When Mohammed Kazem was 14, he joined the Emirates Fine Art Society, which had been founded just four years earlier, in 1980.
At the time, art was not part of the curriculum at Kazem’s school (nor, indeed, at many schools in the GCC). “Once a week, maybe, they would give us some paper and say, ‘OK. You have 40 minutes to draw.’ But draw what? There was no structure, no teaching of technique,” he says.
At the nascent Fine Art Society, the young Kazem was introduced to Hassan Sharif — one of the first generation of contemporary Emirati artists to study overseas. The two went on to work together for 30 years. “He was my mentor. Not just me, a lot of people,” Kazem says of Sharif. “He was a pioneer not just in the UAE or the GCC, but in the Arab world. He was doing conceptual work in the Seventies, when he was in the UK. Such work really didn’t exist, then, in the Arab world, because the focus was on conventional work, not contemporary. There was no conceptual work or performance art.”
Under Sharif’s tutelage, Kazem learned quickly. At 17, he took part in his first exhibition, and over the next decade, he was invited to represent the UAE at a number of international art shows. He was already moving away from traditional painting (although he stresses how important it was for him to have learned conventional techniques) to experiment with other materials and artforms.
“The beauty of visual art is that you have the freedom to use anything,” he says. “If I need something conventional to support my concept I’ll go back to painting, because I have to.”
Kazem’s conceptual art is an intriguing mix of profound ideas (loss, borders, social issues, nature, and human connection) and childlike irreverence.
“All of my work is really about what I am seeing and what I am thinking. It’s playful work,” he says. “It’s also serious. And ironic. But it’s not science, you know? It’s art. We’re not giving answers. We can provoke, and we can raise issues. But we don’t solve issues.”
I’ve been using GPS coordinates in my practice since 1999. The reason I’m using GPS is because I had an accident on a fishing trip in the mid-Nineties. I was lost in the middle of the sea — you couldn’t see anything but the horizon all around. I had no idea where I was. So from 1999 until today, many of my works are called “Directions” — with subtitles — to know where I’m existing. They commissioned this work for the Yinchuan Biennale in 2016. I wanted to do something with a relationship to the area. I was living next to this lake for one month, so I recorded the coordinates while I was standing. Then I asked them to cut these numbers from natural material — because there are fish in the lake and I didn’t want to affect them — and I put all the coordinates into the water, so it was like I was standing on the water. It’s also about visual art — how you’re receiving images from media and from TV — we’re all receiving thousands of images in our daily lives, and I’m interested in capturing these elements and putting them into the context of art.
In 2010, I went to New York. I was crossing the road and saw a lot of gum on the street, and I came up with this concept: I bought some chalk and I connected the gum. That was “Kisses.” You don’t know who’s kissing who. Old man kissing a child. Man kissing a woman. Someone kissing someone who’s passed away. It’s kind of a poetic way of looking at something, and it was part of the environment that I was in. This series of “Kisses,” I made in South Korea. It’s a very simple idea, but very effective.
This is another example of work that was relevant to the place I was in. I met a lot of nurses in the States, and their uniforms were all made of different colorful fabrics, not like in the UAE. I started to count them daily — I’d sit at the place where they would cross the road and I’d count: How many green? Yellow? Pink? So I was just focused on one thing. I chose to do that — not for long, just for a certain period. Then I ordered these fabrics online, and I created these minimalist pieces. And every time these works are shown, I ask the gallery to install them randomly, so they’re always shown differently. Why? Because it’s not a systematic work. I met these people randomly in the street, and I wanted to continue that random chance into the work. It looks like a very systematic work, but it’s not.
These works were diptychs, shot between Al Ain and Hatta (in the UAE). You can see the colors of the environment. For each of the pairs, I moved the GPS. My feet aren’t moving. I just moved the GPS machine and took the photographs. Then I collected the coordinates and drew them as numbers.
I made this in China for the Yinchuan Biennale. You can see the symmetry — it’s kind of going back to convention. The first time I got this idea, I was in a room in Philadelphia, and the sunlight was only coming into it at sunset. So I had to wait until late afternoon, and that gave me an idea about how it has relation with symmetry: How could you bring the light of the morning into the room? In the morning, I went behind the building and collected the coordinates while the sun hit my body. I printed those coordinates on vinyl, then when the light came into the room, it was passing through the coordinates of the morning, and bringing the light inside. Then it disappears. So this was a long (corridor), with panels on one side, and as the sun moved, it would light up coordinates on the opposite walls. With these coordinates, and the sunlight, (it’s like I’m travelling).
This piece was for an exhibition called “White Cube…Literally.” The idea of the cube is this perfect measurement, so I wanted to break that with these random measurements. This work should be very sharp, very clean. It’s coated stainless steel, illuminated inside.
I made this during a residence in Honolulu. They gave me a room where everything was an antique — I felt like I couldn’t touch anything. So for 15 days I was there by the ocean, not painting — it was a good situation for a conceptual artist: I could just think, not touch anything. I’d previously made similar works in Dubai: On my balcony at home, the light would bounce off the wall and go. So how can you keep that light? I photographed the walls when the sun was hitting them, so there was shade and light. Then I printed them and I scratched the part where the sun hit, creating sound and movement. That was “Receiving Light.” Then I took some paper and travelled from Dubai to Korfokhan, putting the paper under the shade of trees and buildings and everything, and I titled that one “Collecting Light.” This one, in Honolulu, it has a relation to the space, really. You can see the sky of Honolulu and my hand. And you can see the scratches on the paper.
This was from a 2013 installation in Sharjah. This is all the coordinates I had in the GPS from several different works over many years, and I put them together. You know how we all have our phones now, with lots of material inside? So I thought, ‘This is my material now.’ I’d been collecting them for many years. So I made a work with animation. It was a dark rectangular room with projectors behind the screens.
In 2002, I made a work using 10 wooden panels, and engraved on each one were coordinates from the eastern part of the UAE, where it’s open to the Indian Ocean. I threw these pieces in the water in order to break the borders. I’m using technology, but I’m also using natural elements like wind and waves, so these pieces were lost. We documented them with photographs, and I showed four of them on one board with the coordinates, and there was one white, monochrome board that symbolized the panels I’d lost. In 2005, I wanted to do something with this idea of being lost. So with this white board I created cylinders in which, for 360 degrees, you could see the sea. Remember the story about when I was lost at sea? I wanted it to be a really big installation, but I couldn’t realize it at that time. Then, in 2013, the UAE chose me to represent the country at the Venice Biennale, and I had the chance to realize this project and create a 360-degree video, and immediately got the title, ‘Walking on Water’ — Venice, yes? We filmed this work on a boat with six cameras, so the boat in the video is ‘moving’ the way that it moved regularly — there are no artificial effects in this film. Then we got the room built. It used 15 projectors, and under your feet are the coordinates — inferring that you’re crossing borders. You feel seasick when you enter this room. The idea was that you’d feel like those pieces I lost, floating somewhere. It looks very clean, but it was very sophisticated — there’s a lot of hidden equipment.
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