Future Movements Jerusalem
A report from ‘City States exhibition’, Liverpool Biennial 2010
A report from ‘City States exhibition’, Liverpool Biennial 2010
17 September – 28 November 2010
Here I am for the third time in six months in the northwest of England looking at an exhibition that concerns itself with the Arab world. But this time the context is a little more complicated. Presented as part of an adjunct programme titled ‘City States’, which is curated and situated separately from the main section of the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, is ‘Future Movements Jerusalem’. The project forms part of a slightly opaque but novel strand of the exhibition, which seems to act as a sort of national pavilion in the style of the Venice Biennale. However, with only six different ‘city states’ represented here, the resulting output shies away from any discourses that might arise from a nationalist, social or political paradigm.
Alexandra Handal, Vanishing Point I (2007–10)
Of all the ‘city states’, the venture that piqued my interest is organized by Art School Palestine and curated by Samar Martha. It has one thing in common with this year’s Middle East-focused exhibitions in the region – such as ‘Arabicity: Such a Near East’ (The Bluecoat, Liverpool), and ‘Contemporary Art Iraq’ (Cornerhouse, Manchester) – in that it consciously makes a choice to side step the inherent political connotations of conflict. Instead, Martha invited a number of artists from around the world (with a particular focus on Arabic-speaking countries), and asked them to draw inspiration from the city of Jerusalem, after completing a series of artist residencies in Palestine.
Bouchra Khalili, Mapping Journey #3 (2009)
This continues Art School Palestine’s process of social and cultural exchange. In the past they have produced intriguing collaborative presentations, such as On Kawara ‘Pure Consciousness’, which transported the Japanese artist’s ‘Today’ series from 2007 onto the walls of a nursery in Bethlehem during The Second Riwaq Biennale. Here however, Martha and her collaborators have to deal with a difficult context. Their subtle urban project feels oddly placed alongside a Nordic Pavilion, with the Liverpool Biennial as a backdrop – which is itself a venture that, to some extent, finds itself positioned within an urban regeneration agenda. Moreover, the exhibition space of the industrial Contemporary Urban Centre means that the show is divided into two incongruent strands, with the engaging first half on the ground floor, while the lengthier second half peculiarly sits three floors above and is lumped in alongside another ‘city state’.
Sarah Beddington, Elegy to Mamilla (2009)
Regrettably, these frameworks alone are enough to set the complexity of this affair off balance. Before even surveying the art works on display, it feels like the entire process of putting together the various ‘city states’ is a fragmented one. Spatially one feels like they are entering a series of explorations that aim to consider landscape, whilst oddly refusing to address the local context in which the exhibitions are positioned. There could have been some interesting questions especially with the Palestinian contribution, which may have engaged the local framework. It would, for example, have been worthwhile to consider the critical conclusions that could be derived from an exhibition about the Palestinian landscape when presented in the former industrial district of a port city like Liverpool.
Of course, it is misguided to assume that art should exist to critique or respond to a thematic. Indeed, these misfortunes have less to do with the exhibition itself, and more to do with the city’s desire to capitalise on the buzz of the Biennial. Alas, the sheer ambition of these numerous adjunct exhibitions does not come together. Arguably, they could have found a more appropriate context, if they weren’t positioned alongside the new site-specific exhibitions of the main Biennial.
Larissa Sansour, A Space Exodus (2009)
Still, ‘Future Movements Jerusalem’ stands out. Martha says that she is keen to present Palestinian artists as more than just mere victims of the Israeli occupation. This is an invigorating aspect of her exhibition. Perhaps the best example of this is Larissa Sansour’s A Space Exodus (2009), in which the artist transposes Palestine onto the moon. In this parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), we find Sansour donning an astronaut suit and heading for outer space with a Palestinian flag in hand; the dreamlike video progresses the Palestinian condition from one of mere victimhood, to a position that considers how a Palestinian can re-appropriate her transient identity.
Elsewhere, a sound installation by the Palestinian duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou Rahme captivates the viewer with its field of muffled noise. With the hissing of a low-frequency machine bouncing against the claustrophobic metal walls, one cannot help but feel consumed by a sense of imminent danger. Entitled Contingency (2010), the work rearticulates the experience of the Ramallah–Jerusalem checkpoint, Qalandia. The artists have said that all of the sounds used were recorded on location with hidden handheld devices, which they then chose to convert into a reassembled form for the installation. The result is gripping. Four LED channels scroll along the tops of the interior façade, instructing us to ‘drop our bags’, among other commands. The fact that these LEDs would more commonly be seen as beacons for advertising in the western world, makes the colonial connotations of Contingency, all the more evident.
Anna Boggon, How Long is a Piece of String (2009–10)
On the other hand, British artist Anna Boggon’s How Long is a Piece of String (2009–10) fails to inspire. Here, the artist draws a red line across a series of maps. Each line equates to the same length as the Israeli/Palestinian separation wall, and as such, it is suggested helps the visitor ‘consider’ the reality of the Palestinian situation. The problem with this, and indeed with inviting natives and non-natives to respond to the same place (and context) is that sometimes it may seem that the non-native is catching up with the most rudimentary political, social and economic matters. Boggon’s didactic explanation fails for the very same reasons as the politically smug Richard Hamilton does in his Work Maps of Palestine (2010). And although the intention is clearly noble, I return to a statement by Adrian Searle speaking of Hamilton’s series earlier this year when he said that, ‘laudable sentiments and righteous anger don’t necessarily make anyone’s art better.’
The non-Arab artists in the exhibition clearly have a lot more to come to terms with, so it is lucky that there aren’t many here. Sarah Beddington who is also British, fares better with her quiet, Elegy to Mamilla (2009). Surveying a large Muslim cemetery, the piece straddles the line between (literal) historical excavation and poetic observation.
Moving beyond the politics of righteous self-questioning encourages us to look past stereotypes and to consider art for art’s sake. Arguably, this has been one of the motivations of Art School Palestine – to instigate a shift away from what Martha deems a form of artistic ‘pigeon holing’. Although, the resulting exhibition presents some contradictory messages, it is still has some gripping moments that inspire ideas of how a peripatetic curatorial venture could work.