Lawrence Abu Hamdan 45th Parallel

    Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel, (video still), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel, (video still), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

45th Parallel focuses on the Haskell Free Library and Opera House—a unique municipal site between the jurisdictions of Canada and the United States, designed to straddle the frontier as a symbolic act of unity in the transnational town of Stansted. Beirut-based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan activates the legal and symbolic potential of this unique setting in his exploration of the complexities of border conflict.

Abu Hamdan wrote a monologue and devised a performance for the only dual-jurisdiction opera house in the world, constructed in 1904 under the patronage of the local Haskell family. Working on site to activate the legal and symbolic potential of the Haskell building, the artist’s script is performed by the acclaimed filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel. The story that unfolds centres on Hernández v. Mesa, a judicial case covering the fatal, cross-border shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican national in 2010 by a US Border Patrol agent. In 2019, when the case reached the Supreme Court, the Office of the President of the United States intervened in favour of Mesa—the border guard—to claim that, as the firearm was discharged on American soil and the murder of Hernández took place in Mexico, the guard could not be prosecuted in the US. The case was debated at the Supreme Court, where judges were openly fearful that Mesa’s prosecution would create a precedential vulnerability that could lead the families of every US drone strike victim to seek justice.

Setting a story about border conflict at a location intended to bring border nations together enriches Abu Hamdan’s considerations of how one border implicates the other, and how borders are not lines, but rather, richly layered spaces. Each act of the performance is demarcated by a scenographic change in the hand-painted backdrops behind the performer. First is the original Opera House’s backdrop of a Venice canal, followed by two new hand-painted backdrops created by the artist, which are also presented in the installation at Mercer Union. One references a 1920 painting by British artist Richard Carline of an aerial view of Damascus and its surrounding landscape, and the other depicts the concrete culvert of the 2010 El Paso-Juárez cross-border shooting. 

The video and backdrops presented at Mercer Union serve as a portrait of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, telling the story of permeable borders and impermeable laws as a reflection on how free movement, free knowledge, and free space remain under threat.

Curated by Julia Paoli, Director & Curator, Mercer Union; and Tairone Bastien, Curator, Toronto Biennial of Art

45th Parallel is a collaboration between Mercer Union and the Toronto Biennial of Art. It is commissioned by Mercer Union, Toronto; Toronto Biennial of Art; Spike Island, Bristol; and Western Front, Vancouver. The film is produced by LONO Studio and made possible with the generous support of Arts Council England, Canada Council for the Arts, the Ford Foundation and mor charpentier.

Presented in partnership with CONTACT

Lawrence Abu Hamdan (b. 1985, Amman) is a “Private Ear.” His interest in sound and politics originates from his background as a touring musician and facilitator of DIY music. The artist’s audio investigations have been used as evidence at the UK Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and as advocacy for organizations such as Amnesty International. Lawrence has exhibited at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); the 13th and 14th Sharjah Biennial (2017 and 2019); the 11th Gwangju Biennale (2016); and Tate Modern, London, UK. As part of a temporary collective with nominated artists Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Tai Shani, he was awarded the 2019 Turner Prize.