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A conflict of urban imaginaries: Ahmed Mater explores a brutally changing city in Mecca Journeys
Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum website, courtesy of the artist

The struggle between symbolic and actual space figures heavily in Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s show Mecca Journeys, which ran at the Brooklyn Museum from December 2017 to early April. Made up of photographs, videos and sculpture, the exhibition focuses on work produced by Mater since 2009, when he began exploring Mecca’s brutally rapid transformation as numerous monumental building projects took place in the city. Mater’s work captures the marked dichotomies of Mecca’s recent explosive growth, exploring how inhabitants and visitors alike cope with the city’s increasingly changing landscape.

As Islam’s holiest city and the annual pilgrimage destination for millions of Muslims, Mecca exists as a potent symbol and the nexus of a global ritual practice. But, as Mater emphasizes throughout Mecca Journeys, it is also home for over 1.5 million Saudis who experience the city as the setting of their everyday realities.

Mater’s richly detailed, large-scale photographs present vistas laden with representations of socio-economic struggle, as untold fortunes are spent transforming Mecca’s urban fabric to better accommodate the flow of pilgrims, often at the expense of the comfort, stability, and livelihood of those who live in the city year round. In the copious wall-texts that accompany his artworks throughout the show, the artist describes this contentious relationship as one of symbolic value run amok, the aura of the Kaaba motivating massive capital investment in urban renewal that necessarily favors the rich, while bulldozing the less economically fortunate to make way for a wave of five-star luxury hotels and multi-lane highway projects.

That Mater is able to capture this often bitter narrative in sweeping photographs of quiet grace and sometimes striking beauty is one of the stranger paradoxes of a show replete with conflicts and contradictions.

Mecca Journeys begins with Jibreel (Gabriel), a photograph of incredible scale that features the titular construction worker standing casually on a shaky-looking scaffolding. Behind him stretches Al-Masjid Al-Haram (the Grand Mosque), Islam’s most sacred mosque and the site of the Kaaba, the ultimate destination of the hajj pilgrimage and the building toward which all Muslims pray, regardless of where they are in the world. In Mater’s photograph, this gnomic, black cube is surrounded on all sides by the red, insect-like protuberances of construction cranes. Further back yet, the hulking mass that is the Abraj Al-Bait Endowment Complex (home to thousands of shops and hundreds of hotel rooms) perches on the horizon like some gaudy architectural beast, its towers dwarfing every structure around them. Mecca’s older, less grandiose city tapestry stretches out into the distance, as unassuming, sand-colored buildings wind their way through the surrounding desert. Jibreel and the Complex stand in contradistinction to one another, pithily summing up the show’s main theme of conflict between the exploited but concrete everyday, represented by the worker himself, and the capital-driven, borderline unreal excesses of the city’s symbolic value.

Other photos, like Neighborhood-Stairway (2015), focus more fully on the lived experience of the city’s permanent inhabitants. Like Mater’s other photographic work, Neighborhood-Stairway is massive, stretching to nearly 10 feet tall in its minutely detailed depiction of the Burmawi district. In contrast to the gleaming yet impersonal glossiness of the hotels surrounding Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the buildings of Burmawi are rough hewn, constructed of undressed red brick held together by globs of concrete. In the foreground, a fruit vendor’s cart displays a verdant collection of greens and pockmarked stairs stretching up the photograph. Street trash mingles among the feet of passing men, their thawbs briefly punctuating the urban scene with spotless swaths of white. Neighborhood-Stairway is the most pointed representation of the rooted existence that Matter presents as threatened in Mecca Journeys. This quiet and unpolished urban moment, so different from the monumental sci-fi construction shown in Metropolis or the cushy, five-star setting pictured in Room with a View both large-scale photographs produced in 2013 and on display in the exhibitionis positioned to vanish under Mecca’s rampant redevelopment.

The exhibition’s video works dramatically portray the threat of urban extinction, most disturbingly in Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2013). A 20-minute video projection constructed from digital footage recorded by workers throughout the city, the work recounts a strangely cyclical catastrophe, as older multi-story buildings are literally pulled apart by construction equipment to make way for futuristic development interventions. One section of the video is devoted to clips of these demolition processes, showing buildings crumble then vanish into rising clouds of debris. Over and over again, workers scatter in all directions to avoid the approaching wall of aerosolized construction materials, the camera shaking with the tremors of demolition.

Earlier in the show, a large two-screen projection work, Road to Mecca I, displays scenes from the hajj, the massive influx of pilgrims that partially drives the city’s growth. Each screen represents a different aspect of the pilgrimage journey to Mecca, one from the perspective of a car racing down a multi-lane expressway leading to the city, the other an aerial view of an impossibly large crowd of pilgrims, lit by street lamps and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Overshadowed by the screens and the sheer speed and scope of human movement that these videos depict, the viewer passes between the two screens with the impression that they are caught in an indefatigable current.

While Mater’s photography is compelling in its bold scale and careful attention to quotidian detail, the show’s most interesting works are two pieces of sculpture, one minute and free-standing and the other massive and in relief. Mecca Windows, an ongoing project that began in 2013, is a wall-sized collection of stained-glass windows held in weathered wooden frames. Mater found these windows throughout Mecca’s old city, either discarded as refuse or repurposed as domestic decorations. Stacked high at the exhibition’s conclusion, Mecca Windows is a quilt of material memory, the colorful geometric patterns of the panes recalling an intimate handmade craftsmanship that is entirely lost in the city’s new, high-tech and extravagant architectural projects.

Conversely, Magnetism (2012) is a much smaller sculpture, a tiny reproduction of the Kaaba with its own coterie of worshipers in the form of a surrounding aura of miniscule iron filaments. These metal specks radiate outward from the die-sized black cube, its invisible force pushing and pulling the filaments into a gentle, furred iris. Mater’s diminutive and magnetized Kaaba shapes the space around it with a relentless but imperceptible potency, the same way the real Kaaba motivates human behavior toward religious observance and prayerful contemplation, while also bending capital into a torsion of real estate speculation, labor exploitation and brutal urban gentrification.

Magnetism reminds me of much criticism written about minimalism during the movement’s apogee in the 60s. Three-dimensional minimalist objects, often sparsely geometric and always abstract, shape not only the visual experience of a viewer, but their embodied motion through space, motivating a relationship with the artwork that necessitates movement and perambulation. For an instant, Magnetism inspired me to think about the Kaaba in much the same way, as an austere and unfathomable object that defines the actions, perceptions, and ideas that surround it. One of the show’s most beguiling conceptual feats, while perhaps personal to my own experience of Mecca Journeys, was the strange similarity shared between the Kaaba, Mater’s Magnetism and earlier minimalist works like Tony Smith’s cubic Die in terms of all three structures’ principal themes and artistic forms.

The invisible magnetic force field emanating from Magnetism compelled me to rethink Mater’s formative premise, that the intersection of religion and capitalist investment was giving rise to a monstrous and hungry urban imaginary bent on consuming the more rooted lived experience of Mecca’s permanent population. While there is an intense conflict unfolding in Mecca over the use of urban space, it is not between the symbolic and the real, but between two necessarily opposed symbolic claims to one existing urban space. These two claims, one drenched in the predatory élan of late capitalist gentrification, and the other tied more closely to the daily rituals and traditions of living citizens, are not unique to Mecca, though the former is certainly intensified by the city’s central importance to the Islamic religion.

One can find similar conflicts between urban imaginaries in the swiftly gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn, or the mad dash of real estate speculation, state funding and suburbanization that have led to Cairo’s satellite cities for the ultra-rich. The question and the crisis at the heart of Mater’s narrative is a truly global one. It is not only the Kaaba that is motivating this frantic and often catastrophic metamorphosis, but the unceasing and unquenchable movement of capital itself.

Dan Jakubowski