by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jun 05, 2022
Berlin-based artist Monira Al Qadiri is presenting Orbital, a triptych of 3D-printed sculptures as part of the 59th Venice Art Biennale, in the international exhibition titled Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani. The kinetic sculptures take the form of rotating oil drill heads, an extension of the series of works presented by Al Qadiri over a period of 10 years, that have included monumental permanent and semi-permanent public sculptures in different parts of the Gulf region. In conversation with STIR, she describes her dream as an artist to make a public sculpture in every city in the Gulf region, so that when the oil market collapses, there’ll be something to commemorate it by, artistically as well as culturally.
Originally from Kuwait, Al Qadiri considers the legacy of petroleum, through its past, present and future. She tells the story of pearl-diving that used to be the primary industry in Kuwait for 2,000 years, as the saying goes, before the oil industry took over the region. The multimedia artist speaks of her ancestors, and in particular her grandfather, who used to be a singer on a pearl-diving boat. Following the trajectory of the region, Al Qadiri finds herself relating to the overhaul of industry that caused a rupture in the “historical narrative of the region”, where she describes herself as a “post-oil baby, a kind of mutant”, a part of the “freak generation that won’t last very long,” as she speaks with STIR.
“I tried to make a connection between me and my grandfather, through colour and form, rather than stories or culture. I discovered that pearl and oil have the same colour spectrum – this iridescent, shiny, rainbow-like colour, only visible through the lighter and darker sides of the colour spectrum. I started experimenting with the colour, and started making this science fiction story in my mind. It was the colour before and after oil and would continue to live on. I started using this in my works and at some point, I discovered how interesting and phantasmagorical oil drills look in real life, since they are coated in gold and diamond in order to drill better,” the visual artist tells STIR.
Where there is a displacement of the historical narrative, by producing and presenting these works, Al Qadiri creates a new fictionalised narrative for the past, present and future of oil, ironically as it is one of the fastest depleting resources in the world, a crisis that the international community have been attuned to since the end of the last century. Time is collapsed into the three sections as depicted by the three sculptures, a continuum of petroleum, speaking to the monumentality of the resource in modern and contemporary society. Whether we think of automobiles, military grade vehicles, polyester, plastic, down to the very manufactured ground we walk – that is, asphalt, we are immersed in petroleum products.
Speaking to the complex structure of oil heads and the futures they represent, the artist says, “The ones that I chose for the Venice Biennale are by far the most elaborate ones that I could find. When you look at them you really don’t think they are drilling machines, you know. The idea that they are rotating and drilling the empty space above them instead of the ground, is very emblematic of this very topic of the future. In the future will we even know what these are, will we use them for anything? Will they become some kind of relic and drill the sky instead of the earth? It’s also the utopian idea that in the future that the earth is so clean and the oxygen is too much that we have to drill through the ozone layer in order to get oxygen.”
The elaborate looking, iridescent, gleaming forms, almost alien in appearance, that take the volume of 1 cubic metre approximately in the space of the exhibition are made to be bigger than the ubiquitous oil drill head which is actually small enough to fit into a pipe. Looking at the sculptures, one can envision them as totem heads, or idols from a future alien race, which is exactly what Al Qadiri intends. It is also prescient to note that the material used for the sculptures is in fact 3D printed plastic, again reminiscent of petroleum past, present and future, looking deceptively heavy due to the metallic finish, yet lightweight in nature.
She spoke about her first work in the series dedicated to oil, titled Alien Technology, that took the form of a semi-permanent public sculpture next to a heritage village in Dubai, that was placed in conversation with pearl diving boats. She describes her vision of the drill as a self-portrait that is representative of the artist and her generation, whereas the boat becomes her grandfather, living and existing harmoniously in the same place, but at a different time. There’s a collapse of time that takes place here, that seems to be a point of interest for the contemporary artist. The pearl-like, iridescent colour became an experimental point for her, as she delved into the common colour spectrum shared between pearls (another form of extraction) and petroleum.
Al Qadiri states, “The original idea was to make public monuments dedicated to oil, a resource that is not going to last very long. I really think of oil like a character, a genie perhaps, a miracle and a curse, or even an alien. It’s infected everywhere, it’s the virus. The plastic will never die and so the monument will always live. A hundred years into the future would people know what this [oil drill] machine is?”
Through the monumentalisation of the oil drills, gigantic structures in themselves, there is a reference to the monuments that we already have in place as cultural markers and distinguishing points of hegemonies that have passed through history. One can speculate further into the invisibilised nature of the oil industry, and probe a little deeper into why it is that the entire process of extraction, refinement, manufacture and so on, is little depicted in popular culture, which translates to the popular imagination. The entire manufacturing process, as opposed to, for example, the extraction of minerals, is obscured as far as the layman is concerned, not to mention the role that oil has played in contributing towards disproportionate wealth (oligarchies, lobbies) as an automatic result of resources being controlled by a few sets of hands. 
Al Qadiri speaks about the black that took over during the Gulf War, and petroleum in the imagination of people, “When I first found out what an oil drill looked like, I got a little bit angry, because I thought that this is something that has shaped our existence, especially somewhere like Kuwait which is 90 per cent dependent on oil. We don’t know anything about the inner mechanics of this industry, it’s like a secret. The wealth they generate is kind of a magic potion, it’s like an invisible entity that people don’t get close to. The only time I saw oil in its full glory was after the Gulf War in Kuwait, when the invading armies were leaving. And we saw burning oil fields for about a year. The sky was black, our house was black, it was like a vision from hell. And this was the first time that I confronted the substance. But then it was also quietly remote from the imagination. Perhaps by invisibilising it, we are aware of the fragility of it, or its finite nature.”
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The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice. 
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year’s edition of the art biennale.
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Sukanya Deb
Sukanya is a writer and curator based out of New Delhi. At Terrain.art, where she is Assistant Curator, her work revolves around developing online and offline exhibitions in conversation with artists, and working particularly towards instituting the Digital Marketplace. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, (memory, utterance, articulation), and re-thinking exhibitory formats.
Sukanya is a writer and curator based out of New Delhi. At Terrain.art, where she is Assistant Curator, her work revolves around developing online and offline exhibitions in conversation with artists, and working particularly towards instituting the Digital Marketplace. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, (memory, utterance, articulation), and re-thinking exhibitory formats.
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