Love may be dead, but sex appears to be alive and well. Or so suggests the art of Ghada Amer — and yet, her art implies, both assertions also suggest their opposites. Such is the nature of the best contemporary art: What appears obvious on first glance is often much more complex. Amer’s art is complex for its aesthetic layers, and yet it is also deceptively straightforward. “It’s always the same interests [in my work],” the Egyptian-born artist says. “Love, woman, sex.”
Ghada Amer directs the construction of ‘Love Grave,’ an original outdoor art installation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Ghada Amer’s “Love Grave,” an original outdoor art installation, will officially open on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art this weekend along with an exhibition of her paintings, drawings and sculptures. Amer, who has exhibited all over the world — including her native Egypt — to much acclaim and comment, is best known for her work that celebrates and yet subtly obscures images of female autoeroticism. Amer, IMA curator of contemporary art Lisa Freiman and I visited the installation site recently in anticipation of the opening. “I’m burying love,” Amer says, laughing, as she leans over the rail, which stands roughly 20 feet above the installations site, adding to its somber effect. Amer, who lives in New York City, was in town to oversee the installation. Several days before the opening, the piece has already more or less emerged. Or rather, submerged: “Love Grave” depicts open graves dug in the shape of the letters L O V E. While such a site-specific installation is not unique to Amer, in this instance, as Freiman points out, for the IMA, “It’s the first time we’ve done this inside/outside Forefront exhibition.” The Ghada Amer exhibition will be the museum’s final contemporary art exhibit before the galleries close for renovation. “It’s a collaboration between the grounds, horticulture, exhibits, curatorial and Ghada.” Amer’s paintings and drawings, on the other hand, are more traditionally static. While the artist often “borrows” figurative images from pornography, she takes them into more neutral territory. “When you say the word pornography, it’s bad,” Amer remarks. “I am trying to find out what it means.” This is a rather touchy business, this talking about sex — let alone making art about it. As Amer, Freiman and I continue our dialogue, I don’t quite know how to broach the subject. I am, after all, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who will one day be a woman; and I am angered that the sexuality of women is more often objectified than celebrated as a healthy, even spiritual, expression of being human. Amer, though, is emboldened by the power her messages are intended to convey. “I like the woman to be empowered,” she explains. “It’s one of her powers, so why don’t we use it?” This, of course, adds yet another troubling angle to my own ruminations: Does a woman become empowered by expressing herself sexually? Does she also empower herself by choosing not to? Amer’s women are not depicted with men; instead, they are pleasing themselves — this type of autoeroticism is a so-called staple of the pornography industry. Is this empowerment? And if so, doesn’t it depend upon the context? Amer would appear to remove sexuality from the pornographic realm only to reposition it — so to speak — in the spiritual one, whether or not this is intentional. And this, I would assert, is where it belongs. Art exists on many contextual planes. Its beauty has a solitary value that can be removed from its point of view, if any is conveyed. I suggest to Amer that pornography, perhaps, is a result of sexual repression — a repression that harks back to our Puritan roots. “It’s not just in one society or the other,” Amer asserts. “We always speak about pornography or sexuality in this society much more than we do it,” she adds, laughing. Much of Amer’s art is shamelessly sexual and beautiful, as the images are applied with the delicate stitchings of embroidery instead of the blatancy of photography or even painting. The figures are often repeated or set in a loose grid. Amer, Freiman explains, is most well-known for her colorful large-scale paintings “that straddle the boundary between abstraction and figuration.” Within this context, Amer calls upon both abstract expressionist and color field traditions. “Close examination eventually reveals that the apparent gestural drips are actually mimicked by long, dangling embroidery threads,” Freiman says. Amer anticipates becoming an American citizen in a few months. The artist’s soon-to-be dual citizenship symbolizes an artistic duality as well: Her Muslim roots speak to femininity’s domestic expressions and repressions while her American experience has taken that repression to its opposite extreme. Amer is both fascinated by the freedom of expression here — this is what appears to inform much of her work — and at the same time, she doesn’t deny or reject her roots. “I am a woman, I live in very strange times. I come from a very different background, a Muslim family … now those two cultures have mixed in myself.” The sun beats hot and we observe the flurry of activity down below. As the crew maneuvers its bulldozers around the letter-shaped tombs, there’s an air of anticipation — and it’s not a somber one. Instead of being cynical, as this work would imply, Amer is more optimistic. She explains that the tombs will remain open, so love is “just freshly dead. I’m not that pessimistic yet, maybe … it depends on the human being.” After the exhibition closes, the installation will be destroyed. So love, like Lazarus, will perhaps make a comeback. As for sex … The exhibition Ghada Amer opens Sept. 13 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The artist will present a lecture that evening, which is free and open to the public. For more information, call the IMA at 923-1331 or visit www.ima-art.org.