3.7.18 — Check Your Baggage

More from this week’s rundown of MoMA PS1. Many a traveler would be jealous. Naeem Mohaiemen did not lose his luggage.

He did not have to pay to check it either, but he dotes on it all the same. He pores over every inch before stretching out on the luggage belt with it, adopting it as a pillow, and hoping for a good night’s sleep. He may have found the least unyielding surface in the cruel space of an airport and an unyielding world. Naeem Mohaiemen's Tripoli Canceled (MoMA PS1, 2017)The belt is not going anywhere, stuck between signs for New York and Montreal in Greek and English, and neither is he.

Not that I can swear that the bag belongs to him. Like John Akomfrah, he has an airport to himself, with the freedom to explore it but nowhere else to go. He is stuck there for days—and for more than ninety minutes of screen time, as Tripoli Canceled, at MoMA PS1 through March 11. Athens abandoned the airport some time ago anyway, even apart from him. Who knew that Eero Saarinen has another great airport to his credit, on top of the former TWA terminal at JFK—and one more that has not stood the test of commercial use? Mohaiemen provides every opportunity to appreciate its halls and runways, as he never will.

He looks across the surrounding plains, all the more unable to take flight. He adopts a helicopter, but as a cramped studio apartment or an enigma rather than a means of escape. He attends to his everyday needs as if bewildered by them all. He washes his face, which glistens in the airport lights, uncertain whether to shave. He comes to a halt at last in a grand concourse beside a central escalator. Naturally he prefers the stairs, and naturally, too, he is unable to walk.

He could be having an existential crisis, and characters unable to leave the stage appear often in the glory days of Existentialism—as in No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. On film (and now in an opera), they are stuck in the disturbing dinner party of The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel. This reveler, though, is sad and alone. He could be the artist as outsider, although Mohaiemen uses a professional actor. He could be a surrogate for everyone caught between continents and without a home, although with an unusually pristine refugee camp. He could be the last man on earth.

Yet there, too, he is suspicious. He calls the show “There Is No Last Man,” a dig at The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and its vision of a triumphant global capitalism. (How’s that working out for you?) He also pairs text and images to grapple with a family legacy—a great-uncle who embraced fascism as a response to British rule of India. Mohaiemen, a native Londoner, also cites his father, who could not change planes in 1977 owing, shall we say, to passport issues. The film opens by explaining that this is not about him.

It could be about them all. His very denial raises what it means to dismiss. Mohaiemen’s conclusion has that same ambiguity between a sly humor and the brink of despair. The man seated on the stairs starts to intone “Never on a Sunday,” the pop tune from the 1960s, ticking off the days of never-ending weeks. And then he breaks into tears. He cannot restrain his despairing music for airports, but you had better check your baggage at the door.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.