Constellation art, a neologism that plays on the longer-standing term “installation art,” has its origins in the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin’s ideas about time, history, and objects of knowledge. Less site-specific than an installation and more discrete in its often- disparate parts, constellation art asks its viewers to make associations both broad and particular. It reflects the new importance of the exhibition as a form, at a time when artists increasingly work in many media.
Hajra Waheed’s Hold Everything Dear—the exhibition’s title is taken from John Berger’s volume of essays Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches About Survival and Resistance (2007)—curated by Nabila Abdel Nabi of Tate Modern, represented this approach. That the didactic wall text referred to the exhibition as “a constellation of new work” and that some of Waheed’s pieces made reference to the night sky makes the term all the more appealing as a means to think about this exhibition. But I would like to suggest a second, more intimate basis for the exhibition: the book in all of its forms, including notebook, scrapbook, and the book of letters, poems, or stories.
In The Scrapbook Project (2010-2011), Waheed in fact used this form more directly when she filled thirty-four pages of an old scrapbook with images and then opened it up to the gallery walls. What holds a scrapbook together is not the blank support offered by its pages to various materials, or its binding, which, whether cheap or dear, will always one day fail. It is, instead, the care taken in collecting and guiding remnants into a personal, interior order. This is a form of love, the conditions of which are always of domestic witness but reach out toward the public realm.
There was, indeed, care in the sequence, the loosely ordered narrative, of individual works within Hold Everything Dear, at least at first. But the difficulty with the book form for the exhibition viewer is that the private, intimate act of reading is usually compromised in the public exhibition space of the gallery. An exhibition’s spaces must become a living part of the work displayed within it. Although reading a book is a physical act, the text and images found inside it are less dependent upon their setting in a particular edition than a constellation of art is upon its gallery spaces. To find the form of this “living space” is challenging when the gallery is as vast as the main space of The Power Plant, where the exhibition was installed. Gallery rooms do invoke, on some level, living spaces—houses, mansions, or palaces—which are the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century origins of public museums. But the industrial-palatial exhibition space of Hold Everything Dear did not encourage intimate viewing. As Baudelaire expressed in his Petits poèmes en prose (1869), you can never really be at home in a palace because you cannot successfully integrate a small print: “Dans ces solennelles galeries, il n’y a pas un coin pour l’intimité.”
For Hold Everything Dear, Waheed produced forty-seven works involving approximately two hundred pieces of etching, drawing, painting, writing, ceramics, video, installation, sculpture, collage, and textile.
The constellation artist is also the post-medium artist. For Hold Everything Dear, Waheed produced forty-seven works involving approximately two hundred pieces of etching, drawing, painting, writing, ceramics, video, installation, sculpture, collage, and textile without needing comprehensive knowledge of all of these media. Instead, the exhibition itself becomes the medium in which complete expertise must be displayed. An exhibition as a whole must be psychologically and somatically resident. It must fix a “territory of experience” for its visitor, and Hold Everything Dear was too often let down by the failure of the attempt to do so.
Yet several small works on paper, which a solitary viewer could sometimes isolate at close, reading distance, carried much emotional weight. Many of these were etchings or drawings with long titles integral to the pieces—Forget what they tell you, this longing for you is deeper than any blue, or also this title for the piece How long does it take for moonlight to reach us? Just over one second. And sunlight? Eight minutes. Some of these works invoked the intimacy suggested by Berger’s title, Hold Everything Dear, while others added the political urgency of his subtitle. Letters 1–8 (all works 2019), is a series of handwritten pages of excerpts of letters between lovers; opposite each text is a careful ink drawing of fronds or buds, gently reminiscent of pre- photographic botanical illustrations. “You often ask where I find my hope,” one letter says. “Did you know that even in blindness, total darkness, we possess an innate ability to see blue light? That we turn to light just before dust?” These words took on a pressing intensity in response to the more directly political content of the letters—“The military is routinely sent in to break up the actions of the peasants. Last week Sékou was killed and the local police paid off. This is the second murder on the plantation this year by company security with total impunity”—and to the silent presence of the drawings, which depict at-risk species of West African palms.
Plume 1–2 (2019) consists of black-and-white photographs of roiling plumes of smoke rising in the sky. Small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, the photographs are off-square, as if cut hastily, and taped onto sheets of blue paper. They could have been documents from the nineteenth century, but they were rare evidence of malfunction, possibly resistance actions, at Aramco, the Saudi company that owns the largest oil fields in the world, as well as the gated, faux-American suburban compound where the artist was raised in the 1980s and 1990s. Other works in the exhibition also suggested private response to past public action, perhaps precursor to further resistance. They might have belonged to an unnamed character’s journal or notebook.
Arranged in a grid, Khwabgah 1–9 (2019) are small oil paintings of cloud details. They are painted on tin supports that are not entirely flat, and sometimes the tin is bent slightly at a corner as if a reminder of the scissors that the pieces might have been cut with. Their primary register of middle grey-blue possesses a subtle, absorbing density amidst edges of white light and dark interiors of moisture accumulating for a storm. The views are not from below but at the level of the cloud formations. “Clouds gather visibility, and then disperse into invisibility. All appearances are of the nature of clouds,” wrote Berger in The White Bird (Chatto & Windus, 1985). Waheed’s painted appearances have the intensity of a daydream in its depths. They could be called studies, but only because the form of a cloud can never be definitive. They are more like a series of inhabitations. Here, the systematic searching for the “specific gravity” of place that drove so much of the work in the exhibition was found in two phenomena—cloud and daydream—seemingly at rest and yet never so.
Hajra Waheed: Hold Everything Dear
Curator: Nabila Abdel Nabi
The Power Plant, Toronto
September 21, 2019—January 5, 2020