David Foster Wallace explained the postmodern angst with familiarity by recounting his first kiss: "Unlike my parents' generation, by the time I was a teenager, I had probably seen thousands of images of kisses hopelessly coloring my experience." And in a world dominated by image-heavy social media like Instagram and Tumblr, it often feels as though everything is a familiar experience, that we've seen and done it all. Indeed, because of that, it seems a bit trite to argue for the potency of pictures.
But no doubt even 'net-saturated millennials form multisensory associations with images. A picture of a swing set, for example, can evoke a specific smell or sound unique to an individual's experience. And Egyptian-born artist Iman Issa is interested in exploring the emotional connections between images and objects. In her latest exhibition, "Heritage Studies," at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), she explores the illusory relationships formed between ancient art and her own conceptualizations of the pieces.
"Iman Issa: Heritage Studies"
It's not a new theme for the 35-year-old artist; the relationship between tangible objects and abstract memory is one Issa has explored for years. In 2005, she moved to New York City and began photographing spaces around the city as she acclimated to her new surroundings. "It was the genericness of the space that allowed me to photograph them," Issa said in a recent talk at PAMM. "They lacked something... a moment of definition, perhaps."
Playing off that theme, Issa assembled the exhibition "Triptych" in 2009 for Dimensions Variable. For the multimedia installation, she constructed a space based on the memories associated with a photograph, then formed a piece using video, sculpture, or sound that captured the space dissociated from the original picture. It was a complicated and thoughtful process, but it ultimately pointed to the frailty of images.
For Issa, the compositional elements of a photograph are not as nearly as important as the concepts they elicit. For example, one of the pieces from "Triptych" is a photograph of a town square that morphs into a scene of a xylophone with an Egyptian flag, then an abstract sculpture of wooden steps with a red stripe running down the center. Though the objects vary widely in composition, what ties them together are Issa's Proust-like recollections — in this case, of a military parade in her native Cairo.
In 2007, Issa was drawn to exploring collective experiences, and she was commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art to work on a memorial for the Iraq War. Since she was a close follower of the war, Issa approached the project with some trepidation. Yet the shift from a personal to a collective memory intrigued the artist. Instead of familiar images of targeted bombings and war-torn locations, she made a video that highlighted her personal childhood connection to the country through the classic film The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Although images from the film are completely out of context from modern-day Iraq, they were still salient in her mind.
Around that time, she started reading autobiographies of various writers and thinkers, like academic Edward Said, who famously wrote about the interplay between East and West. "I was interested in how their personal narratives would meet with universal statements," Issa says. As she was reading these autobiographies, Issa was also visiting museums, encountering the same types of pieces displayed in a cultural context. Everything clicked for her, and that spark ignited her current endeavors.
Issa has taken her interest in the interplay between objects and memory and applied it to established works of ancient art. At PAMM's "Heritage Studies," you're met with a room filled with artfully arranged modern sculptures that are linked only by a series of texts hung on the opposing wall, which can make for a confusing attempt to match label with object.
Each sculpture is the artist's abstraction of a piece of ancient art that is endemically tied to the rise of early civilization. The abstract sculptures are like a reverse Rorschach test, and they seem to highlight the artist's own subconscious. At the same time, their ties carry a collective archetypal weight: "I say that they are based on a museum display, but they really don't look anything like the display," Issa says, "so it's more based on a memory of a feeling of these displays. What I realized I needed to do was remake these objects in order to make that evident."
And though the objects look nothing like their originals, Issa feels as if they are the same. The wall texts identify each piece with the original materials and their estimated date of production, as well as provenance.
The interplay between text and piece is one of the many aspects of Issa's complex work that first attracted PAMM curator Diana Nawi to Issa's work. "I was interested in the interplay of text and object that she uses and feel it creates an interesting and active experience for the viewer," Nawi tells New Times, "forcing us to move back and forth between these modes and form meaning between them."
The work also questions the connotations of a museum space — not just the text but the placement, lighting, room, etc., communicate meaning between the object and its observer. The selection and placement of the objects in "Heritage Space" speaks to that subtle interplay.
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"While Issa is very clear about her ideas... the works she creates demand that the viewer be comfortable with a level of ambiguity produced by the subjective nature of her practice." Nawi says. That level of comfort includes walking out of the show uncertain of what to make of it all.
Whatever form Issa's work takes, it is certainly imbued with a sense of emotional primacy. Her multidisciplinary projects tackle socially relevant issues and push the aesthetic envelope, yet despite these complexities, the emotional relationship the work triggers is always at the forefront.
As our culture sinks deeper and deeper into a media-saturated morass, the emotional ties that strap us closer to images has never been stronger. Though the constant bevy of pictures belies their individual potency, it's important to recall that each image is only as powerful as the emotion it can elicit.
For average art lovers, the show asks more of their creative resources than most exhibitions. But it's refreshing to see a show with this level of depth.