Larissa Sansour, still from Nation Estate, 2012

Shaking up the ground that holds our beliefs — Trembling Landscapes at Eye Filmmuseum

Issue no5
okt-nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

On visiting Eye Filmmuseum’s Trembling Landscapes, an exhibition containing work from Eleven Artists from the Middle-East*, Jue Yang asks herself two questions. First: how do individual works defy her association with the construction of “Middle East”? Second, how does the exhibition as a whole make her re-evaluate her (known and unknown) biases?

A woman exits the train and rolls her suitcase into a sleek lobby. A Palestinian flag covers the entry wall from white floor to white ceiling. She wears garments woven with strips of fabric: black, clean-cut, synthetic. As she waits for the elevator she glances at a floor map — fifty times the size of her body — of the high-rise 'Nation Estate.' It has more than 40 floors: Dead Sea is on level -3, Diplomatic Missions, level 1, and Jerusalem, level 13.

Larissa Sansour’s 2012 science-fiction film Nation Estate takes its name from a 1936 poster advertising 'Visit Palestine' to Jewish tourists and questions nation-building with its tongue-in-cheek narrative and intentionally overproduced aesthetics. The film is part of the group exhibition Trembling Landscapes: Between Fiction and Reality, currently on view at the Eye Filmmuseum. On the exhibition pamphlet, the second subtitle reads Eleven Artists from the Middle East *. The asterisk, visible on both the pamphlet and website, makes a statement: 'The geographical term Middle East is not neutral, but Euro-centric and has its origin in colonialism.'

The note seems necessary, if not crucial. I expect to see an alternative — or an elaboration, at least — for this term. On the website, I find, 'Eye presents a group exhibition that explores landscape with some of the Arab world’s most prominent artists who work with film and video.' Is 'Arab World' a synonym to 'Middle East'? (The answer is no.) Rather than offering clarification, this description conflates the two. A more geographically accurate term for 'Middle East' would be 'West Asia,' suggests guest curator Nat Muller. However, 'West Asia' is not seen anywhere in the exhibition vocabulary.

The note that 'Middle East' is not a neutral, but Euro-centric term which has its origin in colonialism seems necessary, if not crucial. I expect to see an alternative — or an elaboration, at least — for this term

Mohamad Hafeda, still from Sewing Borders, 2017

The exhibition seeks to complicate the (Western) imaginations of a region — often perpetuated by news media with images of desert, destruction and ruin. Isn’t it self-contradictory that the exhibition tries to problematize the definition of 'Middle East' while highlighting the representation of 'artists from the Middle East/the Arab World'? Doesn’t the generalization (and, more dangerously, the interchangeable use of Middle East and Arab) misguide the viewer to anticipate the performance of a more or less homogenous cultural and political identity?

I decide to review this exhibition on two levels. First, how do individual works defy my association with the construction of 'Middle East,' as the asterisk sets out to do? Second, how does the exhibition as a whole make me re-evaluate my (known and unknown) biases?

In the short film and research project Sewing Borders, Mohamad Hafeda visualizes the negotiation of borders of displaced people in Beirut, the city where the artist resides. Using paper maps, Hafeda asks each of his protagonists — with Palestinian, Kurdish, Armenian, Syrian and Iraqi backgrounds — to sew their perceived borders in the city and their family’s diasporic journeys to Lebanon. They mark the boundaries of their existence with a sewing machine. As the needle punctures the paper in close-up shots, we sense a palpable violence in contrast to the intimate touch of their hands. State, colonial history, religion, war — what is restricting and controlling the sewer’s daily geography, their body and their agency?

In Sewing Borders, protagonists mark the boundaries of their existence with a sewing machine. As the needle punctures the paper in close-up shots, we sense a palpable violence in contrast to the intimate touch of their hands

Upon entering the installation The Incidental Insurgents. Part 3: When the Fall of the Dictionary Leaves All Words Lying on the Street, I am struck by the sound of sirens. Across five screens, handheld footage synchronizes and disconnects. Two shadows — the artists, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme — film themselves. 'The greatest / the purest and best / the lost,' text fragments flash on top of stone rubbles, rhythmically, in Arabic and English, 'absurdly / dead.' In the fragmentation of the images and the language, my perception, too, becomes fragmented. I can no longer tell if I am experiencing a documentary, a dance or a protest.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents. Part 3- When the Fall of the Dictionary Leaves All Words Lying in the Street, 2015. Installation View at Eye Filmmuseum. Photo: Hans Wilschut, 2020

Ali Cherri, Trembling Landscapes, 2016. Courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah 

In The Disquiet, Ali Cherri composes an essay film on the history of catastrophes in Beirut, using graphics, archive images, footage of seismic monitors and his own writing. 'Catastrophes are thought to be spectacular, almost sublime,' he voices in Arabic, 'the sudden collapse of order, the dramatic annihilation of structure.' It might as well be a critique from the future, as images of the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020 propagate our news feed. Drawing parallels between seismiccatastrophes and man-made catastrophes, the work makes me think twice about the partial interpretation of the current events. Next to the video is Cherri’s other work, Trembling Landscapes,whose title the exhibition borrows. For this work Cherri selects cities on geological — and geopolitical — fault lines and makes black-and-white lithographic prints of them. In these aerial images of Algiers, Beirut, Damascus, Erbil, Mecca and Tehran, white are the sea, the river, the trees, the soil; black are the ports, the roads, the shadows of buildings. If I look at the prints for long enough, the shapes will start to vibrate. Everything, it seems, is on the brink of disappearing.

Whereas the aforementioned works resist the popular Western imaginations and associations of the 'Middle East', other works easily evoke stereotypical images such as 'the desert where foreigners come from' and 'the arid land above which the drones fly.' Wael Shawky sets his film Al Araba al Madfuna II in a rural world of conic pigeon towers. Heba Y. Amin installs panels of vignettes of sand, stone, sea, satellite dishes and iron gates in The Earth is an Imperfect Ellipsoid. Jananne Al-Ani replicates the aesthetics of aerial photography and drone footage in her videos Shadow Sites I and II. Khalil Joreige reads a poem translated into English — 'what are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? The barbarians are due here today' — over animated photographs of the dense cityscape of Beirut in Waiting for the Barbarians. Although these works all try to subvert certain associations — with images, narratives and history — by means of appropriation and re-interpretation, they demand very close readings to be deciphered as critical. (And whether a viewer has the right type of patience, we do not know.)

Some of the works easily evoke stereotypical images such as 'the desert where foreigners come from' and 'the arid land above which the drones fly'

Wael Shawky, Al Araba al Madfuna II, 2013. Installation View at Eye Filmmuseum. Photo: Hans Wilschut, 2020

Hrair Sarkissian, still from Homesick, 2014

The last piece of the exhibition is a two-channel video, Homesick. One screen shows a stop-motion demolition of an architectural model of a house; the other shows a close-up of a man’s face. The man hits a structure off the screen with a sledge hammer and exhausts himself. The man is the artist, Hriar Sarkissian. The model is the home in which Sarkissian grew up in Damascus. The video of his hammering continues as the video of the model — having gradually turned into a ruin — fades. Is he taking down his home? (What tragedy must have befallen for one to be disillusioned with their own home?)

I leave the exhibition with humility, albeit not moved or challenged by all works.

Allow me to speak as we for one moment. We: the conscientious and unconscientious consumers of Western media. We: the English speakers who read translated subtitles of someone’s life story in Arabic. Are we 'the greatest / the purest and best / the lost'? Are we 'the barbarians'?

What is destabilized, as we go through this exhibition, are our associations with a geography, our assumptions of a history, our imaginations of a region.

The ground trembles a bit under our feet — the ground that holds our beliefs. And that is a good thing.

Trembling Landscapes: Between Fiction and Reality – Eleven Artists from the Middle East* is on view at Eye Filmmuseum until the the third of January, 2021.

Jue Yang
is a writer and filmmaker

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