Art

Finding presence in absence

20 December 2017Anna Seaman
Finding presence in absence
Finding presence in absence
Finding presence in absence
Finding presence in absence

When Tarek Al Ghoussein discovered a notice of eviction on a former government housing estate in Kuwait, he began what he describes as “a love affair with a housing complex” that lasted longer than any of his artistic projects to date. Discovered during Al Ghoussein's explorations of Kuwait, the eviction notice asked residents of the Al Sawaber complex to leave their properties within three days. 

Built in 1979 and 1980, Al Sawaber is a modernist housing complex originally given to Kuwaiti families but later rented out to expatriates and eventually left to rack and ruin. Slated for demolition for “emergency reasons” by the Department of State Domains, the entire area of 33 buildings and 524 apartments remains standing but abandoned and is the subject of Al Ghoussein’s latest project currently showing at The Third Line.

His interest in archaeology, space and physicality within a given landscape is extended here but, unlike previous series, there is a notable absence of his corporeal presence. Whereas Al Ghoussein’s work has been characterised until now by including himself in the frame, here the subject matter are objects left behind by residents and the result is that the portrait is of the place and not a person.

“It was not my intention when I went there to make a portrait of the place, but that is what I ended up creating,” he says.

However, that is not to say that the artist’s physical presence is not distinguishable. There are still clear interventions in the way we experience the space. It is testament to Al Ghoussein’s talent that he has taken an active role in transporting the viewer throughout the intricate details of these abandoned apartments as well as carefully framing everything we see. Indeed, “my body doesn’t need to be there to have a connection with previous work,” he explains.

The strength of this exhibition truly lies in the fact in a series of photographs of what is essentially an empty building, the viewer can find drama, history and is fully engaged with each image. “It is a wonderful place and as I was going through the buildings, I felt like an archaeologist of sorts,” he says. “It was a privilege to be in these intimate spaces and to discover the small details.”

The interior landscapes and details as well as the architectural structure of the building are presented in a variety – which adds to the depth of the experience and only emphasises the fact that we are looking at a full portrait of the building inside and out.

Upon entering the gallery, small groupings of black and white images reflect the exterior and architectural details of the building – which was designed by Arthur Erikson, a Canadian architect. Larger photographs isolate individual details of interiors that stand as portraits in their own right. Peeling paint and wallpaper that would usually repel any idea of beauty are framed so as to look appealing. Quirky traits such as a framed section of bricked wall or garish wall murals are presented as indicators of fashion, taste and personality. Some images are haunting, showing scenes that seem as if the inhabitants have fled, leaving furniture upturned and curtains partially closed. In others, there is evidence of fire with black charring and water marks running down the walls. There are also plenty of religious icons ranging from several faiths, another thread of the myriad stories to be told within this images that are full of human life despite being devoid of any figures.

A vinyl wall sticker shows a panel of 33 single images of the entrances to each building on the Al Sawaber complex and hidden behind a temporary wall, a floor installation gathers a pile of the actual objects found on site.

These objects are also framed in catalogue style images upon the walls. Out of the context of their surroundings they are elevated from discarded and unwanted items to art objects whose internal histories are significant and relevant to us all. 

This is the key to the exhibition. It is a personal journey mapped out by the artist as well as a reflection of plenty of individual narratives trapped in time by a sudden eviction notice.

However, it is also an experience of commonality. We can all find a way to relate to an outdated travel ticket, a broken ornament or an old-fashioned filing cabinet. These are not just the detritus of the families who once lived in this building but the litter of life and with that, anyone can resonate.


Al Sawaber runs until 14 February 2018. The exhibition is curated by Salwa Mikdadi.