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HomeArts & CultureArtist ­Sophia Al Maria confronts the darkness of consumer sparkle in Dubai exhibition

Artist ­Sophia Al Maria confronts the darkness of consumer sparkle in Dubai exhibition

In the 19th century, English poet and artist William Blake saw the factories of the industrial revolution as dark, satanic mills churning up the countryside and signalling a new, ominous era of human existence.

Fast forward 200 years and ­Sophia Al Maria, a Qatari-American artist and writer, believes those dark mills have been ­replaced by the bright, fluorescent lights of shopping malls.

Both places, she says, “are where the glamorous heart of evil is born”.

These words are taken from a poem Al Maria wrote for the voice over of her short film, Black Friday. It paints a terrifying ­picture of modern life, where the luxury shopping mall is a ­consumer prison.

“The mall is an architectural drug, not one to ingest but to be ingested by,” says the narrator of Al Maria’s poem during the 16-minute film.

The footage, filmed in malls in Doha, is warped vertically and the colours have been garishly emphasised. The camera does not linger on individual shops but on the cavernous architecture, which the artist describes as being built like a trap to confuse and disorient its users.

Although several people are featured, it is the women and men dressed in Gulf attire that prove the most alarming. They are shown pacing unnaturally slowly across the screen, their long robes reminiscent of those worn by priests. This, coupled with a chilling soundtrack composed of long, drawn-out bass notes with screeching sounds on top, are disconcerting and question the core of a consumerist mentality.

“The thing I was really thinking about with this video is how the mall is replacing religious architecture,” says Al Maria, describing the experience of going shopping as a “communal weekend activity”, which is similar, perhaps, to that of going to the mosque or church for generations past.

“Even the act of going in to a fitting room, confronting your real self and then offering up money to get out of there has strange parallels,” she adds.

Al Maria, who is in her early 30s, has a cynical view of the world but one that feels scarily accurate – and it is brave of her to confront it.

In her exhibition at The Third Line Gallery in Dubai, Black Friday plays in a small blacked out room. The centre of the main gallery is filled with a pile of overturned shopping trolleys spilling crisp packets and sweets on to the floor.

Tangled up amid this chaotic scene are several mobile phones emitting jarring and ear-piercing sounds made by distorting the phone’s ringtones, or sourced from noises of riots and other abrasively loud events.

The strange thing is that the onslaught of noise is not immediately off-putting. The eye is drawn to the bright colours and shine of the junk-food wrappers, which seem somehow alluring. On the walls hang digital images that wrap around the gallery in a belt formation, and these, too, seem to attract the viewer at first.

The words used in the images are familiar either from advertising lingo – “radiant”, “sunset complexion” – or military terms such as “ballistic” and “tactical”.

In fact, the whole experience is like stepping inside an ­advertisement – it is only when you get inside you realise it is a kind of apocalyptic nightmare.

The exhibition is Al Maria’s ­attempt to show the reality of a world obsessed with buying and the effects consuming will have on our future lives.

“When you leave this hall of wonders, all this precious ­merchandise transform into worthless junk,” the voice of the film calls out in another warning. Al Maria says her primary ­concern when putting together this work, titled Everything Must Go, was the futility of consumerism as well as the devastating effects it has on the human body and natural environment.

“This piece was made out of despair,” she says. “Yes, making the work is ­cathartic but coming to hopeful conclusions is difficult.

“People want and need hope but I haven’t found any in my exploration of this subject. We are so wound up in this system that without a revolution of the human spirit, we will not change anything.”

Everything Must Go runs until April 1 at The Third Line in Dubai

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