Turner Prize winner brings innovative artistic approach to UChicago

As Gray Center fellow, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work in sound art inspires scholars, students

Artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan calls himself a “private ear.” He not only investigates sounds with the training of a forensic audio analyst, but pulls from them narratives that help illuminate everything from crime scenes to the conditions of an infamous Syrian prison.

This year, Abu Hamdan brought that innovative approach to his fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. And this month, his work was honored with the prestigious Turner Prize, which he shared with three other artists in an unprecedented moment for the 35-year-old award.

“For me, sound is very much part of the messiness of the world,” Abu Hamdan said in an interview with the Turner Contemporary art gallery. “It’s very much inseparable from vision. And for me, what I’m most interested in sound is not the medium itself, but that it can’t be contained. That you can’t put it in a box.”

That sort of thinking has informed Abu Hamdan’s yearlong fellowship with the Gray Center, founded in 2011 as a forum for experimental collaboration between artists and scholars. During the fall quarter, he taught a seminar called “The Sonic Image” with UChicago alum Hannah Higgins—an art historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago—and Prof. W. J. T. Mitchell, a leading theorist of media, visual art and literature.

“Lawrence Abu Hamdan is, without question, one of the most outstanding young artists in the world today, as the Turner Prize attests,” said Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English, Art History and Visual Arts. “He is pioneering a completely novel approach to so-called ‘sound art,’ bringing it out of a purely aesthetic and sensory realm of hearing, into the political and social contexts of auditory technologies.”

Their seminar, Mitchell added, “has been constantly inspired by his innovative work in forensic sound.” The class culminated in a collective artwork recreating elements from the Nuremberg trials, a project that served as preparation for a forthcoming art installation in Germany. Abu Hamdan will return to UChicago in March for a public performance of the work he developed as a Gray Center fellow, and is working with Higgins and Mitchell on a UChicago Press book project about the sonic image.

Higgins, AM’89, PhD’94, praised how Abu Hamdan “facilitated dialogue about the space, norms and technologies of witness testimony,” as well as his ability to “move nimbly across disciplinary boundaries” in his teaching.

That interdisciplinary, collaborative spirit was also evident in Abu Hamdan’s recent decision with fellow artists to share the Turner Prize.

Named for renowned English painter J. M. W. Turner, the award is given annually to an artist who was born in Great Britain or primarily works there. Past winners include sculptor Anish Kapoor, who created Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park; and director Steve McQueen, best known for the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave.

On Dec. 3, Abu Hamdan won the Turner Prize with Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani—all of whom decided to share the honor in a statement of political and artistic solidarity. Despite not having met before they were nominated, they wrote a letter asking to be recognized as a single collective. The jury agreed, allowing the quartet to split the £40,000 prize (approximately $52,000).

“I think art has the possibility to tell a truth,” Abu Hamdan told the Turner Contemporary. “I think it is a mode of truth production—just like law, just like science. But I think it has its own way of telling the truth.

“And that’s really what my goal is: To both posit truth, but also to push the boundaries of what constitutes or what constitutes speech.”