I feel obliged at this early stage to offer a word of warning: Remnants is a particularly challenging exhibition, which refuses to give up its secrets easily. It is thematically knotty, occasionally infuriating, and it demands patience and perseverance. It is also, at times, immensely rewarding.
Curated by Sara Alonso Gomez and held at Green Art Gallery in Dubai, Remnants features works by eight artists from Cuba and the Middle East. It grapples with themes of waste, displacement and exclusion, as well as the "remnants" left behind. As Gomez notes in the programme, "the things and phenomena that surrounded us before seem to threaten us today". And Gomez is not just referring to material waste. "What and who would fall into this category of the residual in the world in which we live?" she asks.
This question is most emphatically addressed by Ghaith Mofeed, the self-taught Syrian artist who has created a work – the most accessible here – that challenges our understanding of world order. In Citizen of my World (2018), Mofeed has reconfigured a world map on a rough piece of fabric, placing Syria at the centre, and partially hiding, behind overlapping joins, those countries that Syrians are forbidden from entering. There is a discomfiting contrast between the ease with which Mofeed has done this and the seeming impossibility of affecting real change in his homeland, which he has been forced to flee.
Mofeed has painted in green the countries that Syrians are allowed to visit without a visa. There are only a dozen or so of these; the rest are painted in a livid red. Mofeed has taken an issue we like to tell ourselves is complex and reduced it to the most simple statement: we are keeping out those people who most need our help.
From here, things get more complicated. Wilfredo Prieto's vast installation, Anti-pigeon Lines, Anti-personnel Lines (2018) dominates the centre of the gallery, a sprawling maze of razor wire and anti-pigeon spikes. As Prieto's sculpture snakes this way and that, threatening to snag you as you move around the room, we are reminded just how threatening and invasive these structures are. They have been designed to keep certain people and animals away.
Yet here in an art gallery, they take on a certain, clinical beauty. This, Prieto appears to be saying, is the privilege that wealth affords us. We have the right to choose how we perceive these objects; others do not. The message about our treatment of some humans as animals is also explicit.
This preoccupation with exclusion and human trauma emerges again and again throughout the exhibition. One of the most striking pieces here is Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia’s installation, Mattress, from her series Mendings (2010-11). A pink mattress lies in the corner of the room. At first glance, it looks like a comforting domestic object, but it is, in fact, ruptured by a seismic tear down the middle. Ansarinia has taken the middle section of the mattress out and joined what remains back together. The scar left by her operation is still clearly visible. “This transfers to the object human traces that could also be human wounds,” says Gomez.
I like this idea of the place where we sleep inheriting our anxieties and traumas. And Mattress, to my mind at least, also has important things to say about the speed of change in Tehran. The familiar has been torn out, the landscape changed.
Remnants feels less convincing, however, when it attempts to move away from the political into the thematic. Not because the works that are less overtly political are weaker necessarily – Mexican artist Yornel Martinez's Atlas (2018), in which old painting rags are stretched into artworks themselves, is beautiful and innovative. It's simply that they sit uncomfortably within the dominant context of the show. Atlas, Gomez tells me, raises questions about "how we select what is and what isn't an artwork".
Cuban artist Jenny Feal's The Weight that Counts (2015), meanwhile, is an ordinary clock covered in clay that flakes off and falls away as the exhibition progress. Again, it's an interesting comment on how objects perish as time passes.
But in presenting so many ideas – so many questions – in a single room, Remnants eventually overreaches itself, the power of the political works weakened by these more slippery, nebulous additions. Nearly all the individual pieces leave their mark, but ultimately, it is hard to pin down exactly what Remnants is trying to say.
It would be unfair to end on that note, though, since there is so much here to move and excite you. Take Turkish artist Fatma Bucak's video Scouring the Press (2016), which features three women, including the artist, washing Turkish newspapers in basins. It is as convincing an attack on censorship as you could hope to see. With works of this quality, it is easy enough to forgive an occasional loss of focus.
Remnants is at the Green Art Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, until October 26. For more, visit: gagallery.com