An aspirational lifestyle has emerged in the Gulf in recent years, one based on tenets of positivity, efficiency and productivity, manifested in an aggressively optimistic mindset. Its proponents circulate on social media, TV and YouTube, while a Silicon Valley inspired start-up culture has infiltrated small businesses, governments and corporations. Positivity and productivity are now the markers of success and there are considerable top-down efforts to mold members of society into happy, efficient, productive subjects. But how do you instigate this cultural change for so many people? What are the implications of applying the same strategies meant for individual positivity and “improvement” to the mechanisms of a whole population? How is the notion of optimism reconciled with aspects of Arab culture that are traditionally rooted in an aesthetics of sadness? And to what degree has the belief in positivity become a popular phenomenon?
Ahaad Alamoudi begins to answer these questions in her latest body of work, Heat Burns الحرارة تلسع, addressing topics of hegemony, technology and power through the lens of the fast paced, societal changes occurring within Saudi Arabia. She witnesses society’s adaptation to these changes, questioning what is lost and gained through this process and observing how society navigates its way through transformation.
Central to the iconography of Heat Burns الحرارة تلسع is the symbol of the iron and the colour yellow, to be precise Pantone: Yellow 102 cp. Al Amoudi sees the iron as a tool for action, embodying the idea of change that comes with heat and pressure. The Pantone Yellow overwhelms the show, and is seen in the painted walls of the gallery, the multiple yellow thobes and in the central video Iron Man مكواة مان. Yellow has conflicted associations, often used to represent happiness and hope, it is also associated with deceit and irritation.
The central work in the show is a two channel video Iron Man مكواة مان On a large screen a man is depicted endlessly ironing metres of pantone yellow cloth in his pantone yellow satin thobe on top of a dune in the middle of the desert, reciting paternalistic, positive aphorisms. The yellow thobes are repeated in another installation With the people, you blondie مع القوم يا شقره where 150 identical thobes are maneuvered by a machine in a seemingly endless loop.
The video can be viewed from a sculpture made up of modified outdoor gym equipment entitled The outdoor health club النادي الصحي الخارجي, referencing the proliferation of exercise equipment in public spaces all over the Kingdom. The modified fitness machines become active viewing ‘seats’ and viewers must put themselves in physically uncomfortable positions, adjust their bodies to fit into the gym equipment-like devices. As Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist developed the "hedonic treadmill theory" which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place. You can pedal or row while you watch, but it’s heavy going and gets you nowhere.
The iron المكوة is exactly that a yellow iron, and it stands conspicuously on a pedestal, spotlit in a central point in the exhibition. At first sight, the iron is seemingly innocent, but as you approach, this reified object begins to to communicate with you. Other speaking objects in the show include the grumpy Falcons in the video installation What is this إشكلو, skeptical and moody they remain obstinate and indifferent to the pressures to be positive.
The artist examines the idea of pressure, power and technology, where the nature of imposed changes attempts to define who we are. The various fitness machines, the singing iron and moving mechanic racks, offer divergent and disarming takes on how we have humanised technology, all the while being subjected to these technologies and becoming more machine like in our ways of thinking, responding and being. Who is serving who? And how and in what ways are we controlled by these systems and machines?