The blue-chip contemporary art institution in the heart of Berlin’s Mitte district currently houses a retrospective of Emirati artist Hassan Sharif.
Sharif was an artist unbeknown to myself; I must admit I decided to pay the show a visit based on the name reputation of the institution, rendering my visit ready for an element of surprise. In the past I have often researched an artist prior to viewing their work in person. A sense of inadequacy coupled with the dreaded ‘So what does this work mean?’ question from companions is enough stress to induce a preparation beforehand. Though recently I find greater solace in, perhaps naively, ‘experiencing the work in a vacuum’ – or whatever that means. The advantages of context-based understanding are outweighed by a stimulus, primary learning experience, and this particular show certainly made for one of those.
Berlin is one of those cities including New York, London, and Paris whose galleries pride themselves on the global nature of the artists they represent. Asserted to me several times prior to and during the show that this was the first time this artist was exhibiting in the ‘West’, raising some minor red flags of this ‘saviourism’ practice. In a strange tour alternative (COVID consequences), we discussed the show before entering with an extremely enthusiastic and affable guide. Probed on the artist’s politicism and ready to indulge, I entered KW and began somewhat of a nebulous journey through the artist’s lengthy career.
Sharif is an artist whose UK education (at what is today Central St Martins) ostensibly directed much of his earlier work. Leaving the UAE prior in 1979 to engage in a western art education focused on the pillars of constructionism, postmodernism and minimalism, Sharif’s more mature work dissents from the political discourses circling the newly formed Arab nation at the time of nationalism, calligraphy and religion.
This is an artist of constant juxtaposition though most importantly, intense investigation into material. With the show dubbed ‘Hassan Sharif: I Am The Single Work Artist’, KW draws from a quote to substantiate the immediacy of each piece in which Sharif endeavours. Every work in the main atrium towards the rear of the show is a bombastic yet considered result of an almost infatuation with fabric and material. His work ranges greatly, from the torn up and reconstructed Arabic – English phrasebooks suspended in a reverent constellation to the ginormous mound of cheaply made multicoloured flipflops. I think of post-minimalism; his work engages the viewer to experience it as a visceral, touchable object with countless interpretations, yet the crux of it is the occupation of space – how one positions themselves both physically and emotionally in relation to the work. The mound of flip flops (there is an absence of wall labels throughout the show) makes me ponder my own consumption instantly. These cycles of duplication, repetition and discarding seep into our quotidian so often at an almost unconscious level and Sharif’s work is powerful at jolting and illuminating these processes. Sharif’s use of the transformed vernacular is striking and certainly a memorable takeaway from the show.
The show itself is, however, not without its flaws. I believe the decision to present the entire spectrum of an artist with a particularly diverse oeuvre in totality perhaps failed to explore the nuances of his work. Displaying such a broad range of material, size and medium sacrifices thematic variation in lieu of being the institution which brought the artist to a wider audience. I am in no way discrediting KW as it’s a shock that such a widely collected artist hasn’t show yet individually in Europe or the US, though it seems that this mission to present him to the world outshines the artistic impetus mentioned in the press release.
With an exhibition spanning the work produced over a 50+ year career in multiple regions, discourses and mediums, Hassan Sharif: I Am The Single Work Artist is thoroughly worth your time. Remaining aware of curatorial decisions, institutional impetus and cultural positionality is key, however. One can easily draw comparisons of Sharifs works to a litany of US or European artists, though we must remember Art Histories do not operate on a unilateral linear timeline; histories are complex and converging. This show displays the individualism and esoteric nature of a true avant-garde.
Hassan Sharif: I Am A Single Work Artist runs through 19th July 2020. The press release along with a video walk through of the exhibition is available on the KW Institute website: https://www.kw-berlin.de/en/hassan-sharif/
Read more of the writer’s work at https://www.artchie.co.uk/