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     Volume 7 Issue 35 | August 29, 2008 |

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Blurred Pictures and Sharp Words

Nader Rahman

Naeem Mohaiemen has had the distinction of having his work displayed around the world, from the EU Human Rights Commission, to the Queen's Museum of Art to the Finnish Museum of Photography. His current work at Gallery Chitrak may not be the most prestigious location he has exhibited at, but there is a politically charged feel about it, which feels distinctly out of place in placid road 4 Dhanmondi. One is not quite sure what to expect from an exhibition titled 'My Mobile Weighs a Ton' but a few seconds after entering the gallery the smoke lifts and one can see the title for what it is.

A very trivial matter Network available, 6:05PM

In the introductory text he says, “Standing in this political moment, aesthetic perfection makes me queasy”. That is a statement he lives up to, as aesthetics are essentially thrown out the window with his scrapbook, mobile phone pictures which have been blown up to possibly 100 times the size they originally should have been. He continues in his introduction by saying, “My work is interested in damage/ panic. Politics come from the context in which image war happens. Mobile phone photos-- blurry, low dpi, poorly framed, no rule of thirds, colours burnt beyond recognition. Giving you quick access to make temporary provocations, without planning, preparation or press card.” It is interesting but not unusual that he refers to his work in the third person and one feels it gives him some sense of distance from his creations. Why that distance is needed or even necessary are questions, which still seek answers.

He starts with grey duct tape on a wall recreating the no signal sign we are all quite used to, what does catch the eye is that a time is given, 4:01 PM to be precise. The continuation of that timeline is what holds some segments of the exhibition together while often alienating the few pieces, which are without one. The first picture is titled Bones of Xindian, and the bluish tinged blurry image of people standing and gawking at what is an obviously smashed up building is one that sets the tone for the rest of the ride. By 4:20 we are viewing an empty chair behind a badly cracked glass window, the caption reads, 'I don't want to sit anyway.” 4:30 and it's now time for international relations, as the cliché goes, a picture speaks 1000 words but for this case 94 will do. We are presented with an image of an unknown girl holding up a phone, with the caption 'all you people look alike.'

ohhh that felt good, 4:45PM

The story with it reveals her name and how she bought a phone with Bangla script on it in Manhattan, when asked if the person selling it was Bangali, her heterogeneous reply was that all you people look alike. In the era of globalisation, Walmart and the Big Mac all holding hands her reply spoke to the economies of scale which have defined western speak and in this one instance defined the Bangali as just another mass made product. The irony or ironies is that the picture was no doubt taken with another mass produced mobile phone. The exhibition was quickly becoming a pun within a pun leaving people searching for the truth within a lie.

Beside Micheline and her Bangla phone is a curious set of 12 photographs which proved to be screen shots of the artist as he videotaped himself breaking his phone with a hammer, it was all done in under one minute. And the remnants of his phone were also put up for inspection. It is a situation we have all wished we were in, with a hammer in hand smashing our cell phone to bits. This could quite logically have been the end to the exhibition, a piece such as that requires an exclamation mark! But it was not so, the next room posed two defensive teams against each other. The formations for the teams were exactly the same 3-5-2 with what looked to be a midfield battle. The ground was Dhaka and its surrounding areas as 22 robot toys were pitted against each other on a large print out of Dhaka, straight from Google Earth. This absurdist installation was in the artist's eye nothing more than 'a trivial matter'. In the same room there is a quote from a Public Enemy song, ending with the words 'My Uzi weighs a ton.' A play on words makes us question, what in this exhibition could make the artist a Public Enemy? And by the end it is simple to see that his mobile weighs a ton, because he uses the pictures and words like an Uzi. Forgive the pun but in more ways than one he is gunning for the truth.

Along the way there are quotes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Mahmoud Darwish who both interestingly passed away recently. They speak of imprisonment and hope as he invigorates his work with a little political wordplay. The timeline does not stop and neither do scenes of wreckage and damage, from burning motorcycles to wrecked restaurants. It takes us all the way up to 6:05 PM and then miraculously the signal is back as masking tape on the wall now appears to show the return of cell phone activity. His resolution challenged pictures do not stop as he photographs Shahan Ara reading the news on Channel-i. It is clearly stated that the picture of her is used with her permission and that distinctly takes away something from that picture. The other were not posed, and no one's permission was asked when using them, why was such an exception made here? The voyeuristic nature of the exhibition is what draws people to it, we are all essentially trying to be John Malkovich and in the midst of this he takes permission for a picture. It was a bit of a let down, but let down or not the timeline continued, by 10:22 he is praying for his country and ends at 11:00 with a line that hides more than it reveals, “If you think this show's about mobile culture, the line must be bad. Please hang up and call again.”

At 11:00 PM everything falls into place and politics of a mobile phone and an Uzi all become relevant. Mohaiemen tricks the audience from the start, baiting them to believe this was a project into the exploration of the mobile phone when in fact the images strung together reveal a different picture, an incident actually. Damaged houses and shops, motorcycles on fire and no signal between 4 and 6, think hard enough and it will come to you. Even better, have a look at the exhibition (which is on until August 31) and it will hit you harder than a rock thrown into a windowpane.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008