ON THE WEBSITE for "Recognise," a groundbreaking exhibition of art from and about the Middle East on view in London this past summer, its title is cast in the imperative: "Challenge your preconceptions. Unpick your presumptions. Dismantle your delusions. RECOGNISE!" If this was intended as a provocative entreaty to the art world, curator Predrag Pajdic succeeded in more nuanced ways in the exhibition itself, which presented conceptually challenging art by some forty artists, almost all Middle Eastern. For although increasing attention is paid to art from this region on the international level--with biennials in Istanbul and Sharjah, Catherine David's ongoing project "Contemporary Arab Representations," and the visibility of the Middle Eastern art-and-culture magazine Bidoun--there is still a paucity of such exhibitions in London. (Among the few prominent UK shows focusing on the Middle East in recent years, "Out of Beirut," a 2006 survey of Lebanese art, took place outside the capital, at Modern Art Oxford; and the London Institute of Contemporary Arts' recent "Memorial to the Iraq War," while courageous and pointed, included a large number of European artists.)
"Recognise" was striking for both its dedicated coverage and its adventurous location. The Contemporary Art Platform temporarily designated a disused warehouse in Finsbury Park, an area in North London populated largely by immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries. According to Pajdic, the show was primarily directed toward this transnational public--one unlikely to be found at, say, Tate Modern--and by all accounts the curator succeeded in attracting local residents with his selection of works powerfully addressing Middle Eastern cultures. One standout was Wael Shawky, whose mesmerizing video The Cave, 2005, depicts the Alexandria, Egypt-based artist reciting sections of the Koran while peering into the camera as he strolls through the aisles of an Amsterdam supermarket. The piece is extraordinary for its suggestive ambiguity: Is this a talismanic performance to ward off the evil temptations of secular and capitalist European culture, or a sly gloss comparing the mindless rote learning practiced in madrassas to passive consumerism? The subtitles--an English translation of Shawky's Arabic rendition--scroll by like a news ticker, implying a correlation between religious belief and the ideology conveyed in our mass media. While this piece invites various interpretations, cynicism predominates in Shawky's other submission, Al Aqsa Park, 2006, a video that uses digital animation to present Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock as a flashy carnival ride. The sacred edifice is shown revolving at various angles, while a loud rumbling sound track conveys the precarious weight of the building's geopolitical significance.
Formally connected to Shawky's spinning mosque, Bethlehem-born artist Emily Jacir's Embrace, 2003, is a small steel-and-rubber structure cued by motion sensors to rotate with the viewer's approach. One of the few sculptures in the show, the Minimalist-like object resembles a miniature baggage carousel, establishing a personal sense of space pointedly distinct from the depersonalization typically experienced in airports. …