Installation offers critical view of Syrian conflict

At first upon entering The New Gallery’s Chinatown location you might think you’re in for a quiet piece of art. The latest installation is minimalist — towers of cinder blocks forming a square with a small central bunker that houses if you peer in at the right angle two laptops streaming video and displaying text. The laptop content might not make sense particularly if you don’t know Arabic. As you try to puzzle it out a siren suddenly blasts filling the gallery for close to a minute.

The installation is in fact named after that model of air raid siren “HLS-F71.” It’s the siren that was used during the Gulf War to warn of attacks and connects directly to artist Felix Kalmenson’s personal experience. He was a young child in Israel during the war and the installation was inspired by a 1991 photograph of his mother himself and his brother hiding under a table and wearing gas masks.

That led Kalmenson to interrogate trauma and particularly the role images and other content play in mediating trauma and conflict which in turn led him to the Syrian civil war. “There’s been an unprecedented amount of footage and journalism from individuals that are not necessarily traditional journalists” he says of the conflict. But the volume of reporting doesn’t necessarily make it any more reliable. Just because social media comes from people on the ground explains Kalmenson doesn’t mean those people don’t have their own biases or narratives they’re trying to construct.

The exhibition which started on January 10 and runs until February 22 precisely mirrors events (tweets) that happened during the same period two years ago. Kalmenson went through about 4000 tweets he found from January 10 to February 22 2012 that related to the Syrian conflict selecting about 1000 of them that dealt directly with arrests attacks and deaths. He then mapped these tweets along the same timeline that they occurred two years ago — whenever a tweet goes out from that period in 2012 the siren goes off at the installation in 2014.

The full text of the tweets as well as references for the YouTube videos shown in the centre of the installation are available in a book set on a cinder block plinth near the entrance of the gallery. “The idea is this is supposed to act as a critical archive” says Kalmenson. “I’m not trying to say anything specifically as much as I’m trying to frame an archive and get people to understand that material through a different critical lens.”

All of this detail is available to those who want to dig deeper into the material that underpins the installation. But let’s not forget that “HLS-F71” is housed in an art gallery and that it’s the aesthetic experience you’ll connect with first.

Kalmenson says the bare cinder blocks evoke “an architecture of conflict in a way that it’s an architecture of transition and an architecture of haste” and adds that “the siren is this trope we have of conflict of trauma.”

There’s something viscerally frightening when the alarm goes off — which is exactly what Kalmenson is aiming for. Just showing all the images he combed through in building the project might not have the same impact. “What I wanted to do was actually try to invoke a feeling which is more universal… you get startled it’s kind of frightening and it speaks to you in an abstract language as opposed to through these images that might be easily dismissed” he says.

“HLS-F71” is a reframed snapshot of a time a place and its turmoil but even as the siren falls silent conflict persists in Syria not to mention many other parts of the world. And so this installation may reframe how you engage with the content of war.