A tremble runs through a room of fragile ceramics. 

I keep coming back to this scene in my mind, imagining a single wave of vibration through the floor, and the high-pitched sound of shivering clay. This image is becoming something of a meditation, a compulsion, a stim. I’m picturing Sameer Farooq’s ceramic installations which consist of hundreds of fragile components, and yet when they shake in my mind, nothing breaks.

Farooq’s touring exhibition The Fairest Order in the World is full of meditation prompts. A series of monoprints titled Twenty-Four Affections is inspired by tantric paintings from Rajasthan—geometric abstractions of gods that students would visualize and recall as a form of meditation. An ambient sound composition by Gabie Strong plays in 6-minute intervals throughout the entire gallery, and acts as a walking meditation between artworks. The quiet chime that marks these intervals is barely detectable if you aren’t listening for it, and the stations along the walk are undefined and fluid. This loose format allows visitors to interrogate their own sense of pace, and desire (or lack of desire) to linger. According to Farooq, this circuit is a way of “letting the nuances, and the curves, and the undulations, and the colours of the work also work upon the body.”

If it were possible to collect all navels of the world on the steps to ASCENSION (2018). Fired clay, stepped display. Photo: Steve Farmer.

Farooq keeps returning to the circular meditation of an egg being cracked open, falling, and spilling back upward into its original egg form. He was reaching for this image while creating dozens of ceramics for the installation I opened up the radio but there was no-one inside. He said “I want this egg on a loop,” and the material responded with many cracked, glossy, amorphous, failed and successful iterations of the egg. In a way, the material followed the meditation prompt. I scanned each row of ceramic objects from left to right like words on a page. They undulated like frames in a stop motion animation. I saw a tall obelisk melting into a round puddle, which ripples out, and splashes back up into a different obelisk. It’s hard not to personify them, or see them as ashtrays, dildos, dishes, creatures. Together, they become a ritual of pattern, a grounding strategy, a self-soothing rhythm.

The exhibition curated by Mona Filip is on view at Dalhousie University Art Gallery until December 22, 2023. The Toronto-based artist has exhibited widely internationally, but this is his first exhibition in Nova Scotia, despite being born in Cape Breton. The opening reception featured a performance by Mi’kmaw movement artist Sarah Prosper from Eskasoni First Nation, which was co-presented by Prismatic Arts Festival. Farooq considered Prosper’s movement activation to be a way of “welcoming these new materials and new objects onto the land.” Prosper moved intuitively, focusing on one small ceramic object among hundreds, and Farooq was reminded of how long these processes of welcoming, repatriation, and repair are when they’re approached with care. He sees the exhibition as a way of “imagining a language of exit,” whereby repatriated objects leave “punched out holes and gaps” in museum collections that don’t necessarily need to be filled.

The exhibition takes its name from the Heraclitus quote, “The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings.” As a way of commenting on museum collections, Farooq assembled a collection of remnants— ceramic onions, margin notes, and collage components. His artworks are sapphic; they are small fragments that remain where a full story once was, before it was swept away by the passage of time. The artist is interested in “this idea of building these speculative museums, where objects would cohere for a moment, and then break apart and then they would re-cohere, and break apart.”

Ascension (Onions), 2022. Fired ceramic, mason stain, bricks, steel poles. Photo: Steve Farmer

Farooq creates instant artifacts—brand new objects that evoke the museological systems that collect, classify, and fetishize cultural belongings. They are organized meticulously and harmoniously, in the same way that a chord is an organized collection of notes played simultaneously. Farooq is inspired by Canadian philosopher, poet and musician Jan Zwicky, who draws upon musical theory to describe how lyric narrative means in a different way than how analytic language means. The poetic and text-based works in the exhibition are collaborations with American poet Jared Stanley. Farooq created the geometric monoprints in Twenty-Four Affections after coming out of somatic body movement meditation, at which point “an image would drop like a hen laying a golden egg.” On the other side of each print, Jared Stanley’s narrative text compositions act as fragmented museum labels, or an inner monologue of comments and questions. Next to a bold, profound poem is a scribbled question, “sounds good, but what does it mean?” This voice acts like a mosquito, a speculator, a critic, a jester. The prints are suspended between glass in the middle of the gallery so there is no front or back, and a network of words connects the entire gallery.

Farooq’s film The Museum Visits a Therapist was co-created with Mirjam Linschooten, and features a conversation between a personified museum and a therapist, referencing the sounds and visuals of EMDR-treatment. The video footage shows conservators handling the bisj poles of the Asmat people of Papua held in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, which translates to the Tropics Museum, but before 1949 it was known as the Colonial Museum. The therapist asks whether the museum agrees or disagrees with a series of statements:

“Losing an object feels like losing a part of me.”

“I collect things I don’t need.”
“Agree… or no, disagree.”

The museum describes the nightmares he’s experienced since his mission trips in New Guinea, embodying the donor who looted the cultural belongings. The voice of the museum is intentionally ambiguous, reflecting a lack of persona, direction, or ethic. The neutral voice of the institution slips, quickly becoming the personification of his stakeholders. The last frame of the film is the trembling hand of a conservator, holding a beaded doll. The narrator says, “From this fracture comes a century of arranging through polite gloved hands. The rifle is turned into an awl, but the hand still shakes.”

I opened up the radio but there was no-one inside (2022). Fired clay, stepped display. Photo: Steve Farmer.

The tremble that runs through the gallery in my mind connects many small tremors into one larger wave. One of Jared Stanley’s text fragments says, “a wobble, an ooze, then it / all goes up in wildfire smoke.” Another says, “Your fingers quiver / you’ve agreed to life.” By contrast, Farooq described Sarah Prosper’s performance saying, “it was done with such intention, care, deliberateness.” Somehow the tremors of uncertainty and the deliberateness co-exist and don’t compete with one another. When the room shakes in my mind, nothing breaks.