Palestinauts by Larissa Sansour, on display at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of Subversion.
Palestinauts by Larissa Sansour, on display at Cornerhouse in Manchester as part of Subversion.

Reflections on the Arab culture

A vast aerial view of Beirut takes up the entire side of a wall in Manchester's Cornerhouse arts centre. No sooner has the gallery assistant put the finishing touches to this impressive work than the artist responsible, Khalil Joreige, beckons me towards it. "Go on," he gestures. "Take a piece." On closer inspection, Circle of Confusion comprises more than 3,000 fragments which, when individually removed, reveal the words "Beirut does not exist" on the back. "Put it in your pocket," smiles Joreige, when he sees my guilty pleasure at defacing his work before the exhibition has even officially opened.

Circle of Confusion is one of the standout works in Subversion, a new group show at Cornerhouse which aims to explore and rethink modern Arab identity. Joreige explains that the piece is intended to make people think about how they view Beirut, how, in engaging with the work as I have just done, they are in effect tampering with its history and identity – in the same way that the various incorrect representations of Beirut have shaped how it is viewed in the wider world.

"And when all the pieces are removed, there is a mirror left behind," he says. "I wanted people to reflect on what being from Beirut, or being an Arab, might mean."

Such questions of identity are repeated over and over again in this show. And yet, thankfully, it's never an impenetrably philosophical collection of work – instead, there's a real sense of humour at play here. Larissa Sansour re-imagines Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey by claiming the moon for Palestine; scattered around the screening room are small "Palistinauts". Khaled Hafez's On Presidents and Superheroes – also a video installation – is ostensibly his memories of growing up under Nasser's rule in Egypt, but through adding found footage and a bizarre animated figure, it feels more like a pop video.

"It was made in 2009," he says over the enjoyably thumping disco which provides On Presidents and Superheroes' soundtrack, "and actually it was a comment on the election and how protest will never change anything. It never crossed my mind that I would one day be part of a revolution".

Which might make Hafez's piece sound like an irrelevance, post Arab Spring. In fact, it not only underlines just how much has changed, but also ties in to another key element of the show: that identity constantly shifts.

"And in any case, there is no such thing as a unified Arab arts scene – or even a unified idea of what an Arab is," says the curator of Subversion, Omar Kholeif. "So although the show does subtitle itself as exploring and rethinking modern Arab identity, in a way, that's an ironic statement. The 'subversion' we're talking about here is how the individual artists play with the idea of how they're seen by the 'outside' world."

Sometimes, this playfulness is shocking. Sharif Waked's video piece To Be Continued is, on first glance, a typical suicide bomber video recorded by an Islamic militant. But closer inspection reveals that the man is actually reading from a never-ending 1,001 Nights and will never reach martyrdom. Similarly, Wafaa Bilal's Virtual Jihaadi has many different layers: this interactive piece began as the real-life video game The Quest for Saddam, before it was hacked by Al Qa'eda and turned into The Quest for George Bush. Bilal hacks it again, casting himself as a suicide bomber in the game, so he can underline the "hateful stereotypes of Arab culture".

All of which doesn't sound particularly entertaining, but it is in the context of the installation – the designer Kev Thornton sets the game stations in a recognisably old-school, crumbling internet cafe. It's a massive undertaking and reminiscent of a film set – which ties into another major idea of the exhibition; that Arab identity is often a construction by the West.

"It's so easy to gather together artists from the same geographic region just because it's politically relevant to do so rather than because the art is good," says Kholeif. "What we're really trying to do here is subvert all that by using the same language and methods that the western world might use – such as Bilal's video game – but poke fun at these visions of the Arab world and, maybe, rearticulate them in a new way."

Quite a task for an art exhibition, but one which, on the whole, Subversion makes good on. Kholeif's film background does mean there is an emphasis on video work, which necessarily demands more time than is usual in an art gallery. But spend an afternoon here, and the sense of a unified, high-quality and most of all thought-provoking body of work shines through.

"I'm not proposing that I can change the view of an entire region via an exhibition," smiles Kholeif. "But we can make gestures that hopefully can make people think differently, and less broadly, about what it is to be Arab."

Subversion is at Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK, until June 5

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