By Elizabeth Collier
When you first walk into the Grand Room of The Mosaic Rooms you will probably be a little confused. The space has been transformed by Nadia Kaabi-Linke for an exhibition entitled The Future Rewound. It appears to be empty as the work blends into the walls. You may be wondering where it is at all. However, take a moment to really look, be patient, the work will begin to reveal itself to you, it may even startle you.
Kaabi-Linke is a contemporary Tunisian artist who is exhibiting work centred on British history, not just generally, but specifically with the past of the very building in which her work is currently being housed: The Mosaic Rooms. When invited to exhibit in the gallery, Kaabi-Linke researched its foundations and learned that it was once the home of Imre Kiralfy, the director of the Greater Britain Exhibition that took place in Earls Court in 1899. The artist took this as the starting point, endeavoring to reveal the past. If you look up to the ceiling in the centre of the Grand Room, you will see an intervention to the rose where Kaabi-Linke has scraped back layers of paint through the years to reveal some of the original gold leaf from over a century ago. From these layers, the artist created a pigment for ‘A Colour of Time (Tower House)’ 2014, giving what at first looks like a cream coloured blank canvas a whole new meaning.
Another of the seemingly unassuming white canvases in the Grand Room relates to London. In Perspectives (Bank Junction), 2014, Kaabi-Linke has drawn outlines of the infrastructure of London’s financial centre in transparent varnish onto glass,which reflects a shadow onto a white paint-coated piece of wood. The artist is interested in capitalism and control, as well as the idea of observing and being observed. In this respect it is interesting that a CCTV camera is present in the centre of both images in this series. On meeting the artist, she spoke of a global worldwide prison in the form of the financial world that has a lack of transparency, despite the facades of most bank buildings nearly always being made out of glass. The shadow motif carries through to All Along the Watchtower, 2014, where a shadow has been painted onto the floor and ceiling in the shape of a watchtower. This is very confusing to begin with as the airbrushing is so lifelike that most viewers will immediately look for what is casting the shadow. Kaabi-Linke explains how the watchtower shares its form with a hunting stand, thus symbolising the way humans treat each other like animals within a capitalist society.
The final work in the Grand Room is ‘Modular II’, 2014. At first this looks like a strangely beautiful series of geometric brass lines on the floor and walls, until you look down and recognise the names of various prisons in Europe. These lines represent the outlines of prison isolation cells. This seems to relate to the rest of the work: the confines of a capitalist society, mimicking the sinister tones of All Along the Watchtower and Perspectives. Kaabi-Linke adds that the work is inspired by the way in which architecture attempts to structure life. She cites Le Corbusier’s interest in optimum form and the rationalisation of space as structuring modern life so that we live in a prison within walls. The fine brass lines echoing the technical drawing of architectural plans.
The brass of ‘Modular’ seems to glisten like the gold leaf from the upstairs ceiling, and serves as inspiration to the work downstairs. In Faces, 2014 we see the portraits of a group of South Africans, who were part of the ’Savage South Africa’ display during The Greater Britain Exhibition. 174 South Africans were brought to London by Frank Fillis following the Zulu Wars, to act as propaganda to continue digging for gold, which we have seen in the ceiling upstairs. Kaabi-Linke’s portraits have been taken from a group photograph, an approach taken by many Victorian families, (as photography was so expensive), by cutting out individual portraits from a larger photograph. In doing so, she gives the men their own identity in the western tradition.
Also downstairs is a series of what appears to be enlarged and misshapen fingerprints. These are in fact prints of scars, the wounds of victims of domestic violence in London taken using the forensic method. The work, entitled ‘Impunities London Originals’, 2012, is somewhat harrowing once the story behind the images is known. This dark tone follows into ‘Tunisian Americans’, 2012, which is made up on a large cabinet of glass bottles of earth. The soil inside these containers has been taken from the cemetery where American soldiers were buried in Tunisia during the Second World War. Underneath each bottle is the number of the serviceman from whose grave the earth was taken. During the gallery tour Kaabi-Linke asked why western wars had to happen on her homeland. The work also has some dialogue with the images of the portraits are on the opposite wall, as the South African’s relate their dead to the soil.
There is one piece in The Mosaic Rooms,which is not directly linked to the works in the two main galleries, a video installation entitled ‘No’, from 2012. However it still has a strong dialogue with British politics. The installation covers two opposing walls, on one side is a mouth asking questions on a white background, while a congregation of people are standing in a church answering on the opposite wall. The script has been taken straight from the UK Border Agency from a questionnaire that Kaabi-Linke had to answer herself before entering the country. The idea of the church relates to the inquisition, with the mouth showing a single authority figure. The artist explains how the anonymity of the mouth reflects those asking the questions, as when filling out a visa form online you don’t see anyone. I see this as relating to the modern era of people hiding behind their keyboards, protecting themselves online while making comments on social media.
I think we can learn a great deal about our own culture through Kaabi-Linke’s eyes, who is, essentially, a foreigner. Her work quite literally strips back the facade of the contemporary format of The Mosaic Rooms to reveal aspects of past and contemporary British and Western culture that we might find unsettling but are important nevertheless.
Elizabeth Collier is currently studying for an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa. She is an aspiring art critic with a strong interest in contemporary art and globalisation, particularly the way in which non-Euro-American art is perceived and presented in the west. www.gallerygirl.co