Last February, Beirut-based writer Liane Al Ghusain visited the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait to see IVAN: The Reconstruction of Narcissism. Artist duo Nanu Al-Hamad and Greg “Mega Max” Ketant form the composition initiative POWERHOUSE, which created IVAN using architecture to reflect on self-transformation and acceptance. In the interview below, Ghusain discusses the design process and thoughts behind IVAN with its founders.
Can you say more about the “narcissistic condition” and how it is stigmatized by society? You mention that narcissism usually comes with “compunction.” How does this (expected) guilt associated with narcissism function in today’s world and what do your products do to overcome that? What complexities and empowerment have you found in your studies of narcissism?
Nanu Al-HamadNarcissism today is surrounded by many negative connotations, so much so that the individual in today’s society is hindered from expressing even a healthy narcissism for fear of being stamped as “narcissistic.” The situation worsens with the ballooning artificiality of celebrity and selfie culture, which is encouraged through the public’s need to live vicariously through others’ narcissism rather than practicing their own. The pieces are meant to allow one to focus on oneself with the goal to better oneself and to be narcissistic. When you consider Eastern philosophy and the goal of transcending to nirvana, one is told to focus only on the self and remove oneself from all others. We don’t think about this in this way, but monks are in reality the most narcissistic people. But no one would describe them as such because narcissism has such a negative stigma attached to it. Monks are praised and respected, so labeling them as narcissist would offend many, but in reality they are. That in essence is the objective of IVAN: To allow narcissism to be a respectable quality, because when practiced properly it most certainly is.
Greg “Mega Max” Narcissism is very relevant today. Technology, current cultural mores, ideas and feelings about our identity and the self have made narcissism somewhat of a nexus of self-perception. We are either judging ourselves versus ourselves, judging ourselves versus others, or even judging ourselves versus the ‘non’ self. It’s a constant battle to either escape the ego, supersede the ego, or find some sort of meaningful relationship with it. It’s a topic that isn’t discussed enough in my opinion. Anytime Narcissism is brought up, people dismiss any intellectual deconstruction of it. I think the products we created allow, or better yet facilitate, that opportunity for singular introspection in the same way a Buddhist temple does. A temple is just a representation or emanation of the sanctified faculty of the mind, the quiet place. The pieces in IVAN offer a quiet place for the user to really engage in the complexities of narcissism, its meaning, its power, the pitfalls, everything. The design of the products is just our vision for how these inanimate thoughts would look as objects.
Tell me more about the materials you used. Are there any particular ones that you are passionate about? How would you describe the process of sourcing materials and labor in Kuwait?
NAH: The materials we used ranged from wood veneer, mirror, styrofoam wallpaper, hand drilled peg texture, plexiglass, steel, mesh, etc. The focus was to bring textures to the surface. Bring them out of their general context and put them in front of the user to feel immediately… In a living room context, you could say. The idea that something feels a certain way says a lot about how something should be designed. This is a big priority in fashion, to design for the touch. However, with products you don’t see this as a priority, but what we live with, in, and around all influence the way we “feel,” literally and emotionally. The materials we decided to use follow the design philosophy of encouraging self-development. Creating a feeling literally is an important step in creating a connection between user and object. We have a deep relationship with the surface of things.
MM: I was really excited about the use of mirrors in Dither and how light refracted from it; the angles really told a story about how deep the thought process is for me. I know intuitively how my mind operates and how a visual projection of it would look. It really was reflected in the way Dither came out. I think the wood texture applied to Mull was really appropriate. It was like braille in its roughness. It was the most “human” of the pieces in that way. Adamantine was clearly a postmodern throne. A lot of people said it was giving them battery vibes, which I thought was cool. The way we stacked/cascaded the clear plexi made it look like a step pyramid of sorts.
Have you collaborated before? On what? How did you divide/coincide on the workload? Do you draw by hand, on the computer? Together, separately? How do your tastes overlap and how do they diverge? What do each of you bring to the table, and how do you complete each other as a duo?
NAH: This is our first true collaboration. We’ve been working on POWERHOUSE for about a year and half now. We co-art directed a series of videos last summer: Flesh, and, Roses. Flesh is a series of commercials for Al-Hamad Design. Roses is a short film for MEGA.DOPE.POP. – both are due out in the coming months. We work organically, so however things materialize is how things go. I draw everything on the computer, and Max sketches and directs changes in the vision of the piece. Conceptually, we lock ourselves in the studio overlooking Manhattan with plenty of whiskey. We get lost for hours, scheming and devising our plans, constantly going off on tangents that sometimes leave us saying “We shoulda’ taken a left at Albuquerque.” Our vision is too ridiculously similar. This is how we came together in the first place, seeing ourselves in the other. Absolute Narcissism really.
MM: Nas’ and I have collaborated on a billion ideas, this is just the first one to manifest in physical form. We let the process take a natural course on who does what. For this particular project I kind of was already developing this idea of narcissism and then when he and I spoke about it, the conversation transcended both of our ideas on it. As the concept started to develop, the sketches began. We went through a couple of design drafts before we settled on the system that we ended up with for IVAN.
Your products range from super practical (Mull) to super impractical (N+). How do you navigate the usability of your products?
NAH: “Practicality” really is arbitrary. In the traditional sense, yes Mull is very practical and N+ is not. But each piece is supposed to inspire something out of the user, whether by using the piece in its traditional purpose, or by gaining a new understanding and use of the piece through another sense. One person commented on N+ by saying that it had conjured up a beautiful feeling within her, a connection to the reason of its existence struck her, though she could not explain how or why. That was beautiful to hear, because that is what N+ was designed to do. That is gorgeous practicality.
What does IVAN stand for? Why IVAN?
NAH:We wanted to personify the wall, give it life, anthropomorphize it. IVAN just was blurted out and sounded right. Born out of a 9 second pregnancy. We later looked up the meaning, which is ‘gift from god.’
MM:IVAN was one of those things that naturally was born out of the chaos of the creative process but yea like Nanu said it was only later we discovered it meant ‘gift from god.’ Quantumphysics at play!
Why do you think the Kuwait art scene was the right place to exhibit this project? Who is your intended audience, if any? Do you plan to take the work elsewhere?
NAH:There isn’t necessarily a right place to exhibit IVAN. Everywhere is the right place. We would like to bring the work to New York and that is being discussed. We are creating a performance video that acts as a sort of music video to Echo. It tells the story as a tutorial narrative. We’re in the editing phase currently.
MM:Well I’m totally foreign to Kuwait and the gulf in general, but IVAN lived where IVAN wanted to and it just so happened to be in Kuwait at the Sultan Gallery. We just followed IVAN’s lead. We hope to take IVAN to NYC but recontextualizing the medium a little bit and getting into some more transmedia concepts of telling that story.
Finally, please feel free to tell us how your other projects inform and inspire this work, and vice versa. Do you think your work on IVAN will be reflected in your other projects and how?
NAH: IVAN is the first taste of things to come from POWERHOUSE. In many ways it exemplifies our philosophy, design aesthetic and approach to affecting people.
MM: IVAN is an object that lives on its own. I believe everything in life is a reference for everything else, in that way an apple is an orange. I think traces or elements of IVAN will live in all of our future projects the same way cells and DNA pass on through generations.
Given your backgrounds and stances, how does this work reflect your politics?
NAH: Well, we’d certainly be very considerate dictators if the opportunity does arise.
MM: We definitely want to be loving, caring, beneficent dictators in the future, tomorrow… Today.