Future Movements Jerusalem at the Liverpool Biennial 2010
babelmed - 19/10/2010
Future Movements Jerusalem
City States at Contemporary Urban Centre
Liverpool Biennial 2010
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
Curated: Samar Martha
Artists: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou Rahme (Palestine), Jawad Al Malhi (Palestine), Sarah Beddington (UK), Anna Boggon (UK), CAMP Group (India), Raouf Haj Yihya (Palestine), Alexandra Handal (Palestine/ UK), Shuruq Harb (Palestine), Maj Hasager (Denmark), Jakob Jakobsen (Denmark), Bouchra Khalili (Morocco/ France), Larissa Sansour (Palestine/ Denmark) and Oraib Toukan (Jordan)
Wandering through this year’s Biennial -seductively staged in semi-derelict buildings which upstage some of the art shown- reminded me of Shoreditch circa 1993. Here pubs are already open on Saturday and things are visibly in train; big architecture is in the air, vast areas are being readied for regeneration. But where there is art there is excited edginess, most names are not well known so work is encountered naked. If there is by now a slightly practised Biennial air -a nicely knackered garage showing Raymond Pettibon's lackadaisical film- it’s excusable: this is a celebration.
The “changing urban structure” of the city between docks, cathedrals and stations is also the introductory phrase used to describe a show that brought me up from London with high expectations. Future Movements Jerusalem is part of a larger presentation called City States which focuses on other unlikely cities -Vilnius, Quebec- at the Contemporary Urban Centre in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle. Future Movements is curated by Samar Martha from the Palestinian city of Ramallah. It’s a version of a larger exhibition shown last year in Jerusalem, while some of the artists who showed there have made new works for the Biennial.
Half of the artists are also from Ramallah, excepting Jawad al Malhi whose home is a refugee camp in Jerusalem often, as here, the focus of his work. The other artists are either displaced Palestinians or artists who have held Residencies largely in Jerusalem. If that sounds convoluted it is as nothing next to the disingenuousness of a phrase like “changing urban structure” when applied to Palestinian territories still under brutal Occupation. It would be closer to the truth to refer to the “growing ethnic cleansing” of Jerusalem, for example, as works here document.
The show is startling for the quality of the work in it as well as the ambivalence it generates. This is best exemplified by Raouf Haj Yihya’s Meter Square , a video game in which the player has to learn how to stop demolishing the homes of the Tawiil, Darwish, Daoud, etc. families of Silwan, a part of the city where homes are routinely demolished by the Occupation and rebuilt in resistance. Meter Square is a sickeningly brilliant piece; artfully provocative, politically acute as well as a buzz to play. Yihya’s achievement is to condense all the issues at work here in an urgently compelling piece.
Shuruq Harb, also from Ramallah, is exhibiting a new and puzzlingly clever example of her highly considered work. Wiki City renders 12 wiki names for Jerusalem as dots and lines according to mathematical schema developed by an Abbasid calligrapher. The ‘words’ look like Morse Code and architectural plans, still resemble Arabic but are not actually legible. The piece is a visual encoding of interpretative presumptions, variant scripts and the multiplicity of meanings in acts of naming. Calligraphy has a significant presence within the visual aesthetics of Arabic arts, Harb represents the winningly cerebral end of its spectrum.
Contingency is a sound installation by Basel Abbas and Ruane Abou Rahme, both members of Ramallah Underground. Their work, like Harb’s, is independent of its context and yet borne entirely of it. Contingency is an exploration of the “sonic fabric of colonial structures” as embodied in the monstrous Qalandia checkpoint separating Jerusalem from most Palestinians. It’s a room lined with reflective metal sheeting, full of disembodied voices and the machinery of Occupation. LED tickers run intermittently around the top, reflecting against the steel: One by One, Your Fingerprint, Show Me ID. It’s hard, nasty and tough-minded yet it’s also freed-up as art; an abysmal amusement arcade remixed by Burial.
The launch of the exhibition also brought a book of photographs by Yazan Khalili to Liverpool. Landscape of Darkness contains photographs of the Palestinian hills at night, with very little visual ‘information’. Light is power in Ramallah, connoting Settlements and surveillance. It also forms a nocturnal sea beyond the prison of the ‘West Bank’, flooding the plains from which so many refugees in Ramallah were expelled. Khalili has captured something more subtle and intimate, reminding me of the anonymous night lights in Dayanita Singh’s Dream Villa series. His are more withholding and protective of a place made near-invisible. Against the light of occupation, Khalili reclaims Palestinian space in a disarmingly potent gesture.
Other works are less freighted, rawly substantial or fully achieved. Notable is the humour in Larissa Sansour’s film of the first Palestinian moon landing. Bouchra Khalili filmed a young Palestinian drawing the route he’s forced to take from Ramallah to Jerusalem to evade the military on a detailed UN map of the Occupation. Sarah Beddington contributes a nicely judged Elegy to Mamilla ; a filmed record of the ancient Muslim cemetery beyond the walled City and the vulgarity of construction works on a ‘Museum of Tolerance’ by the occupying power.
The title of the show apparently echoes a political movement called The Future, founded by Marwan Barghouti. Politics gnaw at everything here but the best works are not reducible to it. There’s a rich vitality amongst a broad ‘generation’ of Palestinian artists that is beginning to achieve global recognition and which is exciting to witness. Ultimately art is judged both within and without context, by its compelling attractions or nothing. This is a very ably curated sample of new art from Palestine with weight beyond its freight, as it were. Amongst all the achievement here are hints and assertions of much more to come.
Artists from Palestine don’t need to go looking for subject matter and daily reduce complexity to concrete materiality in order to exist. Smart and sophisticated, already working against type, seasoned in circuitousness and daring directness, they’re delivering some of the most intriguing art of our times.