In Emily Jacir’s Material for a Film (2004–ongoing), a poet in the midst of an epic translation is shot and killed as he returns home to his apartment in Rome. In Lydda Airport (2009), an artist, out of her time, stands on a landing strip in Palestine, waiting for a plane that never arrives, watching as another plane drifts off course and disappears. In ex libris (2010–14), a library of lost and stolen books is reassembled all over the world through photographs, shelves, billboards and murals, its movements approaching those of the books’ owners. In stazione (Station, 2008–09), a project for the public transportation system of an Italian city is scrapped without explanation. In ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem) (2003), three musicians – playing the oud, trumpet and drums – are forced to cancel a tour of two cities when one of them is barred from reaching the first destination.
The art of Emily Jacir is full of delays, deferrals and disruptions. Her works – which are often conceived as intricate performances unfolding over long periods of time or immersive installations gathering years of research – tend to concern moments of rupture, destruction, extreme violence and palpable dispossession. At the heart of her practice is the experience of displacement, dislocation and dispersal; of a place being difficult, hard to reach, return to or revive; of a place being impossible to realize as a real place at all. Although she initially became known for a piece she made in Paris – Change/Exchange (1998), in which she exchanged US$100 (GB£65) for French francs, back and forth, 60 times over the course of three days, losing in the exchange rate each time, until she had nothing left but coins – Jacir is most famous for a flurry of works she has done in or about Palestine.
These works include Sexy Semite (2000–02), which involved asking 60 Palestinians who were living in New York to take out classified ads in The Village Voice seeking Jewish mates in order to secure their right of return through marriage; Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which Were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (2000), for which, over three months, more than 100 people came into Jacir’s studio to embroider a tent with the names of villages that no longer exist; the two-channel video Ramallah/New York (2004–05), which deliberately confuses the everyday details of the two cities; and the magisterial, multidisciplinary installation Where We Come From (2001–03), one of the most haunting and effective works of contemporary art I’ve ever seen. For it, she asked some 30 Palestinians living in the diaspora and occupied territories the question: ‘If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?’ and then documented in photographs, objects and films her attempts to enact the answers. These included: take flowers to my mother’s grave, pay my phone bill and go on a date with a girl in East Jerusalem to whom I’ve only spoken by phone.
Because those works are powerful – and because they have elicited strong reactions from journalists and museum trustees that have erupted, on occasion, into full-blown institutional hysteria – Jacir’s reputation now rests rather awkwardly and disproportionately on one way of looking at her work, to the detriment of many others that remain oddly unexplored.
For one thing, Jacir began her career as a painter. Throughout the 1990s – and her formal studies in Dallas, Memphis and New York – she was making big, messy, abstract paintings and a few sizeable sculptures, too. Even into the early 2000s, she was still making drawings in ink, graphite and marker on vellum, and produced at least one major oil painting on wood Inbox (2004–05). Her sculpture of a disturbingly tight-circled luggage conveyor belt, titled embrace (2005), is commonly read as a metaphor for the claustrophobia and cyclical futility of the Palestinian condition, but it is also an intimate, highly formalist self-portrait, the diameter of the belt measuring the length of Jacir’s own body.
For another thing, there’s a very clear strand of feminism that runs through Jacir’s practice, not only as an artist but also as a teacher, curator, community organizer and activist, which tends to be buried under the polemics of the Arab–Israeli conflict. In November 2014, the largest survey of Jacir’s work to date opened at the Jordanian arts foundation Darat al Funun, which went some distance in establishing the fullness of her oeuvre by including a number of works from the 1990s, some of which had rarely or never been shown before, alongside projects that have been well-travelled in Europe and North America but have not been seen so often in the region. The show ran for six months and generated a substantial book about her work. (There are fewer monographs on Jacir than you might expect for an artist of her stature.) Published in September, the new one is titled (as was the show) after a line in a poem by Gregory Corso: ‘A star is as far as the eye can see and as near as my eye is to me.’
Jacir’s first solo exhibition at a public institution in the UK, currently on view at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, marks an even more radical recontextualization of her work. Titled ‘Europa’ and curated by Omar Kholeif, it focuses, in the first instance, on the artist’s relationship to Rome, a city where she has lived, on and off, since she was 14 years old. From there, the show echoes out to a country (Italy), a continent (Europe) and a body of water (the Mediterranean), which exists these days not only as a placid and sadly polluted sea but also as a means of passage: a life-threatening danger as well as a political menace. Somewhere along the edges of the exhibition is a further association with an ancient world: the Mediterranean of antiquity, which persists as an idea, a construct, a myth and a distant memory. This not only allows for a fresh perspective, but also seriously complicates how the notions of place, refuge and belonging play out in Jacir’s practice. ‘I felt that the conversation around my work had been limited’, the artist explained to me recently, ‘and I hoped to open up the discourse. I also wanted to make visible some very important and overlooked trajectories in my work, in particular the influence of Italy and my various engagements in that country.’ The title of the Whitechapel show is the Italian word for Europe. ‘I chose it to reflect Italy as a centre of my practice and the ground from which I stand and look.’
Jacir has never been entirely comfortable with the way in which her biography is so often shorthanded to the ‘born in, based in’ line, as common to reviews as it is to basic résumés. This isn’t recalcitrance on her part. It is a reflection of the fact that her life is complex; she moves around, lives in different places and travels incessantly for work. Jacir’s show at the Whitechapel includes a number of projects and series produced in various European cities – such as Kassel, Linz, Paris and Venice – but the artist is keen to stress the difference between the places she has passed through as a visitor and the one place she so often calls home, which is Rome. She describes herself as being ‘grounded’ and ‘planted’ there, and cites a number of interesting parallels to Palestine. ‘Italians, like Palestinians, have been moving for centuries,’ she says. ‘We are both very migratory people. For centuries and for generations, there were webs of social connections and communications between the wider international world and a particular village, such as Bethlehem or Catania. It is no accident that the Italian and Arabic words for country, paese and balad, are also the words for village.’
In the summer of 2013, Jacir spent a month on the Italian island of Lampedusa. She was there to research a potential project and to serve on the jury of a local film festival, whose theme that year was migration. The day after she arrived, she told me: ‘The island was buzzing.’ A boat had arrived from across the Mediterranean. On it, there were three young men who were fleeing the war in Syria. This had never happened before. It was the very beginning of what has become known as the ‘migrant crisis’ in Europe. Jacir sensed this even then. The islanders asked for her help. As an Arabic speaker, she could translate between the Italians and the asylum seekers. Jacir discovered that two of them were, in fact, Palestinian refugees from the camps in Syria, now doubly displaced. ‘They told me horrific stories of how they travelled from Syria into Turkey, how they made it to Egypt and crossed into Libya, eventually getting on the boat that took them to Italy. Months later, they made it to Sweden. I was asked to write about this experience for a number of publications. I was asked to make an art project. I wrote nothing and I made nothing. The horror was too great. I am not a journalist. This is not the way I work. I feel choked by the silence. Art-making occurs over years, sometimes decades and generations.’
Twenty years earlier, in the summer of 1993, Jacir was a student from Memphis who was passing through Venice on holiday. Although she was pursuing painting and sculpture at the time, she’d had virtually no exposure to contemporary art and didn’t know what the Venice Biennale was. As soon as she heard about it, she wanted to see it, and so she found herself at Hans Haacke’s landmark ‘Germania’ exhibition in the German pavilion. ‘My whole relationship to art and what it could be shifted,’ Jacir says. ‘Everything changed for me at that moment. I can remember clear as day what it was like to see that photograph of Hitler inaugurating the pavilion; and then to walk, turn the corner and be confronted by that huge empty space with the entire floor torn up; and then to hear the sound of walking on those broken shards and feel the way they shifted under my feet – the huge weight of silence interrupted only by the sound of the shards on the floor, echoing throughout the pavilion as people walked around.’ Looking back on that moment, she recalls how Haacke ‘had taken the pavilion itself as his project, how the project had become the space itself and how he had unpacked its history instead of merely packing the space with things [...] His process remains hugely significant,’ she says.
The installation that anchors Jacir’s exhibition at the Whitechapel is Material for a Film, one of the most accomplished works of her career and the piece that won her a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2007. It has never been shown in the UK before. The idea for the work began by chance, when Jacir found a book in New York about a Palestinian writer named Wael Zuaiter who had been assassinated in Rome in 1972 as part of Israel’s ‘Wrath of God’ campaign, carried out in retaliation for the killing of Israeli athletes in Munich earlier that year. Zuaiter was one of a dozen artists and intellectuals caught up in the assassinations. The book was a tribute to the writer and included a chapter by two Italian filmmakers who had wanted to make a movie about his life but never did so. Jacir took the idea and ran with it and, standing in the middle of her installation, you can easily imagine that she might in fact make their film one day. Jacir may be a quiet painter but she is a voluble film buff. The works of the Italian director Francesco Rosi have been particularly influential. Rosi, who died earlier this year at the age of 92, was a contemporary of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Gillo Pontecorvo. His works are political to their core. He was a master at mixing investigative, documentary techniques with the melancholy reflections of fiction. His layered, labyrinthine inquiry into the death of a Sicilian mafia boss, Salvatore Giuliano (1962), told in seemingly random flashbacks, can be seen as a kind of prototype for Jacir’s study of Zuaiter in Material for a Film. Rosi’s Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979), meanwhile, tells the real-life story of a painter named Carlo Levi, who was banished to the Italian countryside for his stance against fascism and drew upon his training as a doctor to work with the peasants who took him in. This also ties into Jacir’s rather novel concept – explored at length in a text for the Whitechapel catalogue by Nikos Papastergiadis – of being both provincial and cosmopolitan.
Jacir read Jimmie Durham’s A Certain Lack of Coherence (1993) for the first time in 1999. Besides being charmed by the fact that the artist also lived in Rome, she was taken by his ability to articulate certain ideas she had been thinking about but hadn’t quite figured out how to put into words. To wit, she quotes from one of her favourite passages in the book: ‘It is necessary that, with great urgency, we all speak well, and listen well. We, you and I must remember everything. We must especially remember those things we never knew. Obviously, that process cannot begin with longer lists of facts. It needs newer, and much more complex, kinds of metaphors. Perhaps we must trust confusion more, for a while, and be deeply suspicious of simple stories, simple acts.’
When Jacir told me that the poetry of Gregory Corso was an influence on her work, I asked if she remembered when she had read him for the first time. She answered, with a smile: ‘I did not read him first, he read to me first.’ Jacir was a teenager in Rome when the American poet passed through, while reviving his spirits in Europe, and came to her high school to give a reading and a lecture. ‘The first thing he wrote on the chalkboard behind him’, Jacir recalls, ‘was: “A star is as far as the eye can see and as near as my eye is to me.” Then he said it out loud several times. This line of poetry blew my mind and has been with me ever since. Even now, I often trace his footsteps in Rome.’
One of Jacir’s favourite places is the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, on Rome’s via del Corso, where she has often gone to see, among other masterpieces, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s La Veduta del porto di Napoli (Naval Battle in the Gulf of Naples, c.1558–62), a gorgeous, angry vortex of a painting depicting a fictional conflict in a whirl of ships gathering in circles on a dark, churning sea. A smouldering volcano looms in the upper right-hand corner. ‘I had a solid painting practice up until the first performance piece I did in Paris,’ Jacir tells me, adding that most people either don’t know about her background as an artist or ignore it because it doesn’t fit the preconceptions they have of her work. ‘I find it weird,’ she says. ‘I do paint sometimes now, but privately in my studio. I love painting and adore painters and their work. When I say this to people, they are often perplexed.’
Among the many films Jacir cites as influences, one stands out: Tawfiq Saleh’s Al-Makhdu’un (The Dupes, 1972). Based on Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Men in the Sun (1962), The Dupes follows the journey of three Palestinian men who leave home and head for the Persian Gulf in search of fortune and freedom. They are smuggled across the Iraqi–Kuwaiti border in the tank of a water truck. When the truck is delayed, all of them die, a damning allegory of the failure of the Arab states vis-à-vis Palestine. Saleh, a Syrian director who made highly experimental auteur films within both the Egyptian commercial and Syrian state systems, was himself heavily influenced by Italian neorealist cinema. The Dupes, like Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, is a masterful blend of flashback and archival footage.
Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man (1995) stars Johnny Depp as an accountant from Cleveland, named William Blake. Travelling west by train to the dystopian town of Machine, he befriends a Native American named Nobody who knows and loves the work of William Blake and decides that the accountant must be a reincarnation of the poet. Nobody also has an incredible backstory: the child of opposing tribes, he was kidnapped by soldiers, taken to Europe and exhibited, zoo-like, as a kind of noble savage. ‘This was a pivotal film for me,’ Jacir says. ‘It is structured like an epic poem, was shot entirely in black and white and is full of twisted, dark, violent and surreal elements – the ultimate postmodern western, or maybe anti-western, film. The scenes veer between violent aggression and haunting meditations. There is a very strange temporality and rhythm created by the grey palette Jarmusch uses. The relationship to landscape is spectacular. And the gaps, silences and empty spaces are especially important.’
When Jacir lectures about her work, in lieu of describing a piece such as embrace – which is exceptional in her oeuvre not only for having been made with no elements of performance, photography, text or documentation, but also as one of the most personal and private of her works – she often recites from the poem ‘Athens Airport’ (1982) by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which is included in the collection Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (2003). It begins:
Athens airport disperses us
to other airports. Where can I fight?
asks the fighter.
Where can I deliver your child?
a pregnant woman shouts back.
Where can I invest my money?
asks the officer.
This is none of my business,
the intellectual says.
Where did you come from?
asks the customs’ official.
And we answer: From the sea!
Emily Jacir lives around the Mediterranean. The first UK survey of her work, ‘Europa’, is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 3 January 2016. In 2014, she had solo exhibitions at Darat al Funun, Amman, Jordan, and at Alexander and Bonin, New York, USA.
First published in Issue 175