Christopher Williams-Wynn, “Images and their obverse: Ariel Hassan” | Broadsheet Vol44 N1, 2015 – pp46-49

Christopher Williams-Wynn, “Images and their obverse: Ariel Hassan” | Broadsheet Vol44 N1, 2015 – pp46-49

Images and their obverse: The work of Ariel Hassan

Christopher Williams-Wynn

(Broadsheet – Contemporary visual art + culture –  Vol44 N1 – pp46-49)

Contemporary art is a restless chimaera. Having departed from the strictures of modernism and stepped outside the ironies of postmodernism, contemporary art finds itself adrift on a sea of possible forms and subjects.(1) On account of its global remit, and its emergence over the past few decades, it could be regarded as an intimately linked with globalisation. As the Manuel Castells has emphasised, globalisation comprises complex networks that link people, technologies, capital and culture.(2) In the realm of art, this web of forces indicates concerns not just with spectatorship and discourse, but indicates an abiding interest in the circulation of objects and images. There is, in that respect, a resurgence of explicit interest in systems and signs.(3) Not in isolation, but linked with each other, signs constitute and circulate throughout systems, whether discursive or physical, real or virtual, or some combination thereof. David Joselit addresses these concerns in his recent conception of the format as a replacement for the medium.(4) Formatting, he argues, affords the ‘capacity to configure data in multiple possible ways’.(5) It registers the shifts and remediations that occur when art circulates through the circuits of exchange characteristic of a globalised (art) world.(6) The format compacts, or condenses, the sign and the system, the unit of signification and the relations into which it enters.

Viewed in these terms alone, contemporary art appears as an epiphenomenon of global trade. Ariel Hassan, however, follows deeper lines of enquiry. Whether working with painting or photography, sculpture or installation, he finds an affinity with recent thought regarding the capacity for mathematics to describe the fundamental properties of objects. In this respect, his process runs counter to what Quentin Meillassoux terms correlationism, ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being’.(7) There is, therefore, an attempt to uncover ‘a world capable of subsisting without being given’,(8) one that exists but is not dependent upon the human. According to this view, there is traffic between the subjective and the objective, between what forms the content of human experience and what exceeds it. This condition of mobility and change resonates throughout his life and work. Born in Argentina, he lives between Australia and Germany, spending half a year in each country working on projects and exhibitions. His production processes often incorporate elements of both analogue and digital production. These works, in effect, exist as systems comprising signs. While the final signifier might take the form of a painting or photograph, these objects are the result of complex methods of production that enmesh the processes of becoming with the stasis of being, alert to the conditions of their making and the circuits into which they pass.

In Electronicfluids (2001-2003), one of his earliest series, he employs a production method that combines digital processes and analogue presentation, a model further developed in his subsequent Ghost paintings (2010) and series Traces and Determinants (2013). Juxtaposed colours float across the surfaces of these paintings; intense mauves bleed into cobalt blues, fields of fuchsia merge with olive greens. At first glance, these patterns of colour appear meditations on the legacy of the supposedly authentic and subjective outpourings of Abstract Expressionism, or the marbled paintings of Louise Janin or Philip Taaffe.(9) The visual appearance is, however, only part of the significance of the work. Hassan’s production process obstructs any purely optical reading of these works. While marbling traditionally involved laying a material support on colours floating in a liquid bath, Hassan’s process employs the fluid malleability of digital manipulation. His method involved scanning random skeins of paint, before digitally re-configuring their composition, tonal ranges and colour values. Hassan then transfers these manipulated images to canvas through careful brushwork, which inevitably introduces further discrepancies into the chain of images. This production process enmeshes the works in a set of relations between analogue and digital production processes. The signs of gesture are merged with the systems of algorithmically-powered image editing software.

Hassan further develops these concerns with systems in the series of paintings Intrigues of Long Duration (2014). Engaging a similar principle, Hassan digitises traces of paint poured into small, rectangular planes of glass. Following his processes of digital manipulation, the resultant forms are transferred to canvas, where they appear as tendrils spreading across the image plane. In a further step of abstraction, however, Hassan voids the images of colour, turning shares of grey as a means of focusing attention on the structure and line. Instead of forming around any central focal point, these lines of paint trail off the canvas, pointing towards a far larger whole of which they are each only a part. The images signify some larger, unknown system from which they derive. With few visual clues as to the nature of such a system, it falls upon the viewer to interrogate these works, to attempt to discern the networked world of which they are a part.

One means of interpreting these works is to see them, and the complexities of their production, as indices of the processes that drive contemporary society. In their influential book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that over the past four decades society has been transformed through processes of informatization.(10) Once dominant, industrial production has been displaced, but not entirely erased, by shifts towards an economy of networked computation, what has been broadly described as post-industrial society. In these conditions, work is ‘characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect, and communication.’(11) Caught within the network, there is the risk of overstating the dominance of digital production. Tempering evaporation into immateriality, David Harvey posits that ‘capitalist activity is always grounded somewhere’.(12) Hassan’s work finds itself at this juncture. The random dynamics of painterly flows confront the ratiocination integral to computation. Suspended between the supposed immateriality of electronic production and the resolute materiality of concrete objects, his paintings subtend analogue and digital modes of being.

If these works indicate the precarious status of painting as a cohesive and distinct practice, so too are claims of photographic veracity subject to scrutiny in his HFVProject (2007 and 2012). Presented predominantly as black and white prints, these photographs present portraits of young adults. Cropped at the shoulders, and set against a pitch-black background, these individuals gaze into the camera lens with indifferent equanimity. In this respect, the sitters recall the listless stares of those portrayed in Thomas Ruff’s photographic portraits. Their thoughts, backgrounds and their beliefs are unknown, indeed withheld. Hassan’s works, however, forego the grand scale and vivid colour characteristic of Ruff’s works. Hassan also rejects an anthropometric mode of photography. To produce these works, the sitters were photographed in front of a backdrop, which severed the sitters from their external context, while randomised patterns were also placed over their resultant images. While Hassan nods to the modernist desire for the supposed purity of black and white photography, he again introduces elements of abstraction that thwart attempts to penetrate the image.

The HFVProject has also been expanded into installation pieces and moving images. Dark Trough (2008), a rectangular prism constructed from wood used to view images from the series. At one end, a data projector casts images from the series onto a screen positioned halfway along the prism, while the other end is open, allowing the visitor to view the images upon the screen. Set on a loop, at defined intervals a flash of white light bleaches out the image, leaving only its ‘shadow’ on the retina. More recently Hassan has begun to produce short animations based on these images. Undulating patterns glide across the faces, which move gently, their heads turning or eyes blinking. These moving images mimic the gestures of the sitters, silent in their recognitions of being viewed, before retreating behind a white flash that intersperses each animated portrait. This denial of vision, combined with the abstract patterns of organic fluids, points towards recognition of the limits of visibility, a reminder that signs on the surface can only hint at the complex systems that lurk below.

Hassan presses this interplay between the random flows of fluid and geometric structures even further in his series Organic Occurrences Forming Within The Grey Zones Of Pre-existing Regimes (2014). In this body of work, images of fluid paint have been compacted into the proportions of a Fibonacci rectangle, and later dissected by it and by an arrangement of Émile Lemoine’s geometric construction of the golden ratio. The fractured plane of the image struggles to contain a re-ordering of those aleatory fields of paint alluded to in the title. The signs of fluidity and their system of order appear in conflict. Although these twisted forms recall the distorted and contorted bodies and forms in surrealist photographs by Man Ray and André Kertész, Hassan aims at more than formal experimentation and brooks no claims to unbridled liberation.

This interplay of figuration and abstraction complicates the demands typically placed upon photography. Generally, a photograph is taken to accord with that which it represents. It is said to be a document or, even evidence, of its subject. In the oft-cited words of the Roland Barthes, the ‘name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: “That-has-been”’.(13) The photograph, on such an account, is taken to be a trace of that which it depicts, and which is now lost. In the case of portraiture, it is said to refer back to a particular individual, to register their unique countenance. According to a paradigm that understands a privileged, indexical relation between photography and the world, digital manipulation appears to sever this link. Such thinking is open to critique. Braxton Soderman argues that in a world of ubiquitous information technology, digital processing techniques do not rend the connection between image and reality, but testify to it.(14) Digitally altered photographs may therefore offer a means of reflexively engaging with the world, one that entwines physical and virtual environments.

On account of his combinatory production process, Hassan exploits the relation between analogue and digital production once again, inserting specific signs into overarching systems. Across all these faces rest similar, randomised patterns. These images consequently point both towards and away from the individual, to their status as individuals, but also to their imbrication in a mesh of relations. There is, then, a balance between the pull towards a subject, but a recognition that homogeneity looms. In a world of surveillance, ‘Big Data’ and algorithmic prediction, the image always risks becoming another arm of machinery geared towards quantification. The patterns of form indicate the potential for dissolution into uniformity and capitulation to the dictates of structure. Resting on the wall, the works stand as mute witnesses to an array of complex interactions both internal and external to themselves, all the while they resist attempts to subsume them within systems of discourse. Presented at a human scale, the works in Organic Occurrences appear as though portals, as images on the threshold of a realm both of human activity and exceeding it.

Although its effects are crucial to his practice, technology is less a central focus for Hassan and more a means of exploring the philosophical problems that drive his practice. On the question of the analogue and the digital, however, these elements of his work intersect. Alexander R. Galloway has recently posited a re-thinking of analogue and digital modes of thought with recourse to François Laruelle’s anti-philosophy. For Laruelle, at its core philosophy splits the world, it positions the real against its image, thought against action, instance against essence.(15) Galloway develops this thought in relation to the terms of analogue and digital. The analogue, he posits, forges identity between heterogeneous elements: ‘only a baseline heterogeneity, as in the pure multiplicities and generic persons of Deleuze’s and Badiou’s cosmology, can possibly produce the conditions for a relation of the common.’(16) The digital, by contrast, is founded upon equivalence. It is a fundamental sameness borne of ‘a purely homogeneous substrate of standardized atoms’.(17) Because of this fundamental uniformity, Galloway states that ‘the digital relation arises from out of a pure, profane nihilism’.(18) In considering the analogue and digital, questions of relations are paramount. Enacting the procedure of the digital, Galloway divides it from the analogue. Such a move is problematised by Hassan, whose processes blur the boundary between them. It is unclear exactly where standardisation ends and difference begins.

Across and throughout his practice, concerns with various relations play out. Paintings merge with photographs, analogue processes confront digital procedures, and images wrestle with the forces that generate them. He grapples with how difference can emerge from equivalence, and how rationalisation might promise to expand thought even as it threatens to enclose it. As attempts to reconcile these conflicting elements, his works seem almost attempts to exceed themselves, to gesture beyond their own finitude. Although his objects are often singular and distinct entities, they arise from complex methods of production that obscure any defined origins. Processes of indeterminacy unfold within and across his works, countervailed by procedures of rationalisation. A state of tension prevails. Hassan’s works engage in a process of disclosure, revealing the structures of experience. At every turn, his works press against the singularity of the sign and the enclosure of the system, cycling between them, refusing to rest.

CWW, 2015


1- On the multifarious forms of contemporary art, see Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, London: Laurence King, 2011.

2-Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, second ed., Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

3-Edward A. Shanken has been a particularly prominent researcher in this field, demonstrating the importance of networks, systems, technologies and related theories to a range of artists, at least as far back as the 1960s. See Edward A. Shanken, ‘In Forming Software: Software, Structuralism, Dematerialization’, in Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn (eds), Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012: 51-62; Edward A. Shanken, ‘Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art’, Leonardo, volume 35, issue 4, 2002: 433-438. See also Etan J. Ilfeld, ‘Contemporary Art and Cybernetics: Waves of Cybernetic Discourse within Conceptual, Video and New Media Art’, Leonardo, volume 45, issue 1, 2012: 57-63 and Eve Meltzer, Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

4- David Joselit, After Art, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013 and David Joselit, ‘What to Do with Pictures’, October, issue 138, Fall 2011: 81-94.

5- Joselit, 2011: 82.

6- While his explicit reference to the vast range of forces within which contemporary art finds itself is welcome, the thrust of the format as an enlarged understanding of artistic practice, or medium, is not without precedent. There is, of course, Rosalind Krauss’s concept of the post-medium condition and W. J. T. Mitchell’s invitation to extend the concept of medium to encompass material, institutional and discursive aspects. See Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames & Hudson, 1999, Rosalind Krauss, Under Blue Cup, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011 and W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005: passim, esp. 198. Douglas Crimp’s concept of the ‘picture’ as a generic placeholder for images, one without the demand for any truth to medium or materials, serves as another early precursor. See Douglas Crimp, ‘Pictures’, October, volume 8 (Spring), 1979: 75-88.

7- Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, London and New York: Continuum, 2009: 5.

8- ibid: 28.

9- On Hassan’s relation to the history of painting and its legacy at the end of the twentieth century, see Nicholas Croggon, ‘Absurdity and Ambiguity’, in About Madness, exh. cat., Adelaide: GAGPROJECTS, 2011, 63-66.

10- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, 280-289.

11- ibid: 285.

12- David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London and New York: Verso, 2006: 78.

13- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981: 77.

14- Braxton Soderman, ‘The Index and the Algorithm’, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, volume 18, issue 1, 2007: 153-186.

15- Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014: 14.

16- ibid: 62.

17- ibid.

18- ibid: 63.