Society / Palestine
Scavenging in a harvested field
Adania Shibli - 13/02/2007
During the opening ceremony, following the kind words of the event organizers and the ringing endorsements of local politicians, the artist Taysar Al-Bitinjani presented his performance piece entitled, Voyage Impossible. The work consists of a pile of sand that the artist begins moving, a shovelful at a time, from one location to another. No sooner is his task complete, than he begins to move it back to its original position: an endless, Sisyphean task.
Yet in Al-Bitijani’s case it is sand, not rock, that weighs him down as he drags Sisyphus out of Greek legend and into the artist’s personal present: his ceaseless, impossible journeying between Gaza and Paris. The two—Greek king and Palestinian artist—are linked by a single absurdity, by a single curse. They can do nothing more than create destruction; that destruction and disintegration accompany all attempts to build and create. The two flourish in tandem. Over time the work is gradually transmuted from Sisyphean allegory to sand timepiece, the grains of sand oscillating between two points seem to keep count of the voyage’s duration. The absurd creeps into this concept of time, a hopeless circle of endless repetition replaces ideas of linear progression.
In an adjoining room is a second performance piece entitled Holding My Breath, by Jemana Aboud. The artist places her head in something resembling an iron mask until she can no longer hold her breath at which point she pulls out, takes a deep breath, and places her face back in the mask.
If Al-Bitinjani’s work deals with the absurdity of life’s cyclical repetition, Aboud approaches the same subject by touching on death. Despite superficial differences in their subject matter (life versus death), they are similar in that they take the concept of the “end” and redeploy it as a necessary condition for continuity. The circle that lies along the straight line has a trick, turning every end point into a possible beginning.
The question here is whether we are observing the personal realities of these two artists or a reflection of their “Palestinianism”. This is no idle inquiry: it was the focus of a long discussion between participating Palestinian artists sparked off by a paper entitled Reexamining Palestinian Art by Jack Persekian, director of the al-Maamal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem and the coordinator for Aboud and Al-Bitinjani’s work. One of the paper’s central points was the need to decouple Palestinian art from questions of national identity and political activism, so that the artists would be focused on the production of art, not “Palestinian art”.
The debate provoked by this paper involved Murid Al-Barghouthi, Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Rola Helwani, Raida Taha, Khalil Rebah, Fouad Asfour, Dana Ariqat and myself, raised some important questions. While the majority of those present agreed with Bernizkhian’s point that art needs to hone its senses to receive the most complete possible range of impressions, it was not clear whether abandoning the frameworks of national identity and political activism might in effect equate to a call to abandon the process of artistic production altogether.
Some of those present regarded it as the flip side of those who exhorted Palestinian art to be as “Palestinian” as possible, either for purely practical reasons (to answer the curiosity of those unfamiliar with the reality of Palestinian life) or on moral grounds (i.e. a responsibility—or desire—to record what was staking place in Palestine and communicate it to the outside world).
Though diametrically opposed in terms of what they call for, both positions share the same logic: an attempt to influence the artist’s choices from outside and restrict the production process to certain favored topics. In this respect these calls or exhortations are little different to the demands made on artists by production companies who insist on controlling the way their artists address particular issues, attempts by capitalist culture to introduce art and luxury into the lives of workers purely as a means to increase their productivity, or even attempts by repressive dictatorships to impose their propaganda o artistic production. These are all examples of outside pressures, interference and influence being brought to bear on a process that should be totally independent and unfettered. If a Palestinian artist decides one day to burn his shoes in front of a camera, or another starts filming an IDF raid on Ramallah, it is the business of the artist alone and should not be subjected to demands and questioning.
At the same time, however, the judgment of anyone viewing either of these two hypothetical works rests on whether—regardless of their origin or subject matter—they offer him space for his own interpretations and personal experience. On the other hand, and as evidence that the artist’s work does not have to be confined to the Palestinian context, Persekian quoted Mona Hatoum’s response to Edward Said’s observation that her work encapsulated the Palestinian situation more acutely than any other artist. Hatoum answered by saying that Said was reading her work from his own personal perspective as a Palestinian who had grown up in exile.
While it is true that Said interpreted the work within his own personal context (just as Hatoum interpreted his observations within hers), I am certain that he never believed for a second that it was possible to do otherwise—to exist outside context and be truly objective—and his famous book Orientalism is perhaps the strongest evidence of this. Indeed, both Hatoum and Persekian could choose not to see his observations in a negative light (i.e. as an attempt to define her art), but rather in a positive way, as deliberate referencing the endless contextualizations of the Palestinian question, which is unified in neither form nor interpretation. One could even say that Persekian’s call for art instead of “Palestinian art” is itself a product of a contemporary artistic discourse awash with concepts like internationalism and globalization.
But matters grew even more complicated. A debate of a different kind sprang up between members of the same group following the viewing of a set of Palestinian films. The films, all either documentaries or docu-dramas, were mostly recorded during the 2000 Intifada, or to be more specific during Israeli raids on a number of Palestinian camps, villages and towns in the Spring of 2000.
At this juncture, I would like to cast a quick glance over Cuena itself: a small sleepy town straight out of the Middle Ages, whose kind, gentle residents—some of whom we were lucky enough to get to know—readily exchanged greetings with us as we made our way from the hotel to the reception hall. The hall was filled with red seats that would swallow you up when you sat down so you were unable to see anything except the distant screen, which suddenly started showing images of Palestine: soldiers, gunshots, bombs exploding, wounds, youths running, youths throwing stones, funeral processions, smashed up streets and storefronts, buildings, podiums and darkened alleys. These familiar images suddenly so unfamiliar and surprising in the little town of Cuenca.
For an instant the images seemed like ghosts from the past out to pursuing those of us who have escaped for a few days. Bewitched by Cuena’s magic, enchanted by its inhabitants, we are to be dragged home once more.
To be honest, I never felt that these images were part of my life. They seemed to belong to an unfamiliar existence, one I played no part in. It was as if I was seeing everything for the first time. Floating across the screen the images created their own private reality, inspiring in me feelings quite different to those created by my lived life. Every time one of the characters said something sad I would weep, even though I have experienced such sorrow for real and it never made me cry.
I found it impossible to tear my eyes from the screen. I wanted to watch all the films, to live all these experiences. Even so, I was nagged by the memory of the burning need that plagued by life in Palestine: the need to leave it all behind me.
Eventually, midway through one of the films, I surrendered to a powerful sense of thirst that I had been fighting off the moment I took my seat. I hadn’t given in because it felt like I would die if I left the screen for a moment, but my physical need proved stronger in the end, and I went out for a cup of water. I got back to watch the rest of the film and found it going on for much longer than a short film ha any right to do. Leaning across to my neighbor, I asked what was going on, only to be informed that the film I’d thought I was watching had ended and a new one had started while I was outside getting a drink.
I suddenly understood the trick that the screen had been playing on me. All the films were essentially indistinguishable; a single film starring the same cast of characters (soldiers, youth, women and children) and produced, filmed and edited by the same people. Is it that all Palestinian lives are the same, without any distinguishing features to mark one from the other?
Finally, I made up my mind to leave the hall and catch up wit the other Palestinians who had already gone outside at some point during the third film. It wasn’t because they were bored or boorish, or even because they live that existence and don’t need to see it again, but rather because they all—as I had done myself—had sensed that same deception, that visual trickery. They were standing around by the entrance to the hall, furious at the aesthetics and choices imposed on the camera by the news-gathering culture, a point that Persekian himself had criticized in his paper. A camera purges the shot of everything that isn’t photogenic in a time of un-photogenic and unbeautiful things. We need an ability to find a path to beauty despite everything: a hidden ability to scavenge for life like the poor peasants who scavenge for grains of wheat in harvested fields.
Something from nothing: Aboud’s ability to raise her head at the last moment and draw breath; Al-Bitinjani’s ability to move a pile of sand over and over and over again. Art often seems like this: a harvested field, in which the viewer should ask nothing more but than to find himself.