Bassam Al-Sabah, I AM ERROR, Gasworks, London, 21 July–19 September 2021

Upon entering Bassam Al-Sabah’s I AM ERROR, his first solo exhibition in the UK, you pass into two dark galleries, illuminated only by the light from four screens. Enveloped by the gloom and by the sound of an ambient and sustained pulsing, you become more aware of your body. In darkness, you can’t see where your body ends and the world begins. Your boundaries feel unstable, limited less by a concept or image of what you are than by a pulsing fuzz of sensation.

Bassam Al-Sabah
I AM ERROR, 2021
Video HD, 30 min
Film still
Commissioned by Gasworks, in partnership with De La Warr Pavilion. 

The mutability of the body is one theme of the central work in the exhibition: a thirty-minute-long digitally animated film, played on loop on a large curved screen. The film has a narrative, of sorts. A young man, with flowers growing from his forehead, wanders through a landscape of burning red mist. Approaching a tree, a goblin-like figure emerges and transports the hero to a technicolour space where both float in a void. The goblin reaches out to touch the hero’s hand – a visual echo of God touching Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – and their bodies dissolve into a spray of pixels.

Our hero falls into a field of oversize grass, and starts to run through it in terror. He falls into a pool of gel, and in one of the most beautiful images in the film, his naked body appears suspended in a translucent sticky membrane, within which he writhes and turns yet cannot escape. He then appears in the arms of an armoured creature, evoking anime and video figures like Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) or Square’s Final Fantasy series. The creature bathes him in water, his body dissolves again – another echo of religious ritual – and he emerges, himself now covered in armour, in a mountain landscape of white planar surfaces. Either enraged, or desperate to escape the shell that now encloses him, he destroys this landscape, until his body, in shattered armour, is tenderly picked up by a dragon. In the final sequence, his naked body, floating through black space, is gripped and clawed at by a disembodied white hand.

Bassam Al-Sabah
I AM ERROR, 2021
Video HD, 30 min
Film still
Commissioned by Gasworks, in partnership with De La Warr Pavilion. 

This journey is periodically interspersed with sequences, whose crude two-dimensional pixel graphics evoke an earlier era of digital imagery produced in the late eighties on the Nintendo NES or the Commodore 64. They present fragments of text, elliptically commenting on the hero’s journey: ‘it’s all that’s left.’ ‘UNLIMITED POTENTIAL.’ ‘INFINITE POSSIBILITIES.’ The film, and the exhibition as a whole, is steeped in the entire history of visual-game imagery, yet it never appears as nostalgic or intentionally crude – as in, say, the retro animations of Wong Ping. This film seems obsessed, rather, with an almost formalist fascination with the possibilities of digital animation. Surface texts of metal, sweating skin, and translucent gel are rendered in absorbing detail. When the hero dissolves, his 3-D rendered body doesn’t just shatter into pixels; these pixels also revert into a two-dimensional spray, before coalescing back into a form with three dimensions. On his journey, the hero’s body is frequently buffeted and moved by invisible forces. Winds? Gravity? Or the control of the mouse in the workspace of animation software?

Bassam Al-Sabah
I AM ERROR, 2021
Installation view

Commissioned and produced by Gasworks
Photo: Andy Keate

That Al-Sabah is exploring the media – in all senses – that give our body its sense of form is accentuated by the other works on display. In the same room as the main film, a screen shows flies crawling over a shiny arm. A spot of light illuminates oversize black flies on the gallery floor. One medium that marks the borders of our bodies is our skin: locus of crawling sensations from which we recoil. In the second gallery room, two further screens hang on the gallery walls: outtakes, of a kind, from the main film. One shows the hero’s body suspended in a different form of clear gel: this time a bubble, more like a placenta than a suspending sheet. The other screen provides a blurred glimpse of a body lying in long grass, covered in flies, occasionally prodded by the disembodied hand. On the floor between these two screens are fragments of white plaster sculptures. One consists of half a face, evoking classical Greek sculpture. Two are more ambiguous: white clumps that could be rock or some proto-biomorphic form. These objects draw a line between the practices of casting and moulding used in ‘analogue’ sculpture – for want of a better word – and those of digital animation and rendering used not just by Al-Sabah, but by the entire cosmos of video-game imagery his work is drawing from, as well as film, and even live concerts, where a digital hologram of Tupac or Whitney Houston can appear, sing, and dissolve back into a projection of pixels.

Bassam Al-Sabah
I AM ERROR, 2021
Installation view

Commissioned and produced by Gasworks
Photo: Andy Keate

The art-historical allusions enriching this exhibition also serve to show what is different about how the body is shaped by its interactions with the world of digital video game imagery, the male body in particular for the subject of this exhibition is not just how a body comes to be constituted from amorphous matter, but also how that body becomes understood as male. The disorienting wildness of the transformation that is adolescence; the introjection of aggression into an armoured shell; the creation of a muscular body to dole that rage back out on the world: these films show the ways in which so much video-game imagery gives form to these shifts and slippages that constitute one way of understanding a body as ‘male’.

The very instability of the ‘male’ body, in this exhibition as much as in so many games, appears as the source of nothing less than sheer terror. All it takes is a touch for it to dissolve. This very instability, you sense, is what this exhibition wants to harness. Not to remake men in light of infinite possibility or unlimited potential; not to reach the perfect body of Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy. Rather to see the body as a cloud of pixels, a poorly rendered surface, a plaster fragment on the floor. Leaving the gallery you can take a small silver glittering sticker displaying the exhibition title in red: I AM ERROR. In errors, mistakes, and failures lie our real possibilities and potentials.

Kevin Brazil is a writer and critic based in London. What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness, a collection of essays, is forthcoming in 2022.

Kevin Brazil

2 September 2021

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