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Introduction Operations in the Contact Zone brings together Oliver Flexman’s latest body of work, which continues a practice of investigation into identity and context. Here, he explores the inter-change between two cultures that he first experienced as child, growing up in the Middle East. “My main memories [of growing up in Oman in the 1980s] are of Ice Skating, Go Carting, Suzuki Jeeps, Madonna, Kodak and Pepsi. I was, after all a child, for whom these things are important wherever you are. However thats not to say that all the amazing cultural, social and natural world around me didn’t penetrate through the western bubble. “ Of course, a child growing up in the UK at the same time may well have based their view of the ‘Arab world’ around the rolling dunes of Fry’s Turkish Delight ads, the Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, exotic belly dancers and Sunday afternoon re-runs of Rudolph Valentino movies. Flexman’s works investigate a range of stereotypes that govern our perception and engagement with the Arab world. He explores ways in which story telling

and consumer products, pervasive in both Western and Arab societies, act upon the way in which both cultural spheres understand each other. Plausible but fictional vintage product slogans capture a bygone set of values associated with the Arab world in the West, while the Arabic branding of products such as Coke highlight the hegemony of the global marketplace. Both are counterpointed by images of the blunt stereotypes of contemporary Hollywood’s cinematic shorthand – wailing minarets, oil and war, and the representation of banal care labels as vast wall hangings, suggests the darker side of contemporary cross-cultural (mis)understanding. Inspired in turns by 19th century Orientalism to the globalised language of advertising and consumer labelling, from the tales of the Arabian Nights to the ubiquity of global soft drink branding, Flexman aims to highlight the subtle, and not so subtle differences signified by these to both cultures, along with the deep-seated hypocrisies, fears and misconceptions that may arise between them. Matt Burrows Curator Exeter Phoenix

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. Paramount Pictures 1936

Works 1. Untitled (Mecca) 2. For A World of Difference 3. American Stickers Assembled on a Door Frame 4. Genie’s Polish 5. Aladdin Ink 6. As Mild As Pure Water 7. Between Two Rivers 8. Tasty 9. You Got The Right One Baby, Uh Huh! 10. Now, Aladdin, Let’s Just Be Clear About One Thing 11. Warning: Incorrect Fitting Or Positioning Of This

Safety Barrier Can Be Dangerous 12. Products i (Fanta, 7up, Pringles and Coca-Cola) 13. Products ii (Mazola, Sprite, KitKat and Canada Dry) 14. Wash and Iron Inside Out

(Previous Page) Vincenzo Marinelli, The Dance of the Bee in the Harem 1862

Between Two Rivers, 2011. Video. Š the artist

Interview The interview for this booklet was conducted between Aimee Dawson and Oliver Flexman during June 2012 AD. Why the interest in Arabic culture? OSF. I’m not uniquely interested in Arabic culture. I’m interested in identity and my work has always reflected that interest. Identity and context; how people relate to the spaces that they occupy, how they develop their identities and create context. My work has evolved over the last couple of years following a conscious decision to move from sitespecific engagement to a wider practice. As part of this I began to revisit my history and in particular the impact that living in the Middle-East as a child has had on my perception of the society I live in today. AD. Am i right in thinking that humour plays a role in your work? OSF. Well yes and no, its not satirical, or political, but I hope that there is a particular sensitivity, which draws on humour. What I’m interested in is exploring identities - particularly through the increased sharing of pervasive aesthetics,

Genie’s Polish, 2012. Giclee Print. © the artist

consensual directives, goods and cultural assets. The bits and pieces around us that form our daily context, that fuel our sense of place and help create our identities. I think a certain amount of humour maybe is necessary when looking at identity, especially others, providing there is a level of (Opposite) Aladdin Ink, 2012. Digital Print. © the artist

Products i, (Fanta, 7up, Pringles, Coca-Cola) 2012. detail. Risograph Print. Š the artist

respect. I guess my work is quite British in that way. Humour helps when touching on cultures such as those in the Middle East, to which the widespread reaction is often so serious, it helps to have a little fun, however slight. AD. Is that why McDonalds and Pepsi pop up in the work? OSF. Yes, they are funny. But they are really there because of the differences they represent to (Opposite) Products ii (Mazola, Sprite, Canada Dry, KitKat), 2012. Risograph Print. Š the artist

different communities. The McDonald’s in Dubai has a different cultural register for the people within its locale than does the one, say in Dundee, but both are cultural imports from the same tree. In a way I’m interested in, which one is closer to the ‘mean type’, the authentic, the ‘real’. I am really interested in the effect that the same product might have in both places. Hang on, actually McDonald’s, isn’t in any of the works. AD. Could you explain what you mean by ‘meantype’ ? OSF. In Genetics as a species evolves scientists revise the current ‘truest’ version of that species – a benchmark against which they can compare subsequent mutations. In some organisms, which are in constant flux this means constantly assessing and updating the agreed proper version. It’s a function I really like. So when considering a similar situation in visual and social culture, such as a register against the proliferation of trends, or in this case fast food franchises throughout the world, there is a continuously evolving authenticity, created by cross-cultural mutation, which can and ought to be constantly assessed. (Opposite and Above) For A World Of Difference, 2012. Sculpture © the artist

For A World Of Difference, 2012. Sculpture © the artist

AD. Some of the references in the show are to old portraits of the Arab world. I’m thinking particularly to the references to the Arabian Nights. How does this relate to the modern world? OSF. Of course in the modern world the Arab contries relationship with the West is super charged and like most people I find all the noise, all the action deeply disturbing. Like most I know that sinking feeling of deja-vu, as leaders in the West try their best to reinvent the Middle East, with fresh proclamations of freedom and peoples’ human rights, but I don’t think you can make art work about this. I’m not even sure that

Now, Aladdin, Let’s Just Be Clear About One Thing. 2012. Risograph and Gold Leaf © the artist

you can make art work about specific political moments and call it art. Generally that’s criticism, commentary or rebellion and from where i’m standing I’m certainly in no position to do any of that. I consider my own work as a commentary on the effects of external elements on an internal identity. Thats why I’m interested in the background, the suppositions, the shared references. The use of old references is a reflection on my culture, to the interconnections of both cultures, and to the effect that Orientalism may have had on the political, moral, religious hegemony that exists today. The references to the Arabian Nights should be seen as a reference to the evolution of identities and stereotypes, not as a comment on the significance or otherwise of the Nights, or the stereotypes, which on first glance they portray. I’m interested in the fact that they exist and the familiarity with which they are known. I also reference classic globalisation and American Imperialism, but I hope that I do it in a way that doesn’t place too much importance on the act itself, but again recognises its presence as part of the bland infrastructure which creates identity and a sense of belonging. (Opposite) Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad, 1924

You Got The Right One Baby, Uh Huh! 2012. Š the artist

AD. For you what is identity? OSF. Regardless of where you live or what you do, a sense of identity linked to your locale is essential. Without it people are dislocated and disenfranchised. So the question is how do we harness and adopt a unique (or real) sense of identity within context. As cultures become increasingly fractured and complex we begin to get a sense that the number of cultural elements goes down in direct relation to the rise in varying configurations. That is to say that cultural identity is increasingly made up of sequences of numerous interchangeable elements, whereas (Opposite) Tasty, 2011. Sculpture Š the artist

before it may have been made from fewer but often well pronounced and different elements. AD. You express your work through a variety of mediums. What is the significance of their usage in relation to the work itself? OSF. I don’t consciously look to make work across a specific range of media. I come from a background of adapting media to work rather than the other way round. In a way anything goes, but it makes it a real challenge to link the ideas to any particular medium, especially if the ideas are based on pervasive objects themselves. I believe that meaning is constructed, not arrived at by endeavour or any other romantic notion of art making. If I think about the more well known art I was interested in at college it was Arte Provera, American Land art, Gilbert and George, Sophie Calle, Steven Willats, Mark Wallinger and AVI, all of whom in different ways questioned the function and meaning of art in society and all of whom make or made work from components rather than some magical alchemy. After college I felt that this was best explored through interactions away from the art object and the gallery. As such I made work through constructed situations directly with people, so as to explore meaning through these interactions, but my view has changed. As

life becomes more abstract, more secondary, the importance of the object to hold and convey ideas and experiences becomes more, not less significant. There is a largely cynical argument that the importance of the art object is augmented by the strength of art market and not by genuine creative choices, but this belies the importance of the opportunity to physically interact with the artefact. So yes this affects my choice of medium, it means that I am now less inclined to work in video, performance or engagement processes. AD. You’ve said that you left site-specific work behind in favour of engaging larger audiences. In what ways do you think your previous work affects the way you have approached this new gallery-based work? Do you think this knowledge adds another dimension/ layer of understanding to your work? OSF. Oh totally, I am still very interested in context, for me the way that context effects peoples responses and experiences of the same stimuli is very important. I made an early video and situation piece, which involved members of the public talking about their most significant objects. The conversations were then linked to the physical context through the installation of objects (on video screens) throughout a city centre in the same relative position that (Next Page) As Mild As Pure Water (Johnsons Baby Wipes), 2012. Fabric Š the artist

the participants occupied (lived) in the suburbs. For me the relationship between object and existence combined by the personal, emotional or functional bonds between individual and object is important for exploring the human condition. This is still prevalent in my work, but instead of focussing on individual relationships the work looks at objects as the external influences on wider identity and senses of belonging.


(Previous Page) Wash and Iron Inside Out , 2012. Fabric Š the artist

Events Artists Talk: Thu 2 Aug, 7.30pm, FREE
 Eye Opener tour & discussion: Wed 29 Aug, 12pm, FREE Riso-print Workshop: Wednesday 25 Jul, 2 - 6pm Film Screening: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) Thu 2 Aug, 6pm Education Education notes available on request. Location Exeter Phoenix Gandy Street, Exeter, EX4 3LS

Hours Open Daily 10am-5pm

Tel: 01392 667080 Email Sign up for news subscribe at:

Publication printed by Prt Scr PRESS Basement Studio, Exeter Phoenix, Bradninch Place, Gandy Street, Exeter, EX4 3LS With special thanks Aimee Dawson Wafa Iskander Nick Davies Curator: Matt Burrows

Supported by Arts Council England 2012



Exhibition Guide  
Exhibition Guide  

Conversation edited into publication to accompany Operations in the Contact Zone exhibition. Exeter Phoenix 2013.