In Kuwait’s far-out industrial area of Subhan, artist duo POWERHOUSE Nanu Al-Hamad and Greg “Mega Max” Ketant set up their conceptual art and design show (from February 4 – 27) at the Sultan Gallery: a reinterpretation of the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus.
The Sultan Gallery, Kuwait’s first art gallery, established in 1969 and one of the oldest in the Middle East, continues to host a cutting edge roster of artists.
The show titled IVAN: The Reconstruction of Narcissism found its place amidst energy drink factories and oil refineries, beckoning to its tricky location those in the know and culture-thirsty expats. The country’s most diehard art show attendees are mostly Anglo-Germanic schoolteachers and professors.
The duo’s work is a reflection on reflection. Inspired by Narcissus, who wasted away looking at his own image and was unable to tear his eyes from himself for long enough to even eat a meal. Al-Hamad and Ketant put forward a show about the obsessive nature of the artistic process, similarly exploring their inability to tear themselves away from their own image (i.e. their own development as artists).
Amidst unprecedented unemployment rates worldwide, rapid image saturation, the Internet’s wide reach, rampant addictions to iPhones, video games and porn, we need visual cleansing. We need a quiet moment. We need high ceilings, a warm influx of lighting. Pillow-y pedestals for examining objects, without the voices of social media and advertising crowding us. It was all here, in the Sultan Gallery. The exhibition may incorporate just one pair of mirrors, but IVAN: The Reconstruction of Narcissism contains a countless number of reflections on art and the creative process.
The exhibition is divided into 5 “phases” of creative consciousness – Mull, Dither, IVAN, Adamantine and N+. Aptly termed a “composition,” the seemingly minimal exhibition is packed with meaning – comprised of tables, chairs, graphic prints, a light installation, an original musical score and of course the presence of the two artists on opening night – in impeccable dishdasha and matching 3D-printed accouterment.
Upon entering the space, one is immediately put into an open, trancelike state by Chicago electro duo The-Drum’s soundtrack titled “Echo.” The music, which combines glassy female vocals with transcendental beats, resonates with the mythological context. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid writes of Narcissus’ most avid admirer, a mountain nymph. Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera, enchants the nymphs voice so that she is muted and is only able to echo back what she hears – hence her name, “Echo.”
When Echo first spots the swoon-worthy Narcissus, she is compared to the tip of a torch, “leaping to fire/When another flame leans toward it.” The-Drum’s original soundtrack for the exhibition is similarly magnetic, installed in the corners of the gallery, leading the audiences through the show, as if in call and response.
Narcissus, strayed from all his friends, Began to shout, “Is anybody here?” “Here,” Echo answered, and the wondering boy Looked far around him and cried louder, “Come.” “Come,” she called after him.
Eventually, bearing the burden of unrequited love proves too much for Echo. She turns into a sheet of air, her bones into “thin-worn rocks” and only her voice remains a poignant creation myth for the physical phenomenology of echoing and unrequited love.
The hesitancy to follow one’s bliss is aptly represented by Al-Hamad and Ketant in the piece Dither – a bench with angled mirrors at either end, so that the sitter can view their own reflection by gazing right and left (or straddle the bench to see their front and back, as suggested by the artists), allowing plenty of time to question and doubt their creative undertakings.
Each piece in the show is paired with a blueprint – showcasing the POWERHOUSE design work as well as mapping the energy source on the human body activated in the user. The act of dithering, or being indecisive, seems to stimulate the body more than mind, inciting a kind of anxious flight or flight response in the shoulders and thighs.
The next phase, Mull, has high energetic content, as the piece is created to recognize the importance of socializing and brainstorming in a group. Mull is a white desk that can be converted into a coffee table and four stools – sure to be a hit with guests in any artist’s atelier. Modular furniture – that is, pieces that can be transformed from one format to another, to accommodate for multiple uses – is a specialty of Al-Hamad, whose glow-in-the dark orb Gibbous, which functions as both a chair and an ottoman, won the A’ Design Award for Furniture, Decorative Items and Homeware Design Competition in 2012.
Ketant, an art director in New York (see MEGA.DOPE.POP), has a background in creative direction and mythology. He explains, “Mull and Dither are the phases of unconscious creation. Once you step through IVAN, which is the moment of consciousness, all becomes clear.” Thus, Narcissus is re-written through the lens of Eastern religion. Narcissus’ own moment of clarity comes to him as he gazes at his own reflection, in the form of these heartbreakingly, resonantly deep questions: “Am I the lover / Or beloved? Then why make love? Since I / Am what I long for, then my riches are / So great they make me poor.”
Although Narcissus’ self-infatuation was his downfall and his ultimate destitution, POWERHOUSE finds that actually when pushed further to an arena of artistic production, narcissism leads to revelation and self-understanding.
Once the viewer steps through IVAN, which is an elegant doorway made of mesh, steel, and fluorescent lights, then she is now on the side of consciousness.
On this side, the artist’s vision becomes clear and focused. Productivity is key. Commitment to one’s artistic vision is unquestionable. Adamantine and N+ strongly target a single energy source in their users, the heart and mind, respectively.
Standing on the other side of IVAN, one wonders what Narcissus would have produced had the creative potential of his self-obsession been harnessed. All we have left of Narcissus once he has crossed over to the other side is the crushingly mortal narcissus flower, a “flower of gold with white-brimmed petals” which grew at the site of his disappearance, marking his grave.
The translucent chair Adamantine struck me first and foremost as a postmodern throne, its design reminiscent of a battery and lending itself to the concept of a “powerhouse,” the name that the brazen duo go by. The use of transparent acrylic is meaningful, considering Narcissus too lost the “gold, white, and red and that vitality his beauty showed.”
As explained to me by designer Dalia VekilOglu Hadi, “It’s impressive because they managed to carve the ornate seat out of a single block of acrylic [instead of gluing multiple pieces together].” The result is stunning. At the core of the show is Al-Hamad’s eagle eye for detail and Ketant’s soothing design solutions.
We weren’t the only ones to be blown away by POWERHOUSE, as the show was almost sold out. The final piece in the show N+ or Narcissism + is a seat in the shape of a plus sign. Users are meant to use either side of the plus sign as a seat, where the seatback functions as a miniature IVAN separating the old unconscious self and the new forward-looking one.
However, at times the show felt like it was having an identity crisis at the crossroads of form and function.
To sit on N+, one either needs incredible balance or a friend on the other side. This was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the POWERHOUSE exhibition and philosophy – the emphasis on collaboration. If we look back to the text of the myth, everything goes awry at the exact moment when Narcissus “strayed from his friends.”
According to Al-Hamad and Ketant, reconstructing narcissism in an affirmative, healthy way, means framing narcissism as “the acme of the human experience and as a product of complexity, rather than superficiality and obsession,” often entailing artistic collaboration and the help of a friend or few. Perhaps all our generation needs is a Narcissists’ Anonymous meeting and a little group art therapy. As Al-Hamad says, “some narcissists are better in pairs.”