In Conversation With Amin Gulgee On His Solo Show 7.7 at Mattatoio di Roma (formerly known as MACRO Testaccio)
In writing this review, there were many-a-changes that underwent this body of text. From an interview to an audio recording and its literal transcription; it morphed away from being a visual inventory but took on a more dialogical approach.
In the constant oscillation of interacting with Amin within the work periphery to personal, both auxiliaries converged into an epiphanic entity and deeper cognizance of Amin Gulgee. To think it all started with a tête-à-tête with the artist, sitting outside a café opposite Rome’s Opera House one rainy evening post opening of 7.7 at MACRO Testaccio. That in writing this review is to serve a greater purpose of understanding the ergonomics of not just Amin Gulgee as separate from his art, but Amin Gulgee as Richard Wagner quite aptly put it- ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, as a universal, all- embracing, intrinsic embodiment of a total work of art and being.
Our conversation began with how the idea of 7.7 manifested twenty years ago, when Amin first met Paulo de Grandis (co-curator of both 7 and 7.7 along with Claudio Crescentini and Carlotta Scarpa). Grandis is also the founder of Open, which is a show of sculpture and installation in the island of Lido (Rome), associated with the Golden Lion film awards in Venice. It was at Open 1 that Grandis first curated Gulgee as a part of a group show. Two decades later, Grandis invited Amin for the 20th anniversary of Open, where Gulgee then invited him to be one of the guest curators for the Karachi Biennale 2017 during which talks of the shows in Rome began to materialise.
7.7, Gulgee states, might perhaps be the last manifestation of 7, which has come a long way and travelled extensively since its advent starting from its inauguration at Kuala Lumpur’s Wei Ling Gallery. It was then previewed at Amin Gulgee gallery in Karachi with the help of Sameera Raja from Canvas Gallery, to Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM), with 7.7 simultaneously being exhibited in Mattatoio di Roma (formerly MACRO Testaccio), both in Rome.
Whilst each exhibit has its own characteristics, there is an evident continuum that flows and connects all reiterations. Before I even began to question the concept, 7 begins to dictate our conversation. The reasoning behind the number 7 is one sentence that has been broken into 7 portions. The 7 portions are repeated through out the installations and the sentence is now indecipherable.
I further probe to decipher the indecipherable. The sentence is from a very special source for him, Gulgee states, derived from the Quran. He further goes on to explain how “…it is no longer necessary to talk about what the sentence means because you can not read it anymore so it becomes highly personalised. It becomes very personal for me and my personal message or my personal love letter to the cosmos”.
Personal messages leads our discussion to the connection of the above with the interactive performance of the audience writing love letters and rolling them up in glass bottles and placing them around the gallery. “This is my sentence, I take it over completely. You can’t read it anymore so through its form it means something to me. It’s super personal that I really hate to talk about. It’s this ascension, it’s flying upwards but what it says and what it means, it’s mine. It’s my love letter. So in a world where everything is read and everything is open and everything is disclosed either with the people looking into it or people disclosing it themselves, this becomes very personal. This is a love letter written in a bottle, which will be destroyed afterwards. Nobody will read it… it’s the only thing that remains private in our world. Something that is handwritten. Anything that is put out on the net is public. So that’s the only sense of privacy left- a note written by hand, put into a bottle”.
The act does not end there. The performance is to be concluded by the act of each love letter in each bottle to be destroyed. The execution of which too was a process of trial and error and wasn’t through burning as the limited amount of oxygen failed to ignite the fire. It wasn’t through pouring highly concentrated sulphuric acid to burn the paper either. It was water. “This idea of a baptism, you just dip it in water and the paper disintegrates”, Gulgee explains.
And within that one performance, Gulgee is able to compel the audience to provoke the same sentiments within them that act as the very instigators of 7.
My mind wonders to metaphoric imagery of an apocalyptic baptism within the glass bottles. Is there a symbolic signification behind the use of copper and coal within Gulgee’s body of work or is my mind going in a rhetorical prolapse to persuade me of such?
The versatility of copper as a medium, an “indestructible” material and the permanence of it have made copper a stable feature in Gulgee’s work. He further elucidates on the connection of the fragmented sentence and medium that “It’s a material I love and yes, the text is also special to me and to render it in a material I love is a joy”.
The use of coal is not only an aesthetic decision, but pivotal in his trajectory as “It’s also carbon. Carbon creates everything, it creates all life. It unites us all. But, there’s a sense of sadness in coal as well. A burning, a fire, of loss, of sadness”.
When asked if they were two different elements that he had combined together- the sentence and coal, or if there was a connection within the two of them, he responded,
“Perhaps, there is a connection. Perhaps they’re separated. Again, you know, I see the world, the Muslim world burning all around me. I see my civilisation burning around me. I see a sense of loss”.
The sentences, the emblematic use of material, the work are a constant throughout 7 and 7.7. Yet whilst sustaining a continuum, each manifestation of 7 introduced forth elements absent before. Space and place dictated the nature of the exhibit with each show being site specific and fitting into the space that was there. “The screens that were suspended in Karachi became freestanding in GAM. Then again, things changed dramatically around for MACRO Testaccio where the work evolved- very site specific, responding to the space. And yet, keeping a continuity in the work itself. The work remains the same but it responded to the space”.
For both the shows 7 and 7.7 at GAM and MACRO respectively, site specificity played a pivotal roll to influence how the work developed. This proved to be beneficial, as “…what was really challenging was to have two museum shows in the same city at the same time. I wanted a connection between the two shows, not left and right. I wanted a definite continuum between the two yet, it had to evolve or transform and metamorphise into something else. And that was the real challenge. Luckily, the two spaces were so separated that it naturally happened and I was quite, really grateful for that”, says Gulgee.
The show installed at GAM was outdoors and the “contemplative courtyard was converted into a personalised sculpture garden”, void of any artificial light. The indoor space at MACRO was “completely subterranean”, where all sources of natural light were blocked and artificial light used, thus, a play of negative and the positive, light and darkness.
The introduction of showing Gulgee’s algorithm on a Plexiglas screen served to not only have the inclusion of a new element, but it also became the main source of light within the exhibit at MACRO. The algorithm was “developed with the help of Bilal Gori and we worked together on it for a month. Deconstructed letters from the sentence fall randomly on to the screen. White letters fall on to a black screen till the screen becomes white and black letters fall on to the white screen and it alternates that way. Each time a letter falls; it’s associated with one note in the scales. The scales are broken into 7 portions, do, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee. Each time a letter falls; one note of the rubab is heard. So again, the sound is random as well”, he explains.
The property of the Plexiglas enabled a 360-degree projection in the room as it was visible on both sides of the screen and enveloped the space, the light casting further shadows as the hanging letters eclipsed the light. The hanging letters were another addition that made 7.7 differ from the rest of the exhibits. The deconstructed letters, usually assembled into “the confines of one structure”, floated in space, “no longer part of any single piece”, hung on fish wire, emulating the “ideal of light”, as the diamantes within them caught flashes in the semi darkness.
Another distinctive addition was the inclusion of two performative works, Marking 1/7 and 3/7 performed by Ana Ruisiniuc and myself. Whilst Ruisiniuc marked herself on the coal carpet, I started off by randomly marking others with coal, whilst whispering words of Urdu in their ears. The performance however, changed its course of nature with chance coming into play.
At this point in our conversation, I briefly stop to digest everything and in a moment of contemplation, wonder out loud that there seems to be a lot of play of chance in his work. “Chance? Yes”, he replies. I further go on to ask if the relationship with himself and his work has changed him as a person in the course of how this body of work manifested. More specifically, I wonder if he believes in chance or the philosophy of I Ching to let preconceived ideas to be vulnerable to produce forth-new unforeseen possibilities in his practice.
To this he replies with fervour as to how much he hates randomness, emphasizing tautologically on being a complete control freak and how even in his sculptures “everything is super controlled, super put together”.
However, possibly chance played the devil’s advocate with 7.7 as Gulgee goes on to say, “ That’s why the algorithm was perhaps interesting for me because then you’re in a programme where the letters fall randomly on to the screen, without any control from me. It is a programme that creates it falling and that for me was a departure. Even in the hanging letters, is it up, is it down or you’re working with people you know very well and know your aesthetic very well. That was a process of relinquishing control, which was fascinating for me and very uncomfortable…”
As the conversation comes to an end, I ask him if there is a line that separates him from his work, as negligible as it might be. He states that nothing separates him from his work, that there is no existence of any line between the two.
To be able to be cognizant of that, was perchance the sudden need of repetitively mimicking Amin’s letters to mark the audience’s body with coal from random mark making, that delineated my own actions to realise what it was I was doing and what it was that I wanted or rather needed to do. Needed not just for making the audience understand what it was the actions of my performance meant in relation to Amin’s body of work, but for understanding Amin. Amin, not as a bifurcation of the artist and his work, but as Amin as a unified entity.
And perhaps, this dialectical analysis along with the artist’s praxis, will lend itself to define the amalgamation of an integrated totality that is Amin Gulgee, from 7 to 7.7.