Pearls of Wonder @ Qatar America Institute for Culture
It was three in the afternoon when I visited the Qatar America Institute for Culture (QAIC) last month. But the curtains were closed on the third floor, the dark rooms lit only by the flickering LED of digital projections. In the artificial blue light, I felt like I was underwater.
Originally showcased in New York City, Pearls of Wonder is a multisensory exhibit that came to Washington, D.C. this summer. It features the work of five Qatari artists—Maryam Al Homaid, Alanoud Al-Buainain, May Almannai, Saida Al-Khulaifi, and Mohammed Faraj Al-Suwaidi—depicting the country’s history of pearl diving. Before oil became its main export, Qatar was renowned for its pearl production, a trade rooted in thousands of years of tradition and grueling labor. Pearl divers spent their summers at sea, holding their breaths for 50-foot dives to collect oysters by hand. They worked under perilous conditions, dodging sharks and stingrays only to return to the cramped, disease-ridden ship that transported the divers.
The first time I visited Pearls of Wonder was during Dupont ArtWalk, an event where arts venues around the Dupont Circle area open their doors to visitors on the first Friday evening of each month. I was with my family, and we arrived at the QAIC shortly before it closed. I had just enough time for a quick look around, a glance into the VR installation in the leftmost room. An Oculus Quest headset was mounted on a lonely wall. No one touched it. But I was curious, and I knew how to work the thing, so I put it over my head. It didn't turn on.
But I knew I had to visit again, so I scheduled a tour for the one Tuesday where my class held during the exhibition time was canceled. My favorite piece was Maryam Al-Homaid’s “Singing Narratives Within The Deep Sea,” presented as a video projected on white cloth in the second room I visited. The piece pairs archival footage with the text of a poem, blooming across the projection in glowing, Arabic bubble-letters in percussive rhythm to Arabic chants. I can neither read nor understand the language, so I would have assumed that the spoken word was a reading (or as it seemed, singing) of them poem’s text. But my tour guide told me that it was a recording of a prayer that pearl divers would chant before submerging into the sea.
Part of the reason why I returned to the QAIC was to see the virtual reality piece on display. Unfortunately, there was no headset in sight in the installation of Mohammed Faraj Al-Suwaidi's "Bubbles and Pearls." But I saw, on the windowsill where the headsets were mounted originally, a sheet of instructions for running the virtual reality experience. Seemed like it was meant to give viewers a taste of the pearl diving experience—the challenge without the peril—in virtual reality. I asked staff where the VR piece went, and apparently something wasn't working so they had to send the piece back to the artist to fix it. I wonder what broke. The piece had been showcased before, so… a Meta SDK change? Damaged hardware?
As I prepare to install my own VR piece for a class project, I’m reckoning with how to present virtual reality for public viewing. The best experiences I’ve had with VR art installations have been with student work on campus, where student volunteers or the artists themselves were in the installation space helping viewers get set up. Most people have never used virtual reality before—it’s not enough just to drop the headset next to an instructions card and hope visitors figure it out. On the other hand, I feel like Instagram filters are probably the best way today for an artist to platform an augmented reality installation as Al-Suwaidi's piece did—even if this access is limited to people who use the app. Instagram’s filters come with built-in onboarding. I wish it didn’t have to be housed on such a commercial platform, but functionally Instagram provides an adequate infrastructure.
I also appreciated the projection installed alongside the virtual and augmented reality. Although it was a more passive experience than the artist likely envisioned for VR, the graphics were beautiful and I think gave me a stylistic and atmospheric taste of what I would have experienced in VR. The term "immersion" is a metaphor itself for submerging in water, and even without the VR I was able to do just that.
As with MARMO | Marble, which I reviewed earlier this year, Pearls of Wonder was a showcase of international new media art in connection with a foreign embassy. I didn’t realize how big a contributor the geopolitical context of Washington, D.C. had in bringing new media artwork to the area. I started this blog to question what “local” meant in the new media world, and am now beginning to understand the range of experiences that come to us: from DIY-hosted experiments to international exhibitions.
Pearls of Wonder in general had me thinking about the role of digital media in preserving and remixing the past. I am taking a couple of digital humanities courses next semester, so the question is front of mind. Artists today are afforded automation—something that would have made life much, much easier for the pearl divers. It was interesting to see how these artists remixed analog archival materials of a once-manual trade to present it to a new audience of digital natives.
This is a partial review. I hope to come back—maybe make a part two to this review—since there was another tech/art exhibition I didn't know was on view at the QAIC. During my visit, I learned of their 2023 theme “Technology & the Arts” which informed their events and exhibits for the year. I was too late for most of them, but the IMPART exhibition is still open… I’ll have to go soon. It closes at the end of the year.
Pearls of Wonder: a digital era is on display at the Qatar America Institute for Culture until December 15. Appointments can be booked in 30-minute slots online on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.