Nassiem Valamanesh’s Distant Worlds & Hassan Hajjaj’s My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I

Crawford Art Gallery, Curated by Rose Issa

An exhibition review by Kathryn O’ Regan

Hassan Hajjaj, My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I (2012), courtesy of Rose Issa Projects, London

From 17 January until 22 March, Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery presented two vastly different video installations in its ground floor exhibition space: Nassiem Valamanesh’s Distant Worlds (2013) and Hassan Hajjaj’s My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I (2012). Due to its intoxicating blend of song, Technicolor and sumptuous use of pattern, the majority of visitors on entering the space, paused for a moment or two at Valamanesh’s installation, before continuing to Hajjaj’s vibrant work, which was projected onto the upper right hand wall of the gallery. 

My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I possesses some sort of magnetic pull through the way in which it lures visitors to succumb to its vivid, luminescent glow.  In terms of appearance and concept, it is a relatively simple piece: a three-channel video projection consisting of nine panels, each featuring a musician who takes his or her turn to perform.  

While each of the panels were filmed separately, the experience of the installation is as if the musicians are in a performing space together; turning to listen to each other with feet tapping and heads nodding in appreciation.

The musicians featured in My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I are friends of the artist, and are all of African, Arabic and Caribbean descent. Hajjaj, who recently gained international attention for his exhibition Kesh Angels − a series of photographs of the motorbike girl gangs of Marrakesh − at the Taymour Grahne Gallery in New York, was born in Morocco, but immigrated to London with his family in the mid-1970s. What we observe here then is a celebration of the melting pot of cultures and heritages familiar to the artist in his experience of the city; a vision of an increasingly globalised society where traditional cultural boundaries are continually dissolving. In the artist’s own words, My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I functions as a way in which he can ‘give back to his culture’. In this regard, the installation is not merely an exciting showcase of musicians, but is even more so about providing a platform for musicians from diverse backgrounds and of different ethnicities to perform, and to offer an alternative to the homogenous identity of the white ‘rockstar’ with a guitar and a leather jacket that is pervasive in mainstream culture. In this sense, the performers here are very much Hajjaj’s own personal ‘rockstars’, and he outfits them in wonderful, heavily patterned clothing of his own design against lush, kaleidoscopic backdrops; the result of which is to produce an intense and decadent dreamscape. 

Nassiem Valamanesh, Distant Worlds (2013), courtesy of Rose Issa Projects, London

Where My Rockstar Experimental, Volume 1 lulls the viewer with its dazzling and uplifting display of multiculturalism, Nassiem Valamanesh’s Distant Worlds is a much quieter and sombre video in comparison. In many ways, Distant Worlds is the antithesis of My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I: rather than the funky, otherworldly stream of music and multicoloured patterns offered by Hajjaj’s video, Distant Worlds is a melancholic montage piece that demands active concentration rather than the passive, absorptive viewing mode that the former enables. Furthermore, where soft printed seats and coffee tables stamped with brash logos accompany Hajjaj’s installation, the space before Distant Worlds is empty, creating a more difficult viewing experience to that of the second installation. In the absence of seating, one slumps against a wall or even sits on the ground in order to watch Valamanesh’s video unfold. This could be considered as a specific curatorial choice, in that the viewer experiences the installation in a somewhat uncomfortable or disjointed manner as opposed to the sutured experience offered by Hajjaj’s work .  Therefore, the viewing environment of both videos corresponds to their respective themes of detachment and integration, as we shall see. 

As with any video on loop, the viewer may begin to watch Distant Worlds mid cycle, or at the end, thus ensuring that the video may take a number of viewings before the narrative comes together. While the images and style of the imagery − a combination of text, photography and animation − may initially seem disparate, the captions used throughout follow a logical narrative. Set in Iran, the video opens with the line ‘Woke up this morning without a voice’, and tells the story of a character who tries to come to terms with his inability to speak as he navigates a country that is foreign to him. The speaker arranges a meeting with a doctor who informs him that this is not a physical problem but a ‘problem of the heart’, and urges him to stay at home. Instead, the speaker silently wanders through a city where everyone is ‘chatting away’. He drifts among the crowd, pondering about what has happened his voice: ‘Was it the pollution? Something in the water? Was it hiding in the mountains?’.

Of course, this inability to speak is not so much a literal loss of voice as it is a loss of language, specifically that of Farsi − the Persian language of Valamanesh’s Iranian father. In this sense, Distant Worlds captures the sense of isolation and loneliness that accompanies any inadequacy of language and ultimately, becomes a story of personal heritage and of journeying back into the roots of one’s fatherland, so to speak. Indeed, the images used in Distant Worlds were photographs taken while the artist visited Iran with his parents. Unable to speak the native language, Valamanesh, who was born in Australia, presents the paradox of possessing an intrinsic connection to a place, but of being isolated from it at the same time.  Yet despite this troubling predicament, Distant Worlds ends on an uplifting note, as the successive captions read: 

The town was on mute
Then it came from a rooftop
Carried by the wind
Was a woman’s voice
There was a remedy
And it echoed through the streets
Slept that night/ Full of hope

As these final captions appear on screen, a woman singing in the native language can be heard over the images, and it becomes clear that that remedy is song.

Despite the obvious aesthetic differences between Distant Worlds’ dreary, dusty cityscape and the highly saturated imagery of My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I, these videos negotiate similar concerns of personal histories and cultural differences. While the solution at the close of Distant Worlds initially may seem simplistic, that of connecting to a place through music or song, the idea suggested by Valamanesh arguably reaches its full fruition in Hajjaj’s installation. Where Distant Worlds presents the story of someone seeking solace and acceptance within a culture he possesses a blood bond to, My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I provides a space for those of diverse nationalities to celebrate their unique cultures. Therefore, Hajjaj’s video grants the very space that the speaker in Distant World seeks: a place where Western and non-Western cultures collide in a colourful array of music and song; where time stands still in a hybrid scene that is as much brightly futuristic as it is of another, older world. In this case, when viewed in conjunction, Distant Worlds and My Rockstar Experimental, Volume I assume greater significance than when viewed apart

While there is nothing to suggest that Hajjaj or Valamanesh wish to impart a didactic message, one cannot help but be struck by what it means to tolerate; to listen to one another; to give each other a space in which to be oneself, and to respect and appreciate each other’s differences, on leaving the gallery.  That may seem like a clichéd or naive notion, but somehow this age-old idea of acceptance takes on new, profound relevance through the dynamism of the videos on display.