Maryam Jafri’s Automatic Negative Thought amuses and unsettles at the Contemporary Art Gallery

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      Maryam Jafri: Automatic Negative Thought
      At the Contemporary Art Gallery until September 22

      Maryam Jafri’s solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery encompasses an unexpected range of forms and images, from silicone feet pierced with acupuncture needles to a giant crossword puzzle that doubles as a bookcase. By these surprising means—and more—the internationally acclaimed artist dissects and examines the social, economic, and political elements that shape our lives.

      Based in New York and Copenhagen, Jafri works across disciplines, including sculpture, video, photography, and performance. She often employs found objects and appropriated images that, as CAG curator Kimberly Phillips said at a recent talk at the gallery, “are symptoms of the conditions Jafri is interrogating”.

      Both amusing and unsettling, the multicomponent Wellness-Postindustrial Complex asks us to consider the current and widespread wellness and self-care trends. Jafri’s surreal sculptures include cupping equipment set in an egg carton, a roll of “toilet paper” made out of a strip of purple yoga mat, and, yes, those realistic-looking human feet, purchased from a fetish-object merchandiser and stabbed with acupuncture needles that look, here, like instruments of torture. Jafri’s art points to underlying conditions of social fragmentation, economic dispossession, and notions of productivity. Capitalism, particularly, makes economically vulnerable individuals—people she calls, collectively, “the precariat”—feel responsible for their inability to produce if they fall ill.

      When I was looking at the exhibition guide to Jafri’s show, I initially misread the title of another work, American Buddhist, as American Bullshit—a kind of Freudian slip in dyslexic form, as it turns out. This sculpture consists of stacked plywood boxes mimicking the shape of a Buddhist altar. A video monitor sits on the top tier, and the lower tier is decorated with silly-looking, stuffed-toy Buddhas (and one errant Peter Rabbit) and a garland of artificial flowers—all fakery and diminishment of spiritual belief. The ultra-ironic note here is that the video playing on the monitor is of a meditation workshop led in 2010 by the first Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. army. He is not teaching meditation techniques to returning soldiers with PTSD, however, but to soldiers in an active combat zone in Iraq. As Phillips writes in her curatorial essay, “Viewers are left to reflect upon the contradiction of seeking inner peace within the context of armed conflict.” Jafri also invites us to consider the weird flow of influence, from the counterculture embrace of Asian spiritual practices through mainstream consumer culture and then to the military-industrial “optimization” of the same religious practices by the U.S. army.

      The artist is careful to note that the meditation-workshop video is publicly available on a U.S. army site, something to consider when viewing her newly commissioned single-channel video Mariam Jafri vs. Maryam Jafri. Projected wall-size in a darkened gallery and more verbal than visual, this work uses the artist’s personal experience and past research to address image appropriation, intellectual property, and copyright issues. Jafri asks us to consider how society places value on artists’ labour—or not. At the same time, she reveals image-licensing practices that favour the wealthy and powerful, in ways that are both absurd and predatory. Oh, and sadly unsurprising.