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K Files

Landscape [photography] can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together… the three kinds of representation strengthen what we all work to keep in tact – affection for life. - Robert Adams


Landscape can be a construct of architecture, environment, and human form. Ala Younis, curator of the first-ever Kuwait Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, insightfully grounds the landscape in Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s K Files as examples of Kuwait’s modernist aspirations in the capital city and its fringes. In each image, Al-Ghoussein tracks a site’s transformation from its perceived new-ness to its imagined use, and propositions its future. These visual proclamations of progress, industry and enterprise conjure up narratives that may vary greatly depending upon one’s knowledge of Kuwait’s fabled history and current state.

The photographs in K Files are as much about the concept of Kuwait and emblems of nation-ness as they are about the artist and his engagement with photographic art history. In his father’s autobiography, Khams Jensseyat wal Watan Wahed (Five Nationalities and the Home is One, published in 1981), Talaat Al-Ghoussein speaks of the semi-nomadic life of an ambassador. This lifestyle is mirrored in the artist: of Palestinian descent, he grew up in Kuwait, Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, attended university at NYU in New York and graduate school at the University of New Mexico, traveled and worked in India, Amman, Kuwait, Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh, England and Sharjah. He now lives and works in Abu Dhabi where he is a Professor of Visual Art at NYU. There is a perceived elasticity in Al-Ghoussein’s sense of belonging to any given location, which helps to explain why mobility is a conceptual strategy in his work.


Al-Ghoussein is from a second generation of artists responding to New Topographics, arguably the most important movement in landscape photography to-date. Titled after an exhibition of the same name at George Eastman House in 1975, it signaled a new photographic language detached from nature photography. Sites of transformation such as urban sprawl emerged as subjects, framed from positions of neutrality or, as some would say, dispassionate perspectives. In the exhibition, several photographers including Robert Adams and Stephen Shore (who recently collaborated with Al-Ghoussein) demonstrated a slowing down of photographic practice through the use of large format film and tripods. The inclusion of Düsseldorf School photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s conceptually precise typologies of industrial towers generated a dialogue between American and European schools of thought. 


As in Al-Ghoussein’s work, the ethos of New Topographics remains relevant in contemporary photographic practices, often blended with an observational, cinematic style of framing space. In K Files, Al-Ghoussein formally creates each mise-en-scène, which he describes as, “Deliberate compositions made before, after and within the frame.” He continues, “Choosing locations much in the same way a film director does, I move between abstraction and the specific circumstances found in particular places.” The tripod is perhaps his most important tool. With it, he positions his camera in each location with geometrical precision, sometimes making a perceived symmetrical arrangement of objects, as in K Files 117, 323, and 496. This fixed viewpoint enables Al-Ghoussein to insert himself into each frame.


For more than 10 years, Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s artistic leitmotif is to embody both the participant and the observer as an artist-cum-protagonist in the landscape. Each environment provides stimulus and the raw materials for Al-Ghoussein to solitarily observe, assert, disrupt and reject his associations to it. He traverses each stage set alone, privately coming to terms with each public space. As in K Files, this can generate multivalent narratives of which none are definitive, thereby proposing states of being in-between.


Such liminal constitutions are evident in his earlier works, where themes of belonging and dislocation emerge. In Untitled (Self-Portrait)(2002-3), the artist converses with the Israeli-occupied landscape across the Dead Sea from the standpoint of his Jordanian footing. This autobiographical work addresses the psychosocial aspects of diasporic identification, or a framework described by Jean Fisher of where here is also elsewhere.[1] Sites for A, B, C, D and E series (2001-10) in the Arabian Desert are less geographically detectable and geopolitically charged. They are relatively ambiguous locations on the periphery of urbanity and possess formal geometric qualities. Symbols of infrastructure such as roads and roundabouts, temporary industrial fencing and man-made mounds of dirt locate the in-between space where quasi-built environments collide with nature. In these series Al-Ghoussein’s encounters stimulate questions about whether he is coming or going, adding or subtracting.


Al-Ghoussein’s recent series (In) Beautification (2011-12) further raises questions of how self-representation manifests in the construction of place. The artist cleverly uses horticulture as a metaphor on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. He repetitively explores how identity can be manipulated through the incorporation of foreign elements, while abandoning indigenous ones.


There is a second chapter to K Files that is a work-in-progress. The project is another form of tracking and is not strictly photographic. It is a family archive of ephemera, including news clippings, that he is accumulating from family albums and internet sources such as eBay and Amazon. Its contents suggest that his family has regularly negotiated private and public realms across continents. Some purchased objects in the K Files archive remain unopened, rendering the contents’ value and tangibility as constructs of the imagination. In this form, they remain representations of how one’s personal history can be commodified. How Al-Ghoussein will negotiate their meaning when opened is yet to be discovered.




[1] Fisher, J. (2008) Where Here is Elsewhere. In: K. Boullata ed. Belonging and Globalisation. Beirut, Saqi.





Tarek Al Ghoussein: K Files (2014) Dubai: Third Line



[1] Fisher, J. (2008) Where Here is Elsewhere. In: K. Boullata ed. Belonging and Globalisation. Beirut, Saqi.

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