in Features | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Another Country

With Emily Jacir’s solo show now on view at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (until 3 January 2016), re-read Kirsty Bell’s monograph on the artist from issue 114, April 2008

in Features | 01 APR 08

Emily Jacir, Material for a Film (Performance) (detail, 2005-6)

The two-channel video work Ramallah/New York (2004–5) is a good place to start discussing the work of Emily Jacir, given that she calls both these cities home. Two adjacent screens display documentary footage of comparable businesses in both cities: scenes shot in a travel agency in New York are shown alongside footage of its equivalent in Ramallah; a West Bank tobacconist’s shop is paired with one in New York; similar comparisons are made between two hairdressing salons and two restaurants. As a spectator, your natural impulse is to read the opposing images for signs of difference, for the local details that separate the familiar West from the unknown quantity of this other, troubled location. However, beyond slight discrepancies in technology or, occasionally, fashion, it is not as easy as you would think to differentiate the one from the other. Clues that we initially take to be clear indicators of New York – a poster of the Statue of Liberty, a woman serving behind the counter – turn out to be red herrings, and are actually scenes from Ramallah. To keep us on our toes, the locations switch between monitors, leaving us unable to predict which city should appear on which side. A desire to search out difference gradually gives in to an awareness of the inescapable commonality of the quotidian activities being played out: these are actually mirror images. The universal needs of daily life – food, cigarettes, haircuts – not only peel the real-life Ramallah away from its newsreel identity, but also indicate the home-from-home of immigrant populations now settled in the USA.

Jacir’s practice is concerned with location in a very physical sense and with the way our bodies respond to the banal events of everyday life. Although her work frequently reflects on the complex situation of the Palestinian people, she deflects the point of focus away from dramatic events and towards the most matter-of-fact details. In some cases, she plays off our tendency to misread images through a cloud of prejudice: an image of what seem to be fighter planes is actually a photograph of birds flying through the sky at dusk (Nablus Eid, 2006) In others, she articulates the impact of violence and economic hardship through haunting images of displacement or suspended time: the half-finished concrete structure of Ramallah Mall (2006) abandoned at some point in the past; the wall of a doctor’s office riddled with gashes from flying shrapnel, one planted squarely in the spine of an anatomical drawing hanging on the wall (A Doctor’s Office, 2002); the corner of a crocheted tablecloth on a bourgeois living room table that is raised to reveal a mirror image of its pattern on the surface of the table, formed by a thick layer of dust that has collected in the crocheted holes (Afternoon in Sido’s House with Anton, 2003), we are left to wonder if this is the result of a house hastily abandoned and left unkempt, or the dusty aftermath of a violent explosion.

The fraught duality of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is ever-present in Jacir’s art; it’s a dichotomy most complexly articulated in her own person, given the oxymoronic states of dispossession and freedom of movement encompassed by her dual nationality status as both a citizen of the USA and Palestine. Her own ‘centre-ground’ position seems not merely elusive in her work, but actively erased from it. Jacir slips between the many gaps left by the losses and fissures implicit to Palestinian identity, or becomes absorbed in a variety of artistic, political or personal communities in the cities in which she resides. Inbox (2004–5), 45 meticulous small-scale paintings of emails sent to the artist over a period of years, builds a chorus of voices around her, from personal friends, professional colleagues and fellow Palestinians, to news groups, Arab support groups or even hate mail from anti-Palestinian movements. Although the re-created emails usually refer to events she has described, or are replies to messages she has sent, the artist herself is silent: none of her own emails are shown. Jacir is the mute party in numerous one-sided conversations that can be pieced together to establish the texture of her life, and hint at what it might mean to be Arabic in the increasingly prejudiced and aggressive context of post-9/11 USA, where we see the threat of media censorship, if not of outright violence, becoming a reality. By leaving a void where the central nucleus of these cyber-space missives should be, Jacir encourages viewers to put themselves in her position, thereby temporarily becoming part of the ‘us’ of the atomised Palestinian community.

In Material for a Film (2005–ongoing) the displacement is total, as Jacir’s own identity is substituted for that of her subject, Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian intellectual living in Rome who was assassinated in 1972 by Israeli agents, having been mistakenly identified as one of those responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The installation gathers together photographs, books, music, letters, interviews, telegrams, copies of the Italian magazine Rivoluzione Palestinese to which Zuaiter contributed, even a clip from a Pink Panther film in which he had a small part, to flesh out a life no longer there. The work insists on continuity. On an individual level, the different aspects of Zuaiter’s life are represented equally; his literary or musical interests are highlighted as much as his devotion to the Palestinian cause. On a temporal level, the work addresses the ongoing nature of the Palestinian problem despite the fact that over 30 years have now passed since Zuaiter was assassinated. And finally, on a geographical level, given that the piece was installed at the 2007 Venice Biennale, the tale’s setting in Rome provided a local take on a distant problem, bringing it closer-to-home for its Italian audience. But as much as the wealth of material in the installation is able to trace the dimensions of a varied and vivid life, it cannot help but feel static. The lack of Zuaiter’s living presence becomes a haunting absence.

Despite addressing a specific and complex political situation, the continuity of theme and incidental local colour of Jacir’s works allow her to avoid polemic and overcome the objective detachment, prejudice or ignorance of a broad audience. It remains a delicate area, however, as Jacir herself once intimated in an interview. Referring to a work originally made for a Palestinian audience before being shown in the USA, she remarked: ‘I’m not sure how to reconcile the notion that non-Palestinians are being entertained by our sorrows and dreams.’1

Jacir’s crispness of conception, documentation and presentation acts to obscure the subtle displacements and transferrals that occur in her work. She handles her material – whether assembled documents, fabricated objects, photographs or films – with a clarity of purpose, display and communication that borrows from Conceptual art practices, and allows us to believe, at least initially, that we are being presented with something simple and regulated. As Sol LeWitt put it: ‘Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.’2 But the double takes insisted on in works such as Ramallah/New York, the disturbing absence behind the assembled documents in Material for a Film, or the many discordant voices and shocking revelations of the neatly painted emails of Inbox, rattle their contained presentation by showing the urgent or messy social reality with which they are concerned.

Jacir’s works manifest what Edward Said termed the ‘contrapuntal’ existence of the exile; the awareness of ‘simultaneous dimensions’ in which activities occur against the memory of another environment: ‘Thus, both the new and the old environments are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally.’3 But, crucially, the gap between these two dimensions is vacated in order for the spectator to occupy it and get a bird’s-eye view of the situation. This occurs literally in Crossing Surda (A Record of Going To and From Work) (2002). Wanting to film her daily journey to her studio across one of the checkpoints in Ramallah, and having learnt from violent experience that filming the checkpoint is not allowed (she was once held at gunpoint for several hours and her film confiscated), Jacir hid a camera in her bag and shot surreptitiously through a hole. The image, projected large, swings nauseatingly: she is jostled between crowds of people, traffic-jammed cars, passing tanks and gun-wielding Israeli soldiers, all trudging along the dull muddy track; the journey seems endless. Occasionally a sharply outlined shadow, bag hanging on shoulder, moves into view – this blank body shape is as much the spectator’s, seeing through the artist’s eyes, as it is Jacir’s. On a small monitor opposite the projected image, is a slow-motion edit of the journey’s ‘highlights’: close-ups of mud-encrusted tank treads, of bored soldiers handling their weapons; the fatal machinery of the ongoing conflict, signs of the latent possibility of violence, even death, that accompany this banal daily activity. Crossing Surda … has a dream-like effect, of incidents seen from the corner of the eye coming back to populate nightmares.

The politicization of the movement of a body in space, in particular the extensive restrictions the Palestinians endure in their isolated territories through rigorous controls of permits and passes at checkpoints, becomes immediately apparent in the hard, monotonous trudge through cordoned-off areas witnessed in Crossing Surda … This is thrown into sharp relief by the complete freedom of movement Jacir’s American passport affords her in From Texas with Love (2002). Documenting a Texas road trip made by the artist, the film is all speed, space and open roads, but it is dedicated to those for whom this luxury is unavailable, and accompanied by their soundtrack: songs proposed for her trip by Palestinian friends who are denied such fast and free mobility.

The shadows, absences and haunting traces that replace the subject in Jacir’s practice articulate the difficulty Said described of working ‘in an entirely negative element, the non-existence, the non-history, which I had somehow to make visible despite occlusions, misrepresentations and denials’.4 What Jacir makes visible are the many human lives whose basic needs, relations, hopes and desires echo our own, and who carry on their journeys through life despite layers of restriction, denial and misrepresentation.

1 Stella Rollig, ‘Emily Jacir. Interview’, in Emily Jacir: Belongings. Works 1998–2003, Stella Rollig and Genoveva Rueckert eds., Folio, Vienna, 2004, p.9
2 Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, in Art in Theory 1900–1990, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood eds., Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, p.834
3 Edward Said, ‘Reflections on Exile’ in Reflections on Exile and other Literary and Cultural Essays, Granta Books, London, 2001, p.186
4 Edward Said, ‘Between Worlds’, in op. cit., p.563