Here There and Elsewhere: Recent Exhibitions of 'Middle Eastern' Art Rely on Very Old Generalisations Argues Pryle Behrman
Behrman, Pryle, Art Monthly
IN LAMIA JOREIGE'S VIDEO HERE AND PERHAPS ELSEWHERE, 2003, THE ARTIST WALKS ALONG THE ROUTE OF THE FORMER GREEN LINE THAT DIVIDED BEIRUT DURING THE LEBANESE CIVIL WAR, separating the predominately Christian east from the Muslim west. Interviewing local residents she encounters on the way, she asks if they can recall anyone from the area who went missing during the war, a fate that befell an estimated 18,000 people, usually, it is believed, as a result of being kidnapped at one of the checkpoints set up unilaterally by the sectarian militias. Joreige's questioning prompts one interviewee to exclaim in exasperation: 'There are many stories, but I can't tell you here'. 'You're scared of them being recorded?' Joreige enquires. 'No, I'm not scared of them being recorded. But there's no reason to record them. Because they may be true and they may not, you see? Because they won't give you the answer you're looking for.'
This exchange has stuck in my mind because it seems an apt characterisation of a wider malaise affecting a raft of exhibitions that have recently taken place in Europe and North America purporting to examine, in some shape or form, 'contemporary Middle Eastern art'. Although the curators involved will undoubtedly go to great pains to distance themselves from a reliance on any simplistic 'binary polarities', it seems that they end up situating themselves firmly in one of two camps: on the one hand you have a strategy that, like Joreige's interviewer, seems intent on examining the local with all of its specific historical and political inheritance; on the other you have the interviewee, who is dismissive of what local narratives can tell us and would rather philosophise about broader questions, such as 'what is truth?' In essence, this could be characterised as a battle between a belief in the importance of politics and identity on one side and an apolitical universalism on the other.
A politics-free, transnational approach was very much in evidence in 'Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking', which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York earlier this year with the stated desire, according to the press release, to 'explore contemporary responses to Islamic art'. For many of the artists in the show--such as Shirin Neshat, Shirazeh Houshiary and Emily Jacir--geopolitical issues are an integral part of their practice, but you wouldn't have known it from 'Without Boundary'. The exhibition gently elided any reference to the overlap between Islam and politics, with no mention of the United States occupying large swathes of two Muslim countries, no mention of its ongoing conflict with Islamic fundamentalism under the guise of a 'war on terror' and no mention of the denial of judicial process and basic civil rights to the Muslim inmates of Guantanamo Bay. As a result, even the exhibiting artists were upset. Shirin Neshat told the New York Observer: 'What I found disappointing was how, when Glenn Lowry [MoMA's director] wrote a lengthy article discussing the exhibition, he managed to reduce his discussion and analysis of so-called "contemporary Islamic art" to only those who avoided the subject of politics all together.'
The overriding philosophy of 'Without Boundary' is, as its title suggests, to promote an easygoing universalism that treats national distinctions as an irrelevance. Unsurprisingly, the example of Emily Jacir's practice selected for the exhibition was Ramallah/New York, 2004, one of her least political works. It depicts a succession of deliberately prosaic scenes from the eponymous locations side by side, prompting a self-defeating guessing game as to which is which because, from the evidence presented, it is in fact impossible to tell them apart. This disregard for nationality was further evinced by the (reportedly late) inclusion of Bill Viola and Mike Kelley. What was the rationale for suddenly parachuting two Americans into the show? Well, quoting from the press release again: 'Works by American artists Viola and Kelley are included in the exhibition to question origin as a defining factor in the consideration of art. …