The threat of Islamist terror on U.S. soil, the war in Iraq and the friction between East and West together have infused a fog of ambivalence and confusion into American life.
Through an ambiguous mingling of traditional and industrial design, pathos and humor –“Á La Carte,” explores the fluid and uncertain way in which many in the U.S. define their relationship with the Middle East and the Arab world.
The piece consists of 9 x 33 feet of black steel sheeting fastened to the gallery wall. Magnetically adhered to the sheeting are nearly 3000 magnet-infused, artist-cast polyurethane ‘tiles.’ Grouped together these tiles form an Arabian-style geometric design sourced from a window decoration in the 14th Century Mosque of Qaws?n in Cairo (1.). In front of this design are two large acrylic Arabic words, an Egyptian-Arabic translation of the sculpture’s idiomatic title, “Á La Carte,” literally meaning: separate orders or separate desires. Like the title, which flirts with the Islamic name for God, the wall suggests a sacred image without actually being one.
The wall design merges the colors of the American flag with the red, white, green and black present in the flags of many Arab nations. Blue stars-of-David are nested within and integral to the wall’s geometry.
The tiles are hollow, flexible and completely modular, with the playful coloring and factory-made feel of squeak-toys. Inscribed on their backs are words like squeeze, handle, pinch and play. Some of these tiles are strewn across the floor for viewers to handle. These tiles actually squeak when squeezed.
The feel of the tiles gives the whole installation the sense of being a free-for-all playroom, like a hands-on display in a children’s museum.
Deceptively light-hearted, an exercise in beauty, contrasts and mild provocations - “Á La Carte” is an object lesson to stimulate thought and discussion about a painful and serious subject by exuberantly replicating some of the unease of our times.
(1.) D’Avennes, Prisse, The Decorative Art of Arabia, New York: Portland House, 1989. Plate 3.