Currently at the the Chisenhale Gallery, Lawrence Abu Hamdan shows his work Earwitness Theatre consisting of three main elements: a listening room with audio, an installation of objects that were used by the artist to create his own sound effects library, and a video of transcripts of testimonies from different events.
Of the three components in the exhibition, the listening room stands out for its powerful 15 minute audio that narrates the experiences of prisoners in the Saydnaya military prison in Syria. In 2016, Abu Hamdan worked with Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture (Goldsmiths) to interview survivors of this prison. There is no visual record of the prison, and detainees were blindfolded or kept in the dark, a record of the prison and the events that took place there were recreated through audio memories of survivors. According to Amnesty International, since 2011, the Saydnaya military prison has murdered thousands of detainees and brutally harmed tens of thousands through physical torture, rape, starvation, psychological trauma, and electric shock. Prisoners are anyone who could be considered against the state and they do not receive fair trials.
In order to listen to the audio in Earwitness Testimony, the listener must enter a small dark room, and after a loud beep the audio begins. Listening, you can hear both the voice of a narrator and the hush voices of survivors who tell stories of truly horrific events: truckloads of dead bodies being taken away, hundreds of men crammed into one small cell, being killed for making a small cough, not having enough voice power to speak after leaving the prison. Although the listener never leaves the dark room, Abu Hamdan creates eternities of terrifying silences. This is one of the most interesting parts of the artist’s work, his ability to distort reality so as to convey the survivors’ memories, altered and heightened from torture and starvation. Earwitness Testimony is both sickening and infuriating; it is also an exhibition that shows how art can be used in a serious and purposeful way to talk about, document, and ultimately challenge what is happening in the world.
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Thank you to the Chisenhale Gallery staff for their time.