Silence is the Master by Orlaith Phelan

A recap on Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Earwitness Theatre at the Chisenhale Gallery, London. The show marked the artist first solo UK exhibition in 2018, and remains one of such interrogative force that it has duly propelled him into this year’s Turner Prize arena. Occupying a trajectory that encompasses art, activism and investigation – boundaries are rewritten, language is reconstituted, and interrogation breathes a new articulation where even silence becomes deafening.

Earwitness Theatre artist and researcher Lawrence Abu Hamdan shows his latest enquiry into the political effects of listening at London’s Chisenhale Gallery. The exhibition is a double installation presenting Abu Hamdan’s latest research with Amnesty International and the first portrayal of his sonic library of sounds. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, his initial interest in the spatial qualities of sound has ledway into a career where the extent of his knowledge, acoustic research, and art production now even position him as an authority in legal cases where sound analysis is required. Apart from an ever growing list of accolades most notably he was approached to undertake the sound dissection of the ammunition used in the killing of two teenage boys in the Gaza Strip (2015). Expanding his acoustic analysis for the trial, stills and video of sonic imaging were distilled from the killing and used to form the basis of his acclaimed exhibition Earshot (2016), questioning the “aesthetics of evidence and the politics of sound and silence”. His affiliation to Forensic Architecture, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018, should also start to ring some bells.

Earwitness Inventory is Abu Hamdan’s physical offering within the Chisenhale. 95 objects are on display that make up his catalogue of sonic violence. The objects are sober, unnatural and sharp within the space. Without knowing his work or the usual preoccupations of the Chisenhale Gallery they could almost be dismissed as the exhibition of an angst ridden assemblage artist. Almost. Once rushed through the immediate entrance of the exhibition space, amidst those first seconds of disorientation and strain for comprehension, the flickering text on the wall is just enough to ground your attention to a halt. The sudden anchor is exactly Abu Hamdan’s power. While you’re busy trying to side step the paddling pool, breeze block, and melon configurations on the ground to find where the real exhibition is, the words begin to register. Streams of text start implicating the various objects in descriptions of death and trauma; descriptions of brutal violence now being reconveyed through textual sound analogies of the everyday. The carefully stacked Pepsi bottle now evokes someone being bludgeoned to death, and the generic box of cinema popcorn becomes the plummeting sound of a collapsing building. Text and objects flicker across your eyes and body but though no sound is uttered the impact is deafening. You want to use a different word to describe this but there really is no other, this is exactly what it does. Confusion and naivety are replaced by a reality with such immediacy you’re now shocked, grateful, and fully engaged without having even glanced further into the gallery then past the objects by your sides.

The second installation is Saydnaya (the missing 19db); an audio work portraying the new limits of torture by the Syrian regime within the existing prison now used to house only political protestors. In this prison silence is their torture. The audio installation is housed separately in a dark sealed room placed at the center of the gallery space. Inside is the kind of dark that makes you fumble anxiously until you gratefully bang your head on the opposite wall; it is consuming. The audio track is less than 15 minutes long and gives you firsthand accounts of the prisoners within Saydnaya. To begin, Abu Hamdan uses sound samples in an ever descending scale to take you into the silence of the prison – because this is not sound as you know it nor that you could comprehend without these efforts. On our way there we plummet from the boom of a Boeing 747 landing, the screaming sounds of a New York highway, to the whispers of tranquility at a Swiss Alps retreat, and into stark sharpness of the Chernobyl exclusion zone… and we are still not at Saydnaya.

The prisoner testimonials that follow eradicate the assumption of anything over an inaudible whisper existing within the prison. In Saydnaya “the border between sound and silence is the border between life and death.” To move, to cough, to make any sound involuntarily or otherwise results in punishment of death. If life in Saydnaya has any opportunity to be clung to, how excruciatingly can you choke silence for survival? Using tonal comparisons between the whispers of prisoners before and after 2011, when the prison switched from housing standard inmates to those of political protestors only, 19db was found to be the difference. To put this into perspective a difference of 19db is the same as comparing a jackhammer on a footpath to a dishwasher. Now instead of subtracting from the sound of a jackhammer, subtract from the average level of a human voice. That unbearable border of sound, the difference of 19db, suddenly becomes quantifiable. Once the brain has grasped this recognition its effect can’t be removed. Saydnaya is a reality that we could never have conceived before, but through Abu Hamdan’s tools of reconstruction it’s as if we sit in those cells too.

While the title of “artist and researcher” might cause an initial dismissal of the credibility of the work, it is clear that Abu Hamdan is a master of both the subject matter and its representation. He is using distortion to portray distortion, something only achievable through the manipulation of language to demonstrate the perversion of its use in Saydnaya. The result of this complex contradiction is incredibly evoked between both installations. It is as if the war of sound that now suddenly exists, can only be combated and reconstructed with the architecture of an exhibition that exploits sound itself. The uncanniness in the work makes it impossible not to surrender. It’s something which we have never had to question before, but now after this experience will find it hard to clear from our minds.

The content may appear brutal but it is so necessary; Earwitness Theatre is making us all accountable. Whether these are issues you want to engage with or not, there isn’t really an option when encountering this work. It is presenting concepts that are sordid and extreme, yet it still manages to transform them into something fiercely tangible. The installations succeed in quantifying the unquantifiable and your reward for listening is a brief glimpse into the realms of terror of a Syrian political prison from the safety of a respectable East London Gallery. You will never have experienced this in an exhibition before.

You feel the silence of Saydnaya when Abu Hamdan wants you to feel its silence, and you hear only the sound of brutalized violence when his text and assemblage compositions invoke you to do so. Freedom of speech now becomes confused with freedom of silence, but you can’t quite work out which is more necessary or whether one exists without the other. Crystal clear but almost out of grasp, this is the art of Abu Hamdan’s work.

Orlaith Phelan is an architect and a current student of Art in the Contemporary World.