Coming to Terms with the Past

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    Between Art and Politics
    Arab Positions at the dOCUMENTA (13)

    Many of the artworks of Arab origin at the thirteenth Documenta in Kassel are socio-critical and political, and explore the interaction with the media. The Arab revolutions also constitute a ‘nerve’ in the Documenta’s central exhibition hall, the ‘brain’, thereby emphasising the global significance of the Arab Spring.

    ‘The Syrian protestors are recording their own death.’ So begins The Pixelated Revolution, a ‘lecture-performance’ by the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué. It premièred at the PS122 COIL Festival in New York in January 2012, and is presented again at the dOCUMENTA (13). In Kassel a video of the work is being shown, augmented by an installation in several sections in the southern wing of the old central station. In The Pixelated Revolution Mroué focuses on videos made by Syrian demonstrators on their mobile phones which they then uploaded to YouTube. The main focus of the work is an 83-second YouTube video that Mroué calls ‘Double Shooting’. A man with a mobile phone camera films those who are about to shoot and kill him. Rabih Mroué’s work has been widely praised, as it has been in the German press. The online edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung describes Mroué’s work as ‘one of the cleverest and most powerful pieces’ in the d13. In Beirut the performance prompted a heated debate about the role of the artist and how artists should tackle the Arab revolutions, a question that has been complicated by the increased interest shown by international art institutions in artistic responses to the subject. The Berlin-based journalist and art critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie also examines the role of the artist in her article about Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution, which also quotes the artist himself:

    ‘Should they [artists living in the region] be making art in their studios or joining protesters on the streets? Should they be agitating as artists, activists or day-to-day citizens? If artists have already been dealing with subjects such as corruption, injustice or social inequity for years, then how can they avoid having their work co-opted by the new fervour for revolutionary fare? And if they decide to take on and work through the uprisings in their art, then how can they do so without coming across as naïve, belated, opportunistic, callous or crass?

    ‘For me these are very intriguing questions,’ says Mroué, ‘and they’re also a kind of trap. One of the things we always say is that art needs distance, and that art needs a kind of peace. But at the same time, with the revolution in Tunisia, or the revolution in Egypt, or the violence in Syria, when are we allowed to talk about it? How long do we have to wait before we can make a work? I think there are no limits, no defined times.’

    Translating back to analogue

    What does Rabih Mroué’s multi-piece installation at the d13 actually show? It includes a wall text with practical instructions for the use of mobile phones at demonstrations, relating them to rules set down in the cinematic manifesto of the Dogme 95 Danish film collective. Rabih Mroué cites two points of comparison: use of a tripod, and the depiction of violence.

    ‘In Dogme 95, there is this instruction that you should not use a tripod. And for the Syrians, it’s not a choice – it’s still very, very, difficult to use a tripod to record their reality. And there is another issue in Dogme 95, where it stipulates that you should not record violent scenes, or weapons, because they don’t want to fake these things. So it’s not necessary to use them. For the Syrians, they add to this dictate insofar as the violent scenes being recorded are actually for real and the stipulation is also correct - do not record violence – insofar as the weapon could kill them and the scene of killing is thereafter real. There is no attempt to fake death here – it is all too real.’

    On the wall alongside are seven portraits of the murderers, printed out on photographic paper, enlarged and pixelated. A figure holding a mobile phone and silhouetted against red light is projected onto the opposite wall. The figure falls to the ground under fire and is brought back to life like a cartoon character as the projection rewinds. In the same room seven flipbooks are lying on a long table. Hanging above them are seven loudspeakers for seven videos, each between eighteen seconds and two minutes long. We are also given the YouTube URL. Each of the flipbooks contains the printed images of the relevant video. In small print we read the instruction: ‘To watch the video, press the button and flick through the flipbook. Match the pace of the images to the audio.’ The flipbooks are stuck to inkpads, so that by flicking through the flipbook the observer leaves behind a blue fingerprint suggestive of criminological evidence. There is something haptic about the flipbooks, which demand the interaction of the observer, who becomes involved in that he leaves traces of himself behind. The final element of the multi-piece installation is an 8mm film that has to be played by hand. Rabih Mroué zooms in on the eye contact between demonstrator and shooter by capturing it in a never-ending loop. What all the parts of the installation have in common is that they all translate the original digital material back into analogue form.

    Self-criticism in dealing with the video material

    The mobile phone as non-violent technology is helping the demonstrators to create publicity. YouTube has turned the video format into a key medium. Instead of producing fresh images artists take them from what is available online, using the internet as a source of inspiration. In doing so they employ different strategies of digital appropriation, as for example when they take contemporary iconic images and deconstruct or desacralise them. However, what frequently sets digital appropriation practices apart from analogue ones, and what in an exhibition can give rise both to a moment of confusion and to a sense of ethical unease, is the sometimes instant artistic reworking of material, which in these exhibits has as it were been ripped straight off the press.

    Rabih Mroué, however, is able to dispel the moment of confusion and the ethical unease as we enter the exhibition hall. He himself has this to say about his work:

    ‘My work is trying not to produce new images but to find and take these images and deconstruct them through reflection and by re-reading them in a human, personalised manner.’

    Rabih Mroué’s work provokes the observer to engage in a critical discourse made possible because, with all its flood of images, his installation ultimately places the emphasis on what is human, and particularly on death, in that he zooms in on the decisive moment and allows it to circulate on a loop to infinity, and decelerates it by retranslating it into analogue form. Rabih Mroué’s multi-piece installation deals with the relationship between image and death. What does a humane image of death look like? It should not satisfy a desire for sensationalism; it should not make a separation between the recipient and the dying, as if, unlike the dying, the recipient were invulnerable; it should not gloss anything over; it should create for the observer a sense of proximity to the moment of death, and thus to the question of the meaning of life. It can do this from a subjective perspective, omitting the actual moment of death. Death is beyond time, but at the same time it is always present. The paradox of death manifests as the moment that can never be experienced as temporally tangible, and yet is eternally present. Death is the eternal moment.

    Arab positions at the d13

    Documenta 13 presents an exceptionally varied picture in its contributions from the Arab world. As can be seen from the list of artists, the curators have not orientated themselves according to the nationalities of the participants. The Arab revolutions play a central role in the d13, but not, generally speaking, in the works of the participating Arab artists.

    The d13 is taking place in Kassel from 9th June to 16th September 2012 in the usual main locations, such as the Fridericianum, the Documenta Hall, the Karlsaue, the Neue Galerie, the former central station, and in a mosque that was never completed at Untere Karlsstraße 14. There are also three secondary locations. Alongside Kabul and Banff, one of the three is Alexandria in Egypt. For Alexandria, the artistic director of the d13, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, together with Sarah Rifky, the director of CIRCA (Cairo International Resource Center for Art) conceived the ‘Cairo Seminar’. It consisted of a series of events in two parts and an exchange between Kassel and Alexandria.

    Alongside the Egyptian authors and artists like Sarah Rifky, Wael Shawky and Hassan Khan, the Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu also took part in the Cairo Seminar. In her work, which is being shown in the Documenta Hall in Kassel, she too addresses the Arab Spring, demonstrating that this highly topical subject matter is to be found in works at the d13 irrespective of the artist’s nationality. Mehretu speaks of the infectious influence of the Arab Spring on the Occupy movement in New York. Mehretu’s series of large-format paintings entitled Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts), created for the d13 and exhibited in the Documenta Hall, refers to squares where revolutions have taken place. In these paintings Mehretu is dealing with architecture as a medium of social history. Her series recalls locations of collective memory: Red Square in Moscow, the Plaza de la Revoluciónin Cuba, Tahrir Square in Cairo, or Zuccoti Park in New York – places where people have demonstrated against existing regimes, or against the power of the banks in the United States.

    ‘Collapse and Recovery’

    ‘Collapse and Recovery’ is the leitmotif of the d13. Its artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, explains it is a theme that is topical everywhere today and which connects the present with the whole of the last century. Furthermore, she says, it links to the history of the first Documenta in 1955, when large parts of Kassel which had been bombed during the war still lay in ruins. The curator also emphasises that the Documenta did not develop out of the trade fairs or world exhibitions of the colonial nineteenth century, but from the experiences of the Second World War. The artist and teacher Arnold Bode, who was barred from working under the Nazis, brought back to Germany art which the Nazis had branded ‘degenerate’ and banned. Emerging from total collapse, the first Documenta was characterised by the hope of a better future and the international reintegration of West German artistic discourse. This emphasis on internationalism also distinguishes the Documenta from the Venice Biennale (which first took place in 1895 – the first Belgian national pavilion was designed in 1907) with its division into national pavilions.

    The centre of the d13 is ‘The Brain’, also described as an ‘associative space of research’. Here, instead of a d13 concept, a series of objects, artworks and documents from different times and places have been collected in this ‘miniature puzzle of an exhibition’.

    On one table sits a laptop displaying a clip from a video of the uprisings in Tahrir Square, filmed by the Egyptian artist Ahmed Basiony on 26th January 2011. The artist, born in Cairo in 1978, died two days later of his wounds after being shot by Egyptian police snipers. Basiony taught at the Art Education College at Helwan University in Cairo und participated in exhibitions such as Occidentalism (2007), The Body Invisible Presents (2009), Live100 (2009–2010), and Why Not? (2010). In 2011 he posthumously represented Egypt at the Venice Biennale with the video installation 30 Days of Running in the Space. Basiony was reported to have said to his friend Shady El Noshokaty: ‘I’m running on the spot and wasting my energy.’ El Noshokaty remembers:

    ‘When I started to think about this project, it occurred to me that Ahmed Basiony was born in 1978. […] Just two years before the Mubarak regime seized power. And when we look back on these thirty years, at the country, the dictatorship, and compare that with Ahmed’s original impression of running on the spot, of wasting his energy in a space without making any progress – that was precisely the situation Egypt was in. Ahmed Basiony’s life represents the life of this country over the past thirty years. It began with this regime, and it was ended by this regime.’

    So Ahmed Basiony’s video-document appearing in such a central position at the d13 is an indication of the connection that exists, via the Arab Spring, between this document and the leitmotif of ‘Collapse and Recovery’. However, a contrast also becomes clearly apparent: between the incompletion of the Arab revolutions on the one hand and, on the other, the collapses and the past that have already been overcome.

    This contrast is reinforced by the juxtaposition of the objects, artworks and documents in the exhibition, where Bactrian princess figurines preserved for thousands of years can be seen alongside damaged artefacts (made of metal, ivory, glass and terracotta) from the National Museum in Beirut, which have melted together in a lump as a result of bombing during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and the museum’s location directly on the demarcation line between West and East Beirut. Here we can also see Arte Povera and Surrealist works as well as documentary photos and objects taken from Adolf Hitler’s apartment in 1945 by the American photographer Lee Miller. The juxtaposition of these objects, artworks and documents opens up new levels of reflection, for example in that the Arab revolutions are put into a historical context.

    ‘Traumatised artworks’

    In her notebook ‘On the Destruction of Art – or Conflict and Art, or Trauma and the Art of Healing’, Bakargiev writes:

    ‘This notebook is a collage of fragments precariously held together by a sense that bodies of culture, just like bodies of people and other animate and inanimate elements in the world, survive the knots and circumstances of history sometimes intentionally and sometimes only by chance.’

    She also speaks of ‘traumatised artworks’, which she defines as speechless, dazed witnesses of conflicts, traumatised subjects incapable of telling their story. They are in stand-by mode; they are dumb, withdrawn from visibility and from the discourse.

    As an example she refers to a piece of work by Walid Raad, exhibited at the d13: Part I_Chapter 1_Section 139: The Atlas Group [1989-2004]. This presents earlier works, including their exhibition spaces, in miniature form. As Jalal Toufic expressed it in his book The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (2009), they have detached themselves from some immeasurable disaster. Walid Raad’s work is part of an ongoing research project in many parts, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow (2008 – present) which he presents at the d13 in performative guided tours.

    Cabaret CrusadesBlind Ambition – The Knot

    The work of the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky also addresses a traumatic past. He has taken as his theme the remote history of the first Crusades. His puppet animation films from the series Cabaret Crusades (2010 - present) tell the story of the Crusades from the Arab point of view. The work takes as its inspiration the book The Barbarians’ Holy War: The Crusades from the Arab Point of View by the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, published in 1983. The two-hundred-year-old marionettes are among those belonging to the family of Daniele Lupi from Turin, with whom Shawky collaborated. Although it deals with the past, Shawky’s work nonetheless comes across as highly topical, because it questions our image of history and contrasts the eurocentric historical view with another viewpoint.

    Political changes do not necessarily cause artists to change their way of working. However, many works deal with the social significance of such changes. This can be seen in the contribution that Hassan Khan, born in London in 1975 and now living in Cairo, created for the d13. Above his 45-minute video Blind Ambition (2012), at the entrance to the exhibition space, is the following information: ‘A lip-synched film shot on a Samsung Galaxy SII cell phone’. The video has no sound. At high speed we follow various people using different kinds of public transport to travel the noisy, traffic-jammed, crowded streets of Cairo. From time to time we linger alongside certain individuals or groups of people. The conversations that have been dubbed over the top appear spontaneous but are in fact staged. What connects them is their emotionally-charged atmosphere. The post-synchronisation creates a distance between voice and body. Hassan Khan has this to say about his work:

    ‘I am at a portrait of selves held together by a fragile intent (that soars and falls), and embraced by the collective fantasy they have all produced.’

    In the same room Khan is exhibiting his sculpture‘The Knot’ (2012), a 70 x 3 x 6.5 cm knot of glass in the form of an 8. At first glance the connection between the video and the glass knot is not immediately apparent, but the quotation (‘fragile intent’) provides a clue. What is particularly striking is the different materialities. We have the concrete, material world of the video on the one hand, and on the other the formality of the glass knot. The fact that the video was recorded on a mobile phone is reminiscent of the use of mobile phones in the Arab Spring. The collective power of the demonstrators was created by a fleeting, fragile cohesion (knot), itself born of individual communication. The video is not therefore limited to its emphasis on the many individual perspectives, but is abstracted by the allegorical element of the glass knot.
    Lotte Fasshauer
    is a Ph.D. student at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School at the FU Berlin. Her Ph.D. examines the work of the Lebanese film auteur Ghassan Salhab in the context of contemporary artistic practice in Lebanon.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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