Whitney Museum | July 26 – October 31, 2016
The first element of Sophia Al-Maria’s installation at the Whitney exceeds the gallery itself: thudding bass not unlike the dramatic undertone of a horror movie bleeds through the walls. Inside, a subtle but steady undercurrent of clapping and screaming adds to the soundscape. Black Friday (2016) is the title of the exhibition and the main film, below which is The Litany (2016), a mound of sand, glass, and digital devices playing shorter videos. Both works in the installation explore the Gulf Arab nations’ response to American consumerism and technology.
Frenetic collages illuminate that sandy patch from the screens of small televisions, tablets, and phones. Stock photos, GIFs, advertisements, logos, and stills from Black Friday coalesce to present an image of contemporary consumerism. The broken glass littering The Litany suggests that these screens are likely to explode; when one tablet appears to have accidentally been turned off, it could just as well be an intentional indication that all this saturated media must reach a tipping point.
Together with the vertically stretched projection of Black Friday, The Litany completes the image of an altar, an icon relevant to the comparison made in the projection between malls and mosques. Black Friday opens with a bird’s-eye view of two moving sidewalks. On the left, the sidewalk progresses from top to bottom. On the right, the sidewalk progresses from bottom to top. Together, they form a seemingly endless loop in which there is no development, only continuity. Two people appear on one sidewalk after some time. Their shopping cart is visible first, followed by the woman who steers it and her companion, a man. Both appear distorted as they descend to the base of the screen. Their destination appears next: a shopping mall cast in reddish yellow light, described as the “bright fluorescent halls of the 21st century.” Mannequins stand on a platform stage, and below them three massage chairs pump steadily in anticipation of bodies seeking comfort.
This image of the shopping mall is strangely vacant. The narrator adds to the vague sense of nausea by describing the “temperature-controlled air” and shoppers “encased […] forever.” When the camera moves on to frame a more complete image of this mall’s interior, one can see how this encasement operates: a veritable canal runs through its corridors, miming the touristic-romantic scenery of Venice. It is complete with a Bridge of Sighs. Above—the camera traces the gaze—the roof is painted with clouds. Inside is the new outside. “The mall,” the narrator explains, “is an architectural drug; not one to ingest, but one to be ingested by.” Backing this statement in an essay accompanying the show, curator Christopher Y. Lew explains how malls were originally designed as a “frame of forever” by “Austrian émigré Victor Gruen, the architect of the first indoor mall, [whose] theory is that ‘shoppers will be so dazzled by a store’s surroundings that they will be drawn—unconsciously, continually—to shop.’”
And yet, as with any drug, the body may potentially reject this consumerist pull. Indeed, the videos lying in the sand are both engrossing and dizzying. They seem to mock the viewer with statements such as “SKIN ELIMINATION MATERIALS […] AUTHORITY APPRAISED AND APPROVED.” When one leaves the mall, when the product wears off, “all this precious merchandise transforms into worthless junk,” as the narrator succinctly declares. The body, too, fatigues: in the ensuing scenes, Muslim women lie helplessly on the escalators, stairs, and ornate floor of a mall (or mosque?).
That confusion seems intentional. Panoramas of clouds in the sky mix equally with the architecture of malls and the archways and pillars of mosques so that one cannot be sure how the depicted women relate to either space—thus Al-Maria’s work conveys the same ambivalence she finds in the Gulf’s relationship to capitalist consumerism. While the sterility of a closed or nearly abandoned mall (complete with men on floor-scrubbing machines) is genuinely off-putting, the general mood of Black Friday falls exactly between excitement and frustration (that steady beat of applause and screaming). The dull pace of the endless sidewalks matches the endless loop of the video, as Lew notes.
This state of ambivalence, though, does not always seem to be the artist’s intent. The narration, while insightful, is at times difficult to understand because of the mode of installation, and its dramatic music often communicates a mood more pressing than the work’s resulting message. One can leave the installation feeling neither terribly against consumerism nor terribly horrified at the intrusion of malls into the Gulf. Humor may be part of this mismatch; it is possible that Al-Maria is quoting the sonic artifice often used in movie trailers and advertisements to make a product seem more thrilling.
One of the most interesting aspects of the installation is its juxtaposition of destruction with consumption. This comparison is clear not only from the use of sand and the mélange of broken glass with shiny screens but also from the viewer’s own relationship to media covering the Gulf region: American media stereotypes Islam as a violent religion and the Middle East as backwards or underdeveloped. Lew writes, “While extremists on both sides are pushing for a clash of civilizations, the day-to-day reality in the Gulf and America (and elsewhere) demonstrates a common ideology of consumption where shopping has become an important form of social interaction.” A female narrator continues this comparison when she recalls encountering a military guard in the mall with her little sister. She apparently recognized him from her algebra class, but he did not recognize her; there was an “insurmountable difference” between them. The consumer is the opposite of the soldier, but their divisive relationship seems to articulate the sociopolitical dynamics within and between America and the Gulf.
MIRA DAYAL is an artist, critic, and curator based in New York.