“Modern Times” envelops the viewer. In the middle of the room a sculptural ensemble forms a delicate yet menacing centrepiece. A series of circular band saws, displaying Arabic calligraphy, are suspended, reminiscent of a system of cogs or a gear mechanism. Images projected on the wall around the sculpture show architectural construction in the Middle East, creating an intense cinematic environment. The title of the piece “Modern Times” is inspired by Charlie Chaplin's celebrated 1936 film, in which Chaplin plays a lowly worker on a factory production line. The modernity of the factory's machines are visually characterised by a series of whirring cogs. Comic scenes show Chaplin being consumed by the machine; but these images suggest a darker side – the alienation of man in a modern industrialised society. The factory worker is swallowed up by the machine with which he can no longer keep up.
In his “Modern Times”, mounir fatmi engages with this modernity, which began in the 19th century in the West. The speed of industrialisation and the growth of cities is reflected today in the rapid development and urbanisation of the Middle East. Cities are appearing out of the desert, with buildings thrown up so fast that there is no time to reflect on the changes. This mental link between Western industrialisation and recent Eastern development manifests itself in “Modern Times” in the interactions between the different elements of the installation.
The cog-like circular blades are decorated with Arabic calligraphy, a recurring motif in mounir fatmi's work. In “Modern Times”, the calligraphy is cut out of the metal like a stencil, instead of being inscribed onto the blades. The negative space allows an interaction between the blades and projections and creates a layer of ambiguity, with the curves and arabesques of the calligraphy eclipsing the meaning of the words, as if the message were disappearing into the engine of the machine. The words are reanimated in a purely visual way as circular abstract forms, reflecting the circular motion of the installation.
The circular forms are also a nod to modernist painters Sonia and Robert Delauney and Fernand Léger. The repetition of circular and geometric forms in their paintings were an attempt to depict the modern world, as mounir fatmi's installation is a way of grappling with the continuous and seemingly endless motion of 21st century production and consumption.
Speed and motion both play an important role in “Modern Times”. As early Arab astronomers observed the movement of stars and planets, mounir fatmi observes the shape of today's world and the, often erratic, motion of global contemporary society. The dizzying effect of the installation also draws on the legacy of Marcel Duchamp and his “Rotoreliefs”. Duchamp's spinning circular optical illusions were amongst the first manifestations of kinetic art, produced in the context of a modern industrial society. Almost a century later “Modern Times” continues this exploration of movement in the modern world, with the added complexity of a global dimension and the dialogue between East and West.
mounir fatmi's oeuvre has often displayed a fraught relationship to architecture, addressing the dystopic effects of the modernist experiment or arrogant contemporary displays of power and economic might. “Modern Times” explores architecture in the Middle East, raising the question of the human impact of this unrelenting construction machine. The artist is sympathetic to Chaplin's character, whose slapstick encounter with the factory machine suggests the human obstacle to a perfectly streamlined, mechanical production. mounir fatmi explains: “I want to be the product that the machine fails, otherwise one will think that the machine is perfect".
Caroline Rossiter, March 2008.
Told, Untold, Retold, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha