The oil and aliens of Monira Al Qadiri

The artist grew up in Kuwait and now calls Berlin home. You can find her art in Berghain. We found her in her Charlottenburg studio.

The artist amid Alien Technology.
The artist amid Alien Technology.Flo Nitsch

Berlin-Monira Al Qadiri wears a purple pearl earring that shimmers petrol blue. The effect is like those rainbow oil films that, fortunately, are no longer as common on the streets. Oil industry alarm codes, Al Qadiri says, make purple the most dangerous colour  - it means an explosion is imminent. The aliens on her t-shirt glow in the same shades of purple, blue and green.

And the alien theme continues. Her studio is in a building that looks like an industrial spaceship. In a secluded commercial area in Charlottenburg, visitors hover across expansive, garish hallways to oversized gates - the entrance to her studio. The hallways, like the entire complex, are part of a huge construction site. Construction workers and drills hammer on sandy concrete floors. Al Qadiri's gates open to reveal the headquarters of an art spaceship: a light-filled, sterile room containing five colossal works by the artist.

The eggs of extraterrestrial beings

Al Qadiri was born in Senegal in 1983, grew up in Kuwait and moved to Japan at 16. She also lived for a time in what she calls "chaotic Lebanon" before settling in Berlin. Berlin is not as exciting as Tokyo or Los Angeles (the adopted home of her sister Fatima, a successful musician), but it's not a village either. You can navigate the excitement easily, lurching between quiet Charlottenburg and not-so-quiet Berghain - where Monira Al Qadiri is currently exhibiting with her husband in the Studio Berlin group show. She's showing an installation made of reflecting, opaque glass stones in varying sizes. The stones were also at the Haus der Kunst in Munich last year. The artist calls them Wabar Pearls - stones formed in the vicinity of the Al Wabar meteorite crater and created by meteorites hitting the sand.

The pearls are pitch black and could be the eggs of extraterrestrial beings trying to raise their offspring on earth. The earliest versions of the stones still lie in the left corner of the artist's studio. They were initially made out of plastic, until she realised it wasn't  the right material: the surface of the plastic seems rougher, with some visible scratches. The material is less supple and smooth than glass. "What am I going to do with it now? Make an armchair out of it?" asks Al Qadiri, laughing as she strikes the sculpture, which is nearly half her size.

Monira Al Qadiri and Suspended Delirium, which includes a speaking replica of her head.
Monira Al Qadiri and Suspended Delirium, which includes a speaking replica of her head.Flo Nitsch

Hanging head

The Wabar Pearls will be replaced at Berghain next week by a new work: three hanging heads on a rotating scaffold. They are likenesses of the artist herself, her husband and the cat they share; the work was created in lockdown. The lifelike plastic sculptures, which speak with an AI-generated voice, are based on 3-D scans and digital models. It's an attempt by the artist to re-establish a stronger connection to physical space, to materiality, in a society obsessed with virtuality. The heads speak of absurd, almost bizarre things. Things the artist dealt with during the lockdown. "I often have absurd dreams," Al Qadiri says.

In her installation at the Haus der Kunst, where a film was shown alongside Wabar Pearls, Al Qadiri also worked with an AI voice. She first tried to equip the heads for Berghain with her own voice, but somehow it didn't fit, she says. So she went back to AI. The result also converges much better with the almost-sophisticated visuality of Al Qadiri's works. A human voice would not be smooth enough, too fallible, too irregular - like the scratched plastic bead, exchanged for far more elegant glass.

Danger and the elixir of life: oil plays a major role in Al Qadiri's works.
Danger and the elixir of life: oil plays a major role in Al Qadiri's works.Flo Nitsch

No oil, no us

The issues Al Qadiri tackles are not at all smooth. She criticizes the oil industry and the cult of profanity that is constructed around oil in the Arab world, and even in this country. "Oil is like a constantly present alien in space," Al Qadiri says, pointing to a work in her Alien Technology series. The work consists of gigantic sculptures that resemble crystal formations, or rockets, and are equipped with screw-like prongs. One of the Alien Technology sculptures in the artist's studio shimmers in the same shades of purple and petrol as her earring. Unless you happen to be familiar with the petroleum extraction process, it's pretty hard to tell what exactly the sculpture is supposed to represent: They are drill heads, which drill directly into rock during oil extraction.  

The works are actually a self-portrait, Al Qadiri says. Even though she criticizes oil, she grew up with it in Kuwait. It's an intrinsic part of her, her identity and, in fact, her entire generation: "Without oil, we wouldn't be who we are." Petroleum is not only an inseparable part of all of our daily lives, anchored in cell phones, shower gel and T-shirts, it's also part of our identity - without it, the lives we lead today would not have been possible.

Sculptures from Alien Technology: The tops represent drill heads from oil production.
Sculptures from Alien Technology: The tops represent drill heads from oil production.Flo Nitsch

Exhibition: STUDIO BERLIN, Berghain, until August 29, tickets in advance:

This article originally appeared in German in the Saturday edition of the Berliner Zeitung.