A standoff between Apple and the FBI over de-encrypting a terrorist's cell phone; another drone strike made possible by spying that can pinpoint a Taliban leader's car from far above the earth — the loaded issue of government surveillance is omnipresent.
Guggenheim Fellowship-winning artist Hasan Elahi, a professor at University of Maryland, College Park, approaches the issue from a highly personal perspective. That perspective imbues a multilayered exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, which just added Elahi to its artist roster.
Detained and investigated by the FBI in 2002 after a flight from Amsterdam, the Bangladeshi-born Elahi, a naturalized American citizen, devised an extraordinary response to the government's suspicions — unfounded suspicions, though it took months of additional scrutiny before officials agreed.
Ever since, the artist has documented his every move and shared that information openly. By turning surveillance around, recording his travels, meals, even restrooms, Elahi slyly deals with what it means to live in a world where everyone is watched by someone or something.
That statement also translates into notable art, as the Grimaldis show, "Hasan Elahi: Datamine," reaffirms.
"Stay" is an installation that has as its focal point a full-sized unmade bed surrounded by photographs of many more unmade empty beds. On one level, there's a fascinating sculptural quality to each fold and crumple. But these are beds Elahi slept in, all across the globe, photographed for the benefit of any prying official eyes.
That the tightly cropped images tell the viewer nothing of the actual locale is a statement in itself. By baring so much of his private life, the artist actually reveals very little of its substance. (He doesn't appear in the photos; no one else does, either.)
We are now used to people texting or posting on social media images of what they're eating, as if anyone should seriously care. When Elahi started doing it, pre-Facebook era, there was method to the process.
His "Altitude, v3," for example, contains small pictures — more than 125 — of airline food served on his travels. The mix of colors and content makes a vivid effect; the point behind the exercise makes an even greater one.
Dominating one wall of the gallery is a particularly theatrical and haunting example of Elahi's work, "Prism. v2," a photo montage measuring 9 by 24 feet.
Alternating between seven multicolored vertical columns are six more in black and white. As Lafayette College art history professor Robert S. Mattison points out in the exhibit catalog, "it is no coincidence that the American flag has the same number of stripes."
The black-and-white bars reveal details from the roof of the NSA headquarters, a spy cam's view. The contrasting color-rich columns suggest mosaics from a distance, but turn out to be tiny, people-less photographs — more than 25,000 in all — of places Elahi shared as part of the "Tracking Transience" project he started in after his FBI encounter to provide what he calls "a 24-hour alibi."
Subtler still is "Conelrad," a series of 6-feet-tall pigment prints on canvas that appear to be abstracts, each consisting of 365 thin stipes of myriad colors. It's easy to appreciate these pieces on that visual level alone, but a whole new dimension opens up when you dig deeper.
The title comes from the name of a government emergency broadcast system introduced in 1951 to warn of nuclear attack. As for the content of each canvas, that springs from Elahi's ongoing self-documentation; photographs taken at noon on each day of the year are stretched digitally to create the stripes.
A couple of video installations complete the show, including the riveting "Peak, v3." It was shot on the Mars-like landscape of Hawaii's volcano Mauna Kea, where sterile buildings containing equipment for planetary surveillance provide an eerie focal point as mountainous clouds unfold across a bold blue sky.