My first impression upon entering Haseeb Ahmed’s installation, “The Common Sense,” which opened at Around the Coyote Gallery on September 5th was one of open space. It was an openness that contrasted sharply with the hundreds of paintings, photographs, sculptures that cluttered the rest of the many other galleries that opened that Night in Wicker Park’s FlatIron Building. Such a contrast pointed out the fact that, more a piece of interior architecture than a collection of installed objects, the central element to be experienced in Ahmed’s installation was space itself. But Ahmed is no Richard Serra, and he is less interested in having us judge our experience at a purely cognitive level than in inviting us to inhabit this space with our attention focused on its function as a site of social practice—this practice being, namely, Islam.
Haseeb Ahmed was born in Ohio to an observant Muslim family of Pakistani immigrants and was educated in interior architecture, sculpture and Marxist critical theory. With “The Common Sense” Ahmed’s purpose—and the reason why he has received such unexpected attention (and misinterpretation) from the local press—was to temporarily convert Around the Coyote Gallery into a fully functional mosque. For other reviewers of this work, knowing the artist’s origin and purpose seemed to be enough to elicit the expected exercise of the kind of politically correct rhetoric that exoticizes in the name of tolerance, a trap that tends to lead to a mere affirmation the “muslimness” of the work at a political level, while failing to investigate what the gesture of building a mosque in an art gallery does as art. This definition of a practice before the fact is the very problem that Ahmed addresses with this work. In asking us to inhabit his installation both as a mosque and as an artwork, he is asking us to simultaneously inhabit a space of aesthetic reception as a space of worship and to critique the practice of worship as one would critique the experience of an artwork.
Ahmed’s mosque is there and not there; it is a kind of ghost-mosque. Its columns stand truncated, its arches are merely hinted at. They are built out of the most familiar of materials: unpainted wooden two-by-four boards. Clustered into beehive-like formations, the mosque’s decorative muqarnas tiles, manufactured from commonplace polyurethane foam used to repair cracks in concrete, hang from ceilings and climb up columns following no pattern but that which their own shapes dictate. By means of this systematic incompleteness, the mosque surrenders a kind of self-legitimation, what Ahmed calls a “fog of sanctity”, with the purpose of putting into evidence the subjective input that goes into the conceptualizing—into the making an object—of the practice of Islam. Striking evidence of this subjective input can be found in that many attendees spoke of “arches” as the main element in the installation while in fact the arches were absent—only there by way of suggestion.
What Ahmed proposes with his installation is paradoxical: to practice a religion while remaining critical to it—to contemplate religious practice at a distance while remaining engaged in it. Needless to say, such a critical distance is antithetical to the idea of faith. Despite the prayers and lectures that are to be given in the installation, an art gallery turned into a mosque remains an art gallery. And while it can never truly become a place of worship, the isolation of religious practice from the rest of the world by way of aesthetic distancing has the potential to de-naturalize a clear-cut relationship between society and religion, thus putting this relationship into question, leaving it up for reconceptualization or dismissal. As Ahmed himself puts it: “all things in society can and must be unfolded from the universal as the summation of society as a whole. It is only from this perspective that we can finally ask ‘What is the future of Islam?’, which actually means, ‘Could it have one at all?’”
Ahmed’s exhibition, “The Common Sense” opened from September 5 to October 14 at Around the Coyote Gallery, in Chicago.