Seeing Voices

John Haber
in New York City

Emily Jacir, Guy Richards Smit, and Political Art

"It troubles me when people ask if it's too early to make art pertaining to 9/11." That troubled voice belongs to Jonathan Safran Foer in 2005, speaking to Gabe Hudson of The Village Voice about the latest hot-button issue. Yet he could have been defending the urgency of political art everywhere.

No one asked, in the moments after the attacks, if it was too early for Tom Brokaw to report it. Do we trust Tom Brokaw more than we trust, say, Philip Roth? His wisdom, his morality, his vision? I don't. Emily Jacir's Ramallah/New York (Alexander and Bonin, 2005)

Foer wants to hear voices. He wants to imagine events speaking through lost lives as a journalist cannot. He also makes me appreciate active listeners this spring—in Emily Jacir, Rajkamal Kahlon, Andisheh Avini, Michael Ashkin, and Guy Richards Smit. (Amy Wilson merits a separate review.) A postscript instead brings Smit up to date for 2007.

Appropriating or listening?

As a novelist, Foer can try way too hard to talk. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his new novel, traces a family's losses and discoveries after the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Allied bombing of Dresden. Like Neo Rauch, he seems desperate for a visible sign of dislocations within the soul. With a mix of text and grainy photographs, as in W. G. Sebald's Natural History of Destruction, he asks to express what, he insists, no writer can. With the plot device of a key in search of what to unlock, he begs too hard for secrets of the heart. And with an overly bright child as narrator, he falls into the cutes, exactly when he is looking for grown-up emotions.

Yet he could be pleading for any artist ready to speak up and to listen. "I appreciate that Tom Brokaw and Philip Roth do entirely different things," Foer adds. And both, he insists, are necessary:

I wouldn't want Roth giving me my information about what happened on a given day in Baghdad, and I wouldn't want Brokaw giving me my information about what it felt like. Journalists traffic in biography. Artists traffic in empathy. We need both.

So why do people continually question what's the appropriate terrain for art? Why do people wonder what's "OK" to make art about, as if creating art out of tragedy weren't an inherently good thing? Too many people are too suspicious of art. Too many people hate art.

Artists, too, are often tempted by silence, including those who struggled with "The Art of 9/11." In part, the argument is that art reduces a complex humanity. And in part people worry about art's appropriating events for itself—taking what belongs to the sufferer or to all. People often talk of political art as "reductive," but they really worry about the opposite. They worry that art will produce not a fixity of meaning but unwanted interpretations. A plea for greater certainty after disaster is only natural, but it is also wrong.

Art comes haunted with multiple voices dying to be heard, even art of the Arab lands. They range from the work's maker to the world in which it was made. The range from its actual viewers to the ideal viewers that the work solicits, from represented subjects to the object's self-representations. Maybe that, too, helps explain why art and criticism alike are so drawn to strategies of appropriation—from art after the holocaust and art in the Cold War to art after 9/11 and on its tenth anniversary. After all, appropriation is not just irony. Quotation, too, is a kind of listening.

A listener's vanishing act

Emily Jacir knows how to listen and how to make others listen. She showed it at Brooklyn's "Open House" and before that at P.S. 1. At the 2004 Whitney Biennial, she and such other women video artists as Eve Sussman and Sue de Beer stood out. She had asked Palestinians, both in and outside the Middle East, "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" Her work recorded their testimony in words, documents, images, and other scraps of memory.

Part of listening is hearing someone strangely different and still more strangely like oneself. Perhaps one expected to hear place as a locus of ideological imperatives. One left the exhibitions aware of exile as a condition that one recognizes, a condition that turns on family and other manifestations of community. Jacir takes one outside the typical political debate. It hardly matters whether one believes in a right of return or considers the claim an appalling obstacle to peace—and, regardless, what solution to the controversy one might have. In her world, when it comes to the past, the abstraction of rights gives way to the reality of memory. And when it comes to the future, solutions give way to the simplest of expressed hopes.

The political subjects and the work alike involve crossing boundaries, inside and outside Palestine, as well as between media. They also involve the suggestive absence of the artist, herself a Palestinian American. Like Yael Bartana on the Israeli side, she speaks through the work, but as a listener.

Her new work continues all these themes. In a series of small panels, Jacir hand letters the text of email to her in purple on white. They risk exposing her, even down to her email address, and they break the boundary between political and personal issues. Yet they come at her politically from both sides, praising the voice of the people or her art, decrying art as cover for anti-Semitism or murder. And beyond the suggestive humanizing of hypertext as painting, she offers nothing in reply, neither in celebration nor in defense.

In a back room, two screens break boundaries in a different way. They pair ordinary scenes in Ramallah and America—of convenience stores and luncheonettes, of offices and hair salons, of consumerism and near squalor. The notions of familiarity and exile reappear, with fresh connotations. So does her silence. She does not so much as supply subtitles for the speakers.

Even openness, however, can go too far. Like assessments on network television, they can take one from the ordinary directly to banality. Jacir's short, static video has no great visual flair, and it does not fix one's attention on anything heretofore invisible. The idea of painted email, which could seem such a suggestive absence and another invocation of nostalgia and memory, instead feels merely quaint. As for the anger contained within the email, I already know what the letters column in the paper looks like. In this determined vanishing act, too much of art and communication vanishes along with the artist.

East and West

Not all political artists are as bracingly insensitive to nuance—or as sensitive to the point of invisibility as Emily Jacir. Several shows articulate the point of view of the Middle and Far East drily, if at times too clumsily. Michael Rakowitz somehow crosses between Le Corbusier, Penn Station, and, yes, even Iraq's looted museum. Others offer a reminder of the clumsiness with which plenty of others have approached the region.

Rajkamal Kahlon calls her show "Unbound," even if her subjects would hardly know it. Her parodies of a nation's art and culture, as seen through Western eyes, boast of an artist's willingness to transgress. They also literally unbind a nineteenth-century history of India, purchased at auction for $400 in borrowed funds. Kahlon has been, um, enhancing its 1,200 pages with paint and gouache. Her versions describe Western eyes and colonial power as definitely constraining, even brutalizing.

One constraint lies in the original volume's style, with the flat, somber washes of Indian art for V. S. Gaitonde simplified to the point of inanity. The gallery refers to its Saccharin color scheme. Kahlon sees the book as complicating a Westerner's complacency in revealing ways, though the bluntness of its text and photos. Her paint job blots the images further and alarmingly—adding bared teeth, bloodied flesh, and bound faces. If this sounds like a recipe for making obvious points, it is. I want to cut it a small break, however, for Kahlon's awareness of that limit, as revealed in her project's obsessiveness.

Andisheh Avini also prefers unbound pages, but with more of an eye to a traditional museum display of Islamic art. The best works could well pass for Persian miniatures, with their fine tracery, angled geometry, interest in nature as well as architecture, and palette of green, pastel, and gold. However, Avini ghosts out the people, painting them over in silver. Up close, the gaps make the image seem to fall apart before one's eyes. Further back, the ghosts cohere into silhouettes. Their gestures seem almost to speak, and perhaps Avini means, not unlike Kahlon, to convey an imposed silence as well.

Michael Ashkin also likes a miniature scale. At least his idea of disuse, however, stems from serious damage. The work amounts to one huge desert village of cardboard and dust. Think "Shock and Awe." Does Ashkin, too, sound clumsy and narrow? I did like how he upends at once images from TV and architectural models. Maybe his model could serve as an alternative plan for the High Line, the elevated park in Chelsea.

These artists adopt familiar images, to the point of Western stereotypes, in order to put the viewer on the cusp between insider and outsider. Nothing blew me away, although I liked Avini's exhibition especially, apart from some less-evocative sculpture that strives to invoke and undermine ritual objects. Still, it hardly hurts to remember that artists have not forgotten the outside world. Last fall, I tried to answer charges that artists neglect politics or politicize art. In a world already this crazed, I hardly see how they can.

Deflating men

Let me see if I have this straight. Two stars of "adult" entertainment, nearing what we shall call the climax of their careers, lose faith in the recuperative if not remunerative power of their art. Fortunately, they find each other and discover fulfillment where it truly matters, shopping. Ah, there but for a small fortune go you or I.

With this "feature-length" video, has Guy Richards Smit truly written, produced, and starred in a rock opera on the epic themes of physical revulsion and high fashion? Or does Nausea2 simply allow one to watch toned men and women with cute noses lip-synching while taking bubble baths and holding press conferences? Either way, I found it hilarious, not to mention less pretentious than a Matthew Barney epic cycle, more coherent, and hours shorter.

Smit returns emphatically, too, to the politics of divided America, and he does not mean just the culture wars. He also throws in mock New York Times front pages in watercolor. The Republican party commits mass suicide on the Senate floor, leaving at least one child, President Bush, behind. America finds its sweetheart in a Florida woman incapable of thought or memory. ("She's just like me!")

In the context of past group shows devoted to political art, Smit's assaults may look easy. On their own, however, the surprises keep coming, and the irony takes off. I love the recognizable bylines and the avoidance of lettering entire articles, with dark blocks that could pass for censorship by Homeland Security. Even more, I appreciate how Smit's grisly humor turns on the all-too-knowing reader. He goes so far over the top that one becomes painfully aware of one's laughter and condescension. I should have brought an "adult."

As a postscript, Richards's return in 2007 again makes political art that boils politics down to its essentials—sex and violence. His paintings still preserve only the headlines and photographs from fictitious newspapers, reducing the rest to monochrome smears. That could class him with Jenny Holzer and other artists weighing the brutality of the headlines against the brutality of censorship. Mostly, however, it allows him to reduce broadsheets to tabloids, with the clear implication that they are already more than halfway there. To rub it in, an alcove plays surely the steamiest music video surviving from the eighteenth century.

Some of Smit's new headlines amount to political satire, such as "U.S. Troops Pledge Loyalty to Moktada al-Sadr," but even then his real interest no doubt lies in those "Sexy GIs Returning Home." Sometimes the sordidness becomes a cultural phenomenon, as when "America Gets Arrested," or a personal one, as when "This Diaper Is a Cold Wet Hell." Sometimes it becomes downright plaintive, like "Who Shall be the Helen of My Tragedy?" Smit no doubt gets a free pass in the market and with me, by making his private version of The Onion into art, with nice colors to boot. Still, does his shifting, anonymous speaker claim that "My Imagination Is a Teeming Slum"? I would not have it any other way.

BACK to John's arts home page

An exhibition of Emily Jacir ran at Alexander and Bonin through April 9, 2005, Rajkamal Kahlon at PPOW through May 21, Andisheh Avini at I-20 through June 18, Michael Ashkin at Andrea Rosen through June 18, and Guy Richards Smit at Roebling Hall in Chelsea through May 14 and again through April 28, 2007. A later article looks at Jacir's Hugo Boss Prize work at the Guggenheim.


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