In a society dominated by the daily use of electronics and an almost addictive dependence on social networks and instant communication, it seems the 21st-century has truly become a digital age where technology has permeated almost every aspect of life and transformed our very definition of reality. As the center of one of the region’s leading culture capitals with a knack for its pulse on today’s pressing topics, it only seems fitting the Sharjah Art Foundation will debut an exhibition at the end of this month dedicated to exploring the impact of the internet on modern-day art and mentality.
Already being called the most “ambitious exhibition in the Middle East”, Art in the Age of Anxiety welcomes more than 30 contemporary artists across the world to investigate the ways technology has altered our collective consciousness. From Beirut-based audio investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan and American multimedia artist Cory Arcangel to Iraqi American electronic artist Wafaa Bilal and American filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, these global creatives showcase more than 60 pieces of work spanning a variety of mediums including video, prints, sculptures, and robotics. Attendees are invited to not only look but also connect with the variabilities of online and offline spheres through a series of interactive features, such as karaoke and virtual reality installations.
Curated by SAF Director of Collections and Senior Curator Omar Kholeif, the exhibit may have taken around three years to come to fruition, but Kholeif has been researching this topic for over a decade, culminating in a trilogy of touring exhibitions. While the first two displays appeared in London and Chicago, the final installment is heading to Sharjah, a destination Kholeif describes as a “spiritual home” after visiting and working with the Foundation in different capacities for more than a decade.
“Art in the Age of Anxiety explores critical questions in contemporary art and society through the work of a diverse group of artists from around the world,” said the director of Sharjah Art Foundation Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi in a statement. “We are delighted to inaugurate Omar Kholeif’s tenure as Senior Curator and our first Director of Collections with this important exhibition.”
The inspiration to delve into the intricate interplay between art and technology and its effects on this generation’s mental capacities came from “pure instinct”, according to Kholeif. “I found myself over the last few years funneling back and forth between countries, tethered to devices, which I wholly relied on and following RSS feeds that I believed to be purely emblematic of the truth,” the newly appointed director explained. “As I considered this further through my writing and research, I began to panic that I was living in isolation—that my entire consciousness had shifted to respond to the attendant language of a specific networked culture.”
While this growing reliance on technology is an important subject for all audiences to examine, it’s especially important for millennials in the Middle East. “Their methods of communications have not only changed but also the ways in which they engage with the so-called ‘real world’. Web speak seeps into everyday language and get-togethers are had with people tethered to their phone always communicating elsewhere, as opposed to face-to-face,” Kholeif shared. Although this isn’t a “bad thing” per se and can be helpful for artists to collaborate across large distances, it’s still something to be aware of as it may shape our future, said Kholeif. “If this is how communication is constructed then what will the world look like in 10 years? Will we be able to function in our everyday roles as we currently do or in some other artificially intelligent manner?”
To help answer these big-picture questions and develop a further level of understanding of technology’s inevitable impact, Kholeif created this carefully-curated exhibition for the UAE public. “I would like them to understand the implications and aesthetics of our everyday technologies and to start to consider their complicity within this realm—and how their actions affect their own lives as well as others,” he said.
Although it’s difficult for Kholeif to pick his most-anticipated work of art to present, the immersive exhibition space built by renowned architect Todd Reisz is the aspect he’s most excited for attendees to experience. Designed to mimic the intertwining labyrinth of the internet, the physical maze winding across three galleries transports each person to the “ways in which it might feel to actually be inside of it,” explained Kholeif. “The work becomes animated in a wholly different way whereby each piece is not just responding to a normal white cube gallery but also to a scenography that speaks to the work’s very own making.”
While Kholeif prefers not to speculate on the future of art in this constantly evolving digital era, especially for creatives hailing from the region, he’s certain of one thing: The exciting uncertainty of the unexpected. “Artists are always surprising me with the works that they produce. They are constantly inventing new forms, transforming platforms and ideas. I can’t wait to see what they will do.”
Art in the Age of Anxiety opens to the public on March 21 in Gallery 1, 2, & 3 at Sharjah Art Foundation and remains on display until June 21.