Aseel AlYaqoub: "My intention is to interrogate or question"
10 jun 2016 by Despoina Tzanou
Aseel AlYaqoub welcomes us at her studio in London and talks about national identity, censorship and the Saudi Arabian military demonstrations in her new work.
Aseel AlYaqoub, Graduation ceremony, 2016, axonometric drawing.
D.T. What are the recurring themes in your work?
A.A. The exploration of national identity through history and memory. I don't only focus on personal memory but also social/cultural memories that are imagined and built up through this collective that we are a part of. My MFA thesis, which includes Heritage Wall no. 6 and Embargo were my attempts at questioning our collective memory and comparing it to the present situation. The image defines the space that we are in and we accept them and don’t interrogate them enough. The topic of national appropriation is also present in my new project; I am looking into military performances where many of the rituals and demonstrations are foreign yet have now become a part of the culture.
Aseel AlYaqoub, still from Embargo, 2014, film.
D.T. How important is it for you to understand the context surrounding a city, the country you are in; how has your background in architecture influenced your contemporary art practice?
A.A. It influences me through the production of my work. For example, the work that is produced out of Kuwait versus abroad varies on specific qualities. Whether it’s the resources or personal interactions with the place. For example, my video Embargo was influenced by Kuwait; filming in reaction to a situation there enforced that project. Whereas being in London gives me more room to interrogate where I am from an external perspective and encourages me to ask more questions about the region as a whole from archives here that I wouldn’t have gained access to in Kuwait. The British library has great information about the concept of memory, nostalgia and archiving of my region. In Kuwait the archive is different, not that it’s not as valuable, it just influences my work differently.
D.T. Does your artwork change or adapt depending on the space it is presented in?
A.A. Because of my architectural background, I am more willing to compromise and adapt my pieces to specific spaces. None of my works, so far, have been site specific apart from Heritage wall no 6. which was based on the dimensions of the gallery. Even then, depending on where it is exhibited I would always readapt its presentation or location in the space.
D.T. The sculptural work you mentioned has a reserved sign positioned on the chair; are you aiming to input a dose of irony in your work?
A.A. Yes. The irony in the plastic chair is the banality of the object. It’s something you find at birthday parties or on a patio; it’s a common object. However, the reserved sign gives it importance even though it’s handicapped as its back legs are cut off. It is a very precarious seat and it is almost impossible to sit on it without pushing your weight against the wall. This dependency on the wall for support questions the dependency of a nation, an individual or society against a larger source.
Aseel AlYaqoub, Heritage wall no.6, 2015, stud wall, stained 2 x 4 cm wood, stained fake windows, handicapped patio chair, reserved stainless steel plaque, 240 x 240 x 90 cm.
D.T. Is social censorship a matter you want to highlight in your work?
A.A. Definitely. I sometimes feel like there is some restriction to my work, a self-censorship. It comes from a societal stigma hence the cultural inhibition. Although I don’t really want to speak about the body or express personal beliefs in my work, I would probably be careful how to present it. I think it is engraved in me not offend or betray anyone, especially back home. It would cause a barrier between a larger audience and myself. I try to tackle this issue generically, however, this topic has become a common discussion amongst many male and female Arab artists.
D.T. But you do try to challenge Kuwait’s cultural and structural episteme...
A.A. Yes, but not in a way that I will strip down to my naked body. It is more a challenge to show the absurdity of it through irony and satire, or how silly it is that some of these are such a big issue.
Aseel AlYaqoub, Prohibited, 2015, custom sign, 30.5 x 45.7 cm.
D.T. And what is your objective as an artist?
A.A. My main goal is to ask questions that I don’t really have answers for. My intention is to interrogate or to question whatever topic it is that I am focusing on. I don’t necessarily create statements that are determined in terms of the theme or research. Hopefully, it raises a dialogue between my work and the viewer and opens up a conversation on whatever it is that I am interrogating. I prefer works that include the public, not only a specific kind of public involved in the art world. In a way, I hope it opens up a wider discussion.
D.T. Speaking of public audience, how is your work perceived?
A.A. Very different views depending on what the project is. Mainly, the common unifying reaction is a giggle because I try to make my works satirical and a little bit funny. I want that to be the starter point to the dialogue; when satirical language is used people can laugh about it and then conclude on its impact. Laughter opens a dialogue. Seeing my work after having a chuckle they start asking questions about why and how even if initially they were confused or uncertain.
D.T. How do you arrive at the material that you work with?
A.A. Once the research is done and I fully understand the concept or what I really want to ask, I try to find the form. That is a flaw and perk in my work since in architecture the form always follows the function and it has been difficult to detach from that. I don’t really experiment and play around until I am inspired, but rather first create my brief and then play around. It is a process with a conceptual framework where I try to figure out the medium and the best way to get across what I am trying to say.
D.T. Where do you find the objects you use in your work, for example, the stamps in Culture Fair?
A.A. I was initially collecting these stamps; then comes the research part where I try to understand the time in which they were made and what was happening. These stamps were from Kuwait's golden era and they all have very specific narratives to them. They differ in imagery according to the history and development of the nation. So, when I understand all of that I can cut and paste all the new narratives that I want to discuss. The fact that they are rare collectable stamps made me want to tear them apart destroy these artefacts, not in a sense of rebelling but as a means recombining and recreating a new narrative.
Aseel AlYaqoub, Cultural fair, 2015, Stained stud wood, 3x magnifying glass dome, ten 3-layer collages dissected from and onto Kuwaiti postage stamps, 11 x 13 x 20 cm.
D.T. How important are external aesthetics of an artwork to you?
A.A. Depending on the medium I choose, I will explore the different forms of aesthetics around it. However for me, style needs to have a function in the work as well. I need to be aware of why I have chosen this particular direction. However, I also believe that taste and style vary for everyone. If I am meticulous with the production then it will inevitably create a polished work that I am happy with. That for me is where the aesthetics lie, at the best capabilities that I can produce it at. If it requires labour then I will not allow myself shortcuts.
D.T. Tell me a little bit about your new works concerning military training in the Middle East.
A.A. Last summer an Arabic online news source released a video showing the military demonstration of the Saudi Arabia Special Forces. The spectacle, the choreography, the epic music, the theatrical sets, the dangerous stunts and the VIP audience astonished me. I watched it over and over again. It reminded me of a show you would watch in Disney Land i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean. From there I went into a viral frenzy on YouTube and was led from one demonstration to another. The absurd performances are stunt rehearsals for something fantastical however I can’t begin to imagine how the actions would be implemented in war. It felt like it was an advertisement for enrollment and a national form of entertainment. It made me wonder about real performances and audiences such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The image of President Obama sitting in the situation room amongst other high official and witnessing the real-time began pressing against all of these videos I was watching. That was not a rehearsal, however, I have seen many videos of the military rescuing hypothetical hostages from built sets and here fiction and reality begin to merge.
I compiled an archive of videos and from there I picked my top 10. They all have different performativity and I wanted to compare them side-by-side. Through the process of watching and drawing plans of each video, I have devised a way of presenting them as a singular image. Axonometric drawings, although distorted, are very legible. Using the soldier as a reference to scale in the videos I began to map out the set, choreography, gunshots, smoke bombs and so forth. Rather than showing the actual videos I wanted to extract the fiction from the reality and then bring it back into fiction. The drawings look imaginative, as though I have created my own sets due to their absurdity. Each drawing has its own sound piece that’s extracted from the video to bring it back into reality. It’s becoming an existential journey for me. I am currently experimenting with etching techniques, as I believe it would be an interesting medium.
As of May this year, Kuwait’s parliament passed a much-discussed law on mandatory conscription. By the end of the year, my brothers, my partner, my cousins and friends might have to do military training. This project has become so much more important for me as the military could now be directly involved in my personal life.
Aseel AlYaqoub, Jordanian army, 2016, axonometric drawing.
Aseel AlYaqoub is an artist born in Kuwait. She holds a BA in Interior and Spatial Design from Chelsea College of Arts - University of the Arts London, London (2009) and a MA in Fine Art from Pratt Institute, New York (2015). She was an artist-in-residence at Contemporary Art Platform (CAP), Kuwait (2013). She received the Best Model Award, Chelsea College of Arts - University of the Arts London, London (2009). Aseel has exhibited in solo and group shows including 'POPULAR GAMES', Pratt Gallery (New York, 2015); 'Signs of Life: in and out of time and space', Boiler Room (New York, 2015); 'Class of Chairs', Contemporary Art Platform (Kuwait, 2013); 'Kissin’ Cousins', Edge of Arabia (London, 2013); 'The Chicken Nuggets Alliance', Museum of Modern Art (Kuwait, 2012); 'Teddy on the Go', The Sultan Gallery (Kuwait, 2010).
All images courtesy of the artist.