BASEL, Switzerland — When most people think of Art Basel they think of celebrities and Instagrammable art. That’s the pop-cultural understanding in which Abdulnasser Gharem, a Saudi artist, recently showed a spatial installation at Art Basel’s Unlimited section that implicitly memorializes the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In a box resembling the outside of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was last seen, Gharem’s grim installation — “The Safe” (2019) — takes the form of an eerie padded cell, complete with a sofa and a stainless steel surgical table.
Each person is given 60 seconds alone inside the room. The horror is palpable. Gharem, a former lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army, constructed the installation based on surveillance camera images that circulated throughout the world showing Khashoggi’s last moments, in addition to media reports that surfaced in the wake of his death, as well as reports of audio recordings that took place inside the consulate itself.
As a senior Washington Post columnist and vocal critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate on October 2, 2018. It’s been widely reported that he was assassinated after senior figures in the Saudi royal family wanted him silenced due to his media activism and independent voice.
At Art Basel Unlimited, Gharem’s constructed exterior resembles the exterior of the Saudi consulate, complete with the yellow awning above the entrance. Entering it, one is immediately confronted with an imagined space that resembles a psychiatric ward, padded white walls and a surgical table complete with a sink and a large canvas of the Saudi Arabian flag.
For 20 years, Gharem served in the Saudi army. He saw firsthand how two former classmates of his apparently joined Islamist terrorist groups and participated in the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, and it is this experience that lends itself to understanding his latest work.
Though Gharem continues to live and work in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the work begs the question: to whom and how should it be read? One interpretation could see the work as a commentary on the United Nations’s and US media’s overwhelming analysis of Khashoggi’s death. Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur assigned to the case, wrote in a 100-page UN report on the matter released just last week that the journalist was the “victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”
Visitors entering the installation can stamp the walls with one of several politically charged phrases in English and Arabic. One reads: “Violence is its own demise.” Another reads: “The difference between the terrorist and the martyr is the media coverage.”
Produced by Galerie Nagel Draxler & Galerie Brigitte Schenk, the work provides — above all else — a space to think and contemplate on threats to media freedom worldwide. “The work does not make a clear reference or statement on [the death of Khashoggi], but it creates an atmosphere of insecurity and it’s a reminder that outside of this art fair, there is another reality,” Saskia Draxler told Artnet. “He is not pointing his finger or judging.”
Yet another way of looking at the installation is that it offers plausible deniability to Khashoggi’s killers. There is no direct reference to MBS or any senior members of the royal family (nor any explicit mention of Khashoggi’s name in the installation). After the incident, the kingdom repeatedly denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death, which it then walked back after mounting evidence contradicted their initial stance. Now the official Saudi line is that it was a “rogue operation” that MBS knew nothing about.
However one sees Gharem’s installation, one thing remains clear: some eight months after the torture and execution of Khashoggi, the world — of which the art world is only but a fraction — is still seeking answers and accountability, neither of which seems likely to come anytime soon.
And with it begs the question as Khashoggi himself wrote, seemingly aware of the dangers and sinister plots against him: “When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?”
“The Safe” was on view at Art Basel Unlimited. The exhibition was curated by Gianni Jetzer.