On the ruptures and restlessness of much contemporary art, and how this is reflected in the 56th Venice Biennale
The first few months of 2015 have not been kind to the cultural heritage of North Africa, the Middle East, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Basin. The political fireworks that began rocking the region four years ago – when Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled from Tunis and Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Cairo – have long since faded away. In their place, more durable, cynical and deplorable spectacles have emerged. On all sides of the smouldering civil war in Syria, rebels, religious extremists and opportunists aligned with the regime have been looting museums, excavation sites and beautiful old palaces, trading antiquities for cash, weapons and ideological props. Jewels, statues, mosaics, even the architectural elements of ancient castles have turned up for sale on the black market in Beirut and a string of border towns in southern Turkey. In February, members of the increasingly hysterical Islamic State burned books, smashed up a museum in Mosul and began razing the ancient Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Nimrud and Dur-Sharrukin. In March, three armed men attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis, taking hostages, chasing visitors through the galleries and killing more than 20 people.
Considering only the most recent period of upheaval, the death tolls are already staggeringly high in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. So much is at stake in the realm of politics that the work of artists, curators and conservators seems barely relevant at times. Now under attack, however, are the very spaces that have otherwise appeared exempt, the spaces of solace and contemplation that tell the long, slow, complicated stories of how art attests to the many things a place has been. Already a soft target, culture is almost embarrassingly fragile. Its networks of support are delicate and easy to dismantle. Funders and foreign tourists are easy to scare off; international protection agencies are incapacitated in the context of real and open conflict. But the various pressures exerting themselves in numerous locales around the world have had a curious effect, melding a reverence for archaeological objects into a subset of contemporary art practice, which insists upon the complexity of narrative, history and geography in exploring the relationship between art and place. Just as archaeological objects move through time as relics from older (often barely imaginable) formations of the world, a number of new and recent artworks use the metaphor of movement, and the movement of material, to make current configurations visible, whether for the purpose of resistance or critique.
For a body of work based on one of the most ancient modes of travel, the Palestinian artist Nida Sinnokrot has been thinking about the form, function, material and oddly elliptical life-cycle of settler caravans in the West Bank. In the 1990s, Israeli settlers who had previously used caravans to establish the seeds of new colonies were banned from building on occupied land. As a way around this, they began dotting a desired landscape with shipping containers instead. Over time, the containers have been either abandoned on Palestinian hilltops or repurposed as guard posts and on-site real-estate offices for construction projects in and around Ramallah. On those very hilltops, billboards made from the same corrugated steel as the shipping containers now advertise new buildings aimed at the Palestinian middle class.
Since 2009, Sinnokrot has produced a series of related sculptures, paintings and photographs, many of which were part of a solo exhibition, titled ‘Caravans’, held at Darat al-Funun in Amman last year. Collectively, they consider the movement not only of caravans but also of nursery rhymes, livestock and Biblical legend. The artist even managed to track down and procure an actual settler caravan, which he then sliced width-wise into 11 pieces to make the monumental outdoor sculpture Jonah’s Whale (2014). What began as a purely formal exploration, Sinnokrot told me in March, speaking from Palestine, ‘became an investigation along numerous threads. I wanted to document the caravans as a way to open our eyes to things that were hidden in plain sight,’ namely, how Bedouin lifestyles and nationalist dreams had given way to apolitical aspirations of middleclass stability and security.
‘I wanted to put them back into circulation, like the original caravans, but in a completely different political economy,’ he explained. With Jonah’s Whale, he added, ‘I was uncovering history in layers. It was a process. I found Arabic text, children’s drawings, Hebrew, English and Russian newspapers.’ Now perched on a former Israeli military base, Jonah’s Whale has become part of what Sinnokrot describes as the new landscape of Palestinian cities, which depend on various forms of indebtedness and follow some of the same patterns of boom and bust that have been so devastating elsewhere.
Delving into a political economy of another kind, Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, founders of the collaborative Mumbai-based artists’ studio camp, have spent years following the trade in break-bulk goods that travel by ship, in and out of Sharjah, from India and Iran on one side to the semi-state entities of Somalia on the other. The artists have gathered manifests, lists of goods, voice recordings and the songs of ship-builders. In 2010, they began giving digital video cameras to sailors to record their journeys, later piecing the footage together into a surprisingly affective composite picture of life on the high seas. The Wharfage project (2009–ongoing) has yielded a radio show, a book, a film (From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, 2013), a wall map (Country of the Sea) and, this spring, a solo exhibition looking back on the project for a museum in Mumbai. It also escaped one way of looking at the world – and the story of the 2008 financial crisis – to find another that allowed for a more capacious understanding of piracy, trade, free ports, poverty, entitlement, sectarian strife and organized crime.
For the French artist Eric Baudelaire, the narration of an ancient journey by the Greek soldier Xenophon provided the form and content for a series of films, photographs and collages exploring the intersection of art, politics, the extreme left and the avant-garde, bridging Japan and Lebanon via Palestine along the way. Known collectively as ‘Anabases’, these works – which include [sic] (2009) and The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2011) – consider how video footage, propaganda, erotica, family photos, revolutionary ideas and lost causes move in a world of law, censorship, diplomacy and war.
The Damascus-born, Paris-based artist Simone Fattal is collapsing the contemporary and the archaeological in sculptures based on Mesopotamian mythology. A painter in the 1970s, Fattal established the avant-garde publishing house Post-Apollo Press in 1982 and, initially as a hobby, began picking up ceramics a decade later. Now she creates confoundingly timely statues of lions, warriors, Gilgamesh and Astarte, among others, as if she were turning back the roaring trade in looted artefacts from Syria and Iraq. In a similar spirit, the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet’s Colosse Aux Pieds D’Argile (Colossus with Clay Feet, 2015) touches on the destruction of architecture wrought by the illegal antiquities trade. The marble and concrete materials in Tabet’s room-sized field of columns, bases and cylinders come from a building site where a luxury apartment block is rising absurdly high above Beirut, and from the 19th-century house that was destroyed to make way for it.
In the magisterial Return (2004 – ongoing), the American artist Michael Rakowitz offers the revival of a family business as an occasion to explore a vanished world, touching on the Jewish population of Iraq that was dispersed in the 1940s, the crushing effects of sanctions during the time of Saddam Hussein, and the total destruction of the country in the years since 2003. Heartbreakingly concise, all of this is achieved through the small-scale business of importing dates. Just as CAMP sent cameras along seafaring lines of trade, Rakowitz endeavoured to ship a tonne of dates from Babel to Brooklyn, in defiance of trade restrictions, political suspicion and common sense. The dates never arrived, but Rakowitz – who, in other projects, has tracked stolen artefacts, pop-cultural memorabilia and cover bands – discovered numerous unexpected routes by which goods and ideas circulate. He also built a surprisingly tender community around his enterprise.
Rakowitz’s approach elucidates something crucial about artworks that depend so much on movement. They often revolve around traumas that are outlined without being explicitly divulged. The Lebanese artist Rania Stephan spent the last three years ploughing through 80 videotapes she shot in the 1980s. A friend insisted on digitizing them for her – they are all Hi8 and Video8 – before they became impossible to transfer. Stephan couldn’t remember what was on the tapes, but she knew she was looking for footage of her mother.
The result of her efforts is a 30-minute film titled Memories for a Private Eye (2015), an intense montage of those excerpts from videotapes plus scenes from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), the Lumière Brothers’ Serpentine Dance (1899) and ‘Mufetish Wahid’, a long-forgotten detective series that was made for Lebanese television in the early 1970s. Stephan’s film, which premiered at this year’s Berlinale, is at once a love letter to film noir and an attempt to address great personal trauma – her mother’s death during the shelling of a building – without mentioning it directly. As such, it finds a new route into the old subject of Lebanon’s civil war through the conventions of detective fiction that flow freely from Mexico City to Mumbai. Formally speaking, it also becomes its subject: a mystery.
Equally elusive, two years ago the Istanbul-based artist Banu Cennetoğlu was invited by the Turkish curator Başak Şenova to participate in one of the world’s weirdest biennials, the Project Biennial of Contemporary Art D-0 ARK Underground, which is staged in a nuclear shelter hidden inside of a Bosnian hill. Nicknamed Tito’s Atomic Bunker, the structure was built at the height of the Cold War, cost the equivalent of GBP£2.7 billion, took 26 years to complete and remained a secret until the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Its purpose was to keep the former president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, alive in the event of a nuclear attack. Presumably, he would seek refuge there with his wife and a few hundred comrades while the rest of humanity burned.
Early in her research, Cennetoğlu discovered the existence of rakija, a home-distilled alcohol produced throughout the Balkans. Although it is related to the Turkish raki, the Greek ouzo and the Arabic arak – mother of all such spirits, whose name comes from the verb ‘to sweat’ – strictly speaking rakija is a fruit brandy made from figs, pears, plums, peaches, apples, grapes, apricots, mulberries, blackberries, walnuts or quinces. It is typically served in a dainty glass. Cennetoğlu wanted to gather recipes, stories and samples of the spirits – in both senses of the word: not only the drinks but also the ghosts of the people who suffered during so many years of conflict. Following the collapse of one country into several smaller states, the artist wanted to know who made the ‘best’ rakija in Bosnia, Croatia or Serbia, and what that might mean. Her results would come to comprise an archive and a bar, titled Library of Spirits (2013–ongoing).
For one reason or another, Cennetoğlu set this work aside. Next, she collaborated with the artist Yasemin Özcan on the video What Is It That You Are Worried About? (2013), for which they hired an energy healer to scan the bunker for karmic and ancestral blocks. But, before the year was out, Cennetoğlu returned to the idea of artisanal alcohols, this time in Romania, where the production of plum brandy, or țuică, turned out to be a fascinating field of study. Library of Spirits, Part I: BanuBarMixt (2013), a collection of 115 home-distilled spirits, formed part of a two-artist exhibition at Salonul de Proiecte in Bucharest. In 2014, the artist shifted her focus to South Korea and created the Library of Spirits, Part ii for the biennial in Gwangju. There, the collection of different kinds of home-distilled soju – made from rice, wheat or barley – allowed for a rich, complex and otherwise only half-seen history to emerge.(According to legend, soju came to Korea from the Middle East via Central Asia thanks to Mongol invaders who probably learned the art of distillery in or around Lebanon in the 13th century.)
‘In a way, I create functional and fictional reasons to go to certain locations,’ Cennetoğlu told me last September, when we spoke about her work. She abandons geography in the traditional sense and takes as her subject a material that maps the world differently. Following the recipes and ingredients of homemade alcohols, Cennetoğlu delves into the minutiae of how they are made, why they are consumed and the extent to which they circulate in epics, rumours, rituals and celebrations. For each iteration of the library, she drafts an itinerary of so-called ‘contact spirits’. ‘They could be a plant or a person,’ she explains, ‘but they are the reason to go.’ When the research is done, the library is filled with samples as well as tastes, smells, notes, readings – in sum, the history, geography and lived experience of a place rendered in a manner that is respectfully complex. When it is installed as a bar in the middle of a long slog through a biennial of a hundred artists or more, the library also has the potential to alter your reading of the rest of the show, a playful swipe at institutional critique.
It is noteworthy, perhaps, that before the Islamic State began demolishing cultural relics in Syria and Iraq, the object its members most wanted to destroy was the map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which divided Ottoman territory into spheres of French and British influence. Tearing up a replica for a quick and dirty video is far from subtle, but the episode illustrates the ways in which certain modes of representation are not only problematic but also up for grabs, not only contested but the material of conflict itself. Consider a list of things that move easily through the world and have recently been used in artworks: goods, fruit, money, images, films, letters, books, arms, rumours, legends, folksongs, lullabies, birds, the weather, espionage, terrorism, hysteria, language (particularly cursing), memory and contraband of all kinds. A list of things that impede such movement? Maps, borders, nation states, lack of money, poor health, family obligation, war. People, of course, slide around somewhere in between. This is what makes artworks that convey travel, circulation, drift, leakage, seepage and slippage so compelling. Against despair and the crazy armies of the Islamic State, they insist on the possibilities of movement while refusing a black and white image of the world. Artists find ways around obstacles. They celebrate materials that speak across different times and appeal to the complex experience of different places.
Maps may be useful but, by their nature, they are also reductive. In its own strange and very art-specific way, so too is the Venice Biennale – which is why, every two years, we all set to grousing about the meaning of the national pavilions. But, even there, displacement and dislocation have become common, even critical, themes. In 2015, the German pavilion features members of the Egyptian film collective Mosireen. For one of the biennale’s collateral events, Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana are collaborating on ‘My East Is Your West’, a joint exhibition representing India and Pakistan, two countries without national pavilions. For the Iraqi pavilion, the exhibition ‘Invisible Beauty’ juxtaposes the black and white photographs of the great Latif al-Ani with some 500 drawings by refugees. In the Belgian pavilion, curator Katerina Gregos’s group show ‘Personne et les autres’ (Nobody and the Others, which it titled after a play by André Frankin) is re-creating a nightclub in Kinshasa and exploring the role of African intellectuals in the international avant-garde.
In the Turkish pavilion, Sarkis’s exhibition, ‘Respiro’ (Breath), is an attempt to ‘defy stagnation’, he says. Curated by Defne Ayas, the show is taking place 100 years after the Armenian genocide, and two years after the protests in Gezi Park. Featuring neon rainbows, mirrors adorned with children’s fingerprints and, among other elements, several works in stained glass based on found photographs of the journalist Hrant Dink and a protestor in a red dress, it is in many ways Sarkis’s magnum opus, mapping his entire cosmology of concerns, Ayas tells me from Berlin.
Now in its 56th edition, the Venice Biennale is being overseen by Okwui Enwezor, whose exhibition, ‘All the World’s Futures’, is, according to an early statement, meant to explore the ruptures and restlessness of our present moment through artworks, performances and propositions that collectively refuse confinement. Among hundreds of works, including a marathon reading of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige are reprising a quiet character from their past, the fictional photographer Abdallah Farah. During the civil war in Lebanon, as the story goes, Farah took to burning his photographs and eventually stopped making prints, though he continued taking pictures. His undeveloped rolls of film hold the latent images of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s project, the last chapter in the long-term, multifaceted endeavour titled ‘Wonder Beirut’ (1997–2006). This raises a few obvious questions, such as: why bring them back into circulation now? Why revive Farah when he seems to have done his part a decade ago? What’s going on? Stephan echoes that concern: ‘I’m not at all a nostalgic person,’ she tells me when we meet in Beirut. ‘I’m not someone who looks to the past. But I needed to know, why was the detective genre never popular in Beirut? Why are so many things left unresolved? Why did the figure of the detective start resonating with me now?’ So, too, does Cennetoğlu, who says of her Library of Spirits: ‘I would like it to continue for the next 20 years. You are constantly dealing with people and their stories. It’s so easy to go to nostalgia, to nationalism. But the challenging thing is, what do you do with these stories?’
First published in Issue 171