GCC’s latest solo show Positive Pathways (+) at Mitchell-Innes and Nash features mixed media installations, thermoformed wall reliefs, and sound works. The show is an elaborate tongue-in-cheek reflection of the Arab Gulf States’ recent investment in New Age spirituality trends, from personal holistic remedies, natural healing energies, and positive life-coaching, to governmental policy making such as implementing Feng Shui techniques in ministry offices and the UAE’s recent forming of a Ministry of Happiness. The regional unrest of the Arab Spring barely scratched the surface of the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, not withstanding the political protests in Bahrain. Yet, it has curiously manifested into vast resources being funneled into self-branding and positivity propaganda—seemingly at odds with the cultural and religious frameworks of the region.
GCC’s members (or delegates*, as they call themselves) grew up in the Arab Gulf countries (namely Kuwait and Bahrain) but navigate highly mobile itineraries that can be followed through their social media accounts. They formed as a collective in 2013 during a visit to Art Dubai’s VIP lounge. In their recent talk at Anthology Film Archives, the group mentioned that becoming a collective was almost happenstance: border control personnel in Dubai had asked them if they were traveling together as a band. Rarely together in the same place, their creative process takes place largely through mobile applications such as Whatsapp.
GCC: Positive Pathways (+), Installation view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY, 2016. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy of the artists and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
The acronym GCC loosely references the Gulf Cooperation Council, an intergovernmental union that binds together the Arab Gulf States. According to the group, it also provides them with a layer of opacity. In an interview with Christopher Y. Lew, who in 2014 curated their first US show Achievements in Retrospective at MoMA PS1, they suggested that GCC could mean anything, such as “Glendale Community College or Grupos Cementos de Chihuahua. It gives us a bit of a shield so that we are not just referencing political bodies.”
One of the works of Positive Pathways (+) revisits an installation shown earlier this summer at the Berlin Biennale. Titled Positive Pathways (+) (Version II), it features a plaster sculpture of a woman (wearing a hijab and typical hijab attire) performing a Quantum Touch exercise—a non-contact touch therapy—on a young boy in front of her. They are surrounded by sand, and a running track, a reference to the designated walking areas for exercise common in some Arab Gulf countries. As alternative healing methods such as Quantum Touch and Reiki gain popularity in the Middle East, they have been coopted into everyday life, practiced and endorsed by everyone from government officials to dilettante practitioners and housewives on Instagram.
GCC, Gestures I, 2016, Thermoformed styrene with flocking, ed. of 3 + 2 AP, 17 3/4 x 37 1/4 in. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy of the artists and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
The exhibition features a number of thermoformed wall reliefs titled Gestures (I-V) that are covered with a brazen red, velvety surface. The complex industrial process of thermoforming plastic is eclipsed by the banality of the images on the reliefs. TV presenters, audiences and random hand gestures, based on stills from YouTube, are placed against different backdrops including columns, plant pots, and dissonant phrases in Arabic and English. For example, Gestures I presents us with an image of a man wearing traditional headgear set against a backdrop of Grecian looking columns, partially covered in what seems to be algae. With a microphone in one hand, he holds out his thumb, index and middle fingers towards us. The English text asks, “what is the secret behind it?” The Arabic reads: “the consultant Salim Hadeed.”
GCC, Gestures V, 2016, Thermoformed styrene with flocking, ed. of 3 + 2 AP, 46 3/4 x 74 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artists and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
In Gestures V, an obsession with social media celebrities, TV and Twitter clerics, foreign brands, and lifestyles is perfectly distilled in its contradictory relation with conservative identity politics. Seated women and men look up towards the ceiling. The women are in traditional clothing—hijabs and abayas—while the men seem to have more options: some are in suits, others in dishdashas. Despite the sartorial differences, they appear to be uniformly hypnotized.
GCC’s work seeks to bring the invisible and under-recognized popular culture of the region into conversation with contemporary art practices and discourse. The group often finds inspiration in found footage from YouTube made for branding purposes, content particularly fixed toward Gulf nation-making that in recent years has been premised increasingly on what could be called the tyranny of cheerfulness. The intentional opaqueness and playful ambivalence of the collective’s name are qualities that extend throughout their work. For example, one of their previous exhibitions, Achievements in Swiss Summit, 2013, focused on rituals and cultural trends that are immediately identifiable to an audience from the Arab Gulf, such as ribbon cutting ceremonies and trophy productions. GCC is quick to point out, however, that the fanfare of self-congratulatory ceremonies are neither imported nor local. They combine stock imagery made for global commercial campaigns; recreate official summits and ceremonies (with some members in drag) in Morschach, Switzerland; and make actual trophies for the exhibition with the typical language (in Arabic) found on these commonly seen and distributed awards. What remains largely unseen—and what GCC effectively presents—is a critical reflection of the rituals, trends, and luxury brands that are subject to hyper-consumption in the region.
GCC, Inaugural Summit, Morschach 2013 5, 2013, Digital C-print photograph, 84.1 x 118.9 cm, Edition of 3 plus II AP. Courtesy of the artists and Project Native Informant
It is often rather hard to make out the difference between the sardonic undertones of GCC’s own work and the frequently hyperbolic found material that serves as their point of departure. It is exactly that moment of misrecognition in which I find GCC’s work at its strongest: as they call the Gulf region’s ideological regimes into question, without ever posing a question or even attempting to unpack the work for any audience, native or otherwise. As I walk away from the show I find myself wondering whether this is the Middle East that I know and inhabit, or some dystopian version of it? I cannot tell.
GCC’s Positive Pathways (+) is currently on display at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 534 West 26th Street, New York, through November 23, 2016
—Hend F. Alawadhi
Hend F. Alawadhi is a PhD Candidate in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.
(Image at top: GCC, Positive Pathways (+) (Version II), 2016, Reinforced plaster, sand, rubber and spray paint, ed. of 3 + 1 AP, Dimensions variable. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy of the artists and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York)