Earwitness Theatre


The first Australian show from Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the Beirut-based, British-Lebanese sound artist and self-described ‘audio investigator’, is a complex, politicised interrogation of the possibilities and mysteries of sonic experience. On one hand, Abu Hamdan uses the aural domain as a space that can expose and challenge domination, fear and tyranny, yet he also explores its potential for protest, expression and revelation.

Earwitness Theatre at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art is a mixture of sound installation, textual and graphic works, and what Abu Hamdan calls “instruments and mnemonic devices.” Perhaps the most remarkable work is Saydnaya (this missing 19db), 2017, presented in an encased listening room. This piece emerged from interviews Abu Hamdan conducted with former detainees at the notoriously brutal Syrian regime prison, Saydnaya. Prisoners were kept in darkness or blindfolded, to the point that they developed an acute sensitivity to the sounds around them. Abu Hamdan asked interviewees to recreate the sounds they heard and, aided by studio effects, the result is a series of “earwitness testimonies.”

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Earwitness Inventory (detail) (2018). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London in partnership with: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.

“This exhibition does not seek to tell the whole story of Saydnaya,” says Abu Hamdan,” but act as a space where key issues and concepts derived from this experience are explored in a way that is not possible in other forums.”

Another key theme of Earwitness Theatre is the silence that detainees experienced. Hamdan’s exhibition seeks to reconsider and empower this silence.

“I’m interested in both the use of silence as a form of resistance to state violence, and as a form of suppression; silence as a weapon of state violence. Negotiating this double bind of silence, between resistance and oppression, is very useful in thinking through the politics of sound and audibility.”

Earwitness Theatre
Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Institute of Modern Art
28 September—21 December

This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Barnaby Smith