Lawrence Abu Hamdan Penetrates an Inaccessible Prison Using Sound

St. Louis

at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Earwitness Inventory, 2018, custom-designed objects/instruments, animated text, 29 minutes, 44 seconds; at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.


Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s harrowing sound installation Saydnaya (the missing 19db), 2017, consists largely of whispers. In a recording that plays at low volume, a male narrator recounts in Arabic his experiences of being incarcerated in Syria’s Saydnaya prison—where thousands of political dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, over ten thousand of whom are believed to have been executed—his words translated into English by a woman speaking in hushed tones. He describes how he and his fellow prisoners endured untold hours of strictly enforced silence, as well as regular beatings from guards—sometimes for coughing, sometimes just because. They were kept in pitch darkness, and blindfolded when taken out of their cells, so their aural memories of Saydnaya are among the few available means of documenting its brutalities.

Saydnaya (the missing 19db) was presented in a small, dark soundproofed room in the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’s showing of Abu Hamdan’s “Earwitness Theatre”—a touring exhibition for which the artist has been nominated for this year’s Turner Prize. The “earwitness” testimony employed in the installation is from a 2016 investigation into the prison conducted by the collective Forensic Architecture (of which Abu Hamdan is a member) and commissioned by Amnesty International. Because human rights inspectors and journalists have repeatedly been denied entry to the prison, Forensic Architecture interviewed five Saydnaya survivors, using their testimonies to create an interactive model of the prison. This research has figured in several Forensic Architecture exhibitions, an Amnesty International report concluding that the treatment of prisoners at Saydnaya constitutes crimes against humanity, and a legal case in Germany, as well as other artworks by Abu Hamdan included in “Earwitness Theatre.”

Initially, Abu Hamdan used available film sound effects as an aide-mémoire when conducting his interviews with former Saydnaya prisoners, but he found them to be insufficient. To help re-create the noises the interviewees were describing, he assembled his own set of custom instruments. The installation Earwitness Inventory (2018) featured an array of these items scattered across the floor of one gallery, intermixed with more common sound-effect instruments, like half-carpeted stairs, which can be used to produce sounds of people walking. Smaller tools were lined up on a metal shelving unit, including lengths of tubing and (to reproduce the sound of slamming doors, which prisoners had compared to that of a dropped stack of flatbread hitting the floor) a packet of pitas. While these items may have had functional value as investigative tools—used, for example, to ascertain how often detainees heard whippings versus beatings, or heard the trucks whose arrival signaled imminent executions—the installation presented them without context, so they appeared more like decorative props.

The video installation Walled Unwalled (2018) takes the form of a TED talk–style lecture. It’s a slick, breezy production, with long tracking shots of Abu Hamdan delivering a presentation on several court cases that hinged on questions concerning the permeability of walls. In one segment, he discusses the case of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who shot his girlfriend through a locked bathroom door. Pistorius claimed that he thought she was an intruder, while the prosecution argued that her voice could have been heard through the wall. Abu Hamdan diagrams hypothetical trajectories of the sound waves to back up the prosecution’s (ultimately successful) case. Another segment of the video focuses on Danny Lee Kyllo, a marijuana grower in Oregon who was arrested in 1992 after police took thermal images of his house without a warrant. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the right to privacy extended to the molecular level. 

Though Abu Hamdan’s work is undoubtedly compelling, it’s worth noting the dangers of uncritically accepting the sort of evidence he presents, especially given the current climate of fake news. The works in “Earwitness Theatre,” co-commissioned by several art institutions, were intended for the transnational art stage, but the investigative material that underwrites them is increasingly being treated as admissible evidence at the International Criminal Court. Is this art in the service of forensic investigation and systemic justice, or the other way around?


This article appears under the title “Lawrence Abu Hamdan” in the October 2019 issue, pp. 92–93.