Beauty and resonance in fabric

Tarek al Ghoussein’s latest works ?nd beauty and resonance in a piece of fabric. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie sees the Sharjah-based photographer moving beyond identity politics into a meditation on our transient age.

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Tarek al Ghoussein’s latest works ?nd beauty and resonance in a piece of fabric. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie sees the Sharjah-based photographer moving beyond identity politics into a meditation on our transient age.

DUBAI // The inspiration for Tarek al Ghoussein's latest body of work came from a construction site, which is somehow fitting for an artist who has been based in the United Arab Emirates for 10 years now.

The image that stuck in Ghoussein's mind, however, wasn't of colour-coded, jump-suited day labourers or the ubiquitous construction cranes that are punching out new skylines in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Those visual tropes have already generated a number of hypercritical, conceptual artworks, such as the collective e-Xplo's 2007 sound installation I Love To You, based on field recordings of migrant workers' songs, which was produced with the Palestinian artist Ayreen Anastas for the Sharjah Biennial's eighth edition. For Ghoussein, rather, it was the less politically loaded and more symbolically nuanced image of a single blue tarp.

"This blue tarp, it just jumps at you when you see all these construction sites," says Ghoussein, who is 46. "When I first saw it, I took a couple of pictures and the image really triggered in my mind. So I went to a site and asked a guy there if I could have it, and he said, 'What are you nuts?' and I said, 'Yeah, yeah,' and he said, 'Here, I'll give you a new one.' So it's mine now. I took it and just started using it all the time."

Indeed, Ghoussein's blue tarp threads through all of the photographs in the "Untitled (C Series)," which he began in 2007. In one image, it covers a mundane mound of dirt. In another, it billows majestically like an haute couture gown in an open-air fashion shoot. In yet another, it appears tattered and torn on the jagged edges of a wire fence. In another still, all but a few vivid streaks of colour fade under desert sands.

Ghoussein's most narrative work to date, the "Untitled (C Series)" consists of more than 12 images so far, and one can reshuffle them into several different stories. The blue tarp may function as a metaphor for the self or the soul. It may signify emotional baggage or a life cycle. Ghoussein leaves the interpretive possibilities open.

"It's all about development," he says. "It's about what's going on here but also anywhere where there's change. I associate it with transience but it could be anything."

Compared to his earlier photographs – which explore such themes as land and longing, barriers and belonging – the blue tarp gives Ghoussein the means to move beyond identity politics, away from attributes that are constructed by place, and toward experiences that are structured by time. Among contemporary artworks grappling with creativity in the Gulf, Ghoussein's series offers a moving meditation on a cosmopolis that thrives, perhaps, without citizenship. It elucidates the precarious and ephemeral (yet liberating) nature of existence no longer tethered to national, cultural or social affiliations.

Though he began his career as a photojournalist, laboured for years to catch what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment" and still considers the street photographers Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander his heroes, Ghoussein gave up on the idea of the one, perfect picture long ago. He has been working in a mode he terms performance photography since 2002.

Like the American photographer Cindy Sherman and her "Untitled Film Stills," or the Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat and her "Women of Allah" photographs, Ghoussein stages self-portraits in series. He frames a composition, arranges his equipment and then leaves the camera on a tripod to insert himself into the image. He takes each shot with the aid of self-timers, assistants or friends.

But unlike Sherman or Neshat, Ghoussein rarely turns toward his own lens. His images depict a lone figure in the distance rather than a face at close range. Dressed in black with his back to the viewer, he appears always almost overwhelmed by the landscape. His posture, drooped and defeated, infuses the photographs with a mood of inconsolable sadness and melancholy. Jack Persekian, the Sharjah Biennials' artistic director, once characterised Ghoussein's work as "anguish … beautifully portrayed."

The "Untitled (C Series)" isn't the first set of Ghoussein's photographs to pull meaning from a piece of fabric. His "Untitled (Self-Portraits)" use the Palestinian keffiyeh in much the same way. Those images, featuring the artist with his head wrapped in the traditional black-and-white scarf, are his best known, and his most controversial.

In 2003, he staged one of the self-portraits on the edge of the Dead Sea in Jordan. Soon after he was picked up by the local police and interrogated for 22 hours. Then, in 2004, he exhibited the series, with each self-portrait mounted on a light box, for a gallery show in Berlin. A visitor, failing to appreciate the work's form but apparently angered by its content, chucked a rock at one of the boxes and shattered the glass. Three years later, during a sale of Arab and Iranian art at the auction house Sotheby's in London, the photograph of Ghoussein at the Dead Sea, subtitled Looking at Palestine, sold for £7,750 (Dhs58,312), nearly twice the high estimate. The text in the sales catalogue retreads the interrogation tale, then compares Ghoussein's photograph to a canvas by the 19th-century romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Ghoussein has shown his work in more than 40 exhibitions in 14 years, including high-profile venues such as New York's Aperture Gallery and Paris' Institut du Monde Arabe. He has hit five countries in the Middle East and nine in Europe, in addition to the United States, New Zealand and Bangladesh. But he hasn't, until now, had proper gallery representation.

In March, Ghoussein joined The Third Line in Dubai. In September, the gallery will open a group show, curated by Haig Aivazian and titled "Roads Were Open/Roads Were Closed: On How We Perceive Conflict," featuring selections from the "Untitled (B Series)" alongside works by Fouad Elkoury, Laila Shawa, Joana Hajdithomas and Khalil Joreige. Given The Third Line's rising international profile and expanding regional presence (the gallery is opening a second branch in Doha on May 8), the move could lend Ghoussein's career more direction, and bring his work – as opposed to the stories about his work – into sharper focus.

Before he signed on with The Third Line, Claudia Cellini, who founded the gallery in 2005 with Sunny Rahbar and Omar Ghobash, had only known one of Ghoussein's images. "I initially gave it a simplistic reading," says Cellini. "The sea, the keffiyeh and a man with his back turned. I wanted more." It wasn't until she saw the work together with the series – and the self-portrait series together with the ones that came after – that she grasped "the relationship to a larger context and to people everywhere."

Aivazian links Ghoussein's imagery to the late cartoonist Naji al Ali's Handala character. But he also teases out a sophisticated treatment of spectatorship in Ghoussein's photographs of walls and barriers. "The artist implicates the viewer in a detachment that is multi-fold," says Aivazian. "Ghoussein's set-ups attempt to disengage from the position of spectatorship in order to engage affectively in a distanced reality."

Ghoussein, who is Palestinian, was born in Kuwait and grew up in Morocco, Japan and the US. He studied photography at New York University and the University of New Mexico. He spent much of the 1980s in Alphabet City (he even worked as a bartender at Life Café, which, for better or worse, spawned the misfit musical Rent). Habitually dressed in a black long-sleeved T-shirt, black trousers and black shoes, with five silver rings evenly distributed across both hands, he still looks the part of a downtown denizen.

A professor of photography at the American University of Sharjah since 1998, Ghoussein is helping to forge a new generation of local talent. One of his former students, Lamya Gargash, beat him to The Third Line by three years. But Ghoussein definitely makes them fight for their work.

"As a teacher I never let my students talk about concept before dealing with form," he says. "They're hungry. I'm proud of them. But in the beginning it's tough. I tell them no sunsets, no Bedouin, no deserts, no mom and dad."

If a student turns in a lacklustre picture, Ghoussein asks: "What is this, a postcard?" and then tears up the print. "I tear up a lot of pictures in the first couple of weeks," he says. "Then the students say, 'Well, what do we photograph?' And that's where it starts. I like to give them a hard time."

Ghoussein is by no means the first artist to find identity politics something of a dead end. But the shift from his "Untitled (Self-Portraits)" to the "Untitled (C Series)" offers an unusual and purposefully enigmatic way out. The former photographs "are so tied to the scarf," he says. In the latter, "I like to open it up a bit. I have definite feelings about what's going on in the Middle East and especially in Palestine. But I don't want [my work] to be [seen as] just ironic. That would kill me. It's much more about my own travels, about the landscape, about movement and about searching."

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.