Taking Sides

John Haber
in New York City

Here and Elsewhere: Art of the Arab Lands

Etel Adnan

As an exhibition opened at the New Museum, rockets fell indiscriminately on Israel, and air strikes took their deadly toll in Gaza. By the weekend, Israeli troops had entered Gaza City to crush Hamas tunnels beneath the border, even as gunmen emerged from other tunnels into Israel. As terror and destruction spread, they practically demanded that one take sides, and people all too quickly obliged.

Can art cross borders while taking sides? "Here and Elsewhere" fills all five floors with art of the Arab lands. It documents place after place and decades of history—and the loss of place after place and, often, of a history. Its forty-five artists can claim at least fifteen nations as their home. Relying almost exclusively on photography and video, they introduce searing images largely unknown in America. They also leave one wondering if there is still a place amid the turmoil for art. Etel Adnan's Untitled (Callicoon Fine Arts, 2013)

Borders enter this art as sites of conflict and displacement. Conversely, globalization enters art news through fairs and auction prices. Yet there are other ways, too, to cross borders. For Etel Adnan, the crossing is her personal history. Her solo show traces a journey from Beirut to America, toward the New York harbor and a mountain in California. Her work moves between realism and abstraction, but memories of the past will not go away.

Nowhere else

"Here and Elsewhere" makes a strong case for not just the Arab world, but political art itself as a deeply personal record. Whether as artists or as subjects, those involved keep saying the same thing: I was there, and I remember. Yet the tension between art and taking sides is evident right in the show's title, after a 1976 "film-essay" by Jean-Luc Godard with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville. It began as a pro-Palestinian documentary only to grow more slippery. Here can give way to elsewhere, as image tumbles into image, and one needs every bit of the museum's help in sorting out oppressor from oppressed and ruin from ruin.

Starting with Godard and questions of identity, one may expect more theory than practice. And the selections have little room for painting and other fictions, beyond Marwan's portraits somewhere between German Expressionism and Francis Bacon. A typescript by Adnan, her edits visible, gets more space than her abstract landscapes, and the video portraits of Emily Jacir do not appear at all. Unlike in "Iran Modern" and other shows of Iranian art, little alludes to the great age of Islamic art, beyond the blue lattice of Susan Hefuna's gentle abstractions. Even less alludes to ancient times, beyond Simone Fattal's imagined relics. The conflicts, the show argues, do not reduce to ethnicity and religion—and those conflicts have a way of cutting people off from the past.

The show has real breadth all the same. Ala Younis supplies a refresher course on the top floor, with posters, magazine covers, maps, and other remnants. It also has the model for a statue pockmarked by war, by one of the few familiar names, Mona Hatoum. Archly called "An Index of Tensional and Unintentional Love of Land," Younis's installation argues that Gamal Abdel Nasser's United Arab Republic and a Palestinian state stood for hope and that hope has given way to disillusionment. From there, each floor tackles a geographic area, although there, too, borders are slippery. They also unfold a rough chronology as one descends—from northern Africa as the site of colonial wars, to Egypt and Palestine as the site of an extended struggle, and to Lebanon and Syria raging now.

The selections for each artist, too, go for breadth, if not necessarily for depth. Each has an extended video or a series of work. These are not the token representations of a Biennial or Triennial. Once again the New Museum thrives on global history in the present, as with its show about Eastern Europe, "Ostalgie." However, it also sticks to one body of work per artist, with wall labels to spell out first the artist's career and then the body in question. (Note to self: do not place long columns of wall text in the same dark room as a video.)

The ground floor adds one last region, the Gulf States, and a glossy introduction. GCC's wallpaper converts the lobby into a luxury hotel. The Dubai collective also inserts itself posed as sheiks, because art is a serious business. In the adjacent gallery, Hassan Sharif piles up scraps as further evidence of capitalism and consumption, while Ahmed Mater films Mecca as a construction site. If a pilgrimage endures, it will do so as tourism as much as Islamic imperative. Upstairs, though, destruction does not require bulldozers, and construction is only a dream.

Do your best to keep track of the destruction and the dreams. The task is overwhelming, amid four hundred objects. The curators, led by Massimiliano Gioni, could easily have done less. They could also have done more, not just with more art forms but also with more conflicting voices. One could imagine a show solely about North Africa that gives more weight to the Arab Spring—or a show about Palestine that includes Israeli artists as well. Still, "Here and Elsewhere" is not simply taking sides.

The image of displacement

One can locate connections from here to elsewhere—and from floor to floor. Everywhere there is ideology, but as neither empowering nor as truth. Wael Shawky walks supermarket aisles while reciting the Koran (and, yes, they sell beer). Marwa Arsanios remembers calls for an Arab socialism, but they leave her alone in a dark wood searching for light. Abounaddara's "emergency video" of children taught to march for revolution is downright terrifying. When people hold a photo of Saddam before their faces for Jamal Penjweny, ideology obliterates them entirely.

There is the image of a people, under western eyes or its own. There is the public face, in Ziad Antar's grainy images on expired film or Fouad Elkoury's elegant prints of Beirut's former grandeur—and also the private face. Hashem el Medani (also remembered in Aram Zaatari's video) let his sitters choose their poses, while Van Leo's more theatrical photos anticipate Cindy Sherman by thirty-five years. There is the obliterated face, in Rokni Haerizadeh's doctored YouTube stills. And there is the sinister face, in Hrair Sarkissian's Execution Squares, picturing the sites of public hangings. The people are long gone.

from Hrair Sarkissian's Execution Squares (Kalfayan Galleries, 2008)Implicitly, there is violence. It grinds on in Yto Barrada's Morocco. It takes on palpable form, when Lamia Joriege asks people to remember a treasured possession—a diary, a candle, a set of keys, a teddy bear. It takes on humanity, in Fakhri El Ghezal's photos of shattered picture frames or Tanya Habjouqa's of the cell phones of Syrian women whose husbands are at war. It takes on comic outlines, in Rana Hamadeh's rendering of war as a board game or Mazen Kerbaj's graphic novel. It takes a quieter shape, in the purple spaces of an animated forest for Amal Kenawy, or a harsher one, in Marwan Rechmaoul's concrete shell after the apartment building she once knew.

Most of all, there is displacement. One can measure it, like Bouchra Khalili with his Mapping Journey Project or Basma Alsharif's glowing video of the 78 kilometers from Jerusalem to Gaza. One can describe it, like Anna Boghiguian's paint, pencil, and crayon sketches of modern cities and dead civilizations, accompanied by text about nomads. One can seek an equivalent for it, like Ali Jabri in collage caught between western styles and eastern images. One can relive it, like Abdullah Al Saadi traversing the United Arab Emirates by camel. One can shout against it, like Khaled Jarrar's video of Palestinians breaching walls, failing, and starting anew.

One can look beyond displacement, if only in the imagination. Maha Maamoun's video journey to the Pyramids may unfold in reality or in the mind. Mohamed Larbi Rahali has been collecting and doodling on matchbox covers, and they become his life. Wafa Hourani takes an entire room for a "future city" of paper houses, toy cars, lights in the windows, and flowers on every lawn. It even has an airport, its runway paved with glitter. Still, it is Qalandia, a refugee camp between Jerusalem and Ramallah today. Again art is not assigning blame, so much as taking responsibility.

Displacement enters in one last way. For all the artists' countries of origin, their lives range further still. Quite a few have studied or lived in Berlin, Paris, or the United States, and several can trace their heritage to yet another genocide entirely, Armenia. The show is haunting, even as it leaves out the obvious suspects and subjects. It is a mess, but it means to be, and so often does the art. One cannot often take sides, not even between present and future.

To the mountain

An aging artist keeps returning to a mountain and approaches abstraction. With Paul Cézanne, an inability to let go helped reshape Impressionism as the art not just of seeing, but of searching. It remade an art of color and light as an art of mass and space, and it pointed the way to Modernism. It also defined a landscape as not simply a place to work, as for Claude Monet at Argenteuil on the Seine, or a place to possess, as for Monet in his private gardens with waterlilies. Like a breakfast table for Cubism, Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire may look opaque, because it is always calling him back to look again. It is calling him home.

Etel Adnan keeps at the same mountain, too. Born in 1925 in Lebanon, Adnan has been working on what she knows for some time. She renders it in small panels, not with Cézanne's feathery touch but with a pallet knife, so that each distinct color has a tactile quality not so very far from his after all. One could take almost any of them for the decorative stasis of Raoul de Keyser, the Belgian artist. Adnan works in red and black ink, too, as well as in watercolor, adding flowers, sky, water, and words. This mountain, though, is Mount Tamalpais in Sausalito, and it has called her in more than one direction, like her life.

Adnan appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial with a tale of immigration. One could see her accordion books, or leporellos, with their folding paper as an unfolding narrative—and her smokestacks as America, her new-found land. A long sheet from 1973, when she was back in Beirut, has the word California in Arabic. Think of Joni Mitchell in a park in Paris singing of California. Yet Adnan is always looking more than one way. At ninety, she splits her time between France and Marin County, but she was speaking more than one language from birth.

She had a Christian Greek mother, a Muslim Syrian father, early education in French, and studies at the Sorbonne and Harvard. The seacoast in her art belongs at least as much to Lebanon, which she left for good only in the face of civil war. Words tend to take on a life of their own anyway, and she also writes, including a novel about the war. With the folded sheets, too, she adopts the form of an artist's book, adding her own words. They may label jars of condiments or spill out onto the paper for a life of their own. They also take the shape of questions.

So do the paintings. The largest has a patchwork of color closest to abstraction, like that of Paul Klee, while another has only shades of gray, bringing it closest to naturalism. There the peak dominates, as seen through twilight, fog, or rain. The panels riff on the shapes in front of her or in memory, with seemingly unrelated color fields flush to the picture plane. On paper, ink spreads, while watercolor moves more fluidly still, and both leave plenty of white space. Painting here is an act of creation and self-creation.

Adnan is part of a wave of rediscoveries of older artists. As prices rise, maybe buyers need some reassurance or even maturity. All her media have in common their calm intimacy, in landscapes belonging equally to the past, the gallery interior, and the imagination. Unlike after Cézanne, one should not expect a breakthrough to another avant-garde. One can, though, prize artists that keep searching. Adnan sees the scene in front of her, but she sees it feelingly.

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"Here and Elsewhere" ran at the New Museum through September 28, 2014, Etel Adnan at Callicoon through May 23.


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