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Abdullah M. I. Syed
Divine Economy – Chapter One: Structures

Curated by Mikala Tai

November 16th – December 30th, 2017
Press Preview & Opening Reception: Thursday, November 16th, 6:00pm – 8:00pm
35 Great Jones St., New York NY 10012

Aicon Gallery is pleased to present Divine Economy – Chapter One: Structures, the second major U. S. solo exhibition by Pakistan-born Sydney-based artist Abdullah M. I. Syed. The exhibition - four years in the making since his first showing with Aicon Gallery in New York - represents the first of three exhibitions relating to Syed’s ongoing research on the (re)presentation of religious, political, and economic systems and how these systems mutually construct and inform one another. The unfolding of this three-part narrative, begins Syed’s foray into documenting the state of the world through the structural, conceptual and material languages of the economy. The inspiration for the project arises from Syed’s ongoing use of printed banknotes and his fascination with Heaven and Hell, and their currencies of sawab (reward), as eternal pleasure, and gunah (sin), as eternal pain.

Through both rigorous artistic investigation and playful conceptual satirization, Divine Economy: Structures examines the integral interwoven systems that shape our societies. These systems are veiled within the monotony of everyday life, where they exist as invisible lines of control. Central to Syed’s practice is the revelation of these complex economies of coercion that implicate the individual. Over the past several years Syed has led this investigation through the medium of uncirculated printed currency. Through artistic interventions, the transactional materiality of the note reveals the convergence of religious, political and economic systems.

Through the gestural act of meticulously and painstakingly drawing and cutting patterns into printed banknotes by hand, Syed directly intervenes with a cornerstone of contemporary societies’ value systems. Currency, the very bastion on which our transactional society is built, becomes the site of denouement. Recurring geometric patterns in Divine Economy: Structures are triangles, squares and hexagons, as well as symbols such as the ‘Eye of Providence’, the eye nestled in a triangle on one U.S. dollar bill. The ‘Eye of Providence’ reverberates in contemporary culture, politics and economies, but is also informed by complex one-eyed figures and symbols found in histories of Islamic eschatology, Judeo-Christian prophecy, Hindu and Egyptian sacred mythologies, and through to the Freemasons and Illuminati. Syed approaches this symbolism through repetitively hand-cutting the eye out of printed banknotes by the hundreds and isolating them in tessellated patterns that highlight the omnipresent monitoring of the all-seeing, all-witnessing eye. The remaining notes appear as stacked bricks inviting the audience to peer through the void, where they themselves become the ‘Eye of Providence”.

Syed’s research-led practice encourages the viewer to look again, to locate the unobserved, and to question the systems of semiotics that surround us. He unpacks this dense investigation through visual mazes of printed currency, constructed alongside his personal explorations of mythologies and historiographies that inform each meticulously hand-cut sheet of paper. This precision enables Syed to transform paper money, specifically U.S. dollar bills, into a critical commentary on the networks and occupations that determine its circulation. In the series Mapping Investment, each cut is informed by Islamic geometric patterns, and contemporary politics where sliced sheets of U.S. currency create voids that trace the geographical borders of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, where financial, religious and political control are in constant oscillation. This cutting becomes sculptural in Syed’s Moneyscape series where he addresses the grand narratives of war, power and control through intricate pop-up dioramas of imagined landscapes. By juxtaposing religious structures, such as Islamic mosques and Christian churches with state monuments and structures, Syed questions the ongoing commodification of theology and how the tranquil experiences of religious sites, such as Mecca, have been tarnished by the commercialization of their divine structures and the surrounding economies to which they’ve given rise.

Punctuating the opening of the exhibition is a new performance by Syed. Known for durational performative pieces that implicate his body as a site for the convergence of power and control, Syed recently performed Flesh and Blood during Asia Contemporary Art Week at New York’s Asia Society Museum. At the opening of Divine Economy: Structures Syed will premier Blue Chip, an interactive performance in which the audience will be invited to witness a physical enactment of the commodification of religion, politics and art.

Abdullah M. I. Syed (b. 1974) is a Pakistani-born contemporary artist living and working between Sydney, Karachi and New York. Trained in diverse disciplines, Syed utilizes a variety of mediums and techniques including sculpture, video installations, drawing, performance and texts to investigate collisions between art, religion, economy and politics. Syed earned a PhD in Art, Media and Design (2015) and a Master of Fine Arts (2009) from University of New South Wales, Sydney. He also holds a Bachelor of Art in Design (1999) and a Master of Education (2001) from University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), Oklahoma, U.S. Syed’s work has been featured in nine solo exhibitions and several national and international curated group exhibitions and performance events such as Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) Thinking Project, Asia Society Museum, New York (2017); Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (AsiaTOPA), Melbourne (2017); Karachi Biennial, Karachi (2017); Substitute, Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, Sydney (2016); Between Structure and Matter: Other Minimal Futures, Aicon Gallery, New York (2016); Creative Accounting, Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Sydney (2016); WAR, Newington Armory Gallery, Sydney (2016), and Future Archaeology, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney (2015). In 2017, Syed was the recipient of Australia's prestigious 2017 Carstairs Prize.