Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “Dirty Evidence”
By Jonatan Habib Engqvist
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s sound studies occupy a strange position in the world. They have been called to comment on sonic evidence in various legal contexts, yet it is primarily within the setting of an art exhibition that Abu Hamdan believes that sound can tell truths about events in question. To that end, the artist claimed that what he presented in the exhibition “Dirty Evidence” at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm was not a set of artworks but instead should be considered proposals on how to experiment with the means of representation. Throughout the exhibition, curated by Theodor Ringborg, sound leaked between the artworks and objects on display, questioning how memories are stored and retrieved, and how we are conditioned to hear.
Both sounds and silence are intense parts of the experience of containment and imprisonment. In “Dirty Evidence,” Abu Hamdan focused on the conditions for how testimonies are presented and used, while he also questioned who can speak in which spaces, what types of conversations are listened to, and what conditions make it possible to assert something as evidence. For instance, Abu Hamdan’s investigation into Syria’s notorious Saydnaya Prison, the light-box and audio installation Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017), uses the drastic decrease in noise levels among inmates to provide an acoustic rendering of the building’s architecture before and after 2011 when anti-government protests began in Syria. In simulating the darkness and silence of the prison in this mute artwork, the artist allowed the power of suppressive silencing to be “heard.” Although in works such as this, “Dirty Evidence” encompassed many forms of audio testimony, with the artist himself visible and audible in almost every work I began to wonder who the witness is, or for whom the process of witnessing is meant to unfold. Perhaps we should see ourselves not as the audience but as a witness instead?
In cinematic representations of episodic memory, for example, characters may associate music with past events. Formed by cultural conventions, musical underscoring relies on semantic and implicit memories to help an audience in the perception and understanding of screen content. But does the exposure to mediated sounds also color our understanding of real-life events? What does the memory of a gunshot or an explosion sound like, for instance?
Abu Hamdan was drawn to court transcripts in which a witness might have claimed paradoxically that a blow “didn’t sound like a blow” and perhaps “sounded more like something else.” This led to the installation Earwitness Inventory (2018–2019), which consists of a collection almost 100 different foley objects, which, in the world of signs are distinct and can be separated from one another, but suddenly as sound-making objects become blurred. It was indeed striking to think of how profoundly our understanding of what a punch, gunshot, or explosion sounds like is conditioned by media, film, or other cultural productions. As such, this library of sound-effect-making devices attempts to reproduce a different frame of translation between the memory of a sound and its mediation, in what might be called an archive of counter-sounds—where objects are used as stand-ins for sounds and exemplify the analogies used to describe trauma.
What stayed with me from this exhibition was not the treacherousness of auditory memory or Abu Hamdan’s omnipresence. Instead it was the figure of Bassel Abi Chahine, who was interviewed in the audiovisual installation Once Removed (2019) and testifies about experiencing a war crime in 1984 as he recounts events from a previous life as a soldier named Yousef Fouad Al Jawhary. In the eight chapters of Shot Twice (By the Same Bullet) (2021)—shown on eight screens in what is a spatialized lecture-performance read from right to left with before/after images from Beirut overlaid with Abu Hamdan’s silhouette—Abi Chahine continues to examine his experiences as a child soldier in order to better understand his contemporaries. In the distorted memory and leakage between “own” and “others,” in these two works, the child soldier reconstitutes the civil war experienced in his past life. By opposing the idea of linear history, creating leakages, embracing the notion of cyclical time—and asking who is reincarnated by this war—a singular crime committed for over 30 years begins to surface. The implication of the work is that beyond being the stage for crimes of war, Lebanon could be said to have become a stage for crimes of peace.
In “Dirty Evidence,” Abu Hamdan suggests that the thing that connects us is also the same thing that surveys us, and he reveals that truth is always weirder than what you can invent because of the limitations of our imagination. Although “earwitness” testimonies rarely hold up as legal evidence or journalistic material, the artist seems to say that the evidence and testimonies provided here might be essential in understanding how violence, human-rights violations, and state abuses of power are exercised. Whether they are artworks or not is less important.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan's "Dirty Evidence" was at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, from September 1 to November 7, 2021.