The stakes start high in From Ear to Ear to Eye, the largest UK survey to date of art from the Arab world, and with an emphasis on sound. In a mock-up of a shooting range, spectrograms – rainbow visualisations of sound frequencies – have replaced the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. A gripping real-life courtroom drama unfolds on the video at its centre, the case of Israeli soldiers who killed two Palestinian teenagers using live ammunition, not rubber bullets as they had claimed. Rather than recreate the trial, however, the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan conveys its transcript via silent subtitles. Filling the space is a constant hum of different frequencies, interrupted occasionally by the thunk, thunk of shots fired.
Developed by Abu Hamdan with researchers at Goldsmiths College, London, the spectrograms are the focus of the action. They represent an analysis of a recording of the fatal gunfire and became the key piece of evidence in convicting the soldiers. What this work most forcefully underscores though is silence: the human rights atrocities that remain unreported; the voiceless victims. In an adjacent video by the American artist Joe Namy exploring translation, a reflection on physical silence, as when a 1,000-year-old poem is torn in half, resonates loudly.
Bringing artists from varied, complex cultures together under a single banner is a risky business. Surely no exhibition exploring art from the Arab world would attempt anything as hubristic as an overarching statement. Instead this show corrals individual voices from different generations and geographic backgrounds. Sound features in much of the work, but it also serves as a metaphor for an approach. Its fluid, immaterial nature is just as resonant for the photographs that form a large part of the show tackling memory and disappearing history: psychedelic layered imagery, cloudy flecked shots of Beirut taken with aged equipment and the anonymous faces from a Lebanese photo archive.
The exhibition has its share of duds: the inevitable community project that makes for good work but less than electrifying art, or inert assemblages of musical instruments. At its best though, there’s a nicely volatile mix of plugged-in, personal responses to pertinent issues (as well as some great songs) which refuse to let our ideas settle.
Abu Hamdan’s project is art gold dust: a work with a discernible, classifiable political impact. But it’s the way it conjures the unknown or uncertain, that sets the tone for what follows. There are nearly 20 artists here, a few of them veterans of the upheavals that have shaped their home countries, many young and now based in western art centres such as Berlin and London. While politics was always going to be on the menu, few offer direct commentary. Instead we get the worm’s-eye, ground-level view, grey areas, hazy recollections and shapeshifting stories.
At times, it manages to foil expectations of what art about an Arab experience might look like altogether. Raised in Lebanon, the revered 92-year-old poet and painter Etel Adnan for instance, has spent most of her life between California and Paris. While her writing has dealt with war and displacement head-on, the ebullient abstractions that dance across her accordion-folded painted books, alongside fragments of Arabic poetry, suggest a private language. Interviewed in a nearby film about her memories of Beirut, she speaks less of the place itself than the imaginative world rooted in family mythology, through which you become who you are.
Other standouts though are determinedly hardwired to the specifics of place. Jumana Manna’s 70-minute film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, is a good-natured acme for the show’s conceptual currents, with gorgeous dollops of crowd-pleasing local colour. Chronicling the varied ancient music traditions within her native Jerusalem, it moves between the cramped busy kitchens of apartment blocks, modern offices and the tents where Bedouins take a break from tending the camels, nonchalantly drinking each other’s pee in the desert sun. In these humdrum spaces that speak quietly of the city’s most contested subject, home, ordinary folk create hair-raisingly sublime music. The sounds take listeners across borders and centuries; the political implications are impactful but lightly worn.
Close by is a video as rough-edged and bruising as Manna’s is polished: This Lemon Tastes of Apple by the Iraqi Kurdistan artist Hiwa K. It consists of cameraphone footage of a 2011 protest in the artist’s hometown, Sulaymaniyah. Hiwa K has a mouth organ, his friend a guitar, and they walk through crazed, burning streets playing Ennio Morricone’s unsettling theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. Apparently as popular in Iraq as anywhere, they’re soon rallied by men cheering, while the juddering camera captures bleeding bodies and faces doused in lemon juice – an antidote to tear gas. This rudimentary citizen journalism-cum-art video conveys not what happened – the situation is too hectic to make sense of – but something of what the moment felt like.