A modern artistic take on the Gilgamesh epic at the French Cultural Institute in London

Gilgamesh Contemporary is a multimedia installation by Iraqi-born artist Asmaa Alanbari on display

Gilgamesh Contemporary is an immersive multimedia adaptation of the ancient epic, addressing contemporary concerns such as climate change and the preservation of heritage. Photo: Asmaa Alanbari
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As far as epics go, the story of Gilgamesh, the mythological king of Uruk from ancient Mesopotamia, and his quest for eternal life is one of the most enduring heroic sagas in world literature.

In his search for the secret of immortality, the eponymous hero struggles to find the meaning of life, before finally realising that death is an inevitable part of the human experience.

I look around me and I see how we are all very much preoccupied with short-term satisfaction and instant gratification and it made me think that we are all really the same as this old character, Gilgamesh
Asmaa Alanbari, artist

Four and a half thousand years after the original was written in Sumeria, present-day Iraq, a modern-day artistic adaptation of the ancient poem explores this perennial preoccupation through an environmental lens.

Gilgamesh Contemporary is a multimedia art installation and performance that figuratively narrates a variation of the literary epic using music, performance art and projections of several masterpieces from the Louvre and British Museum, alongside contemporary art and photography.

Ahead of its debut at the French Culture Institute in London, artist Asmaa Alanbari told The National that her creative adaptation is a reflection on the “common preoccupation for eternal youth” despite climate change and material destruction meaning “there is not going to be much left worth living forever for.”

“I look around me and I see how we are all very much preoccupied with short-term satisfaction and instant gratification and it made me think that we are all really the same as this old character, Gilgamesh. The theme the Sumerians addressed thousands of years ago is still the same today — we are obsessed with staying alive forever,” says Alanbari, of the inspiration for her latest body of work.

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform clay tablet that was believed to be looted from Iraq around 1991 and illegally imported into the US, was repatriated to Iraq in 2021. AFP

“On a profound way, we are trying to leave a legacy of ourselves, everyone is subconsciously preparing for their departure,” she says.

The Iraqi-born curator and visual artist said she wanted to create a multisensory experience for audiences to immerse themselves in, without focusing too much on the central environmental message.

“We are bombarded with these tough messages on the environment, on climate change and it can be fatiguing,” says Alanbari.

“But we can’t surrender either … so I am trying to indirectly remind those watching that if we don’t address what’s happening to the planet, then there is no point in trying to live forever.”

Social media images juxtapose with pictures of international artefacts, including scenes of artefacts being vandalised by ISIS in 2015 in Iraq, in a film accompanied by live oud playing from musician Ehsan Al-Emam and interpretative dance by performer Yen-Ching Lin, to complete the immersive installation.

Raised between France and the UK, Alanbari has exhibited and directed shows at several cultural institutions of international renown, including the Saatchi Gallery, Christie’s Auction House and the Royal College of Art in London.

Her take on Gilgamesh sees him coerce an old savant into telling him where the plant of eternal youth is, but after the classic hero goes to the bottom of the sea to find it, he rises up with his “prize”, not realising the plant has turned into plastic.

It invites a critique on whether eternal youth is worth having at the expense of other things lost.

As well as saving our future, Gilgamesh Contemporary is equally concerned with the preservation of heritage, something the artist, also a qualified architect, says she has always been “obsessed by”, particularly when creating her own contemporary art.

Despite the ominous warnings underlying her work, it is also a celebration of the fertility and heritage of her native Iraq.

“As people from the Middle East we are very attached to our identity … and in Gilgamesh Contemporary, the public interacts with pieces of Mesopotamia’s tangible and intangible heritage,” says Alanbari.

“It is a reminder that ancient artefacts deserve to be preserved and merit the attention of all: ancient Mesopotamian culture is also world heritage and we would all benefit from interacting with it somehow.”

Gilgamesh Contemporary is on at the French Culture Institute of the UK fromMay 12 to 15, 2022

Updated: May 12, 2022, 3:39 PM