For an exhibition of such aesthetic simplicity, Alphabets has left the Grey Noise audience perplexed. “I’ve never had so many people confused about a show before,” gallerist Umer Butt concedes. There’s irony in the bewilderment—the gallery is infamous for ‘challenging’ programming, but Alphabets is familiar. A succinct exhibition composed of small wooden blocks becoming works on paper, it gestures to the iconic design heritage of the Bauhaus and borrows from the most fundamental elements of linguistic learning: children’s building blocks, and the alphabet.
The confusion might instead suggest an uncharacteristic ease of concept, the audience assumption that there must be something complex here. Yet, the exhibition is not out of step with the gallery’s roster—the perplexity says more about the ways audiences approach the gallery than the gallery’s outlook. The crisp simplicity of Lara Assouad’s rhythmic works have all the meticulous, compacted expression Grey Noise is so fluent in, revelling in the capacity of modest pieces to assert presence and radiate ideas.
There are timely contextual significances that ground the exhibition. Cresting a major moment in design history, Alphabets coincides with the Bauhaus’ centenary. It also sits amid a local tumult of graphic design exhibition-making. These two contexts introduce tension—between the historical and contemporary, the enduring and the trendy, the European (Bauhaus type-design was Latin) and the lively, often digitally mediated, design-currents of the Arab world.
Assouad’s earliest experiments in modular type were in 2010 for a children’s book written by Nadine Touma, working with inked and stamped wood for the illustrations. The artist began to think about the same approach for the lettering, resulting in the font tabati, later shortlisted for the Jameel Prize (2016) and displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Most obviously, the experimental rigour of alphabets such as Josef Albers’ modular Kombinations-Schrift (1926-1928) echoes in the geometric approach. Albers created a Latin alphabet based on 10 elements, existing today in major institutional collections as stencils.
Assouad’s modular Arabic alphabet is represented here as small wooden blocks, lining the gallery wall, not as words or letters, but arranged by size and shape. They’re unreadable as communiqués but the emphasis of volume, rhythm, and form implies the potential of combination. This mode of presentation reminds us of the history of typography as manifest in the cumbersome-but-romantic past of printers’ blocks and presses. Today, the type-design process is most often digital, fonts existing somewhere in the digital ether of web stores and hard drives, intangible. Hung opposite, over-sized printed letter specimens demand appreciation of the forms as image. Folded pages with ghosts of letter-forms hang loosely, inviting the possibility of manipulation and discovery. There’s powerful potential between the pieces, a world of words waiting dormant.
Lara Assouad, folding and unfolding.Courtesy of the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.
It’s a process that recalls another iconic Bauhaus design—Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s children’s building blocks, suggesting the nascent encounter with language found in the urge these stamps form, the familiarity of language as a thing to be handled, possessed, accumulated. As they feel and know through volume, shape, and pattern, children are unencumbered by all the weighty stuff of signification—but they are getting ready to encounter it. Like a toy, language here exists as something that can potentially feel ‘owned; an impossibility given the infinite complexity of language systems and the misfirings of meaning-making, but for now, it’s compacted enough to hold in your hand.
In 1925, German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School Walter Gropius commissioned Herbert Beyer – another non-typographer – to design a typographic identity for the Bauhaus. Beyer credits his outlook to a relative lack of formal knowledge: “It was much easier to undo traditional concepts since most of us had not received traditional training as typographers and thus were not limited by received ideas,” he confessed decades later in his book Typography and Design (1971). Assouad’s own context is remarkably different from the confluence of social, design, and economic forces that shaped the Bauhaus, but her approach and advocacy for knowledge owes a debt to the iconic school and, like Beyer, she does not employ a historical approach but rather an aesthetic one—playing with modularity to foreground exploration of rhythm, repetition, and proportion.
Installation view of Lara Assouad's Alphabets at Grey Noise, Dubai.
The physical production of the pieces is significant, and Butt fondly refers to them as ‘print makers’ desires’—dreamy drills imparting a sense of their makers’ urge to create meticulously, methodically, and without extravagance. “Lara’s work appealed to me because she was also doing something that a lot of conceptual artists or minimalists do: breaking free from regimens,” he explains. Though it was not a conscious effort, there is a sense of this exhibition breaking free from the clamour of its local design context. Assouad’s work is not a continuum, but instead a quiet and assured counterpoint to a theatrical graphic design scene with a vigorous exhibition output, epitomised in the recent Fikra Graphic Design Biennial (a self-styled ‘Ministry of Graphic Design’ that took over a building in Sharjah for a month, engaging with ideas of graphic design in myriad academic and institutional fields), in abundant touring exhibitions surveying contemporary Arabic poster design, or in annual design weeks and conferences.
The design lineage of Assouad’s work, as well as the intense enthusiasm for presentations of graphic design in the local context, means Alphabets also forces a consideration of exhibition-making, questioning where typography sits between fine and applied arts. Given the Bauhaus’ governing principles of ‘form follows function’, questions of exhibition purpose are prompted.
Assouad does not present words, they do not impart meaning in any obvious way—to present these typographic ideals in a gallery setting is to pause their communicating purpose. Neither are these conceptual meditations. Instead, her modular elements express process, beginning to modulate understandings of making and communicating, showing that many modes of thinking and producing can be bound in the simplest of expressions—from the historical contexts that inform aesthetics, to a very personal and intuitive relationship to the tangibility of letters and language.