurate translation of what it aims to capture. Irrevocably, when the artists distort, deconstruct, and reimagine reality they create an opportune moment to not just absorb but also arrive at a point of contemplation.

Cognizant of practices and processes to subvert conventional interpretations and unfold layered meanings, the exhibition Codes Gestures is an invitation to engage in a dialogue with the audience, encouraging them to unravel the multiple dimensions and interpretations embedded within the artwork. Curated by Nadine Khalil at NIKA Project Space in Dubai, Coded Gestures, within the newly established 250-sqm industrial space skillfully designed by T.ZED Architects, showcases the works of five conceptual artists including Alexander Ugay from Almaty, Kazakhstan; Minja Gu from Seoul, South Korea; as well as UAE-based artists Fatma Al Ali, Mona Ayyash, and Khalid.

Peach Skin and Lemon Pieces from Frozen objects series, 2020, Black and white photography, Minja Gu | Coded Gestures | STIRworld
Peach Skin and Lemon Pieces from Frozen objects series, 2020, Black and white photography, Minja Gu Image: Minja Gu

By facilitating a collaborative exchange between artists hailing from Central and East Asia and local artists rooted in the United Arab Emirates, the exhibition strives to achieve the overarching objective of cultivating cross-cultural dialogues imbibed by NIKA Project Space. The featured works encompass a diverse range of artistic mediums, including sculpture, video, and photography, only to serve as the instrumental tools for comprehending the subtle contextual nuances inherent in gestures. Rooted in shared societal experiences, the exhibition is a platform to amplify the voices of Global South artists to foist a common language that transcends apparent disparities stemming from diverse traditions shaped by local contexts influenced by multinational dynamics.

In an interview with STIR, the UAE-based Lebanese curator Khalil explains how the topographical scenario of the Gulf contributes to the ideas extended by the artists. “The location of NIKA Project Space offers fertile ground for the concerns shared by artists in this exhibition. My curatorial practice and research are often focused on the SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) region and NIKA further adds a deep engagement with parts of Europe as well as post-Soviet societies in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan where Alexander Ugay is from. Despite the artists’ very different contexts—the UAE’s neoliberalism or the vestiges of Socialism and Communism in Korea and Kazakhstan, respectively—we find that common threads of constant consumption, ritual, alienation from work and lost histories have emerged.” The contemporary artists translate the creative gesture into a thought-provoking exploration of 'invisible labour', delving into its role of the 'repetitive vocabularies' that yield profound insights into the 'disciplining of bodies and forms'. To highlight this, the exhibition intertwines the idea of 'psychological absence with the presence and absence of the body in performance'. Towards this end, it piques the curiosity of the viewers to navigate the fundamental inquiries into the very essence of labour itself.

Trampoline, 2015, Single channel digital video, Mona Ayyash| Coded Gestures | STIRworld
Trampoline, 2015, Single channel digital video, Mona Ayyash Image: Mona Ayyash

The exhibition commences with a live performance by Gu, House Tea de la Maison de la Casa. The artist's immersive performance engages the viewers to partake in a collective experience involving hundreds of tea infusions. The subsequent participatory exchange stands as a complement to the documentation of a recent site-specific tea-making act performed by the artist in the UAE, executed in collaboration with the local community, and commissioned by NIKA Project Space. Ugay, the third generation of Koryoin, with the works such as More than a Hundred Thousand Times and Unknown Return opens a window to the complexity of the Korean diaspora dovetailed with the social alienation. Echoing similar tensions is Al Ali's meticulously stacked bricks in her piece My Mother Told Me Not to Collect Bricks, installed in close proximity to Ugay’s work. The layers of the bricks for the discerning minds disclose the inherent disparities and intricate interconnections across the individual and collective efforts.

The artwork My Job is to Look at the Sunset by Khalid, is an exclusive commission for this exhibition and entails incessant real-time documentation of daily sunsets, displayed throughout the gallery over 44 days. Complementing Khalid's piece, two additional artistic perspectives on repetition, 42.195 by Gu, an 11-hour documentation of her personal marathon completed over two days, and Trampoline by Ayyash—a pixelated video, featuring athletes repetitively preparing for their leaps.

Portrait of Nadine Khalil (Curator) | Coded Gestures | STIRworld
Curator Nadine Khalil Image: Courtesy of NIKA Project Space

The artworks showcased in the exhibition reinforce the gallery's steadfast commitment to presenting works by female artists who have yet to receive adequate recognition. This objective is elucidated by the gallery's founder, Veronika Berezina, who articulates her aim to illuminate the artistic contributions of these women artists and amplify their visibility within the wider art community. To mention, NIKA Project Space founded in 2023 by Berezina, is an instrumental platform for artistic experimentation, research, and the advancement of curatorial practices within the dynamic contemporary art milieu of Dubai. Embracing contemporaneity and the fostering of multicultural dialogues as its guiding principles, the space unfailingly delivers a discerningly engaged program, gravitating towards conceptualization, abstraction, and philosophical inquiry, with an unwavering focus on amplifying the contributions of female artists.

During work hours, 2022, Cyanotype treated textiles, transparent film, office computer, office printer, sun. 21.6 x 27.9 cm, Khalid | Coded Gestures | STIRworld
During work hours, 2022, Cyanotype treated textiles, transparent film, office computers, office printers, sun. 21.6 x 27.9 cm, Khalid Image: Khalid

The exhibition Coded Gestures extends the visual language, enabling artists to communicate complex ideas and narratives through subtle and deliberate movements. Khalil refers to Adorno and Agamben in her curatorial essay to draw upon the notion of gesture—an act to reveal as well as hide—as a way to trace the footprints of inquiry raised by the works on display to the period of political philosophy entangled with hyper-capitalism and consumption, blind to the invested yet invisible labour. The curatorial concept behind this exhibition is about the barely perceivable gestures behind artworks that constitute a form of creative action. Khalil hopes that through the art practices presented, viewers will become more attuned to extraordinary, artistic interventions in everyday life from Ayyash’s choreographed vocabularies of sports, time and measurement and Khalid’s hidden messages for food delivery to Gu’s aestheticized arrangements of leftovers.

The exhibition Coded Gestures is on view at NIKA Project Space until July 16, 2023.

Unknown Return, 2023. Mixed media installation, encaustic wax, digital prints, Alexander Ugay | Coded Gestures | STIRworld
Unknown Return, 2023. Mixed media installation, encaustic wax, digital prints, Alexander Ugay Image: Courtesy of Alexander Ugay

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