LOS ANGELES — In the events that transpired during the Arab Spring of 2011, citizens of several Middle Eastern countries took to the streets to protest the oppressive regimes that their respective leaders forced generations of innocents to endure. One of these oppressors was Bashar Al-Assad, the President of Syria. Al-Assad took power in 2000, after running unopposed in the election. He has since faced head-on the effects of a revolutionary population. In 2011, he agreed to lift the country’s state of emergency — one of the protesters’ demands — ostensibly allowing peaceful protests and a supposedly broader spectrum for freedom of speech. For some, this came as a relief. For others, it was a way to bandage a single wound while detracting attention from others. Despite international powers calling for Al-Assad to step down and allow the democratic election of a new leader, he never acquiesced. To this day, he remains in power, and has condemned international efforts to fight against extremist groups, all the while keeping his citizens in a permanent state of fear.
Al-Assad’s regime provides the political context for Beirut-based artist and activist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s current project at the Hammer Museum, centered on one of the region’s most dangerous prisons, Saydnaya, north of Damascus. In 2016, Amnesty International led a research project that documented the stories of those who survived imprisonment in Saydnaya. Saydnaya is notorious for three things: torture, silence, and remoteness. The prison is out of reach for any third-party organization; only those who have been released can provide insight into life there. Over 13,000 individuals have been executed within the prison walls between 2011 and 2017.
Using his expertise in sound and architecture, Abu Hamdan attempted to reconstruct the psycho-physical conditions in which prisoners lived at Saydnaya by using recorded testimonials. The exhibition, installed in a large room divided into two sections, features a recording of an Amnesty International interview with a former detainee, Salam Othman, broadcast across the space, and renderings of the prison projected onto the walls.
The expectation that visitors listen in silence to the recording mirrors with stunning success the content of Othman’s testimony. Othman explains that all prisoners were kept in the dark, blindfolded or with their eyes otherwise covered, and forced into silence. Prisoners were not allowed to make a sound, even when they were beaten. The more noise they made, the more brutally they were beaten — this enabled prisoners to identify the newcomers who were not yet aware of the consequences of making noise. Their inability to see heightened their awareness of even the most insignificant sound, and produced a population of hypersensitive listeners who helped Abu Hamdan reconstruct the prison through acoustic memory.
Political analysts have noted that 2011 was a pivotal year for Al-Assad’s regime. With the protests occurring across Syria, he became increasingly suspicious of disloyal behavior and radicalized his treatment of prisoners. According to detainees at Saydnaya, the noise level dropped significantly and torture was implemented much more aggressively. Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the exhibition is the juxtaposition of Othman’s broadcast testimony with the architectural renderings. With no documentation of the prison available to the outside world, it is extremely difficult for any outsider to comprehend what goes on inside. Abu Hamdan worked with a digital visualization tool used in architecture to map sound leakages in a structure. In this case, the sound is evidence of life, of activity. It functions as a form of spatial mapping: through the acoustic depths of the detainees’ memories, Abu Hamdan approximates the prison’s interior.
Yet his aim is not simply to produce architectural renderings of Saydnaya. Since sound within the prison is evidence of trauma, pain, and torture, the renderings function as trauma-architecture or pain-projections. Viewers are presented with aesthetically intricate renderings that, at first glance, appear to be straightforward architectural plans. Abu Hamdan effectively politicizes the spatial renderings. Whereas a curved wall might give some indication of how sound travels in a structure, it here refers to the sound of trauma across the prison. The memories that inform Abu Hamdan’s renderings are blurry not because of their distance in time, but because detainees have been systematically silenced by those in power. Mediated speech becomes the only remaining document of experiences that evade or perhaps refuse representation.
Abu Hamdan capitalizes on his ability to make individual stories accessible to others, including Los Angeles museum-goers at an almost impossible remove from Othman’s experience. He sheds light on political abuses of power, human rights violations, and the complicity of oppressive regimes in denying citizens their senses and voices for self-serving political gains. Exhibited in the same building as Stories of Almost Everyone, a massive group show of contemporary art that highlights the stories conveyed by or projected onto objects, Abu Hamdan’s room is both a sobering reminder of the realities of political oppression throughout the world and an important interrogation of contemporary art’s ability to tell real stories.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through May 20.