Artsdesk: Shimmer – Bassam Al-Sabah

Posted January 23, 2023 in Arts and Culture


Bassam Al-Sabah explores the glitchy hyper-visual with his new body of CGI work.

I’m sitting on a bench in the Douglas Hyde Gallery with Bassam Al-Sabah watching his new CGI work It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this. This new body of sculptural and video work which he’s been immersed in for the last 18 months opens in a few hours. The title is a quotation from the 1986 Nintendo action-adventure video game The Legend of Zelda and these worlds serve as starting points for for Al-Sabah’s artistic explorations.

“I’ve always been interested in forms of media that tell stories and also are able to built a world whether that is cartoons or video games – the convergence of fantasy and real world feelings into something,” says Al-Sabah. “You have a kind of agency in a game but you don’t because it is going to tell one story and so, I guess, I wanted to build a world where there is this single figure that in every scene it feels there is a transformation happening but, in many ways, kind of against his will. There’s things happening – he grows wings in one scene, he swallows a sword – there is a fluid morphing of his body into various videogame characters. The idea of a journey that isn’t leading anywhere but rather being in this constant loop of transformation, nothing is settled – the landscape or his body or his feelings. I want to create this multiplicity of aesthetics and emotions like representation can do.”

What the viewer experiences is a shape-shifting multiverse, glitchy and synthetic, retro futuristic – familiar at times to anyone who has explored the medium, yet utterly strange also.

“I wanted the landscapes and characters to feel synthetic. I want it to come from a place of emotion and not be didactic. It’s translating feelings into these visuals that almost allow you place yourself in this character’s world.” Indeed, the sense of displacement which one feels as the characters morphs and dissolves is something Al-Sabah is keen to accentuate also but not in the context of his own background. Whilst Iraqi-born, he is keen not to have his work viewed through the prism of ethnicity since he left there when he was nine and of his family’s own volition. “I am trying to abstract this idea of displacement that isn’t specific to me but rather delve into the emotions of it and the shifting of the landscapes, it is almost anxious and uneasy.”

In contrast to this, the white sculptures around the gallery bring a sense of exploratory calm to the observers. Almost like walking through the ruins of classical antiquity, there are disembodied hands and torsos reminiscent of fallen Greek idols – buffed and sculpted – being reclaimed by a nature of his making.

“There is a trope of using ruins in video games as the setting,” explains Al-Sabah. “It’s a means of not being too prescriptive with the landscape but then as you go through you find bits of information and this builds this mythology around the world you are playing in.

“This idea of masculinity also comes up in this world, it’s a male figure but I want the sculptures to contrast to how hyper-glossy the film is. I want them to be made out of something that is cheap like polystyrene. I added these aluminium frames to bring them into a different place, almost like scaffolding. I think the sculptures becomes gestural – I really like the idea of disembodied body parts almost as if they have their own identity and this happens a lot in video games.”

There are petals scattered on the ground and flies dotted on the walls. “I like unkempt nature,  it adds a tenderness to the work.” The flexed muscular hand drops a flower which calls to mind The Creation of Adam.

It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this is at the Douglas Hyde Gallery until March 5. He is in conversation with the gallery director Georgina Jackson on Thursday February 9 at 7pm.

words: Michael McDermott
photos: Louis Haugh




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