Automatic Art: Hazem Mahdy’s ‘Atman’ At Carbon 12 Dubai

Hazem Mahdy and I sat facing one another in two swivel chairs parked in a corner of Carbon 12. At first he was shy and I fidgeted awkwardly, flipping through pages of questions I’d prepared. I had to give him my Dictaphone to hold because his voice was so low. Then I brought up meditation and suddenly we connected, skipped past the small talk and right to the juicy stuff—transcendence. Meditation is at the core of who Hazem is as a human being and also central to the process he used to create Atman, his solo show at Carbon 12.

2, glicée-print (2014).

2, glicée-print (2014).

He casually speaks of an evening he was meditating in a tent when suddenly “I was underwater being pulled from the center of my chest towards an island and I looked up and saw the surface of the water breaking overhead. It was so hyper-realistic.” Another time he saw a tree with branches made of arms that were gripping hold of one another urgently. As an Egyptian who has never made his home in Egypt, it is possible that the Sharjah-based artist is drawn to the practice for its ability to ground the body to a physical point. The show is titled Atman in reference the Sanskrit term for the purest form of the soul and technically this is a series of self-portraits made up of digital repetitions of images of the artist’s own arm.

1, glicée print (2104)

1, glicée print (2104)

The object of meditation is to turn off the mind’s constant banter and enter into a state of thoughtlessness. Hazem created the series in his bedroom while listening to the womb-like sounds of the Divine Mother Mantra on repeat. He is brave enough to admit the one thing that would make most artists and gallery directors cringe: “As bad as it sounds, almost no thought went into the creation of this work. These are mandalas and constructing or looking at them is a form of meditation.” He says you can call them “automatic art.” The juxtaposition between meditation-based photographs created using the latest digital manipulation software on the computer is what makes this series interesting.

3, glicée print (2014)

3, glicée print (2014)

Despite the thoughtlessness during creation, there is actually a significant amount of theory standing behind the photographs, which have been deeply influenced by Benoît Mandelbrot’s theories on fractals, patterns that re-appear infinitely in nature. Hazem was first introduced to the concepts by a nova documentary gleaned from You Tube that proved that certain patterns recur in tree branches in a precise mathematical formula. He has come to understand that, “Human beings are made up of fractal cells. If you look at the rings of an onion’s skin, the shapes on a turtle’s back, or the patterns in cauliflower you are actually observing fractals.” It is clear that the mandalas are composed of formulaic fractals that echo the artist’s connection to a higher form of self and to the wider universe. The relationship is not always peaceful; the jagged edges on a few of the photographs denote tension, confusion, and even anger.

11, glicée-print (2014)

11, glicée-print (2014)

Both Atman and Hazem’s 2012 show One, Wahed, Yi, Eins, Alpha contend with the tension between the body and the spirit in monochrome. Artists often go through periods in which they work in a single color and while creating this series earlier in 2014 Hazem was “incredibly drawn to blue, which corresponds to the throat chakra and the need for expression. Blue was my comfort color for a long time. Now it’s gray. If I’m not wearing gray I feel slightly agitated.” The black, white, grey, and blue present in the mandalas that comprise Atman are a kind of medical x-ray of the soul.

In conversation at Carbon 12

In conversation at Carbon 12

Good Ideas: Atman runs at Carbon 12 gallery on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai through 10 June, 2014. For timings and more information go here here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12 Gallery