Review, “Here and Elsewhere”
The New Museum 7/16/14-9/28/14
Given a tendency to categorize the contemporary Arab world as monolith, thoughtfully curating an immense exhibition of over forty-five artists without inserting a determinist perspective is a formidable challenge. The region’s recent events—not to be recounted here yet the subject of widespread speculation and curiosity—are ever-present in the multitude of frameworks employed to portray, explore, and understand the Middle East. Often reflections of past events, an image’s location in a museum conjures a sense of mortality: the viewer sees the piece of art as a relic rather than continually resonant. Rather than succumbing to a precious retrospection of the Arab world’s recent uprisings as valiant shortcomings, "Here and Elsewhere," organized by curator Massimiliano Gioni and encompassing the entire five floors the New Museum, ambles in terms of subject matter and medium, unhindered by subject-specific curation.Taking its name from a 1976 film by Jean-Luc Goddard and Anne-Marie Miéville, whose intentions to serve as a pro-Palestinian essay but expands to explore the consciousness and conducts of political representation, "Here and Elsewhere" consists of a myriad of artists differing widely in mediums but united loosely through their connection to the Arab world and, in some cases, its diaspora, and their varied and intersecting portrayals of Arab identities, places, and representations.
In its subtle disavowal of the totalities plaguing analyses of the Arab world—geographic generalizations and heavy exotification, to name a few—Here and Elsewhere does not insist on either overt political provocations or personal narratives. Instead, each artist’s work speaks in its own tenor, allowing for exploration from the mundane to the elaborate. Resulting is an expansion of the Arab world to encompass its porous diaspora, malleable borders, and numerous interactions with permeable identities. Musings on the fate of the Arab world—and, too, how to best cope with its past and present—are left to the devise of each artist, and remain unanswered on the scale of the exhibition as a whole.
The visitor becomes present in the exhibition immediately upon entering the lobby of the museum; it is not simply a viewing but an act of participation. Designed by the GCC “delegation” composed of nine artists, including some residing in London and New York, have transformed the space into a simulacrum of what one might imagine to be an Abu Dhabi hotel, complete with portraits of the delegation members in the style of Gulf royalty hanging above the main desk. The installation asks the visitor, encompassed in a physical representation, to consider connections between grandiose architectural and artistic state projects—in this case, Gulf political power and the construction of capitalist-nationalist symbols and their role as internationally broadcasted representations of the region. As in the posh hotels of Dubai, those responsible for, rather than an image of, the life of these symbolic spaces are absent: foreign laborers, domestic workers, and non-national residents remain deliberately invisible. By contrast, South Asian workers capture their own images by cell phone in artist Ahmed Mater’s videos, which turn to the stark juxtaposition of such symbols of Gulf nations and their often ignored underbellies: a portion of his film “Leaves Fall in All Seasons” shows a worker clinging to an enormous, gold-encrusted crescent as it is hoisted by cranes to the top of a minaret. The Arab world is thus rendered, whether explicitly or not, as inclusive of those who make its representations possible, as anonymous as they often are.
The concept of an expandable Arab world is furthered in Bouchra Khalili’s video installation, in which each screen maps a journey taken by migrants, many whose sojourns originate in South Asia and Africa, as they traverse clandestinely to Europe. The viewer is shown only the narrator’s hand as they outline their travels on a map, including harsh layovers and mistreatment in parts of the Middle East ranging from the UAE to Morocco. The subjects of Khalili’s videos narrate the ways in which the geography of the Arab world seeps into the lived realities of those seeking refuge and work in other parts of the world, placing it in the scope of greater transnationalism and migration.
The theme of polished nationalism is revisited in Wafa Hourani’s sculptural interpretation of a futuristic refugee camp entitled Qalandia 2087 Sprawling at eye-level, the viewer is invited to walk amongst labyrinthine, dollhouse-like models. Situated adjacent to the largest Israeli checkpoint dividing Jerusalem from Ramallah, the current refugee camp sits near the site of the former Qalandia airport—closed by Israeli forces—and is surrounded by the Israeli separation wall. Hourani’s sculpture does not seem to assume any de-occupation of Palestine: the wall, rather than absent, is replaced by a mirrored, disco-ball façade. Though spaces for socializing and commerce abound in the model, it is unclear if the futuristic take on the landscape is a whimsical dream for a Palestinian future or a critique of the polished, glitzy attempts by the heavy presence of international NGOs and a defunct Palestinian government to normalize the occupation. Rather than abandoning the camp for a return to their villages and cities, the residents of Qalandia 2087 are left with cars lining spiffed-up streets and neon satellites stemming from concrete rooftops. Hourani leaves undecided whether the museumification of a distant Palestine is rendered alive through its futuristic additions or deemed dead through its permanence and glitter.
“Here and Elsewhere” stretches the viewer’s concept of the confines of the Arab world both geographically and temporally, reaching into both the archives and the future in its inquiries. Running until September 28th, it provides visitors with ample opportunity to consider the region as composed of active, layered social and political multitudes.