Appraisal — August 26, 2014, 4:00 pm

Art Beyond Politics

At the New Museum’s latest show, Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics to question their own modes of expression

So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East. Gaza’s scenes of wreckage and dead children fill our screens this month; a little while ago it was news clips of masked men marching through Mosul, who soon tweeted pictures of their beheaded or crucified enemies. The pornographers of jihad have an eye for memorable obscenities. Who can forget, once seen, the snuff videos of Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein?

The region doesn’t only produce images of awfulness, of course. In the springtime of the Arab Spring, the festival of Tahrir was inspiring to behold. So were videos of unarmed crowds surging through clouds of tear gas to defend their public squares. Less inspiring, though just as riveting, are the real-estate spectacles of the Gulf — Babelian skyscrapers and filigreed soccer stadiums that seem to have arrived from the future as imagined by Zaha Hadid.

For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life — at least as it is experienced via a computer screen — regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?

The exhibits at the New Museum’s current show, Here and Elsewhere, put forth a fascinating range of answers to this question. The show, which occupies all five floors of the museum in Lower Manhattan, gathers the work of forty-five artists from the Middle East. There are too many sensibilities on display to take in during one visit, but the show isn’t at all a hodgepodge. Each exhibit is more or less explicitly concerned with the nature of images: who makes them, who looks at them, and how their meanings change with time. In contrast with the immediacy of news reports and made-for-consumption spectacles, the best pieces at the New Museum show offer their own images with skepticism, and even, at times, with distaste. This is art that doubles as art criticism.

Such thoughtfulness — call it conceptualism — is remarkable, given that many of the exhibits deal with events still dripping blood. This isn’t a show of protest art, though it sometimes takes protests as its material. Fictionville, a series by the Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, uses stills from YouTube videos of political demonstrations — in this case, bare-breasted women protesting Islamism — in which protesters and police are painted over roughly, becoming half-human, half-animal hybrids (one inspiration for the series, we learn from the excellent catalog, is a book of Persian folktales). Haerizadeh’s painting makes clear which side he isn’t on — the forces of order have pigs’ heads or devilish horns — but by turning news footage into something stylized and mythical, he takes our attention away from the political subject and draws it toward the artist’s techniques.

Subversive Salami in a Ragged Briefcase (2014), by Rokni Haerizadeh. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai

Subversive Salami in a Ragged Briefcase (2014), by Rokni Haerizadeh. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai

The show takes its title from Jean-Luc Godard’s Here and Elsewhere, one of the great essay films of the nouvelle vague. In 1970, Godard was commissioned by Fatah to make an epic of the Palestinian struggle — every national liberation movement wanted its own Battle of Algiers — but he ended up making a movie about the circulation of images instead. The Palestinians Godard filmed in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria were in some sense always posing for the camera. Sheer visibility was a victory for them, and the fedayeen loomed larger in the world of images than they ever did on the battlefield. Jean Genet, who stayed in the camps at the same time Godard did, once quoted Arafat as saying, “[Foreigners] take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us, and thanks to them we exist. And then suddenly they may stop, and for the West and all the rest of the world the Palestinian problem will be solved simply because no one sees its picture any more.”

Heroism is the first casualty of Godard’s film, and the artists at the New Museum take a similarly suspicious view. The exhibits I spent the most time with find politics in unlikely places — not in the public posturing of leaders, nor even in movements of popular resistance, but in the unrehearsed moments of everyday life.

Lamia Joreige’s ongoing series, Objects of War, is an ideal entry point to the show. Her exhibit features six old-fashioned televisions showing interviews of men and women who lived through the Lebanese Civil War. Each subject talks about a personal memento of the conflict. Their stories are thus fixed around concrete particulars — a flashlight, a pack of playing cars, a jerrican — that are shown in display cases around the room. (Several of the subjects are also artists in the show, which is weighted in favor of Lebanese work.)

It takes time to listen to the interviews, and that is the point: these are stories that don’t make the news and don’t come in sound bites, yet they give a vivid sense of daily life in the midst of deadly abstractions. Listening to the tales, one is also reminded how much the current wave of conflicts, increasingly brutal and sectarian, resembles a large-scale version of the long Lebanese war — a battleground that also drew in its neighbors and made a mockery of settled alliances and ideologies.

To find politics in the midst of the everyday is something documentaries do at their best, and Here and Elsewhere features some extraordinary examples of the form. Abounaddara, a collective of anonymous video artists, has been shooting and posting films of day-to-day life in Syria since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. One of the videos shown here is an interview with an Alawite woman talking about how she became aware, as a schoolgirl, of the fact of sectarianism. I was immediately reminded of how Americans tell stories about becoming conscious of race. In both cases, you are listening to stories of political baptism — of being born into a history one has no control over, and which therefore seems slightly artificial, but whose consequences are real and pervasive.

Another documentary, Khaled Jarrar’s Infiltrators, follows Palestinians seeking entry to Israel through checkpoints and over walls. There are moments of confrontation, but most of the footage shows the subjects walking through fields, talking on cellphones, trying to start the car, etc. The film shows what politics with no heroes looks like — or else it shows a heroism of small gestures, performed to preserve one’s dignity rather than to vanquish the enemy.

For me, the revelation of the show was the studio portraits of Hashem al Madani. Madani ran a small commercial shop, called Studio Scheherazade, in Saida, in southern Lebanon, for more than fifty years beginning in 1953. He sometimes took a hundred portraits of ordinary people in a day — for IDs, weddings, graduations, and everything else. Madani made no attempt to unmask his sitters or to subject them to ironic scrutiny. They were allowed to pose just as they wanted, which gives his work a compelling mixture of earnestness and make-believe.

“Hashem El Madani. Palestinian resistant, Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1970– 72,” by Akram Zaatari. From “Objects of study / The archive of Shehrazade / Hashem el Madani / Studio practices,” 2006. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

“Hashem El Madani. Palestinian resistant, Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1970– 72,” by Akram Zaatari. From “Objects of study/The archive of Shehrazade / Hashem el Madani / Studio practices,” 2006. Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

His work at the show includes a series from the seventies, when young men in bell bottoms posed for him with rifles à la Palestinien, as well as portraits of parochial schoolgirls and serious-faced Syrians (the Ba’ath Party occupied the floor above the photo studio). There are also several images of two people mimicking Hollywood kissing scenes. This would have been unseemly for boy-girl couples, and so all the shots are of men kissing men or women kissing women, in various states of awkwardness and repressed hilarity. In Madani’s portraits, we get a glimpse of private fantasies, political or otherwise, made public.

Madani closed shop in Saida about ten years ago, but his archive of photos — there are more than a million — is now part of the Arab Image Foundation, a Beirut nonprofit established in 1997 with the goal of preserving photography from the Arab world. One of the founders, Akram Zaatari, curated the New Museum’s Madani series; Zaatari also has an exhibit at the show, which includes a contemporary video of him and Madani, as well as a triptych of large interiors of Studio Scherazade in its heyday. In these shots, portraits hang from the walls like icons in an Eastern church, while fluorescent lights fill the workspace with an antiquated sci-fi glow. A desk squats in the foreground, cluttered with the tools of the trade circa 1970, which have the mysterious significance of objects in an etching by Dürer. It is typical of the show that we should be confronted not only with the art, but the conditions of its making. This doesn’t dispel the magic of the images, but it does ground them in a particular time and place.

Here and Elsewhere. Photograph by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York.

Here and Elsewhere. Photograph by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York.

The eeriest exhibit, which has stayed with me in the days following my visit, is Wafa Hourani’s Qalandia 2087. The installation is a diorama built of simple materials, imagining what the Qalandia refugee camp, situated just west of Jerusalem, will look like one hundred years after the first Intifada. The camp is an orderly sort of ghetto: one of its taller buildings is conspicuously aslant, but the roads are straight and lined with prim little streetlamps. The security wall that cuts through the real Qalandia has become a wall of mirrors; on the other side of it — the Israeli side — are a nightclub with a goldfish tank and an airport with toy jetliners.

“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” a mixed-media installation in six parts by Wafa Hourani, photographed by Wilfried Petzi.

“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” a mixed-media installation in six parts by Wafa Hourani, photographed by Wilfried Petzi.

Walking through the space of the mock-up, which is about half the size of a handball court, you are made to think what it would be like to live in or visit such a place. And as you approach the mirror-clad separation barrier, you’re confronted with the image of yourself in two very different landscapes — as though asked to choose which side you’re on, or to think about the restrictions such a choice might entail. Like several other exhibits in the show, Qalandia 2087 suggests the power of images to limit the imagination, by reflecting back at us the picture of ourselves we would like to see, or might prefer to see in place of another, perhaps truer one.

Single Page
teaches comparative literature at Yale University. He is poetry editor of The Paris Review.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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