Expansive in their constructed spaces and tonalities, spectra of monochrome shift, morph, reveal and obscure across a series of canvases. These paintings – all from the Antropofagia series by Ariel Hassan – are quietly captivating in their complexity, their presence. Neither reticent, nor generous, Hassan’s works announce themselves with the subtle assurance of a self-organising system; uninterested in external input, they have a gravitas and structure that renders the viewer obsolete. This may sound harsh, but it is in no way a personal affront that Hassan’s paintings deliver – they are each, merely, and ultimately, very good at running, and at being themselves.
Begun in 2018, and comprised of both smaller (70 x 51 cm) and larger (up to 304 x 200 cm) works, Antropofagia is not yet complete. With his title for this series, Hassan invokes the twentieth century Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade, and his 1928 Manifesto Antropófago. In it, the latter describes a process whereby a colonised culture ingests, digests and thereby subsumes, without expunging, its coloniser. Meaning “cannibalism”, antropofagia, in Andrade’s terms, is not only about a culture surviving, or overcoming, but incorporating and hybridising. It is a process of subversion, and metamorphic power.
The violence, gore and deviance associated with cannibalism is not in literal evidence in Hassan’s paintings; only in some of his evocative titles do we glimpse the bloodier potential of this term (as in “Onto Whom All Things Lie and are Insatiably Devoured”, or, “Newly Born as a Feast Offering”). Rather, in line with Andrade’s use, it acts more as a prompt for considering power dynamics and relationships between parts. Though visualised in abstract terms, and somewhat removed from human relatability, these themes are nonetheless intricately described by Hassan, in his range of desaturated hues of gold, blue, red, yellow and blacks and whites, approximating a grey tonality which moves, merges, vibrates, and appears as though alive across his canvases.
Depending on your point of view, the Antropofagia paintings may present as a variety of self-regulating systems: topographical images, snapshots of cosmic nebulae, even internal scenes of organs seething. Regardless, they are works labyrinthine in their detail, and absorbed, self-sufficient in their own complex functioning. In one of the smaller paintings, Suspending Taboo Without Suppressing It, we witness an occurrence of elements responding to one another: some overpower, others concede, some hang in the balance – side-by-side, together but untouching. Perhaps, it is possible to discern a range of snowy peaks at the work’s centre, an icy lake ducked down into a crater; verdant valleys run like veins throughout, untouched by wintery fingers, spreading, easing themselves northward. And yet, to the south of the painting, dark terrain dominates. Evergreens perhaps, close enough to sea level to escape the threatening freeze, though shimmers of frost still coat what might be open grasslands. Here, the snow is taking all it can, coating any proffered hillocks, depending on them, in fact, for its gaining a foothold in more hostile territory. Reading this work as metaphor, we might see a dominating force (the taboo) caught in the act, paused in its process of colonisation, with pockets of resistance proving difficult to overcome; a tense, trembling event that speaks of autonomy and dependence, and ultimate power’s need for both.
Wherein, then, if Antropofagia is so content in its own iterations of process and functioning, can we locate a necessity, or an entry point for the viewer? Given Hassan’s reticence to evidence even his own hand at play in the works’ creation (his method of working involves structuring compositions digitally, and then precisely transferring these, in a practice almost devout in its exactitude, to canvas), this consideration seems particularly challenging. Perhaps it is less a question of finding or creating a purpose for our presence within the work, (for example, there is no iconography to make sense of, no text to read, no action to engage) and more a matter of diffusing the need to do so. Without an imperative to involve ourselves with them, we may be freer in our viewing, more open to allowing the paintings to be on their own, rather than our, terms. Such detachment is aided, not only through the works’ self-sustenance (and lack of external address), but soothed into occupancy through the paintings’ composition, their visual make-up, which allows our roaming, and our reverie, without any demand for action.
Hassan achieves balance in his works towards this effect, via their tone, structure, movement. In Annunciation, for example, the dark, amorphous void towards its centre, is surrounded, it seems, by swathes of cloud-coloured tulle, striated and pock-marked with light and blemish. There are abrupt instances of curves, and those more languid, encircling that central, potentially all-encompassing darkness. And yet, there, in its bottom right quarter, is a warning, or perhaps a saving grace; the small black sun acting as a counterpoint to the void – its spherical shape a rational contrast – effecting focus, even trance, offering attention in place of oblivion. Apparently inspired by Fra Angelico’s 1440s fresco of the same name, via Didi-Huberman’s analysis of the latter, Hassan balances shape, space and structure to draw his elements into relation, guiding also our line of sight, and our zones of visual access. In Fra Angelico’s fresco, our search for that invisible line of gaze that fizzles and snaps between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, is intercepted by a tiny window in the fresco’s background. It does not only offer escape from the work’s tension, but firmly beckons – insisting on us allowing the holy figures their privacy. Hassan’s dark sun functions like Fra Angelico’s window – drawing focus, proffering entry deep into the work’s space, but also, simultaneously, an exit from its constraints, its parameters. As such, they each balance the vortexes of activity that otherwise define the two Annunciations – whether it is the gaze or the void, each is countered by what are essentially mediative symbols, or portals to reverie. This sense of balance contributes to the holistic effect of both artists’ works, functioning, as Didi-Huberman describes in his analysis of Fra Angelico’s paintings, as "surfaces of contemplation”.
“Surface” does an injustice, however, to the depth of Hassan’s works, their infinite-seeming systems, defined by layers of tone, and highlights that run like rivulets of coursing energy throughout. The Antropofagia series delivers intricate arrangements of parts that track relations between forces and matter, simultaneously doing away with their artist and their audience, insisting on a constitutive and beautifully functioning life of their own. It seems an imperative to whisper in their presence, as though bearing witness to some ancient process; its abiding and its survival long before, long after we might have the pleasure to gaze.
Words by Claire Fuery-Jones
 Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
 Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico, 100.
OF MERCY AND TIME VR
This is the first work in a series of GAGPROJECTS-VR-INNER-EXPERIENCES being produced in collaboration with CLARITY VR.
Ariel Hassan’s Of Mercy and Time (2023) collapses old gods and new technologies into one another. In the work, we encounter a religious figure, whose form is a hybridisation of the Buddhist deity Tārā and the ancient Roman god Saturn. In bringing together the two figures, Hassan—as the work’s title suggests—brings together an amalgam of their qualities: Tārā’s mercy and Saturn’s association with time. Yet one does not need to know these exact cultural references in order to register the figure’s divine antecedence. This is a work whose effect is borne as much out of feeling as it is out of intellect. Seemingly cast completely out of burnished gold, the imposing figure in Of Mercy and Time visually transports us to a theistic context without a single word needing to be uttered. The aural elements of the work that are present only amplify this sense of transportation, as Christian traditions are introduced into the work through the sound of Johann Sebastian Bach’s aria ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ (“Have mercy, My God”). Hassan’s digitally rearranged soundscape emerges from his figure’s stomach, grounding the transcendence of Bach within the physical form.
Although one might expect to behold this central figure in a church, temple, or shrine, Of Mercy and Time exists in an entirely different setting: the space of virtual reality. Here, Hassan’s creativity is untrammelled. He is able to mould forms that are untethered from our terrestrial world. As he explains, there is no gravity or physical constraints in this place: “it’s the capacity of VR to do something that is completely immaterial or intangible.” But while the revolving otherworldly figure in Of Mercy and Time appears to transcend our reality, it also remains indelibly mired in it. On some level, the virtual-nature of the work seems to reflect our hyper-consumption of technology and the conditions of our logged-in, online, ever-streaming existence today.
When looking at the work, I find myself asking, whether it is a portrait of the new religion of the twenty first century, which sees so much of our lives contoured around our hand-held devices. The very form of the work harbours this provocation—as it adopts many of the tropes of religious transcendence, while at the same time withholding the ultimate practice of worship. Yet the work also cleaves a clear path away from the gamification of VR and its familiar deployment as entertainment. “The user is not entitled to operate the actions that are happening. There is no interactivity,” Hassan says. “You are putting yourself in a space that is intangible and is out of your jurisdiction.” Of Mercy and Time transacts in familiar technologies and recognisable symbolism, while ultimately moving beyond both.
Words by Tai Mitsuji