Last Friday, October 18, the Bates Museum of Art inaugurated its new exhibition: “Phantom Punch: Contemporary art from Saudi Arabia in Lewiston.” Words nearly fail to explain how powerful and intriguing this exhibition is.
Before attending the opening, I decided to gather everything I knew about Saudi Arabia. I can honestly say I did not know a lot – if anything at all. Of course I had heard of the big words: terrorism, censorship, absolutist monarchy, gender inequality and human rights. I was aware that I would be writing about this exhibition for The Bates Student, but what could I possibly know about Saudi Arabian Conceptual Art?
As I entered the exhibition, I was amazed to see that my stereotypes of Saudi Arabia were reflected in the artworks. I saw figures that resembled airplanes, mosques that resembled cages and depictions of the restrictions women endure. At first glance, conceptual art can look simple. I thought I had it. All of a sudden I was hit by the phantom punch: maybe things are not as simple as they seem.
“Paradise Has Many Gates,” by Ajlan Gharem, is the perfect example. In the museum, you will see photographs of a steel mosque that resembles, in my subjective opinion, a cage. The first interpretation comes easily: the cage symbolizes reprehension and censorship and the mosque represents Islam, which traps Muslims and restricts their freedom. I believe I was not the only person to have that interpretation. It seems intuitive.
All of a sudden, I was struck by the idea that the cage may symbolize protection. What if people are not locked in a cage, but rather secure from the dangers of the world? What if the cage is not inside, but rather outside? Who is trapped, is it the people in the mosque or everyone else? One symbol is changed and the entire interpretation of the artwork is changed with it. In “Paradise has Many Gates,” there is no way to say what is inside and outside: are Muslims trapped in a cage, or protected by their genuine beliefs?
The Museum catalog for the exhibition raises yet another interpretation. It calls the fences that build the cage “reminiscent of the fences built along the borders of Europe or the prison cells in Guantanamo Bay.” It raises the possibility that maybe it is not about how religion itself traps believers, but about how they are trapped by misconceptions (think of immigration, refugee “crisis” and other important issues). In some sense, it shows that “Paradise has Many Gates” extrapolates Saudi Arabia – it can be about cross-cultural global issues.
This was the phantom punch. When I least expected, I realized that the exhibition is not only about Saudi Arabia or about Saudi Arabian Conceptual Art. It is also about broader, more complex issues. Conceptual art has the value of being open ended and ambiguous, in many cases. It can be about humanity, religion, desire; you name it. “Paradise has Many Gates” is only a single example of an exhibition with dozens of works that challenges our ideas and personal identities.
As I said in the beginning, words fail to describe this exhibition. Even when using the first person singular, I cannot fully describe my subjective impressions of the artworks I saw. There is something inevitably missed in transcribing conceptual art in words. They use different mediums and different ambiances. My words will never be able to explain ambiguity, texture, social pressure, culture and identity in the same manner as the artworks did. The only way one can possibly experience the “Phantom Punch” in all its complexity is to attend the Bates Museum of Art. Enter the museum and embrace the phantom punch. Keep your minds as open as your eyes. There is a lot to see.